Big Paper

Big Ideas Demand Big Paper

Big Ideas Demand Big Paper

The Big Paper is out again.  This is a good omen – like sunshine after rain or daybreak after a long night.  It means my ideas are overflowing from their usual recesses of an A5 journal or a computer screen.  Space!  They demand.  Give us space to stretch and wander and have a good look at each other! Let us mingle and mix in that alchemy of intention and imagination! Let us play! So, out comes the Big Paper.

I like the Big Paper because I’m down on the floor like an 8-year-old when I write on it.  I use coloured markers that make thick and satisfying lines and squeak agreeably as they leave trails of ink on the paper.  I use arrows and squiggles and fill things in when I’m daydreaming. There is ample room for afterthought, for putting ideas down before putting them in order, and for white space, just in case.

Today, the Big Paper is about my writing directions over the next few months. You may remember that I took time away from writing, blogging, and facilitating Writing Circles last January to take on the challenge of teaching physics in a local independent school. It was an invaluable experience – difficult, interesting, and useful in clarifying for me how I want to spend my time and my teaching.

It turns out I’d rather find ways to guide and support people who are telling and capturing their own stories than work really hard at getting kids to arrive at the correct answers to someone else’s questions.

When I’m at a crossroads of career and calling, I often think of Howard Thurman’s remark, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”  As much as I love physics and as much as I love teaching, teaching physics no longer makes me come alive.

Big Paper makes me come alive.

Watch this space for the return of Writing Circles in the Autumn.

Posted in Non-parabolic trajectory, Physics, Present not precious, teaching and learning, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Prelude to Suite No. 2 in D Minor for Unaccompanied Cello by J.S. Bach

Writing at Westbury

Writing about Bach at Westbury Arts Centre with an audience of chickens. (The other writers were in other parts of the room).

Yesterday I went to a writing workshop offered by my friend, Karen Littleton, poet and writer in residence at Westbury Arts Centre. Titled ‘Time to Write,’ the workshop was an afternoon in a tranquil setting with other writers, each of us working on different projects. Lately, I’ve been wanting to write about the Prelude to J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D Minor for Unaccompanied Cello. I went down to Westbury a bit early and brought my cello along because I wanted to play the piece in the acoustic where I was going to write about it. In the atmosphere created by Karen, I found space for my thoughts to become words and sentences. 

The Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello are well-loved and well-known. I especially love the second suite, but for years never felt brave enough to perform any of it. I have frequently taken it out and learned a line here, a line there. I’ve bowed and fingered my way through the movements, enjoying them, but not quite getting a sense of the whole. Over time, I learned the Prelude well enough to play the notes, but they just formed a mesh of sound, a collection of tones. When finished, I would feel exhausted, as if I had been holding my breath for five minutes, hoping I was doing it right. I wasn’t making a music that I could understand, I was playing to prove a point, execute an exercise. My renditions didn’t recreate the structure, the inner story of the piece.

And yet, I knew it had to have one. This spring, I decided to engage with the Prelude on its own terms. To listen and see if I could understand what it had to say to me.

I think one of the reasons that the piece can seem opaque is that it is deeply nuanced, subtly coloured. Unlike its nearest siblings, the Preludes to the first and third suites, it doesn’t fly a flag of direct intention in the first two bars. It neither radiates the unambiguous optimism of the first suite or the confident jubilation of the third. To say that the second suite is simply tragic is to mishear the overtones and richness; there is a somber celebration throughout. To begin to fathom this, one must trace its lines in a spirit of introspection.

I began to approach the Prelude as a labyrinth, guided by questions. The initial tones are like footsteps. We know not where these paths will lead, only that these steps must be taken. Each rising arpeggio asks a different question, the kind of question that leads to more questions. Some questions turn back on themselves in the sinuous lines of the answering phrases. Some uncover wellsprings of grief. Some point towards unexpected shafts of light, flooding in from unknown sources.  As the music continues, both listener and performer come to trust that, like all labyrinths, each note, each passage, brings us closer to the centre of the piece, even when it seems like we are moving away.

