The midsummer issue celebrates women who harness the elements. I review Annie Dillard’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Unlike most narratives of the writer in the world, none of this is about Dillard’s personal journey. Her vision is bigger, more demanding: of her – and us. ‘It is so self-conscious…to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace and then to sulk along the rest of your days’, she declares. ‘I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter…Stalk the gaps…Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.’
The midwinter issue of Oh Comely celebrates getting lost, being found, hiding, seeking, and discovering surprising things about life/self in solitude. I review Lauren Elkin’s Flaneuse: Women Who Walk the City and write for the Tales of the Unexpected section about an epiphany had on the towpath to Tesco.
What had me bundle up finally and go in the cold along the towpath to Tesco? Perhaps I thought some nature would do me good, but there was no heron, kingfisher or cormorant – just a broken shopping trolley.
Regret, sudden as the stroke-like symptoms, had me catch my breath. That question from poet Mary Oliver: What was I doing with my one wild and precious life?
The Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) is a worldwide collective of swimmers that share the joy, adventure and experience of swimming under an open sky. I wrote on the extraordinary story behind the creation of the late Lynne Roper’s Wild Woman Swimming, ahead of its launch at Dartington on the eve of the annual OSS Dart10k – an event which brings 1600 swimmers to Totnes, which Lynne supported for years.
I met Lynne Roper just once, two summers ago, at her hospice in the month before she died. Her invitation had been frank and urgent.
She had read about me: My lido-side Wild Patience writing project at Pells Pool; a West Country upbringing so like her own. I’d been a hospice lifestory scribe; she a paramedic: we didn’t shy away from lives ending. I was calling for submissions to an anthology perfect for her work – Watermarks: Writing by Lido Lovers & Wild Swimmers – but she was too ill already to edit and send a selection. Would I find readers for her swim diaries after she was gone? And could we talk together about living wild in the face of death? I was, she assessed with the skill of a paramedic and wild swimmer both, a woman who could go the distance with her in this.
Oh Comely is a British bi-monthly which describes itself as a ‘curious, honest and playful independent magazine. It’s a place to meet strangers, hear their stories and look at life differently.’
Then I found Nin. As ill-fit to her time and place as I felt in mine, and small as I was large; foreign-sounding. Married young to a banker who provided love and money but who could not hope to meet her huge appetite for sex, secrecy, writing, role play.
I began to keep notebooks after her example. Expanded my life, albeit in secret still.
The Unexpected Fisher/#LetsFish (Film for Canal and River Trust/Smoke Creatives, July 2017)
A joy to write the narration and have my first fishing lesson recorded for this short film by the Canal and River Trust to support their new Let’s Fish initiative. The piece pays tribute to the men & women in all our communities who give their time freely to help others learn this skill and tells too the story of my own relationship to fishing.
I’ve wanted to fish all my life. My father was a skilled angler — fished in the Devon and Cornish seas where I grew up, tied his own flies. One of my earliest memories is of watching him casting from a riverbank & my feeling completely still & happy in my skin. But he left just after my second birthday and chose never to spend any time with me after that. He left behind a knitted fishing cap on an out of reach peg in the porch, and I think it — or fishing — became a symbol of this bigger thing I’d lost. I got a bit stuck about fishing too — it was a thing I wanted in my life, but I didn’t want to go on a course or teach myself. Sounds a bit folorn I know but I wanted to be taught the way a child learns from a family member! So I just collected things to do with it instead – hence all the books and fishing flies on my writing desk.
The Slow Time of Accidents (Spread the Word Life Writing Prize, May 2017)
Received a special mention in the inaugural year of this prize, established to celebrate and develop life writing in the UK, for a long-form account of the time between my sudden near-death and days after return from coma.
Years later, when I am training and then working as a hospice lifestory scribe — so that I get called to strangers’ homes and bedsides in their final months, days and hours — this is what they want to know: What happened next? Did I see the light?
Yes, I saw the light. It is the most private and least useful part of my story.
Because if I tell you it is all true, what happens next? Will you let it change you? Will you revise your life as I have?
If I tell you that I travelled through spacetime, a darkness that was not flat but had volume. That there was a distant tiny whiteness that contained an immensity. An inhabited light in which every being that ever lived had slipped its skin, creed, and limitations so that our lives here seem tawdry, misguided, and cheap. If I tell you that just saying that or writing it — as here, as now — makes tears sting in my sinuses still. That I hated the love of husband and son which began — lately, faintly — to exert a backwards force upon me. And had that love been a rope around my feet I might have bent over and loosened it. That instead I accepted, with regret and deep fatigue, the need to make every effort and return.
I’m not dead. I’m not dead. I’m not dead. That I shouted this over and again, with increasing force, and each time I moved a little farther back, with the same jolting motion got when rowing. That I faced the light, unblinking, while going away from it. That I felt sad about that.
