Slimegrobbels and custard…

“Tell me a story…”

My granddaughters and I were sitting on the floor of their pink-painted cabin at the bottom of the garden. I had evicted yet another invading spider and, while the youngest sat on my knee, her almost-five year old big sister was sprawling in the pink armchair.

The three of us had been playing. I had pushed little Imogen on her swing until she giggled with joy and had chased Hollie around the garden, swinging her up onto my shoulders and teaching her to stand on her head in a fairly unorthodox manner. Somehow, small children make you forget the aches and pains… at least until next morning when you try to move again.

By this point though, we had settled down in the playhouse and eaten a meal of chocolate-dipped worms and green slimegrobbels with custard… a menu chosen by Hollie and lovingly prepared by the smallest of chefs. I could only be thankful that the meal was imaginary… and delight in the serious expression with which Imogen, barely two years old, ‘cooked’ and ‘ate’ the ‘food’ while Hollie supervised. Watching a child’s imagination begin to flower is a beautiful thing.

As we settled down in the pink palace built by a besotted father for his princesses, Hollie asked what we should play next. I asked her to tell me a story.

“I don’t know any stories…” She held up empty hands, but that, I knew, was far from the truth. Not only can Hollie tell a good story from those she has heard, she also creates whole imaginary worlds for us to play in.

“You know lots of stories…” Hollie sighed and rolled her eyes in a manner that will serve her well when she has children of her own.

“Just pretend I don’t know any stories, Grandma… so, you’ll have to tell one.” I had walked into that, so we snuggled up and I began with the traditional words…

“Once upon a time, on the edge of a forest, there lived a little girl. She was as pretty as a princess and loved to wear a red riding cloak with a hood. Her name…” I could see the satisfaction as Hollie recognised the tale, “was Fred…”

Fred???”

“Fred.”

Hollie, her interest well and truly caught, sat forward in her armchair as I told how Little Fred Riding Hood had gone to visit Grandmother in the woods, carrying a basket of slimegrobbels, because Grandmother’s best friend, the Wolf, was poorly…and how, when she arrived at the cottage, Fred found that the wicked witch, disguised as a woodcutter, had changed them both into gingerbread men who had been packed in a giant’s lunchbox and had to be rescued by the fairy godmother who turned them into pumpkins by mistake.

Imogen was almost asleep, but Hollie had listened to every word. She sighed again.

That was just a pretend story, Grandma. Now tell me the real one…where Red Riding Hood isn’t called Fred… or anything else…” She went on to give me a synopsis of the whole adventure so that I would not miss any of the important details.

I smiled and told the story, pleased that my little granddaughter could tell the difference between a ‘real’ and a ‘pretend’ fairytale. It wasn’t simply that she knew the original plot well, she recognises that such tales have to be told in a certain way… ‘properly’, she called it. That is a common thing for children. The words and how a story is told matters.

What struck me most, though, was that from the way she was telling me the storyline, she also seems to understand, at some instinctive level, that while fairytales are not true, they are real in their own way. They have their own integrity and, when ‘properly’ told, they are important. Arbitrary changes are not allowed as they alter the essence of the story completely and, at the heart of every old fairytale, there are lessons to be learned whose sense will be lost if the salient details are altered.

In the days before the majority could read or write…and even further back, to a time before the written word was invented, storytelling would have been very much a part of the life of the tribes and families as they gathered around the light of the hearthfire. Stories would have been valued, from the anecdotes the old ones told of their youth, to the tales of the hunters, to those told by the shamans and teachers.

Much wisdom can be concealed within a story… and such tales would have been learned young, perhaps long before they were fully understood. Because they were stories, not obvious lessons, they would have been remembered and both the stories themselves and the hidden wisdom they held would have been passed down through the tribes and clans, just as we still remember the fairytales of childhood and tell them to the children at our knees.

As I sat there with my granddaughters, I felt that we were part of a story that goes back to the earliest human lives… and forward into a future that will one day leave even our memories behind. I remembered my own early years, looking up at great grandma and saying those same words. Images flitting across the screen of memory like gentle ghosts… a child absorbing lessons unawares, their stories attached to the emotions they engendered… and to the love of the storyteller .

Will Hollie tell her granddaughters about Little Fred Riding Hood one day? Will Imogen teach her grandchildren to make slimegrobbels and custard? How far into the past do we reach with that one simple phrase? How far into the future will one shared fairytale carry us as children uncountable say the magic words…

“Tell me a story.”


