Finding Comfort in Small Joys

I am typing this blog sitting on a hot water bottle. Blessings upon the inventor and patenter of this rubber vessel of comfort to those aches and pains that assail the body. Blessings upon all their descendants, too, for that matter! I have two furry muses close by me – the little dog and Felix, the ex-brawler feral turned lover (most of the time – he’s not completely lost the brawl in his nature, but it is most often incited by a protectiveness toward the smallest critter in the house, the feline princess.)

We are digesting the news that the second wave of Covid19 is well and truly begun in Ireland. Dublin is on Level 3. No ‘wet’ pubs for them, though elsewhere in the Republic they opened. (Madness!) Northern Ireland has also introduced new restrictions. Just don’t visit people at home; well, only one other household allowed to mix with another. Domestic transmission seems to be the one getting the blame this go round. The rationale is that there is more control of potentially infective behaviour in public spaces. Yet the two potential cases I have heard of anecdotally are in schools. Judging by the rugby scrum of teenagers queueing outside a supermarket in Carrick on Shannon during their lunch break last week this is hardly surprising. Young ones crave connection as much as any human; teenagers, however, have much less impulse control. One wonders what the long term behavioural effect of Covid 19 will be on the next generation.

Today is equinox, the equal length of night and day, here in Ireland. It was this day in 2001 that I arrived in Ireland and pitched up in Dowra, the first village on the river Shannon. Which was the sole fact I could glean on Google about the place where we had found a house to rent as our initial disembarkation point in the Republic. Little could I have guessed that this small village – yes, the first one on the River Shannon – would become the place where I have lived the longest in my lifetime.

There was a brief flutter of months in Queens, NYC, when I was born. Then the next longest stay was spent in a small town in Pennsylvania. University took me to Washington, DC for some six years in total. London in England equalled that span before we moved north to Leeds for fifteen years.

During the pandemic I am especially grateful that we took the risk of moving country and also, crucially, moving into the countryside. I cannot imagine not having the ability to get outdoors, to not have a garden to get away from the four walls, or a lonely lane to pace up and down with the dogs during Lockdown. No wonder urban dwellers are so keen to get out and about despite the risks.

No one who knew me in that former life would have ever guessed the deep contentment in living so off the beaten track would give me. But there is the fact of it as we sit outdoors looking at the landscape stretching from Cavan through Leitrim to the heights of Arigna in County Roscommon. “A fine mess you got me into, ” my husband often quotes fondly, since I was the one who lobbied hard to move to Ireland in the first place. The Belfast Treaty and his eldest sister’s death at age 54 dissolved his objections.

Nature has been the great comfort during this trying year. (Also, baking!) In my Zoom Creative Writing workshop this past week we touched on Creative Nonfiction. The ‘homework’ assignment took inspiration from a chapter heading in M.F. K. Fisher’s book How to Cook a Wolf ; write an essay on how to give comfort. The alternative is to write on Ten Essential Things to Do Before You Die.

The year is dying, even if the virus is not yet. I woke at 6am to darkness. I watched the last shaft of sunlight pierce through cloud last night around 7:30pm. We ate our lunch and supper outdoors on Sunday and had a socially distanced cup of tea with a friend outdoors yesterday. This morning felt like autumn had arrived right on schedule. It is time for warm, fuzzy, woolen socks. I walked on the beach in sandals last Friday. That will be their last outing until summer 2021.

I did not plan to have a poem for this post. I thought that it would be strictly prose, which is the focus of the next five weeks for me as we move into Short Story in our Zoom creative writing workshops. But then…Surprise! Like joy, a poem randomly turned up.

Comfort/Joy

This morning
I sense the wind is singing,
catch its joy
as it blows past in the breeze.

Hold it - briefly -
to my breast, swaddled
in the soft wool nest
of my oldest sweater. 

Some images spotted this week that gave me joy.

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.

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.

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

Cognitive Dissonance

How can it be so sunny outside and yet so dark? We are living in a state of prolonged cognitive dissonance. Reopening after lockdown and quarantine does not mean Covod-19 went away, magically. It is still there, travelling in droplets on air. Not that you would notice by the way some people behave. Consequently, Ireland is now stalled in Phase 3 of the Roadmap. Everyone will be required to where masks in shops from tomorrow. But as one friend said during an outdoor, socially distanced tea party, “I wish they had just told us to do it from the very beginning instead of making everyone just make up their own mind.”

Minds can be very tricky things. As my husband has said at times, “the mind is not your best friend at times.” We rationalise actions that may not be in our own best interests. Which can be summed up in the definition of cognitive dissonance, “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change.”

Any quick newsclip confirms that we live amidst collective cognitive dissonance. Did I not see an unmasked traffic warden on the main street in Enniskillen chatting virtually shoulder to shoulder with a passerby this past week? Even with signs reminding everyone to socially distance two metres? Behaviour like that had me sprinting to the getaway car without my hard to get items I had on my list. I could do without.

