I have been thinking recently about storytelling and creative writing groups I facilitate and take part in with women who have been referred by (and are surviving) secondary care mental health services, in my work within the NHS in Wales. I have written about these groups previously (Salter and Newkirk, 2019). They are an important aspect of my current everyday systemic and narrative practices.
Right now, we cannot meet because of the virus. I miss the groups and the connections we experience. I miss the creativity that seems to flow so naturally when we are together. I miss telling stories and hearing them. I miss the tears and the smiles. I worry about whether we will ever get back together again. There are no rooms in my locality (that are available to us) that are big enough for us to meet as a group and retain a safe distance. It is also an intimate group. Would this even work? I have a lot of worries right now. This is but one.
I recall one of the stories that we have previously listened to in the group. It has been buzzing around my head for some weeks now. It is the story of the little stone bird.
I usually tell this story from memory and as such it is different every time. I often embellish it with detail not found in the original story. It feels odd to write it down, to pin it down to words on page. I have the sense that some of its innocence might be lost doing it this way. But here goes.
There was once was a beautiful little bird. She had a beak and wings and little clawed feet but she was different to the other birds she knew because she was made of stone.
She lived in a beautiful green forest where magnificent trees dominated the landscape. Beneath the trees were exotic flowers of every colour, size and shape.
She loved looking up at the trees. She loved to smell the air and hear the wind blow through the branches of the trees.
But the little stone bird was sad, because she wanted to fly. She wanted to drift like a cloud in the sky and experience the freedom of flight. She wanted to fly with the other birds who could soar through the sky and look down on the trees and flowers and the woodland animals. But she could not fly, because she was made of stone. She was grounded.
One day there was a disaster. A fire in the forest where she lived. It started at one end of the forest and swept right through the whole area. The forest was destroyed. All the trees were destroyed. There were no flowers left. Many of the woodland animals died. Many were displaced. Birds lost their homes in the trees.
The bird was not destroyed, because fire cannot destroy stone, but she was nonetheless devastated by the fire. She had lost her home, her friends, her place in the world. She felt the loss for all that had been taken by the fire.
The little stone bird cried for a long time. Not just an hour, a day, a week, but year upon year, upon year. She could not stop crying.
Her salty tears ran down her stone face and over her stone body. Salt is fierce. It began to wear away her little stone body so that, little by little, the tears changed the stone into water. All that was left of the little stone bird was a puddle of water.
When the sun came up the next day, the puddle evaporated. Little by little, the puddle was pulled upwards into the sky, and the little stone bird became a cloud, just as she had dreamt of. She could travel all over the world. She could fly with the other birds. She could see forests beneath her and all the colours of the flowers.
But she never forgot the forest. Her forest. Destroyed in the big fire. The fire that took life and transformed her.
So now, when the little cloud sees a forest fire beneath her, she hovers above and rains furiously on the trees to put out the fires. She is content.
In the storytelling groups, a story like this will take us in all sorts of directions. A story of recovery, a story of transformation; a tragic end, a new beginning. It is for us to decide and to work with, as we choose.
Through the pandemic, I have seen, as I am sure many people have, multiple messages on social media and chat platforms about the earth recovering, about people resting. The mainstream media, whilst (re)counting deaths in sombre daily bulletins, also propagates narratives of people having endless time, of baking sourdough and meditating. These stories might connect with the one I have shared, at some level. Stories that suggests we (human and other) are all healing and all will be well. These are messages of hope and I do not want to obliterate them, they are important for many. But they also overshadow other important stories. They can leave people feeling marginalised, left out.
For me, I do not feel at rest or at ease and I am not seeing recovery in my day to day life; in my work within the NHS or in other contexts- in supervision, in teaching, in conversation with family and friends. I have heard very few people (there are some) talk of the joy of being at home. I have heard few people talk about baking and painting and learning new skills. I also do not see a healed earth when I am out on my daily walk. I see dis-ease, I see fear in peoples’ faces and I hear stories of pain, suffering, confusion, anger and loss, worries about the future. For me, it IS a story of ups and downs AND it is a story of balancing hope and despair (Flaskas, McCarthy and Sheehan, 2007) AND it is a story of class, of race, economic and health inequalities, of anger towards invisible leaders, of families having to stay apart, of parents juggling multiple demands, of feeling exhausted and broken; of people in the community dying; of people losing their jobs, of old and young being neglected and forgotten. I see people go to work every day, not because they are heroes but for other, more nuanced reasons. Some have no choice. Let us not forget these stories.
Flaskas, C; McCarthy, I and Sheehan, J. (2007). Hope and Despair in Narrative and Family Therapy: Adversity, Forgiveness and Reconciliation. New York: Routledge.
Salter, L and Newkirk, J. (2019) “Collective storytelling for health: A three part story.” Storytelling, Self and Society. An Interdisciplinary Journal of Storytelling Studies. 15 (1) p.108-129.