Echoes from the past: 1

On Saturday 4th April, after a warm welcome and a breathing exercise to help us relax, Jolene divided the six of us into pairs using Zoom rooms.  Our topic for discussion, in this time of social distancing, was:

“What echoes, parallels and memories of the past is the current situation bringing back for you?  And how is the past helping you make sense of what is happening now?”

Although our ages vary, we found we all had experiences from which to draw strength. It was fascinating to report back afterwards and discover some similarity in our previous experiences of isolation.  It was also uplifting to share optimistic thoughts for the future.   

Read on for extracts from the stories we wrote up individually later on in the week.

Tony Goulding

Miners’ Strike 1972

“At the beginning of 1974 to reduce the strain on dwindling coal stocks (the knock-on effect of oil producing countries restricting supply greatly exacerbated by a miners’ strike) the government of the day placed severe restrictions on the use of electricity.  All users deemed to be not essential were only allowed three days of use.  Also, TV broadcasting was reduced and I particularly recall that football clubs were forced to bring forward the kick-off times of their matches to save the electricity which would have been used by the floodlights.  As the crisis worsened the mad rush to buy candles was mirrored by the recent panic buying of toilet rolls.

In 1976 the summer was so dry that the government was forced to introduce water rationing and I remember couples being encouraged to share baths to save water!  I have a vivid memory of being in the main shopping area of Cardiff at the end of August when after nearly two months of very warm and dry weather it suddenly started to rain.  A very unusual reaction took place as people who would in normal circumstances have scurried for cover first stood stunned as if they had forgotten how to behave in a downpour and then many celebrated in relief that the drought was over.  This memory is particularly relevant as it gives hope that times of challenge do not last forever and we will eventually emerge the other side of the current trial and shows how happy and relieved we will be then.”

Ellie Child

“It reminds me of moving to Sweden and everyone speaking a foreign language.  I think the yearning I felt for something familiar/easy communication in those early days speaks to what’s going on at the moment.  When I go out for walks, I’m half hoping to chat to someone, but then think how difficult and awkward it would be.  That said, my experience of communicating through gestures would certainly come in handy!

During our one to one chat in the Zoom “room”, Tony suggested that good old-fashioned post is still important, alongside all the new technology. He mentioned how his friend, who reads the Guardian every day, cuts out the crosswords for him, collects them in an envelope and posts them through his letterbox. I got the impression it meant a lot to him to receive something physical in the post, more than simply having something extra to do.

Something really poignant that emerged for me during discussion of the 3-day week, and also of growing up in the immediate post-war period, was the refrain “I don’t know how my parents/older generations coped.”  This reminded me that children might not be fully aware of what’s going on at the moment, or the scale of it, and that really made me reflect on how important it is to circulate histories about times of adversity and how these were overcome, to look to older generations to share experience and wisdom, and to learn. Also, the friendships that we have made still stand, and people are thinking of us even if we can’t interact with them directly.”

Jean Thompson

“When I was first married, we moved to live in North Wales where both my children were born. In some ways I felt more isolated then than I do now, because I didn’t know anyone, a lot of my neighbours were first language Welsh speaking.  Most of my family did not have even house phones back then, so the only communication was by letter.  Similarly, my son went on a gap year trek in the early 90s when he was 18. From Nepal, through Pakistan into the middle east. Away for 6 months and I think we had two letters in all that time, because he was moving around and often into remote areas.

Although we are physically isolated now, there are means of staying in touch through technology that were not there in the past.   I have a regular zoom meet up with my son and daughter, and they are able to continue their work from home.  Many of the groups I am part of are also using technology as a way of continuing activities.  Of course, all of this is dependent on being able to access technology, and it must be very hard for people who are unable to do this.

Although I was born after the war, it must have been so much more difficult back then when you didn’t even know where your relative or friend was, and certainly couldn’t hear from them.  Also, the restrictions back then on food and essential commodities.  We have become so used to having access to whatever we want (not necessarily need), that these restrictions of goods and movement seem so hard, but another difference is that most of us have fridges and freezers so we can have food in reserve. From anecdotal reports and old newsreels etc, there seems to have been a spirit of support to each other in those awful times and that seems to be so now in many communities, and it is good to see that “war time” spirit to be there. Hopefully that will continue when we are all back into our busy lives.”

Margaret Kendall

“When I was 20, I spent a year in Lyon, France, for the third year of my degree in English Literature and French.  Although that was 1975, I’m reminded now of what it felt like in the first few weeks.  I hadn’t imagined how different from being on holiday it would be, and how lonely I’d feel in a small room in a hall of residence, so far away from my family and friends.  Letters became really important to me, especially since my parents didn’t have a phone.  Even if they had had, it wasn’t easy to make an international phone call then, you had to go to the Post Office and arrange for them to put a call through to you in a telephone booth, and it cost a lot.

