Breathing

Where I live, in one of the counties in the Republic of Ireland bordering Northern Ireland, we have been put on Covid19 Level 4. Basically, we can move freely, so long as we stay in our own county, but only essential businesses remain open. No one is meant to visit our home. Restaurants are takeaway only and pubs are shut. Worship is back online, though churches remain open for private prayer. Third level, further education is online, too, though primary and secondary schools, as well as creches, remain open. For the time being. Unless things get worse.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given home developments and the fright shows in the motherland, my usually very well-controlled asthma has flaired up in the past fortnight. The past week has seen me getting a flu jab for the first time in years and mailing my Federal Backup Ballot vote, tracking its progress by registered post. (The Federal Backup vote is available to voters abroad; my ballot, requested last August and marked as issued on the Board of Elections system, still has not arrived.) It also involved a trip to my GP to see the practice nurse, Audrey, who assessed the asthma, tinkered with my medication and listened sympathetically to my underlying anxiety.

While we can still venture beyond five kilometres of home, we took advantage of the sunshiney Sunday to visit the Cavan Burren, one of the UNESCO Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark sites close to home. We walked into the woods, away from the established trails, to my favourite megalith. It is signposted as the Cairn Dolmen, but I call it the Fairy Cairn. Cairns, essentially a high pile of stones, were the first kind of spiritual or burial sites built eons ago. Dolmens were the next technological advance. In the Cavan Burren woods you can see how they plopped a dolmen on top of an established cairn. It is probably fair to say that it is a unique example of megalithic building, at least in Ireland.

Moss and heather covered dolmen on top of a grasses over cairn in Cavan Burren woodland, October 2020

I stood before my favourite megalith in the whole world and sang to it. Choir singing used to help regulate my asthma, but regular choir practice fell away in the past couple of years for a variety of reasons. But that deep diaphragmatic breathing was the best medicine. Deep in the wood’s green lung I sang to the stones and the trees.

Breathing

Standing with the trees
before the piled stones,
I lift my voice
in tones of AH -EE-OH
over and over.
I-EE, I-EE sung sharply, 
is yipped into the crack in the sky,
straight through the dappled light.
Spruce megaliths surround
the dolmen slouching
into the ground, resting
on the greened cairn, and just
for that moment
in their embrace
I was uncorked,
uncontained,
breathing.


Copyright ©Bee Smith, 2020. All rights reserved
Trees encircling the Fairy Cairn, Cavan Burren Woods, October 2020.

Walking back along the path I stopped to notice the mushrooms forest critters had been nibbling. Mushrooms grow in the dark, underground. They create enormous mycelium fields that stretch and connect over great distances, out of our sight.

Humans have their own version of mycelium fields. We are all connected. We all want to breathe freely. If this virus teaches us nothing else, as its pathogen robs its host of oxygen, it is that we all need to breathe, that we must allow everyone breathing space.

I am writing this post on Monday because I have plans for Tuesday. Tomorrow I will be participating in a free Zoom Art Therapy Play Day for artists, sponsored by Cavan Arts Office. Self-care is essential these days. Grab it with both hands whenever and wherever it is safely offered. It is another kind of breathing space.

All Shall Be Well

The great Irish poet Derek Mahon died on 1st October. In terms of contemporary Irish poetry giants, this was the second great loss of the year. Eavan Boland passed away in April. Both were also influential on the international English language poetry scene. Boland was a professor at Stanford in California. Belfast born Mahon was a member of Aosdána, one of the select writers who received Irish Arts Council support to keep writers writing.

Mahon is the author of one of the poems nominated as a poetry prescription for our Covid19 times by The Atlantic magazine -“Everything Will Be Alright.” You can listen to the incomparable Andrew Scott (The Priest on Fleabag, Moriarty in the most recent Sherlock series) read the poem on this You Tube clip. https://youtu.be/kfjYhje2zrE

You might think from the poem’s title that it’s a bit Pollyanna-ish. But here is a line quoting from the poem to set you right. “There will be dying, there will be dying, …”

It reminds me of the mystic Mother Julian of Norwich, who is famous for her saying “all shall be well.” Mother Julian lived through, and survived, the Bubonic Plague and the Peasant’s Revolt. Catastrophe visits every century. We are not unique. Yet, amidst all that turmoil she set down her mystical visions in a book, Revelations of Divine Love.

