Well, what strange times we are in. And although I’m one for seeing the silver lining wherever I can, I’m struggling at the moment. Small kindnesses, for sure. I do like your hat…

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So it’s good to see some of the creative responses that are happening. Kathy Fish and Nancy Stohlman, for example, are offering free creative writing prompts here, and writer Carolyn Jess-Cooke is planning an online literary festival via twitter.

My friend, Sally Beazley-Long and I have paired up to play a little game using her art history expertise and my literary passion. I’ve been giving her poems and stories to match with paintings, and vice versa. We thought it would just be fun, but the results have been wonderful. A whole new layer to both the painting and the poem. Here are some:

For Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still…

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I matched Dorothy Parker’s short story, A Telephone Call.

And for William Stafford’s A Ritual to Read to Each Other, Sally gave me Marc Chagall’s Le Champ de Mars, 1955…

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We paired Ellen Bass’s Eating the Bones with Jan Steen’s The Fat Kitchen. OF COURSE WE DID!

Steen, Jan, 1625/1626-1679; The Fat Kitchen

There are more that we’ll share over the next few weeks, but it’s such a lovely way of looking a bit closer than we might otherwise at both the poems and stories AND the paintings.

These are seeds that can only grow. And tomorrow I’m going to be planting real seeds out in the garden. Even in the rain, actually especially if it rains!

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For the third week in my short story course, we looked at fairy stories and folk tales. We discussed how they can be updated, and how they can be used to ‘hold up a mirror’ to the world nowadays. I read this quote from the introduction by Alison Lurie to The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales:

The fairy tale survives because it presents experience in vivid symbolic form. Sometimes we need to have the truth exaggerated and made more dramatic, even fantastic, in order to comprehend it….

‘Hansel and Gretel’, for instance, may dramatize the fact that some parents underfeed and abandon their children physically and/or emotionally, while others, like the witch, overfeed and try to possess and devour them.

Of course, the question is whether we actually need to have the truth exaggerated right now but that’s another story! We all came up with a list of issues – small and large – we could use the fairy tale format to cover, using variants of the ‘Once upon a time…’ first line. And then…

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Our last exercise of the session was me bringing in one of my favourite brown crackly paper bags… what was in it?

 

Ha! Everybody took a pinecone to look at, feel, smell while I read out these beliefs/facts about them that I had gathered from all over the internet…

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Maybe you have a cone handy, or if not you can just imagine! Here… take one…

And here is what I read out…

  • For native Americans, pine cones represent wisdom and longevity…
  • they are also known to represent, fertility and life
  • in northern Europe, fir trees were decorated at the end of the year to celebrate the birth of Frey, the Norse god of the sun and fertility
  • the tops of the trees were lit because in winter as the days were getting shorter, northern people thought that the light would attract the sun.
  • they are seen as a symbol of human enlightenment, the third eye. this is because they are the same shape as the pineal gland in your brain, from which the gland takes its name
  • your pineal gland is responsible for melatonin and therefore sleep patterns
  • it sits in the centre of your brain, linked to your body’s perception of light
  • the pinecone is the evolutionary precursor to the flower –
  • the tree is one of the most ancient species on the planet – has existed three times longer than all flowering plant species.
  • the pine cones spines spiral in a perfect Fibonacci sequence in either direction, much like sacred geometry of a rose or a sunflower.
  • Dionysus, or Bacchus, carried a fennel staff topped with a pinecone – this dripped with honey and used in religious rituals.
  • Romans built an enormous bronze sculpture, the Pigna, in the shape of a huge pine cone four metres high.
  • It used to be a fountain overflowing with water next to the Temple of Isis
  • This now sits directly in front of the Catholic Vatican in the Court of the Pinecone
  • The sacred staff the pope carries is topped with a pinecone
  • the fir tree is also the symbol of peace.
  • It can withstand many temperature ranges, such as cold climates, snow, rocky soil, and drought.
  • The soothing scent has been shown by research to make people ‘feel at home’…
  • in the United states, often found growing beside graves because they represent eternal life, and pine cones represent the continuity and renewal of life.
  • If you dream of a pine tree, this refers to a new place, an environment or new persons
  • to see a pine cone in your dream, that indicates there will be a job chance and you will quickly adapt.
  • If you dream of climbing a pine tree, you will have problems – and get exhausted because you are preoccupied with these
  • If you sleep under one, it signifies your achievements and success.

So much in just one little overlooked thing I’d picked off from the ground. And then there were more. One writer told me you could tell the weather using them, another remembered making necklaces from them at Christmas. I’m sure you have more of your own too, I’d love to hear them.

The writing prompt was to listen to all the different points above while listening also to the cone. What was it telling you? And then write.

It was an exercise in finding out more about things we think we know about already. Perhaps it was more of finding the magic, and slowing down enough to let the magic find us.

 

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‘If  one day, you have no companion…’ That sounds such a sad phrase, but was probably one of the reasons why I loved this book, Something To Do, so much, I think. It never presumed you were going to be surrounded by friends. Most of the activities are quiet and creative. I wonder if this is why when I posted this morning on Facebook about it, so much of the love has come from fellow artists and writers? Personally I’m sure it helped to build my curiosity and ‘can-do’ muscles.

It’s based round the months of the year (think Lia Leendertz’s Almanac but with more games) and  has a special place on my desk bookshelf. I’ve been reading it again recently for a larger – secret – project I’m involved with. And you know what? It’s still brilliant. I’m not surprised that on my Facebook people have been been citing pages and activities they particularly liked and remembered. So here, for Frances and Hilary, is the fudge recipe (obviously I’d cooked it a bit messily several times) and ‘something to do with cotton reels’…

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What a lovely thought that you might just have a wooden kitten needle and two spare cotton reels just hanging around!

It’s part of what makes this a highly comforting book: even though the authors, Septimus, are anonymous, they give the impression that they all hang out in each other’s kitchens (probably drinking gin and bitching about the kids, but who cares?), and the illustrations are by Shirley Hughes – how young must she have been then?

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But it’s also full of facts about nature – I actually remember going out with this drawing and identifying buds…

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… and it’s got poems in it – not as a chore to learn but offered as a possible pleasure!

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In fact, I might just try to grow myself a pineapple plant this weekend…

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Who else had it? And what do you remember doing from it?