Now, I miss being able to be with my family and friends very much, but I’m so glad of the technology which not only means I can talk to them regularly, but I can see them via video links. Some of the groups to which I belong have carried on too, for example, my book group met via Zoom last Monday. I did make new friends when I was in France, but not as quickly as I have done in the last week or so through the WhatsApp group for our street! It was set up by a neighbour after Christmas, following a spate of burglaries, but it’s really come into its own now.  As well as chatting online to neighbours I already knew, I’m regularly chatting to people who live further down the street, including some who are unable to go out at all as they are highly vulnerable.  An unexpected silver lining, as everyone is helping each other in whatever ways they can.”

Alberto Velázquez Yébenes

“The current scenario brought me back to some old memories. Coming back home from a run, with empty streets in the dusk remind me of the summer days in Murcia when I was 15. No traffic, walking down the middle of the road.

It also brought me back to 6 years ago when I first came to England.  I was very much focused in the present and living a day at a time.  The big recession in Spain made me come to Manchester with just a few savings and a lot of uncertainty.  It wasn’t scary, I was just very much focused on the good news and little things of every day and connecting massively with everyone around me.  I can see now where all those connections brought me and how important all this has been during this period of time.  I find that to be a very good lesson because in times of fear you might sometimes be inclined to think in the short term, whereas a healthier thing to envisage is the kind of person that you would like to be going forward and what the ” you” of the future will think of these times. 

Everyone’s stories during the Zoom meeting reminded me of an article I read this week.  It made me think how intense this crisis is coming across, whilst we are relatively comfortable because we have food, water, internet, etc.  I say this with all respect and concern for the people struggling (homeless, or those losing their loved ones at the moment), but at the same time there are several situations, completely aside from the virus, and not only now but during the last decades, which have stricken people in different countries: shortage of water, food, wars in Yemen and Syria, floods, terrible diseases spreading like cholera, refugees dying in the Mediterranean… So, in a way, the situation we are experiencing right now is something, some part of the world has experienced far worse for years.  I wonder if this will strengthen our empathy, if we will look at victims not only as abstract numbers, at poor conditions not only as if we were watching a movie…and so on.

Strengthening the community is something that can move us from isolation to connection, from panic to calm in a beautiful way.”

Linda Rigby

“I’ve had two really isolating periods in the past because of my health issues, so I’m used to occupying myself, but it’s wonderful how technology now helps.  In contrast to my childhood memories of visiting a doctor with a big imposing desk, I had a recent friendly online conversation with my haematologist who sent out my medication afterwards. I’m grateful on many levels, I’ve benefited from research developments, and think of how awful it must be in refugee camps.

During the clap for the NHS on Thursday, my neighbours in the road all came to wave to me, which meant I felt included even though I can’t leave the house. The importance of communication reminds me of my mother in the war and how her friend used to write her letters.  That’s inspired me to write to people who need me to do that.  I wish other older people had the same access to technology and connection as I do.

I treasure little things, like the spring blossoms. My sister in law is making a time capsule with my grandson, who is 6, recording his feelings and experiences as we live through these strange times.”  

We hope you have enjoyed our stories on this theme so far.  As explained in the previous post by Jolene, the theme of “echoes from the past” will continue for the next two posts on this blog, before we move on to another theme.  

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Zooming our way into an online community

Changing times have called for changing methods of communication. The social distancing measures introduced in March 2020 meant that we could no longer meet in person, so the storytelling group has started to experiment with meeting up online!  Our first session at the end of March was very much a trial and error experience, with lots of laughing at ourselves and tips shared on how to work the technology. All of us were learning alongside and supporting each other as we worked out how to use the video conferring site “Zoom”  https://zoom.us/.  Different devices and levels of experience aside, we all agreed that it seemed a bit strangely futuristic at first but with practice ended up being simpler to use than we first thought. 

Our second session on Saturday April 4th was smoother and we actually managed to have a very productive session.  A group of 7 of us ”met” online at 10am and began with a quick friendly chat, soon followed by a guided breathing activity to get everyone settled.  Then we reflected on the questions:

“What echoes, parallels and memories of the past is the current situation bringing back for you?  And how is the past helping you make sense of what is happening now?”

I paired everyone off into “breakout rooms” (where 2 participants could only hear each other speak) for 15 minutes to share a chat and their reflections on the above questions.  Everyone then rejoined the main room and took turns to give feedback what came up for them in discussion.  We were able to finish the whole thing within an hour and it was fantastic to hear how many interesting memories had emerged in such a short amount of time.  Lots of parallels, both personal and collective were revealed, wisdom shared and gratitude expressed.  Margaret is in the process of collating together the pieces of writing produced during these conversations and then putting them together as a post soon, so watch this space!

Some thoughts the participants shared on the session were as follows:

“Very uplifting and connecting”

 “Wonderful conversations inspired”

“Made me realise how much we have got to learn from each other.”

“This could be a chance to give hope to people about how we have got through hard things in the past.”

“Conversations between young and old, exchanging perspectives is very helpful”

“Makes me reflect on how much we have to be grateful for”.

