31.1.18 Evening quiet
It was a day of birthdays today, as every day is when you think about it. We just don't notice many of them.
I watched a woman with a careful bob and focused steps cross the car park, a posy of daffodils in a milk bottle held out steadily before her. A late, accidental bridesmaid, she carried her offering to an even later bride who stood waiting, hunched over a thick stick, her jaw quivering under a small smile. She didn't take the flowers or reply to the singsong wishes, merely smiled a little wider and bobbed at them like a maid before turning slowly to walk further into the centre. The posy-bearer was left to follow haltingly behind her in gentle procession and I watched them go, the birthday girl and her acolyte, trying to hide my own smile. Her birthday must be eight decades deep today, at least, and it was like every birthday candle ever set alight in her name had remained lit inside her because as she passed me, light poured out of her, her tiny eyes aglow.
She was birthday through and through, that one. I hope I get to collect all mine in me like that. I hope it was a good one.
28.1.18 Evening, back garden
Few words today. It's been a particularly low-functioning day for my nervous system and I need to rest. I spent a little time outside as the light faded so the whole day wouldn't be lost to me and was in time to see the dusk take its ladder and careful black pen to the sky. The silhouettes were like the air - cold and sharp and perfect - and I breathed all in.
27.1.18 Making pyjamas
I struggle to relate to a lot of common human thoughts and habits. I know I am wired a little differently, in more ways than one, and that has often meant loneliness and doubt and a strange kind of freedom, all at once.
I keep watching people's preoccupation with being best at things. Not in patiently honing a skill out of sight, not in practice, but in wearing something about you like a prefect's badge. Everyone seems to want to be an authority on something or other these days. As soon as they get a sniff of something they might be good at or an opportunity they could take, they're off, racing eagerly towards acclaim and recognition. They want for the world to look at something they do or something they are and consider them top drawer. They want to be memorable, significant. They want to arrive, and the sooner, the better.
It sounds about the least fun that I can imagine.
I spent the day at my sewing machine today, attempting to make my very first item of clothing - a pair of drawstring pyjama bottoms - and thought about what it means to be a beginner, an apprentice. It such a gift to know that you don't really know what you're doing. Harmless mistakes only trigger panic and horror if, deep down, you already think you should be better than you are, when you secretly think you belong on another level entirely. When you know that you know nothing much, it is easier to shrug and grin it off or to find the whole business a marvellous curiosity. When you decide you're still a beginner, errors become fascinating books to pour over, puzzles to turn, not something to be hidden away or frantically overcome. You're not supposed to be the best yet, you're not even supposed to be getting it all right: you're just supposed to be having a go and seeing what happens next.
I'm amazed how willingly and how quickly we throw away that beginner's identity because I can't think of anything better.
I think I choose to stay a beginner in everything I do. There is so much more space here, so much more room for play and for laughing and learning. More and more, I feel that if my skills are going to grow and refine anywhere, it is in this quiet place of no-big-deal. Here I can really see what it's all about, and that's all that really matters to me in any case.
I feel a strange kind of reassuring joy sometimes, watching people hurry past me, heads down, faces grim, determined to get somewhere.
I've realised I can let them go right on ahead, because where I am now is just right.
25.1.18 The last of the birthday tulips
I used to love to paint. I imagine I still do, it's just that I don't paint anymore. The squeeze of colour from the tube and the mix and daub of it, it makes my heart beat a little faster just thinking about it.
Painting is alchemy with colour. To get to play with colour like that, to play with pure light, it felt like flying. It made me feel like light. And all the names, too: rose madder, cadmium, Prussian blue, viridian and burnt umber. I'd say them aloud as I picked through them; collect tubes of them like jewellery. I liked it thick and tactile, watercolour always making me recoil a little because it felt too distant. Pastels did when paint was too hard or impractical; just something I could get all over my fingers. I liked to paint small things big and bold, full of gentle detail, or try to capture light and shadow in some way. I liked missed things, single objects, nature, people. I poured over work by Georgia O'Keefe, Van Gogh, Monet, hoping it might find its way into me and out again. I was never all that good, my skewed eyesight making my drawing oddly stretched and flat. It didn't matter.
