Storytelling 106: 5 times in a day

Here’s a Storytellers’ Secret: if you tell a story you want to remember five times within 24 hours, the story is yours. The trick is who will listen to your tale?

When we embody a story, it uses all our senses plus our reading of our audience to embed it into our cells. Gesture, facial expression, patterning of words, repeated refrains, all assist in embodying the story. This resonates far deeper than memorising a story (which we would never do, would we?). When a story has been taken into cellular memory and each movement in the tale gives rise to the next part of the story, we have the story’s soul.

Every Storyteller I know, including myself, has been asked if a story they have told is true. Every story holds an element of truth. It is why different stories resonate and stay with us. There is something in the tale that is true for us. When we tell a story and it resonates for our audience, we can feel it. It is a moment of intimate connection, where we are one.

Storytelling is physical but it’s impact is non-physical and why it can resonate with your audience (this leads into philosophical discussion, which storytellers love). When practicing a story, it can be difficult to find an audience who will listen to your tale five times in one day. If you have obliging friends and family, use them. Their reactions to the story will assist you to refine it and take it into your cellular memory.

What if you don’t have people who will listen or feel too self-conscious to ask? I know I will sound somewhat pompous here but, put your ego aside. When I tell a story, it is not about me. Yes, I use my skills and talents and mostly my own stories. However, I tell particular stories because I feel an urge to tell them. Storytelling is a calling, it is the story that is important.

I once was asked to perform for the Association of Relinquishing Mothers. As an adopted child, a foster carer and permanent carer, I felt I was the person to choose and perform these stories. I would have passed the gig onto someone else if I had not felt strongly about it. I carefully chose stories where the child in the story was encouraged to be her very own self, despite any opposition, by the parents who had care of her. It hit the mark. (If you want to know more about me as a parent and carer, read the blogs under Parenting, Introspectives and Musings.) This is an example of why I feel Storytelling is a calling.

Back to the question, what if you don’t have people to listen to you tell the tale? Record it, listen to yourself, re-record, listen again five times. If you listen with how the story sounds and how you want it to sound, embellish the parts you wish to stand out, you will have a story to remember. At your first opportunity, tell your story to another human (dogs and cats get distracted). Ask them what they hear in the story and never tell your audience they are wrong. People bring themselves to art and see what it is they do and in the case of stories, hear what they hear. They do not have to hear what resonated for your, your truth, they get to hear their own.

Now you know how to choose a story and remember it, it is time to begin. Let me know how you go.

Storytelling 105: how to remember your story

One of the many challenges for new Storytellers is how we remember our stories. I wrote previously about choosing stories that resonate with you, have particular meaning for you, that you want to share with others. We have also spoken about not memorising stories. So, how do you do it?

Once I have caught or created a story, I write it out in full, then edit edit edit, until I have encapsulated the tale within three sentences. The process of doing this begins to embed the story into my memory and highlight the sections that resonate especially for you. Then put all the writing away.

Storytelling is a visual and audial experience. It is how we tell and how we share the stories. I often draw six images that tell the story and then practice telling the story just using those images. When I have done this enough, I put the drawings away.

By this time, the story is firmly embedded in my mind and I am starting to develop the characters and embody the story through gesture and facial expressions. I will often do this in front of a mirror. This is quite confronting for some tellers, so do not feel obliged to do it. However, I want to know what my audience will be seeing. I have also videoed storytellers I have mentored so they can see what they look like when they tell. We need to put ego aside when telling a story. Being able to watch yourself tell for improvement is a good thing.

My last method is to record the story. We all know that we learn songs on the radio through repetition. When I have a story sounding and looking like I want it to be, I record it. Then every practice in front of the mirror, in the car as I drive, while I’m making dinner, embeds and embodies the story deeply into my memory. I have even mimed to my recording in front of the mirror to save my vocal chords and keep practising.

Every time we listen to our story, it embeds into our memories. I highly recommend recording your stories and re-recording until it sounds just the way you want to tell it. I have played my own stories, until I am word perfect. (Playing them in the car, with accompanying facial expressions and gestures, can attract attention from fellow drivers. I’ll tell you about the driver who followed me and my driving octopus for many kilometres another time.)

The biggest hint I can give you is practise, practise, practise; and when you have had enough, practise some more. Never tell a story you are unprepared to tell. It disrespects you, the story and your audience.

When we tell stories, the well-practised story rolls off our tongue as we interact with the audience and assess, remember, adjust and respond.