I’m not dead. I’m not dead. I’m not dead. In the ambulance my lips were moving and I made no sound.
Putting Down Roots (Rake’s Progress, Volume #4, April 2017)
Rake’s Progress offers a contemporary look at the world outside – gardens, plants, flowers, people. I write for Volume #4 on how a vandalised tree helped me put down roots in a town far from the West Country farming community I was born into. The essay is accompanied by an original drawing – ‘Wounded Chestnut’ – by the sculptor David Nash.
By contrast, our lives here felt frangible, thin. For all the bright blooms of family life – fridge photos, book-lined walls – we were no more deeply rooted than top-weed. So we did what other town-dwellers do when a hunger for husbandry takes hold: got an allotment, joined a community orchard, became stewards of the public field opposite our house… Our question a lump in the throat still: how do you belong to a place you weren’t born in?
“What a moving, subtle, lucid essay this was to read” Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places
The Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) is a worldwide collective of swimmers that share the joy, adventure and experience of swimming under an open sky. I was invited to write about the first year of my long-distance writing endeavour – a mile of writing on scrolls of pool-length paper – and the depths it sounded in the lives of others.
I admire a man’s stamina and pace: How fit he is! He points to some marks on his thigh. Injections. Has multiple sclerosis and it’s gaining on him fast. I look at the people in the pool and get a feeling akin to the bends: The pressure of so many lives in a patch of blue just 150ft by 75. Their loves and losses.
“This is beautifully written…and I’m looking forward to reading more from #WildPatience.”
“Beautiful tribute to swimming & @wildwomanswims1 by @lidowriters“
Laps of Longhand (Oh Comely, Issue 32, Aug 2016)
Oh Comely is a British bi-monthly with highstreet distribution which describes itself as a ‘curious, honest and playful independent magazine. It’s a place to meet strangers, hear their stories and look at life differently.’ In this 6-page feature, I was asked to write on the deep oriental influences at work in my Wild Patience mile of longhand (with images of me by project photographer Steve Creffield). The closing line of the essay was used on the spine: Here is a pen, I say, and paper. Use them. Write me how it feels.
True Tales from the Old Hill (Frogmore Press, Dec 2015)
A collection of ‘exceptional new life-writing…which reveals the mysterious and unknowable forces at work in our lives, in our family histories, in our minds and bodies, in our souls. In other words, stories that sound like fiction.’ My account of a birth, death and near-death – The End Is No End – was the opening tale.
It was a blighted time. During the two years when the grandmother who raised me was not-dying at the far end of Devon, I was up here in the town I’d taken root in, not-conceiving, not-working and not having an affair (that is to say, I was channeling all my attention into an intense, sexless friendship with another lost soul and away from my good husband, whose quiet kindness couldn’t balm the scorched earth feeling I lived in now I had put her away).
My response to an act of vandalism, which led to my becoming an accidental performance artist. A tale of stewardship, it was reprinted and given out as a Christmas story to the 2000-strong membership of Baxter’s Field Company in Lewes.
My reaction was slower taking shape and came from a primitive place not tapped before, cocooned in books as I am. Some act of equal and opposite force was needed, but what? An answer came immediately I asked, with strange and compelling logic. The railings that ran the length of the field and my road – intricate, gone brown and brittle – I would paint them. By myself, on my knees, for as long as it took. Rebuke, reparation. An act both silly and serious.
The French psychogeographer Annie Ernaux writes that “It is other people – anonymous figures glimpsed… – who…reveal our true selves through the interest, the anger or the shame they send rippling through us”. On that principle, this was my selection of recurrent themes overheard in talk during my three years spent out of work and out of doors in daytime.
Now. I sat in this same café a month ago talking quietly with a friend about the communal life of the Apostles. But we were different, weren’t we, talking in lower tones than this out of consideration for others? Or it may be that all talk, however whole-hearted, is ridiculous if overheard and written down. An experiment for another time, I decide, for balance: To have myself recorded, without my knowing, in conversation with my children, my friends. Have it handed back to me so I must confront my own little tune sung from street corners and coffee shop tables.
I contributed a photo-essay to this ‘Mappening’ organised by Adam Whitehall from the University of Sussex – a timed drift, in the psychogeographic manner, around Lewes on a morning in April 2015. Participants set off from a single start point and moved alone through town, making note of sights, sounds and sensations along the way. A highly-enjoyable experience if you get the chance to join one in future.
12:40 School Hill: Where the Old Go 4 – House of Friendship Inside a man of great age is piecing together a jigsaw with painstaking care. His hand hovers, shakes. The jigsaw reveals a red car, low to the ground, top open, racing through the sort of butterfly- & flower-rich hedgerows that have been lost in his lifetime, and mine.