I am sat reflecting on how many times I have talked about codes over the last year. Appealing to my inner child to write in that invisible ink that only shows up under UV light. Or writing letters backwards to create a secret language or drawing shapes to replace the alphabet.
This last year when I have designed workshops for children, I have looked at code breaking and code generating over and over again. At first I thought that this was something I was doing because it was easy to move it online. Teaching children over zoom is a challenge. I wanted an activity to hold their focus. Something that felt small and intimate as an act but would have their imaginations reeling at the possibilities. The more I thought about 8 year old me and 8 year old them, the more that I knew it was the right way to go. Some of them had already done it before. It did not matter. It was a chance to find a common tongue. If I write a secret message in numbers can you crack it? If I mix up the words in a sentence can you unscramble it? What code would you write in? And then we jumped to symbols and talked about hieroglyphics. And even though we are all sat in our homes, gazing into another screen, we find the thing that we couldn’t have in real life. We find an escape. Amongst the cats or dogs or snacks or piles of toys, paper, washing. The debris of our life surrounds us and yet we are somewhere else. Together. Writing codes and discovering a new way to communicate.
But this time fades, the world unfurls and unfolds. The toys go back in their box, the washing away in the draws, the paper into the recycling bin. We go out, back into reality and school and work. Grateful for the demand of onscreen time to drop, grateful for our children.
There was something powerful though. Something to be understood about the possibility of languages and communication. And I stared at the different codes explored and invented over the last year, I felt a pull back to something fundamental – Our human desire to communicate and understand.
So in a time when we are constantly and maybe desperately looking forward, let’s go back to when that great wave of migration sweeps through Europe. Let’s go back to wood and stone and ancient inscriptions carved into plates, jewellery and those giant rune stones. Portals to another place.
One of the earliest written text, Elder Futhark – a series of different symbols that represent something close to our own alphabet. These sharp and angular shapes, known also as Runes, are loaded with meaning. They represented Gods and Goddesses, elements and nature, daily life and the human condition. They could be read as an alphabet or they could be placed together to create some other meaning. They could be cast in a manner that would allow you to predict the future if in the hands of a Rune Reader or Sage. They were very open to interpretation.
They come with some gate keeping. For some, they are relics from history and for others they hold weight, magic and other worldly powers. Some see them as just strange marks. For me, an opportunity to play.
I have been playing with them for the last two weeks, exploring their shapes and their meaning. Layering them up and flipping them round. When reversed they have different meanings. At the same time I have been reflecting on my practice and pulling all my ideas together and there are some common connections betweens the Runes that I kept coming back to and the sketches and poems that are up on the studio wall.
The first was change. I can see that my work follows the shifts, some for the better and some for the worse. Some changes are linear, others are cyclical. The waxing and waning on the moon, the mushrooms emerging and disappearing, our bodies – heart beating, blood pumping, ageing towards dust. The chance to jump off or step furtively forwards. The changes we want and we don’t. The changes that confine and challenge us and the changes that open us up.
In the Runes, Dagaz represents breakthrough. An awakening and awareness. A transformation. There is certainty to it – hope and happiness, growth and release, day break, a balance point where two opposites meet. Working creatively gives us space to shift and change the way we see the world.
The next was Home with all of its complexities. That home will define us and to make healthy changes we need to feel that we belong somewhere. Our home could be bricks and mortar, twigs and feathers, the town where we live, or the country we come from. Our sense of home defines how we move forward.
The Rune that covers this for me was Othala. Its first meaning is ancestral home. Further inspection reveals a meaning of our fundamental values, our source of support and safety, what really matters to us. When I work creatively I want to feel safe. In workshops, the safer people feel, the more secure they are in the room, the more they will take those creative risks. Creativity can flourish if we feel safe, ideas can flow if we feel like we belong.
I saw in my writing and sketches the grasping for courage and in fact creating something in the first place is an act of courage. No lions may be encountered along the way, but who hasn’t heard the negative impostor voice telling you that the whole creative act is pointless and who really cares anyway? I certainly have. A quality I greatly admire in others is the courage to share the story in whatever form suits them.
In the Runes, Uruz represents strength and untamed potential. It can represent a time of great energy, health and freedom. It can mean tenacity and wisdom and the formulation of self. Watching rooms of all shapes and sizes, ages and stages over the last few years, I see that I am lucky to witness those acts of strength and bravery. As individuals change their attitudes from apologising to acceptance, as they take those creative steps into getting know themselves, the world unravels the messy knots we can tie ourselves in and reveals the threads of possibility.
So after a bit of play, I settled into this new discovery of myself and my values. I settled on a new logo.
The Othala and Dagaz combined to create a house where change is possible. The Uruz a small doorway, because everyone know it takes a little bit of courage to step through and build bridges to belonging.