The biggest test of all is to take a deep breath and tell.

Let me know how you go.

Storytelling 103

The right and the wrong way to learn to tell a story.

When you have chosen a story to tell, you need to remember it! There are lots of different ways to remember a story and practice it for telling. The wrong way is to write it out word for word and memorise it, particularly if they were not your words to start with. While there are what I think of as literary tellers, those for whom the words chosen hold the meaning, for most Storytellers the meaning of a tale is what resonates for you.

There is a story of mine that has had startling different meanings for other people when they hear it told, than it has for me. There have been stories I have heard that I hear differently to what resonates for the Teller. It is what resonates for us that draws us to particular stories and what we focus on in the re-telling.

When we listen to stories, images are created by our minds. It’s why I use props for the preschool age as they are not yet adept at imaging images and don’t yet have the connections and categories of images that language in stories can evoke. Props assist the casting of the story spell. There are people who are not visual and need the flow and rhythm of the story to create meaning. This is not common but does happen. One Storyteller recounts the time when an adult, listening intently to a tale, suddenly jumped and exclaimed, “What was that?” It was the first time he had had the experience of seeing something in his mind. To think, this is what storytelling can evoke.

The passage of the story from the Storyteller travels through the experiences and life story of the listeners. Just as art is in the eye of the beholder (or beauty, whatever), a told story slips past the busyness of an everyday conversation into an intimacy with the listener’s imagination.

So, if we focus too much on including particular words and phrases, unless we are very very good (and I can think of one or two) Storytellers, we can lose the connection between Teller and Listener to create the possibility of a tale that is just for them.

When I create a new story, it takes a while. An idea bubbles around in my head and bits and pieces add themselves along the way until I find myself telling parts of it to myself. At this point I might write the story down. Once written, I leave it. The story is now part of my conscious mind and the images it evokes begin to link together. As I like to draw, I often sketch the tale in no more than 6 pages with one image per page. When I know a story well, I tell it as it unfolds in my mind. I do not skip from page to page but I am right inside the story telling it as it happens.

There are several ways to learn new stories, whether other people’s or ones you have created yourself. We will discuss that next time.

Storytelling 102

So, how do you move from being a storyteller to a Storyteller?

I am assuming that you know what storytelling is. It is spoken word story that can be told in a variety of styles. My own style is dramatic. There is also trance and physical and a myriad versions in between. There is not exactly a wrong way to tell a story and yet there is. We’ll talk of that another time.

Stories have been handed down through generations and are at the centre of cultures. We tell stories every day, whether anecdotes of family happenings, incidents at work, online news or gossip. The important verb here is ‘tell’. We tell the stories. This is the cornerstone of storytelling and the important thing to remember. We tell stories. Yes, there is spoken word poetry, readers’ theatre and read stories. What Storytellers do is tell stories. How do you remember those stories? We will discuss that later.

I first came across Storytelling at Wonderwings Fairy Shop in 1992 when I dragged a number of friends along to an adult Storytelling. The party room was set up as a forest with a treed mural on the wall and mushroom cushions on the floor. We were served fairy bread and champagne. There was much laughter as we settled in, with some discomfort, unsure of what was to come. I was looking forward to whatever it might be. The Storyteller was Matteo, still telling today, and despite one friend’s determined efforts to distract and actively critique him, he told traditional folk tales. I was fascinated. I loved being told stories. When we pottered about the magical shop afterwards, my friends muttered to me, “You could do that!”

What? Tell stories, for a living? Surely not. I did enquire of Annie, the shop proprietor, who  told me of the Storytelling Guild (now Storytelling Australia Victoria). The idea persisted and I began attending the Storytelling Cafe nights. I was fascinated by the different styles of Telling and the plethora of stories told. It came to crunch point for me. It was time to tell a tale.

The first story I told was the Magic Stones. Having no idea how people went about learning stories, I did it my way. I read many many stories until one struck me as resonant. Once I had the bones of it, I began telling it to myself. Hours of practice saw me ready and finally I stood to tell a tale at the Storytelling Cafe. I was terrified. I told. I survived. I was elated.

Feedback later was that although my style was apparently far more dramatic than most, my story had been enjoyed. Whew. Did I consider myself a Storyteller now? No, I did not.

I have noticed that when people embark on a new endeavour, they are reluctant to name themselves Artist or Writer or Storyteller. Within a year of my first told tale, I produced a solo show (because why tip toe in when you can jump with both feet?). It went well. Over the next ten years, I told in early childhood centres, primary schools, libraries, with adults, ran workshops, facilitated groups and travelled across Victoria with my beautiful storytelling trunk.

