Taking Time: I read your latest book ‘Smoke Hole’ earlier this year and it really drew me in, the context of which is the three folk stories, myths that you explore. I wanted to ask about the importance of storytelling. How important is it that we culturally continue to find the time to share these stories with one another? And where are the spaces in which we do that? How do we invite ourselves into those thought processes and cultivate those opportunities to share those stories?
Martin Shaw: I think the first thing I'd say is that when human beings imagine, traditionally they organically tend to imagine in stories. A concept will never beat a story. We find in politics, in life, in our love affairs, we find in our family dynamics that the best story always tends to win.
Myth always presents us with immense challenge usually from the beginning of the story. Certainly if you think of the last 18 months, just as one example, a scenario which has never been seen before by someone of your generation or mine. We've been plunged into a sort of profound unknowing. Now unknowing for most of us, although it's the natural state of things, is generally deeply uncomfortable. So myths help us to go from living with uncertainty to navigating mystery. So suddenly we recognise that this seemingly drive-by-shooting of random events has a shape to it, that if you give it time and attention you can see the story that is trying to reveal itself underneath the facts of the matter. One of the reasons I think so many of us are stressed out at the moment is that we hear a lot on the news about statistics, numbers and science we don't know whether to trust or not. There isn't much out there to address the profound sense of uncertainty that many of us have. So my book Smoke Hole was an attempt to gently look at the moment we were in, but rather than dazzle us with statistics look at the wonderful old tradition of the fairy tale to see how we deal with duress, loss and challenge, and finally, some form of redemption.
TT: There's so much there that resonates with me. I'm a photographer, so there's an awful lot of storytelling there. I think the notion of the myth relates to the way you can work with images in that you're not providing this constructed narrative arc, laying out the story, building to this critical point and then some sort of resolution. With myth and photography there's so much space for the reader or the viewer to put themselves into that broader narrative to find out where they sit within that. I loved in your book the lack of resolution or definite summary after each story. It really jarred at the start, it felt a bit strange, but then you grow into that sensibility of seeking out which characters you’re resonating with, which aspects of this story feel true to me and what is this cultivating in my mind. Obviously there's some gentle direction from you as the writer, but we’re so used to this literal sense of storytelling, either with words or images, this big picture, but actually it's much better to give people the pieces of the puzzle, in a book or an exhibition and enable them to work things out for themselves.
MS: That's perfect. I think it's possibly because my background is as a painter that was instinctively how I approached stories. In the last 50 years a lot of traditional stories have been used within the office, within therapy rooms. Now that's not a bad thing but what tends to happen is that the story is used to make a point the psychologist wishes to make. So in other words you can feel the aims and objectives and the learning moments in the story as it's being told. The trouble then is you're dealing with a corpse, not a living being, and you are belittling and not bringing forth the imagination of the reader or the listener. I think photography is a great example of that. The photographs I love always ask something of me, it never just provides it asks something of me. Often there is a story that I can't help but imagine because of what the photo doesn't present, it doesn't give me everything. It's not a kind of realism it's actually a kind of magic.
TT: Absolutely. There's a very strong trend at the moment of photography that fits into the category of magic realism. things you think you can perceive, but then asks more questions than gives answers. I think you need to presume a certain amount of emotional intelligence on behalf of the reader or the viewer, that they will have the capacity to understand the world and latch on to the fragments that you're offering. Giving them an invitation in order to gain more for their own benefit.
In the book, you talked about the question of how old we are, in a collective and individual sense, in relation to our emotional intelligence or wisdom. You discuss that many of us are still harnessed by this period of adolescence which doesn't allow us to pull ourselves into these myths, narratives and these sort of jigsaw pieces of creativity. What are your thoughts on how we try and grow up individually, culturally and socially?
MS: I would suggest we study stories and enjoy and hear stories that tell us something about the process. There’s an odd medieval word, to be tempered is to be polished and stretched over time. So we read stories that show us that life will provide us with rites of passage and initiations, whether we like it or not, but they will mostly be disguised as calamity and confusion. So a relationship ends, you experience illness or some terrible failing is exposed in public, these traditional motifs in modern life get the soul's attention because actually there's an old idea that your soul is not convinced by much that you do. It's only usually something like a fall from grace when it goes, ‘Oh, okay, now this person is reaching for more than a pay check’. They're reaching for more than just the aims and objectives of the world we see glittering around us at all times. So what I say is look for the deep stories, don't be afraid to see where they ride alongside your own life and treat them as teaching materials, put them into action.
When I was young I read this description by an Irish hero called Finn McCall, it says this: “If the rivers of the world were spun of pure silver, and the leaves on the trees pure gold, Finn McCall would have given them all away. Because his house was the stranger's home.” So as a young man, I realised that Finn was telling me something about open heartedness and generosity. I didn't necessarily need to hear that from the Pope or the Dalai Lama, because Finn McCalll had done it for me.
