FINDING HOME

Finding Home: A feeling not a place.

Reflections on Your Life Your Story 2019

Saira-Jayne Jones

Where to begin? I feel as though I must go back to come forward; so I will! October 2018 I attended my first ever Your Life Your Story event following a chance encounter on twitter and somehow following the remarkable Amanda Knowles MBE. Filled with anxiety, trepidation, nervous apprehension I made my way to Cumbria University. I had only just begun to get to grips with my story, my truth, myself; this felt like a massive dangerous leap into the unknown. All of the ‘what if’s?’ had gone around in my head and I’d ruminated over me as a being, my writing, and if in actuality I was kidding myself; my inner critic resounding and ever present. I was reassured however by knowing that Yusuf McCormack would be attending, and I’d previously visited his art exhibition ‘No Colours for My Coat’ on my stomping ground Chelmsley Wood; and then proceeded to steal 6 hours from him over coffee after stalking him on Twitter. With that in mind I ventured into the unknown and made a commitment to myself that I would not allow myself to be dictated to by fear and leave; a pattern of behaviour all too familiar to me as flight is much easier…safer… than facing what I’m afraid of.

I bit the bullet…The next couple of hours getting familiar with my surroundings, wondering how on earth students live in those tiny cells without being creatively oppressed; and smoking where I shouldn’t – some things never change! The event encapsulated the kind of energy where I instantly felt connection. Met with smiles, laughter, friendly banter and the kind of dark humour that I am very much accustomed to; I figure it must be hardwired into our survival. Throughout a full and thought provoking programme voices were shared, the power of our truths unleashed and relationships developed as if we had somehow been there for much longer. The space we held for each other felt safe, honest, un-questioning, non-judgemental and like you were never no more than an arm’s length away from people who just ‘got it’, the facts were unimportant and the connection came through feeling, knowing and the shared threads of existence. We all became more than we were before we arrived, taking away not only the practical writing skills we had been developing but a sense of being in it together.

Leaving and returning back to my reality evoked a mixture of feelings and in the days following my return I felt like I was processing thoughts at warp speed. I was elated at how successful the event had been in terms of learning, that id managed to stay, write, read a loud and that my anxiety hadn’t prevented me from being sociable. However this was coupled with a feeling of being bereft, that something was missing and it conjured up little connections with the past of feeling lost and alone. Luckily once I had given myself time to process all of this and talk it through I realised it was normal to feel that way when you have been somewhere that you have felt truly accepted, connected, where there are no judgements, unrealistic expectations or conditions and I wrote this extract; which now resonates even further following my return from Your Life Your Story 2019.

Your Life Your Story 2018

So now we jump forwards twelve months which is a relatively short space of time in the grand scheme of things, but time in which I have spent generating ideas, exhibiting artwork, creating more pieces, attending Wrexham University and The National Diversity Awards with Your Life Your Story; and ultimately making decisions meaning that Yusuf and I would build upon our connection and work towards developing an arts based training and consultancy project – Artifacts.

October 2019 and this time around things were a little different. My second Your Life Your Story Event, and back to the beautiful Cumbria University with its Harry Potter esc buildings and tree lined grounds. Notwithstanding the sense of familiarity in the surroundings, I was still very much filled with anxiety and nervous apprehension however, this time as we’d been given the honour of delivering our first workshop as Artifacts ‘Reclaiming Our Narrative’; and despite us planning with military precision and having an entire car full of goodies, the incessant and unremitting internal critical monologue was omnipresent throughout the journey. Seeing familiar faces and catching up was incredibly reassuring and knowing that I had connected and stayed in touch with many of the group via social media meant that there was very little ice to break once we’d come together.

Naturally food was the first item on the agenda after all not feeding Yusuf and Dave the fudge termites and Taz the human seagull could only go one way, and would most certainly result in a mini riot!! Soon the sound of our group filled the canteen, with banter and chatter steadily building in eagerness of the opening gathering where we would all join together for the first time.

