My grandmother, always having time to tell a good story, passed on some thirty years ago. Times flies. And yet, the legacy of her stories lives on in my memory and life. She was what many would call a seanchaí [pronounced ‘shawn-(a)-key’, and Gaelic for a story-teller], and she was a good one at that.
Even now there are times, in looking back, I can remember myself sitting by her chair, by the hearth, and as her sweet voice told yet another wonderful story, the fire would ‘roast’ one side of my face, making it red for some time after. I’d move to another position by the hearth, but as a small child, I would always ensure that I could hear every word she spoke.
Each of her stories encapsulated some nugget of wisdom, a lesson to be applied. And each was a lesson for an authentic Celtic lifestyle. Here’s three such lessons.
They were a great times of hearing this consummate story-teller tell her stories of myth and ‘magic’. But they were stories, albeit stories that were so memorable and encompassed such deep truth that they were unforgettable. I can remember my grandmother telling me stories of Brigid. One story she told was of Brigid, the saint, who was also known as ‘Mary of the Gael(s)’, and who flourished around AD500. Brigid, then, turned bathwater into beer. Another story was of Brigid who was an ancient and timeless Celtic godess. And yet another story was of Brigid who was nursemaid to the Christ-child and so lived two-thousand years ago.
On one occassion, when I was a little older, I asked my grandmother, ‘But, which Brigid is the true one?’. Always one to answer a question with a question, she replied, ‘What do you think, little one?’.
‘I don’t know’, I replied after some time of thinking about my reply and getting confused in the process.
‘That,’ she said, ‘was the best reply. There’s an element for doubt. Room what ‘what could be’, and so then all the stories will continue to be told and enjoyed’.
‘When a wise man points at the moon the imbecile examines the finger.’ Confucius
It was many years later that I understood what she meant. If we adopt the twenty-first century approach, the Greek dualist approach, the academic way of ‘squaring the equation’ and wanting a definitive answer, and treating ancient writings and stories as though they were science books, then one story must be true and the other two would eventually be forgotten as untrue, and their wisdom would be lost.
If we accept the non-academic approach, the poetic, and I would say that is the ancient Celtic and Druidic approach (as well as that of many other ancient cultures eg Hebrew), then we can accept all three stories, not be overly concerned that they don’t fit neatly into our modern understanding of time and place, and their ancient wisdom can and will benefit us as they get told and retold, as the stories unfold. Oh, but how we fall into the trap of being ‘so sicentific’ that we lose the meaning, the light and love on the journey to understanding.
Lesson: Look for the deeper meaning, and not sentence construction, academia or historicity as ancient wisdom needs a little effort sometimes to get to, and an open-mind. Look to the ancient writings, to the deep words of others, to those ‘silent teachers’ in nature eg the trees, flowers, animals, elementals, the environment etc.
‘…the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.’ Matthew 13.45-46 The Book
On other occasion my grandmother would tell me stories that would ‘make my toes curl’. Scary ones, which as a wee child I would actually love to hear. Stories about the Cailleach (pronounced ‘kie-lich’), that ugly hag that wanted a respectful kiss, the Tylwyth Teg (pronounced ‘ter-loo-ith tehg’) a playful but misunderstood fae, or The Gwrach y Rhibyn (pronounced ‘goo-rach ee ribb-in’) who was always depicted as an old witch, sometimes with thick leathery wings, but wasn’t so bad.
My grandmother’s stories were usually interactive, and she would insert a question or two throughout the story or at the end. She would say something like, ‘Now the Gwrach y Rhibyn is an awful sight to behold, but do you need to be frightened?’ I would shake my head, guessing that was the right thing to do, and say, ‘No’. And she would smile, and say, ‘Quite right, my dear one. The Gwrach y Rhibyn and others are sorely misunderstood and just want a little bit of respect. Just keep your distance, nod and be courteous to them, go on your way and all will be well’.
Lesson: In life, all is not as it seems. Treat everyone and everything with respect and you will prosper. Never be fearful. Always look for the ‘lesson’ in the event, realising that usually the ‘answer’ is in the ‘challenge’ or event. Be inclusive and welcoming to others, to circumstances etc. Welcome strangers, for by so doing some have entertained elementals unawares.
‘Do not judge by appearances; a rich heart may be under a poor coat.’ Scottish Proverb
One another occasion, and I was a little older by then, I asked a question of my grandmother, and she went silent, looked at me, and quite cheerfully said, ‘I don’t know the answer to that one’. Many years later I reminded her of that event, and she explained: sometimes life will be confusing and answers won’t be forthcoming. Sometimes, in this journey of life, we must accept that saying ‘I don’t know’ is the best answer. I pressed her further, and said, ‘Do you still think that’s true now?. She laughed to herself, looked at me, beamed a gorgeous smile and said out loud, ‘I don’t know!’. And we both laughed hilariously.
Lesson: Sometime in the journey of life, answers won’t always be forthcoming until we finish this journey. Until then, be content to enjoy the journey. It’s the journey and not necessary the destination that’s important. Keep forward-looking and not backward-looking. You’re not going in that direction.
‘The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.’ William Arthur Ward
Conclusion, Or Is It?
Thirty years on, and though my grandmother has passed on, her words of story and wisdom still ring in my ears. They are remembered. ‘Mae mwy’, she would always say. Welsh, for ‘There is more’. And, there always is. Life is an amazing adventure, and the deep truths of the Source of All cannot be comprehended by knowledge, but only ‘glimpsed’ in metaphor, story, myth, poetry, intuition and music. And it’s enough.
‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand. Albert Einstein
Mae mwy. There is more. The Great Story, which also incudes you and I, continues. There is always more!