Vancouver School For Narrative Therapy VSNT
Warm Water Ports, Refugees, and Bergen Live Conference Cool
“The Irish are not embarrassed about death.”
- Dinner table conversation, Castletownbere, West Cork, Ireland, May 13, 2022
Given the enormous amount of thought and consideration VSNT employed weaving together an international lineup of veteran and relatively new narrative presenters for the Third Nordic Narrative Therapy conference in Bergen Norway (May 4-6, 2022), it was still a great surprise to witness this beautifully crafted collective gathering, in action. The beat, verse and metric were staggeringly solid.
The Third Nordic Narrative Therapy conference was initially set for May 2020. After three COVID related conference postponements Operations Manager Robin Evan Willis was afforded enough creative time and space to design a backend conference infrastructure masterpiece.
As is the playbook for all prior VSNT conferences, my role is to hand-pick the presenters, work alongside them to jazz up their workshop titles, descriptions, and bios, and then, once all this is completed, piece together a balanced (and hopefully exciting) conference schedule.
By October 2021 we believed the delays were behind us and, all the important VSNT infrastructure conference organizing boxes had been checked:
1) Working in tandem with local organisers, in this case Narrativ Praksis Bergen,
2) Creating a fine balance of international veteran and new narrative therapy presenters, provide a wide range of theory and practice topics and, offer both foundational and advanced narrative therapy learning options,
3) Secure a venue - this turned out to be the beautiful brick and timber Bergen Literature House,
4) Secure a top shelf AV production crew,
5) Create an excellent pre-conference planning schema through solid back-end website design (presented in both English and Norwegian.)
VSNT’s partnership with Narrativ Praksis Bergen afforded us Cecilie Kristensen’s (CK) skillful and creative design talents that worked to mirror and add to Robin’s English language conference website. The partnership also put us in touch with the multi-talented Siv Sæveraas who painstakingly translated every word onto the NPB Norwegian language conference site and - did the same with every bit of translation thereafter.
Robin had worked flat out for several months before she went on maternity leave in mid-December (welcome to the world baby Max!).
By then, she’d completed all the tireless back end sweat and labour pre-conference prep required, and instructed Narrativ Praksis Bergen how to set up functional registration schemes, marketing maps, provided them with pre-designed adverts, and laid out the tried and tested VSNT conference format the rest of us simply had to follow.
Despite all her pre-planning instructions there were still a few glitches, mis-communications and mis-steps along the way, however, in the end, it was a great learning process and by opening day - all was perfect in conference land.
Thank you to everyone on the Bergen side, with special thanks going out to local NPB organisers/presenters Cecilie Erichsen Lærkerød and Gunnar Martinsen who worked tirelessly to communicate with VSNT and picked up the missing pieces when the conference most needed them to. And to Mwamini Ali-Sivertsen who along with giving two stand out presentations (with CK) gifted participants with her friend and spoken word poet Michael whose conference opening was visually and poetically stunning.
Many thanks to everyone on the team in Bergen and the Literature House AV crew and staff.
Literature House, Bergen
For the most part, the large majority of Norwegians speak English and first language English speakers do not speak Norwegian.
So, conference keynotes and workshops were primarily presented in English.
However, participants were encouraged to respond/ask workshop questions in Norwegian and other participants and presenters involved in the workshop then translated. This method of cross-cultural language interaction and discussion worked out extraordinarily well.
Our organising team also designed a few workshop presentations solely in Norwegian. And happily, these events were always packed to the rafters.
And some workshops, like the one I participated in alongside colleagues Elin and Stein-Roger from Trondheim’s high conflict couple therapy team (offering an overview of our cross-cultural/dual-language 5-step Relational Supervision model), was presented 70% in Norwegian with the remainder in English. Cool.
Among the highlights the sold-out participant audience experienced was just how infectious (perhaps a poor use of words during a pandemic) and supportive the connective tissue was within the collective presenter group.