The bringing together of this year’s group was most eloquently facilitated by none other than our beautiful Dame Longstocking A.K.A Rosie Canning; no address would have been complete without the obligatory headwear to bring regal definition to proceedings!! With her opening remarks in full swing and the gift of a fabulous journal from Amanda the group very quickly began to develop its own energy which felt welcoming and surprisingly familiar; considering this was the first meeting for many of those in the room. After handing out literary quotes to inspire and softening us up with the lovely gift of a sprouting seed pencil we were off with our first little challenge. I’m certain Rosie could be a headmistress in disguise, and Mr Jackson is very adept at story telling managing to involve half the room in his tale of plane flying international smugglers. Time was spent laughing, chatting through the weekend’s program, getting to know one another and the room was filled with the buzz of anticipation for the new day.

Now how do you even begin to introduce the undeniably compelling force that is Mr David Jackson…the answer is you don’t… He does!! The group were treated to a writing structure master class in which Dave explored a very clear and simple yet effective structure with which to approach the task of writing. Dave’s no nonsense approach injected with sound advice and humour made for a productive and interesting workshop and set the tone for a positive, creative and accomplished morning. Tips were shared for breaking down the task of writing into manageable chunks, and an overview given of techniques that were successful when writing his published book Oi. Dave’s approach is incredibly accessible making the daunting task of writing a whole book seem far more achievable for other individuals who have very little literary experience. Dave alluded to the importance of the role that music plays in his writing journey and swiftly gave a rendition of a song that he finds uplifting when he is having a break from being immersed in the writing process. Dave’s workshop demonstrated that although we feel we might not have the time to fit in writing, if we break things down we can find space to write. It was also acknowledged that the writing process can be tough especially when recounting personal histories, and to ensure there is a positive network of people who ‘Get it’ to seek support from, reflecting the importance of relationship building and connection; and it became clear from the feeling in the room that our Your Life Your Story network had already begun further developing. Overall the workshop was a resounding success and gave many of the group food for thought on going forward with their own writing journey, with methods shared that can be easily adapted and combined with other writing tips and techniques.

Whilst absorbed in engaging with Dave’s workshop my mind had been distracted from the reality that we were next, so when the group broke for refreshments the realisation struck me; all that myself and Yusuf had planned for over the previous weeks and months was now upon us; that, and we had to unpack the trolleys of treasure for the first part of our workshop. My tummy was doing somersaults and my legs had begun to shake a little, but then the group embraced us with their reassurances. The familiarity of beautiful Mel and her supportive smile, Amanda with an encouraging nod, Dave who’s heartening humour cut though the nervousness I was feeling, the entire group Taz, Chris, Jamie, Katrina, Ian, Nickie, Jane, Angie, Davie, Rosie and my Fairy Godmother Jacquie all inspired the confidence that it would be okay, we could speak freely and share our truth together, reclaim our narrative together, no-one was judging or giving the side eye because we were amongst our people; our tribe. I also knew that Yusuf my brother from another mother and I had each other’s back and his presence provided the encouragement needed that even if I was liken to a blancmange at points, we could do this together; and the sweets on the table were a tactical move that were sure to go down well and help things along.

Stood listening to Yusuf delivering his Narrative piece and verse, the group sat intently, emotion washing over them as recollections of the shared threads of our histories struck chords. Our shared knowledge and experience of injustice apparent through the resonance of Yusuf’s words, that lingered in the air in juxta position with the man he has become; a powerful demonstration that the narrative others ascribe to us as care experienced individuals is their version of our narrative, their perception, their interpretation of events…We have our own, and it’s about taking that back ‘Reclaiming our Narrative’, and working to remove the power of the labels and stigma we were branded with by the words of others, turning the negativity into positivity, being defined by self and not others; a thread that very much continued through the delivery of my own narrative and verse.

Nerves still ever present but suppressed by the supportive positive energy that had created an aura of absolute acceptance within the room. I could not have imagined being in this position twelve months previous as id sat and watched Taz so confidently deliver her spoken word piece with such conviction. My delivery no comparison to others, unpolished and gathered up from the handout clutched in my trembling grip; for me…enormous…like climbing Kilimanjaro in stilettos…blindfolded!! I can’t comment on the delivery of my narrative or the verse Different & One which I had written following my first encounter with Your Life Your Story. I experience incredible anxiety when I am in the metaphorical spotlight which meant my reading became a bit of a blur, I’d done it…and this time I didn’t need a chair to hold me up!! With creativity on the other side of the blur like a beacon I’d spoken my truth and was looking forward to seeing others unlock their imaginative, creative, free selves with our activities.

