the cone and the story

Last weekend was crazy. A fitting end to a roller-coaster week. It was all going along nicely when, as is often the way, Holly took it upon herself to shake things up a little. Holly is a dog. I have a theory that part of the purpose of dogs is to teach us to live in the moment. To appreciate Now. Dogs don’t really stop to think about consequences – they just Do. They react to what is present. In front of them. Now.

So, on Tuesday, Jo, my wife, took Holly for a walk whilst I got on with something – I forget what. But I remember that, on her return, I was upstairs and heard her shout for assistance. I came down to find her clutching a wet and sorry looking dog in one hand, a blood stained towel in the other. Jo explained. She and Holly had been walking up on Wenlock Edge. Holly had, as normal, been off doing dog stuff in the woods. Which, in Holly’s case, involves a lot of tearing around chasing rabbits and squirrels. Without due care and attention to personal safety. Totally caught up in the Now. Totally committed to the Moment. So committed that she had not even noticed that she had somehow collected a nasty little wound on her hind leg. Jo had cleaned it up and wanted my opinion. Did it need stitches? Did we need to visit the vets? I took a look. It didn’t look as bad as last time ( see my earlier blog – The wound). Holly didn’t seem overly perturbed by it. Let her sort herself out. And anyway, I had to go teach my chi gung class, which Jo helps out at. So, we left Holly to lick her wound. Literally.

On our return an hour later, it was clear from the difficulty with which Holly rose from her bed, that the injury was more severe than first suspected. We looked closer and saw that there were more cuts under her belly as well as the one on her leg. It was a bit of a mess. A quick phone call and we were off to the vets in Bridgnorth – a larger town, 20 minutes drive away.

Rob, the vet, gave his opinion that Holly had most likely got herself caught on some barbed wire. Stitches were needed. But, if we were prepared to pick her up at about 10.30pm, we could avoid her having to stay overnight. But she would have to wear a collar to stop her biting her stitches. Until Saturday morning. When he would like to see her to check how things were healing.

Holly was not impressed. The collar severely cramped her style. Scratching was noisy and unsatisfying. Eating and drinking were rendered slow and awkward. Sniffing possibilities were hugely curtailed. Things kept sneaking up on her. Taking her by surprise. Chairs, tables, legs kept jumping out on her. Worst of all, it gave Tom an unfair advantage. Tom, the cat. Who seemed to take great pleasure in his new-found ability to pass by Holly’s nose undetected.

So, what followed was a week of under-stimulated, under-exercised, consequently bored, consequently ill-behaved springer spaniel/collie cross. Initially, the break from the at least twice daily, at least hour-long daily walks was a welcome release. The extra time it created to do other stuff was a revelation. But, very quickly, this was eclipsed by the constant attention seeking behaviour and general sense of unfair imprisonment issuing from Holly. I am a dog. It is my job to run and bounce and chase and be joyful. This collar is stopping me doing my job. It is preventing me from being fully dog. This collar is not right.

But, Holly could not be trusted not to bite her stitches. The vet was very clear. The collar had to remain on. Particularly as we had a busy weekend ahead. We would not be around all the time to keep a close eye on the dog. I was involved in a tai chi workshop Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And it was the Festival At The Edge.

