post

Music and Memories

Music & MemoriesThis morning I heard the snatch of an old 70s song on the radio, and I was 18 again, in my first year at University – exploring new horizons, making new friends and mourning the loss of an early love.

Music holds a sure magic. It transports us through time, connects us with other people, helps to heal wounds, makes us laugh, makes us cry and feeds the soul. And there are some tunes that, when we hear them, take us back to a certain time or place with crystal-clear vividness.

My own earliest memories include my mother’s voice singing old English ballads to send me to sleep. Songs such as Oh, No John, No John, No John, No, Cockles and Mussels, and The North Wind Doth Blow.

My father was a trad jazz fan, and played the piano. Never professionally, but with a passionate love of music that stayed with him throughout his life. So my other early lullabies were tunes like Tiger Rag, St James’ Infirmary Blues and many more. And the first song I remember learning to sing as a small child was Ragtime Cowboy Joe!

[And what a delightfully quirky collection of videos I found on the web, when searching for links to all those songs. :-) ]

Indeed, music was so much a part of my dad’s life that even the stories he told of the six years he spent in the British Navy in WWII were often centred around the times he got to play the piano.

[Read more…]

post

The Power of Play: Shirley’s Story

I’ve just finished reading Richard Reeves’ great blog post on Playfulness, and it’s inspired me in turn to write.

There’s an an old saying “We don’t stop playing because we get old – we get old because we stop playing“.  It’s certainly true that as folk get older they can tend to forget how to play with the mindfulness, sponteneity and joyfulness of children.

It’s perhaps ironic that ‘fun’ has become an engineered thing in some organisations – a kind of forced group activity that lacks the very spirit of play it’s intended to engender.

Play – genuine, spontaneous, and heartfelt play – is definitely a source of strength, resilience, creativity and inspiration. But it can’t be engineered – only encouraged. It’s a mindset, not a map. And it needs to be a philosopy of life, not some kind of mandated policy.

Girl PlayingSpending time with children is always a great reminder of the power of play – it’s almost impossible to remain unplayful in their presence. But there are also grown-ups who’ve not forgotten the magic.

I remember Shirley, a wonderful woman and the mother of a friend of mine, who always brought the light of play into her own and others’ lives until she passed away at 60+ years young. She’d not forgotten her six-year-old self, and she helped others re-discover their own capacity for play.

And at those times she and those around her would become ‘lost in the unfolding’ as Richard so eloquently expressed it.

As I read Richard’s post I found my head filled with memories of Shirley. And I also remember the playfulness she brought to much more serious things. She contracted cancer that proved incurable, so the last year of her life was a time you wouldn’t think would lend itself to playing.

But Shirley’s indomitable spirit meant she created fun even as she fought a losing battle with her illness.

Silly HatShe made herself crazy hats to wear as she lost her hair through chemotherapy, and also made a game of this with friends and family who gave her gifts of ever-crazier hats.

Shirley wore them all, returning to the gift-givers her own gifts of love and laughter.

She even had fun ‘playing’ with arranging her own funeral. Dickering over details with various funeral parlours. laughing over the stuffiness of some, and being as cheekily provocative as only Shirley could be until she found one she liked.

On the day of Shirley’s funeral, there was standing room only for the last folk to arrive. The chapel was packed. Family members and friends spoke of the difference Shirley had made in their lives – and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room.

But at the end of the service, as we were about to leave, the song Shirley had chosen to end the service rang through the chapel. It was Always Look on the Bright Side of Death from the Monty Python Life of Brian movie!

It was Shirley’s last playful gift to us all. And we found ourselves smiling through our tears.

post

Widdershins

Growling thunder this morning reminds me of my childhood. I was no longer frightened by loud crashes of thunder, when I knew it was just the gods playing a raucous game of bowls.

As a child I devoured every book of myths, legends and fairy tales I could find. My journey through these tales was one of fascination, delight, awe and mystery. My favourites were not the sanitised versions, but those which held sadness and wistfulness or which spoke of risk, of wrath and exploring beyond the edge of safety. I even preferred the version of Cinderella in which the wicked stepmother and stepsisters are finally put into spiked barrels and rolled down a hill. It seemed so much more apt than ‘they lived happily ever after’.

One of my favourites was Childe Rowland – originally a Scottish legend, but found in a book of English fairy tales. It’s the story of Burd Ellen and her brothers, the eldest of which was called Rowland. When they were playing ball together one day, Rowland threw the ball over a church. In running to fetch it, Burd Ellen accidentally ran ‘widdershins’ around the church so was snatched up by the King of Elves and taken to the realm of faerie.

The rest of the story tells of Rowland’s quest to fetch her back – a journey that also involved running ‘widdershins’ around a hill to be transported into the Elven Kingdom and then beheading everyone he met on the way to the King of Elfland’s Dark Tower!

For some time after reading this story, I eyed the local churches wistfully. The only problem was I had absolutely no idea what widdershins meant. But what a delicious mystery! I knew if I could only solve this puzzle I too could travel into the unknown world of elves and fairies. I knew the Elven Kingdom could be dangerous and dark, but I passionately wanted to go there. And I trusted I’d be able to return safely if I followed the advice given to Rowland and had nothing to eat or drink while I was there.

On one occasion, when there was nobody else around and no other kids within mocking distance, I even tried running as ‘weirdly’ as I could around the outside of a local church near my house. I spent what seemed a long time trying different ways of running, pausing at the end of each triple circuit to recite  ‘Open door, open door, and let me come in!”.

As far as I knew, I was safe from prying eyes – but I’m sure if anyone was watching it would have been an amusing sight. I’m sure John Cleese’s ‘funny walks’ were nothing compared with my weird and wonderful attempts. :)  But it didn’t work – the Elven Kingdom remained stubbornly closed. And I was never game enough to try it again for fear of being seen.

Much, much later I discovered widdershins means in a contrary or counter-clockwise direction or facing against the sun. Sadly for my earlier ambitions, by the time I learned this I’d grown past childhood. My belief in fairyland had gone the same way as my belief in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, painted by Thomas Moran in 1859

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came (Thomas Moran, 1859)

But, although I didn’t manage to work out how to ‘run widdershins’ into the fairyland of my childhood, maybe there is an adult parallel? There are certainly times in my life when I feel the need to be contrary – to travel ‘counter clockwise’, so to speak, when compared with everyone else around me. And I’m sure this is an experience shared by most folk – I think it’s part of the human condition really.

Maybe we should celebrate these times, rather than feel uncomfortable about them?

After all, aren’t there times when we need to be contrary – run counter to the norm – in order to glimpse the magic of new possibilities? And don’t we sometimes need to face against the sun and look into the shadows to discover the best of who we are?

So next time someone suggests you’re being difficult or contrary, just tell them you’re running widdershins to reach the realm of new ideas. Perhaps running widdershins is really a kind of magic for grown ups after all. :)

And if you’d like to be inspired by the original story, I’ve managed this morning to find the full text of it on the web. So read the story of Childe Rowland for yourself – and celebrate the magic of contrariness.