The world always changes. Even in ways that may not always be visible to us and if we let ourselves, then we change too. Sometimes other people hold us back and at other times we may let them. Some stories survive all those changes and serve us. They deepen our understanding of the way we experience the world, even if we live in a different time and place entirely. Those stories belong to us all and the way we tell them tells us something about the teller themselves. So here is an offering, in this time of transformation, to hopefully help make sense of this jumbled world.
You already know this story.
A lonely man, they always are.
He found it hard to connect to others and yet he could see their joy within their families and that their hearts were full and he wanted that. He saw their heads thrown back in laughter and when out walking the weather beaten coastal paths at dusk, the warm glow of a well attended hearth spilled out of small cottage windows, and he wanted that.
In the village, he witnessed lovers walking hand in hand, eyes missing the surrounding gray world, lost deeply to each other and the promises of the happy lives they were going to have together. And he wanted that.
But time passed and as he stitched the torn nets of local fishermen, he never made a catch. With each stitch into each net his heart shrunk, his gut grew and the lines of loneliness and frustration deepened. He had never been small, even as a boy, but now he was broad and tall – a hulking mass of a man. And as he swelled the women in the village were lost to him and carried into calmer waters on a more comfortable boat. They didn’t want him.
So the man grew solitary and short tempered, his language coarse with under use and his voice carried a bark- the kind you’d hear in an agitated dog.
One evening, as the sun slipped below the surface of the sea and the moon swelled like an empty, expectant plate, the man took a turn off his usual clifftop path and carefully picked his way over the rocks that were always shifting in the cliff face. He descended down towards the smaller smooth stones that washed up on the shoreline.
He starred out to sea – what was the point of a man so lonely? He pulled off his boots and decided he would swim till he could swim no more. Until he would slip silently beneath the waves. And this resolve, this feeling of holding a destination in his mind, this decision lifted his eyes. What a beautiful place to die. His skin felt the wind blowing through his threadbare unpatched clothes. He tasted the salt heavy in the air and he heard the wind singing. Or did he? Amongst the whistling wind, he heard laughter and shouts and multiple voices. He wasn’t alone, somewhere nearby was a group of people. He turned towards the voices and understood that they were coming from a small inlet surrounded by rocks – a perfect place, protected from the elements. He walked over and not wanting to be seen he crawled the final section and peered through the cracks in the rocks.
A group of naked women were laughing. Their white skin seemed to glow in the moonlight, like they had a bright and brilliant light within them. The man was filled with longing, his mind turned to his empty house, his empty life, his empty heart. What life he could have if his house could be filled with such radiance. How freely these women danced and sang and swam. He quietly climbed higher to get a better look, keen to not get caught.
That is when he saw the skins – silver blotted with darker patches. They were all an arms length away from him. Seal skins. He counted them. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. He counted the women – One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. These women had not arrived on foot over land. They had come from the sea and shed their velvety skin to dance upon the sands freely under a full moon. His longing turned from want to need to must have. He was going to have one, just one, of those women, just one of those magical selkie women would be enough. He reached out and with thick fingers grabbed the nearest skin. It felt soft and thick like a scarf hugging your neck or a sleeping kitten. He pulled himself back to his hiding place behind the rocks and stuffed the skin under his jumper. He waited wondering which woman would belong to him.
One by one, the women returned to their skins, a gray dawn was arriving over the cliftops. It was time to return home to the sea. They pulled on their skins and slipped into the incoming tide, till only one woman remained. She searched but could not find her skin. She called to her sisters to help her but they had disappeared beneath the waves. She called and searched and called and searched until her heart grew weary and the man watched and watched, waiting for the moment when her hope would disappear.
Soon enough, the woman gave up. She sank down to the rock beneath her, hugging her knees to her chest.
The man stepped out from his hiding place.
‘I have your skin.’ he said.
The selkie woman shivered from the cold, the exposure, from the man that towered over her.
‘Come with me.’ he said. ‘I can give you a good life.’
‘I have a good life.’ she replied. ‘Swimming with my sisters. Please give me back my skin.’
The man’s longing burned. He thought how much better his life would be for having her in it.
‘Stay with me, for 7 years. For 7 years be my wife. After those seven years have passed, I will return your skin to you. The woman thought what else could she do but accept his offer. She could not return to the sea without her skin to protect her and she could not fight a man so large. What was 7 years in a life that could stretch to 100. She agreed. The man greedily snatched her up. He set her on her feet and helped her down from the rocks. He took off his coat and wrapped it around her shoulders.
The coat felt strange – coarse against her skin and the smell was odd like smoke, but what does a woman of the sea know of fire? She followed him as he led her back up off the beach and up the cliff and along the path to his village by the harbour. And there in a tumbledown cottage they made a life and the man softened, although those years of jagged loneliness could never really be smoothed.
