Emotion recollected in mild agitation

I notice… . I wonder… . It reminds me of… .

My daughter gave me The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling for my birthday earlier in the year. It’s a beautiful book, and an inspiring one. Above are the cues that John Muir Laws uses when he takes his journal out and about.

Yesterday was an unusual day. With trepidation I went back to the pool for the first time in well over a year. Oh, how I have missed being held by cool water! Afterwards, whenever I caught the smell of chlorine on my skin I smiled. Then in the afternoon I visited the Museum in the Park in Stroud, to meet Juliette from Dialect and the other mentees: Sarah, Keeley and Audrey. When did I last spend time IRL with people who are not immediate family? It was at a Writers’ HQ retreat day, even longer ago than my last swim!

Successive lockdowns notwithstanding, I have yet to get round to missing human contact. I was apprehensive, even as part of me floated above the whole experience, conscious of the water I was swimming in. But it turned out to be rather lovely. A gift, in fact, to be amongst other writers; not at my ease, no, but in the right place. Me being me, it was wildly over-stimulating and, as always, I was first to leave.

I notice: how each person carries themself; how their hands move or are still; the tilt of their head; the complex choreography of their face when they speak; the pitch and rhythm and tempo and dynamics of voice; birdsong; the sun and breeze on skin and in hair; moving patterns of light and shade; the visual textures of metal chairs, fabric, the gorgeous planting; the colours and forms of flowers in themselves and how they influence each other; the aroma of those flowers, laundry detergent, shampoo; the internal sense of time passing… . Not to mention the ever-present interior monologue. And then I must attend and contribute to the actual content of the conversation.

This is normal. But I wonder: is it a creative-person thing to be quite so aware of this kind of sensory stuff? An extreme-introvert-at-large thing? Or just a strange Kate thing? There comes a point when I reach saturation and shut down. And so I leave before that happens. I wonder how it would have been had I followed my instinct and sat for half an hour afterwards in the beautiful garden focusing on one single plant until my attention was brought back to a more humanly-navigable scale. But… we had only just met and I fear it would have been too weird. I didn’t want my actions to be misinterpreted as lack of interest or, worse, rejection. In fact, I felt a sense of tremendous goodwill towards everyone. I hope a little of that, at least, came across.

And today? “It reminds me of…”? Isn’t that where the writing comes in: assessing the significance of these things; making meaning from them; finding or forging the connections between things? It is in pieces. I am in limbo between sending Pascale a batch of poems, last week, that I am not remotely satisfied with, and our next session on Monday. I am not getting nearly enough sleep. Everything is still in acceleration-mode. I have a nagging worry about migraines and the anxiety/OCD that have at times followed upon this state, the one taking my words and the other my perception of any control over my thoughts. I look around my own garden and can’t sufficiently separate myself from the unstemable exultation of it and my mind interprets it all as a kind of burning and I long for cool water, for blue and blue and more blue.

Gold Stars and Marble Jars

I am tired and restless, starting to fret about my work and whether it is (in all the ways!) enough, even as my mind appears hellbent on becoming a perpetual acceleration machine. This would be more concerning were I not a meticulous tracker of the ‘seasonality’ of my mental and emotional energies. Consulting my journal, I see a pattern of steadily increasing pitch through late winter and spring, which reaches peak intensity (subject to a variable degree of discordancy) in summer, followed by an abrupt plummet, then a minor revival in autumn before the next-to-nothing-doing of early winter (or, as more accurately reflects my perception of it, several months of November).

Perhaps perversely, then, winter is ‘my’ season. My worst episodes of depression and/or anxiety have occurred in the summer. Perhaps the excess of it overwhelms me. The garden turning to jungle when I turn my back on it for five minutes. The trees pulling the sky down with their leaves. The insufferable heat. Weeks of poor sleep. Worst of all,the inescapable human noise: lawn mowers, strimmers, neighbours’ music clashing and roiling like the meeting of oceans. The nauseating reek of charred flesh and smoke. Everything comes too close, is too loud, too bright. That aside, I like the long-light days. I like taking a table and chair into the garden to work. I love the abundance of fresh fruit (Cherries! Apricots! Oh, doughnut peaches!)

