“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.” Outdoor Swimming Society, April 17
A wild patience has carried me this far / as if I had to bring to shore / a boat with a spasmodic outboard motor (‘Integrity’ by Adrienne Rich)
Throughout the Pells Pool 2016 and 2017 seasons, I did regular laps of longhand on paper scrolls the length of the pool (50 yards/150 feet). The work moved between: memory and desire; the here and now; commonplace passages collected for motivation or courage; things seen and told.
To reach a mile of longhand I had to complete 35 laps/lines over five scrolls: the equivalent of a novel, some 100,000 words.
Two scrolls were completed within the 2016 season. Another was done through winter and spring (as fishermen spend shore-leave mending their nets). The fourth was written poolside in the Pells 2017 season, with the mile completed beside Lake Geneva as a resident at the Jan Michalski Foundation for Writing and Literature.
As with swum laps of the pool, I only became capable of this length, this endurance, through regular, daily practice, and by paying no mind to how I felt about this: the boredom, my discomfort. I showed up, simply, and let the practice teach me. Played a confidence trick on myself.
“Moving, subtle, lucid” Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places
“Elegant, humble.” Dr Martin Shaw, mythologist and story-teller
“One can feel the sense of self-sufficiency” Jenny Landreth, Swell
Freedom. It isn’t once, to walk out / under the Milky Way, feeling the rivers / of light, the fields of dark — / freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine / remembering. Putting together, inch by inch / the starry worlds / From all the lost collections. (‘For Memory’ by Adrienne Rich)
I did my work in silence on the edges of the day, but visitors to Pells Pool were warmly invited to keep me company in my labour, and in any way that felt interesting for them to do. Some chose to share my silent time and the noises that came to us. Other talked and I listened: What they said then went into the work itself. Tell me, I asked: When did you feel most wild and free? In body? Your mind? When did you last write at length? Did you ever? For whom? How does it feel – you, in your swim-clothes, out of doors, with a pen, in this communal here and now? And I had books beside me: With these too, swimmers were welcome to sit and be quiet – or read to me.
“The scrolls are a thing of beauty.”
“Moved by Tanya’s readings from #WildPatience scrolls and by them as physical objects, in/of time/place. Quietly inspirational.”
Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. (Thoreau)
Following a sudden near-death experience a decade ago, I began a slow journey: To live in my skin more vividly and to use my own end-of-life perspective — and a wide and deep reading got from long training in English Literature — to help others give voice to their song, their story.
I began first by working in a self-created role as a life-story scribe for my local hospice. At bedsides and in clients’ homes, I would arrive a stranger and leave charged with what mattered most to people as they prepared to die: Letters to family; stories of childhood memories; books read aloud and recorded to leave for their children; notes made on photos and other personal items they would be leaving behind.
My writing life developed out of this work (and my counter-balancing laps of Pells Pool during the same period) into themes which are unashamedly close and local: Stewardship, husbandry, neighbourliness, soul-tending. My first published piece — There Are No Unsacred Places — told the story of how I spent a year painting the railings that run beside my long street as a response to an act of vandalism.
In short, I write about place, about routine, about rootedness — things to be treasured in a time when so many thousands are being torn from these — and this is reflected in my physical practice: I am humble, down low. I write largely out of doors, close to the ground. I look up to the world.
During my two-season residency at Pells Pool, I extended these ideas — risking tension with others who were made uncomfortable by them. I invited pool-goers to join me in my routines and, in so doing, to think about their own.
“It was the simplicity of your presentation that profoundly affected me.”
What I wrote was hidden from me during the day, as each arms’ width section filled was immediately rolled away to the left to release more blank paper from the right. But each evening (feeling myself a modern version of Penelope, that most patient of women, unpicking what she weaves) I unwound the scroll to transcribe the material.
In this way, I built up a land-locked, schoolrun-bounded version of an explorer’s logbook (like so many people who live a routine life in a country with mild climate, I read over and again the journals of Scott and other explorers of harsh terrain: the scrolls were my way of feeling a distant kinship with their tough and tenacious habits of mind).
First extracts from the Scrolls are available at the University of Sussex REFRAME/Lifewriting site.
Some comments from those who encountered the work…