She wore the dresses he bought her and looked like a normal wife despite not knowing the ways of a kitchen. Her belly soon swelled and carried out into the world, on a tide of fear, a child was born. A girl. The child was human. She bore no sign of being Selkie. Now the woman was tied to land in a way that was larger than the deal struck on the beach.
Seven years passed. The girl was fed on stories of sea caves and creatures. She was hushed to sleep with the songs of whales and seaweed and water. The child grew well. Rosy skinned and full bodied in fine fettle. The woman waned. Her skin became dryer and dryer until it cracked and her eyes suffered. The world turned into colour and indistinguishable shapes. The woman loved her child, but the longing to be back in the sea with her own kind was causing her body to shut down.
As the seventh year drew to a close, she turned to the man and asked for her skin to be returned to her. The girl, whose parents thought she was asleep, heard the conversation between her parents.
‘7 years have passed. It is time for my skin to be returned to me.’ said the woman.
The man’s fear of being alone reared its ugly head. Left with a young girl to raise without a woman to guide her in things he did not know or understand.
‘I cannot give your skin back to you.’ he said.’ I cannot lose you to the sea.I cannot once again be alone.’
‘You will lose me, with or without returning my skin. I cannot survive here. I am fading fast. To keep me here is to kill me.’
‘What of your child? Do you not love her?’
‘ I love her with all of my body, but my body is weak and I cannot be there for her in death.’
The man shook his head. ‘You belong to me. You are mine and mine alone. I will not give you your skin. Filled with darkness, the man left the house. The woman silently mourned the fight she didn’t have 7 years earlier, now too weak, 7 years on to fight.
The girl having heard all of the exchange was horrified. She didn’t want her mother to die. For days her thoughts swilled a round and a round in her head. What could she do? How could she save her mother?
Meanwhile the woman became extremely frail. Her skin was carved up into patterns like contours and borders on a map. Her sight reduced to near blackness. Her heart, already weakened from the years out of the water, out of her skin and away from home, beat like a fading drum.
The girl drank it all in, She saw her fathers impatience and his snap at this sad, frail woman that he now had for a wife. She saw her mother shrinking and despite being young in years, she knew that her mother was dying.
One full mooned night, while the girl sat drinking in the blackness of the night and the blackness of her thoughts she heard a song on the wind. Her small bedroom rattled as the song found its way through the grains of wood holding the pane of glass in place.
She quietly tip-toed down the stairs on soft slippered feet and made her way to the front door. After Pulling on her woollen hat and mittens and sheepskin lined coat she stepped out into the night. The song was louder out in the harbour. The wind blew from the north west along the coastal path . she followed the sound as she followed the song became louder and the girl grew in confidence, knowing that each step along the path meant discovering answers. Down onto the beach that had been the meeting place for her parents, 7 years earlier. She stopped and looked out to the sea where her mother came from. She felt a pull in her heart, a pull to walk into the waves and never feel land again under her feet , just like her father 7 years before.
But the song called soothingly from behind some rocks further along the beach. So she followed, scrambling over giant rocks, slippery with seaweed in soft slippers. There lying on the rock below was a seal skin. It was bedraggled and torn in places. Its silver shine reduced to an asphalt gray. The girl knew it was the skin of her mother. Carefully she picked up the skin – it felt as frail as tissue paper. She folded it up with great care and tucked it into her coat.
Dawn was now breaking from behind the cliffs. So the girl picked her path back over the rocks and up the beach. Back along the path and down to the small village by the harbour. The boats were gone, carrying the men in the village out to sea for the morning catch. The girl made her way to the cottage where she lived and found her mother luging in bed. Eyes open yet unseeing.
The girl guided her mothers hands to the seal skin and even though it had been years and even though the soft velvety skin had decayed and even though the woman was as sightless as a moonlit night, she recognised the skin. For who doesn’t know how it feels to come home?
Tears fell from the woman’s eyes dropping like patchwork upon the skin and with each tear the skiing seemed to become healthier. The girl watched as her mother cradled the skin in her arms just like she had cradled her daughter as a baby. She sang weakly aat first, her voice keening, breaking with the heartache of absence and the joy of the return.
With help from her daughter the woman shuffled from the house and along the headland. Down from the cliffs and onto the beach. There she removed her nightgown and pulled on her skin. The girl watched wrapping her mother’s nightgown around her neck for change is hard and small comforts help.
Before her eyes, her mother was a seal and the girl knew this was how it was meant to be. Awkwardly the two made their way to where the salty water kissed the waves, splashing and laughing in the shallows. Further out they went and soon the girl had wrapped her arms around her seal mothers neck . The seal mother turned and breathed air over her daughter and soon enough they were diving down deeper and deeper and the girl breathed as though she was above the surface. They came to an underground cave. They swam through arriving in a vast cavern filled with other seals, other selkies who all turned to see who had entered.
