personal

Filling the well

Sandbanks, Margate Bay

I’ve struggled to write anything this week, because I simply can’t write in the way I usually do. If I’m to write anything at all, then it has to be about what’s going on for me right now, and that means a much more personal post than normal. The truth is, I’ve been feeling very, very low, to the extent of having prolonged crying sessions most days that do very little to make me feel any better.  There are lots of things to feel stressed about, it’s true, but things have been worse before this and I’ve held it together far better.

Today I suddenly realised what’s wrong with me – I need to fill the well.  I feel overwhelmed and at the end of my rope with nothing left in me to give, am totally drained and exhausted and, because of it, swing back and forth between numbness and over-emotional outbursts.  Normally I don’t get to this state because when I see myself headed there I make sure to do things that help restore my self to me – things that fill the well.

The problem has been that most of those things are no longer available, or at least not easily available.  The first of these I’ve written at length about before – there’s nowhere round here (or nowhere I’ve discovered, anyway) where I can be alone in a wild and natural place.  I’m miles and miles from the sea, and there are no woods that haven’t been turned into Center Parc-style commodities.  Nature has always been my solace, but it has to be fairly empty of people and full of silence and peace for it to work.

My garden is a consolation, and sitting in the sun always helps, but it hasn’t been warm enough lately to be able to do that.  On top of that, we took on an allotment late last year which we never got round to doing anything with, and instead of being able to enjoy gardening in our own garden, I’ve felt the pressure to get it sorted out quickly so that we can get on with the allotment.  This week I decided, reluctantly, that we have to let it go.  Geoff likes the idea of it but not the reality of what’s involved, and I simply can’t manage a very large garden of our own plus a large allotment.  It’s really too much.

Usually the well fills up regularly through the joy I get from having pets.  However, one of my cats died last year and my remaining cat is eighteen years old, and going slowly downhill – she’s unlikely to last more than another few months, I think.  It’s my turn to give to her and I’m glad to be able to do that, but there’s little coming back now to sustain me, and all the sadness of seeing her slow decline.  I’m longing for a kitten, or a dog, or preferably both, but it would upset her and I can’t do that to her.  It will have to wait.

Much of my well-filling comes through having time alone, but even this hasn’t been an option.  With Geoff unemployed, he’s at home 24/7 and I hardly ever get the house to myself, with that blissful feeling of peace and the knowledge that I can do whatever I like for the day without having to consider anyone else.

And finally, what has proved to be the last straw is the loss of my reading time.  I wake up early, usually about 6.00ish, and I like to spend an hour or two absorbed and lost in a book before starting my day.  I love to read and this is the only time of day that I do it.  I love the bedroom in the early morning, with the sun streaming in and the crystal in the window creating rainbows on the wall.  I love the quiet at that time of day, the only sound being birdsong coming through the open window, and it’s often when I get my best ideas.

Of course, Geoff no longer has to get up early and is there with me now.  Although it’s companionable to drink tea together and chat, it’s not what I most need and I long for my hour of solitude.  I feel so ungrateful as I write this, because I couldn’t ask for anyone better to share my life with.  I know I’m lucky – but the need to be alone for a while goes deep and demands to be satisfied.

The loss of that quiet early morning time has led to me breaking down twice in the past.  The first time was after my parents were killed in an accident many years ago and I had to stay in their house for a while afterwards, with my brother and my grandmother.  I was never able to get any time alone, and I needed it to grieve and to just be me, without all the sudden responsibility that had been thrust on me.  One day it all got too much and I ran out of the house, walking the ten miles back to my own home where I could find the personal space that I needed.

The second time was when I was teaching IT at a college outreach centre.  My habit was to get to where I worked before 8.00am, let myself into the building, make a cup of tea, do my photocopying for the day, and take some quiet time to myself before a demanding day full of teaching.  Then we got a new manager, who also turned up at this time, and wouldn’t leave me alone.  She spent most of the time complaining to me about all the things that she wasn’t happy about.  The rest of the time she’d ask me to do some little job (‘since I was there’), which meant that my teaching prep didn’t get fully done and I had to spend my lunch break on it.  I’d held down this full-time teaching job for a year without problem, but when I lost this morning time I burnt out within a few months, went on sick leave for six weeks, and ended up resigning.

It’s clear that I have to reclaim my early mornings and also find some new ways of filling the well, or somehow manage to reinstate some of the old ones.  I’m not sure how I’m going to do that right now, but I’m looking for ways.  Awareness of the problem is a good start.

This is my story at the moment, but filling the well is important for all of us in everything we do.  Creativity demands time and space to ponder and dream, along with the stimulation of new places and experiences.  If we don’t fill the well, it drains dry eventually and leaves us feeling blocked, flat, and uninspired at best, burnt out and depressed at worst.  Whatever it is we give out in life, we need to fill up again so that we have something still to give, and the greater the number of ways we can fill our well, the better.  What fills your well will be different to what fills mine, but whatever it is you need to do to top yours up, you owe it to yourself to do it.

 

Answers are everywhere

Have you heard of Street Wisdom?  It’s a non-profit venture that shows people how to use the streets around them to get intuitive answers to questions about their lives.

‘It’s a simple idea, based on the proposition that the environment and people around us are full of wisdom we largely overlook or ignore.   Street Wisdom allows us to tune into the rich stimulus and learn.   As our strap line says –  answers are everywhere – you just have to ask.’      

www.streetwisdom.org

I’ve been intrigued by this since I first saw it, as it seems to me to have a lot in common with contemplative photography.  The aims are somewhat different, but there’s a big overlap and the process is really very similar.  So when I saw a London-based ‘train the trainer’ event on Street Wisdom’s site, I felt compelled to sign up for it, even if it did seem a bit premature to be training to run events when I hadn’t even been on one and didn’t really know what’s involved.

The format goes like this: the first hour is for ‘tuning up’ and getting you into the right space in your head to absorb what the street has to tell you.  The second hour involves going off on your own on a wander round the streets, with a question in your mind that you’d like answered, and an openness to letting the answer come to you through what you see, hear and feel as you walk.  The third hour is spent sharing experiences with the rest of the group.