There is a lot more to fairytales than the wide eyed child understands, especially in the older versions. The archetypes we meet in these old stories echo many aspects of the human condition and the journey of the soul.

We are born into a magical world, where our childhood is peopled with wonders. We are given gifts and talents yet our soul is held within the body, like the princess in the castle. As we grow to adulthood the magic fades…or more precisely, our awareness of it fades. Like the princess, we fall asleep, lost to the song of the soul as the ‘curse’ takes hold. Alive but slumbering, waiting…

Join us next April to explore the hidden beauty of fairytales… and awaken the beauty that sleeps within.

A fully catered, residential weekend.

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For further details or to reserve your place: rivingtide@gmail.com

Storytelling

File:BD Weighing of the Heart.jpg

Our earliest ancestors looked out upon this world and framed what they saw in stories that reached the heart through the imagination. As man and his questions became ever more sophisticated, the stories evolved, couching abstract concepts and ideas within the age-old tales. The mythology of any culture goes back beyond memory and history to a time before time was… to the Creation and before… in an attempt to answer the questions that arise in all of us.

Stories travelled and changed with each retelling, taking on the character of the teller, coloured by the season, the place, the landscape and by the politics of the local priesthood or rulership… and the myths rooted in different forms in the places they reached.

Yet if we look at the stories mankind has told there are striking similarities beneath the surface. All the mythological systems have some common themes… star-crossed lovers, the trickster, good versus evil and the unlikely heroes. All have the slayers of monsters or demons, their tales of magic and the parallels with fertility, life and death.

Many theories have been propounded, arguing for a common psychological expression of religious impulse through to a simplistic attempt to explain the seasonal growth of vegetation. It has been argued that all the stories are poetic allegories for spiritual truth and, at the other end of the scale, that they are nothing but linguistic misinterpretations… where the functions of the gods arise from the words for their names and stories are built upon them.

I have a feeling there is an element of truth to all of the theories and that the birth of the mythologies arises in as much complexity as the multi-layered mind of man.

What is certain is that there is something in these old tales that speaks to us at a very deep level of intuitive understanding. We can see the morals clearly in some of them, get a grip on the abstract through others and relate to all of them on an emotional level of personal engagement and life experience in spite of the passage of millennia.

The Egyptian myths give us the most complete record of how a system evolves over the centuries and scholars can chart the rise, evolution and demise of the various versions across the landscape of Egypt in both time and space.

From the simplest of stories a cosmogony evolved which encapsulated much of Egyptian history, culture and religious change. Between the words and images that remain we have a window into the minds of those who walked the Two Lands.

We can read their stories for entertainment, much as they would have been told around the hearths of old to while away the hours of night.

We can read them as they might have been told by the priests to the populace and see through their eyes something of the sacredness of the world, learning to see once again that same wonder in our own world, where the landscape is alive and as holy as the gods themselves.

We may choose to look at them as the priesthood may have seen them and read a deeper meaning behind the images and relationships of the gods, seeing in their interaction the story of all things… of mankind and his fallibility, of the relationships between man and nature as well as between man and that which he perceives as greater than all… the Source of Being from whence all arose.

We can read them in another way also and see ourselves in the gods, understanding the fractured facets of wholeness that make up our personalities. We may see that as the gods are both the fragments and the product of the One, then so are we a fragmented whole… pieces of a cosmic jigsaw puzzle waiting to be reassembled… and in doing so might see that we too are of the same essence as the gods.

I have a feeling that the best way to read them is as a child would read, with an openness to wonder and wondering, without analysing too much or dwelling on apparent inconsistencies and impossibilities that the adult may reject but which the child accepts without a blink.

Perhaps we just need to remember how to listen with the heart.

Extract from The Osiriad (Appendix)

A silver cord

Untitled

As soon as I was considered old enough to wander alone… a ridiculously young age by today’s standards… I would knock on the doors of the various elderly relatives that lived within a stone’s throw of home or school. Their doors opened onto another era that to my young eyes qualified as the ‘olden days’. There would inevitably be a cup of tea; none of your new-fangled tea bags or ‘gnats water’, but the rich mahogany brew that seethed in perpetuity beside the flames of the range. If I was lucky and timed it right, there would be a slab of fruit cake topped with a slice of tangy cheese or perhaps a curd tart, or we might toast a teacake in front of the fire on the toasting fork and I would sit and listen, fascinated as the old ones spoke of their lives.