And to their credit, participants seemed to privately commit themselves to supporting a narrative therapy conference harmony, respect, and togetherness.
All throughout the conference, everyone (and I mean absolutely everyone!), supported, encouraged, expressed delight and excitement, and jumped their full-on relational selves into the mix. One could feel an electrified buzz, building momentum, from one moment to the next.
Miles Davis cool circulated.
Uplifting this buzz was the absence of buzz-killers: not once did we hear a dissatisfied utterance, or gossip, or any behind-the-scenes slagging shenanigans. Additionally, no one made any attempt to grandstand, exaggerate, bullshit their skills, or push themselves above anyone else. And this too, was cool.
It’s hard to discern but the buzz may have also been pushed along by an international community arriving in to their first live narrative therapy conference in over two years. What a great thirst-quencher to now touch and teach – live and in person.
Adding to the buzz (judging again from the collective participant responses) was how the collective messaging throughout the conference workshops and keynotes was seeing presenters: showing and discussing how the practice of narrative therapy was - a political act.
This should not be earth-shattering news to narrative therapists adhering to a non-individualist inspired post-structural rendering of the practice.
However, it’s has often been my experience that while post-structural discussions on context, structural inequalities, culture, and values are actively supported and discussed – the production of these ideas is often ‘light’ on clearly demonstrating the coherent link between the ideas and the practice performed inside the narrative therapy room.
This was however not the case in Bergen.
And for many in attendance, the politics shaping narrative practice along with our purposefully driven mandate for presenters to clearly demonstrate the politic and theory embedded inside the practice, was not expected.
The narrative therapy work presented at the Third Nordic Narrative Therapy conference was uniformly political and non-essentialist. Through tape, transcripts, and live interviewing - presenters showed stripped down real, raw, unaltered, relational, and revealing demonstrations of this practice.
Thank you so much to everyone who presented and participated. Watch for selected workshops and keynotes from the Bergen conference on VSNT.live.
The streets of Bergen
Our Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy is taking a bit of a break before we begin the process of deciding where and when to host the Fourth Nordic Narrative Therapy conference.
What we do know for certain is . . . all of you are invited!
VSNT is also open to any and all creative suggestions as to the where and when of this next conference. Please get back to us at email@example.com
On May 7th, after nearly two weeks of work in Norway, I flew to West Cork, Ireland, after 30 long months away.
After saying our goodbyes at the Bergen airport to our fabulously fun and gifted VSNT colleagues Rosa Arteaga and Helene Grau - Todd May, David Rock Nylund and I flew on the same flight to Amsterdam.
They then headed homeward to North Carolina and California.
I flew to Ireland to catch up with two of my closest longstanding friends in the world ~ Danielle O’Connor Akiyama and Brenda Rawn Jordan.
After fetching me from the airport, Danielle discusses ‘their plan’ for the coming days. I smile because historically, I never really had a say in the planning. Ha! But believe me, I love all the care and thoughtfulness that goes into their plans.
She then catches me up on her plan to bring the builders in to spruce up the coach house on her property and proceeds to explains why.
Some weeks before Danielle applied to host a Ukrainian refugee family fleeing the unfolding horror 2,000 miles to the east. She is now working flat out to do all she can to make the families foreign landing calm and comfortable.
She wonders aloud if Irish bureaucrats will find her home too isolated and counters her own question with a scintillating argument against politicians and statisticians offering generalized responses to a massive collective moral trauma and ‘pretending’ to be authorities on what exactly all Ukrainian families need.
Her argument builds and I smile (again) because pity the bureaucrat who may decide to turn down her home placement. Rarely have I witnessed her loose an argument on the values front. My friend can be fierce.
Danielle turns and asks me what I feel about the ensuing crisis of war and the 26,000 refugees who have arrived in Ireland. I don’t quite know where to begin.