You come prepared with a question to ask.  It can be anything, but the more specific it is the better.  You want to avoid anything too simple or prosaic, like ‘what shall I cook for dinner?’ and anything too deep and non-specific, such as ‘what’s the meaning of life?’.  You aim for something somewhere in the middle for which you’d really like an answer.

I’ve been working recently on a change of direction, as some of you know.  I want to move away from ‘how to work the camera’ courses and towards a contemplative, more creative approach that doesn’t depend on a knowledge of technology to allow you to participate meaningfully in photography.  One thing that has bothered me about this is the question of finding the people I could offer this to.  I know they’re out there, but I’m not sure how to attract them.  This was my question, then: ‘how do I find my ideal clients?’.

We were a very large group so we were divided up into four smaller groups, each led by one of the Street Wisdom team.  I’d been curious about the tune-up part of the day, and despite being incredibly simple it was amazingly effective.  We were sent off on a series of roughly ten-minute walks, on our own, with a simple instruction to follow each time.  These were: ‘Look for what attracts you‘, ‘Slow…..right……down‘, ‘Listen to the story‘, and ‘Find the beauty in everything‘.

I found the ‘slow right down’ instruction particularly effective.  This isn’t usually something I have any problem with, and I’m used to doing it for photography purposes, but I hadn’t tried doing it in a busy, bustling space like Covent Garden.  I was already moving pretty slowly by this time, but I slowed even more, eventually just sitting for a while and looking.  It created a calm space within me, unaffected by the hustle and hurry going on all around.  When you let go of trying to get somewhere or achieve anything, you’re able to stay in the moment, which is a very calming place to be.

Once we’d got ourselves all tuned up and in the zone, it was time to go out on an extended walk with our question in mind.  I wandered off towards some quieter streets as I was feeling a little tired by then.  The temptation is to think too much and to actively look for answers, rather than just letting them come to you.  Initially I had a sense of forcing it slightly, probably because I was worried I wouldn’t ‘get’ anything, so I had to let that worry go and simply walk and look and listen, letting it come to me rather than hunting it down.  This is where the value of the tuning up exercises kicks in – they put you into a relaxed mental state that helps prevent your rational mind getting too much of a look in.

Bridge, Royal Opera House

The first thing that struck me as having significance was this bridge.  It connects two buildings, one old and one new, and my reaction was that this is what I’m trying to do – find a passageway that will take me from the old to the new.  I’m also trying to move from a traditional (old) idea of how to teach photography to a new one.  The new approach is very different and may take a little getting used to for participants, just like the bridge.  The bridge was oddly twisted – almost like a strand of DNA.   DNA is about life and the form it takes – was this telling me that my new direction is ‘in my genes’?  what I’m meant to do?  A new form of life? I feel there’s quite a lot to unpack in this symbol of connection, but it needs time to percolate in my mind before the full meaning becomes clear to me.  What I do know is that it was an important symbol for me that stopped me in my tracks.

I’d noticed that I was looking up a lot and shortly after this became aware of several planes crossing the sky, prompting the thought that I should be aiming to fly high.  I’ve always played it small in my life – one of my biggest issues – because it simply wasn’t safe to be visible as a child.  If I was noticed, I was criticised, told off, put down, and the instinct to hide is still strong.  The signs were telling me that it was time to let this go, aim higher and make myself visible.

Roof garden tree

The next sign reinforced this message.  High up, a small tree was perched at the edge of a roof garden.  It seemed to be thrusting towards the sky, climbing as high as it could.  It was obviously out of its normal environment, and there was something a bit precarious about it, but I admired it for its courage to grow wherever it was placed and to reach for its full potential.  Although it looked quite vulnerable, I realised that as long as it was well-rooted it was quite safe up there.  The message doesn’t need spelling out!

Bare tree, with buildings

There was also this tree, which stood there defiantly being itself.  Despite only having the barest beginnings of new leaves, it looked totally confident in itself, willing to show its true, unadorned nature to the world.

Five red telephone boxes

Next were a row of telephone boxes – communicate, tell everybody about it.

Dump

Then this – DUMP, which I took to mean ‘dump the rubbish’ and get on with what I really want to do.

Building on your design

This was followed by ‘Building on your design’ – suggesting to me that I should build on what I’ve already established, and also that I could build on the design of the Street Wisdom event.  There were a number of things they did that I could use as a foundation for my own work and adapt for my own purposes.

And finally, ‘Kickstart your day the rockstar way’.  This really made me smile, and also reminded me that eating breakfast is a good idea – something I frequently don’t do.

Start your day the rockstar way

We reconvened after this, and discussed our experiences in the group. Everybody had gained something valuable from it, and as it was a training event there was a lot to discuss around the business of how to do it ourselves.  The thing that most surprised me was how very relaxed I felt.  I’m not comfortable in busy, noisy environments and tend to be quite badly affected by the general hustle, bustle and impatience all around me.  I like the stimulation of cities, but I find them hard to handle. At this point, though, I was chilled!

Even without the series of signs and messages, I’d have got a lot from this.  Realising how it was possible to stay in a calm and quiet space even in the midst of crowds and noise was a revelation to me.  As someone pointed out, this is meditation, although of a different kind to what we expect.  As a kind of practical urban version of it, it avoids the sometimes off-putting connotations that go along with the word and more people are likely to be open to its benefits.

We were urged to run an event of our own in the next two weeks so as to consolidate our learning, even if we only do it with a couple of friends.  I definitely intend to do this, although I’m not sure at the moment who I’m going to ask as most of my local friends are tied up right now with various life and family crises.  So if you happen to be in the Newark/Lincoln area and you want to try this, please do get in touch.

I loved the day, the organisers were lovely people – thank you, Jim – and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the other participants.  Street Wisdom is a terrific concept, all the better for the fact that it’s offered free of charge.  I urge you to give it a go – have a look on the website to see what’s happening in your area.  And watch this space……….

 

 

Bed and breakfast, anyone?