I do not think that you need be a theist to contemplate that we need a great deal more love, empathy and compassion in our world. Julian of Norwich was an anchorite. She was literally isolated from the world, immersed in prayer, fasting and entertaining the angels of revelation, which she shared first with the people of Norwich, and then with the wider world.

Isolation can be hard, and harder still for some who rely on literal human connection on a daily basis. But perhaps there is a missed opportunity. A student of mine wrote a wonderful dialogue between grief and gratitude this week. To immerse yourself in loss alone is to miss the connection with its twin, gratitude. There will be death, but everything will be alright.

I am revisiting a poem written for NaPoWriMo 2020 this week, tweaking it and revising. The brief was to write about something handmade, but is really a litany of gratitude.

Handmade 

Once, 
a Celtic knot clock
was in the Christmas box.  

Also,
hand painted silk scarves,
a Technicolor Joseph’s coat shawl  made 
way back in the early 1970s,
knitted coffee mug cozies.

Each year,
jars of pumpkin chutney, 
blackberry jam, apple jelly -
gifts
the visitor brings to the door.

Decade after decade,
the meals my mother made daily,
casseroles from leftover ham at Easter, 
tuna melts on Fridays for
when I got off the bus from college.   

Once,
My father’s hand touched my mother’s shoulder. 
She turned towards him 
and let me in.   

Copyright© Bee Smith, 2020. All rights reserved

The world is going through heavy weather. We know multiple kinds of bereavement. But there is much to be grateful for, too. I am reminded that Quakers write not obituaries, but testimonies “to the grace of God as lived in the life of X”, giving thanks and celebrating the luminosity of a life well lived. Gratitude can help us navigate and mediate grief.

Featured image Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Pace, pace, pace

The Sunday Weekly is a bit later than usual. And there are good reasons for that. Since I started my Zoom Creative Writing workshops on Thursday nights and Saturday midday, the rhythm of my working life has changed. There are also the other considerations of living in a world riddled with Covid-19. Everything takes longer. Also, a lot of people are complaining of fatigue, myself included. My husband reminded me that I need to not ‘over do’ things and to cherish my back. Living with sciatica during a time when I am unwilling to visit my gifted masseuse means I need to balance walking around time with sitting down time, monitoring how much I stretch when doing simple household tasks.

So something had to give. And for me it means I really do need to rest on a Sunday. I sit a lot on Thursdays and Saturdays; on a Sunday I need to gently move around. And sometimes do some of my own creative work.

While I am working to this teaching schedule I plan on blogging on a Tuesday for the foreseeable future. So look out for a new ‘weekly’ post each Tuesday.

If you like to read it on Sunday, I will be sure to put out social media reminders on that day.

Balance seems like a worthy intention in the week when we will experience the autumn equinox – or equilux as I like to call it. A time of equal light and darkness. We will be sinking into the darkness of winter soon enough here in the Northern Hemisphere. Sitting in that silence and stillness is the friend of creation. Perhaps the intention for everyone in these Covid-19 times is to do less and focus more. It is not the quantity, but the quality we should be considering in all spheres of our lives.

So I shall follow the example of some of the furry members of our household and rest on Sunday for the next few months.

A sleepy Sunday last winter, the late lamented Ellie and her special feline friend Sparkle

Until Tuesday, may all your own intentions for balance and temperance be made manifest.

Is Memory Always Author?

When we ventured forth these past few days I saw the first rowan berries. There were leaves that had the first blush of autumn on their leaves. This week Storm Ellen blew threw and knocked out our electricity for nearly twenty-four hours. Then there was the knock-on effect to the internet server up on Arigna Mountain when their backup generator gave up. The sky has often had interesting splashes of Prussian Blue on its palette. In the meantime, in the long hours when I was conserving the juice in all my devices, I wrote pages of longhand. All of it prose. Not a jot of poetry.