Between my great-grandparents and their siblings, I was lucky to have a window on a bygone world, yet it was a window with a heart and a voice… and it told stories. I heard tales of the long hours in Victorian mills where they had worked as ‘bairns nobbut as big as thee, lass.’ Of how their schooling had to fit around their working day and of the dreadful accidents and conditions in which children had worked within living memory… this memory, the one that paused to take a sip of their tea before leaning back to continue. I heard too of first dances and maypoles and Christmas stockings that were rich if they held an orange. Of traditions and forgotten legends… and of wars and national rejoicing and mourning. I learned history in a way no book or museum could teach.

Sometimes we went over to Castleford to see my maternal grandmother’s family. Not so many mills there… but I would seek out Great Uncle John on his allotment filled with dahlias and he would tell me some of the lore of the coal mines and of the pit ponies who lived their lives in the darkness of the mines, even then. The last working colliery horse was brought out in 1999. I heard him tell how dangerous the job still was, for man and beast and saw with my own eyes the coal dust embedded in his pores that was never to leave him… it had filled his lungs too.

And when, as was inevitable, their ranks gradually thinned, I attended their funerals, paid my respects to them, one by one, laid out on the parlour table in their coffins. The families gathered. I was a child, but there was no thought back then of protecting children from the reality of birth and death. I was ten when I helped deliver my little brother. The women gathered…these were women’s mysteries, a domestic magic of sisterhood that took no thought for age or youth.

Contrary to the opinion of many today, I don’t think for a minute that it did me any harm to be part of that. Far from it. I not only learned history, I learned to value people and their individual stories. I learned that I was incredibly lucky to have been born into a time and place where I was allowed to go to school and learn for a few hours a day and then be free to play, to be well fed and warm and sleep in a bed on my own instead of with half a dozen others. So I learned gratitude too.

mill lass

It was only many years later that I realised I had learned something else; the old ones had enjoyed sharing their stories. They had enjoyed the company. Most of them were old, infirm and seldom left the house any more… in short, I realised that many of them were probably lonely and glad of a visit from the blonde urchin who usually had to remind them whose daughter or granddaughter she was. It didn’t matter… I drank in their words with the dark tea.

I was reminded of all this today reading an article on loneliness and its negative effects on both personal health and well-being and its greater impact on society, employability and even survival. Further research highlighted some of the links between loneliness and poverty. It makes interesting reading and raises a lot of questions.

Our society is so much richer than the world that our grandparents and great grandparents knew. To our children, even the era of our parents fits the term ‘olden days’… a far off memory of an almost unrecognisable civilisation. While technology and the sciences have advanced by leaps and bounds and our daily lives are full of gadgetry even the science fiction writers might have dismissed as far-fetched, some things have not changed for the better.

We are a mobile society and in search or upward mobility we have moved away from the towns and villages where our families have lived for generations. Families are spread across the globe in a more fragmented way than ever before in history… individual family units break down and separate with tragic regularity and relationships seem to bear the heading ‘disposable’ all too often.

I remember years ago a TV ad campaign encouraging people to check on elderly neighbours, offer to run errands, bring food or get the house ready for winter. It highlighted the isolation that can come with age and marked me enough to stay with me all these years. Back then I lived at the heart of a large and close-knit extended family… it was never something I thought could happen to me. But the world has changed and it could happen to any of us.

The support network that would once have honoured our old ones and cared for them has foundered and, between that, the reduction in relative income and the very gadgetry we may fall back upon in solitude to fill the silence, we become an increasingly isolated society on a human level, while ironically being able to stay in instant touch with the virtual world and family members in the furthest reaches of the globe.

And we are losing the stories… the human thread that is woven through our lives from past to future. Our TVs and computers flicker in colour and capture our attention… We might even be watching programmes on history. But once our attention is captured, we don’t sit and listen to each other very often, even to those we might live with, let alone the elderly who ‘take so long and repeat themselves so much…’ Yet theirs are the only eye-witness accounts of our history that we will ever hear first-hand; theirs the silver thread in the tapestry.

There is the well-known concept of the silver cord that connects body to soul in life, remaining in place until death, just as the severing of the umbilical cord signals our entry into life. I have to wonder how much of the richness of life we are losing in our isolation from each other… how much our children… and we could learn… and how much nourishment the heart could draw from the silver thread of story woven by our ancestors… even those who still walk amongst us.

