MensCraft staff gathering around the fire

On Monday 10th June MensCraft staff gathered at the X Adventure Activities Bramley Lakes site in Horsford. It was a rainy start and colder than a June day should be, so it was great to see Chris get a fire established. This gathering was a ‘staff development day’: an opportunity for MensCraft staff to experience some of the nature connection work we will be offering over the summer (starting this Saturday – 15th June). It also acted as a kind of ‘pilot’ for us to ‘test’ how things would work for the gatherings we are calling, ‘Fire Circles’.

After the hurry to hoist the parachute to provide some shelter and erect our gazebo we did actually forget to have a ‘check-in’. This is an opportunity for folk to briefly say how they are doing and to be heard respectfully (although there is no obligation to speak). Anyway, lesson learned – we will do better on Saturday. It was, however, really good to stare into the dancing, warming flames of the fire in the company of my colleagues…

The ‘formal’ part of the day began with a silent mindful walk exploring our beautiful surroundings. During my walk, I noticed:

  • The ‘splish’ of the raindrops on the surface of the lake
  • The unfolding fronds of the ferns
  • The leafy green ‘petrichor’ smell of the wet ground
  • The sound of the leave rustling (‘susseration’)
  • I noted a froth of elder blossom and smelt its delicate fragrance
  • I remembered that the Old English word ‘Aelder’ (from which the free takes its name) means, ‘Fire Tree’ (more of that later)
  • I marvelled at the mottled purple blotches within the Foxglove flower
  • The scale green lichen-clad tree-twigs
  • I felt some peace seep into me as I wended my way randomly around the site for 15 minutes

Afterwards, I realised that I had clean forgotten to reflect on great things and how great we all are – as prompted by my lovely colleague, Ed. However, as Tolkien observed, ‘All who wander are not lost’ and my wonder wander was full of lovely moments and visions and I felt some tension lifting as I wending my way. Afterwards, it was really interesting to hear the reflections of others, all of whom had different experiences, seeing the same ‘stuff’ differently.

A mindful image…

At this point in the day, the rain ceased and we were treated to some intermittent sunshine as we sat in a circle with my colleague Paul leading a mindful breathing session. Since joining MensCraft as a member of staff (two-and-a-half years ago) I have done a fair bit of mindful practice, so I was able to get into the ‘zone’ very quickly (it is called ‘practice’ for a reason – you have to keep practicing it to get the benefits). We did some ‘Box Breathing’, where, either side of breathing in and out, you hold your breath – all to a count. Most of us are shallow-breathing through our mouths. It isn’t only that we absorb 25% more oxygen when nasal breathing, when we shallow breathe our bodies are programmed to prepare for an external threat. Once you get used to slowing and holding your breathing, it you are physiologically removing the threat. It encourages a shift from ‘fight or flight’ experienced in the lizard part of our brain to a ‘rest and relax’ state. Afterwards, we had an interesting discussion about how we experienced this breathwork. We could all appreciate how this can be of great benefit to men living with complex trauma – although it important that it is sensitively facilitated as sometimes horrible thoughts/memories may ‘mug’ you during this process. It is also important make sure that folk with, say, heart or breathing conditions are supported to participate in a safe way.

After enjoying a lovely lunch cooked by Andy, we offered an option for folk to have a go at wood whittling or weave a friendship bracelet. I was ‘leading’ the latter and it was great to pass on the – actually, very simple – skill of weaving. Matt and Ellie agreed that it was absorbing and almost meditative. I explained how we started doing this as part of our ‘Hoodies for Happiness’ wellbeing activism. Hoodies are all about giving, and we started this activism by making things we could then give away. I also explained how – based on some training MensCraft did a while back – I was inspired to do some ‘therapeutic’ storytelling woven around the weaving. I encourage men to open up and talk about their ‘stories’ by explaining the process by which – through putting myself alongside good people, in good places, doing good things – I started to weave in some beautiful threads. For me, in the day-to-day-ness of things, I often didn’t even notice that I was growing and changing – and that is akin to the regular turns of the weaving card. However, others could see the rainbows I was weaving – and that is on the reverse of the card… the metaphor seems to resonate with a lot of people and this ‘Weave and Waffle’ activity often transforms the conversions.

