Noticing

A lot can happen in a week’s time. This week I piloted my first creative writing Zoom session with a handful of volunteers who are helping me find my way towards the most workable method and format. I have been facilitating creative workshops in the Marble Arch Caves Geopark region now for nearly ten years. I know I will need to alter some of my teaching methods, but I also want to maintain the integrity of the sharing sessions. Besides, come winter when we are all holed up, we will need these kinds of interactions as we isolate to keep the bugs at bay. We have another session at this week’s end which I hope will tease out the details of how I will operate in the Word Alchemy Zoom Room.

Also this week, our Taoiseach announced that the Roadmap to Re-opening is being accelerated since we have maintained our flattened curve. From next Monday we can drive anywhere, not just stick to our county or venture 20 km if we have to cross county boundaries. We still need to mask on public transport and in crowded shops, but we are also asked to be sensible and leave anywhere as the it begins to build a crowd. And, as always, maintain two metres social distance and wash your hands! But I cannot say I am hankering to go any great distance. I can now book a hair dresser appointment and get a trim from my local hairdresser who will be in mask and PPE and providing for customers likewise; I am waiting patiently for my appointment. That may be about as much excitement as I can take. Appointments with Nuala are generally jolly.

And I guess it was like this for our ancestors before the advent of the car or automotive mass transit. We stayed local. We knew our locality intimately – the blades of grass as much as all the human inhabitants. Currently, I am slowly savouring an excellent book written by a fifteen year old from Northern Ireland. Diary of a Young Naturalist shows me so much of what I do not notice. I wish I could match the all of the bird species to the songs I hear. Sadly, I may know many by sight, but few by sound.

My Zoom session picked up on a quotation from an article in the 13th June Guardian Review section. Several writers were asked what they had learned under lockdown. I picked up on one quotation from Kiran Millward Hargrave.

What lockdown has taught me is to notice. My luck, yes, and also the many blessings of where I live.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/13/overcoming-fears-discovering-nature-what-i-have-learned-from-lockdown

We have just passed one of the great axis points of the year. In Ireland, summer solstice happened at 10:43 pm last night. The wind was wild and the rain sometimes quite fierce. Then we have the solar eclipse (a new moon) at 4:45am. Yes, I did set the alarm and I scrabbled around trying to get the live feed to the Solstice Gathering in Glastonbury. (I visited at Bealtaine 2018; Chalice Well gardens are beautiful.) But they had some tech difficulties with the wind and weather and the opening was a bit delayed. By the time of the peak of the eclipse it was 7:40. The rain had stopped and wind eased, so I took my drum out onto our new patio area and drummed prayers of gratitude to the land that has held us in its verdant palm through the months of maintaining the collective quarantine.

Love the land and the land loves you back
What I Noticed In My Cocoon

I saw:
the early purple orchid for the first time in eighteen springtimes
I have walked up and down and up and down again
and again on the lane just outside my front door.

I heard:
the cuckoo calling and calling from week three of staying put.
Out in the garden one day my husband called out to me.
A great buff cuckoo had flown over our nest.

I smelled:
anxiety in my sweat. Sometimes it hurt so much to think about... 
I would lean into the kitchen sink and think 
"Brace! Brace! Brace!" and wait for the wave to crash.

I tasted:
so I cooked up whatever deliciousness made from the anything to hand. 
And I baked, rationing out the butter, eggs and the sugar 
to make sure we always had some sweetness on our tongues.

I touched:
I could pat the dog and carry around the cat.
I picked flowers from the garden and arranged them artistically.
I held my husband's hand. Sometimes guiltily. Because I could.

Then:
one day when I pegged the washing on the line I looked up
and saw a jet stream's track arching across a clear, blue sky.
I asked:
Why?

I wanted to write something that was included both the summer solstice and the eclipse. I tried some haiku, a senryu and tanka. In the end, I was most satisfied with the tanka.

weekly poem each Sunday by Bee Smith
solstice eclipse tanka
The weekly poem each Sunday

Keep in touch each Sunday with this blog when I will announce when creative writing workshops will be up and running in the Word Alchemy Zoom Room.

The New Weekend Normal

How do you keep track of which day of the week it is if you are not working a regular job, at home or otherwise? What routine is part of your Covid 19 New Weekend Normal? One friend confessed that she ordered out for takeaway food each Saturday. Partly it was to take a break from cooking. Mostly, to have some kind of marker in the week that was regular. Although getting a takeaway these days means collection is by appointment and a masked and gloved person slides your order to you on a tray. It feels faintly illicit. For me, now that NaPoWriMo is done, it is getting back to my Sunday Weekly post. That is my New Weekend Normal.

Ireland began Phase 1 of its Roadmap to Reopening last Monday. Although there was an initial rash of more people stopping and having a shouted chat from the lane to us in the garden, things have slumped back to the quieter rhythm. It is as if now that we have had a little ration of other faces different from the ones we have been looking at for the last two months and more, that we have crept back to our old cocooning ways. That Ireland’s two month drought, which coincided with the Call to Cocoon, broke this week, does not mean there is a rush for tiny outdoor tea parties. At writing, there is a storm, heavy rain for sure, but also really blustery wind over 40 km an hour. So this weekend the weather has us indoors.

