In the same shadow

All day I’ve been in the shadow of a dream. The more I think about it, and especially the feeling of it, the more I wonder whether it wasn’t actually some kind of afterlife scenario. It was almost Strumble Head in Pembrokeshire; that same sense of expansive vista, all sea and sky and barely any land to counterbalance it, but there was something of the uncanny, too. Like Prospero’s island, maybe. All the while I was aware of the unbroken sound of the waves and seabirds.

Several years ago, I learnt to sail and bought a scruffy little tub of a boat, a Gull. I loved it. For a time, it frightened the living daylights out of me most weekends. In the dream, my nerves were thrumming with life, the way I recall Pip’s centre-board would begin singing and, oh, the unexpected joy of it! It didn’t cross my mind once that this was perhaps not our world, that I was not, in fact, in my living body because, heaven help me, I was where I belonged and I was happy. If happiness is a feeling of calm expansion about the heart and that experience of buoyancy I am constantly on the scent of (and which is a good half of the reason why I swim).

You know you’re in trouble when Thom Yorke provides the soundtrack for your internal life. Change the direction the wind is blowing from and that dream is distinctly unsettling. As it is, I sigh over it (we, who still have the breath in our bodies, and think nothing of squandering the miracle so).

I’ve been considering (i.e. worrying at) the question of what I truly desire in this life. When I had my boat, what I loved best was sailing close-hauled: as near to head-to-wind as I could get and still be moving forwards.

Something came to me recently about how I will not be at peace with myself unless, each day, I go six inches out of my depth.

I’ve been thinking about the fortnight last Autumn when I returned to Weymouth. I’ve been daydreaming about Pembrokeshire, too. And I’ve been taking part in Art2Life’s “stripped down” challenge – the idea being to focus on something essential in your art-making and to jettison all the rest, for the moment. Take a look at my Instagram, if you like. I’m sketching brush-pen drawings from photos I took of the Pembrokeshire coast: monochromatic, until blue wouldn’t be resisted any longer. But, for the most part, a matter of brights and darks, light and shadow.

To reside within the neighbourhood of that which is beloved: is that what I seek? The Persian word for “neighbour” (which may be transliterated “hamsayeh”) translates as “same shadow”. To live within the same shadow? To cast the same shadow? I don’t know. But something resonates here, just beyond the frequency my daylit eye perceives.

The kid that shame forgot

“Is Katherine playing?”

At weekends and during school holidays our back garden was often riotous with kids from the other houses in the street. I was happy enough to put my book down a while and play skipping games, elastics, or “knives, forks, spoons” (a kind of competitive gymnastics game: I still do a mean cartwheel!)… until the summer I saw The Land That Time Forgot. How could I focus on handstands when I desperately needed to think about dinosaurs? I made a makeshift (i.e. probably dangerous) swing in the lilac tree and spent hours going back and forth, planning my great dinosaur adventure.

In the film, the lost land was discovered by a submarine with a German crew. I figured there would be submarines in the naval base at Portland Harbour, half an hour away, so needn’t worry about that for the time being. The little school library had a series of books about various countries: I soon memorised the page of rudimentary vocab. in the back of the one about Germany.

In short, with only a dodgy action movie as my template, I put two and two together and came up with a number outside the decimal system altogether.

Yesterday morning, I listened to a new meditation on Spotify. I don’t think it matched its description, but it did bring something interesting to light. Two related things, actually; two instances where I was punished, by a teacher and by a stranger (including, both times, angry shouting and name-calling), when I didn’t understand what I had done wrong, or even that I had done something wrong. And, in the absence of understanding, I interpreted this as further evidence that I was (in all things) wrong. This resulted in an intense feeling of shame so I could never tell anyone else what had happened. I hid it, and alongside it I hid what I could of myself, so it wouldn’t happen again. (Of course, the pattern went on helplessly repeating…)

Sitting quietly after my meditation, I heard myself say, “there is nothing for you to be ashamed of there.” This marks a significant breakthrough.

