gathering the sparks of our ancestors

We’re back from the intermission after ‘Following the sparks’…

Reminds me of back in the day when my mum, my sisters and I used to visit The Asian Cinema on Attercliffe Road, 2 buses each way, to watch the latest Bollywood movie. It seems all the Asians of South Yorkshire descended in this small theatre on Sundays. The films involved epic storytelling (up to 4hrs plus) and too much for my infant concentration span. My sister and I always counted the songs and dancing, rolling our eyes and huffing and puffing until intermission time. There would be a mad scramble to the back of the cinema to the little shop which sold rustling bags of Bombay Mix and ice-cold bottles of coca- cola with well fingered straws (so unhygienic but clearly, I survived). Forget queuing - it was every person for themselves. After all, there were limited supplies of Bombay Mix in 1970’s Sheffield.

Back to Shropshire, The Festival at the Edge (FATE) opened with a scene that would’ve been in place at That Asian Cinema. Two delightful Bhangra dancers, a boom box and Punjabi bells broke the fresh air with hip thrusts and the beat of the dhol. I felt as if I’d gatecrashed a Sikh wedding a bit too late in to the night. But I felt a strange sense of being in the right place though for what reason I wasn’t sure.

I went to FATE not knowing what to expect from the storytellers and on the urge to answer the call to just ‘GO’ after seeing Tongue Tied and Twisted.  Part of me was thinking it would be a bit like watching the storytelling equivalent of morris dancing, which despite it’s erotic undertones (so I’ve been told) doesn’t do it for me (and not that I have anything personal against morris dancers ~ they seem like jolly decent folk). Don’t ask me where I got that notion from but I was expecting something a bit dry, possibly pretentious and inaccessible?

I couldn’t have been more wrong about it being full of morris dancing storytellers (though some did appear on Sunday and one was quite fit - I am slapping myself whilst admitting that).

From the seductive and outrageously talented Jan Blake, telling Jamaican stories about a woman cheating on her husband that had the men in the audience crossing their legs (I’ll never forget Miss Pussy), seriously - to stories of fools by Peter Chand and Jack Lynch that had folks doubling up, to heartfelt stories of grandmothers and ancestors - the stories rolled on and on in to the night and around big bonfires under starlit skies. Themes danced around woman being the wiser sex, our human impact on the planet, the wisdom of animals, good looking men, beautiful women and quite a bit of natural activity that happens between good looking men and beautiful women.

What struck most deeply was a conversational story session on Sunday between Dovie Thomason, a Lakota storyteller/elder (INCREDIBLE) and Shonaleigh, a storyteller from a Jewish tradition.

Shonaleigh described ‘gathering the sparks’ of our ancestors and bringing them with us in to the here and now so we can help move these sparks forward for future generations. These sparks hold magic, myth and morals which continue to inspire and teach us. They give us a sense of place, of where we came from and a perspective of the generational and ancestral continuum that came before us and will continue beyond us, like a long piece of thread weaving souls together across time and continents. We are holding the loose end of the thread now to weave in to the beyond.

Lighting incense
Lighting incense

’Gathering the sparks’ resonated, causing little goosebumps to rise across my body.  I feel my ancestors in my DNA, I acknowledge their coming before me yet I know little of their actual stories. I’ve pieced together very few family stories despite having been to the Punjab many times. I’m aware that there are so many stories that I’ll never know. Some a secret to my ears.  Yet, I feel them and maybe even living some of them. Unspoken stories of ancestors that play inside my cells.

We are ancestors-in-training...

Dovie continued by telling us  ~ WE ARE THE ANCESTORS OF THE FUTURE.  Our stories, OUR STORIES from the here and now matter as much as the ancestor stories and they are the stories that will be shared in to the future. YOU will be part of someone’s stories one day. And we need to collect, curate and share. They are no less precious or less important than the stories of old. We may be part of someone’s personal mythology one day. Those that will breathe way beyond us need them.

I’m talking of our family stories, our little stories, our hidden memories as well as the bigger stories of our historical, cultural and political times and how we are embroidered in to that. Either on the waves of spoken or written words or securely held within the DNA of future generations. A distant rumbling they can barely hear. With a bit of extra spice and embellishment I hope. Maybe one day stories will be told of Aunty Dal the 3 Leg from Sheffield who was three legged race champion for two years in a row (thank you to Fiona, my fellow champ!) and how tying together the legs of two very culturally different 10 year olds with a common goal can lead to great achievement.

Ha! Thank you to Dovie and Shonaleigh for giving me my FATE moment.

Fat and bloated with stories and a bad crepe, the next stop of my journey took me to Bristol for an interview for a masters degree. Still musing over ancestors stories, my Dad’s storytelling and of being an ancestor-in-training. I thought about my Dad being a little barefoot kid in rural Punjab in the 1930's, listening to Guru stories spoken by the village holy men, maybe he sat in awe cross-legged, looking up at them as their words tumbled out, a glorious mash up of spirituality and mystery. Maybe that’s the wonder and awe my Dad tried to transmit to me when he recounted these stories? I feel this is so. Yet, I never realised this when he was alive ~ that he was transmitting magic.


As part of a group interview we did a writing exercise in response to the famous poem ‘The Journey’ by Mary Oliver . We each took a couple of her lines at random as a prompt to write from. And this is what came to me ~

Ancestors poem
Ancestors poem

It was an emotional moment, as we considered the impact of ancestors on our lives. And how we can let the qualities of our ancestors continue to thrive in the work we do and how we do it?  A breathing, living acknowledgement. Without thinking I said ‘I have no children, who will hear my stories?’ and the tutor said earnestly ‘write them all down, share them’.  Tears pounced at the back of my eyes. I thought of Dad, his Guru stories, the stories of his life and of how I need to keep his spirit alive in the stories he gave me and the stories I am making right now.

We are all living stories. Living the stories of those who have gone before us or about to go before us. Every moment, every day we are creating OUR unique story with our very brave act of existing. With whatever life chucks at us. Which may still be told when we are long gone from this world.

What stories live within you?

(photo of The Asian Cinema courtesy of

(painting of Yogis by Arpana Kaur)