Friday, 19 August 2016

Words spoken, music woven

In a pub at the bottom of a narrow cobbled lane in Edinburgh, a lane whose existence I'd only discovered days ago because friends live there and I was invited for tea - such is the nature of hidden lanes in Edinburgh - Lou and I took our places on low bar stools directly in front of two microphone stands. That narrow space at the far end of the bar was filling quickly for the Harry and Chris Show, on the Free Fringe program (free to get in, but not free to get out!).

Harry and Chris. Simple Times. It's the name of the CD I bought at the end of the show, and a song. It aptly describes that hour in the pub, the whole afternoon really. Lunch in the sun and show in a pub, with a good friend for company. Simple times.

Amidst the turmoil of uncertainty and potential ground shifting beneath my feet, this afternoon retreat replenished my soul.
To listen to a friend's story.
To have my story heard.
To explore the questions and challenges we share
as artists pioneering with and beyond the church. To
pause for art, for words spoken to entertain, to engage,
to embody the simple and profound of our humanity.
To laugh. To smile the appreciation of deep within this
artists' heart, this poet's soul, this human being. Mmm.
To sigh acceptance for the gift as the music weaves
its thread between the words, highlights the silent spaces,
connects all gathered through our voices singing
together. Humanity. Poetry. Simple Times indeed.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Throwback Thursday: still crying.

Still. Even with plans to close down one detention centre, we are allowing the power of fear to diminish our power to love. 

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Midweek Musing. On dreams and debilitation.

The stress, the anxiety, the uncertainty and the waiting have finally become debilitating: almost entirely debilitating.

It's the finances again. Thanks to generous patrons and donors, my everyday costs are covered each month. Thanks to two smallish scholarships, my tuition is covered to the end of the degree. Rent is paid to the end of the current contract – the end of this month. New contract begins September; deductions for rent begin October. I have no idea if I will have the money to cover it.

There may be a change in living arrangements to drastically reduce costs, but not till the end of the year. This change would bring with it an increase in obligations each week. I do not know if I have the capacity to take that on. The stress and uncertainty of my financial situation these past two years (on top of 15 years of student / part time precarious finances) has become almost entirely debilitating, physically, emotionally, mentally.

Results from a third round of blood tests will take weeks to come back. Tests that are searching for a reason for symptoms that are difficult to describe or explain. * The sweats and overheating for no reason. The exhaustion to the point of muscles aching terribly. Clumsiness. Insomnia. Nausea. Inability to concentrate. Little trifling colds and viruses, snuffly nose and itchy throat. All. The. Time. Nothing from the tests in November. Something small and almost insignificant in June. Enough to follow up. What will August bring? The waiting, the raft of symptoms, are debilitating.

There is a scholarship I am waiting on. No amount stipulated, so even if I am successful, who knows if it will be enough, for 12 months, or five. Shortlisting was delayed from early July to late July, with an email to communicate the change in projected time line. It is mid August and I've heard nothing further. Have there been more delays? Did I not get an interview? Why have they not responded to my email last week asking for an update on progress? The uncertainty and the waiting have become debilitating.

A week overseas to play with fellow storytellers, performing, presenting, listening, learning. I felt well, if easily tired, but moved freely, participated joyfully.

A week back in Scotland of ordered (by my supervisor) rest and I slept well, went to shows, felt light and positive and able to fill the weekend with much activity.

Come Monday, when I was to return to PhD work, I awoke heavy, tired, aching in my muscles like I'd run a marathon; irritable, low, lethargic and unable to concentrate. I did press on to edit the paper for an upcoming conference, complete my annual review and do a little reading. Tuesday was even worse, though I managed to sit outside for an hour of sunshine and fresh air, writing up notes from marked pages from Monday's reading. I feel as though I am in chains, unable to move, hardly able to breathe.