Pandemics are never sprints. They are marathons. This one is unique for a generation raised on vaccination. Sudden death may take form in random violence, but rarely by illness. Even our most terminal diagnoses usually involve heroic attempts to stem the drowning tide.

This week’s Sunday poem is a reminder from Lockdown. The poem was shortlisted in the Fish Lockdown Poetry competition. In case you thought that the virus has disappeared just because shops are open for business, here is a reminder. Lockdown was hard. Safely emerging from our cocoons is even more difficult. I was incandescent this week when it was reported that there were Texan tourists roaming around the Irish countryside who failed to quarantine for fourteen days before touring around. Small business owners, with a duty of care to their employees and an eye to their already exorbitant insurance costs, turned them away. But why should they have to have been put in that position in the first place? The new minister for Tourism got a sharp email from me. North American tourism may be (have been?) a big wedge of Irish economy. But a single asymptomatic, infected tourist getting tipsy, ignoring social distancing in a pub and lustily singing rebel songs could take down half a small county in Ireland. What were they thinking? (The airlines, the tourist, the government trusting people to do the right, uncomfortable thing, when people think they can go back to the old way of doing things.)

See how the mind can sometimes not be our best friend?

Our world has changed. Change is uncomfortable. The longer people continue with the collective cognitive dissonance the old normal way of life recedes and recedes and recedes. The discomfort – and far worse – remains the daily reality for millions.

Have you a fever? Do you cough?
 
It is really very tiring waiting for the other shoe to drop.
We unlearn our helplessness by training ourselves
with endless YouTube tutorials. We remember, vaguely,
how to sew and cook without a recipe book.
Though what shall we substitute for an avocado?
 
We queue and are let into shops two by two.
We are re-creating The Ark in our new Anschluss.
In the supermarket we cruise the one-way aisles
where no one makes eye contact.
 
It is very tiring to have to sanitise all your groceries
along with our worry and uncertainty. Inside, we lifestyle
our bunker’s décor for diversity, celebrating our make do and mend
individuality.  The avocado, grown from a pip, fails to fruit.
It droops and quivers on the windowsill each winter.
 
It is really very tiring despite all the sleep I get
in ten hour shifts. I dream of Sleeping Beauty, her castle.
I feel climbing in my chest its choking vine.
And when I awake, I feel tired.  I feel tired
all the time.

Stay safe. You may not be comfortable with the new normal, but adapt and survive as they say. Mask up! Keep up the social distance!

covid19 mask up!
Mask up! Keep your distance!

Photo by tam wai on Unsplash

Featured Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

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




Sunday Weekly, Poetry Edition

Contemplating the function of poetry in these strange times, it seems to me that the themes of impermanence and small joys speak to our current global condition. Elegies exercise grief over loss. Odes, too, can eulogise. Haiku, senryu, and tanka offer a snapshot image and feeling that is already gone except for the paper it is written on. Perhaps nature and love poems are the compensating joys, even if that, too, proves evanescent. The Celtish culture defined poetry as being ‘all memory.’ Memory can be a tricky thing. Holes can appear; we mend and make do to create meaning in the face of the great imponderables. In the face of our inchoate, post-Covid 19 future, philosophy may help us navigate day to day reality, but poetry may actually be what helps us navigate grief and uncertainty.

I know that some of my readers will be in the belly of a polar vortex this weekend. One Ohio based Facebook friend posted a photo of snowflakes on dandelion clocks. Here in Ireland today is chillier, after several days that were 20C (or 68 Farhrenheit in old money.) The sunshine made it feel warmer and I anointed myself with sunscreen for the first time this year, as one step beyond the floppy hat protection. We had the full Flower Moon, the last supermoon of 2020, this past week and astronomical Bealtaine (or Beltane outside of Ireland). As if waiting for its cue, the hawthorn began to unbutton its tight white buds and began to flower. I wrote a long Beataine poem this week that has been sent to a friend who posted me some life enhancing Lockdown light literature – crime fiction by Antonia Fraser, Raymond Chandler and J. M. Cain. I asked what I could send as a thank you and all she wanted was a Bealtaine poem! Classy lady, as another friend commented.

In the USA it is Mother’s Day. On this side of the pond we celebrate that on a Sunday that is close to the vernal equinox; it also is close to Lady Day, the feast of the Annunciation of Mary. Either date, the celebration of Mother’s Day has strong Marian overtones. Bealtaine, the month of May, is also a great fertility celebration as the growing season gets into full swing.

So for the Sunday Weekly I have written some tanka, although I have played a bit fast and lose with the rules in the latter. One is a salute to American Mother’s Day, which must feel rather odd this year for families that don’t share one roof. Lilacs are strong in my childhood memories of the month of May. Partially because there was a bush by the kitchen side door. Also partially because of hay fever memories from the bouquets brought to school for Marian celebration processions.

And this other tanka-ish poem is a nod to my near neighbours. I shouldn’t really say they are noisy, but… Their nest in the roof’s eaves is just above my writing space. So I cannot help but notice them.

Have a peaceful, restful Sunday with many small joys.

Featured image is a Photo by Nellia Kurme on Unsplash