Fool’s dawn

dawn 015

I followed the sound of laughter down the hallway to my son’s bedroom, curious as to the cause. “A champion,” read my son out loud, still lying in bed at half past nine with another cup of tea, “is one who gets up when he can.” I’m not entirely certain he was taking that quote the way it was intended, but I couldn’t argue with the facts.

I could, technically at least, lay claim to some such accolade under those terms… but having got up and taken the dog out by half past five myself, I am more inclined to think that makes me more of a madwoman than a champion. Except, perhaps, in the eyes of a certain small dog.

Leaves are piling up, stripped from the trees and in daylight they look like jewels spilled from a treasure chest. Being pitch black out there at that time though and raining to boot, I didn’t take the camera, nor would the silent shadow of an owl that parted the air above us have shown up on a picture. I regretted leaving the camera at home though when the dawn finally came up. The sky was an amazing canvas of pink and gold; a gentle dawn contrasting with the wind and rain overnight and no true herald of the howling gales to come.

I know old countryfolk and seafarers can read the skies and tell what the weather will be, fair or foul. To most of us, that gorgeous dawn would have held the promise of a beautiful day. Certainly it was enough to lift the lowest heart. Sometimes it is the mists that veil the coming of sunshine, sometimes the palette of the angels holds out a hope of beauty that is drowned by the rains. You can’t really tell without that inside knowledge born of intimate association with the skies.

Our own days are like that too in many ways. What seems to be a wonderful occurrence may hold pain, yet a seeming disaster may unfold into beauty. In their own moment, it is impossible to tell where any event may lead or what may come from a single instant’s choice. It is also pretty much impossible to follow every thread and filament that reaches out into the world and its future from an isolated scintilla of time.

I watched a film the other night, The Saragossa Manuscript, that illustrated how closely every story is intertwined and how seemingly unconnected events may, in fact, be the threads that form warp and weft of the same tapestry… each one contributing to a greater picture that can only be seen when observed from a distance. In this case, you had to be the watcher who saw the stories revealed on film. Sometimes we observe the same phenomena as we watch events working themselves out in the lives of friends and families. We itch to tell them what we can see, to make them see, just as we know when the monster will come up behind the next victim in a movie or we know the true feelings of hero for heroine but they seem blind to each other’s hearts. It is easy for the observer to see what is not calling upon their own intimate involvement.

It is much harder to see the patterns in our own lives. We are just one of the threads of the tapestry… a single strand of colour that makes little sense on its own. Yet we do observe ourselves. There is that inner watcher, and inner voice… consciousness and conscience, the other level of awareness that sees and examines our thoughts and motives all the time. We may ignore it, but we know it knows and eventually we will listen and begin to question our observation of ourselves.

That listening process is part of maturing… we tend to listen more as we grow up and grow older. This is also the basis of many techniques, such as mindfulness which has come very much to the fore over recent years. It is also the premise by which the maxim ‘know thyself’ can be applied to everyday life, something that forms a core part of the techniques we share in the Silent Eye. Strangely enough, it is through listening to the inner voice of awareness, becoming, in a way, seemingly more introspective, that we find a way to step back from our own lives and get a better look at the design of the tapestry. And getting a glimpse of that bigger picture brings a new confidence that we can take forward with every step.

Which is why, although the dog may feel I am a champion for taking her out so early, and I may have seen the day begin with a promise of beauty, we were both doomed to disappointment. For me, it was the clouds that rolled in on the gales… for the dog, well, as long as she doesn’t realise that her champion is really a Fool, we’ll be okay.

A Landscape of Images III

scotland trip jan 15 126

The blue pyjamas are the colour of his eyes. He smiles at his son as he snuggles closer into his arms, fingers unconsciously curling the fabric of his shirt… just as he used to play with that blanket he trailed everywhere when he was younger. The child’s eyes are wide as his father turns the page and the great Lion looks out from the magical landscape of the book. He reads the words on the page, remembering his own childhood, snuggled close to his own mother, seeing that same image look out into their eyes. She had loved the Lion too. She still did.

It is hard to see the words, eyes misted with memory, he blinks and continues the story, sharing the magic that taught him so much without ever knowing. He hopes his son will love the tales as he does and will carry them in his heart. Maybe one day he’ll share them with his grandchildren….He remembers every picture….He’d been a lot older when he eventually understood…

scotland trip jan 15 133

Our stories are images built in the imagination and communicated verbally, visually or written within the pages of a book. We hide so much in stories. Sometimes unconsciously, leaving it to the listener, the reader, the eye that sees to discern what lies beneath the surface of the tale. The teller will reveal much about themselves by the choice of word or the image created. For every tale tells not only its own story but that of the teller. How much we hear depends on how open we are to experience, perhaps, and how much we choose to see.

