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.

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.