Painting is not an easy hobby to sustain in a very small, shared house. You need space to play like that, time to practice, and good light and energy, and money too, and I didn't have any of those things. I tried for a good long while, but it became a choice between an easel and somewhere to eat; time painting or time earning, and after a while, the more pressing priorities of life elbowed it all the way out. My diminishing energy and growing physical need for adapted spaces and extra support didn't help massively either. Good painting comes from your whole body.
That's ok. Not everything has to be always or forever, and one day maybe I will go back to it and it will be all the sweeter for the break. Time spent dreaming of an accessible studio, the right easel and chair, trays of paints under my fingers, everything white and full of slanting light, and time tracing the shape of things with my eyes, blending the perfect shade in my head and smearing it on the air: that's almost as good as painting for real anyway.
I've realised something lately though - that I'm using a camera to do my old brushes' job. These days, I take photos to make my paintings. I photograph what I would like to paint, and I only need to hold myself and use my body for a moment and there, it is done. It's not the same, but oh it's something, full of all the same light and noticing, full of the same energy and intent.
There are so many ways to do the same thing, aren't there.
I like that.
22.1.18 Clematis napaulensis in my back garden
Today I ran an early morning bath, a bath I'm not really safe to take but love to anyway. I slipped down into it in the dark and let myself sink low until my hair was a black halo. I pressed puckered fingers to the bottom and imagined I was something green and vital, soft seaweed, sinewy and graceful, round and light with oxygen, and that was a good way to start the day.
Today I heard the bright hello of a friend - the three-year-old brother of one of my son's classmates who has taken a shine to me. He appeared at my elbow like a wish in the playground, all grin and snot, and we talked about traffic lights, of the red and orange and green of them. I let him press the horn on my scooter and make the lights come on, front and back, as I do every day, and his face stretched into wide delight.
Today I took a slow wander down my garden path to check on my winter-flowering clematis. It is delicate but evergreen - an impossible, gorgeous thing from Nepal. Its closed flowers have hung like baubles for a month or more now and I have tried to be patient. Today, at last, I got to see the peeled back reveal of them, pink and shameless, and it was worth the wait.
Today I drank coffee in breathless gulps and let myself cry in front of someone who loves me, laughing in the next breath because that comes easier to us both.
There is more to say, of course, and today was a hard, hard day, but those were the best things, and I would rather have flowers fall out of my mouth than frogs.
20.1.18 Things on my dining table
The best present I ever received came with a tag that swung from the small square box. It said "TIP ME UP" and so I did. A mass of chocolate coins tumbled out, gold and silver, and, dotted amongst them, miniature totems of my life. A pair of wellington boots that I could wear on two fingers. A cup and saucer I could balance on my thumbnail. A dollhouse umbrella, wrapped tight and darkest green. Buttons and marbles and the smallest set of keys you've ever seen, for I collect them too, if you remember - they line my staircase. A copper bird with a long, curved beak. A tiny bottle with a bound note.
Other small things have found their way to me at other times, from friends and readers who know my propensities and from my own magpie nature. My house holds them all in its pockets, in dishes and boxes and tins. Occasionally, I'll lay them out and make a curation of them.
I have been dreaming today of a matchbox museum. Maybe I will start one. I could fill a matchbox a week, a month, with the smallest things I can find, label them and stack them high, drawing each one out from time to time, to arrange and photograph as if priceless.
A record of life in diminutive, overlooked, broken things - I'd like that.
Eyes to the ground then. I wonder what will find me.
18.1.18 Pied wagtail, community centre.
There is a John Clare poem that begins, "Little trotty wagtail he went in the rain" and I love it because if you say it when you see one, the beat beatbeat beat of the little bird's tail will keep your rhythm.