Snug 2Our second living room, or snug, with its woodburner stove

I’m behind with my blog posts this week, partly due to a nasty cold but also because I’ve been sorting out a new venture.  You may have heard of Airbnb – it’s a site where you can list your spare room for holiday rent, as in a kind of informal bed and breakfast.  You can offer anything from a sofa bed with nothing else provided to full professional bed and breakfast, and set your own prices for it.  People book through the website, you get some spare cash, they get something individual and characterful and/or reasonably priced, and hopefully everybody’s happy.

We have a lovely sunny front room that wasn’t really being used so we’ve turned it into a bedroom, and if someone stays they get this, plus light use of the kitchen, share of the bathroom, and use of our second living room or snug, and the garden when the weather’s nice.  It’s taken me ages to put the listing together as there’s rather a lot of information to write up, plus a profile to create and photos to take and upload.

This has been my only photography this week and it only took about five minutes to shoot the photos, and half an hour or so to process them.  However, I spent several hours before all of that cleaning and tidying so that it all looked good enough to photograph.  It’s not that we’re particularly dirty or messy, just that we’re not immaculate or minimalist and the house gets cleaned on a room rotation basis so it’s seldom all freshly done at once.  (It has made me slightly apprehensive about the amount of work involved every time someone stays………)

This is a different kind of photography, of a utilitarian nature, and I didn’t spend much time on it, thinking that as long as the rooms look appealing and the photos are sharp enough, its other photographic merits aren’t that important.  Photography is one of the strangest of the visual arts, in that it has this other very practical use of recording what’s there so that people who’re not there can see it.

It’s this muddling of art with documentation that I believe leads to people getting very upset when they find out a photograph has been manipulated in some way – there’s an expectation that photographs tell the truth.  They don’t, of course, even when used like this – you’d know it was the same rooms if you came in and saw them, but they look subtly different when photographed and I feel oddly as if I’m looking at someone else’s home when I view them.  It was Garry Winogrand who said he photographed things to see what they look like photographed, and that alone is enough to make photography interesting because things do look different photographed.

But getting back to practical matters, if you know anyone who’d like a welcoming, comfortable place to stay in Newark on Trent, for a very reasonable £35 a night (£45 for two), you know where to send them!

You can see the full listing here.

SONY DSC

Bedroom 3

Bedroom 4

Kitchen 1

Kitchen 2

 

Garden table

Garden lounger

Vegetable garden

Vegetable garden

Garden looking towards house

Why some of us hate having our photo taken

Deckchairs

I have always hated having my photograph taken. These days I admit that it has a lot to do with vanity, as I always hope that I look better than it turns out I do in most of the photographs taken of me, but even as a very small child I didn’t like it. In the photo above, that’s me, hiding behind the deckchair on the left because I didn’t want to be in the picture. I was only about five or six years old at the time, so issues of vanity didn’t prevail and whatever it was that I didn’t like about it has to be something I would have been unable to articulate then but still instinctively feel today.

A few years back I had a friend who was always trying to sneak photos of me, taking them at odd moments when I wasn’t paying attention. I found it quite annoying, especially as he knew I really didn’t want to be photographed. One day he took a photo on his phone and then applied an app to it that turned my face into a kind of zombie/living dead thing – the kind of thing you see in horror movies, with half the skull showing through and eyes melting down the cheeks. I thought it was awful and even quite disturbing, but what was worse was that he posted this photo on Google+ – it’s still there as far as I know. That’s not the reason I’m no longer friends with him, but it didn’t help.

I’ve just started reading a book called PhotoTherapy Techniques by Judy Weiser, and she has this to say about photos of ourselves taken by other people:

“Photos are a good means for exploring the power dynamics in our relationships with the people who have photographed us. As each photographer ‘takes’ another person’s picture, the terms subject and object acquire additional meanings in terms of subjectification and objectification. It is interesting to consider which person’s picture signals the most truth to us about ourselves and to explore what that may signal about whose reality is the most accepted as being true (and who can therefore be trusted with the photographic equivalent of one’s self….).”

It’s the last sentence that interests me most – who can be trusted? While I don’t think I’m ever going to like my photo being taken, I have another friend whom I would trust implicitly to do the job, and indeed she has taken one of the few photos of me that I’m happy to use for online purposes. I know that the way she sees and portrays me is likely to reflect the way I see myself and want to be seen. I know she would delete any in which I looked laughable or odd or just plain terrible, and she wouldn’t dream of posting them on social media sites without my permission – in fact, it wouldn’t even occur to her.

I’ve always instinctively felt that the taking of someone’s photo by another places the weight of power in favour of the photographer. Certainly, the traditional idea of the photographer as male, with his female subject (victim?) posing according to his demands, supports this. Of course the reality is often very different and this is a heavily stereotyped version of the relationship, but something of it lingers on, especially in amateur photography magazines where articles on portraits always involve some pretty, thin, and very young female being photographed by older male photographers laden down with phallic lenses.

There are obvious feminist issues here concerning the male gaze and how that objectifies women, but that’s not where I want to go with this – the question that intrigues me is one that would apply even if the photographer were female and the subject male. What I’m interested in is whether or not the balance of power always lies with the photographer, however sensitive s/he is, and how much of that understanding hides behind the reluctance of many of us to have our photograph ‘taken’?

 

Last year’s words belong to last year’s language

Lone walker, Wye Valley

*For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice.

T.S. Eliot

I’ve lost my way, I really have, but I’m finding it again, and discovering that it isn’t the same way after all, but a new one. The path I’ve been on till now was never wrong or badly chosen – it was taking me where I thought I wanted to go and it ended up teaching me a lot about what I really did and didn’t want. Now I’ve changed my mind about where I want to go and how I want to get there. The path I’ve been on has become a little rocky and uneven lately and I’ve nearly turned an ankle on it more than once. Sometimes I’ve even sat down on one of its rocks and not felt much like moving again. I’ve noticed another path, a lush green grassy one, that’s been running alongside this one but is now beginning to veer off in another direction. That’s the one I’m choosing. I’m just picking my way over the rough and boggy ground that lies between me and it right now, and when I get there I’ll get going again. No doubt there will be obstacles on this one in places, too, but I like the look of where it’s headed.