More than forty years on, I still have a fondness for dinosaurs (I know, I know!); my German could probably, given sufficient effort, be polished back into something serviceable. I realise I am the last person who should ever go on a submarine (all the weird noises; too many people far too close together; the lack of natural light and air; the problematic food…). I still find a lot of human behaviour largely incomprehensible. I gather and compare the evidence before me. I look for the patterns that allow me to navigate these foreign waters. I get by, more or less. But a flash of the old shame rises through me, as I wonder just how often I misinterpret what I’m seeing and get it wrong, wrong, cluelessly wrong.

Dead Horses and Moscow Mules

My post-swim tea and porridge routine has relocated to the garden this week, where I have reclaimed my small corner between the overgrown bushes and the shed. I sit beneath the parasol, contentedly watching the birds on the feeders. It is so nice that I was moved to optimise the experience by planting out some special-offer bedding plants, which promise an abundance of gaudy joy in short order (provided the slugs don’t get them). I also installed a modest water feature, comprising a cheap solar-powered fountain and a builder’s bucket.

Cue a low-key summer solstice celebration, then, with the help of a homemade golden sultana soda bread, washed down with one too many Moscow mules. Yes, the vodka and lime have put in another appearance (along with a lively ginger fizz): my poetry manuscript was declined yet again, this time by Amy Wack, of Seren. Two significant doors slamming in my face in the space of a fortnight (the other being the Poetry Business) is hard to accommodate with equanimity.

Rejection, I get it (time after time). I know it’s an inevitable part of the writer’s life. But I have to question how sustainable this is as a practice. There are the emotional costs, certainly. But neither are the reading fees, competition entry fees etc. negligible. I know my work is good but this way of going about things is not getting me anywhere. Switching horses, mid-race? More like finding myself thigh-deep in the mud in the middle of nowhere, wondering what the hell I’m doing there (wherever there even is) and how to goodness I’m going to get home.

A hazy shade of something

In the slough of the post-project plummet since completing my poetry pamphlet, I have been unable to write for six months. It’s starting to look like a phobic reaction. It has happened before but never quite to this extent. I suspect it is not the writing, per se, that is the problem but the belief that I am obliged to “do something” with it (all the more so after the mentorship with Pascale Petit: she did not share her time and expertise so I can cram my desk drawer with unpublished manuscripts). But the material facts strongly suggest I am constitutionally averse to what I think of as “the poetry circus”. Nor is this just shyness. It is exhausting and stressful to engage with it. Not for the first time, I ask myself, “Do I really want that? Or do I only believe I should want it? If I am not writing,” so the logic goes, “then there will be nothing to have to send out.”

However, when I am not involved in a regular creative practice, I implode. My mind needs a bumper box of assorted chew-toys if it is not to tear up the place, and sufficient emotive and sensory content to prevent my drifting off-world into complete abstraction.

A series of synchronicities led to my signing up for Art2Life‘s Creative Visionary Program: a three-month intensive art course that proved to be every bit as joyous as it was challenging. It was just brilliant, and it didn’t take long to understand why Nicholas Wilton calls his company Art2Life: I learnt a tonne of art theory and have about 25 years’ worth of practise to continue with but, beyond that, Nick and his team amply modelled an attitude of living life generously. This is priceless.

I enjoyed the learning as much as the painting and set myself the task of making copious colour-mix charts, an activity I find immensely soothing and quietly thrilling! I learned that I enjoy working with a limited palette in muted colours (reduced risk of overwhelm-paralysis) and that what I really want to paint (though as yet largely lacking the skills to do so) is the emotive and sensory quality of the things I experience, and how I think about them, rather than an “accurate” portrayal of them.

I felt right at home with the course’s clear structure, and its amount of detail and re-iteration of key concepts. I continue to struggle with play which I persist in framing as chaos and mess (and I hate having paint dry on my hands!).

By the end of the program I had built the beginnings of a sustainable art-making practice (some of which I can transfer to my writing) and I had made a stack of acrylic paintings, including a series of three portraits of me, my sister, and my daughter as little kids. I did not anticipate this as a subject but they insisted. Fully engaging with the program required (and created the conditions for) painting personal and vulnerable work. I felt a need to honour the kids we were, to acknowledge the difficulties we each faced, and how those things remain part of what continues to shape the people we are today. Perhaps it is only through doing so that I can be properly present and get on with doing the damn work of being here now.