Somewhere in that time, I stepped from storyteller to Storyteller. Once a Storyteller, always a Storyteller.

Now, how do you remember stories? We’ll talk about that next time.

 

Storytelling 101

I have been a storyteller for over forty years.

From the age of six I can remember asking my mum for stories and repeating them to myself and others. In my teens, I became the holder of family stories. In my twenties, I began to keep the stories and tell them for the young people I worked with.

As I journeyed through life, I held and told the stories of my workplaces, my family, myself, my children, my life. That is what storytellers do, we hold and tell the stories of our world. Does this make us all storytellers?

Why, yes it does. We use stories to make sense of our lives, to learn and to share. We share our experiences through stories and share stories to capitalise on our experiences.

So what makes a Storyteller different to a storyteller? It depends how far you want to take it.

By the time I was in my twenties, I found that friends were asking me to tell stories of shared experiences. By the time I was in my thirties, my colleagues were giving me stories so I could share them with new staff. As I built my storytelling business, I worked at a large chain warehouse for a few years. Staff from other sections would share incidents that occurred then ask me to re-tell those stories. I worked in the nursery and two of our favourite stories concerned customers who had come asking for unusual plants. A woman came in with her husband and child and explained that she needed a plant that would grow above a metre and half tall and would climb up the fence over a shrub she already had planted there. The plant she wanted had large white flowers and big leaves that it lost in winter and she racked her brain to think of the name. As she spoke I began mentally flicking through the climbers in our stock, when she exclaimed, “Oh! It’s a clitorus!” Surprised silence. “Oh no! That’s exactly what I didn’t want to say!” she was horrified. I laughed, “You mean Clematis?” “Yes, that’s it, a clematis!”, she agreed, red with embarrassment. She bought three. Then there was the man who came to examine olives, insisting that he wanted the one with orange centres. We didn’t laugh then and there, just explained that the one he wanted were pickled and stuffed olives that you could only buy from the supermarket.

From Paint there was the story of the hospital that called wanting to know what was in Cabot’s decking oil as someone had used it for fake tan; and the Hardware story of the irate customer who explained she had laid out the nails from the liquid nail tube but they would not harden to nail in; and on it went. Why me? I remembered the stories and told them with such relish that even those who knew them well, enjoyed hearing them again.

I worked as a travelling Storyteller for ten years, growing my business and developing it into a Storytelling agency. I sold it when life moved me in other directions. Once a Storyteller however, always a Storyteller.

I hold the stories for my children and begin to hold the stories for their children. I hold stories I have been gifted, stories I’ve read, stories I’ve heard, stories I’ve created. Many, many stories live inside my head. My developed storytelling mind lends itself to interesting connections which serves my current employment well.

How do you make the shift from storyteller to Storyteller. I’ll tell you next time.

There was an old woman

There was an old woman who was absolutely sick to death of being treated like a nice old lady.

She was sick of being treated as though she was frail.

She was tired of helpful hands helping her across the street.

She was fed up with lawn bowls and morning tea with the Ladies’ Auxillary.

The old woman decided that it was time to make a change.

To signify this change she bought her very first pair of rainbow coloured leggings. A range of multi-coloured and wildly clashing shirts. A pair of Blundstones and had a very very short haircut.

Now they treated her as though she was a slightly mad nice old lady.

This was not change enough! The old woman decided that drastic action had to be taken.

So she ran away and joined the Circus.

In the circus she learned how to be part of an human pyramid.

She learned to swing on the trapeze, juggle fire and turn somersaults.

When she returned home they no longer treated her as a nice old lady. Oh no.

Now they treated her as though she was a complete lunatic.

For not only did they respect her, they also feared her a little.

Because you see…

they were never quite sure when she would begin to juggle fire or turn somersaults, and they were frightened that she might not know when to stop.

 

Oral Story (C) CLHHarper 1996

Twisty Thinking: an Introspective

Twisty Thinking: an Introspective

What is it about other people’s stories? Why, in their stories, do I hear the “somebody done me wrong” song? Why do I feature, unwittingly, in those songs?

It seems to me that there are some people in the world who think I spend more time thinking about them than I do. Should I be? I work and think a lot about my work. I have one child left at home and spend brain time on her. Mostly I think about practical things and activist activities.

