Island Blog – Space

Today the photography volunteers have been given the name of their project.  Minimalism.  I watch them wander around the reserve, deep in thought, eyes looking down, eyes looking up, looking out, thinking in.  What does minimalism mean to me?  Is it this leaf in a dustbowl, or that emerald green gecko shinning up a fat brown tree?  What do I hear while I seek my subject?  What do I feel, how do I feel?  Someone hunkers down to take a picture of an attention bell, one of those ping things that sit at reception when reception has popped out for a pee.  She places it carefully on the wide stone floor and crouches down to get it right.  I see the bell, tiny in such a lot of negative space.  From above it certainly is minimalism.  A child’s boat in a great stone ocean.  From down there, where she is, the bell becomes huge and the stone ocean goes on for ever, or, at least, until it meets the wall.

At art school we were required to work on negative space.  I hadn’t a scooby what that was, thinking it was something dodgy, the opposite of positive space, if, indeed that’s not an oxymoron. I found it extremely difficult at first, looking at what wasn’t there, the space in between the things that were.  We had to look, see, draw the spaces, not the jugs or benches or trees or parked cars.  All I could see was physical presence until, eversoslowly, just as my eyeballs threatened early closing, I got it, saw it and it was huge.

My understanding of opposites can often be This or That.  I forget there are many miles in between the two, many colours, hues, options.  Inhabiting that space is something I need to re-train my mind to work with.  A physical life requires certain choices between This and That and decisions are based on what I see, what is available, what is acceptable in any given moment.   We like routine, most of us, known quantities of things fixable and in good working order, things we use in our daily lives.  There is, after all, a time and place for everything, is there not? I want a positive space to live in, one that protects me, mostly, from myself, one that nurtures, one I can see clearly and understand.

At home, I would call those times of deep internal unrest, negative space.  Instead of really looking into that space, seeing it for what it is and allowing it just to be, I feel that I need to colour it in with my own pack of crayons.  I need to get busy, sweep the floor, cook something, change a bed, anything that gives me good grasp of the positive, the physical. What I can touch reassures me.  At least, over these things, I have control. That awful empty space back there, the one I just ran away from, the one full of unhappy thoughts and doubts and fears, well I sincerely hope that, by the time I descend the stairs, it has flown out the window.  Go pray on someone else you horrid negative space.  I’m fine now, with my pinny on and not long till lunch and the aftermath of dishes and cups to wash and dry.  When I focus on the tasks ahead of me, I can feel the calm.  There is always something to be done, after all, something that demands straightening, or mending, or wiping down, and once collected in an orderly fashion inside my mind, I am happy again. I am safe.  this life is just fine.

However, this is a life out of balance.  It must be, because the negative space is still there and it still bugs me. I don’t ask for it but it has something of import to show me.  Drawing the space in between two jugs, I began to notice the distance.  It wasn’t empty at all.  Behind the jugs I could see someone’s hand as they drew their own negative space, a corner of a cupboard, a snatch of white-scuffed blackboard, and even further back, the branch of a tree through the murky window.  It made me realize that I could look for ever into negative space and find positives, but distant positives, not too close, not mine to fix or mend or rearrange.  They were simply there.  I could fill in the gaps, complete the cupboard, the hand or the tree in my mind, but, somehow, I didn’t need to.

In order to control my mind, my thoughts, thoughts that fuel my choices of action and thoughts that will always have consequences, I need discipline, but discipline and I have never enjoyed each other’s company. I didn’t ever complete the drawing (no discipline!) because I was so pulled into the space.  I may have been given  poor marks, but what I learned about negative space back then has become a life-long fascination.  The trick is to be able to inhabit it, just as it is.  Those times of discomfort and self-doubt will still come to me.  I can fill them with stuff and noise and self pity; I can beat myself up, tear myself to shreds with my hyena teeth, or I can simply let them wash over me and move on.  I doubt that I will ever learn my way around them, never ‘complete’ my drawing, but if I just sit and let them come to me, surround me, without fear……. if I can find the courage to do that, I believe I will, at last, be able to say this is Me.

No apology.

 

Island Blog 142 Back to the Sea

2014-06-05 11.16.07

 

I have come to a conclusion.  One I might have come to long ago but didn’t, not least because I couldn’t really explain it, should anyone ask for my ‘workings’.