For those who’re not into metaphor, let me talk to you about what’s been happening. You may have noticed that I haven’t been here for quite some time – this is the longest I’ve ever gone without writing a blog post since I started this blog. I’ve been doing much thinking and pondering. A lot has happened and I don’t know where to start or how to tell it, so I’m going to take the easy way out and bullet point it – in no particular order.  Some things are events and some things are feelings, thoughts, or things I’ve learned about myself (which I suppose are a kind of event in themselves):
• We’ve bought a house and hope to move into it in February
• I’ve decided not to continue studying photography in any formal kind of way, although I still want to learn and grow
• I want to expand on the photography classes I usually teach and do something a little different and more creative with them, which will involve finding out where the market for that lies
• This blog has become stale and tired and I want to make some big changes
• I yearn to write about a lot of other things as well as photography
• I’ve been asked to write another blog for a local magazine which will involve a lot of work for no pay but I’m going to do it anyway because it will be interesting
• I’ve realised how much I dislike writing articles about the technical aspects of photography, and although it’s my only paid work at the moment, something needs to change here
• I want to learn to make books
• I have little motivation to write, do photography, or anything else unless I can share what I do with other people and have some kind of interaction with them

Let me start with the first big change. We’ve bought a house – it’s an old Victorian townhouse with three floors (four if you count the cellar) and four big bedrooms and two reception rooms. For the first time ever, we’ll have space to spread out and expand. Space has been an issue for us since I first moved in with Geoff and we had to combine the contents of two small houses into one small house. We’ve got rid of a lot of things, cleared the clutter, done all that. The fact remains that we still have a lot of stuff that’s related to our interests and activities, which in turn add to our quality of life, and we’d both like to follow up on even more interests that will involve even more stuff.

I think this is important. There are things I’ve given up doing due to lack of space – I used to paint but I needed space to leave work in progress in situ, and space to store materials. It wasn’t the only reason I stopped, but it was a contributing factor. There are other interests I’d like to take up, but the problem of having to find room to store equipment and materials has always been enough to put them on hold – I’ve got an awful lot of things squashed into a small space as it is. Fortunately, neither photography nor writing take up huge amounts of room and that’s one reason why these have become central in my life. With this new house both of us will have more freedom and space to explore new things.

Even more importantly, we expect to gain the kind of stability that we haven’t had for over two years now. While I’ve done it all quite willingly, I do feel as if I’ve spent the last couple of years following Geoff round the country from job to job and trying to give him the kind of support he’s needed, often at the expense of fulfilling my own needs. Lately I’ve felt that I no longer know what I want or who I am. I’ve lost my identity to some extent because I feel I’ve been living Geoff’s life – or more accurately, our life as a couple – more than I have my own. I’ve lost track of what I want as a separate person – to have, achieve, give, be. With the knowledge that we’ll now be staying in the same place for an extended period of time, I’ve had room to think about all these things for the first time in ages.

One thing I’ve given a huge amount of thought to is whether or not to continue studying photography formally. In many ways this dilemma has been solved by circumstances, because I simply can’t afford to pay for another course with OCA. Oddly enough, I find this doesn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would. In terms of academic photography, or photography that situates itself in the conceptual art world, I think I’ve gone as far as I’m likely to go. I could say a lot more about this, and I probably will at some point, but I know that world is not for me although I’ll always have an interest in it.

This doesn’t mean I’m in any sense giving up – just searching for a different direction to move in. Looking back over my life, I see that a constant driving force for me has been to create beautiful things or in some other way add beauty to the world. (Sounds embarrassingly pretentious put like that, but it could be something as small as planting flowers or re-arranging the furniture). It’s not fashionable, this feeling, but it’s real and it’s important to me. I want to continue to take photographs and to do something with them that satisfies this urge in me. I want to find a way to avoid the saccharine pretty-prettiness this often leads to, and create something with more depth and more feeling that still celebrates the dark beauty of our world. I don’t know how I’ll do this, or even if I can, but I want to try.

Which leads to my next thing: I want to learn how to make books. Books have been a passion all my life. Not just reading them, although this is vital, but also the tangible aspects of books. I love the way they look, the feel of them in my hand, the weight, the varying textures of the covers and pages, the smell of a new book, the history of an old one. I love them whether they’re blank inside like a journal, or full of the promise of their contents. I do have a Kindle, and it’s great for when I travel, but there just isn’t anything to compare with holding a real book. Combining my passion for books with my passion for photography seems like the way to go.

I’d like to make two kinds of books: artist’s books that contain my own work and are likely to be one-off pieces, and blank books for people to buy and fill with their own creativity and thoughts. So far I haven’t been successful at finding any kind of instructional course locally, but I do have a project in hand that will force me to get started on my own, with the aid of Youtube videos. It’s going to be a little book of photographs and other bits and pieces for my landlady, Maria, who has now become a friend. After we leave, she’ll sell this house. I know she dearly loved this little cottage when she lived in it – as do we – and I want to make a memento of it for her. I’ll write more about this in due course.

I can’t write about everything I bulleted above without this post reaching (even more) epic proportions, but there is one last thing that I need to say. I feel my blog has become tired and stale and I want to make changes. Photography has been – and is – a huge part of my life but there are other things I long to write about. I’m going to do things differently, and I know I’ll lose some of you because of it and that makes me sad, but perhaps I’ll gain others. At the moment I’m not quite sure how this will all pan out, but I think I’ll probably give the blog a different name to reflect the different content. I will still be writing about photography and it will play a big part, but I’d like the blog to reflect the whole of my life and not just one part of it. There are times when photography blends into the background of my life and at these times I find it very hard to write anything. There are other times when I’m enthused about or fascinated by other things and I’d like to feel free to write about those too. It’s going against everything they tell you about blogs – to concentrate on one small niche, to make it clear what people will find there, etc – but sometimes you have to ignore the advice and do what you feel the need to do. To quote Walt Whitman, ‘I contain multitudes’ – and I’d like to write about them.