As our day together neared its end, we sat around the fire in a circle for 50 minutes as we held, ‘Council’. I have written about this in a previous Pit Stop blog post about the Manifest East mens camp, so I’ll quote that here by way of explanation:

‘This is where we sit for in a circle with a ‘Talking Stick’ in the middle. There is no pressure or obligation to speak, but when moved to share some thoughts, the ‘speaker’ takes the stick from the centre and holds it whilst talking, addressing the centre of the circle, not any one individual. What is said within the circle, stays within the circle. Being a secular rationalist since I was eight years old I’m not someone who has embraced or encountered ‘ritual’ during my previous life experience. Indeed, the younger, less open-minded me, would’ve dismissed such things as Council as, ‘a load of old!!!’. However, talking within a circle governed by these agreements really does change the ‘conversation’. In my experience, it seems to encourage genuine listening and helps to create a setting where we feel empowered to be our authentic selves. It is a space away from the ‘day-to-day’ where I certainly found myself able to reflect on some things that really matter. We are, if we wish, welcome to be silent for the duration. What I have witnessed within these circles is a lot of beauty. I’m a ‘woke’ bloke who cries, cares, fails, fears, Loves, laughs, hurts, nurtures, creates – and I’m proud to be so. I know that I’m not alone in this and I see strength in a circle where men reveal their true complex being. We are also, if we wish, welcome to be silent for the duration. I want to live within an identity that expresses who I genuinely am – not some toxic suit of armour (like I was once trapped within as an outwardly fierce, but inwardly ‘lost’, teenager).’

As one of the key ‘rules’ for Council is what is said within the circle stays within the circle, I’m not going to reveal what we shared. Instead, I’d like to invite men (aged 18+) who are interested in experiencing a MensCraft Fire Circle to gather with us on the following dates/times:

Who: anyone male or male-identifying, aged 18+

When: Saturdays 15th June, 13th July and 17th August.

What time: arrive from 11.30 am to start at 12 and finish at 4 pm

Lunch will be vegetarian – please let us know if you have any specific dietary requirements

Cost: we’re asking for donations – pay what you can afford (please bring cash for this Saturday – we should have a card reader available for future gatherings)

What to bring: you will need to bring your own eating and drinking utensils; a camp chair to sit on; clothing for all types of weather, including an umbrella and sun protection (there is no indoor option; there will be gazebos to hide under if it rains or the sun shines too hard!)

To book: send an email or text to Andy: andy@menscraft.org.uk; 07584 253 441… no later than 24 HOURS IN ADVANCE.

Directions: XAdventure site, Bramley Lakes, Dog Lane, Horsford,  NR10 3DH

The site is just north of Norwich off the B1149, the Holt Road.  Dog Lane is a turning off the B1149 at the southern end of Horsford, by the Dog Inn.  Go down the lane for about two miles.  Watch out for the sign to XAdventure, a turning off to your right and down the end of their drive.  There is plenty of parking and you will be met in the car park by staff.

Lifts from Norwich: If you don’t have your own transport and are not able to arrange a lift with a friend, we can arrange for you to be picked up in Norwich.  Please let us know on booking if you’ll need a lift.

Could you offer a lift?  Please let Andy know on booking if you’d be willing to pick another man up (we will connect those offering a lift with those needing one.)

Postscript: And finally, what about Elder being a ‘fire tree’? The internal section of the elder wood has a foam-like substance that, once removed, leaves you with a hollow stick. Historically, this was used in order to blow through and fan the embers of a fire. I made my own ‘fire stick’ that day and I intend to test it out during Saturday’s Fire Circle

Written by Colin Howey, Norwich Pit Stop Coordinator (11/06/24)