Category: Little Big Steps

A violin with a rose on the tailpiece

The smell of rosin takes me back to being eight years old, when I started to learn the violin. The rosin is a hard amber lump, wrapped in cloth inside a dark red box. I tighten the bow by turning the screw on the heel, rub the rosin up and down the taut hairs, testing the bounce on my hand before playing.

The violin has new strings; the old ones were in a bad state. The instrument hasn’t been out of its case for years. I tune the strings: A D G E. The intervals are ingrained in my memory, from when Miss Moss would hit A on the piano. We tuned that string first, then the others by ear: A D G E, the highest-pitched string last. Karen Jewell had pitch pipes, one for each note: A D G E. I had a recorder at home, to blow an A with two fingers on the top holes, thumb over the hole at the back.

There were six of us that started together at St Joseph’s school – Karen Jewell, Sharon Corr, Kevin O’Doherty and me. The names of the others escape me. We hired three-quarter sized instruments at first. Then came the time to buy a violin. There was a bus ride to Ashtead from Epsom, with my mum, then a walk down several streets until we reached an ordinary-looking house. A man showed us to an upstairs room where there were violins for sale and waiting to be repaired. The one I chose had a small rose on the tailpiece with an inset of mother of pearl. 

I practised in the bedroom, alone. I cried because it sounded horrible. I couldn’t get it right. The tears flowed freely in my hormonal teens. Practising for grade exams, year on year, at which I got steadily worse: Merit, Pass, Pass, Fail. I sat in the waiting room to take my grade exams, a low-ceilinged, wood-panelled room. My mum was with me, but then I had to go in alone. There were prepared pieces to play, sight-reading, scales, an interval sung (or was it played?) by the examiner, which I had to name. A third – While Shepherds Watched. A fifth – Baa Baa Black Sheep. No reaction from the examiner. One was a lanky man who remained side-on to me throughout the exam. He didn’t look at me at all. His chair was tipped back, his feet on the desk, he barely acknowledged that I was there. I remember the shape of that man, his trousers with turn-ups, his feet crossed on the desk. I see my fingers on the strings, the bow moving up and down.

Then the wait, the brown envelope with the results. The marks for different pieces, sight-reading, aural tests, the overall result: Grade 1, Merit; Grade 2, Pass; Grade 3, Pass; Grade 4, Fail.

Miss Moss saw me through all those exams, up to Grade 4, except she rarely turned up for lessons in the two terms before my last exam. She had married that year, and the story my mother told was that Miss Moss couldn’t be bothered, was more interested in her husband. She could have been ill; but we were never told. She didn’t return at all the term after I failed Grade 4. There was a man in her place when I went for my lesson. I didn’t take to him, found him scary. ‘I wouldn’t have put you in for Grade 4 if you weren’t ready,’ he said. In retrospect, a reasonable comment, but I wasn’t used to failure. That shameful word on the folded paper, ‘Fail’, was enough to tell me that I was no good and should give up playing.

I was in a Maths lesson when the music teacher hauled me out of class. She seemed angry. ‘What do you think you’re doing, giving up the violin?’ she said. I mumbled something about getting a job in Woolworth’s after school. Said nothing about my developing interest in boys – no time for the violin. She looked furious, turned away in disgust, stomped off down the corridor. I think she was trying to tell me that I was good at the violin, not to give up on music. But people didn’t say that kind of thing in the 1970s. No one ever said it at home, that I played well. It was years later, maybe twenty years, that my mother said, ‘We used to listen to you downstairs. It sounded lovely.’ One word of encouragement might have saved me from giving away my violin to my brother, who had started learning by then.

The violin I play today belongs to my daughter. It’s still hers, if she wants to claim it. She used to practise in her room, but also downstairs, in front of me and her sister. She had lessons until she was 18, the summer before she left for University.

I manage some scales. A few off-key notes, but the fingers of my left hand remember where to go on the strings; the fingers of my right on top of the bow, by the heel, the thumb beneath. My wrists tire quickly. Chronic Fatigue does that to wrists. I pack the violin into its case, loosen the hairs on the bow and tuck it into the slots in the top of the case before clicking it shut. The violin is staying downstairs, to be played a little a few times a week. I won’t be playing alone, shut up in a bedroom.  I shall play along to records, find folk tunes to practise. I won’t be taking any grades.

Sew it goes, embracing wonkiness

When I began these posts in the theme of Little Big Steps, little did I know how small my steps would become, how small the majority of our steps would be. A few days before lockdown, I took the risk of going to my oldest friend’s funeral. The advice on social distancing, at that time, was less stringent. And the sorrow we all felt at losing one of the kindest, loveliest people I have ever known led to grabs of hands, consoling hugs. Then, within days, a brother fell ill, then my husband, then me. Nearly 5 weeks into (probable) COVID-19, little steps are all I can take, still plagued by breathlessness and fatigue caused by the virus piling an extra bag of sticks onto the heavy bundle I always carry due to twenty years of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

This is the longest thing I have written in five weeks. I have had little energy and little desire to write. Some days, all I have written in my journal is the day and the date, trying to keep track of some measure of normality, to know where I am.