I think about tiny homes, gardening, veggies, animals, ethical responsibilities, coffee, living lightly, getting older, politics, art, writing, therapy, Quakerism, Simplicity, retiring, my mother, my niblings, my grandson (actually I think about him a lot), coffee, books, volunteering, painting, teaching, craft, reading, what I am reading, books, science, space, water, coffee, my comfy chair, cleaning (not much, I admit), friends, stories I have heard, stories I have told, new stories, performances, the people I love, the people I have cared for and do care for, writing stories, poetry, listening to poetry, watching poetry, my dogs, my cats, (wishing I had rabbits), butterflies, coffee, teapots, coffee, the house, making a cinema, birds, books, Community (with a capital ‘C’) and coffee.

The theme here is that I don’t think about other people as much as they seem to think I do and I think about coffee a lot. If someone arrives where I am (work, dog park, home) and isn’t chatty or is grumpy, I never assume that is about me. When I was young I thought everything was about me. Eventually I learned that other’s behaviour was determined by their own lives. I am no longer ego-centric enough for it even to cross my mind that another’s behaviour could have anything to do with me. This is handy if I don’t hear from someone for awhile, I assume they are as busy in their life as I am in mine.

Where I come unstuck is when I am accused of thinking things that never crossed my mind. What? Yes indeed. Thoughts and feelings that never occur to me become accusations. How does that work? It’s difficult to defend yourself against irrational accusations. I don’t even try. What’s really hard is when a smidgen of fact gets twisted up in someone else’s reality which then becomes an accusation of my wrong doing. Now, this does not happen much but when it does happen, it comes from more than one. I have a theory.

It’s the full moon this week and the lun-ies are out. Yes, I am resorting to tried and true loony reasoning. There is no other possible explanation when people I believe actually do love me, or at least care for me, treat me as though I have deliberately done something to upset them. Well, for the record, I am sorry they’re upset but the thing is, I really haven’t thought about them that much.

Oh wait, maybe that’s it.

(c) CLHHarper May 2014

The KISS Principle: An Introspective

Last night I dreamt that I was trying to write a case note, when my co-worker said to me, stick to the KISS principle. I struggled. Information, Support, Service, but what does the K stand for? Konnect?

Keep it Simple, Stupid.

Ah, if only I could. If only I would. I really really should. Why on earth am I having to remind myself, in my own dreams, to keep it simple? Stupid. How easily I, like you, befuddle and make things mean so much more than they are? How easily do we take the more difficult route to get anywhere?

I am a great believer in not reinventing the wheel. I am more than happy to enhance what already exists, build on what is. I feel absolutely no compulsion to have everything done my way. And yet? And yet. I still find that I weave my own story into everything I do, whether it began there or not.

Is that not the human condition? Is that not how we frame and contextualise our lives by creating stores of meaning out of what simply is? If we did not, if we did not create complexity, create meaning in our lives, would we then be content with the simple truths. Of course we must then ask, what is truth? Is ‘truth’ simply complexity to create meaning where there was none. Is ‘truth’ simply created meaning? Is it not our drive to create meaning, in an attempt to understand, what consumes us from our physically individual entry into the world?
If it is our physicality that manifests our individuality, then any meaning is part of that physicality, rather than that which lights us up and animates us and connects us all. Without our physicality, we would be one. We would not be. There would be no I, nor you, and never we. There would be nothing. Simply being.

Being what?

And, there I go again. I can write screeds of the winding threads inside my brain that I follow to ascertain meaning. Keep it simple, I said. Stupid. Alright. I’ll tell you what I find most appealing and the simplest understanding my story can create: Life is empty and meaningless.

Isn’t that great? Life is empty and meaningless. There is no story. There are no threads to follow. There is nothing to unravel. There is only…nothing. Ahhhh. So restful, so peaceful. Damn! There I go again. Life is empty and meaningless. Relax.
Any threads I therefore choose to pick up, unravel, re-weave, and create into stories are my choice, my decisions, my responsibilities. If I choose to create complexities from the tales I weave, then that is my choice. To those who complain that I make things too complicated, certainly I do. I like to think about things and look at them from every perspective. This enables me to consider all aspects and yes, it may get a little knotty at times but in the end, in the end it unravels and I re-weave it into a whole, a gossamer beauty that rivals the stars within. If I may be so bold.

It is from this gazing upon stars, the unravelling and re-weaving that the words fall upon the page and settle lightly, so lightly down that the most ponderous thoughts become feathers. If my heaviest thoughts are but feathers, they do not weigh me down but lift me up as if I have wings where I might marvel and my words sing.