I’m going now, but I hope to be back very soon. Please forgive me for this very long and rather self-indulgent post, but since I haven’t been around for a while I wanted to explain. And although these may sound a lot like new year resolutions, it’s just coincidence that the changes are happening now. I’ve always thought that if things need changing, then you don’t need to wait till there’s a new year to do it.

Finally, and very importantly, I want to wish everyone who’s made it this far the happiest of times in 2014 – last year was a difficult year for so many people and I hope that 2014 will bring a smoother ride for all of us.

As you slide down the banister of life, may the splinters never point in the wrong direction!

Oh I do love an Irish blessing…….

 

 

Where is home? – Pico Iyer

‘Where or what is home?’ is a question that’s been occupying me for some time – for obvious reasons – so when I came across this TED talk by Pico Iyer I stopped everything to watch it. If the question interests you, then I recommend you watch it too – it’s fourteen minutes well spent.  (I’ve had terrible trouble getting the video to embed, so if it’s disappeared again you can link to it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/pico_iyer_where_is_home.html)

Iyer points out that ethnic origins no longer define where home is – he’s Indian by ethnicity, but has never lived there nor can he speak any of its languages.  For myself, I’m Scottish by ethnicity and birth, but although I identify to a great extent with Scottish culture and I have a great deal of love for the landscape, I’ve never actually felt at home there.  Even at a young age, growing up in the west of Scotland, I never felt as if I belonged.  As time went past I managed to forget that, and a few years ago I went back there to live, expecting it to be a permanent move.  I was miserable.  That whole feeling of not fitting in and not belonging came back in a huge rush.  Scotland is where I come from, and a place I love to visit, but it isn’t home.

There’s a problem with linking home to a physical place – what happens if that place disappears?  Iyer had the misfortune to have his house burnt down in a Californian bush fire and was left with nothing but the clothes he was wearing and a toothbrush.  That’s an extreme example, thank goodness, but most of us have lost a place that represents home in some much less dramatic way.  Leaving Canterbury felt like losing my home.  I was back there for a week recently, and it really did feel  like going home even though I no longer have any physical roots there.   But the latter isn’t really what home is about:

“…for more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil than, you could say, with a piece of soul.”  Pico Iyer

That piece of soil may be strongly linked to a piece of our soul, but the soil itself isn’t home.

If home isn’t synonymous with place, we could think of home as being where the people we love are, which is fine if we’re thinking about spouses and pets, but what if your children, parents, and friends all live far away from you?   And what if they all live in different places?  No, home is something far more nebulous and much harder to pin down.  And perhaps it’s something that’s different for different people.

Part of my feeling that Canterbury is still home lies in its familiarity. For the first time in a year and a half, I knew how to get to places, I knew where the best places were to go, I knew where to buy the things I wanted – it was all so easy and reassuringly familiar.  New places are exciting, it’s true, but when you have to actively remember where the light switch is each time you want to put it on, novelty can get a bit wearing.  I know some people thrive on it – they’re the travellers, the adventurers.  I’ve never been like that.  My taste for adventure lies in new ideas, different ways of thinking and being, and to travel effectively in my mind, I find I need a familiar, reliable, physical base.  You may be quite different.

Home is more like a feeling than something that you can point to. I still find it difficult to understand why I feel at home in one place, but not in another, which doesn’t help when I have to make choices about where to live.  I never felt at home when we were living in Cheshire, although it isn’t obvious to me why that was.  And I already feel much more at home where I’m living now, even though I’ve been here less than two months.  It isn’t exactly ‘home’ yet, but I can see that it might become it in time.  Home, for me, feels something like having a familiar, stable base – a metaphorical and physical fixed point from where I can venture out and explore.  It’s a mixture of familiarity, proximity to people I love, and perhaps most of all,  a feeling of belonging. The first and last of these take time to develop, and sometimes never do.  I wonder if there are places where we simply never can feel at home?  I think it’s possible.

 

 

 

Where have you been?

Where have you been?Public art at Brayford Basin, Lincoln

I may well be flattering myself that anyone at all is asking themselves where I’ve been, but I’m going to tell you anyway.  Here’s the short version: the removal men broke my computer and the insurance company is still deciding what to do about it, and our existing ISP told us they were no longer dealing with domestic accounts and wouldn’t port our connection.  We then had to set up another one, leaving us without internet for three weeks.  We’re now fully connected internet-wise, but I’m working on Geoff’s old laptop and it’s not very well equipped for photo editing or any kind of serious use.  Still, I’m grateful to have it.

I’ve missed writing for my blog, but it’s surprisingly difficult to get started again once you’ve left it for a while, so I’m writing this to help ease myself back into the whole thing.  I’m going to keep it short, but let’s just say that we seemed to have turned a corner with this move and that things are going surprisingly well, and that I’ll talk more about that later.  I’ve got my photographic mojo back again, and have a load of images to process – not too easy at the moment as all I’ve got on this laptop is an extremely old version of Elements that doesn’t recognise my RAW files and won’t open them, and I have one spare USB port that has to accommodate the printer, my external hard-drive, my camera upload cable, and anything else I need a USB port for.  I’m sincerely hoping it won’t be too long before I have my desktop computer back in working order again, but in the meantime I thought I’d simply say ‘hello’ and confirm that I haven’t fallen off the edge of the world 🙂

 

 

Chagall, and how looking at art can make you feel a whole lot better

Chagall - I and the village

I and the village – Marc Chagall, 1911, oil on canvas

It’s been a tense couple of weeks, with one big up and an awful lot of downs. The big up is that Geoff has got a job – yeehah! One of the downs is that it’s in Nottingham so we have to move there, and quickly. I’ve now had time to get over the fact that if I had to pick one area of the UK where I’d choose not to live, the East Midlands would be a strong contender, one of the major reasons being that it’s as far as you can get from the sea in this country, and I need to get to the sea for stress release every so often.

Another reason I wasn’t keen is that the cities of the Midlands aren’t particularly attractive or appealing, and Nottingham has held the label of the crime capital of the UK for some time. It hasn’t helped that on researching Nottingham I came across official advice that instructed lone women who found themselves in the centre of Nottingham after 8.00pm to carry a rape alarm – mmmm…..