My creativity has gone in another direction, towards sewing, a little bit at a time, using remnants given to me just before lockdown, stored in a box that I received from my eldest daughter for Mother’s Day, when we went for a socially-distanced walk along the banks of the River Medway. My last proper outing before self-isolating.

I didn’t learn sewing at home. My mother was a furious knitter, clicking at speed in her armchair whilst simultaneously watching telly. I never got the hang of it, the tension either too loose or too tight, stitches dropped, wonky ‘squares’ abandoned on the needles. But I did like sewing, beginning with cross stitch on those stiff oblongs of fabric with large holes in them, at primary school, appliquéing a felt seahorse onto fabric that became a swimming bag when I was in top class.

Grammar school knocked some of the enjoyment of sewing out of me. Excellence, striving for perfection, that was how it was, for all topics, and I soon learned that you only got help with things if you were already really good at them. Why support the girl who was struggling with sewing in straight lines, the girl who managed to stitch the skirt she was making to the skirt she was wearing? Why help me when there was the brilliant sewer who was performing miracles with an embroidered, ruched bodice and puffed sleeves? That other girl could get an A in O-Level Needlework, whilst I would have the subject removed from my school timetable as exam year approached, along with Music, which I also loved. I would do much better in languages, was forced to do Latin to help with my French and German. After all, at Rosebery County Grammar School for Girls results were everything.

Whilst I had no help at school, rather stern looks and disappointment from the teacher, I took a full-length skirt I was making to Mrs Field, my church choir mistress, who lived in a ‘big house’ and not only had a sewing machine but a sewing room! Mrs Field and her daughter Rosemary spent hours with me, showing me how to convert yards and yards of material into a ruffle to go on the bottom of my maxi-skirt. Long stitches and careful and even gathering made a floor-sweeping triumph when I wore it to the next Irish dance at Surbiton Assembly Rooms. They had patience with me, gave me one-to-one attention, and never made me feel inept and stupid, like I did in Mrs Whatshername’s class at school.

I took up sewing again when my daughters were small. I left them in a crèche at South Greenwich Adult Education Institute whilst I joined a sewing class. I was in my early twenties, and most of the other women were in their forties, fifties and upwards. I learned a lot about the menopause in that class. But, mostly, I learned how to make clothes for my children, complicated soft toys (my Mickey Mouse was a great success, once I unpicked the tail I had mistakenly sewn on his front and placed it on his bum) and made patchwork panels, which were added to quilts that were raffled at the end of each term, a panel or two by each class member stitched together.

Sewing became my sanity and insanity. After the girls were in bed, I would work on ‘just one more square’ of a patchwork bedspread, which led to another, and saw me sitting up into the night. I still have that bedspread, some 35 years on, now a picnic blanket.

These days, my sewing has taken on a free-form aspect. From the years of accurate pattern-following and precision-cutting and stitching of formal patchwork, I have discovered crazy patchwork (quick and easy by machine) and folded patchwork (takes longer by hand, but it is forgiving to inaccuracy and mistakes).

A couple of months ago, I found a book in Oxfam, The Coats Book of Embroidery, from 1978. This is where I discovered folded patchwork, and I am learning new embroidery stitches, techniques like whipping and interlacing, adding different colours to the base stitches. I look at the diagrams, skim-read instructions, make my own wonky way, deciding on what I am making and how to make it, with what, long after I join the first two pieces of fabric. It is a lot like the way I write, never plotting or planning, not knowing how it will end. But it’s a heck of a lot less frustrating than writing. There are no abandoned drafts, though there has been some unpicking and restitching, much like editing a piece of writing. I now feel I can just enjoy sewing without Mrs Whatshername looking down her long nose, over the top of her glasses, when I was in Class 3M at Rosebery. As for making an embroidered, ruched bodice, I don’t care for it, actually. I am making a folded patchwork rainbow with wonky embroidery and experimenting with inlay appliqué, thank you very much. No-one will be marking it or inspecting it for faults. It will soon be hanging in my front window, along with the other rainbows and hearts in the street.

Do Less in 2020

New Year’s resolutions, made at the darkest time of the year, are usually about depriving yourself (of food, drink etc) or pushing yourself to work harder at something. Gym memberships rise in January, causing regular gym-goers to pray for February when their usual haunts will be empty again, and those NY-resolution-makers will be lighter of pocket, having signed up for something they can’t keep up.