Workings are what art teachers demand when they stand before a huge canvas, liberally splodged with texture, glue, sparkly bits, string, and fat brush strokes telling them absolutely nothing.  ‘Where are your workings?’  they asked me.  I had to find out first what they were talking about before answering.  Once I knew, of course, I back-dated said ‘workings’ on paper, parchment,card, board and copper plate and stuck them into my Workings Book, which I didn’t know I had till a fellow student found it stuffed into my locker – another thing I didn’t know I had.

When a painting is abstract, there is a process.  You begin with the real thing.  A duck for example, or a pot of flowers, a seascape or a human form.  You draw that bit first, kind of whizzily with a loosely held pencil or bit of charcoal or even a paintbrush if you’re jolly smart.  You might be out of doors doing it, perched on a cold stone wall in the middle of Linlithgow, or you might have hooked a buttock or two onto an old tree stump on the shore of some spectacular place, or you may just be at your desk beneath the blue light of those vile tubes.  Wherever you are, you are supposed to be capturing the thing of interest onto a bit of paper in your drawing pad.  We were for-bid-den to call it a sketch pad.  We are not sketching, class.  We are drawing.

Semantics.  It amounts to the same flipping thing, but it’s always best not to argue, when the argument is about words and what they mean to other people, especially teachers.

So, you capture this interesting thing and then you loathe it to death.  It is, at best, dreadful, and looks nothing like it should or even could and even less than nothing like the interesting thing.  If it was a naked being, then I was doomed from the outset.  I could have a deliciously formed adult male just feet away from me under the blue lights and, in a matter of one short hour, he would be reduced to a Lowrie figure with no blood pumping through his veins, nor sinewy life in his supple limbs, both of which were there until my pencil removed them.  Picasso, I kept whispering to myself, fighting back the tears of shame.  Picasso.  Gee-ed up by such thoughts I stuck one eye on his thigh and thought I’d got away with it until Miss Fineart mosied over and snorted, alerting the class to do their own spot of mosying over and snorting.  The young man in question couldn’t move, for which I was deeply grateful as he was facing away from us and stark naked.

So much time was spent on ‘workings’ for pretty much all of my pieces for End of Year Show.  In my case it was both a lottery and a farce because not one back-dated working had entered my head for a single second as I plunged headlong into the world of the abstract.  Abstract just comes first for me and that’s that.

Back to my newly drawn conclusion.

I believe without a doubt that I came from the sea.  Not as a mermaid, or silkie, or even a fish.  I am not talking about the body of me, but the spirit of me.  Whenever I am by the ocean I am at peace.  I can go there carrying tension, rage, frustration.  I can feel heavy and old and tied down and lumpish. But, when I have stayed awhile, listened to the tide roll in or out, felt the salt spray in the breeeze and tasted it on my lips, I am a new woman again.  I don’t just believe that it’s about dumping my baggage for the old tide to take away, because whatever I took down there doesn’t join me as I walk back home.  I never see it again.

When I am in busy places, far from the ocean, I can do whatever I need to do, for a while.  But after that while, which isn’t very long, I feel the old scratch I can never itch, the one that tells me I am not all that wonderful, in fact, not wonderful at all.  I feel irritations niggle at my gut, threaten to spill out of my mouth.  I feel claustrophobic and find it hard to breathe.  No, it is not a panic attack.  There is nothing my logical mind could find to panic about.  It is true that all around me is concrete, noise, people rushing here and there, traffic, lights, dirty pavements and man-made deadlines.  I know how to cross a road safely and what bus to catch.  I know where I am heading and the time arranged for me to arrive.  There is no panic in any of that.  So it’s not a panic attack.

It’s just that I am not in the right place for me.

I know the rocks on the shore.  My eyes need to see the broken mussel shells, left by geese or an otter.  They need to see thrift, purple and trembling in the salt breeze, gulls white against the sky, calling out to each other as the new tide brings in the sprats.  I watch them poppling the surface of the water, pushed up by a predator deep beneath them and out of sight to me.  I must see the kelp thrown high upon ancient rocks, the little pools left by the flood tide, the tiny shrimps stranded till the next one comes in, perhaps whilst I sleep.  I have to see sunlight on the yellow lichen, turning it to gold, to hear the popping of sea-gorse seeds, marvel at the darting of goldfinches on the barbed stalks, and hear their animated chirrups at the abundance therein.  I absolutely must watch the single snow goose leading four, no five families of greylags across the sea-loch in serried ranks cutting perfect lines across the water.   I know the state of the moon by the tides and the state of the tides by the moon. I know the sea and the sea knows me.

