Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Midweek Musing: storytelling is for us all

'Storytelling is for primary school children not university students' (from this article). MP David Davies' ignorance of storytelling as a fundamental element of human (well)being is precisely why we need positions like the advertised professor of storytelling at the University of South Wales.

Here is my response, from a storyteller who is both practitioner and scholar in the art of storytelling.

David Davies' view of storytelling as 'sitting around reading John and Janet books' is woefully ignorant of storytelling as both fundamental feature of human identity and communication, and of the craft of oral storytelling as a distinct performance art.

I see across the UK a rich culture of storytelling: it is disappointing that a servant of the country is unaware, and unappreciative, of that culture. Indeed, that richness is part of the reason I moved from Australia to the UK for my postgraduate research into the practice of biblical storytelling, with centres for and festivals of storytelling in many parts of the country.

The University of South Wales has a research centre devoted to storytelling. The George Ewart Evans Centre's storytelling researchers, teachers and practitioners are exploring the role of storytelling and story in healing, for example, in conjunction with medical practitioners and researchers. It is from the medical world that the Centre defends the centrality of story in human interaction, as both doctor and patient have a story to tell, may even be understood to be engaged together in working through the conflict or challenge element of a story to help the hero or heroine of the story (the patient) move towards their goal of health and wellbeing. (A story or narrative may be understood through analysis of its key elements: character, plot, setting, and conflict). (I attended a conference on story / narrative several years ago, at which practitioners from many disciplines told their stories of the gift story and storytelling was in their fields – read some of those stories here.)

Davies' suggestion that storytelling be left to the likes of Dickens and Rowling not only misunderstands storytelling, but undermines the value of Dickens and Rowling and their stories. What joy, community, healing and education have been brought about through the Harry Potter stories? Immeasurable. What understanding of a certain era of English life has been painted in the mirror Dickens holds up in his stories? Immeasurable.

To suggest that storytelling is for primary school children rather than university students first establishes a hierarchy in which younger children are somehow less than university students (an assertion I reject, but which would take another blog post to discuss), and second assumes that storytelling is something one grows out of as one matures. I think we might find, however, that it is story that helps us mature; story that helps the individual to know themselves, and the community to understand, observe, and shape their identity together as it evolves. What are our rituals of war and peace commemoration if not the telling of the story of courage, of loss, of hope for a better future? What are museums but installations telling the stories of migration, innovation, evolution, creation? What is the recounting of one's day with friends or family members but the telling of our own story and stories, seeking to find meaning within and through them, to connect, and in being heard, to be affirmed and nurtured towards wellbeing?

Therein lies the most profound gift of storytelling: its mutual encouragement of wellbeing. The teller gives a gift with their story, sharing wisdom and experience through which to make meaning, and the hearer receives this gift of story and encouragement. The hearer gives a gift with their listening, creating a welcoming space in which to hold the teller safe and affirm them as of immense value; what a gift the teller thus receives, nurture for their very being. (I say more about this in my TEDxAdelaide talk of 2013)

Something special happens in the live, embodied sharing of stories with each other. Books are wonderful portals for the imagination; movies and television too. But live, embodied, presence with each other, the voice, the emotion, the moment: this - this - is the connecting of humans with each other, the bringing of stories together to create another story, the story of this moment, here, when we were together, laughing, crying, afraid, amazed, inspired.

I tell the stories of Jesus fairly often: he was a teller of stories, too, with people gathered together, welcoming each other, sharing space and breath and moment. Why? Because in the stories they find themselves. In the stories, they encounter the Sacred Source of Life. In the stories is space to co-create the story and to thus discover meaning that will transform and lead to healing.

Storytelling is not 'just' anything. Not 'just' for one section of humanity. Not 'just' entertainment. Not 'just' airy-fairy nonsense from cuckoo land.

Storytelling is the very fibre of our human being. May the work of centres such as the George Ewart Evans centre at the University of South Wales continue to tell that story, so that we may know more fully, and may become, the best of who we are.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Midweek Musing: on kings and babes

Seeking and finding. Sometimes you know you are looking for something in particular; sometimes you know you are looking, but don't know for what; sometimes you find something and did not know you were looking for it.

The Magi from the East saw a star, understood what it signified, and walked towards it, seeking the long-promised king.

I'm not sure the song is a favourite for itself, with its naming of these visitors as 'kings', and perpetuating the interpretation of three gifts as representing three givers. But as a song that points to this story of outsiders being welcomed into the story of God's renewing love, a story of risk-taking response to that invitation, a story of wonder and wisdom and imagination: I love it.

I find poems when I don't think I am looking for them. They surprise me, catch me unawares ... or so it seems. I think, actually, that in order for me to catch the poems when they arrive, to hold onto these fleeting gifts of inspiration, I must be in a state of perpetual seeking. Having realised and acknowledged that I am, indeed, a poet, and nurturing that gift within me, I have cultivated a state of constant readiness, persistent searching for the poems that might arrive any moment.

Was that what it was like for the Magi? These wise ones, studying books and the cosmos for signs of the Divine, knowing enough to be able to recognise the signs when they appeared, though perhaps not always knowing what sign they were looking for? I wonder.

