Sunday, 10 May 2015

Black bears and teabags and scarlet roses: 20 small happy things.

A couple of weeks ago, I started compiling a list of the small things that had made me happy, and kept me afloat. It turned into a blog post.
I so enjoyed doing it, that I started to do another - I have some days that are easier than others, and have been fighting a depressive/exhaustive illness most of my life - so on the harder days, its been enormously helpful to come back and flick through a list of small things that have brightened me.

I write these posts for my own enjoyment - and (as Caitlin Moran once wrote), for the pleasure of pointing at things I like. 
Then I read this extract from the wonderful Betsy Greer's post on social media 'counts' and popularity:

We feel embarrassed when we post something that gets very few likes, especially if we were truly enamored with the photo or thought. We mistake the silence, which doesn’t mean you’re a failure, but that perhaps your friends are busy cooking a delicious meal, your cousins are at a movie, and your Mom is taking a nap. And in letting this affect us, we’re changing who we are to become people sharing for validation, not because we want to connect.
So what if we reframed the silence? And didn’t think any less of ourselves because of it?
The great thing about the internet is that we don’t always know who’s looking at our posts, especially if we’re using social media, as we don’t own the stats. If we post what makes our hearts sing, a lonely teenager in Greenland may find it and find solace and someone else may beam at a memory that your photograph evokes. If they don’t comment or like, that doesn’t mean they didn’t like it or didn’t see it… but we discount all those non-commenters by only caring about the ones who did comment. We discount their very experience with our content.
...The internet needs good content amidst the fluff. We need you for who you are, not on a projection of you solely based on likes. We need you to be a beacon someone can cling to when they feel all alone or the answer to someone’s problem or the reason someone smiles. We need you to show up despite the possible silence. We need you to strive to put out content that makes people think, without caring about the response. We need you to make good content, tag it well, and fall in love with it because it’s good. And because you never know who it will find or help.

She's absolutely right. I'm just as guilty as anyone for checking in on my Facebook 'likes' and blog stats, for feeling a certain disappointment when posts/links I write up don't get the reception I hoped for. But it's always worth keeping posting the good stuff, as you never know who may stumble on it - or when it might be found. And because it's entirely you. We should write and draw and share simply because its an expression of ourselves, then throw it to the wind - and let it fly. 

 Post script: After reading this, Betsy's point was proved in full. Someone left a comment for me, on a picture of mine that they'd just found - that I'd posted to Flickr over eighteen months ago:

love love love the dude in the wheelchair with the wings ... reminds me of my 9-yr old daughter and her chair. its quite rare that we see fantasy or heroic images of people in chairs, so i'm going to be quite pleased sharing this one with her. =)

So I'll continue to write these blog posts for myself. They make me happy. And if anyone else happens to stumble on them, I hope they enjoy them too.

So here's some more things that cheered and brightened me recently:

1. Listening to the Un Bouquet des Violettes aria in the soft afternoon sunshine on Waterloo station, while waiting for the train. Watching swifts whip and curl through the air, and the wind blowing the wild bluebells and the long grass, making it ripple and flow like waves on water.

2. Colouring in.

3. Finding a clip of Sigourney Weaver looking radiant and dignified and wonderfully eloquent during an interview about her role in the Alien films. And then watching her doing a spontaneous impression of the snippy-snappy teeth action that the chestburster alien makes (after it blasts out of Kane's midsection, and then pauses for a moment, to have a little roar.)  Then going back to looking radiant and dignified again. 

4. During one week, having two delicious and warming meals... in two different fine Liverpool curry houses... with different combinations of my lovely family. Delicious vegan food, and damn fine company.

5. Rediscovering Sam Taylor-Johnson (then Sam Taylor-Wood)'s art piece Pieta - made with Robert Downey Jr., in 2001. 

The Pieta is 'a traditional image of spiritual, emotional and physical support for a suffering another.' - and this is video was inspired by Michaelangelo's pieceAt the time of shooting, Taylor-Johnson had recently completed treatment for cancer, and Downey had been struggling with (much-publicised) drug addiction.

I love this Pieta for its gentle, quiet stillness and simplicity.  I find it softly meditative - particularly as there is no soundtrack - and very little movement, apart from the subtle rise and fall of their breathing, and the occasional moment when she lifts him, or they shift slightly to adjust their weight. 
There's great tenderness in the way Taylor-Johnson cradles Downey's body - with strength and a reassuring confidence, but so very lightly. How she looks down upon him with silent compassion. And for all his apparent vitality, how he's surrendered himself completely in her arms, allowing himself to be vulnerable and yet protected in her hold. 
It seems to be a beautiful act of trust and understanding, from both parties.

6. The simple, inspiring, uplifting joy of the irrepressibly buoyant Michael Franti, who makes everything brighter and more hopeful 

Show me a sign that the world could be fine
And all dictators kicked out or resigning
People everywhere taking it to the streets
Throw your hands in the air if you know what I mean
See Wall Street criminals, some of them politicals
Stealing money off of people in the struggle
Everywhere on this planet I see
People fighting back for humanity

(Anthis too. I really want to join that quarry party.)