We began with a literary exercise and writing a positive and affirming acrostic poem. In hindsight we could have unpicked this task much further if we’d of had the luxury of having more time, not only exploring the acrostic as a writing prompt but also a vehicle for expressing ones inner voice, the things we think but do not say, words we have held on to through shame, fear and pain and channelling this by writing powerful pieces of poetry using words that resonate deeply with us and our truths. It’s also important to acknowledge that we do not have to be writing for a particular reason or purpose, just to see the words held there upon the paper, even if never shared beyond this and your pen; there is something incredibly cathartic and empowering about being the master of your own truth. The break quickly approached as we wrapped up part one and we eagerly encouraged everyone off to lunch so we could transform the tables and festoon them with the treasures from our trolleys, beads, glitter, glue, markers wires and ribbon. Visual artwork was on display around the room and all the pieces for a planned collaborative installation were in place; to add colour, fun and creativity to the graveyard shift after lunch.

Following a promptly issued public service announcement from Dave regarding the consumption of His and only his Black Jacks; everyone was on to further reclaiming our narrative by reflecting on how we define ourselves and how we should reframe or reject the labels used by others to define us. Now for all of us this will be a lifelong process, in some cases some words travel deep, some labels become so engrained within us we look at ourselves as through we are a stick of rock. The purpose of the shredding of the dead wood and the negative labels that represent this dead wood that prevents us from growing to our full potential is symbolic of the continuous effort we have to make in flipping the perspective and looking for the positives even when things seem incredibly bleak and negative. With the power of positive words in mind we were on to creatively speaking our truth, creating the collaborative piece of art the ‘Positivitree’ and individual personal talking sticks that were a visual representation of assertiveness and courage in sharing our experiences, telling our stories and speaking our truth out loud.

We could have almost predicted from the beginning that Rosie and Mel would be like two five year olds as they clambered for glitter and sparklyness; anyone would of thought that we had magpies at the table as the power struggle for pink pearl glitter ensued. In all good humour materials were shared around and discussion developed around the messages shared on the branches of truth. Each individual branch a celebration of the person it represented from Angie’s playful sombreros, to Nickie’s threads that danced around her branch, Katrina’s flash of gold reminiscent of the superhero inside us, Jacquie’s bright green beads of hope and messages of being enough, Rosie’s beautiful glitter adorned wand, Mel’s shiny moon on a stick Amanda’s hearts and unwavering belief, Dave even had a go wrapping ribbon and copper and joined in; although it’s debateable he was only there for the Bostik. We had expressions in threads feather’s ribbons and powerful words from Jane, Ian and Taz, Davie and his creative expression in copper emblazoned in authenticity. As the ‘Positivitree’ came together a vision of our collective creativity, adorned with the positive labels, and expressions of the self, our tribe felt united. You could feel positivity in the room, creative energy flowing and smiles and laughter abound. The realisation that we don’t lose our creativity even if we’ve stuffed it to the back of a dusty cupboard inside our adult self; we just need to make the time and provide the opportunities and space both physically and emotionally to be creative. That art and creativity doesn’t have to be perfect as it’s an extension and expression of the creator; and none of us are perfect….we are perfectly imperfect…Different & One.

To draw a close to the day the final workshop would be delivered by the remarkably powerful Taz Trevorrow who expresses her words with such passion, sincerity and absolute conviction, with reflections on addiction, exploitation and loss being felt throughout the room. Taz shared helpful techniques in prompting the writing process which may be useful to move past creative blocks; kick starting the imagination by using tangible objects to create a piece of writing or to build a character. We looked at putting the self and others into a piece of writing, and using existing pieces and images to aid the writing process. The mixture of laughter and tears in the room indicative of the power of words and language and demonstrating the value of being able to express your inner world creatively; with the exercises opening up new avenues of exploration for people to test out along their own writing journey. As the weekend had progressed it had revealed new opportunities for people to explore their creativity, in a safe, supportive and nurturing environment; with realisations being made that actually we might just not be kidding ourselves and that we can share our truth our way!! And more importantly with the unwavering support of others who just ‘get it’. Going back to the point that the connection is made and relationships built on feeling and shared understanding of those feelings and not facts and the minutiae of experience or circumstance.