The New Normal also means that every diary date that has been noted in January is cancelled. This Saturday I was scheduled to give a Mindfulness Walk in the Cavan Burren. On Sunday we should have been fine dining at the MacNean Restaurant, celebrating our niece’s 28th birthday. At this point, I am looking forward to FaceTiming with her and thinking that, all being well, we might get to see her August 11th! As for the Sunday lunch, I shall have to hope we can get a 2021 slot.

Though I have to say that the Phase 1 of reopening seemed to unlock my ability to tackle re-writes, to edit individual poems for the manuscript that has languished between adjusting to our Covid19 New Normal and the diversion of daily poem writing for NaPoWriMo/GloPoWriMo. Anecdotally, I learned that many people had difficulty concentrating in the early days of Stay in Place. Although in many respects our lives did not change radically, it is often the subtle readjustments that throw us. Like when your cooker goes kaput and you are cocooning. For the first time ever I have invested in White Goods by looking at a photo of shopfloor model and paid by credit card over the phone. The delivery on Monday should be interesting. Nonetheless, things are shifting. The energy is subtly different.

Here in Ireland
 
This week, we opened the windows a crack.
So suddenly things felt a whole lot more people-y.  
Though news travels tractor pace
up and down our lane, more cars passed
Monday, May 18th, and people didn’t just wave,
but pulled up, hand braked, to shout out catch ups.
 
Surprise that our neighbour next door went back to hospital
was it two weeks ago now. Shock that the cocoon funeral
actually had shoulder-to-shoulder pall bearers!
But the craic is the director has six family members on call.
There were pickups of garden cuttings set out on our wall
with shouted debates on how to avoid cultivation errors.
 
Just when we could have invited a friend round
for an outdoor cup of tea sitting two metres away,
the two month drought broke.  The great wind
that might wind up being called Ellen blusters.
The willows are bending over at their waists
performing hourly ritual prostrations.
 
We remain in.

Cocooning prior to Covid-19 meant a time to go within, to regroup and recharge. It is especially sacred time for introverts to take time out when things just get too people-y. Here’s a poem I wrote before our current context. https://sojourningsmith.blog/2018/10/24/cocoon/.

Given the re-writes, the jigs and reels of submission guidelines, the brief fever of flash fiction writing this week, I am going to offer a tanka as the Sunday Weekly poem today. In terms of reopening from cocooning, I feel as if we may have cracked the pupa, but I feel like a very dozy caterpillar. The weather turned heavy this week as the low pressure system approached and a number of us (myself included) have felt zonked some days.

A tanka is a haiku followed by two seven syllable lines portraying a complete picture or mood




Poetry in Pandemics

Some people count the weeks that they have been cocooned, quarantined or locked down. Until this morning I had not. I knew the date that was the last time we had driven outside of our village. We went to the nearest town twelve miles away to carry our some essential life laundry tasks and skittered back home fast. I was gloved up for that outing and have masked and gloved up since, even though Leitrim has the lowest infection rate in the Republic of Ireland. That was 52 days ago. Since then we have stayed within 2 kilometres of our home. Tony, celebrated his 70th birthday in March as cocooning was announced; he has been happily cocooned and busy in the garden. We realise how blessed we are to have it and our rural setting during this pandemic Chastening Time. I shop in the local grocery and post office/hardware for essentials. Anything we cannot get locally we buy online or is shopped for by a young neighbour, who also gloves up and masks, when he goes to the county seat each week. I sanitise like OCD is a fashion and not a mental disorder.

This week the realisation sank in that even as other parts of the world are loosening quarantine, this is now our new normal and will be for a long time to come. Technically, we could invite two non-related friends round for tea outdoors with our chairs spaced six feet from each other. In practice, I don’t think many of us are quite ready for that just yet. A kind of pandemic agoraphobia has set in. So while others may be planning a trip to the garden centre tomorrow, I have been contemplating the logistics of winter in the Chastening Time, which is now my name for this collective pandemic experience. Generally speaking, I am an optimist. But I respect science and historical experience.

I did some Googling around what people were reading during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919. According to a YouTube documentary I watched this week it was misnamed. The origins of that virus was in the American rural heartland when it jumped from pigs to humans. Spain got the name because it announced to the world that this killer virus was sweeping the nation. Elsewhere there had been cases but due to media censorship during World War I, the infection was more rumour than public health bulletin. The troop movements exacerbated the virus finding more and more human hosts globally. The last landfall of that particular virus was Australia in 1919.

Of course, the horror of mechanised war was what dominated the poetry publisher lists. Siegfried Sassoon and Rudyard Kipling must have been an interesting juxtopositioning on the Publishers Weekly lists. W. B. Yeats published his Wild Swans at Coole that included his poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Sara Teasdale’s Love Songs was awarded a Pulitzer in 1918. In 1919 Margaret Widdemer’s The Old Road to Paradise shared the poetry Pulitzer with Carl Sandburg’s The Cornhuskers. Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot were just beginning their poetry careers in the UK. They were also mourning poets killed by the war like Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas, who was a close friend of Robert Frost.