Some is prep for the online creative writing workshop that will begin on 1st September. There is a single space left! So if you have been humming and hawing over it, grab it while you can. Full details here: https://sojourningsmith.blog/2020/08/18/creative-writing-workshops-on-zoom/.

The hours of prose breaching the margins of my notebook is thanks to an online course I have been following, courtesy of the Cavan Arts Office. Online courses are a very good way to fill the creative well. You never know where they will take you. I have been looking at one being offered by the Cavan County Writer in Residence, Anthony J. Quinn, Wild Storytelling: Nature and Landscape.(http://www.cavanarts.ie/Default.aspx?StructureID_str=6&guid=188). In the murky light as the rain poured down and the wind raged, toppling trees and decapitating gladioli, I surprised myself with the flood of memory pouring onto A4 pages in my notebook.

Now my life is not all writing. I have spent many hours as a Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark guide, leading tourists around Cavan and Fermanagh and the Geopark’s fringes. Nature and landscape are really important to my life. But the very first exercise pulled me back to a very different geography.

My childhood was spent in Marcellus shale country, not in the border country where the two pieces of Ireland rub shoulders. Memories flooded in. What was meant as a nature and landscape piece became page after page of an inscape, a memoir of growing up in a small Pennsylvania town in the 1960s.

This came as a complete surprise to me. Quinn did lead me into the wild, into the unexpected terrain of long ago memory. The Celts reckoned that memory was the fount of all poetry. Perhaps. At the moment it is the fount of prose. I have a very messy draft. But then wildness is not known for its tidyness.

The craft of writing is about clearing up after your messy drafts. But I am still deep in the flotsam and jetsam of the memories storming across the pages. I need to allow it to blow through me onto the page and then move to the screen where it will get shuffled around, arranged and rearranged. There will be cuts. Those always hurt. But I remember what my mentor said about thinking of those edits as conjoined twins. You are not killing your baby. You take that sliver of infant writing and put it into a separate incubator. Hope that it may survive and thrive to have a life of its own in a separate piece.

Over the next few weeks the Sunday Weekly may be more about prose than poetry. We shall see. But I do have a poem for you this week. It is only at third, or possibly the sixth or seventh (whose counting?) draft stage and has been lying in its cot for a month or so. The Relic Road is the local name for a lane that used to lead to the old Protestant cemetery, which nature has obliterated. It is heavily wooded now. Every storm brings down limbs and branches that litter the narrow lane’s way.

If Marc Chagall Painted the Relic Road
 
Every fragment is sanctified,
flesh long saponified salts the earth,
skin slipped off like a gown. 
 
Souls of the departed sail, swooping
in the singing trees - their echoes hoop
where no one lives but the Pleiades.
 
The ground is grit of knuckle bone.
Also luminous as winter’s bright aconite.  
The shivering trees are acolytes looking on
 
at tombstones long past subsided, 
swallowed by earth, erased by wind, the wind,
season upon season. No names remain.
 
No descendants survive to look on and remember.
Just the trees.  Their murmuring. The sky.
The music of ghosts flying past.
 
 
Copyright © Bee Smith, 2020. All rights reserved.

Featured image is a Photo by Michal Ico on Unsplash

Creative Writing Workshops on Zoom

Zoom creative writing workshops

There are just a couple spaces left available on the introductory creative writing workshops I will be facilitating on Zoom from 1st September. With Covid19 cases rising and our Taoiséach announcing further restrictions, I am hoping that creating literary art in a group will lift spirits and keep everyone safe through the autumn and winter months as medical science grapples with this new phenomenum.

Make a little nest for your feelings about being alive, nurture them that they may fledge and fly.

Grayson Perry, Guardian Weekend, 15 August 2020

Even if writing is not your thing, find some art form to practice – dance, drama, a musical instrument, photography, fabric art, sculpture, painting – ANYTHING! It is good for you head and excellent for your heart. You don’t need to be perfect. You can dabble. You can be downright awful, but you sure may have some fun doing whatever art form you tackle. I seriously practice the craft of writing, but I have loads of fun making collages and doing plain knitting. Nothing fancy, just playing like I did when I was a kid and trying various things out when I was working on my Girl Scout badges.