But anyway, we don’t actually have to live in Nottingham and its reputation for crime is, like many things, probably over-stated and sensationalised by the press. I cheered up a bit when we did a recce trip and found that the countryside and virtually all the little villages are extremely pretty (and safe), and that Newark is a nice little market town with an impressive ruined castle and riverside gardens and a 30-minute rail link to Nottingham. We were also very taken with Southwell – a quaint and pretty village with its own small cathedral and lots of interesting independent shops and cafes. Nice – very nice – although also very expensive and probably out of our price range. We decided to look at renting a house somewhere in a village between Newark and Lowdham (another lovely village with a train station).

We have pets, which in this country makes you a pariah in the eyes of letting agents, but despite that we’ve always managed to find something before without too much trouble. This time, not. Rental property that allows pets is scarce, and nice rental property that allows pets is scarcer, and we’ve had three trips to Notts now and found nothing – well nothing, that is, that we’ve been able to get.

I’ve sometimes had the feeling that Fate has got it in for us these days, and looking for somewhere to live has done nothing to destroy that illusion. On our first trip we saw a lot of houses that ranged from positively awful to nice-but-wouldn’t-work and then, an hour before we drove home again, we found the perfect house. Only trouble is, someone else was interested too. We were up at 6.00am the next morning, filling in the application forms, which demanded details about our lives extending to our shoe sizes and what we had for breakfast on weekdays. We sent it off and then had a very tense 24 hours of waiting. Then they came back to us – there was a problem, Geoff had only had temp work for the last few months and there was an employment gap (of one month!) before that. We would need a guarantor. No problem, we said, thinking there were several possibilities. However, it turned out that said guarantor would have to actually walk into the letting agent’s office, clutching his passport in his hand, to prove he wasn’t something we’d made up. Now that was a problem – our nearest possibility lives about 150 miles away and has a demanding job that would not leave him free to make a little trip to Newark in his – almost non-existent – spare time. A demanding job, incidentally, that was the reason he’d be able to act as guarantor in the first place. We offered to pay six months rent up front – but no, they didn’t like that. In the end, the house went to the other applicant.

Big sighs, a lot of cursing, and back to the drawing board. Another trip, this time a day trip – three hours drive there, view six houses in the afternoon, then three hours drive back, but worth it if we find something. After trying desperately to mentally fit our lifestyle and belongings into all the houses we saw, there was only one that would work. There was just one problem – in the details, it said it was available now, but when we went to view there was a very elderly, rather doddery, couple living in it. It turned out that they weren’t going to look for somewhere else to live until they knew the house was going to be rented. Of course we couldn’t commit to renting it until we knew when it would be available. Stalemate. We phoned and emailed several times to ask for a date, and nobody bothered to reply.

While all this was going on, Geoff was being harassed from all sides. The job agency were phoning every day to ask when he was going to start work, his new employer was emailing for the same reason, our landlord was phoning to find out when we were planning to move out, the removal men wanted to know if our provisional date could be confirmed – it went on and on. Every property we phoned about either wouldn’t allow pets, or had just been taken by someone else, or had no garden (essential for the rabbits), or something else that ruled it out. We were spending hours every day on Rightmove, hoping to somehow magic up a property we hadn’t seen before.

Eventually, a new one came on, one that looked perfect. We decided that, things being as they are, we’d just take it sight unseen. We phoned the letting agents. ‘You can’t do that’, they said, ‘you have to view it first before we can take an application. Oh, and other people are viewing today and tomorrow so if you’re interested you need to get here quickly.’ We contemplated jumping in the car, driving the three hours to view it, then another three hours home again, without any guarantee or even probability that we’d get it. We were wiped out, exhausted, irritable as hell, screaming at trifles, and tense as over-stretched rubber bands. We just couldn’t do it, not that day.

Something had to give. Ok, we thought, Geoff will just have to find a room so that he can start work and then he can look for a house while he’s there – it’s obvious that you have to be on the spot to get something decent. We searched for rooms to let, but they nearly all wanted a commitment of six months. Since we can barely afford to keep two places running for even one month, this wasn’t viable. Then we found somewhere that would take a rolling month’s rent and thought we’d got a solution but……..no internet. No landline, no internet, and at the moment Geoff absolutely must have internet access. There was some talk of a dongle, but no certainty that it would work. We were tearing our hair out in frustration, minds obsessively looping round all the possible ways we might deal with things.

In the end, there was only one thing to do. ‘F**k it’, we said, ‘this is getting us nowhere – let’s go into Liverpool and go to the Chagall exhibition.’ It was absolutely the right decision. We looked at some fabulous art, forgot about the whole housing issue for a few hours, had a lovely lunch in the Tate café, and talked about other things. The knotted muscles began to loosen, tension headaches disappeared, life seemed good again. We laughed in the train on the way home, playing a silly game, and then when we got in, watched a film and drank some wine, and slept like logs.

And you know what? Things began to improve a little. We decided that Geoff would find somewhere to stay next week, even if it had to be a B&B, he’d view the desirable house on Monday and take the filled in rental application forms with him, hand them over to the letting agent in person, and then start work on Tuesday. The rent for the desirable house is well under budget, so we have the idea that we may offer to pay a bit more rent if they’ll choose us. It may work, it may not – I’m sure there’s probably a rule against this somewhere, but it’s worth a try. The agents for the house with the elderly couple phoned to say that they may have found a place to live, and if they have then we could have that house within two weeks. They’ll know for sure on Monday. Another possible house turned up, which perhaps Geoff can also view on Monday, although you have to fill in an application form simply to view it – they wouldn’t make a viewing appointment until he’d done that and by the time he’d done that they were closed for the weekend. But you never know, they may squeeze him in for a viewing on Monday and it could be another option.  Nothing is solved, but it’s looking a little more optimistic.

Having something to distract us from agonising over the situation obviously played a big part in making us feel better, but the uplifting quality of seeing some wonderful art had a lot to do with it too. Great art really does have the ability to lift us out of ourselves, and bring some sense of proportion back into life. It was a joy to see this exhibition, and just what we needed.

Thank you, Chagall – we owe you one.

