Symbol and story: Tread softly…

Someone has laid out brightly coloured circles as stepping-stones across the hospital grass and Leo, my youngest son, is spending the summer evening leaping across from one to another.

When he reaches the end, he turns round and comes back. He does this over and over, scarcely pausing at the turn.  

We both know that it will be a long time before he is able to do this again.

Leo has cerebral palsy and in recent years his joints have become tighter, his right foot has lost all flexibility and he is walking (or rather running) higher and higher on his toes.  He is now eleven and the consultant thinks the time has come to operate. Tomorrow he will be having a multi-level operation at the Nuffield Orthopaedic Hospital in Oxford. They will break both his femurs and rotate outwards, put in rods, lengthen various muscles and move one of the quadricep muscles to the side on each leg.

There is no alternative: “Without surgery he will be off his feet in two years,” the consultant tells us. He also tells us that it will take a year (if things go well) for him to get back to the level of mobility that he has now.

The operation itself lasts five hours and goes well.  Other parents tell us that we do not need to worry about pain relief as the hospital is brilliant at it. 

At first things are fine. Leo’s dad, sister and brother come in to say goodbye before they go home.  Leo, who is on morphine, is cheerful but sleepy.

But once they have gone, things start to get difficult. Despite the morphine, Leo is clearly in a lot of pain.  The nurses discover that the morphine pump is leaking and decide that as it will be removed later that day, they will take it out now. As well, Leo develops nerve pain in his right foot, causing him to stop suddenly as a wave of excruciating pain overcomes him. He is given amitriptyline, which helps, but other things like massage and desensitising with hot and cold water will have to wait until his foot is out of plaster. 

Worst of all: HE NEVER SLEEPS.

As his Devoted and Caring Parent, I never sleep either. I lie beside him on the makeshift parent bed, ready to offer comfort, support and hope whenever he needs it.  At last, on the third night, all is quiet and I begin to hope that I might doze off.

Suddenly Leo sits up in bed, reaches into his mouth and holds out a tooth. “It was getting looser and looser,” he tells me triumphantly.

“He’s all yours,” I tell the nursing staff, somewhat bitterly, before making my way to the parents’ room.  “If I don’t get some sleep, I’ll probably murder him.”

By Saturday, apart from some brief physiotherapy sessions, Leo is spending the day lying listless and inert on his bed. He does not even have the energy or interest to listen to his Harry Potter tapes.  He is a long way from the energetic child of a few days ago, bouncing across the stepping stones.

But Saturday is the day when the family come to visit.  His father and siblings arrive, bearing gifts.  Nancy has brought him the soundtrack to Lord of the Rings. Timothy, our middle son, is currently into woodwork and has spent the week making Leo a wooden sword.  He gives it to him now.

And instantly Leo is transformed. 

He sits up and asks to be transferred to the wheelchair. Apathy and depression drop from him. He is chatting, laughing and waving his sword as he gets Nancy and Timothy to take him on a conducted tour of the ward. 

There are still difficult days ahead, but the sword is a turning point. Naturally strong willed he pushes himself at physio. The staff (who are all brilliant!) work with him and by the time we leave two weeks later he can walk the length of the corridor using the kaye walker.  

The rest of the summer is spent with my sons and their friends making a film (unintentionally hilarious and sadly unfinished) called the Ascent of the Craybie. There is a lot of set piece fighting and Leo, with his sword, has a key role from his wheelchair as the Grand Master. 

What did that sword symbolise to Leo?

I tried, while writing this, to offer some suggestions as to what the sword might have meant. But each idea, when translated into words, seemed somehow to diminish the power of the symbol.   

(I made the mistake recently of asking him: “Violence,” he responded cheerfully. “War. Death.  Being able to overpower weak non sword people.”  Okay Leo, forget I asked.)

So now I have left it, except perhaps to ask: Was it about who he was, who he is or who he might become? 

Reading over this story, I was struck by Leo leaping across the stepping stones the evening before his operation.  I wondered if this was his attempt to create a memory that would act as a symbol: that what he could do once, he would do again?  Do we use our memories as symbols of who we are and what we might become? 

It seems to me that we cannot consciously create the symbols that have power in our lives, for if we try to do so we become too objective and the symbol loses its emotional impact. 

I also wondered if the sword was a symbol for Timothy, who created it, as well as for Leo…

Although some symbols appear to be in common use (for example candles for light) we do not know what their impact is on individuals because symbols are beyond words.  (And of course, symbols can be negative as well as positive.)

If I had not been there to see the transformation, would I have realised the importance of the sword?  We are aware of symbols in film and books – possibly because some writers tend to overplay it: surely that’s not another cobweb shimmering in the moonlight?

But how aware are we of the symbols that others are using? Especially with children, we may be ignorant of the significance of the plain grey stone, the frayed end of yellow ribbon, the need to “run down to the lake, dip our hands in and wish” (Arthur Ransome in the author’s note for Swallows and Amazons).

Tread softly…

Leo took the sword to uni and it has travelled round London with him as he changes accommodation.

He has it still. It hangs on the wall behind him, part of the background for  endless zoom meetings…

Dramatic experience?

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A few years back I attempted a dramatised “Noah and the Great Flood” for the Messy Church like event in our local church.

It was a failure.

Our church, which is long and thin, is not a good place to do drama. Apart from the first few rows no one can see the action.  Usually I avoided this by having the action up and down the nave but this time the action was mostly at the front.

The church had just acquired a new black backcloth which offered many possibilities.  I had planned to use this to represent the Ark, and for the animals (played by the children) and Noah to disappear behind it.  However, I failed to think through the logistics.  It took time to move the backcloth into position, especially as I hadn’t really explained to the helpers what was wanted.  The actors stood and fidgeted. The audience did not grasp the nature of the backcloth and expected it to open to reveal the Ark!