One came to the community centre window today and all work was lost for a while. Scuttle and bob bob, scuttle and bob. They are special birds of my heart: the pied wagtails of Great Britain. It is, I think partly, because they are birds I get to see often enough to know them well, but not often enough to have inadvertently tuned them out. They're a stop and look down sort of bird. An always-surprise. A pay-attention stutter in your sightline.
It is their run that does it. Oh, that run. Low and furtive, always just under your gaze at first. The hop hop hop of trying to pull up too-tight trousers and move at the same time - late, late, late, I hope no one notices - and then the short-legged, many-footed dash that comes with them still only halfway up your thighs. You cannot help but stop and watch because you are sure they will fall on their face at any moment, and yet the scuttle holds straight and tight as an arrow. Until, wait. A missed beat. They pull up short as if they suddenly realise they meant to go in another direction entirely. About face and go again. And all the while, the pat patpat pat of that long black tail. Black-bibbed, sharp-beaked, their legs as delicate as fine handwriting. Their call, when you catch it, is the wet squeak of a window cleaner's squeegee on glass, and they save it for when they fly, rhythmic, nervous, gurgling pips marking the peaks of their undulating flight, as if every wingbeat is taking them somewhere they don't want to go: oh oh ohno.
Precise and flustered Polly Washdish, wide-eyed Willy Wagtail; the old names follow them along the ground as they peck insects from low cracks, leaving sudden wakes in puddles. You will find them everywhere, in almost every place on this island, darting across playgrounds and car parks and riverbanks and estuaries, and yet I rarely hear anyone refer to them at all. They seem to be a missed bird. A gleeful sort of secret.
The best secrets are shared. Here, let these words be a whisper in your ear. Look, down there. Look look.
Little trotty wagtail he went in the rain,
And tittering, tottering sideways he neer got straight again,
He stooped to get a worm, and looked up to get a fly,
And then he flew away ere his feathers they were dry.
Little trotty wagtail, he waddled in the mud,
And left his little footmarks, trample where he would.
He waddled in the water-pudge, and waggle went his tail,
And chirrupt up his wings to dry upon the garden rail.
Little trotty wagtail, you nimble all about,
And in the dimpling water-pudge you waddle in and out;
Your home is nigh at hand, and in the warm pig-stye,
So, little Master Wagtail, I'll bid you a good-bye.
John Clare (1793-1864)
16.1.18 Son, conducting.
I bought myself a pair of noise-canceling headphones for Christmas and increasingly have to persuade myself to take them off. I struggle with urban background noise and chatter and the escape that headphones offer to give you a day accompanied instead by piano, cello, harp is one I find hard to resist. Take away the sounds of your environment and it becomes ever easier to observe. Put music in your ears and every movement in your sightline becomes part of some grand dance. My new favourite pastime is to play music loud through my headphones until I can hear no other sound and then just watch. I watch for alignment.
Today I play songs from Max Richter's recomposition of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which I will never tire of for as long as I live. I listen and I watch and I watch and, there: the footsteps of a woman walking her dog past the window of the community centre begin to match the repetitive andante pull of strings and for a moment or two, her dog's wagging tail joins the beat. A pause and a considered, swelling note coincides with a man bracing to leave his armchair, veins thick on his hands, and a nose-scratch behind him catches the staccato that follows. I watch a coat shrugged off in perfect 3/4 time and smile. If only they knew.