I am reluctant to inquire too closely into the ramifications of apparently working most intensely when I am leaping out of my skin. I had another mentoring session with Pascale recently, discussing the twenty new poems I’d sent her. It was a ragtag collection of episodes from childhood, an ambivalent attitude towards my kitchen, and strange half-bird beings. Of those that Pascale judged the strongest, the majority began from prompts from the Zoom sessions I attended for NaPoWriMo, during which I was far from my comfort zone. The best poems in themselves unnerve me; there is something Other about them. But I have learnt to recognise that if the work is worth doing, it will scare me. And the only effective way I know for dealing with that fear is to crack on with the work.

It’s not all existential angst! Considering seasonality, I wonder to what extent I have simply not outgrown the school year. I like best to write in cheap exercise books. Perhaps I am still writing poems and stories for Mr Furze from Class 4, so he will reward me with an actual pen to copy them up ‘in best’ to be stapled on sugar-paper to the wall display. There’s a child here somewhere hungry for encouragement and recognition. To that end I have acquired a packet of gold stars and a jar of marbles. I put a gold star on the calendar every day I have written. I place a marble in the jar for every complete hour I have written. The marble jar is filling with gratifying speed. The calendar begins to resemble a small galaxy. Yes, it is silly. But it might just keep me going until the kilo boxes of cherries are back in Tescos.

Fear is a super power

You know that ice-breaker question, if you had a super-power, what would it be? I usually pick photosynthesis. I like my food, but just think of all the time it would free up: no more planning, sourcing, prepping, cooking and clearing up after meals. I could repurpose the kitchen cupboards as (yet more) bookshelves. I suppose I’d have to get used to green skin. That is less appealing, though anyone who wants to test my anger management skills by referring to my 5’1” frame as Hulk, give it a go. Although… in winter I am already a pale blue, which in summer becomes a startling white that reddens after twenty minutes beneath an overcast sky. I could adapt.

I hadn’t given much consideration to anxiety as a potential super-power. But now I think of it, residual traces of OCD in my system have likely helped keep me safe from Covid-19 these past twelve months. (For the record, I am NOT washing and sanitising my hands more than usual. We don’t all begin on the same starting-line: some of us are further round the bend than others.) But perhaps a long-term relationship with anxiety has put me in the novel position of feeling like the sanest person in the room as repeated lockdowns wreak havoc with the mental health of the populace at large. I have accidentally been in training for this for years.

And then I was awarded this mentoring opportunity. I was indeed anxious at the prospect of discussing my poems, in detail, with Pascale. Actually, I was anxious enough to wake at 5am for a 3pm Zoom meeting. But when everything has the potential to trigger the anxiety response, facing something properly scary doesn’t necessarily become the grand drama it would otherwise be.

Pascale is thorough! I’d sent her 25 poems and she talked about each one. I was delighted (if ‘delighted’ is a synonym for ‘incredulous’) when she called a handful of them ‘stunners’ and said she had no improvements to suggest. She talked me through some writing exercises I might try, for generating new work. And then we spent the rest of the three hours discussing how best to edit and improve ‘good’ poems. Primarily by being less abstract and removing anything that hinders the rapidity of the line (and by not introducing famous painters halfway through a poem only to drop them two lines later. Or having a seagull utter a phrase stolen from the mouth of a tetchy academic. How to goodness did I not notice those howlers?! The horror!) I had no idea how I would respond to having my work critiqued. Pascale did so with good humour, sensitivity and care. By the end of the three hours, I was mentally exhausted but emotionally buoyant. It is such a privilege to see my poems through her eyes. And as for hearing her read them back to me… .