Even though the Spanish Flu could strike you stone dead within twelve hours there is not a great deal to hint that this pandemic was killing more than the considerable casualties of the Great War. But, as a friend who studied Public Health Administration told me in a phone conversation, that generation was used to people falling ill and dying. They did it all the time. They did not have antibiotics. Recovery was a miracle; invalid relatives appear in novel’s marginalia all the time in the 19th century. Beth March is probably the most famous example. They all visit the seaside, but linger as shadows and then die. Yellow Fever and cholera epidemics were within living memory. Tuberculosis was rife. So numbed by the sheer scale of military casualties, the Spanish flu barely ripples across the pages of poetry. That people should fall ill and die was in the normal purview of the Grim Reaper. That a generation of men should be gassed, maimed and suffocated in muddy trenches was something new and horrifying.

But here we are a century on, innured to the medical magic bullets of antibiotics and vaccines. Except this particular virus has all the wiliness of a fox and the whole pack of hounds on its heels can simply not run it to earth. Or, at least, in no time in the near future. And for those who object to blood sports, I apologise to the fox in the metaphor above.

All this rumination comes from contemplating how you can be preparing a manuscript to send off to publishers (many of whom may go to the wall in the economic crash) without somehow referencing this collective experience. Or, as same friend in a phone call relates, the only thing that remains the same in one’s life are the seasons.

So for this Sunday’s Weekly poem I concentrated on one of the eternals in life.

Annunciation
 
In the shade of drystone wall
                                                among weeds.
Beside celandine and sedge
                                                two purple
flowering heads announcing that
                                                it’s coming.
All the times I have paced passed
                                                I missed them.
Such is the surprise of joy
                                                in small things –
the cuckoo’s call, smell of earth
                                                after rain,
the hawthorn blossom's sweet scent
                                                of new life
and its promise of decay.
 
 
                                                Do not pick
purple orchid or hawthorn in flower.
                                                Let them be.
Allow them to be released
                                                to surprise
summer after summer, again
                                                and again,
a small ration of joy found.
                                                Not foraged.
 
Copyright © Bee Smith, 2020. All rights reserved.

By the by, the two of best selling authors whose names still had some recognition a century later were Zane Grey and Mary Roberts Rinehart. Agatha Christie broke out in Publishers Weekly in 1920. So if you can only read light fiction at the moment, you may have something in common with our ancestor’s pandemic reading tastes.

Cocooning

It’s a golden Sunday morning in a week that will shape all our lives. I really like that our Taoiseach has called this time of social distancing cocooning. We are waiting for the new beginning, the afterwards when there will be a transformation and a beautiful butterfly will burst forth. I am sure he may not have have all that metaphorical stuff going on when he was writing his St. Patrick’s Day speech to the nation, but…it works for me! Because there is great beauty in the expressions of kindness to one another that are happening. We are called to cherish one another. May the butterfly that emerges from this cocooning time be one of kindness and universal care, that the time spent in isolation will be a cure for our most selfish instincts. Wouldn’t that be something?!

For those who are staying home and want creative activities, Poetry Ireland’s poet in residence is posting a daily poetry spark to get you started. Check out Catherine Ann Cullen’s Twitter @tarryathome. She posts a prompt for kids and adults. I am writing daily and have been finding writing haiku a wonderful exercise in focusing on calm. Spring is here, despite some cold temperatures and hoar frost in the morning. Things are growing and transforming. Our little acre is waking up and looking lively.

Stay tuned for random haiku here on the blog. Even if you don’t have a window and are unable to get out to public gardens to view the daffodils, I will beam you some of nature’s signs that creation persists. Haiku writing can be habit forming though. You have been warned! Given the restrictions of seventeen syllables, a seasonal hint, and making sense in the English language, not to mention having a little Zen something, it can be fiendishly challenging. A bit like crossword puzzles. But so worth it! It really does cure the hamster wheel of negative thoughts going round. Try it!

But here is the Sunday weekly poem. Which was in part sparked by a quotation from an Egyptian poet Iman Mersal:

Poetry is a journey in the dark towards an unknown destination.

Iman Mersal
I Know You Read This Poem
 
I know you read this poem
as if it were some sorcery,
or a conjuring trick, or as if
it were a spell for a way out.
I know you read this poem
with fear in your heart.
 
I know you read this poem
as it if were a map
of an uncharted territory.
And I know! That's an oxymoron,
but they often contain all known
fears at their very heart.
 
I know you read this poem
because you want to learn
how to read your own heart,
because you seek a kind of light
to show you the way out. 
And because you also want
 
there to be more than fear
in your heart. So…
You turn again and again to art.
Which is why I know you read
this poem, which is part spell and
part prayer, from deep in my heart.
 
Copyright © Bee Smith 2020. All rights reserved.