Finding the ‘thing’ and coaxing the flames…

This post will spin the tiny little thread which has begun to form. A wisp of an idea which I am trying hard to grasp but dissipates like smoke when I think I have it straight in my head. Events have prompted the spinning; such as a tentative conversation suggesting the writing of a book which brought back the little black girl with pigtails, standing in the puddle of her own making, “I am not worthy”; and most recently, the catalyst for this post, the suggestion of autobiographical academic writing which prompted disquiet, the source of which I couldn’t lay my finger on. These are the reasons for my post: I think I may have found my ‘thing’ but it needs gentle coaxing…

I look at people as they are engaged in making something, wishing I had the same talent to create. I have had family and friends who knit and crochet and find joy in that. I have tried both and briefly enjoyed them. However, after a while my hands would hurt, and a tight tense knotty feeling would appear in my tummy, almost like I was knitting and crocheting my insides as my hands were working outside. Those crafters spoke of relaxation and release, I experienced pain and tension. However, they had found their ‘thing’.

I love to sing. Through many emotional events in my life I have stuck on a music source (tape, record, CD depending on the era) and sung at the top of my voice. It brings me such bubbling-up-from-the-inside overriding joy; or f’ing & blinding anger; or overspilling, snot-gurgling tears and sadness. It prompts a profound freedom to express the deep emotion held inside, that nothing else gives me. At school they found I had a talent for singing in musicals and nurtured that and since then I have briefly joined choirs and singing groups. I enjoy singing with and to others but the constraints of singing a particular part having to choose to sing alto or soprano, or wearing a particular ‘uniform’ (oh god that hideous coral polyester scarf that I refused to wear), or standing still in one place, often subdues the deep emotional release that I crave. It brings me joy and makes me feel good, but doesn’t feel like the freedom I constantly strive for. My sister is a singer. She has trained, and worked hard to make her life in opera. She has an amazing talent and a voice that touches me inside, makes me shiver and tears to form when I listen to her. When I watch and listen to her amongst a chorus of other beautiful-sounding talented singers as they weave their threads I know that this is her ‘thing’, as it could never be mine.

I have often watched with envy as my wonderful husband creates something beautiful. I often say he was born in the wrong era. He should have been in a world long passed, where his talents would be appreciated, where he could paint and pot, and create with wood and metal, and invent and concoct and where the demands of modern life would be but the stuff of nightmares. I watch the distraction on his face followed by the fire in his eyes, as an idea forms and takes hold until he starts to create in a frenzy of avid activity which cannot be stopped. I didn’t fully appreciate in our early married life how the act of tidying his pile of ‘stuff’ in the midst of making, or asking him to do so, would make a thinned section in the spinning of his thread as he wove his ideas into a beautiful creation. During those early years I would be frustrated that sometimes creations would be abandoned, unfinished. Only now do I wonder whether it’s because that wisp of an idea was interrupted and broken not just by the request to tidy, but by the demands of life, of disappointment or tragedy. Creating and inventing beautiful objects are his ‘thing’.

When I was at primary school I loved to write. We would be given a title on the blackboard and told to write a story. Often mine were long rambling tales (some would say like the emails I sometimes send or my blog posts), and would often finish abruptly – “the end” – when the teacher said that time for writing was up. I now realise that for me once the stories want to tell themselves, the words come spilling and jostling into my head, and onto the paper. However, before that point they start as tentative wisps of ideas that need following, flames that need fanning in order to burn bright, before the words start their merry way… and they are easily stopped.