Since my early twenties I’ve been passionately following international politics – with a primary focus on the Middle East. So, I start thinking about a history of refugees and war (which there are a dreadful too many) . . .
My thoughts take me to 2012, when a Syria refugee crisis began, and where the world looked on to witness 6.8 million refugees and asylum-seekers, and another 6.7 million people being displaced within Syria. This means 13.5 million Syrians in total were forcibly displaced - more than half of the country’s population. Nearly 11.1 million people in Syria in need of humanitarian assistance.
On a side note . . . in June 2018 I was staying with Brenda and her partner Neil at their home base in Dalkey (just south of Dublin) while attending the yearly Dalkey book festival. As luck would have it one of my all-time heroes, Robert Fisk, who holds more British and international journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent, was speaking at the festival.
For decades I have admired Fisk’s uncommon reporting and books on the Middle East. His commentary is clearly focused on the casualties and tragedies of the people affected by war. He avoids the fist-pounding, muscle pumping, patriotic masculinity, machinery, and military strategy. Offering people like me in the privileged west heart breaking, vivid, and violent understandings of the human tragedy relationally engaged within war zones.
Robert Fisk never took sides. He didn’t have a dog in the race. His only stake in the game was bringing the citizens story to bare.
He was equally critical of the USA, Iraq, Israel, Iran, Sunni, Shia, the UK, Syria, Hezbollah, France, and all the many Christians and Muslim factions fighting inside Lebanon. He was fearless, tireless and an exceptionally gifted reporter.
After I attend his three-hour lecture and Q&A, Brenda rings me with a ‘surprise’ – she and Neil had invited Robert Fisk and his partner to dinner that night along with a few other friends – and what a night it was!
Robert Fisk had been living and writing out of Beirut for 40 years and gracefully, pointedly, and patiently engaged our every question asked with long vibrant telling’s (over I think, at last count, 11 bottles of Bordeaux). One of the cooler nights I’ve ever had.
Having avoided death by bombings, assassination attempts and kidnappings numerous times throughout his career, Robert Fisk died unexpectedly in Dalkey in October 2020. If readers are interested, I would recommend you pick up his book Pity the Nation and his 1,366-page giant entitled The Great War for Civilization. And I’ve just finished a 2021 published book Brenda gave me during my visit by American journalist Lara Marlowe entitled: Love in a Time of War ~ my years with Robert Fisk.
Ok – in and around 2014 the European migrant crisis began - also known internationally as the Syrian refugee crisis. The crisis had considerable short-term and long-term effects on the politics of both the affected EU countries and the EU as a whole. Populous right-wing political parties in the affected countries capitalized on anti-immigrant sentiment, in many cases making it the centerpiece of their platform and making opposition to immigration part of today’s political mainstream.
It was around this time I began thinking seriously about ‘climate refugees’ – where a rapidly changing fucked-up human inspired global climate system would begin forcing whole populations of people out of their homelands in search of safe refuge. At the time, I wondered why there was very little international writing on this issue.
This was also the time when I first read a fascinating book by foreign affairs correspondent Tim Marshall entitled Prisoners of Geography – describing how matters of geography shape and determine the political decisions world leaders make. Hence the word . . . geopolitics.
So . . . what does this have to do with Danielle’s question about my thoughts on Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine? Well, let’s start with the idea of how the land on which we live has always shaped us. And this land is highly instrumental in shaping the wars, the power, the politics, and social development of the people who inhabit it.
Marshall writes how the physical realities that underpin national and international politics are too often disregarded in contemporary reporting of world affairs.
And it is this consideration of geography that brings us to a few wondering thoughts on the invasion of the Ukraine.
Beyond the obvious encroaching threat NATO creates for Russia, and Putin’s unresolved anger over the dissolution of the Soviet Union, another primary issue to contemplate is Russia’s lack of geographical access to warm water ports that, Russia has none of.
None? Even though Russia is the biggest country in the world? Yes.