It’s not a fairytale.  it’s a conclusion. Mine.

So I go, as I will always go, every day of my life.  I will go to where I came from.   Back to the sea.

Island Blog 132

2014-03-28 12.29.53

 

 

We never talk about shrimps up here.  In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that word used anywhere in Scotland.  Up here, across the tempestuous border, we talk about prawns, and they are quite believably so.  Shrimps I remember from Norfolk days, and you needed 3000 of the little so-and-so’s for all of seven sandwiches.  I have been served up a plate of ‘prawns’ before now, and knew fine I was being ripped off, but not up here.  Folk can’t believe their good fortune when they order a prawn dish, savouring the fat pink bodies, dense and firm and tasting of a fresh wild ocean.

In Tapselteerie days, I would drive over the hill to meet the fisherboats coming in, bartering with the raw and ruddy-faced hard-working ‘boys’ for an overflowing crate of still-twitching jewels, the huge aga pans left to bring themselves to boiling point as I travelled.  The eyes of the guests grew wide with amazement as I laid down plates of them, pan fried with garlic and fresh herbs.  Then I would make bisque from the shells.  Nowadays, you can’t buy them on the quay, as I did, because they all go for export.  But there are a few choice restaurants who either make sure they have their own creel boat, or have found a way to do as I did, and connect with the fishermen. Some of these ‘boys’ are still fishing, some have stepped back to let their sons carry on the good work.  After all, shrimp or prawn, lobster, oyster or mussels are always a different experience when they are fresh and still full of personality.

Much like us.

So why am I talking about shrimps and prawns and the like?  It isn’t to lead on to the obvious Bigger is Better thing.  What I am talking about is choice and quality, yes, but more about paying attention to the strings that bind us.  Driving over the hill to find fresh shellfish meant I had to know and befriend the fisherman.  If he thought I was a stuck up little madam, he would have said nothing was available and I wouldn’t have blamed him for that.  I know that the lonely process of buying goods, any goods, via the interweb is easier, cheaper often, but it involves no human contact, or very little.  In fact, we seem to enjoy  as much ‘very little contact’ as possible these days, and, yet, it is only through a bonding process that anything in life really works.  Oh, I am not saying we don’t need, use and value the internet, but out of balance we can find ourselves clumsy and careless at times when we are with another person.  Out of practice.

When I go shopping for clothes (I hate shopping for clothes and am the very first to look online), I will avoid with great energy, huge shopping malls, caves of blue lighting, plastic walls and no air, or none already breathed in and out again.  Instead, I will choose the little shop with a ‘ping’ as I open the door and a welcome smile on the face of the assistant.  I don’t want ‘NEXT!’ yelled at me.  I have a name, and it isn’t that.  Although I absolutely do not like a pushy sales person, I do like the question ‘Can I help you with anything?’ and then, when I say I just want to browse, to be left to do just that.  If I buy something, I want her, or him behind the pretty counter, to be interested in me and my choice, as I will be in them.  I want to walk out feeling very chuffed with myself and with my purchase, and, more, the pleasant memory of our human encounter.

If I sound stuffy, I don’t mean to.  I blog, I Facebook, I text and tweet, but it isn’t all I do.

Recently I came to realise that my work is lonely work.  Writing, painting, loving my little home and being in and around it, walking with Poppy in the fairy woods, none of these get me in front of people. This is my choice.  I am, at heart, solitary and I need that space around me to feel creative and healthy, but, out of balance, I get fearful in crowds and resist meeting friends.  The good news is, that this is instantly fixable, once recognised.  Driving through Glen Coe, beneath the craggy snow-covered tops of the Three Sisters, I pulled over to call Lisa, my publisher.  We talked of mice and men, cabbages and kings, and, as I turned back onto the road, I felt a lift.  It wasn’t the content of our conversation that did that, but her voice in my ear, connecting me once again to the outside world and, in doing so, raising my confidence in me, making me feel important and interesting and changing my whole outlook so that I was, once more, fresh and full of personality.