Modern psychology tends to take a calamity in your life and tries to calm you down and makes the situation smaller so you can bear it. That's a legitimate thing to do and I'm not opposed to it. But what stories and myth do is they take that same moment in your life but they make it bigger, they amplify it, they make it more dramatic, more theatrical, more inflamed. So you can see your life rather like a fantastic movie, or a very difficult film, it's a different form of illumination. It happens not by making something smaller but by making it bigger. As we've discussed already with photography you make the listener or the reader do a lot of the work themselves, because in the end, they will have a more profound experience of their own imagination.
TT: Absolutely, you can't go around telling people what you think they need to hear, there's that real sense of opening the door or and inviting them in, but then they have to push their way through themselves in order for the gravity of it to be felt and for lessons to be learned.
I'm fascinated about the notion of your wilderness retreats and inviting people into a time of fasting and reflection. You alluded to people who've probably had significant events happen in their life, and perhaps those things are quite tragic, but that's an awakening of the soul. We’re all aware of the broad consensus that the time spent in nature can be of great value in terms of healing, but it sounds to me like what you're doing really extends that idea. What is your intent in terms of the wilderness retreats and the time spent in that environment?
MS: Interestingly, people, as you sort of intimated, tend to come on a wilderness retreat for their own self care purposes. They want time to figure some things out about themselves, to have a good experience. Ironically with the wilderness vigils which you find in cultures all over the world, you don't primarily go out into nature for your own benefit, you go out for two reasons. One is to actually listen to the place itself and see if it has something dramatic or subtle to tell you about your life. Secondly, and this is a hard word for people these days, you go out for the community of people or beings that mean the most to you. So you go out actually in the end to come back to live a life of greater service, not just sort of dazzling individuation. So the whole thing is much humbler than people may expect. Also, you go out and generally you get rather defeated by the whole thing, you come back and you will be wrestled to the ground by it like Jacob wrestling the angel in the Bible. That's a good thing, not a bad thing! Because what I hope for in the vigil is at the very end you have made contact with a centre of energy outside your own life and ambitions. You make contact with it with something outside your own narcissism, ambition, and passion. I think one of the reasons so many of us feel lonely is simply because we have only ourselves for company.
If we're interested in the process of growing up a culture, from adolescence to adulthood, that is what you do. To become an adult means you have to give up certain forms of self absorption that you had when you were younger, that were important when you were younger to help you become the young person that you are. But anybody that's ever been a semi-decent parent knows that the moment a child comes in everything changes. You're into a profound, intense, spiritual and psychological instruction whether you like it or not. I like talking to people who've been tempered (that word again) by that. So that's what I look for, people generally come back bashed and battered, never looking more alive, but also fairly bewildered. We sit them down and have a cup of tea, and gradually they begin to eat. They say, ‘well, nothing really happened’, but I ask them to tell me anyway. They open their mouths and the stories straight from the Garden of Eden emerge, that foliage and leaves and lightning and little bluebirds pour out of their mouths. They still feel that nothing happened, they can't make head nor tail of it. That's where quarter of a century of listening to those stories comes in, because I don't ‘tell them what it means’, but I can tell them the story of themselves back to themselves. There's very few things in life more potent than that. Because suddenly you go, Oh, my gosh, I'm suffused, the myth, the myth. Mythic intelligence is everywhere. It's not something that I've lost. It was my birthright, and I've just stepped back into the slipstream of it. So that's a little bit about what the wilderness vigil is.
TT: Again, there's that sense of broadening things out in that humbling way, maximizing that sensibility of the individual out towards something greater than the self in order to be aware of what's going on, in, through your experiences and the way in which life ‘happens’ to you. I've lost my dad and my youngest sister, I've had two kids, and all of these experiences are things which feel deeply internal, but also vastly beyond my own capabilities and understanding of myself and the world.
There's such a spiritual essence to all of this that offers a sense of introspection, as well as looking at that broader picture, which personally influences my perception of time, the value of time, how I want to spend it and who I want to spend it with. These experiences make me very aware of the moment I'm in and, and wanting to treasure and appreciate the sort of space that I'm in and the people that I'm surrounded by.
Are there experiences, or essences, which makes you really appreciate the moment you're in and the time that you have?
MS: Well, let's think about the word time for a minute, you're probably familiar that the Greeks have Chronos, time and Kairos time, they're different. So there's the time of the school run, the time of okay, that essay needs handing in at 4:30, or that photograph needs to get to the gallery, there's that kind of time, what you could call the time bound. Then you get Kairos time, which is what I call the time less, what some people call deep time. Now in scientific terms deep time is used to describe the immense unfathomable stretches of time before the human imprint on the earth. But deep time is also understood in contemplative practices. You get it in Christianity, you get it in Buddhism, you get it in any faith that puts time and space aside to dwell in contemplation, prayer and meditation. Interestingly for me when I'm telling stories, and just after I've told stories, I find myself in what I can only describe as a kind of deep time. I have the ability somehow, to be able to take people with me when I do that. So I'm very interested in time, I'm very interested in memory.