Disrupted Daughters no.1: Adrift

Disrupted Daughters no.2: Left

Disrupted Daughters no.3: Hexed

 

Burnt out and fired up

“So, how are things?” asked Juliette. The other Dialect mentees and I were meeting up with her on Zoom for a six-months-on debrief. After the usual dead air while I consider the myriad of potential answers to this routine question, I opt for burnt out. I’m a poet (am I still a poet when I’m not writing?): it’s a metaphor. Not remotely original, granted, but it conveys the all-consumed, scorched socket of a sensation: writing practice as landscape in the aftermath of a plague of fire-locusts. It’s no comfort to recognise that I struck the match, that I all but invited the voracious beasties, each one, by name.

So I get myself fired up over another project: the Art2Life CVP course. It’s been a blast but this week was a challenge. We were invited to get the paints out and fill two panels just as we pleased, without thinking about it, being led by whatever felt good. We were invited to play. Sounds good, right? It turns out that, while I get the concept, when I come to do play, I end up miserable and anxious because my instinct to define the task and come up with a set of procedures to follow doesn’t work. (This might be funny if only it didn’t trip me up quite so much.) It’s too VAST, and I’m overwhelmed. I am choosing to view this as useful feedback… . I want structure, I want parameters: put that on a T-shirt and get paint on it!

Discernment and the absence of dinosaurs

There’s a quote in Eric Maisel’s Fearless Creating (Tarcher, 1995) that I turn to often: “You choose to do something challenging not because you expect a worry-free experience but because you want the experience so badly that you accept beforehand the new anxieties you are about to encounter.”

Recently I’ve been pondering the prospect of attending Swanwick Writers’ Summer School again this year. In brief, I’ve decided against. I will be sorry to miss poet Roy McFarlane’s new four-part course, and there are several other tasty offerings but… much as the necessity to do so frustrates me, I need to factor in the “local conditions”. These include public transport stress, inevitable social overwhelm, the likelihood of frequent hunger on account of the insufficient and inadequate (from a vegan perspective) food provision, and poor sleep; all contributing to mental, emotional and physical exhaustion. Last year I was excited to go. This year there’s not enough of a pull to offset the risk of a meltdown/shutdown. I’ll consider it again next year. For now, I have other fish to fry (beans to boil?).

After an epic bout of Olympic-standard over-thinking, I decided to raid my savings and enrol in Art2Life‘s 3-month Creative Visionary Program. That’s an encounter with impostor-syndrome right there! Creative Visionary?! Who am I kidding? I like to sketch in a half-arsed, don’t-know-what-I’m-doing kind of way. There are serious artists on this course! But I think that’s part of the appeal: to do something I enjoy without the pressure of expecting myself to be any good at it. This week we have been making inspiration boards. Mine is all birds, books, and blue, tea, swimming and the sea. I feel buoyant when I look at it. And yet, as it was nearing completion, I was struck by grief for the things I hadn’t the space to include. Where are the walks in the woods? Where are all the flowers? Where, I ask you, are the crocheted dinosaurs? Of course, I could make a second board for these and other things. I remind myself that my inspiration board is not actually a lifeboat on the Titanic (and yet, and yet… the way “things” are…). I sat with the sadness a while and contemplated this middle-aged species of discernment: it pains me that there is not “world enough, and time” to immerse myself in all the things that might hold my attention. I must choose.

Definitions and differences

I’ve been reading one of the books I got for Christmas: The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams. It’s like the Lindt chocolate shop for word-nerds! I told my daughter about mountweazels, made-up words inserted into dictionaries to serve as copyright-infringement traps. She misremembered the word as “snout-wurzel”, which I have since decided is a disparaging term for a dipsomaniac old man with a nose like a wizened turnip.

On being asked if she has a favourite word, Eley Williams expressed a fondness for “pamphlet”. I currently consider it one of the more triggering words in the English language. Eley Williams thinks it almost onamatopoiec, the breeze of fingers riffling through a slender volume. I am less socially appropriate. I suspect “pamphlet” to be a species of broken wind. Not the great florid rambunctiousness of fully letting rip but a muffled half-squeak of minor embarrassment: “Pardon me, I’ve just released a pamphlet.”