How about making DO LESS your resolution for 2020? As part of my Little Big Steps project, celebrating small steps as achievements in themselves, or on the road to bigger things, this is my suggestion. I got the idea after reading an article by Mia Gallagher in The Stinging Fly, Issue 41, ‘Practice, Process, Product’, from a lecture delivered at the Bray Literary Festival in September 2019. Gallagher writes:

I’m often asked by people for feedback on how they should complete a book or other Thing they are making. I usually ask them how long they’ve been working on it, how much time they intend to spend every week or every day going forward, and for how long. When they tell me their targets, I nearly always suggest they do less […] Don’t put in four hours a day. Put in one, or if that’s too much, thirty minutes. Or twenty minutes, three times a week. Each time you turn up, you build up energy. It’s the decision to be there that feeds the flame, not how long you stay once you’ve arrived.

Unless you are contractually obliged to complete a piece of work, in any discipline, and to a deadline, this is advice well worth taking.

Challenges that feel like competitions

I am declaring myself against National Novel Writing Month, when writers commit to writing a novel in a month; I am also ambivalent about the Write a Poem a Day months. I have only tried the latter, rarely get beyond five poems drafted, and hardly ever write them on consecutive days. I have given up feeling a failure, as I drop out on the second week, and instead work up those few poems I have drafted, preparing them for submission. I don’t do challenges that feel competitive, though I do set challenges for myself.

Changing habits

Habits are good, as long as they don’t stifle you. Like football fans wearing the same lucky socks to matches, we writers can become stuck in our habits, superstitious about notebooks, pens, times of day to write. I used to write only in A5 spiral-bound notebooks, using a pencil. I used to write only in notebooks that were given to me. The two notebooks I am using at present – A5 spiral-bound for general journalling; A4 for planning and research – are working perfectly well, even though I bought them for myself. Several gifted notebooks, that are neither A5 nor spiral-bound, lie on my bookshelves, full of my words. I recently picked up a cartridge pen, which I had not used in a while. The ink had dried up. It took some time to change the cartridge and scribble until the ink flowed freely. I now use it every day, instead of writing in pencil. I don’t need to stop to sharpen it, and even writing a few lines a day keeps the ink flowing. I see this as a good metaphor for writing habits, or for any creative pursuit: keep going, even a little at a time, or it will take you a while to get moving again.

Discipline needn’t be daunting

Discipline is a good thing if you have a long project to complete, but the project need not take over your life. I had a conversation with John O’Donoghue, about his method for writing his award-winning memoir, Sectioned: A Life Interrupted. I was daunted by attempting to write my own memoir; it seemed like such a massive thing to work on. John told me that he looked on his memoir as writing 15 separate stories. As he finished each story, he mentally pinned it up alongside the others, like pegging washing on the line. He worked at producing 500 good words, three times a week. This seemed achievable for me, and I did produce over 20,000 words working in this way. My memoir is now abandoned, for complicated reasons, and I am not working on a long writing project at present. But the process and practice remain a good lesson for me, plus there will be parts of the longer work that I can repurpose, in time, as poetry, as fiction. Working in small chunks of time, of output, is far more effective than bashing away until exhausted, then needing to cut away most of the words from the first draft.

‘Writing is not the only thing you do’

On my desk, I have a weekly planner, where I note down all sorts of ‘things to do’ from household tasks, birthday cards to buy and send, to writing projects. I used to have a separate mind map for writing, but now all my life tasks are together. In On Writing, Stephen King says: ‘Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way round.’ The most helpful thing said to me last year, just after I had abandoned writing my memoir and was floundering over what to write, was by my osteopath. ‘Writing is not the only thing you do,’ he said. I was  furious, at first. How could he not understand that I am a writer? But it’s not the only thing I do. By just living, looking around me, I slowly, slowly started on a new poem, about my neighbour’s garden, from short notes written over a week or so, on a notepad by my bed. Just a minute or so at a time, until the poem formed. By doing less, I began to do more.

 

Invicted – a guest post by SM Jenkin

I invited SM Jenkin to share her poem ‘Invicted’, as it lends itself to the theme of Little Big Steps. I know SM as Sarah – we were sister Medway Mermaids, part of a women’s writing group, and also share the experiences of being second-generation Irish women and living in the Medway Towns.

‘Invicted’ appears in her debut poetry collection Fire in the Head, published last year by Wordsmithery. It was also published in the anthology Please Hear What I’m Not Saying, edited by Isabelle Kenyon, a fundraiser for the UK mental health charity Mind, and runner up for Best Anthology at the Saboteur Awards, 2018.

Invicted

Victory
is getting out of bed, even though
it is past noon and everyone walking past
has seen that your curtains are
still closed

Victory
is having curtains in the first place,
and a net behind them, and
space to put them up and
keeping them there

Victory
is those sharp clean teeth and that cereal
that you swallow down and keep down
and the milk that is still OK to drink,
today

Victory
is remembering that above those sharp
teeth are lips that kiss, that shape
soft words:
you are allowed

Victory
is those clothes that keep you warm,
and those matching yellow socks
that remind you of
summer beaches

Victory
is making it beyond the chipped
front door today, and staying put
when they walk past, and see
right through you

Victory
is not telling them to go
fuck themselves, because really.
Who knows what their victory looks like;
is it anything like yours?