Why try creative writing? Because you may surprise yourself with what you can imagine. You may also gain useful insights into your own life and motivation. You may entertain others, inspire them, move them with your bravery at saying the things only you can say. Before you actually say those words out loud, you practice by putting them down on paper or tapping those words across the screen in the safety of your own room.

Word Alchemy creative workshops are another safe place where you can explore expressing yourself with the written word in a safely held group. And, as Grayson Perry also observes, making art in a group is good for our mental health. And this new virus is hammering the mental health of many. Given that fact, I want to give a shout out to the Covid19 Project, a free counselling service that is available to those living on the island of Ireland thatis being run by My Mind. https://mymind.org/covid-19-project.

All art helps us comprehend our world, both the outer and inner variety. If you would like to learn more about the introductory course I am running this September, check out my previous blog, which also includes the registration form. Only two more places left!

Be sure to check out the details at https://sojourningsmith.blog/2020/07/31/zoom-into-creative-writing-this-september/. I hope to see you on the Zoom screen soon. And we will have lots of opportunity to collaborate with others in making art with words.

High Summer- It’s a Beach

How was your week? It may sound a bit ridiculous when I say we have simmered and sweltered in the sun; the temperature has had a high of 24C (that’s 75 degrees ‘in old money’, as they used to say in England after they changed to a decimilised currency back in the 1970s.) But it is a very humid 75 degrees. I don’t like sweating. With the windows left open at night to welcome Morpheus, the biting insects also fly in overnight. Afternoon naps have become a regular feature of most days.

And, be clear, many of us very pale persons are just not used to  hours of continuous sunshine. My husband spirited his wilting wife off to the seaside mid-week; regular readers will know the Atlantic Ocean is Bee’s Happy Place. We went early and left by lunchtime as sun broke through the cloud cover. It was low tide at Mullaghmore and I waded out to thigh high, kicked the water and anointed myself in salt water. Is there anything more delicious than licking your upper lip after washing your face in seawater?

Mullaghmore Beach
Mullaghmore Beach- It wasn’t quite this empty this week, but there was plenty of social distancing, especially if you kept dogs on extendable leads.

The other important bit of news I need to impart is that there are just a few more places left available on my Zoom Creative Writing Workshops starting on 1st September.

glen-carrie-AzyqGr35vH0-unsplash

You can find full details and the registration form here: Zoom with Word Alchemy in September.

As to the Sunday weekly poem, I am cutting myself some slack this week.  Suddenly, my writing practice has taken a prose turn. It has been a long time since I dipped into writing creative non-fiction and the first draft is a hot mess. But you just have to push through the the merde first draft and see what can be cleaned later. I am 4000 words deep into hot mess first draft and have barely scratched the surface.

So as I looked out my window at an eerily still landscape I decided that a haiku was appropriate.

The restless sleeper
Twists out from sweaty bedclothes
Heat haze shrouds the hills.

May you have a peaceful week. I hope you find your Happy Place, too. And if you cannot physically visit, may the memory of it be vivid and quenching to your parched soul.

Breaking the Lammas Loaf

It’s been a tumultuous week! And I am not just talking about the news cycle. On a personal level, I began to promote my Zoom creative writing seminars that will start with an introductory month in September. Each week you get to try out a new genre – it’s a taster to see which one may be you particular favoured form of creative expression. But as with all new ventures there are hiccups. In my case it is the registration form on the blog post https://sojourningsmith.blog/2020/07/31/zoom-into-creative-writing-this-september/. Needless to say, my first few punters alerted me to the issues and I have referred them to WordPress. I hope to have that unsnarled within the next couple days. Do keep trying and add comments about your experience.

Also, the Celtic Wheel of the Year has cranked into the season of Lammas, or Lúnasa as we call it Ireland. That is also the Irish for the month of August. The season’s theme is the gathering in of the first harvest, as well as releasing. I spent the past few days in activities very much in keeping with the holiday. I sorted out seeds for saving. I made like the squirrel and added more items to the emergency winter provision cupboard. And, quite unconsciously, I found myself baking a loaf of spelt bread on Lammas Eve. (For that, many thanks to my English friend who sent me dried yeast in the post. All through Lockdown there was none to be found in any local shops. Maybe they figured the nation would only bake soda bread at home?) We took the first cut on August 1st. And very tasty it is, too! I am getting more proficient at this bread baking lark.