Island Blog 83 Travelling

Most of the time life is predictable to a degree.  Not a huge degree, out of choice, for me, but there is something calming about a routine, until it becomes boring which is quite a different feeling altogether.  A lot of us, I notice, live alongside ‘boring’ doing everything we can to cheer it up into a fizzbangpop now and again, to add colour and texture with a weekend social or a new frock, or, more recklessly, a Wednesday dinner date.  For the rest of the time, we allow the long chain of endless weeks to pull us along in a sort of mindless stupor, our eyes searching the week-day gloom for a glimpse of the weekend- those two short days when we can really be ourselves.

It is hard to be myself in an uncomfortable suit, one that grabs at various bits of me whenever I sit down and overheats and confines me until I fear I might have turned into a lizard.  I must bow and scrape to those I don’t even like, never mind respect enough for any such bowing and scraping.  I must hear things I don’t want to hear, witness unkindnesses about which I feel I can do nothing, and, finally, at the end of this day, I must push my way home for a short rest, if I am lucky, before doing it all over again the next morning.

Now, I know this doesn’t apply to those who love what they do and have made their life into the right shape for them, but I really believe these people number few.   What they have done is to say ‘ How can I make life fit around me?’ and not ‘How can I make myself fit into life?’

Everywhere I go, when I see someone out of kilter with their work, their lives, I will ask them what they want to do.  Many will shrug and say they have no choice, are in too deep now, too committed with a mortgage or debts or schools or whatever, but I will challenge that.  It isn’t always a popular challenge, and I am not in the least bit surprised.  When a person challenged me, at a time when I was trying to squeeze myself into a life two sizes too small, I would flap them away as I would an annoying wasp.  And all because their questions touched me deeply, threw me off balance and into a black hole from which I could see no way out.

How do I go from here, where I don’t want to be, to somewhere else, when I can’t see my way ahead?  I don’t even know what I want to do, how to make my life fit me.  All my clothes are two sizes too small and I have no cash to buy more.  Nor do I want to admit the defeat I will inevitably feel when my friends challenge my crazy idea.  It just isn’t sensible.

How do we define sensible?  Is ‘sensible’ just a word made acceptable by the world we live in now?  A hundred years ago, the way we live now would have been considered completely un-sensible by every living soul.  So, which meaning do we choose to believe?

If I know anything now, I know that if a person lives with stress that leads to unhappiness, they will become unwell.  Learning to manage stress is saying ‘I am not important enough to honour myself and how I want to live.’

It takes courage to make big changes.  The fall-out can range from disapproval to downright rejection, but this blows away in time and is forgotten.  Whenever I find myself doubting on the shores of a new ocean, I remind myself of the time I walked away from work with no income.  I remember the reactions around me.

I also remember the smiles and admiration from the same people when I made myself a new life.

If this is the encouragement you need.  Take it.  It can be your truth too.

Island Blog 69 – Aground

Island Blog 69 - Broken back shipThere’s a ship in our harbour aground on the rocks, a big and very stuck ship.  It was on its way from Belfast to Sweden with a load of timber.  I don’t know what will happen to it, or the timber, or the waters in the harbour, but I do know that it matters to me when anything bad happens at sea, because the next part usually involves one of my men.

In the early days of living on the island there was no lifeboat, and the local seamen became auxiliary coastguards.  I remember not infrequent calls, especially during the summer months when every loon with a dream of the wild ocean waves, took to the sea without a clue of tidal rips, wind direction or the rise and fall of the tides.  Add to all that ‘complicata’, those dodgy times when the wind argues with the direction of the tide, creating a real stooshie, when your little craft, so safe, (you thought) begins to screw tail in the boiling soup and runs the very real risk of tipping right over if one big wave comes at you sideways on.  Then there are those razor sharp rocks just below the surface.  You can’t afford to marvel at the wonderful views anywhere near land, because land is not where you think it is.  Land goes on into the sea and says nothing much.  It just blows a few bubbles that can look dead cute if you don’t check your chart.

I’m not saying the skipper of this massive hulk didn’t check his or her charts.  With a ship that big, stopping at all must be planned a mile away, and turning round quickly at the last minute when bubbles reveal their teeth is quite out of the question.