They don't tell you – the mysterious 'they' – when following your dreams is so celebrated and encouraged, that the cost will be so great you might even regret having dreamed at all. That all the affirmation you receive from fellow storytellers and scholars, from church leaders and members, for a way of engaging with the Bible that affirms our full humanity will clatter and echo in the hollow emptiness of your despairing soul; no longer able to encourage and strengthen. Despair at no longer caring about this dream, this call, this project. Despair because it is too hard to keep convincing the bodies with the power and the money that this is worthwhile, that you are worth the investment; and now you can no longer convince yourself.

And you hardly dare admit to yourself (let alone anyone who might read your blog) that you are almost hoping the test results are just bad enough that you can't take the job; that the scholarship doesn't eventuate, so that you can pack your bags and go home. Because home is safe. And I have had enough of this risky place, demanding the courage and resilience you have admired. I have run out of both, and cannot fight for the means to stay any more.

When I acknowledged the risk in moving to Scotland on limited finances, I never imagined I would have so much trouble sourcing adequate funding. I did not foresee such constricting, debilitating, enduring stress. I am so disappointed that it has fallen this way. That all the joy has been so entirely sucked out of the dream.

* Please note that while comments are always welcome, this is not an invitation for suggested diagnoses or treatments.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Midweek Musing: stories, gifted

This time last year I was celebrating finding a tribe to belong to and love. Twelve months on, the annual gathering of the Network of Biblical Storytellers was happening again in Washington, D.C., and I was presenting or performing every day. Last week, I told you about what I did in the scholars seminar, which takes place before the Festival Gathering. This week, I will reflect on some of the gifts I received from others, individuals, and the gathering collectively. You will find reflections on the contributions I made to the gathering in this month's newsletter.

Elizabeth Adkisson draws you into the story with her very presence. She is grounded. She sees her audience and you know you are seen. She sees the story and its characters, and through her eyes, and the movement of her body, you see clearly the places and the people.
Elizabeth told several stories that I heard last week; the one I remember most right now is the story of the walk to Emmaus (in Luke) after the crucifixion of Jesus. I have told this story, even crafted a dramatic and poetic telling of it for worship, and I have heard it countless times over lifetime in Christian community. This was the first time I felt their sadness, as Elizabeth expressed sorrow in the voices and characters of these two walking and talking with the stranger. How bland are our depictions of this moment, too often when reading it aloud; or how quickly we jump to the wonder of recognising the resurrected Jesus, because we know where the story is going. In this encounter, I appreciated the wonder so much more, because I had first properly felt the sadness, disappointment, misunderstanding of those two trudging home from Jerusalem.

night on the verandah of the 4H Conference Centre

The Network of Biblical Storytellers takes biblical storytelling seriously. Through the week, conversations explored ways to do what we do better, we named honestly what was working and what was not, listened for the voices of the next generation, and committed to reflecting with the board on all this. The board itself acts with openness and transparency, presenting finances with accountability to the broader membership, communicating the work it does on our behalf. In particular, the international missions of partnership with people in countries such as Haiti and the Philippines, encouraging biblical storytelling in places where oral storytelling is more accessible and appropriate than written texts; and the Academy for Biblical Storytelling, which offers professional development for biblical storytellers as performers and as teachers of this craft to others. Masters students of the Academy produce resources that add to the library of the Network in support of our mission to encourage others to know the biblical stories by heart. We also hear from our founder whenever we gather, Tom Boomershine, who challenges us to keep growing and developing as a network. And we commit to telling the biblical stories in all their breadth, the challenging ones and the comforting ones, and this year, the ones with uncovering of 'feet' and tending flocks among the lilies – including all the nuanced euphemisms you can imagine!

The arena, our games hosts and resident DJ
The NBS doesn't take itself too seriously, however. We have an Olympic Games night each year, since 1996 when the actual Olympics were happening in Atlanta. Every year we let our hair down and play very silly games, with sheep vying for drinking water, talking selfies with as many people as possible, creating skits to advertise something from a bible story (such as sealis for Jacob with his two wives and their two servants, the winning advert). We laugh together – oh, how we laugh together.
Because we also wrestle together with challenging biblical compositions, and conflicting ideas about how to go about our mission; and we cry together, because the stories stir us deep within.