A stillness descended and slowly an elderly seal swam towards the seal mother and the girl. There was recognition and acceptance. There was grief and celebration. Before long the child had to be taken back to land for she was not Selkie, nor human. The elderly seal and her mother returned her to the shoreline. The child walked onto a beach forever changed by the homecoming she had witnessed and the journey beneath the waves. She belongs to transformation. Wherever transition took place. She was a sliding scale, perpetual movement. A cycle of breath. She was autumn leaves and spring buds, dawn and dusk, bears emerging from a long winter’s hibernation, pine trees kissing the sky and the sea embracing the land. She was her mother and her father, she was soul and ego and she could navigate an edge- her curiosity overcoming her fear.
And she grew and as she grew she listened, knowing that the world turns and time passes and people change. And people came and they listened to her stories and for the short time that they listened they found peace within and without. She told and listened and listened and told and she saw that the world was an unending cycle of wonder.
Taking down evil in storytelling is quite often presented as an individualistic action. A hero will defeat a villain. These characters are binary. The hero is good and the villain is bad. This narrative has been served up to us time and time and time again. Even when we get told stories about a group of people battling another, this is quite often reduced down to leaders.
However banishing the monsters of this world is a collective effort. For so long, we have been living in a story of a pyramid. We have been consumed by the notion of the ‘One’.
The one who rules us. The one who stole our heart. The one who cast dark magic. The one that got away with it. The one that saves us. The one that had roast beef. The one that had none.
It is an isolating view of the world and it stops us diversifying what we know, who we know and how we learn. It comes with an enormous pressure. For those that are the one and for those who are not.
When we look at the moments when there was a pivot in society, we would see that those moments are built on ‘We’ and ‘Us’. Not ‘I’ and ‘me.’ The Civil Rights movement, the Suffragettes, School Strike for Climate, Black Lives Matter. These were built by grass root collectives.
Good and just society is neither the thesis of capitalism nor the antithesis of communism, but a socially conscious democracy which reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism.
Martin Luther King Jnr
So let’s start telling stories where people come together to ask for a better life. Let’s hear stories which aren’t about ‘the one’ but are about ‘Us’. We will discover other ideas and other people and we may even find ourselves sat in their stories in ways that surprise and delight us.
The new year came, and the new year went and all the reflections and plans you made fizzle out as you realise you’re cash strapped, cold and cranky. You’re past the shortest day of the year but daylight is still a fairly elusive time. The quantity of cheese you have consumed over the christmas period is now turning on you and making you realise that having a baked brie every other day was probably not your best decision. As for this new year’s resolutions they are gone, gone, gone as you motivation slips away from you.
I keep it simple this year: Don’t get down because it’s January. The 11,033 days that I have had treading on this earth, have been filled with words of how awful January is. Whether its January, June, Hot, Cold… So this year, i opted to not be to hard on January. It’s not January’s fault, it comes when it comes. But here I am, not even half way through the month, having a serious chat with January.
Me: Now, you listen to me January. I was really willing to give it a go this year. Make it a really special month.
January: Oh, how lovely.
Me: It should be, shouldn’t it? But no. Its cold and dark and windy and wet.
January: Well yes. But thats not my fault. There are plenty of places in the world, where it is January but its actually hot.
Me: Yes, but everyone is so grumpy.
January: Again not my fault. You all had a great time in December living it large, life of Reilly, but now you have to get on with normality and its a comedown. I didn’t tell you to live ostentatiously at christmas. Did I?
Me: Well –
January: No. I didn’t. I am just a month at the beginning of the year. You’d think that would be great, but no one wants to know. Unless your Kiwi. Do you know how exhausting it was last year when everyone was blaming me for taking David Bowie and Alan Rickman? No, you never stopped to think did you? It was all about how awful January has been to you. Well maybe its time you start thinking about how awful you’ve been to January.
Following on from this enlightening conversation, I think that maybe we all suffer from feeling out of control at this time of year, this is then heightened by failing at new years resolutions. I wonder if we reviewed our perspectives on new beginnings we could find that we are more the capable of making changes at any point. It doesn’t always have to be the big stuff. Its also fascinating the amount of resolutions that come out of not doing something. Dry January, not eating certain things, not flobbing out as much and not looking like we do. This is hard. Are we actually making it hard on ourselves. What if instead of saying ‘I’m NOT going to hate January’, I said ‘I’m going to write down three positive things that I have done everyday in January’. What if I let go of predetermine cycles of change that were not picked by me, I talk back some power and said I;m going to change today. I know January would like that. How about you?
Three Positives for today:
Teaching my first Home Education Class.
Watching a brilliant film, Song of the Sea, with my eldest and seeing her moved by beautiful story telling.
Realising that change can occur at any time, in any place in any one. We just have to be open to that idea.