What, then, is one to call a poem from said pamphlet? I have one in the Dialect anthology, available here, anyway.

I am still not writing. What is the term for a non-writing writer? “A monster courting insanity”, if Kafka is to be believed. I cannot make myself write. I cannot force myself to power through a visceral aversion. I certainly cannot shame myself into doing so. It’s far from ideal, I realise that. But I sense that it will come back, provided I am not too insistent.

In the meantime, I am keeping my hand moving across the page in my sketchbook. This week I have taken a deep dive into Nicholas Wilton’s free Art2Life workshops. I have been exploring the concept of differences through the principles of design and value (whilst getting significant mileage out of the metaphors, to boot). Understand these, he says, and the majority of your (artistic!) problems are solved. And so I contentedly fill pages with shade and tone and the marvels of monochrome. Next up is, inevitably, colour. I’m a little apprehensive. This is the point, in previous courses I’ve done, that I get overwhelmed by the limitless possibilities available. But at the moment this feels like one challenge I am actually equal to. Mark me, then, daimons of the polychromaton, ye denizens of Pantonium; I have my eye on you.

Un-desire

One of my pamphlet poems has found a home, in the forthcoming Dialect anthology. Juliette asked me to make a recording of it, also (with a minute’s worth of introductory blurb) for the accompanying podcast. I’m a “page poet”, no question, but there is an unmistakeable power in speaking the words out loud, ventilating them, giving them air through which to move.

I am pleased (and relieved!) about the anthology and podcast and yet there is discomfort, discordance. Another four weeks have passed and still I am not writing. This has gone beyond any reluctance or resistance I have experienced before: it has the texture of a veto proclaimed far, far down in the unsighted depths. Meanwhile, the emails declining my work drip drip drip into my submissions folder.

And yet I remain compelled to put marks on paper: I turn instead to my sketchbook. I still have to circle the page a few times before I can sit down and begin. The first five or ten minutes of drawing are just awful but perseverance delivers me into the deep quiet of attention (entrancement, oftentimes) to whatever is in front of me. I don’t produce great drawings, but I sense the process is of inestimable value.

I tell myself I should be able to map my routines and experience of drawing on to the desire to write. Well, that’s the theory. In practice it’s not happening. And that’s when the assumption itself trips me up: what if there is no desire to write? What if I am mistaking the panic of not being able to do something for a true yearning to do it? What if it is not a question of discipline or mindset, transferable skills, but rather an absence of fundamental Eros?

 

In between years

This disconcerting inter-tidal zone between the end of one year and the beginning of the next might be custom-made for auditing my greater and lesser failings, for using the scourge of “not enough” upon myself. I suspect mine is not the only household to observe this custom: finish up the Christmas goodies, welcome in the New Year with Jools Holland, hang anxiously upon the minute-hand and perform a thorough character assassination before extorting a panicked vow to be less lacklustre henceforth.

Not that I am one for resolutions: I resolve nothing. But. This year Michelle Lloyd from United ArtSpace persuaded me to take part in her Best Year Yet fortnight. It’s early days but so far I have drawn up an alarming mind-map of both sensible, achievable goals and awesome ridiculous ones, and have reflected upon the year just gone. And I must concede that 2021 was a year that “counts”: it was rich in challenges, most of which I rose to (with more stumbling and swearing than grace and aplomb, but never mind).

Some significant milestones:
I was awarded four months of poetry mentoring with Pascale Petit (no less!) by Dialect, by the end of which I had completed a pamphlet and undergone a sea-change in how I think and feel towards my poetry and what is possible for it.
I took part in various poetry workshops and classes (with Dialect, for NaPoWriMo, and with the the Poetry School) via Zoom.
I sent two pieces of work to Stroud Short Stories: one made the shortlist; I recorded the other for their event on YouTube.
I attended Swanwick Writers’ Summer School for the first time.