Is that the story of Wisdom from the Hebrew Bible? A state of being that is open to the Divine; a diligent attention towards the Spirit; a disciplined cultivation of the gift that lies within, the story, the teaching, the way – all so as to recognise the Sacred when it turns up, surprises, inspires. I wonder.

Could that be a way to live through the dark – and this past year has felt overwhelmingly dark at times, has it not? To look for the sparks of light, treasure them, protect them, cultivate them so that they grow. To remember what creates light and cultivate hope and love so as to be able to catch the light when it shines? To learn, to study the stories and the signs, so as to recognise the star when it arrives in the sky? I wonder.

A long time ago, a co-worker introduced me to Mediaeval Baebes, a group that sing songs of, you guessed it, mediaeval times. We shared a love of such times and such music. I've had their albums on my wish list for a long time, but somehow forgot I was looking for them. Then I was looking for a version of We Three Kings, and I found what I was looking for.

May we find what we seek to know, what we know we seek, and what we know not for which to seek, in this new year just begun.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Midweek Musing: Singing Christmas part 5

But Christmas Day was last Sunday? Surely Christmas is over, and we can start eating Hot Cross Buns for Easter now?

Um. No. In fact, one of the stories from the Bible we usually tell at Christmas is from well after. But that's next week's song.

This week. The highly historically, factually accurate story of another visitor to the manger.

For some reason, Little Drummer Boy is my Dad's favourite Christmas song. It has been for so long I can no longer recall if my sister and I learnt to play it on piano and clarinet because it was his favourite, or if it is his favourite because we played it together.

Little Drummer Boy is my favourite, because it gives my Dad such joy; and because it gives my sister and I joy to play it together, to play it for him. So for me, this song takes me to the heart of my family, and we're a close family, and I am far away.

My hope is that I will be in Adelaide, and Deb and I will play Little Drummer Boy for Dad again, next Christmas.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Singing with the angels: Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to all in the sarah tells stories community. 

May the Spirit of the Story infuse your being with light, your gatherings with joy,
your soul with hope, your relationships with peace. 

My favourite Christmas song of all is Angels from the Realms of Glory (and its closely related sibling, Angels we have heard on high, which after hearing it in part above, I now give you in full). Enjoy!

we are fully human only together

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Midweek Musing: Singing Christmas 4

Sing we now? 

We play and sing Christmas carols throughout December, but perhaps we are meant to wait a little?

Sing we now of Christmas is another favourite. It has a bright sound that brings angels to mind, that heavenly host surrounding the messenger above the field outside of Bethlehem with shepherds the chosen witnesses. Carol of the Bells has the same feel to it: pure joy, put to music. 

No wonder, then, that we want to sing and play these songs as early as we can, for as long as we can. 

Liturgically speaking, the season of Christmas does not actually start until Christmas Day (or perhaps with the watch night service on Christmas Eve). But with pageants, Christmas plays, dinners, services and parties, for community, school, work, Sunday school ... Christmas seems to start in December (or even November). 

Isn't that when Advent starts? Liturgically speaking, that's the first season of the Christian calendar: Advent. Waiting. 

We don't do waiting very well in our time, our industrially developed cultures, do we? As technology speeds up, our patience seems to run a shorter fuse; we are used to getting things at the click of a finger, in an instant, delivered to our door. We hate waiting for food at restaurants where they cook it well, because we're used to fast food that takes not much more time than it takes to drive from order box to window and pay. Shop managers seem incapable of allowing breathing room from one campaign to another, as pumpkins give way to turkeys, spiders are swept down from their decorative webs and angels and stars hung in their place; and no sooner have we eaten the last mince pie than hot cross buns are on the shelves and eggs and chickens and bunnies are decorating shelves and windows. 

Now I know that for the shops, it's more about capitalising on the opportunities for money making. But my point about waiting stands, none-the-less. And I wonder how the church – whose season this is, whose festival Christmas is, however much the world has appropriated it for capitalist purposes – might remind us how to wait? Can the church hold space, press pause, tell the stories of anticipation, promise, and hope, without jumping straight to the end? Can the church celebrate the steps towards Christmas as offering joy in themselves? 

It's hard, because we know the story, we have heard it again and again, we know where it goes, to the streets of Galilee and Jerusalem, into homes of the rejected and encounters with the marginalised, to the Temple and the Cross, the Tomb and the closed upstairs room, beach, and path to Emmaus. 

The gift of seasons is to hold certain stories for special occasions. The gift of seasons is time and attention for each, in their time. The story of Jesus tells us so much, we do not need to tell it all at once. We can trust that we know where it is going, and simply, deeply, be where we are in the story for this moment, this season. 

I think the church forgets the inbuilt gift and beauty of the seasons of our calendar, and gets lost in the immediacy and impatience of the world: and when we do, we miss the opportunity to be, ourselves, a gift to the world. To be the space in which we can pause; to be the permission to wait, to enjoy anticipation, to slow down. 

Then, when it is time, we can sing, with joy that is fresh and refreshing, with the understanding that comes through waiting, the peace that comes through paying attention.