Speaking of doing things together, we do a bit of singing and praying together over those three and a half days, too. In our praying I saw another gift, profound in its generosity, welcome, and love. For many years, Rabbi Rachmiel (Rock) Tobesman has participated in the festival gathering, a Jewish storyteller entering the stories and praying with this bunch of Christian storytellers. Twice Rabbi Rock led our praying, calling us to prayer with a haunting horn as we remembered those who had died and were on our hearts, and in our closing worship with Aramaic and English words of prayer. Rabbi Rock also tells stories and leads workshops, and his presence is for me a witness to hope of better relationships between Christians and Jews, between people of different traditions more generally. Story is something all humans share, and when we give space to each other's stories, to each other in the story, we make possible healing and wholeness for each other.

Marti Steussy (our keynote speaker) spoke to us of the Bible, of inviting it to breathe. Rather than assuming there is one right way to receive biblical texts, she reminded us of the vitality and life of these compositions, their range of possible meanings - within boundaries; their danger, so treat them with respect, and their hope, so receive them with joy. These stories draw you in, especially when, in biblical storytellers, they are embodied and given breath.

I haven't even mentioned our featured performer, this year a singer-songwriter, telling stories through music. Andrew Landers told those stories that made us laugh and made us cry, made us wonder at God's love, lament at human lack of it, and revel in the miracle of life. Check him out for yourselves: Andrew Landers

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The puppets danced: Box Tale Soup's Northanger Abbey

This morning, just back from a week of storytelling in Washington, D.C., I joined three friends for a performance adaptation of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. We did not know quite what to expect. Elizabeth had seen a poster, been intrigued, and sought friends to join her. Some of her fellow PhD students at New College had shown ourselves to be a small, strong group of Austen fans, and from among that group, three wanted in.

Six puppets hung on their posts, back to the audience, as we entered. Music started, and Antonia Cristophers and Noel Byrne entered the stage, setting the scene, dance-like, pulling the rest of the props from the large brown trunk that itself became carriage, ballroom seats, thunder, bed, and cabinet of hidden letters.

From the moment I sat down, I was captivated, enthralled, delighted. Simplifying the story for this telling of it by leaving out the plot line involving Henry's brother was a good decision. Costuming and consistency of voices helped to identify the characters - the green ribbons for the Alans, blue for the Morlands, Red for the Thorpes, and purple for the Tilneys. The looming figure of Major Tilney was well rendered in flowing black, larger than the rest and almost ghost- or monster-like.

The puppets danced on the arms of Christophers and Byrne, and they played Catherine and Henry themselves. Both were immersed in their characters, in the story; and we saw what they imagined, what they saw, of the fields and gardens, crowded ball rooms, carriages, horses, and the Abbey's corridors.

Of course the story is greatly abridged for this 75 minute rendering of it for the stage. I did not feel they missed anything from a story I love.

It's hard to pick favourite moments, but I remember being delighted at Henry and Catherine's first meeting, and my smile as he used her capacity to imagine to show her his home by describing it to her. The effect of that big, dark, figure of Henry's father, the girlish kicks of Isabella, and the thoroughly dislikable John Thorpe. Catherine's brother and Henry's sister were both tender contrasts to the mischievous and playful John and Henry, and Catherine's naive imagination was played without rendering her entirely stupid or without sensibility.

The music punctuated, illustrated, carried, the story intrinsically; at times, it felt like a film.

The only decision I do not understand is why they had Henry turn his back to the audience for his declaration of love, his proposal of marriage. We talked about it over lunch, when the suggestion was made, perhaps it was so all we saw was Catherine's response. But she was hard to see for those behind Henry. Not sure.

But for the rest. The puppets were alive, all the characters were on stage, through the two bodies that brought them to life. And we, the audience, were in Bath, at the Abbey, and in the Alans' garden, for every single moment.

If you are in Edinburgh for the Fringe, go. If you are anywhere that Box Tale Soup are playing, go. They are consumate performers, they make all their props and costumes, which are gorgeous, and they will take you into an experience of a story that will delight you, move you, and make you ever so happy you were there.