As for my releasing, that was the announcement of the Zoom courses I am devising for anyone’s delectation this autumn and, with any luck, into the winter. I sense we will need some diversion at home for the restof this year. Flexing one’s creativity muscle is the best kind of exercise, especially in the months at the dark end of year.

In the meantime, it is Sunday. And yes! I have a seasonally appropriate poem!

Lúnasa First Light
 
Dawns can be sketchy –
a tease of cobalt cloud shot through
with gilded light, threading Midas like.
 
The lupins, aquilegia and foxgloves
have dropped their heads.
I empty seeds out
 
into paper envelopes.
Not tumbrels. No fanfare. No drumroll.
Just the cutting
 
into the spelt bread I baked
on Lúnasa Eve. The ancient grain
ground down. The pips dibbed in
 
sweet sour raspberry jam.
Seeds saved for sowing in another season.
Not all is lost, even at our most careless.
 
The light takes a downward slant,
Like a sharp blade angling to cut –
the whoosh and whir of the scythe’s brush.
 
Copyright © Bee Smith 2020. All rights reserved.
 

Sorry there is no pretty picture today. For some reason – either our internet is running like treacle or WordPress is having issues, I have failed to load the featured image after attempts over the past thirty minutes. So…until something smooths the path of pretty pictures…

Zoom into Creative Writing this September

Zoom creative writing workshops

Regular readers of this blog will know that in late June and early July I asked for volunteers to help me learn how to run a creative writing workshop on Zoom. With Covid19, we are having to reinvent our world. Writing is a solitary pursuit, but it does not have to be done in isolation. Writers need feedback. Writers need encouragement. Writers need to find new approaches to help us construct our poems or paragraphs. Mostly, we need to communicate and express ourselves through the glory of the written word.

I loved teaching creative writing – even to reluctant writers. Under the trading name of Word Alchemy, over the past seven years I have worked with kids from ages 9 to 14. I have worked with adults in all women and all men groups and mixed gender groups. I have worked in schools, community halls, arts centres, outdoors and in prisons. It’s a bit of a vocation for me. I have conducted workshops outdoors at sites in Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, usually ones that combine haiku writing with walking in all of nature’s splendour.

Cavan Youth Arts Lab
After a walk on the Cavan Burren, teens create a renga poem
haiku poetree walkers
Ready to ginko down Claddagh Glen at Marble Arch Caves Visitor Centre

Covid19 made me sit down and have a really hard re-think about how or if I could continue. My husband is 70 and I will soon be 64. We have cocooned quite contentedly, but I am aware that others found it hard. We have to keep our social distance and I will shield for as long as necessary because I really want to keep both of us fit and in good fettle for another couple decades. In winter it can be hard to get out on icy roads in our rural area anyway. I generally worked in person in spring and autumn time. But neither am I in denial and think that Covid19 will be magically disappear anytime soon.

We need to keep ourselves occupied and motivated. We need each other, but we also need to keep our distance. These seminars are my response to the challenges of our current circumstances.

Besides, this is what creatives do…we create.

To be clear, I plan to kick off from September when the schools, at least in Ireland, will go back in session. So far, I have three courses planned. In September I will welcome beginners and improvers, those you may not have had a go at writing for some time. While I have a number of faithful students who are used to my methods, I felt that it was important to start with a taster course. Then I will offer month long courses that will focus on short fiction in October and poetry in November.

Because so many of us are working in unfamiliar patterns – working at home, working new and varying shift patterns, on different days alternate weeks, etc.– I have decided to offer two Zoom slots a week to adapt  and include as many who want to nurture themselves  with some creative expression. So long as no session has more than eight participants we can cope! One will be on a Thursday evening and the second will be Saturday at noon.  The time slots can even concievably include people who do not live in my own time zone! (Some have already asked!) If you cannot make your preferred regular slot on any particular week, then you can join the other meeting and not miss out on any unit.