Keep it Simple, Stupid. No, not I. I don’t want to keep it simple. Oh, my life is for living, I will sleep when I am dead (though I do like many hours snoring in my bed). I work hard and have many commitments to meet and when I sit in my chair or my swing seat and stare into the sky or the leafy green, it is the complexity of Life that I ponder and See. I see the myriad, interwoven strands, like star dust across the sky, the tiny thump of life in a leaf or that dang mozzie larvae in my pot (meant for fish but the Currawongs ate them). How is that not complex?

There is nothing simple about the lives we lead or the world we live in, natural or made. There is nothing simple about the companions of our lives, family, friends, furred or finned. There is nothing simple, except, except those moments when all is still in me and I feel, our oneness. Then, in those moments is simplicity to be found, breathed in, held, light and flickering.
When the Light within no longer lights me up and animates me, then I will let go of physicality, of individuality, of complexity. Then, oh then, I will step into Simplicity.

Until then, I will not keep it simple. Stupid.

(c) CLHHarper April 2014

Zero to Hero: Day One/ Why I blog.

One of the many (and I do mean many) blogs I follow was blogging about setting goals and undertaking Blogging 201. Now I’m always up for a bit of a challenge (unless it’s abseiling, not that kind of challenging) so I clicked over. Apparently it was a follow on from 101. As you know I like to have my ducks in a row, so clicked to Zero to Hero: Day One, Blogging 101 and here I am.

There are a few questions to prompt thought and being logical, I’ll answer them.

Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
All that I write is personal. I am in there somewhere, whether it be a traditional story I’ve adapted, a story I’ve created or an introspective. In fact I’ve categorised my blogs into Adapted Tales, Journey Tales, Jumbly Tales and Introspectives. When I write things tend to fall into place, even if I have been thinking about a particular issue for a long time, writing helps me sort it. I found myself writing my first introspective when I had muddled through some rather large upheavals and facing some sad sad truths in my life. I did not write directly into the blog and kept the writing for some time before sharing it. I felt I was complete with that and it held universal themes that I believed others would resonate with plus I needed to set it free. Setting stories free, to see what they can be, no longer works for me in a private journal. What readers contribute in their thoughts and responses can shift and change the way in which I perceive things. 

I have been a storyteller for decades, in fact I earned my living for ten years as a storyteller in early childhood settings, both as performer and educator/ trainer. I ran my own agency and encouraged other oral storytellers to branch out. I told a lot of personal stories. One particular gig comes to mind (yes, we call them gigs too). I performed for the Association of Relinquishing Mothers and told adapted and contemporary personal tales. As an adopted child myself and foster carer moving into permanent care, I found myself in an unique position to tell those stories. More than ten years after the performance, I still bump into members of that audience who remember me and the stories I told. Now that I am not telling regularly, I needed to find another outlet for my stories.

I blog because it allows me to resonate with readers.

What topics do you think you’ll write about?
I write my stories. I started with commentary before the stories, then moved quickly into the tales. Very early on I found that I had some stories to tell, such as Tricky Tricksters, that called on all my skills but were of a personal nature. At one point when I thought I was going to tell one story another came up for telling. That is how the Jumbly Tales came to be. I have not had opportunity to follow my characters through before and my blog allows me that.

I thought I would tell adapted tales but it is my stories that have finally found an outlet. The instrospectives, when I am pondering something, seem to find resonance or dissonance with others. Either is fine with me. For now I will stick with my categories of Adapted Tales, Journey Tales, Jumbly Tales and Introspectives.

Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
Other storytellers are always welcome but I am interested in people who are interested in the same subjects I am. I am very curious about the human condition (why I read so many blogs) and why people respond in the way they do. I am interested in people who have adopted or are adopted, foster carers, community development and engagement workers, people involved in sustainable living (ah, those tiny homes, I love them), autism and parenting a child with disabilities, children and teens, conditions that set us back and move us forward (rape, abuse, violence) as a civilisation. I am interested in Community, with a capital C. I am interested in reaching out across communities and connecting in common humanity to make this world a better place for future generations.

If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?
I would like to accomplish a body of work of which I am proud and to reach as many people as possible. I want to develop as a writer and teller of tales that resonates within Community. That doesn’t look to have much meaning when written on the page so I will put it this way.. I see the lines of connection that light our way and link us one to the other. When we pull on those webs and find like-minded people, we strengthen the bonds that bind and support us. To contribute to the strengthening of those bonds is what I want to achieve. To do it through the telling of my stories is what I would like to accomplish. There!