7. And following on from that thought - hearing of the Amnesty International Australia Flowers of Hope tribute in Sydney.

(Screencap from Amnesty International Australia's video)

On 27th April, more than 200 people gathered in Sydney to oppose the death penalty and to 'call for mercy for those on death row in Indonesia.' Enough donations were made to buy 15,000 flowers - which were then formed into a huge installation at Blue Point Reserve in North Sydney. A candlelit vigil followed.

'...140 countries have said everybody deserves a second chance. And even when things are at their most dark, at their most bleak, change can happen. And people have been given a second chance. We need to keep respectfully asking the Indonesian president to halt the executions, and to abolish the death penalty once and for all. ....We will keep hope alive.' 

This beautiful video shows how it all came together.
The prisoners who were the focus of the campaign were executed. But Amnesty has not given up, and continues to fight for the abolition of the death penalty, and for human rights worldwide.

8. Watching Before Sunrise. This is a lovely, surprising and thoughtful film in its own right
But also it brought back memories I'd forgotten, of a long night spent in Covent Garden with an old friend, many years ago. 
We didn't last till sunrise, but we did sit and talk through the late afternoon, into the evening, and then onwards. 
We stayed till the small early hours of the morning, sitting cross-legged outside, on the floor in a quiet corner near the covered market - basking in the hazy sunshine, and listening to the hum of the city. We watched the dusk fall and the light deepen and the milling crowds bustle and roar. 
When the sun fell and it grew cold, my friend handed me his jumper to wear, which was oversized on me, but softly woven and comfortingly cosy. It smelt faintly of him - of hand-rolled cigarettes, silver paint and warmth. The jumper was sky blue and made me feel as if I was wrapped in a cloud. 
We talked of our lives and politics and art and our differing dreams. 
I can remember feeling very young and strong, and allowed the rest of the world to completely fall away for those few hours. Everything seemed vibrant and possible.  

9. Rediscovering one of my favourite city sculptures in the sunshine, just off Parr Street.

10. Archiving. I've been helping at a local library project recently, assisting in getting some of their extraordinary collection of photographs scanned and preserved. Not only is it a pleasing, gentle, peaceful project to work on, I'm finding some amazing and fascinating treasures amongst the photos. All sorts of moments captured vividly, and preserved in time:

An elegantly-dressed Edwardian family standing formally around a very tall, very thin snowman in their back garden.... A tiny girl caught in a pose as she pushes a pram round a stately garden (and the pram contains four bemused lioncubs).... intrepid biplane pilots with dashing smiles and handlebar moustaches.... A 1905  Cycling Club gathered round on their bipeds, in formal suits and solemn faces... young men with strap-on skates posed to take off across the ice in a 1930s park...

 11. Celebrating my bookshop's 41st birthday with balloons and crisps and mini muffins and vegan snacks, which we gave out to our customers. Its delightful to see how genuinely pleased people are when you offer them a free slice of cake.

12. Receiving a most fascinating old handmade toolbox that my Taid (Grandad) made to hold his nails and screws and handy bits and pieces. It's cobbled together from characterful old pieces of wood, and is battered and stained - but which makes it all the more interesting. It's entirely him, entirely evocative of his world, and I love it. 

It reminds me of Jem's box of collected treasures, from Boo's tree. I'll have to find my own treasures to put inside.

13. Sitting in the dark, during the stillness of the evening, and listening to Radical Face and Noah and the Whale, while a nightlight on my mantlepiece flickered and glowed softly.

14. Finishing a new illustration. And starting another.

 15. One scene from the film Nineteen Eighty Four:
Winston and Julia hear a woman singing absent-mindedly while she hangs out her tatty washing on a line in the yard below them. They stand together at their window-sill, looking down and watching the woman in silence. They're both naked, and stand hip to hip, Julia's arm linked round Winston's waist, his arm round her shoulder. Their skin is strikingly pale against the grubby grey deluge and dusty ruin of their room. 
The pair watch in admiration and reverence, listening to the coarse cheer of the woman's hardy song.
'She's beautiful...' murmurs Winston. 'The future is hers.'
It's a rare and brief moment of solemn hope amidst the awful, brutal, relentless tragedy of the rest of the film. Caged birds listening to a strange rough jewel of a freedom song. Perhaps remembering echoes of their own forgotten verses.

16. Yogi Tea teabags - which come complete with inspiring quotes on the tags.

17. Thinking I saw a black bear roaming in the Cathedral gardens near my house. 

(It wasn't a bear. But it was rather thrilling for a moment or two.)

18. Reading that Osgood is to return to Doctor Who. (yaaaaaaaay)
Oi! You! Are you science-y?
Oh! Um, well um, yes!
Got a name?
Good. I've always wanted to meet someone called Yes. 

