I am sitting tapping out this blog post wrapped in a yak wool shawl made to withstand Tibetan chill. The season has turned here. Primary school age children went back to their classrooms in Ireland this past week. My friend’s secondary age child will start this Wednesday. This also signals that those of us at the opposite end of the age spectrum need to nestle into their cocoons once again. We shall start using the Seniors’ Hours to do the weekly trip to the supermarket. And resort again to online shopping for what cannot be found close to home. We live in a very rural area, but with the exception of one seaside trip, we have stayed within twenty miles of home. We have kept to necessary journeys; the beach jaunt was necessary for my soul.
Young ones need to be able to interact with one another. But it also creates a big unknown in our Covid19 world. It is a calculated risk taken by the government. They are banking on kids only getting mildly sick and not having long-term health problems. They are banking on grandparents not interacting with grandchildren, getting infected and landing in hospital. They are banking on the public exerting a restraint unlike that displayed by certain politicians and public figures who assembled, flouting government restrictions, in what has now become known as GolfGate.
Whatever eventuality, I am ready to launch my first online Creative Writing Workshop on 1st September with the introductory Pick n Mix course. I reached my maximum number and will now have participants Zooming in each week on a Thursday night and Saturday midday Irish time. They will be beaming in from the East Coast of the USA, Ottawa in Canada, Northwest England, Northern Ireland, and three different counties in the Republic. Even if the parameters of the local world may shrink, we can still meet, participate and co-create through technology. And may the Technology Angels and gods please bless all of us with a good bandwidth and steady signals!
And now to the Sunday weekly poem, in which aforementioned shawl makes a guest appearance.
The nip at light fabric
during the early morning dog walk
The brave-faced golden splash
of sunflower bloom. And tansy.
The tongue of monbretia
hissing through their tangerine lips
The berries - jewel trees -
garnet, ruby, amethyst sparkling
The red squirrels scrambling -
that feeling of being akin
The honking of wild geese -
their gathering, their leave taking
The fire in the grate
as dusk falls earlier each night
The reaching out - an in -
the yak wool shawl on shoulders
Have a good week. Get plenty of rest. Check your fury so that it does not exhaust you. Read some poetry. Fill your well. Create.
It is raining hard. We are getting a preview of the seasonal curve down into the dark autumn and winter here in Ireland. The low cloud demands that I have on the electric light even though I am writing this at 10am. Some folk have problems with the dark part of the year, when daylight hours are in short supply. In a damp island climate, there can be weeks when the only motivation to stir outside is to be at service to the dogs’ commands. Yet, these dark months are also creativity’s gestation.
As much as creativity demands solitude, it also thrives with periods of collegiality. We can spark off each other. We can encourage one another to keep going when self-doubt creeps in. Also, it good for the heart and soul to have a laugh with a group of people who are makers.
I make with words and have facilitated face-to-face workshops for the past six years as Word Alchemy. I usually magic up poems, but I have also worked in creative non-fiction, mostly with Sagewoman magazine over ten years, and written short fiction. Covid-19 has spurred me to take my workshops of small groups of no more than eight participants online. To allow for how wonky people’s work and life patterns are in this pandemic, I am offering a weekday evening course (which allows for some North Americans to join us in Ireland) and a Saturday midday option, so that you need not miss a session because life or work has intervened. We all need to be a bit flexible these days. Except about keeping a social distance and wearing masks when indoors and cannot keep our distance.
In September I am hosting an Introductory workshop I call Pick n Mix, where each week we have a taste of a new genre. During October we will spend dive into short fiction writing. After the clocks go back, November’s dark days will offer four weeks when we can gestate many poems.
If you are interested in participating in these workshops, please register your interest in the form. Pick n Mix is basically full, but one more could fit. There is already one person registered for Short Fiction in October. So please bag your space now.
I am sure that you may have questions. Let’s have a conversation.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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!
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…
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.
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?
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.
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?”
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.
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.
What I Noticed In My Cocoon
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
We are back home, tired and happy, sleeping late after the creative writing workshops at Willowbrook Glamping over the weekend. Our workshop was called “Companioning Your Greatness”, cribbed from W. B. Yeats’ poem These Are The Clouds. Tony began by looking at that word ‘companion’ etymologically. It means “together or with bread”. I played a supportive role in that workshop, acting as sounding board for Tony’s devisings, and a reader and timekeeper.
I was playing catch up earlier this morning, reading emails that had piled up the Inbox over the weekend. There was one from astrologer Chani Noble announcing the July eclipse season. So, too, the harvest season will get into full swing this month. Early July is about the sign of Cancer, which rules nourishment. Which took me back to bread.