Victory
is going to bed and staying there,
not knowing if tomorrow is going to
be a victory day and
doing it anyway

____________

Over to Sarah, to tell us how she came to write ‘Invicted’:

‘Invicted’ was written as I reached one of the lowest points of my life, a culmination of what felt like a relentless conga-line of hurt and humiliations, large and small, and a couple of major health scares. It became difficult to get out of bed, to have any kind of energy at all; I didn’t want to do anything or go anywhere. It became hard to find anything to celebrate when it seemed like everyone else was surging ahead in their lives, and posting such happy pictures online. I was isolated and not meeting anyone. My life seemed small and grey in comparison. So, to compensate, I wrote myself a checklist for myself of the things I was able to do and why this was important. It started off more as a way of reassuring myself that I was managing to do something, to remind myself that I was doing something. That, yes, getting out of bed was an achievement. Yes, staying in the outside world once you managed to get there was an achievement. Yes, now that you’ve seen this you can celebrate and recognise that this is, after all, a common and shared life experience. That we do not know what other people’s victories look like.

I wrote that poem because shaping the words helped me to shape my understanding, and how important it is to recognise those small steps of achievement. Writing that poem became an achievement for me, and sometimes, when the bad days return, I can say to myself, Victory is getting out of bed. There’s still a hangover that any talk about weakness is not the done thing. I’m a poet. I’m not always going to stick to the done thing, especially now.

It was important to me to make a reference to HMS Victory, the ship built at Chatham dockyard, where my dad worked.

It feels to me that there is still a macho hangover in some parts of Medway. An idea that a victory is something that has a very narrow definition,  only applying to “wins” such as a conflict (large or small), a business win, a football match.  I wanted to explore and expand that definition for myself. That winning mindset is hard to shake off.

SM Jenkin is a second-generation Irish writer, a lover of science fiction and an editorial advisor for Confluence magazine. A former chair of the Medway Mermaids writing group, chair and founder member of the Medway St Patrick’s day committee, SM Jenkin is a regular performer on the Kent Live Lit scene. She has performed internationally, and has been published in numerous literary anthologies and magazines. Her debut poetry collection Fire in the Head was published by Wordsmithery in 2018.

Social media: @sajenks42  https://www.facebook.com/SMJenkinWriter

Little Big Steps, taking the first step

Since my last post, I have come up with a name for my project, which celebrates small achievements as good things in themselves, or as steps on the road to bigger things. The name is Little Big Steps – so far so good.

I had thought that this could become a book, or that I could start a new blog – something big. But the whole idea is to celebrate the small. So I am choosing not to follow one of the habits of highly effective people, as outlined by Steven Covey: ‘Begin with the end in mind’. (From The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Starting with something big in mind might mean that you never get started at all. It all becomes too daunting.

I have been thinking about how I get started on my writing, how I got started in the first place, nearly 20 years ago, when I was very ill and had severely limited energy. It started with a notebook, a gift from a friend. I wrote a little poetry in the notebook each day, typed it up the next day, edited it another day. Twenty minutes at a time was all I could manage. The writing was enough in itself, without thinking where it might lead to.

There are Boats on the Orchard, my latest publication, was not the result of starting with the end in mind. I was living in a house that backed onto a disused orchard, in a village that had been a major fruit-growing area; the orchards now disappearing or in decline. I had finished a story collection, which I had been writing for five years (also not started with a book in mind – a pair of stories sharing characters, which accidentally grew). I was not sure what to do with myself. I had a quote pinned above my desk, about when you finish a long writing project, it is as if you are falling from a tree, hitting off every branch as you come down.

It was a kind of bereavement, after living with those characters for so long. And after a bereavement, you have to carry on every day, putting one foot in front of the other. Putting new words on the page, even if they seem slight, even if it seems they won’t lead anywhere. So I wrote about what I could see from the window of my writing shed, and things I noticed as I walked the local orchards. Over time, those poems grew into something bigger – a commission for Wandering Words followed, and eventually a pamphlet, working with Sara Fletcher to produce images to illustrate the poems. It had long been an ambition of mine, to collaborate with an artist, and all this grew from seemingly slight scribblings in a notebook.

I guess the point of this is, you don’t have to begin with the end in mind. Just take a step and see where it leads you. For the time being, I have a name – Little Big Steps – and I have begun a new notebook, one that I have been saving for a while. I am jotting ideas, copying quotations from books and articles, and I have already asked a guest writer if she would like to share a poem of hers on this website, which fits the theme. More soon…

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