I'm just writing a book at the moment called ‘Bone Memory’, which I mentioned in Smoke Hole. We have skin memory, flash memory and bone memory. Skin memory is your CV. Flesh memory is the stuff that marks you. It's the loss of your father or your sister, it's being a parent, it's going through those things and also the happy things as well, the things that give you laughter lines as well as stress lines on your head, all of it, that's flesh memory. The bone memory is this sort of deep time element where somehow, and I'm not particularly a proponent of reincarnation, but there seems to be a residue in us. A very, very deep residue that can connect to stories from 1000s of years ago and read them as if they happened to us on the way to the bus this morning.
The example that I always use is very simple. They did this as a scientific test in the 70s. They’d have a little chick and you would put the shadow of a dove above the chick and it wouldn't react. Then they'd put a papier mache shape of a hawk above the chick and it would shudder. That's kind of what I'm getting at. In other words, somewhere down in the strange cathartic intelligence of a human we have a much more expansive relationship to time and memory than we might expect. A lot of people at the moment love the word imagination. I love it myself, but you couldn’t imagine without memory.
TT: I'm very interested in the spiritual aspect of this conversation, because there's so much context to me personally having had an upbringing in a Christian context. Is that something that is prevalent for you? Or do you sort of view your perspective as A-religious as it were?
MS: No, I'm a Christian. Yeah!
TT: Okay! I very much got that sense in it. That's very reassuring, because there's so many pointers within what you've talked about and also in the book that made me feel like there was a deeper Christian context.
MS: I appreciate that for a lot of people the way I approach soulful and spiritual matters seems very, very different. Christians ask me ‘Why are you so invested in mythology? Why are you so invested in tales outside of the canon, outside of the Bible?’, because I think that those stories have enormous pinpricks of holy information in them. I don't think that God just arrived at one moment in time to one people, the Holy Spirit just doesn't operate like that. The Holy Spirit goes where it will. A lot of all the stories that I love have that vibrational integrity to them. I think it's important.
Whilst I'm a Christian, I think that a lot of crazy behavior has gone on in the church as soon as it becomes affiliated with power, anybody listening or reading this understands what I'm referring to. It's very hard not to be corrupted by power. People ask me all the time, ‘What story do we need now? What teaching do we need?’ We received the teaching that would fundamentally rewire the nature of everyone on this planet, and it's called the Sermon on the Mount. Try that out, just drop everything else and sit with the Beatitudes and you are in the presence of the most radical act of kindness you can possibly imagine. Do I think Christianity in general has managed to even get their heads around that? Yes, and no, but if you really want to get a sense of rewiring the moment you're in, as well as all of these beautiful stories that I present, go there, go to the Beatitudes.
TT: This really is a poignant conversation for me because it's something I've struggled with since losing my sister a few years ago, thinking about time and all the experiences of loss and everything that feeds into that.
MS: It’s interesting that we're having this conversation because it’s been very difficult for us to arrange, we've been kind of blocked almost to having it at all but here we are on December the first the start of advent. There’s a beautiful phrase, whatever is good in this conversation grow in us, let it grow in us. I've never, in 25 years, spoken publicly about what I've just told you, you're the first to hear it because no one's ever asked but they will now! I believe this is what you call a kairos moment. This is a moment that the world tries to block from happening but when the flow is right, here we are, two brothers knocked around by life leaning in to the grace, leading to what is good. You know despite what anybody tells you this world is suffused with the miraculous. You’ve just got to have the eyes to behold it.
TT: Yeah, I agree with that. I think it's about tuning in somehow, it's the same with taking pictures, in that everybody else would walk past the thing that I will tune into somehow and, and capture, just having that awareness, perhaps a spiritual dimension of connecting with something in a moment and seeing it in a way that I wouldn't see it if I walked past it again, 100 times.
I always like to wrap up Taking Time interviews by asking what do you value as time well spent?
MS: Time well spent for me is walking side by side with my daughter. That's time well spent. Every age that she's in I always think is the best age, although I always miss the earlier ages. I was saying to her mother the other day that I would pay an enormous amount of money just to have her in my arms again for one afternoon as a three year old. I’d give up an enormous amount for that.
My great treat is to drink one very strong mug of coffee in the morning and start the day listening to Hildegard von Bingen. It's just beautiful music, or John Tavener, ‘The Protective Veil’, something that doesn't throw you straight away into Instagram, and to bills and stress that you remember.
Time well spent in my opinion, is when you are connected to what they call the indwelling presence. Don't worry about theology, don't worry about your feelings about what you do or don't believe in, belief sends us half crazy most of the time anyway. Just pay attention to the notion that there is a presence in this world that knew your name before you were born and cares about you and wants to talk to you.
TT: That's truly remarkable. Thank you.