F.A.T.E. is an annual story-telling festival based just outside Much Wenlock on Wenlock Edge. We have been attending the festival for sixteen years now. It is an important part of the rhythm of our year. It started with Jo selling the jewellery she makes in the Craft Tent. She urged me to come with her. We could camp up there. It would save her having to drive there and back each day. It would be fun. Initially, I was sceptical. Why would I want to go to a story-telling festival? Stories are for kids. I am a grown up. Why would I want to sit in a tent and listen to stories? It’ll be boring. I haven’t got time. But, Jo is persuasive. So, I went. And I loved it. And I found that, yes, stories are for children. That they are for the child in each and all of us.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate the power of stories. To be told a story well is to be transported. Listening to a story well told, you are given the means by which to leave the mundane, workaday world behind. Listen with the rapt attention of a child and you forget the petty worries of everyday life. But, stories are more than mere escapism. They are tools which enable us to engage with deeper concerns. Concerns about why we are here. Humanity. Now. On this planet. They approach questions which we are never given time to ask in the normal, operational world. That world where jobs always need to be done, routines followed, laws kept, boundaries respected, rules adhered to. Stories remind us that it is necessary sometimes to break the rules, stretch boundaries, question laws, change routines, leave the jobs undone. After all, those rules/boundaries/laws/routines/jobs are just stories that someone made up. There are other stories out there. Lots of stories. Try a few. Just for a change. Just to see what happens. I mean, they told Little Red Riding Hood to stick to the path. But did she? Ok, things didn’t turn out so well for the grandmother…   And Jack was crazy to swap the cow for some beans. But, who would guess that they turn out to be magic beans? The point is that the characters in stories regularly test the boundaries of their worlds. Sometimes the consequences are good. Sometimes bad. Except, often, good turns out to be bad and bad turns out to be good. There is a dynamic going on in the traditional stories. A questioning. An examination of why rules and boundaries are there. This seems to me to be healthy. It means that societies that listen to stories in this way are engaged in a process. Their laws and routines are consistently being scrutinized, discussed, thought about. By everybody. Together. Around a fire. They are a living thing. Open to change. Not blindly adhered to.

Contrast this to our society. Where do we hear our stories nowadays? Well, first of all, we rarely hear them as a group. On the whole, we consume our stories alone or in small family groups. Sat in front of a screen. We have come to think of TV as just entertainment. But, when we watch, we are being told stories, just the same. Only, we maybe don’t realise it. But everything we watch tells a story. And the predominate story of our age, our society, is “Consume”. All those adverts between shows. Hundreds of little stories telling us that it is good to buy stuff. All those game shows where success is equated with winning lots of money or lots of stuff. Stories. All that “reality” TV where success is equated with living in Chelsea, wearing the right clothes, having lots of friends, going to the right parties. Stories. Even the news, serious documentaries, comedies. Everything. All stories. Stories that establish and consolidate the norms of our society.

But, who is telling us the stories? Where is the forum where we can question them? Where is our community fire?

Which is why it is so worrying when individuals like Rupert Murdoch gain such a huge control over the Media. Not because it is Rupert Murdoch and I don’t happen to agree with his views. But because it is a monopoly. So, the stories we hear are no longer part of a conversation. They become a means of control. A one way street. A directive.

Which is why it is important to seek out different story tellers. Hear different stories. Which is where the internet is so great. And why Big Business and Government are always trying to control it. Because it is not regulated in the way they want. Because it is beyond their control. Because you can find all sorts of alternative stories out there.

But the internet is not enough. For me, at least. Because it is still looking at a screen. Which is very different from looking into someone’s eyes. There is a special charge from being in the presence of other human beings. I think it is to do with exchange. When you look at a screen, it is a selfish act. Selfish in the sense that you only have to consider your self – your needs and desires. If you grow bored with the story, change channel. It effects no-one but your self. No body knows or cares. There is a sadness about it. Because you are alone. There is only connection in the mind. Whereas, if you sit in the presence of another human being and they tell you a story, it is a very different transaction. It is a conversation. A sharing. How you behave as an audience has a direct effect on the story. You can’t just turn it off. Change channel. You have a responsibility. You must listen to the end. Listen carefully. Respond. Or there will be consequences. It is not always easy. It can be uncomfortable. But it is life affirming. Because you know that you are not alone.

The Festival At The Edge is always held on the weekend when the schools break up. When the Summer holiday begins. When I was a teacher, it used to feel like a ritual. A doorway. A means of stepping out of the world of Work. The Operational World. The world of the 3 Rs – rules, routines and regulations. Stepping out of that world and into the world of Play. The Creative World. The world of the 3 Is – Innovation, Imagination, Inspiration. I was always happier in that world. Still am. In the Operational World, I always feel like I have a cone around my head. Limiting my experience of the world. Narrowing down the possibilities of my existence. And, like Holly, I find the cone extremely frustrating. So, on a fairly regular basis, I have to seek out a fire. Sit around that fire. Sit around with other people. And share stories. Step into that different world. Take off the cone.P1010959

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