Finally, of what benefit would it be to you to read my blog?
You will be amused. I know that I am frequently entertained by the contents of my brain and how they juxtapose and connect. You may be inspired or moved or relate to my stories or introspectives. You may feel moved to respond. You will find me delighted that you have. You will meet a story of mine that you want to share with another. Then we will all be happy!

Thank you for reading.
Yours in Story,

Cindy-Lee

Lauren Higgenbottom: a Jumbly Tale

Lauren Higgenbottom had always been Lauren Higgenbottom despite her efforts to change it. When she moved to Jumbly’s village she became Mrs. Lauren Higgenbottom, never thinking that anyone would notice, just hoping for a change in reputation.

Alas, as many learn the hard way, it doesn’t matter how often you change location, things would always turn out the same if you took yourself there. If you took yourself and did all the same things, you would have exactly the same result. When Lauren moved to Jumbly’s village that is just what she did. She was very disappointed to find that the addition of a title and new ears to hear her resulted in almost exactly the same scenario as in her last village and the one before that and the one before that and so on.

Lauren liked to talk. Lauren liked to talk a lot. Lauren liked to talk about other people, a lot. A lot of Lauren’s talk about other people was critical. Very little of Lauren’s talk about other people was kind. Lauren liked to hear herself talk and to see others listening to her. It made her feel important. If she felt their attention was flagging she would make the story more dramatic and her voice quite a lot louder. This habit got Lauren into trouble on more than one occasion. So difficult to remember all one’s embellishments.

Lauren grew up in a village very similar to Jumbly’s. It was over the mountain range, weeks by horse and cart. Lauren had been the youngest of eight children, which was a lot of mouths to feed. By the time she came along, her mother had lost interest and simply focussed on getting chores done, children fed, clothes wash, work taken in, pennies scraped, food found, garden tended and round again. Lauren’s father worked from before dawn until long after she was abed. In fact, Lauren didn’t know that there was a man who lived in their house until she was four years old. Early one Sunday morning, she went to the lavatory only to find a man asleep in there. She raised a hue and cry in her fright, causing all seven siblings and mother to stumble out of bed and gather around the outhouse. The man woke to find all of them staring in at him. He, in turn, got a fright and due to the endless strain of providing for his large brood, the lack of sleep and food, and being startled awake, had an heart attack on the spot and died. He was a big man and it took quite some effort to remove him from the outhouse, made all the more difficult as the frigid morning air made everything quite urgent.

Lauren’s mother was understandably angry at the loss of income and regretted the cost of a funeral, so the last sight of the father she didn’t even know she had was as the lid shut and the coffin lowered at the graveside. No-one seemed particularly perturbed. There were enough of them working now to make up the income and most of them hadn’t seen him for some time. Now she thought about it, Lauren remembered a ‘father’ being mentioned but really hadn’t put it together as an actual person. More like the fairy tales of gift giving at Christmas time. Never saw that neither.

When Lauren was five she was sent to the village school. A little nonplussed at being thrown in with all the other children, she followed her siblings and soon found out about books. Books, the stories in them and reading were like a shining beacon to Lauren. Whenever she couldn’t be found for any of her interminable chores, they all knew to hunt her at the bottom of the yard where she had draped her dad’s old army coat over a table and kept her library. Her library consisted of every book, flier, newspaper, cutting and postcard she could pilfer. She read every word over and over again. Lauren learnt so much from books. She learnt that people in books did not live like them. They had a bed to themselves (mostly), clean sheets (she wasn’t sure what that meant but suspected it had something to do with the lavatory. Anyway it sounded nice.), more than one set of clothing and food. They actually ate at least three meals a day. Lauren could only wonder what that might be like.

About this time she began to notice that not everyone in the village had as many children as their house. She suspected that some of her siblings may have fallen in with them by mistake. They certainly did not all look alike and especially not like the man in the outhouse. Then she wondered if she had been taken by mistake and if there was another family with all those clean things that were looking out the window every night wondering where on earth she had got to. When she asked her mother, she just laughed, loudly, until she choked. Then her mum pulled her over to the window which was mirror like with the dark night behind and pointed out that all of the children, including Lauren, looked exactly like her. Her mum gave her an affectionate cuff and sent her off to bed.