Since then I have read through Pascale’s notes and made a rough schedule for ‘fixing’ those poems. I wrote a (terrible) draft of a poem using only one vowel (from one of Pascale’s exercises). I started two new pieces. I realised the enormity of the task ahead of me and felt briefly overwhelmed but mostly excited. I have so much work to do! I stepped into the unknown and booked a series of six poetry workshops.

I also sent two stories to Stroud Short Stories, one of which went on to be longlisted while the other was chosen to be broadcast on YouTube on 9th May. I have been invited to record it at the Cotswold Playhouse later this month. I am delighted. Having my story chosen and reading at SSS’s event in November 2019 was a turning point for me. It was a timely and much needed confirmation that I might actually be quite good at this writing malarkey. I was also astonished to discover that, despite threatening to go out-of-body with nerves (I was the ninth of ten readers that night), I loved being on stage and reading to an audience. Good memories, and positive things to take forward.

Notes from beneath the floorboards

It’s now three weeks since I learnt I’d been awarded three months of poetry mentoring. This past week has been full of good challenges, if very little actual writing. The week before that was horrible. My buoyant mood sank overnight and I woke with the familiar queasy awareness that I had committed to something when feeling reasonably capable that I will likely have to deliver on when feeling wholly inept. Sure enough, my path was soon littered with random obstacles (the injustice of one such incapacitated me for a whole day). I am blessed with the skill of turning a minor setback into a major catastrophe, except that I have learnt to recognise this pattern as a backlash that occurs whenever I approach escape velocity. I think of it now as a kind of threshold guardian whose job is to ask, “Do you mean it? Do you really mean it? How much do you really mean it?” before it will allow me to pass. Which sounds nice and empowering but is precious little comfort when I am stuck under the floorboards again with only dust-bunnies and desiccated woodlice for company.

The recurring anxiety dreams came back and brought a new one along for my benefit (psychological habitat enrichment, perhaps?). I was in the room I had in my late teens and a horde of rats was pouring up from under the floor and making for the door, which I couldn’t open. But. Also in the room was a 12-inch tall solid chocolate Buddha, which I began to eat: you can overrun my personal space, ye squeaking multitudes, but you ain’t getting your paws on my chocolate Buddha!

So. I completed line-edits on a short story. I worked on a visual art project on a related theme to my poetry collection so could legitimately claim I was still facing in the right direction and sending out scouts, even if I was not actually on the road. Once I was feeling sufficiently resourceful again, I made an inventory of all the poems I have written in the past few years. That is how much I really mean it!

That’s just as well because on Monday this week I had my first meeting with Pascale Petit. Oh my word, the nerves! We had some tech issues which resulted in a flurry of emails and which served to break the ice. All very silly! I soon realised that while Pascale’s poetic credentials are intimidating, she is not. She is friendly and encouraging and goodness knows I didn’t make it especially easy for her. I’m not a talker at the best of times and, for past trauma-related reasons, I find it excruciating to speak about things that are important to me. I either avoid the issue altogether and absent myself (hey, dust-bunnies; did you miss me?) or else am helplessly vague and inarticulate. With coaxing on her part and flailing on mine, we established that I write philosophical, spiritual (human)nature poetry. Which feels like an embarrassing thing to have to own up to, but that’s the beast we’re dealing with. Pascale explained that building a readership is key at this point. She suggested some magazines I might send work too, and some poets I might like to read. She noted my lack of any sounding-board for my work and suggested I seek a poetry-buddy, and try some workshops. We agreed that our aim for the next three months is to create sufficient poems to form the core of a pamphlet. To that end she asked me to send 20-30 poems for her to read before our next meeting on Monday.

I spent a goodly while shovelling muck and looking for tiny hints of shine until yesterday (Thursday) I could send 25 of my least worst poems. Vertigo? Sea-sickness? Something of both. And yet, unpleasant though this was, in its wake was a sensation I did not expect: the marked lightening of a burden, the realisation that I am no longer carrying this entirely by myself.