And, at the risk of turning this into an Oscars acceptance speech, here are some people without whom….
Juliette Morton, of Dialect – for awarding me a poetry mentorship and for getting me to do things I thought were beyond me (breakout groups on Zoom; sharing works in progress …)
Pascale Petit – for all-round mentoring excellence and for not letting me settle for “good, but not special”.
Michelle Lloyd, of United ArtSpace – whose free “Kickstart Your Art” program got me drawing again, whose “Motivational Mondays” on YouTube allow me to believe in possibility, and whose “7 Keys” course helped with focusing on the why and what of my poetry pamphlet, and continues to guide me in the practicalities of making and sharing my creative work.
Roy Mcfarlane – whose poetry class every morning during Swanwick week was a joy, and took my mind off the inescapable social and sensory overwhelm.
The good people of Litsy – for encouraging me to warble on about my bookish enthusiasms to my heart’s content; also for contributing towards building my TBR tower to near-blasphemous heights.

So there we have it! As for this year… excuse me a moment while I consult my mind-map: in the words of Octavia Butler “So be it. See to it.”

Running away to sea

Things have been difficult since finishing my poetry pamphlet. I have sent out bunches of poems to magazines etc. that Pascale recommended and, to date, have been met with refusal or months of silence. Not one acceptance. I did have a refusal from Granta that was so positive it almost felt like an acceptance but frankly I am not content with being grateful for crumbs that fall from the table. This is evidently the way of a writer’s life. It is difficult, but it is not the difficulty.

Since finishing my pamphlet, the exhaustion and sense of vacuum that followed in its wake allowed my demons back in. I have been stressed and miserable, overwhelmed by the smallest things. For the life of me I have not been able to sit at my desk and write. I thought this was the warm-up act to the familiar post-project depression, but now I am not so sure.

A handful of synchronicities and pressing irritability led to my spending a fortnight alone on the Dorset coast in the town where I was born. I love the sea. For twenty years we’ve been visiting Pembrokeshire and I have come to love it with a simple, joyful love. Dorset is complicated. I was always in my element on the beaches but childhood was misery and I left at the first opportunity, only returning for very brief visits a handful of times since.

I couldn’t believe my luck: I’d rented a one-bed loft apartment on the seafront. I watched the ships in the bay. I watched birds (turnstones, particularly). I befriended a pair of juvenile herring gulls who showed up every time I put food on my table. I sat in the deep window sill and let the sea and sky soften my eyes for hours. I read Alice Oswald’s Nobody out loud to the sea (it persisted in talking over me, but no matter). I walked on the beach for an hour every day at first light, and then again towards sunset. And I quickly realised I was not, in fact, depressed.

Neither was I happy, exactly. But the agitation, the sensation of being constantly assailed by everyone and everything, and having nothing to set against that, was just… gone. The flat was simply furnished and tidy. I could read and meditate and watch the sea in the sitting room. At the little dining room table I designated one chair for eating and another for drawing and journalling (of which I did plenty). There was no “catering” to do: I had only to feed myself, whatever and whenever I liked. Cheerfully greeting strangers on the beach without breaking my stride turned out to be the perfect amount of social contact. The sea, though, the sea!

All this walking the tideline, back and forth, back and forth. All this compelling liminality! For the whole fortnight I was constantly within earshot of the waves. (I did not use my big headphones once.) And I found myself asking, as I had thirty years previously, “how am I going to leave?” Oh, how differently the question resounds now!

My husband asked me how it felt to be back there. I’d been giving it considerable thought. It would not be quite accurate, or honest, to call it “home”. I am wary of using the word “belonging”; I suspect it entails duties and obligations I am as yet unaware of. I thought about the ships in the bay. I felt I was riding at anchor: still at sea, no longer drifting.

Back in Gloucester (after a distressing journey involving a broken-down bus and subsequent yomp across Yeovil with a heavy rucksack, a train packed to capacity, a “service” that was cancelled at Bristol, and a wait outside in the cold for my poor husband to come and rescue me) I don’t know what to do with all this. I can’t face people, either IRL or online. I have stopped drawing again. This is the first thing I have written in two weeks. I am sleeping poorly. Everywhere I turn there is chaos: cups, butter knives, sirens, flashing Christmas lights. I don’t know what meaning needs to be made of this. But if I am not depressed, what, then, am I? Responsible for sorting out this ungodly fuck-up of a life? That’s a big ask, currently. But I don’t want to drag myself or my dear ones across an endless expanse of misery. I need to listen to what the sea told me: to listen and listen and listen until something begins to make sense.