A slow cello joins and I watch an elderly woman raise knife and fork with each glide of the bow: a fragile, hesitant conductor. The leaves outside respond, rolling into flurries of accelerando, the trees in the wind playing the air with their whole, wild bodies. I hear no words and so the mouths of people opening their mouths to talk in my view of the busy cafe take on new sounds of high, tremulous strings, or deep rumbling bass. All are birds in an instant. A woman with a chin like a perfect circle says something to her companion and the quick stutter of violin fills the air, like a robin at dawn. Another stands and distractedly moves her gloves through her bare hands, fingers tapping against the leather and I imagine clarinet joining the sound in my ears, the people around me adding new notes and new instruments to these old, old songs that have accompanied human life for 300 years. A man raises his buttered toast with a crescendo and pauses it, mid-air, to interject with a word. Once, twice, rise and pause and rise and pause and I cannot help but lean forward to wait for the satisfaction of the bite landing at last with a burst of the refrain. So much aligns, in fact, when you watch for long enough that it becomes impossible not to believe that life must have some underlying melody, some inbuilt rhythm, that we're all secretly attuned to. Perhaps we're all just puppets and this is all just song and dance
The music builds. A woman with large, hoop earrings types on a laptop, animato, and the quickening in my ears chases her fingers, faster and faster. I hold my breath. There is nothing but this, nothing but this perfect orchestration of everything and I let it swell in my heart and my ears, until, until, until it ends with a flourish.
As the music stops, in perfect synchronicity, the room is suddenly, imperceptibly still, just for a moment before moving to life again, and I have to sit on my hands to stop from bursting into impulsive, rapturous applause.
15.1.18 Tumbling embroidery project dress
I cannot stop thinking about clothes lately. Making them, embellishing them, wearing them. About what they really are, when you think about it. I have long ago left behind the idea that I will look good to anyone but myself but I'm ok with that. Instead, all I can think about is this potential clothes give us for a second skin.
It is a weird kind of waking up to realise that I can, if I choose, buy or make new coverings for this body and I can make them anything I want to. It suddenly feels like the most incredible kind of magic trick. I can turn any colour I choose - think of that! The kinds you'd find in a faded, unkempt garden, or on a nuthatch's belly. I can make this new skin both wild and practical, unexpected and loud, or like the quiet subtle shift of a grey day that nobody wants to notice. I can be a changing season or sea foam or become nothing but shadow. I can cover myself with pictures and change them according to the day and the weather - daily tattoos to match my more permanent kind that hide underneath. I can have dragonflies alight in every place on me on Tuesday, be the tree birds choose to perch in on Friday and the sky they take flight in on Sunday. I can wear images like totems, like dreams, have a troupe of tumblers turn around the hem of my dress just because I can, and with every new choice and story feel a little more free.
Think of it. With just clothes, I can take on new shapes, make new lines, throw off the soft curves of me to become something unnaturally precise or add softness till every hard edge of me disappears. It suddenly seems extraordinary. I can become boldly uneven, asymmetric, and glory in that. I can turn as tough and lined as tree bark or let every inch of me shiver under silk as if I were underwater. I can add MORE of me to any place I chose until I am hardly seen at all, lengths sprouting to cover wrists and knees, to layer me against everything outside that wants to throw me off balance. I can make all my clothes end neatly at the knee or sweep the floor. I can hide every bit of me I'd rather was not seen or reveal the careful parts of me that want to feel the sun.
Even better, I can, if I want to, hide secrets in everything I wear. I can create folds and pockets to hold my world in - pebbles and smoothed glass and folded notes and slim books. I can make places for tools that I've always wished I could carry like extra limbs, pens and a camera I'd never be apart from. I can carry my whole profession and inspiration about myself and be comfortable and free and wholly myself. And this is why I want to learn to make clothes, to harness this power, and why I'm astounded I haven't up until now. I want control over this sorcery. What's more, these new eyes are making me look at everything differently, to gape at the clothes other people wear and wonder at them.
A man sits across me doing a crossword as I write this and every swell of the jumper he wears is suddenly more meaningful. It is the colour of old acorns and just-stirred gravy and he wears the collar up. Something about it must have created a silent click of rightness in his head when he bought it, or perhaps it was once wrapped carefully by a son who worried about his chest. Either way, he picked it out when he dressed this morning, tugged the collar high and has settled into it in front of me like a new day, tapping the point of his biro against the newspaper as he tries to fit words to squares before committing. I love it and him: the pucker of it as it meets his comfortable belly and the slight shake of his hands under blue cuffs. Elbow patches hold him gently by the arm and I want to do the same and whisper, "You are magic in your second skin, you are, and you are loved, you are loved, you are loved."