I am put in mind of a Forest School session I went to a few years ago. I was suffering from a health issue, one of many that have curtailed activity over the years, and I was unable to engage in the more physical aspects of the session. I was shown instead the ‘Kelly kettle’ and its temperamental nature, and the knack was explained. A Kelly kettle consists of two main sections with its purpose to boil a liquid – in this case boiling water to make a hot cuppa for everyone during a busy session where a number of students were hungover! The bottom section of the ‘kelly’ is where the fire is built, the top section holds the water within a wall. It sounds so easy when you say it like that, but in practice it was a frustrating process. You have to start with small sticks, to kindle and coax the flame in the bottom section and wait for it to be caught, and then strong enough so that when you put the top section on it will not extinguish. I stood for a long time with a small pile of dried moss, tiny sticks, and slightly larger sticks that I had gathered from around the wood, trying to negotiate an agreement with that upstanding, aloof ‘Kelly’, which would result in a nice mug of steaming tea. I managed after a few attempts to get the fire started, but each time I put on the top part, the little flames would splutter and sulk, eventually turning their backs completely into cold indifference. I tried again a few more times before I thought I had it beat…the lid was on and the small fire seemed to be burning. However the knack comes through feeding those little flames with sticks that are dry enough, and just the right size to fit through the small hole near the base or at the top. The flames turned to smoke, which dwindled to a less-than-reassuring wisp. I nearly threw that object of torture across the clearing, and walked away because it was too difficult. Instead, taking a deep breath I tried again, learning from my failed attempts to coax that small flame and refined my techniques to join the parts, until at last with a small “whoop” at the success, the Kelly kettle was persuaded into delivering the boiling water, and a reward of caffeine for those around me.

Many of those who are teachers may think… “ah I know what she is talking of metaphorically here” – the importance of the outdoor environment which inspires learning from doing, resilience, perseverance and risk. Of course I see them too! However, the connections my brain is making are to that little flame that required nurturing and coaxing and the need to fuel the fire gently into glowing confidence, until it was ready to have a reason for existence placed on the top of it…just as I see my current journey into writing again.

I have so enjoyed the way that the words spill from my brain onto paper and I am consumed with ideas, just as happened when I was young, before the reasons for writing and associated constraints and uncertainties got in the way:

Put your book away, it’s time for your times-tables”, “Your spelling and punctuation could be better”, “This poem does not sound like the work of ‘x’ as requested”, “You have written too much, you might have been more concise”, “You have one hour to finish your paper”, “You have not met the essay question”, “You did not meet the learning outcomes”.

All the time these little occurrences fed that little voice from childhood saying “you are not worthy”. There was no time, no space, no confidence in following that little wisp of a thought to encourage the fanning of the flames so that the fire of my words could find release.

I am fearful to shut down those wisps again by giving them a purpose other than the joy of writing.

Academia was supposed to equate to freedom of expression for me after being constrained to toe the party-line in a local authority. I arrived with hope and excitement but looking around fearfully that I would be found out as the ‘imposter’. I waited, and still do, for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say “Oi you, we don’t have the likes of you here. This place is for the clever (white) people.” Don’t get me wrong, I have wonderful people around me, mostly (although not all) women, that state that they feel the same. They encourage and build me up with their words of affirmation and encouragement, as I hope I do for them. However, there are also those who through words and actions, dent and tear at the fabric, who use their perceived academic status to belittle, deride and override. These people make me fearful that in giving the small wisp of an idea an academic purpose, that small spark assaulted by these unfriendly, blustering self-important winds will splutter out, and the fervour for writing will be lost.

I remember attending a party moons ago, where we were asked to write a message on a small, brown parcel-label. The label was attached to a helium balloon that was released into the wide blue sky to find its place amongst the cotton-wool clouds before descending to earth perhaps for someone, somewhere, to discover. At the moment, that is all my writing is for. I write and release it into the ether. If people happen upon it, and it resonates with them, prompting them to think or experience an emotion, that is satisfying. Of course, I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t experience a small thrill when someone says they enjoyed my writing. It feels good, and gives that small girl who stands in the puddle of her own making, a reassuring warm hug. However, at present I do not write for a purpose. I do not write for affirmation from others. I write for me and the joy it brings… and because I am exploring whether it is my ‘thing’.

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