The idea took hold though and from then on, Lauren would sneak out most nights and she would creep from house to house, peering in at the families inside. Which of them could be hers? Maybe her mum was her mum but maybe the man in the outhouse had not been her father? Maybe if she looked at every face closely enough she would find some resemblance and she could knock on the door and dah! He would welcome her in as his long lost daughter. His family would flock around and exclaim over the state of her, whisk her off for a bath (which she wasn’t sure about), new clothes and food (which she was sure about). The story of the Prodigal Son had been told at Meeting for Worship and Lauren looked at the Elder askance for some time after, wondering.

By the time she was twelve, her mother said she’d had enough schooling and it was time to earn some money for the family. There wasn’t so many of the family left at home and there was a little more of everything because of it. Lauren found work at a bakery. This suited her very well. She was up well before the sun, off to assist the baker. The bakery was warm and filled with delicious smells and the baker gave her breakfast. By the time her tasks were finished and the bakery cleaned, Lauren would have pastries that were misshapen for her lunch and be ready for an afternoon siesta in her hideaway. A rolling library cart came through once a week with books to exchange for a penny and again the following week. Lauren made good use of the library and felt her life just couldn’t get any better.

Then her mum passed away. One night, in her rocker, just worn out with work and children. Lauren decided then and there to never have children. Another graveside burial with her siblings and niblings and Lauren wondered where she would live. Her older brother negotiated with the baker to take her in, in exchange for her services cleaning the shop in the evening. Lauren didn’t mind. She moved her few things and her many books into the little storeroom of the bakery and settled in. She fashioned herself a bed with many covers (that she got horribly tangled in and was mystified by but persisted with), shelves for her books and the floor for her clothes (that’s where they had always lived after all. The books mentioned wardrobes and she had an image of large wooden boxes, so kept her eye out for one.). Lauren was happy.

Lauren stayed happy until about eighteen (she’d lost track somewhere) when she finally blossomed and noticed boys. As she was a well fed girl who had a warm place to sleep and knew about cleanliness (thank goodness one of the books had more explanation of that, although it was a little embarrassing), the boys noticed her too. Lauren hadn’t really bothered with friends, she had her books after all and really didn’t know how to deal with the sudden looks, comments and innuendo. To counter it she would tell the stories of her favourite characters as if they were her own. As time went on she became quite enamoured of these fabrications and would embellish them. To the young men she seemed extraordinarily silly and when she had no idea of what they wanted, they lost interest.

Lauren felt bereft. For the first time in her life people had paid her attention and she wanted it back. She developed the habit of whenever anyone made eye contact with her she would bustle over to share her latest adventure. This resulted in considerable shunning and Lauren retired hurt and confused. She thought she might fare better with girls so began chatting away as she had seen other girls did, sharing her inner most thoughts whenever anyone asked how she was. Girls are more direct than boys and instead of shunning her they began to make fun of her. When they queried her outlandish tales, their prodding resulted in more embellishments and exaggerations. For a couple of years Lauren thought she had quite a few friends who would egg her on in her stories until one particularly racy tale brought it all crashing down around her ears.

The Elders visited the bakery. They spoke with the baker and flicked glances her way from the corners of their eyes. Lauren’s heart thudded. She knew they spoke about her and could not think what she had done. The baker nodded. He liked Lauren and thought her a funny little thing, always in a world of make believe. He’d wondered what would become of her but he never thought she would do this. The Elders and the baker approached her. Lauren, in the middle of sweeping, clutched at her broom. Cornered she dropped her head and apologised for whatever it was she had done wrong. What might that be? they enquired. She had no idea so they enlightened her. Lauren was horrified to discover that the stories she had shared to entertain her friends had been spread as true doings. She was considered to be a young woman of immoral stand and quite likely in the family way. Lauren blushed violently. She had never, never, never, they were just stories. Stories!

Still the damage to her reputation was done and the Elders took her away to minister to her. After several hours of every tale about herself she had ever told been produced as evidence of her misdeeds, Lauren was beyond mortification and could no longer answer. She sat mute while tears flooded down her face. Satisfied of her repentance, the Elders informed her that she would be sent to another village and apprenticed to the Herb woman for five years. Lauren, who had absolutely no interest in plants and gardening, was horrified. She begged to ask her siblings to take her in only to be told they had been consulted and made the suggestion. They wanted the source of their shame as far away as possible.

Lauren was bundled off and did her apprenticeship. She found exactly the same intolerance to her stories there. As soon as someone asked her about herself or how she was, the tales would come tumbling out. In exasperation, the Herbal woman suggested she think about teaching or writing her stories.