None? Even though Russia’s land mass is twice the size of the USA or China, five times the size of India, and seventy times the size of the UK? Yes again.
Despite its size, the geographical reality is Russia lacks a warm-water port with direct access to oceans and seas offering them increased military mobility and strength and a gateway to world economic markets.
This has always been Russia’s Achilles heel, and this places Russia at a great geographical disadvantage.
OK - fast backward to 2014 when President Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian government lost its hold on Kiev and the Ukraine parliament. He then high tailed it out of the country after a massive uprising and protests (remember?)
The citizen actions of Ukraine brought in democratic reform, and a change to a Western friendly government. These changes also enhanced Russia feeling exposed under the threat of NATO coming closer and, made vulnerable the lease Russia held with Ukraine on their only warm water port in - Sevastopol, Crimea.
Keeping this in mind, during 2014 Putin takes military action to annex Crimea and its warm water port of Sevastopol – thereby securing Russian access routes for trade and the military.
On a side note, many scholars argue the invasion of Afghanistan also offered hope to the Russian dream of having access to warm-water ports and a gateway to the world’s trading routes. This of course did not work out so well.
My thoughts on the present situation in the Ukraine and my brief and very simple answer to Danielle was simply . . . follow the map of the Ukraine and where Russia’s invasive troop movements and bombings are taking place. Overtime we will notice the geographical locations appearing of most importance to the Russia government. And here I believe you will find a map of warm water ports.
I realize my answer may sound odd however, please remember Marshall’s idea of how the physical realities that underpin national and international politics are too often disregarded in contemporary reporting of world affairs. OK, thanks for baring with me and - it is time to move on . . .
The West Cork plan I referenced above was to stay at both Danielle and Brenda’s respective homes in the little towns of Goleen and Castletownbere. Each house is located on the stunning and beautifully rugged terrain known as the Beara Peninsula and embedded within the Wild Atlantic Way.
But for the first four days while I got over mild symptoms of COVID (a story for another time), the three of us stayed together. I was really looking forward to seeing Brenda’s husband Neil as they had planned but, that plan unfortunately changed a little with the Covid news and pressures on Neil to complete the post-production work on a film he’d recently directed in Barcelona. Next time.
Every day at 5pm was cocktail hour and this is Danielle’s domain. Followed by collective menu building that had been earlier hatched over morning coffee and/or gardening. Then it’s figuring over who is cooking, rounding up the salads and veg grown in the gardens, and the ceremonial opening (my job) and pouring ourselves into the beginnings of long Bordeaux inspired conversation deep underneath the stary-studded evening sky.
Within the tight knit friendship group the three of us grew up with (and exists to this day), discussions are forever raucous, righteous, hilarious, revealing and always, tender. The expectation is - one needs to know how to tell a story and, hold a statement, firm. The same unspoken ‘rules’ apply wherever we are.
One evening, alongside a local friend of Brenda’s, I witness them travel far into the investigation of a statement: “The Irish are not embarrassed about death.”
I listen to their stories on how death holds a collective relational sharing, respect, and meaning. I learned much about the intimate particularities of how death is ritually embraced and performed by the community of others and loved ones.
I could go on and on about all this and much more but . . . all I’d like to share at this point is a warm thank you to Danielle, Brenda, and the Beara Peninsula - for holding me tight.
I realize I haven’t given much of an offering to you about narrative therapy practice in this newsletter. Or news of the people making waves in our community. However, the ‘plan’ for the next newsletter is to have it loaded up and chalk-a-block full of interesting and developing ideas, theories, practices, people and of course, stories.
I intend to share information about our new, and I must say very cool, Narrative Therapy 6-month Supervision course that took VSNT over a year in the making to create. Additional news on the big fat overhaul going on at VSNT.live will be included, and a report on six (yes six!) new Fall 2022 Advanced Practice 3-day courses. See you then.
Hoping you all of you manage to keep things interesting and healthy.