 

My life as a tree

Broken conifer

This is not a post about photography as such, although photography does come into it indirectly, but if you’re only here for the pictures you might want to skip this one and come back when normal service is resumed. For those of you who’re up for reading on, this is a long post so you may want to pour a cup of tea and make yourself comfy.

Over the last few years, I’ve discovered that most women I know are either on anti-depressants now, or have been at some time in the past – I include myself in this number. This may be true of the men in my life as well, but I don’t have the evidence to confirm that.  I think men would be less likely to admit to it, even to a doctor, and male sadness is more often – though not always – expressed outwardly as aggression.  Women are more likely to turn the sadness and hurt inwards and then it manifests as depression – I read something once that said depression is just ‘anger without the enthusiasm’.  I rather like that.  Anger, uncomfortable as it is, is actually a step up from depression in the emotional health scale.  There’s energy in anger, while depression drains energy away and keeps you frozen and stuck.

One persistent question I have in my mind is: ‘what sort of world have we created that lots of us can only manage to deal with it by using mind-altering drugs?’  This bothers me, and I wonder about it.  People have always suffered from depression, but not in such huge numbers.  At any one time in the UK, one in ten people are suffering from depression, with one in twenty experiencing a major depressive episode.  That’s a lot of people, and there are doubtless more who never tell anyone or get any kind of help.  (Statistics from www.mind.org)

I would never knock anyone who decides to go down the drug route – it can quite literally be a lifesaver and even when not that dramatic, it gives you back enough energy to dig yourself out of the depressive hole you’ve fallen into.  I did it myself for a short while, and have been sorely tempted recently to go back for more, but I don’t deal well with drugs in my system.  I get bad side-effects.  More than that, I know it isn’t a long-term answer and it’s not really going to solve anything.  If I broke my leg, it would help to use crutches till it mended and  using the crutches might make it easier to do other things to help get it back in working order, but the crutches themselves aren’t going to do anything to heal my leg.  Sometimes a leg is so badly damaged that it’s never going to mend, and you might have to use crutches all your life and it’s a damn good thing that they exist because they help you function and lead the kind of life that would otherwise be impossible.  There might be times when depression is like this, but I feel that mine – thank god – is of the mending variety.

I took the photograph of the broken tree quite recently, when my friend Eileen came to stay and we were walking in Hawarden park.  The minute I saw it, I identified with it.  This is how I feel right now – battered by circumstances, isolated and set apart from the other trees, lots of branches missing, some broken and hanging, bits of it dead, but still standing, still alive.  Over the last year or so depression has got me in its grips again and has been clinging on with talon-like strength.  I’ve managed to dislodge it now and again, but since the beginning of the year it has clung with renewed force.  It’s made it very hard to write blog posts – I don’t want to whinge about my life and my problems, but it’s difficult to pick out the better bits and pretend they represent the whole, so I tend to keep quiet at those times.  I’m coming clean now, because it’s clear to me just how many of us secretly suffer and depression is a very isolating thing. When we hide parts of ourselves, it’s hard to feel connected to others and that feeling of disconnection feeds back in to our sadness.

In the past, it’s got a hold on me for different reasons than it has now. These days, I think it’s more of a reactive kind of thing.  Like the tree, life has beaten me up a bit – I feel broken and I’m missing parts of myself.  I’ve lost a fairish number of branches – when we moved here I lost regular contact with my friends, the work I was doing, a place that I loved and felt at home in, and a feeling of purpose and usefulness.  This last one, I think, is the most important.

I could – and need to – make more efforts to change this, and I’ve taken some small steps to doing that. I feel much better when I do.  However, Geoff is the only one of us who’s capable of earning the bulk of the household income and so the shape of our lives depends on where and when he can find work.  One week it looks as if we might be going back to Kent where there’s some temporary work, another week there might be an interview for a job in Nottingham, or Yorkshire, or Ireland.  My head spins as I try to visualise my future in one place after another, and my motivation to make something of my life where we are right now drains away.  For one thing, if I create something here that gives me joy, I’m going to have to lose that too.  In some ways it’s easier to have nothing here that I’ll be upset about leaving behind.  The flip side of this is that I’m not happy this way, and of course it’s just possible that Geoff might find work locally in the end and we won’t have to leave, and I’ll have wasted all this time.  I have to act as if this is how it will be, because there is no alternative other than giving up.

The main problem, I think, is the lack of control I feel over my own life. I’ve been in unhappy situations in the past, but it was always up to me to do something about them and to decide what that something was.  Now, it feels as if it’s out of my hands and I’m sure it’s the feeling of helplessness and powerlessness that that entails which is messing me up.  But this can’t go on – I’m tired of feeling this way, I’m tired of feeling like that broken-down old pine tree.  It may be impossible to regain my original shape again, and some of those branches are gone for good, but a bit of pruning, a bit of feeding and nurturing, and some sunshine could at least do something to help turn me into a happier, if still somewhat battered, tree.

To that end, I’ve made some improvements to my diet (particularly the chocolate and wine part of it) and I’ve started on a regime of supplements and daily yoga sessions, all of which should feed the soil my tree grows in and help it recover.  It seems to be working – I’ve got a bit more energy and some of the depression and lack of motivation has lifted.  The thing that would help the most, of course, would be to grow some nice strong roots somewhere, and until that happens this tree’s always going to feel somewhat in danger of being felled when the winds of life batter it.  But – stretching my tree analogy to rather ridiculous lengths – since my roots have been dislodged anyway, I need to pick them up like long skirts and go find some other trees who’ll welcome me in.  I need to find a way to fruit, even if my roots aren’t sustaining me too well.

I hesitated to write this. There’s a thin line between being open about the ups and downs that our lives consist of, and telling too much.  Two things made me go with my impulse – the first is that, if I disappear for a little while now and again, you’ll know that this is why.  And the second?  The tree made me do it……blame the tree.

 

So where do I go from here, I wonder?