As well the children did not understand what they were expected to do, and so poor Noah had no one to act with.

“If you’re going to do drama, you need to rehearse,” said my friend, pointedly.

I refrained from saying that it was difficult enough to find a time when people would come to the event let alone ask for extra commitment for things like rehearsals.

But she was right.  As drama Noah and the Great Flood simply hadn’t worked.

It was a failure.

Or was it?

What if I was looking at it through the wrong lens?  What if there was a different way of looking at it?

Viewed as performance it was certainly a failure.  It was unrehearsed, the logistics did not work, and various small touches were simply missed out. It had little effect on the audience.

But was I aiming at performance?

Looked at differently Noah and the Great Flood had some redeeming features.  Behind the backcloth was a semi dark space.  There was an illusion of safety for the animals and me as we crowded in there together.  When Noah set the dove free, we watched from the safety of the ark while she flew down the nave and back.  This moment would have had far less impact on those simply watching from the pews.  And finally, there was the moment when the animals themselves were set free…

What if I was aiming at creating an experience rather than at performance?

I was used to working in this way with our under 5s.  The magi began their journey outside and took a winding route as they followed the star, we waved palm branches to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem and I rigged up a makeshift boat for calming the storm… Our crib services often included an element of the experiential – one year we turned off all the lights – and the heaters – to symbolise humanity being cut off from God.

If instead of aiming at performance I had aimed at the experiential, we could have made the ark into a well-defined space, dimly lit and a close fit. We could have invited all the children (not just the chosen few) to take the part of an animal if they so wished.  Once they were all safely in, the adults could have been invited to join them (though probably with less success!)  Inside, we could focus on the storm and the rising floodwaters.  The script would prepare them for the rain easing, the sending out of the dove, their own return to freedom and God’s promise, as symbolised by the rainbow.  It would be drama from within rather than from without, an active involvement rather than a passive one.

Why didn’t we do this?  At the time it never occurred to me to try.  I think this was partly to do with adult expectations, including my own.  The adults expected performance.  They expected drama to have impact, clean edges and be tightly controlled.

Creating an experience is risky.  Adults can be self-conscious when they are watching and self-conscious when they are taking part.  This can infect the children so that they too become self- conscious about what they are doing.  It is hard to get past this.  Recently we told the story of Paul’s shipwreck, and soldiers, sailors and prisoners either swam to shore or held onto pieces of wood and were helped along.  Most of the children jumped out of the boat and took part with great enthusiasm.

The adults watched.  What they saw was ragged, roughly improvised and included a lot of byplay and conversation from the children.  But even the child who usually avoids the drama leapt forward to save her brother from the wreck as he struggled to shore…

Is there a middle way that combines the impact of performance with active involvement?

I was once asked to organise an Easter event for a cub meeting (they were doing their Religion badge). We divided the cubs into soldiers (red cloaks and swords), stall holders in the temple (black cloaks, doves and money) and people of Jerusalem (multi coloured cloaks, palm branches) and gave each group about 5 minutes to practise their role.  The cubs (especially the moneylenders) stepped enthusiastically into their parts.  The drama certainly had impact… but there was no audience; everyone was involved.

Rehearsal changes things.  It becomes more about what the director thinks and less about what the children (and other adults) think.  If I want to challenge their thinking, I need to work on ways of structuring the drama so that it is open ended.  Perhaps I need to stop worrying about the raggedness, the interplay between the children and the feeling of insecurity…

Perhaps I also need to start talking to the adults…

More than fun

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In my last post I wrote about churches where the emphasis is on having “fun”- especially in outreach to the community and in working with children.  It is easy to see the problems with this approach and criticise; it is far harder to write about what to do instead.

This is not because I have no idea what to do, but because it is difficult to avoid writing as if I have reached a point of arrival.

Experience has taught me that every time I think I have arrived, God sweeps me on somewhere else. I have only just started to realise that I will never actually arrive. While there may be a few rest stops in calm pools along the way, I am unlikely to stay there long.  In a few months’ time I may look back on what I have written and wonder how I could ever have thought that.

But for now, for me, everything depends on context.  I am called to this place, this time, these people.  At this brief staging post on the journey, what can I offer that is more than fun?

Currently, working mostly with children and families who are not church goers, I have found that it is story that is central to everything I do.  Children and adults can engage with stories without having to believe them. Stories can work with all ages and are fundamental to who we are.

Reynold Price wrote:  “A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives.”

Stories work in ways that explanation and exposition do not, for they give people space to make their own meaning.

After story, I prioritise prayer.  Sometimes we sit in the circle and ask if anyone would like to pray aloud or in their head.  We try to include a time of silence.  Usually what is offered is a prayer station to do with the story.  Some people, both adults and children, take part in this, some don’t.  I’m not sure it matters.

Creativity is my third strand.  Although we include some “fun” activities what the children (and adults!) do is very much a choice.  Some of the craft activities are a choice within the activity – a collage using particular colours, scratch art crosses, building a model hut.  A completely free choice using the materials available is always an option.

Community?  In some ways this would be my fourth strand. But while I am intentional about story, prayer and creativity I am less so about this.   In some ways I don’t want to tie us down, give us a label or put up walls enclosing those who fit the criteria for belonging. For now, it feels more like journeying together; children and adults are free to drop in and out. I suspect a more intentional community might look like something different.

In other contexts, and in the past, I have focused on different things – experimenting with worship, working with under 5s, creating sacred space…  But for now, story, prayer, creativity and possibly community underpin all I do to offer something that is more than fun…