These online weekly workshops include some in-session writing exercises, as well as group sharing of homework and ongoing work.  We will explore these forms over the course of September, a different form each week. You will receive emailed course reading material, inspirational video resources at the beginning of each unit, some weekly homework, and a weekend motivator email to help you keep on track with your writing practice.

Word Alchemy creative writing workshops are held spaces where we can inspire, encourage, and share ideas with one another.  We collaborate in the process of beginning with raw ideas and support the magic as they are transformed into something meaningful for both writer and reader.

I am calling the initial course “Pick n Mix’ because you get to try out a number of kinds of writing and get a feel for what may be your metier. Or, you might even surprise yourself and find out that even though you thought you were a memoirist that actually you have a wicked sense of humour that romps in short story or creative non-fiction forms.

So here is the plan for openers:

Week 1 – September 1st -8th – Short fiction

Week 2 – September 9th -15th – Poetry

Week 3 – September 16th -22nd – Creative Nonfiction

Week 4 – – September 23rd – 30th – Memoir

The course format includes:

  • One weekly emailed assignment
  • 2hr  weekly Zoom seminar from 8pm-10pm  Dublin time on Thursdays, September 3rd, 10th, 17th, and 24th And/or 2 hr Zoom seminar from 12noon – 2pm Dublin time on Saturdays, 5th, 12th,19th and 26th September
  • One weekly writing motivational email

Block book the four weekly sessions for a cost of €45/£41 payable by Paypal. Alternatively, Residents of Republic of Ireland and UK may pay by cheque if they prefer.

I hope to meet new students,even as I welcome past participants who live in Cavan, Fermanagh, Tyrone and Leitrim here in Northwest Ireland. It would be great to have some international students in the mix! The Irish are always hospitable. Even if we won’t be able to lay on the tea and barm brack, we will always have plenty good craíc!

Class begins with the first email to you on 1st September! Want to Join?

Send in this Registration Form!

Bee Smith
Bee Smith invites you to join with other creative colleagues in her Word Alchemy workshops on Zoom

Featured image is Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Finding One’s New Normal

Are you feeling tired, too? It is taxing to figure out all the new details of our new normal. I feel like a tortoise just beginning to stick its head out from its shell after a long spell of hibernation. I am also locomoting at tortoise pace. Like me, other friends have noticed feeling tired. Though it might just be that the whole world is feeling tired. It’s been a pretty stressy few months.

It takes energy and imagination to re-vision how you are going to work while taking into consideration that your very breath – an explosive laugh, a sneeze, a cough, a sung note – could fell a healthy person into a clearcut forest. A lot of folk still not cannot get their heads around that they could wreck that kind of devastation when they don’t feel sick at all. But they can. And they still do.

I realise that it is easier for introverts to stay away and stay in, especially when they have beautiful scenery to look out onto and a garden to sit in for carefully placed socially distanced tea parties. But it also takes energy and imagination for introverts who earned most of their income from freelance teaching to figure out if they have any career mileage left. Because I love my 70 year old husband and am taking no chances with exposing myself, and therefore, himself, to havocking pathogens. This week, I have had many light bulb moments, some really inspiring zoom meetings and telephone conversations, and some typing time working on proposals, chiselling out what might just be my new normal working life.

It is exciting, but also very, very tiring. I needed a Sunday lie in.

It can be really tiring creating a New Normal. How is your’s looking? Feeling edgy? A bit like a cliff hanger in a serial?

Precipice

Worlds are always vanishing.
They become collectables plundered in corners
of junk shops, or thrifted, or dusted off
found things in granny's attic after she has died.

Some worlds come out for a day
to be celebrated or elevated to heritage
status. But this is just some other version
we tell ourselves at bedtime to send us to sleep.

Worlds are always in the making,
brick by brick, then the mortaring in.
Some fear, some love, some hope converges,
the sum of your faith filling in what is a life.

How a cliff edge and the cleft in your chin
are fear and love and hope
that it all will not cave in, stay -
edgy, sharp, beyond the vanishing point.


Copyright © Bee Smith, 2020. All rights reserved.

Featured image is a Photo by Pagie Page on Unsplash

Who Was That Masked Man?