Horizon, West Kirby

The results of my assessment are in, and they’re not good. I’m too embarrassed to give the mark here, but let’s just say that, while it’s a clear pass, it’s at the low end of average.  The mark is divided into four sections, and under ‘Demonstration of Creativity’ I’ve been given 10 marks out of 25 – in other words, they see me as a definite creative failure.  Obviously I didn’t do too well in any of the others either, but this was the worst, and the biggest disappointment for me, since I believed that during the last year or two I’d made quite a bit of progress creatively.

A couple of years ago this would have devastated me but the one thing I’ve learnt while doing these courses is to shield myself against what anyone in authority says, good or bad.  Where once a good comment from a tutor would have thrilled me, now I shrug my shoulders and think, well, yes………maybe.   It’s obviously nicer to get good comments than bad ones, but I’ve stopped allowing either of them to impact on me.  Whether I’m as detached as this in truth I’m not sure – squashing one feeling down has the result of squashing them all and this might go some way to explaining why I’ve felt so little consistent enthusiasm for photography for quite a while.  I certainly feel very flat at the moment, and a bit lost as to where I go from here.

If I accept the assessor’s opinion that I’m mediocre in the extreme, then I feel little incentive to carry on doing photography in any serious way.  I like to do things well – and I usually succeed in that – and I’m not really prepared to be that bad at something.  But photography has been my passion and is also my way of earning a living, so to give it up would be a huge loss to me.

When I did an Access to Art & Design course many years ago, I was told after a couple of months that I was likely to fail the drawing section of the course.  Since I’d only started drawing at all about three months before I started, I knew very well that I wasn’t much good.  My immediate reaction at that time was ‘what do I have to do to get better?’.  I was told simply to practice as much as possible, and I did just that, with the result that I ended up passing that part of the course with no problems at all.

That hasn’t been my reaction this time. Firstly, I honestly don’t think I’m that bad.  It’s easy to be self-deluding – anyone who’s watched the selection process in The X-Factor will be well aware how many people there are out there who have no idea how bad they are at something for which they think they have a talent.  It’s possible I fall into this group, but I do have a modicum of self-awareness and I don’t think I’m entirely fooling myself.  A more likely explanation is that I simply don’t fit into the parameters of what OCA considers ‘good’ photography.

A while ago, I talked about an article by Tara Sophia Mohr on the whole business of criticism, and I’ll quote a bit now:

Tara’s view is basically this: feedback/criticism doesn’t tell you about you, it tells you about the person giving the feedback. She says that when we seek out feedback, we shouldn’t see it in terms of our own merit or value, but as useful information that tells us whether we are reaching the people we want to reach in the way that we want to reach them (my emphasis). So if you want to win the camera club competition, feedback from the judges can tell you how to do that. Of course, you may not actually want to produce the sort of work that pleases camera club judges, or higher-level education tutors, or someone who likes ‘greeting card’ photography, or the people who buy for IKEA, and in that case feedback from those people is essentially useless to you and means very little, except whether or not you’re not giving them what they value. If you take on board what they say when you don’t actually want to compete in that field, then you’re going to end up becoming discouraged or untrue to yourself. Of course, if you have ambitions in the area in which they’re expert, then it would be sensible to consider their opinions.

So really, this mark is only important if I want to produce the kind of work that pleases OCA assessors and thereby gets me a good result, and I’m not sure I do.  I was never very bothered about getting a degree-level piece of paper out of this, but saw it as a way of being made to stretch myself and give myself a structure to work to.  I’m not great at self-discipline, so having the imposed discipline of  a deadline – albeit a very flexible one – was useful to me.  I’ve enjoyed the contact with other students and the feeling of belonging to a group of people with similar aspirations.  But you know, that feeling of belonging has been dwindling slowly over the last year or two, as I’ve become more and more disenchanted with institutionalised art education and feel myself less and less accepting of the group mentality.

You may be wondering what was in the feedback? They started by saying my assignment was very well presented – the one thing that means nothing since it has little to do with the work itself and is something that anybody can learn to do well.  They also liked my essay a lot, which is making me wonder if I should be putting down my camera and picking up my pen.  The main criticism of my photography seemed to be that I wasn’t showing ‘evidence of a conceptual progression‘.

Ask yourself, why would someone look at these images?  Are you conveying your interest and is it one that is likely to be shared with an audience?  One of the reasons for contextualising your work is that you will gain awareness of how others will perceive it.  We live in a shared culture, images that signify endlessly similar things to us become quickly meaningless, your audience will be very quick to dismiss work that either is not immediately striking or does not contain references or evidence that thought has taken place in the construction of the image.

It raises a number of thoughts, the first being that they’re assuming a certain sort of audience, probably one like themselves, and this is not the only kind of audience there is.  I guess it’s true that if I knew better where my work fitted in with the kind of work they rate highly, then I’d be able to tell how they would perceive it and modify it accordingly.  But do I want to do this?  The crux of the matter is that I’m not too interested in doing the kind of work they appear to value just so I get the mark, and I’d prefer to hold onto my integrity.  Much – although definitely not all – contemporary photography leaves me cold and seems contrived, over-intellectualised, and lacking in aesthetic satisfaction.  This is not ignorance speaking – I’ve looked at many people’s work and opened myself to finding what I could in it.  It might be my age (I’m getting on a bit), it might be that I’m too rigid in my opinions, it might be that I lack understanding. Whatever, in an era when the idea has become vastly more important than the image, I find myself far more interested in the image than I am in the idea and that puts me firmly at odds with the zeitgeist – never a comfortable place to be.

I’m left with some very mixed thoughts and emotions – an inner battle between confidence in my own ability and the fear that perhaps I really am below-average; the acknowledgement  that the assessors may well be right from within their own context, but perhaps wrong from within mine; the immediate impulse to give it all up in disgust and the equally compelling impulse not to let ‘them’ win; the knowledge that photography has become less and less enjoyable for me since I started doing these courses, but also the understanding that I need to keep learning and to be part of something that will stretch me; the hurt and frustration that’s finally beginning to come through as I write this and the feeling of freedom that, were I to stop studying, I’d no longer have to care what ‘they’ think of my work and could avoid the depressing feedback that accompanies every assessment and tells me that my work is nowhere near good enough.

And finally the big question – why am I doing this, and where do I go from here?