I was initially asked this question by Heather for a guest post on her blog All the Ups and Downs, but as we’re approaching Halloween, I thought I’d post it again here!
I think, perhaps, the supernatural is all around us, threaded through reality; so much so that it’s actually very natural! I guess that’s why the real and the magical are so closely interwoven in Bea’s Witch. When reflecting on how to answer this question, I thought of various incidents and encounters – being in a moored canal boat at night next to the field where Mary Queen of Scots was executed, the bolted doors bursting open, despite the night being deadly still; the Ouija Board my university friends decided to try in our big, old, Victorian library – I was sceptical, convinced nothing was going to happen, but it did, and it shook my worldview; the night my perspective shifted from being atheist to believing that there was more to the universe than merely the material, an experience that made the sky open with possibility; when I laid my hands on my nan’s legs in the few months before she died and she felt warmth flow through her; “You have healing hands,” she said. But I think the story I’ll tell is of a journey north, to the furthest reaches of the UK.
It started when my friend phoned me to say that he’d had a dream. In it, we’d both woken up on the Shetland Islands – the subarctic archipelago which is the furthest northern part of Scotland. He said he thought we should go on a trip there. Why not? I thought. I’ve always enjoyed a spontaneous adventure. That sounds fun. He also told me about a five-day retreat taking place in Scotland called “Male Rites of Passage”. He wondered if we could attend it on the way. Now, I’m somebody who generally runs from anything with “male” in the title. It’s a term I find hard to identify too closely with. At school, I was always in the arty, quirky, academic group rather than the sporty, popular crowd. But I felt I should push myself, challenge my fears, and so, nervously, I agreed to go.
The psychologist Carl Jung, who was also interested in the supernatural, talks about the idea of synchronicity – two separate events that seem to be connected, even though one is not caused by the other. Our journey north was marked by such synchronicities.
The first happened as we drove across the border. Beneath the sign that welcomed us to Scotland, my friend’s car engine blew. We were stranded, our power having been cut. The incident felt like a marker, declaring the start of our journey, setting it apart. Thankfully, we were able to hire a car and continue the journey north.
Now, “rites of passage” is a scary term and summons up images of running naked through the woods, but the five days we spent in that field in Scotland were more akin to therapy. No phones were allowed, and there were experiences designed to help us reflect more deeply about ourselves: times of silence, performative moments and space to share life-experiences. I approached the whole thing sceptically to begin with, but as others began to share their stories – stories of loss, grief, disappointment, anger and depression, I was challenged to take our time together more seriously, to enter into the spirit of it.
I began to reflect on my own life. As part of the rites, we were encouraged to keep a journal. I had accidently brought my journal from seven years previous, prompting me to think about the seven years that had elapsed since I’d written in it. I realised those seven years had, in many ways, been marked by failure. I’m a theatre maker as well as a writer and pretty much all of the performance projects I’d undertaken had been cut short for one reason or another: broken legs, parents with sudden amnesia, marriages falling apart.
As a creative person, I always enter my work with hope and excitement, with a desire to bless and to share, to celebrate the richness of life, and yet it felt as though, in those years, the universe had been against me, taking that positive energy and pushing back against it.
It turned out that our trip to Shetland was to be no different. My friend lived in a community at the time and a crisis meant he had to return home.
I left the rites feeling tender, questioning many of the choices I had made, asking if the things I had set out to achieve had been worth it. Despite this, I decided to continue the journey north alone. I also decided to maintain my silence – no phone, radio, books or music – just time to listen.
What I hadn’t realised is just how far the Shetland Islands were. They are shown in a box at the top of the British Isles on maps, next to the mainland, but they’re actually close to Norway, the ferry to get there, a fifteen-hour trip! I’d booked to go for the day, travelling overnight and leaving the next evening.
I arrived at Lerwick at 7.30 in the morning. It was warmer than I’d expected. The sea was still, turquoise, hung with a low mist. I was reminded of those mystical ships in the Arthurian legends. I had asked a friend who knew the islands well what I should do when I got there. He suggested I visit a small tidal island just off the coast of the Shetland Islands called St. Ninian’s Isle.
After a taxi ride (to a bus stop that had an armchair in it), I walked to the island, crossed the natural causeway, and made my way to the ruined chapel of St Ninian, where I spent the day. While there, I read part of the saint’s story:
St Ninian sets out to bless some animals, drawing a circle of protection around them, but thieves emerge to steal the animals. A bull charges one of the thieves, goring and killing him. The other thieves are trapped in the circle. St. Ninian returns and weeps over the dead thief before releasing the others.
It was a strange story, which infuriated me at first. It felt discouraging, a story of St. Ninian’s failure. But as I reflected on it, I began to find meaning. I wrote in my journal:
The story makes a connection between blessing and death. Blessing seems to draw out the darkness, the shadows. All it can do then is to weep over the results, over the wounds that are exposed.
Blessing and wounds were two sides of the same coin. There was value to both. Success and failure were closely linked, perhaps inseparable. If I wanted to carry one, to do some good in the world, I would have to be open to carry the other too. The alternative was self-protection and a quiet life.
My trip to the Shetland Islands took place just before I became an adoptive father, inspiring me to write about adoption in Bea’s Witch. The theme of interconnection between the hopeful and painful aspects of life is something I explore through the book, the need to embrace our whole story. I have come to understand part of my role as a father as being to hold a space in which both the joys and difficulties of life are welcomed, to honour them both. As the writer Jeanette Winterson (herself adopted) says in her book Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?:
“What we notice in stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift: the one who is wounded is marked out – literally and symbolically – by the wound. The wound is a sign of difference. Even Harry Potter has a scar.”
There were many other synchronicities in that journey north – too many to write about here – and I still feel that I’m living in response to many of the challenges and insights the adventure provoked.
I remained in silence until I crossed the border back into England. As soon as I passed the sign welcoming me home, I turned the car radio on. The song that was playing was “It will not be forgotten” by the Pierces:
Seven months to the day since I saw your face
You’re on the earth like a fire holding out to the bitter end
You’re holding on to the bitter end.
I take a walk in the town
It’s like a dead-end street
The sidewalk sings your name underneath my feet
Echoes of, forgotten love.
Baby where did you go?
Did you sail away over some distant ocean?
Darling what we had
It cannot be taken
It cannot be stolen
And it won’t be forgotten
No, it won’t be forgotten
Seven years. Seven months. Sailing across the ocean. An attempt to steal. Apparent loss and dead-end streets – more synchronicities. But the words “it won’t be forgotten” felt healing. Perhaps that’s something these brushes with the supernatural, with the intangible, can reveal to us – that there is a value to life beyond our world of commercial transaction and the pressure to perform, something that values life itself, the successes and failures, that encourages us to reach beyond ourselves and enter a wider flow, and that assures us that none of our attempts to do so will be in vain, even if it feels like they often are, that they won’t be stolen or forgotten.
Have you ever had a brush with the supernatural? I’d love to hear your stories – leave them in the comments.