For a story is flat and empty until it is shared, it is the listener that brings to it the emotion and imagination that give it life. A painting says nothing until it is seen, a book remains silent until it is read. They simply wait, the sleeping beauties of imagination, for the kiss that awakens them. To hear a story is to give it life.

Yet how much we hear depends not only on how carefully we listen, but how we listen and what we can bring to our relationship with the story. You would not expect a child who has just learned his letters to understand much of a book on, say, quantum mechanics, but give the same child a storybook about the old myths and legends and he might well grasp the same basic principles at an almost instinctive level. Where the text-book would be an incomprehensible blur of words, the stories of gods and heroes paint pictures in the mind and they remain, becoming enriched with experience and understanding as the child grows.

Within the myths and legends of mankind much has been hidden, preserved in symbolic and allegorical form and they speak to us on many levels. We can relate to these ‘human’ gods and superhuman heroes by reason of our own humanity and shared experience. Their journeys are an attempt to explain, perhaps, the mysteries of the natural world… the passing of the seasons, the cycle of life, where birth comes from the apparent face of death, life follows birth and death follows life… only to be transformed into birth again.

Our earliest ancestors looked out upon this world and framed what they saw in stories that reached the heart through the imagination. As man and his questions became ever more sophisticated, the stories evolved, couching abstract concepts and ideas within the age-old tales. It is almost universal that the mythology of any culture goes back beyond memory or history to a time before time was…to the Creation and before… an attempt to answer the questions that arise in all of us.

Stories travelled and changed with each retelling, taking on the character of the teller, coloured perhaps by the season, the place, the landscape… the politics of the local priesthood or rulership… and the myths rooted in different forms in the places they reached.

Yet if we look at the stories mankind has told there are striking similarities beneath the surface. All the mythological systems have some common themes… the star-crossed lovers, the trickster, the good versus evil and the unlikely heroes. All have the slayers of monsters or demons, their tales of magic and the parallels with fertility, life and death.

Many theories have been propounded, arguing for a common psychological expression of religious impulse through to a simplistic attempt to explain the seasonal growth of vegetation. It has been argued that all the stories are poetic allegories for spiritual truth and , at the other end of the scale, that they are nothing but linguistic misinterpretations… where the functions of the gods arise from the words for their names and the stories are built upon them.

I have a feeling there is an element of truth to all of the theories and that the birth of the mythologies arises in as much complexity as the multi-layered mind of man.

What is certain is that there is something in these old tales that speaks to us at a very deep level of intuitive understanding. We can see the morals clearly in some of them, get a grip on the abstract through others and relate to all of them on an emotional level of personal engagement and life experience in spite of the passage of millennia.

With the Egyptian myths we have the most complete record of how a system evolves over the centuries and scholars can chart the rise, evolution and demise of the various versions across the landscape of Egypt in both time and space.

From the simplest of stories a cosmogony evolved which encapsulated much of Egyptian history, culture and religious change. Between the words and images that remain we have a window into the minds of those who walked the Two Lands.

We can read their stories for entertainment, much as they would have been told around the hearths of old to while away the hours of night.

We can read them as they might have been told by the priests to the populace and see through their eyes something of the sacredness of the world, learning to see once again that same wonder in our own world, where the landscape is alive and as holy as the gods themselves.

Or we can look at them as the priesthood may have seen them and read a deeper meaning behind the images and relationships of the gods, seeing in their interaction the story of all things… of mankind and his fallibility, of the relationships between man and nature as well as between man and that which he perceives as greater than all… the Source of Being from whence all arose.

We can read them in another way also, and see ourselves in the gods, understanding the fractured facets of wholeness that make up our personalities and see that as the gods are both the fragments and the product of the One, then so are we a fragmented whole…. pieces of a cosmic jigsaw puzzle waiting to be reassembled…. and in doing so might see that we too are of the same essence as the gods.

I have a feeling that the best way to read them is as a child would read, with an openness to wonder and wondering, without analysing too much, or dwelling on the apparent inconsistencies and impossibilities that the adult rejects but the child accepts without a blink.

Perhaps we just need to remember how to listen with the heart.

Appendix III, The Osiriad