Lauren froze in the middle of pounding herbs. Teach and write? Of course! To do that she would have to move far away from all those who knew her so she packed up once again and headed for the coast. She was able to find a post as a governess, teaching to the children of ten families. By this time Lauren knew how to make herself presentable and had altered her speech to an original blend of pronunciations she had gleaned from books. She tried, oh she did try to observe people and act more like they did. The years rolled on with differing levels of success and a trail of governess positions and villages. Through all this travel Lauren kept telling and writing her stories. Her stories she sent off time and time again, hoping for publication.

Finally one of her stories was accepted by a popular magazine and they requested more for their serialised tales. Then they asked her to be their agony aunt correspondent. My goodness, now she could tell her stories and tell people what to do. Lauren put all her observations, her reading, her imagination to work and gained quite a following. Between her teaching pay and her writing earnings, lack of a family and frugal living, Lauren amassed a nice little nest egg and thought about buying her own home.

She was not a young woman anymore and needed to retire from teaching. Her brusque style was still in vogue as agony aunt, so she could still keep writing. Her stories were published in a range of magazines and she had been approached with putting some together into a book. Really Lauren felt quite pleased. She had left her humble beginnings far behind. Only one thing remained the same.

Lauren still did not have any friends. While she had made acute observations of the interactions between her fellow humans and could give appropriate advice to her correspondents, Lauren had simply not mastered personal relationships. She determined that when she found her retirement home she would do everything differently, not drive everyone away with her excessive embellishments but find herself as the village wise woman to whom everyone would come. Lauren was so wrapped up in this fantasy that she began telling it in the village she was about to leave. They had all had enough and pointedly told her so. Lauren was astonished. Once again she had let her imagination run away with her. This time she would focus on others. She was determined.

Lauren moved to Jumbly’s village. She called herself Mrs Higgenbottom, hoping it would give her more importance. She bought the house of Jumbly’s old friend, whose passing he was heartbroken by. She determined that she would not be the old spinster who was this old jumbled up man’s friend. By all reports he couldn’t even talk properly although people spoke with such fondness of his doings and what he had shared with them. It was most odd. She would not be the odd old woman who was his friend.

Lauren moved into the little house that had been Jumbly’s friend, and found it stuffed to the rafters with a lifetime’s collection of living. She bundled it carefully, if not a little forcefully, into a large rear garden facing room and arranged it as a rather squashed but cozy sitting room. Not that she would ever use it. She preferred a more spartan approach and the house was scoured and bare with little warmth or coziness.

Lauren kept her word to herself and made it her business to find out about everyone else’s business. The desire to share the tales hadn’t left her. The compulsion to add embellishments meant that soon Lauren was ensnared in her web of exaggerations and decorations. She saw that people began crossing the street to avoid talking to her. She knew that the Elders would not be far behind. Lauren was in despair. How could so many decades have gone past and the same thing still be happening?

That was when she began to notice Jumbly watching her. Actually it was more that he would watch the house and if she ventured into the front yard, he would smile shyly. She didn’t want to encourage him, so she would turn her head away. Never quite fast enough to miss seeing the sadness on his face, however. Lauren’s distress grew. How would everyone accept her if she was friendly to him? Although she noticed that everyone who went to great pains to avoid her, always, always, stopped and spoke to Jumbly.

Jumbly. She knew all about him. His life, his tragedy and his stories. His stories! What about hers? The tales she could tell these people if only they would listen. If only they knew who she was and that she would know the answers to all her problems. Why, why did they speak with him and not her? There he was again! Standing forlornly across the road. Why she had a good mind to, to.

Lauren’s eyes met Jumbly’s. To her surprise he was a young man. Tall, broad-shouldered, well built, his smile curled into his beard. Neatly dressed and clean as a working man could be, Lauren was finally caught by his eyes. Dark, dark brown. Brimming over with sadness, loss and grief. Something in Lauren recognised a kindred bewilderment with the world. A loss, a sadness and then Jumbly smiled. Lauren caught her breath and smiled in return.

Before she knew what she was doing, she beckoned him over and opened her gate. He rumbled across and jumbled something at her in his deep voice. Lauren nodded, of course, of course, I have kept all her things for you. Come in, come in, I’ll make a cup of tea.

And so began the friendship between the Jumbly Man and old Lauren Higgenbottom.

(c) CLHHarper March 2014