Anyway, back to what I was saying about my men.  The old sea dog had to turn around quick sharp often after a tourist trip to the islands, or out to watch for whales, if a call came through on the radio.  Out he would go, spotlight on the waves, if it was a darkling time of day, to search for a dingy, or worse, a person in the black soup.  It is hard enough to find a huge whale in the sea, never mind a little person with only a head showing.  He has towed sailing boats off beaches and rocks and stayed to reassure folk who had to wait for the lifeboat to arrive from the mainland.  He has helped people be airlifted out, and seen many back into safety.  Now we do have a lifeboat on the island, one with big twin engines, and our son is deputy cox and sometimes the whole cox.  When a storm rises like a bully and when the wind roars and the night is black as a witch, I wonder what he might be called out to do.  There have been some really tough times, but the team is tight and experienced and they know the rocks like teeth just under the surface of the sea, of old.  But still, we women and our imaginations can take the facts and spin our spin and hardly sleep a wink for the pictures in our fluffy little heads.

The sea is a wild thing- unpredictable and demanding respect.  Nobody can be her master and nor they ever will be.

Island Blog 68 – Songs for the Girls

Island Blog 68 (futureengagedeliver.com)

fig via: futureengagedeliver.com

I wrote a song for Jenny and one day I will sing it out, perhaps after the funeral.  And then I wrote another for my little grand-daughter, the youngest thus far whose naming ceremony is being celebrated the weekend after.

How life organises these things I cannot say, but she always does and it makes a sort of sense.  It’s not about one life replacing another, but more that the sharp-edged void created in a heart, when someone dies can be softened by a new life.  These two girls will never know each other; will never come together except in my heart, and that is something rather wonderful and quite uniquely precious.

When I write my songs, or create my paintings, or lampshades or cushions or whatever, I work for one person.  I think of who they are and what colours they wear and what stories lie in their eyes, and I work to honour and recognise them all.  This is why I won’t create a production line, nor paint the same, but in blue, to match the furnishings.  Every single piece of work is a one-off.

Much like a life.

The song for Jenny celebrates her as a woman of the sea, of the world and now, of the beyond, wherever that is.  The words are taken from a well-known poem and personalised, and I don’t suppose anyone will mind, because they will hear what they want to hear and think what they want to think about Jenny as they take it all in.  The music will lift them and pull on their heart strings and someone may well recognise parts of other melodies and other phrasing from a different song for there is nothing new under the sun.

And yet, everything is always new when someone catches a thing and forges it again in the fires of their heart.

The song for my granddaughter is different in that the words are all mine, and the melody pinched from a couple of other musicians who won’t know and wouldn’t mind anyway.  We are not talking chart topper here.  The words had to be bespoke, just for her, and with respect paid to her mum and her dad and the fabulous crazy wild people they are, and all those attributes now handed on to one little girl.  It’s light-hearted and fun and will bring smiles to all the faces watching me stand and deliver.

We are all unique, but it is a rare bird that can fly alone into a busy sky, with its own song to sing, certain that just by singing it, everything is new.

Island Blog 27 – Sea-words

We walked on a wide white beach today in the late afternoon light.  The little dog ran here and there through the machair in search of rabbits.  She has never caught one.  I don’t think she really wants to.  It’s the chase she loves, the journey.

Because of the recent storms, the kelp is high, almost on the machair, settled in loops as it was pushed in by the waves.  It looks like curly hair.  In one curl, lay a dead seal.  I knew it before I found it, as the hooded crows and a bird of prey I couldn’t recognise in the shout of blinding sunlight, lifted into the sky as we came near.

Something dead there, I thought.

And there was, its skin blistered pink, at its final resting place.  Food, now, for a hungry world.

We found driftwood and bits of flotsam and jetsam, and I love that around the ocean, there are so many wonderful words.  Not one of them boring.

I saw bladder-wrack and bubble-wrap and plastic bottles and lids and bits of toy, a piece of Lego and another thing, an emergency water bottle.

Whose boat, I thought, and what journey and where did you come from, or go to?

I remember someone found a soft toy rabbit in the harbour car park.  Soaked in the rain, we dried her and placed her for all to see with a sign asking…….Am I yours?

Nobody claimed her, so now, she is mine, with her raggedy ear and her eyes wide with looking.

I call her Anouk.

Grace.

It takes grace to allow ourselves to be moved from one state to another.  One place to another.  We may not choose it, but if we can bring our whole self with us, without looking at what we left behind, with just our wide-looking eyes hungry for right now, right here, we can make a smile appear in the most unlikely faces.

 

Anouk

Anouk