Another week and this Sunday’s post marks the end of the deepest cocooning of Ireland. From tomorrow we can travel whereever we wish in the Republic and we can get a haircut! We are going to have to wear masks on public transport and are being strongly encouraged to do so in supermarkets. As an enthusiastic masker from the beginning, and usually the only one in my village doing so, I really hope it is embraced. But I am aware that people balk at it on a really visceral level. And in Ireland there is none of that politicisation nonsense happening. So why do some people have such a problem with masks?

These past couple of weeks I have been pilotting a small creative writing class on Zoom with past students with the patience to hold my hand as I fumble through the new technology. While many are plotting their way back outside again, I am plotting a way to get some income through the winter months when weather can cancel classes. Also, I am creating a safe burrow because I do not think Covid19 will magically disappear in winter when Irish hospitals routinely deal with the winter vomitting bug and various strains of flu. I love people, but my more introverted nature is hard-wired for happiness holed up in winter. Fortunately, my husband is similarly hard-wired and we are content with each other’s company though we pretty much tinker away at our own projects all day. We like the quiet life.

So keep tabs on this space when I announce 30 day modules of creative writing Zoom classes this autumn and winter. The dark months in the Northern Hemisphere are perfect for incubating lots of creative projects.

I asked my class to mind map around the subject of masks and then to write a short piece, either flash fiction or a poem. I also sent them a video of Maya Angelou reciting her poem “We Who Wear Masks” before the session as an inspiration. You can view it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HLol9InMlc

You might want to try that exercise to find all the various associations you have with masks. See where your wild mind will take you.

My own mind map was all over the place with lots of arrows and squiggly lines that sort of connected disparate elements. For instance, if you excavate the genesis of Halloween costumes and masking children you go back to the folk belief that the veil between our world and the ‘the other world’ or parallel universe was tissue thin. They wanted to fool whatever malignant spirits might want to whisk away their beautiful child to the other realm. So they dressed up children in ghoulish garb to make them unappealing to travelling spirits. Halloween dress up was all about protection.

While protection and survival was one strand on my map, there was the trickier element of the Lord of Misrule, those Masked Balls so beloved by licentious Regency aristocrats and lusty carnival goers in Venice. There was the secret self that is given license to throw off inhibitions or social conventions for a spell. Then there were the superheros and justice warriors like Batman. Many of those Marvel characters mask the upper face rather than the lower part of the face.

Immigrant Muslim women who choose to veil the lower part of their face have received wide disapprobation in the West. Is there something in our Western culture’s collective psyche that is freaked out by not seeing a person’s mouth? We don’t all have to lip read after all! If we consider eyes as the mirror of the soul and you can see a person’s eyes with an upper mask, what social cues are we missing when a person masks the lower face?

Some human beings are gifted at dissembling, for projecting a ‘false face’ even when not wearing a physical mask. So why so much resistance, when wearing a mask can be a matter of life or death for some individuals?

I will let you walk around your own mental labyrinth on the subject. My students came up with very individual ways of entering into that maze. See where it takes you and what revelations await you.

In the meantime, the weekly poem…

 
“Who Was That Masked Man?”
 
Halloween tricksters about!
Hide your beautiful children!
Let them remain unseen
in costumes of Skeletor or Spiderman.
 
Here promenades the Plague Doctor
in our own version of divine commedia dell’arte,
nose full of bitter herbs
masking the stench of destruction.
 
We laugh. We drink.
We dance at the Masked Ball.
At midnight, we unmask our fear of desolation,
left standing, holding our secret selves.
 
We wait for the Lone Ranger and Tonto
to Heighho, Silver! Away!
They ride off to happy end another week’s
episode of injustice.
 
Take up your facial shield and buckler.
If you can see the smile
in the whites of their eyes,
you are standing too close.
 
Copyright © Bee Smith, 2020. All rights reserved.
Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels as the Lone Ranger and Tonto in the TV series that ran from 1949-1957 on US television

I will leave you with my own pandemic face mask anecdote. We needed to get some items from the town 20km over. As we were there already, we picked up some items from the supermarket and used the post office that shares houseroom with the market. I know the postmaster by name and greeted him. When he saw me wearing the mask he queried, “Customer of Bandit?”

We had a companiable laugh.