“I really enjoyed it. Being forced to embrace both new technology and social media during the lockdown may not be a bad thing!”

Going forward, our plan is to host a meeting once a week for the first three weeks of each month, drawing in more people to help spread the enjoyable and purposeful nature of what we are creating.

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The Stories of Our Lives continues – 2020 edition

(Here’s a write up of our first two sessions of 2020 written by Chorlton Good Neighbours. This was before the project went online, independently of CGN. To see the original post, click here).

This relatively new project is beginning to get well established , with two sessions taking place on the last Saturday morning of both January and February. Focused around a different theme each time , older members of CGN are paired with local writers (some also from CGN ) who listen to and record their memories and experiences., which will later be compiled into a 2nd book.

January’s session topic was music and dance, and February’s early friendship groups. We start the session with simple introductions eg say your name, and say one word which you associate with music and dance …moving on to some visualisation and relaxation as people are asked to think more deeply about certain memories around the topic. Once under way and with more prompts and ideas , people spend time in their pairs describing an experience or memory that they would like recorded. The writers then have some time together to think through what they have heard and what they wish to re check with their story teller.  The gentle hubbub in the room is wonderful to hear, and we can see many older storytellers expressing themselves with hand gestures , laughter and with a lot of thought.The sessions, are fun, so enlightening and  it feels an incredibly supportive group of people . We are all learning about each other ,as well as acknowledging and valuing shared past experiences…It is a real life history lesson !

The story of how we got started, grew a community then created a book.

The whole project began with a discussion with a friend about how vital connection, creativity, purpose and contribution all are to us.  From this conversation the question arose, wouldn’t it be great if all those elements could be drawn together in one set of workshops?  Inspiration answered and suggested to bring together two different groups – those with stories they wish to tell and those who love to listen and are willing to write down what they hear. 

I was particularly excited by the image of bringing older people together with their neighbours to help people to get to know each other in my local community. And so, soon after, another conversation with Chorlton Good Neighbours took place.  My husband and I had volunteered occasionally for them and had learned about the brilliant work they do to serve older people in my local community.  After chatting to Helen, CGN’s co-ordinator, about the workshop idea, it was clear what a great partnership we would make. Amongst a multitude of other helpful tasks, she agreed to help recruit those who would like to tell their stories and conversations I had with these initial recruits led to a more informed idea of what would work practically and feel good for those “storytellers”.

Encouraged by this input, I put out more requests online and by word of mouth and this quickly led to further support and input; a typesetter and designer, two editors, many writers (some experienced but most who hadn’t written in this way since school) and the involvement of Chorlton Arts and Cholrton Book Festival all appeared as well as the suggestion to raise money on Just Giving to fund the printing of the book.  It was clear this idea had its own legs.  Though I’d had the initial idea of how to get it into motion, once started, I was pretty much pulled along by its keenness to run!

After a period of planning, consultation and preparation, the workshops took place over four Saturdays in August 2019.  Through CGN’s involvement, residents of Adastral House kindly allowed us to use their coffee lounge and each session, we would gather for a brew and a chat and then share a moment of reflection about a theme of the day.  Each section title of this book reflects these themes.  The group would then have a relaxed but lively discussion about what had come up for them during the reflection time. The writers would chat, listen and ask questions to help them get key notes down for their task later. 

The atmosphere in the room during the morning sessions was incredibly uplifting.  Witnessing people of different generations chatting so warmly and openly about what matters to them made us all realise how little age matters when it comes to what connects us and what we value.  Later on, in the afternoons of each Saturday, the writers would stay behind to get their notes typed up into a short piece of writing.  It amazed us all how quickly these pieces came together.  Most people, despite varying levels of experience, got their writing done within a couple of hours and yet still managed to honour some amazing details shared in beautiful and vibrant detail.  Many writers reported how enjoyable this was.  “A honour and a pleasure” was one typical comment. Here is a video that captures some of the atmosphere created in the sessions. https://vimeo.com/356451500/a3212fd1ce

The book itself was formed over a couple of months and many hours of collaboration. Through the combined efforts of the group, voluntary book editors and publisher, we created over 50 stories – enough to create a truly lovely collection that honours the individual and collective lives, lessons and skills of the people who took part.  We shared extracts on a number of occasions, at the Chorlton Book and Art Festivals and a coffee morning at CGN. After a short while, the publication sold out and we had to get another batch printed! To get your own copy, contact me for more information.

To conclude, the book truly was a collaborative effort that I was in privileged positon to help steer.  It was created by a group of like-minded people who all value spending time together and talking about what is important.  In this amazing but often rushed and confusing modern world, we are constantly surrounded by information and the potential for interconnectivity, but can sometimes not have time to simple sit down, reflect, listen and talk. Together we helped each other remember how essential and enjoyable these simple things can be.  A few of our storytellers echoed this with statements like “I feel really listened to.”  Another added, “Sometimes it can feel like our lives and what we have to say are no longer relevant, but here I felt really heard and realised how much I have to share.”