19. Finding out that Julia Biel rocks the same Doc Marten boots as me.
(Only she wears hers with different colour ribbon laces. And niftier tights.)

20. Feeling deeply angry and upset and shocked and astonished at the Tory re-election. 
The amount of damage done to our country by the Conservative party already is astonishing. What more they may do in the next five years is extremely frightening.

Then I re-read my friend Sarah's post on craftivism and change and campaigning against cynicism:
'Let’s please be each other’s hope. My Craftivism Tree is a physical reminder to me of how to strive to do effective craftivism: it reawakened in me feelings of hope. My hanky I gave to my MP encourages her to use her influence to challenge structures that keep people poor, and the fact that our craft pieces are hand stitched and unique in their creation reminds us all of the beauty this world has given us and how we can MAKE change one stitch of a time…'

And this splendid, practical, positive piece on what we can constructively do next.
'...talking about fleeing the country and leaving him to it is almost as bad as voting Tory. It might seem hopeless at the moment, but there are some basic things we can all do to work through this. Wallowing in political pity or booking the next flight out of here is not going to feed the hungry.'

'Joy doesn't betray but sustains activism', writes Rebecca Solnit'And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.'

And my lovely step-Dad brought a bouquet of glorious scarlet roses to my bookshop, for me and my colleagues.

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: "Bread and roses! Bread and roses!"

We placed them in our window, along with Joe Hill ('don't mourn - organise!') to inspire and give hope to us, and to anyone who passed by.

'Let’s please be each other’s hope.' 

The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and... bad things. The good things don't always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant. 
~The Doctor

Friday, 8 May 2015

A blind man catches a bird: Part One.

...That was how the world was made, how the void was divided, how the lands and the stars and the dreams and the little gods and the animals, how all of them came into the world.
They were sung.
The great beasts were sung into existence, after the Singer had done with the planets and the hills and the trees and the oceans and the lesser beasts. The cliffs that bound existence were sung, and the hunting grounds, and the dark.
Songs remain. They last. ...A song can last long after the events and the people in it are dust and dreams and gone. That's the power of songs.

~ Neil Gaiman, 
Anansi Boys

Some years ago, there was a man who lived in a small village in Africa, with his family. His name was Hamunda.  
He had been blind from birth - but this did not prevent him from living a full and contented life. Hamunda was a gentle, thoughtful man, who possessed that rare quality of great stillness, and who moved with lightness and dexterity across the world. 

When the day was still and hushed, when chores were done, and there was little left to do, Hamunda would take himself away from the clamour and chatter of the village. 
He would clamber up into the limbs of a sweeping baobab tree that rooted nearby, trusting his fingers and the familiar sweep and curve of the sturdy branches to find his way. 
And he would sit there for a time.

Others in the village chided the blind man for sitting in the branches of the baobab tree and doing nothing. But he did not care.  

Hamunda sat in peace and felt the solid strong trunk of the tree against his back, and the roots below anchor themselves deep into the red earth. He felt the soft caress of butterfly wings on his skin as they fluttered around the tree or settled noiselessly on his arms or shoulder.
And he listened. To the sound of the wind as it lifted the dust from the ground, and curled it into lazy spirals before dropping it and tossing it aloft and beginning again. He listened to the distant rumble of rhino herds and the majestic cry of elephants. To the almost-imperceptible pad of velvet lioness paws, as she stalked her unwary prey.
But mostly, he listened to the birds that roosted in the baobab tree, that swooped through the branches, and watched the butterflies with idle curiosity.  
The birds sung songs of their Africa. They sung of the endless flat sun-bleached plains, of the wandering herds. Of the reaching branches of the huge baobab trees. They sung of the gods who had first formed the land, and who slumbered still, unseen. They sung of the richness of scarlet sunrises and golden dawns, and they sung the country back into existence, again and again.
And Hamunda was still amongst them, and listened in respectful silence - and so the birds also sung to him.

One day Hamunda's brother-in-law -Akashinga - came to find him while he sat in solitary peace, in the arms of the baobab tree. 
Akashinga was a bold man - a hunter, a warrior and the strongest in his family. He knew of Hamunda's affinity with birds, and, although the habits of the man confounded and confused him, he came to seek his help.

'Brother,' called Akashinga - 'I wish to find a bird, which I'm told roosts in trees not far from here. The bird is renowned for its beautiful feathers and its wonderful song. I wish to present it to my wife - so it can sing its songs to us, so it will enchant her with its beauty, before we set it free to fly once more. I have hunted and cast my nets and set my traps, but I cannot ensnare the bird. The others in the village tell me that only you could find the bird. 
I promise to not harm it, Hamunda. I promise to set it free. 
Will you help me?'

Hamunda sighed. And he thought. 
And because he loved his sister, and because of the firm promise that no harm would come to the bird, he agreed. He carefully climbed down from the baobab tree. And off they went - in search of the bird, and its extraordinary song. 


This is the first of two parts of a story for a collection of re-written world folk and fairy tales, that I'm currently working on.... part two will follow.... :)