On to our final full day and warm up writing exercises before the eagerly awaited master class with Joelle. We’d had pieces preformed to music, been gobsmacked by the bravery and courage taken by Chris in his vocal expression of feeling to the group and the laughter and tears had continued whilst sharing our insights, reflections and experiences through our creative pieces, and whilst developing our writing. Despite the fact that by this point Rosie had to leave us her ‘All writing is rewriting’ was a phrase that was never too far from our ears, like recounting the words of a much favoured teacher; a comforting reminder that nothing we do is complete rubbish as we always have the opportunity to make edits, improvements and redefine the ‘dodgy’ bits; just as we do with ourselves on our own journeys…mistake, modify, master.

So after a full morning and the first Sunday roast of the day, we had the incredible opportunity not only to hear but feel the incredible force and awesomeness of Joelle Taylor slam poet extraordinaire and genuinely ‘sick as fuck’ human. Joelle shared some great tips and techniques for using imagery, metaphor and visualisation in our writing; with our visualisation being Ian delivering his second horizontal soliloquy. There were individuals in the group who had expressed they could not write and then delivered a deep, meaningful, heartfelt piece of incredibly personal writing. Again the workshop developed its own energy as it was very clear that it was a safe creative environment where things could be said without question, we were all together in supporting each other; with Joelle becoming embraced by the group immediately as the threads of familiarity were woven through all of our truths. Joelle who between sharing her wisdom throughout a fantastic master class, stunned the entire room with her raw, emotive, evocative, powerful truth. Soon time for the second roast of the day and with everyone feeling like they have never eaten so much in their lives we de-camped to the pub; does anyone else get the impression that Amanda is a bit of a feeder…

After food and a little fruit infused lubrication we were back in the room for an absolutely stunning performance from the wonderful Joelle, her words reverberating and resonating throughout the room. All sat in complete awe of how she had commanded control of the power of language in tackling the complexity, horror and injustice of lived experience; developing a war cry, a call to arms against the abusive forces that have had significance in our histories. Joelle delivered powerful words reflecting loss of self and others, of adversity, of harnessing the strength of rage, injustice and experience through poetry and spoken word; speaking our truths out loud and un-ashamed. My words cannot do her words justice, it is a case of having to not only hear them but feel them to understand their significance and power; I’d urge anyone to witness this incredible woman in action. I only needed to take a glance around the room to see the impact that feeling those words had for all present. The intensity and passion with which the pieces were delivered is telling of the personal emotion and raw, honest feeling behind them. It was an absolute privilege to witness. And with the power of Joelle’s words resounding through our beings it brought about a certain unquestioning confidence that we can share our truth however the fuck we like, we don’t need permission from anyone; because it’s ours.

So to our final day with Dr George, A.K.A Picasso and a self care session as a big hug to wrap up the weekend. We had experienced laughter, honesty, raw emotions, hugs, tears, truths, full tummies, signing from both Dave and Chris, interpretative dance from Mel and Taz, powerful spoken word and poetry from all, poetry delivered from the floor…Ian again on the floor!! There was conversation, connection and an abundance of tissues, talent and tremendous creativity. We heard the power in the voices of our new tribe members Angie, Davie, Nickie, Katrina, Ian, Jane, Jackie and Jamie and we learnt more about each other and the power of our feelings in self expression through the arts. The room was noticeably emptier now as Rosie, Ian and Katrina were no longer with us, and conversation drifted in the direction of the event coming to a close.

When you go from spending the best part of your life feeling isolated, rejected, lost, misunderstood and always on the periphery, to feeling like you have found your people, it is an overwhelmingly liberating feeling. Knowing that you are not the only one who thinks and feels a certain way and that there are people like you out there that get it…it brings about a sense of unity and connection. Knowing that it is possible that you will no longer be on your own in the world, this is the power of genuine authentic relationships, relationships where there is a feeling of belonging, that you can find the missing pieces of the puzzle, that there are people who can relate to you unquestioningly because you have at some point in your journey felt the same hurts, lived the same pain, anger and disappointment; knowing those shared feelings from lived experience and being willing to hold space for others and support them through. So with a commitment to keeping the network alive and being the difference for each other, the event was bought to a close until next year. However, each person leaving knowing that over this very short but significant time they had each become more than they were before they came…not just facts…but feelings; finding home in ourselves and others.

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