There are progressions that leave the ears longing for resolution. Again and again, Bach slyly slips in another twist, another turn before the short-lived solace of a perfect cadence. Along this musical path-making, the Prelude builds to a rhythmic sequence that mirrors the opening but with deeper notes and larger intervals, as if the purpose of listening is to expand our troughs and peaks of experience. Now the music seems to ask the most difficult questions: the ones we can barely whisper, but which resonate through our bodies with their import. The responses rise towards the climax of the piece, releasing that particular strain of hope born from loss, despair, transformation. These are not answers, but songs to live by, in spite of the questions, because of the questions.

At the centre of this sonic labyrinth we find silence.

In this moment, Bach makes a decision. Each time we encounter the Prelude, this silence reminds us of the gravitas of his decision. He chooses not to end the piece at the point of enlightenment gained after an uneasy and uncertain journey. Instead he asks the musician and the listener to do something even more difficult: to return from the depths of the labyrinth.

On retracing our steps, we are struck by how much the way out differs from the way in, although it is the same path. The final section brings us back to the topside world. Having made the decision to return, the voice has a different quality. Our steps are surer and the musical lines travel more directly. Underlying progressions move towards resolution, towards strength. The final five measures were written simply as chords, with an understanding that the player can improvise around the chord structure. It is an invitation for the musician to express insights from this pilgrimage in her own notes, and for the listener to know that the final lines and phrases that punctuate the Prelude can differ with each performance and each performer.

I believe music begins when the composer first writes the notes down. It starts to grow as musicians learn the notes and approach technical mastery.  And it becomes vibrantly alive when musicians and listeners come into communion in a shared space.

At the end of yesterday’s workshop, we had the opportunity to share some of our work from the afternoon. I read the first draft of this piece and played the Prelude. It was a delight and a gift to share words and music with others.  Heartfelt thanks to them all.

Title page from Anna Magdalena Bach's manuscript of the Cello Suites. By Anna Magdalena Bach - http://xoomer.virgilio.it/alessandro_corti/images/Frontespizio_Cello_Suite.png, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9771023

Title page from Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript of the Cello Suites. By Anna Magdalena Bach – http://xoomer.virgilio.it/alessandro_corti/images/Frontespizio_Cello_Suite.png, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9771023

There are many recordings of this piece to listen to.  Interestingly, Rostropovich  and Yo-Yo Ma both choose to play the final 5 measures as full, unornamented chords.  Their tempos are strikingly different. Anner Bylsma, who specialises in the Baroque style, includes an interesting arpeggiation of the chords.  Janos Starker (the version I have) differs yet again.  Many will endlessly about whether or not one should ‘touch’ what Bach did. I think it’s interesting that the possibility is there.

Posted in Music and art, Present not precious, Writing | Tagged , | 4 Comments

December Lights

photo by Maria Gair, mariagphotography.com

photo by Maria Gair, mariagphotography.com

1 December.  The first day of the last month of the year. More than the other eleven months, I find December charged with both anticipation and aftermath.  The year is winding down, the holidays are gearing up.  We seem to meet ourselves moving in opposite directions during December.

In the midst of this time, even a 5-10 minute pause to sit down and write what I notice has the power to establish a still point that anchors the day.  What I write doesn’t need to be complete or even coherent.  But the practice of moving the pen across the page is one sure way to keep everything in perspective.

For the past two years, I’ve enjoyed having an advent calendar of writing prompts here.  The prompts are still up, feel free to look at them here. This year, though, I haven’t fashioned a set of prompts. Instead, I will look for that 5-10 minute window of space each day – on a bus ride, in the car waiting for kids, after the school run, once the kids are in bed – to be still, notice and write.  Even if it’s only a sentence or a string a words, I’ll still write. I invite you to do the same.  My thought is that these short bits of writing will light the month like a row of luminarias.

For an update on Writing Circles in the New Year, please visit my other blog, Spilling the Ink.

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Thankfulness

photo credit: Margaret Mead by Smithsonian Institution

photo credit: Margaret Mead by Smithsonian Institution

A response to despair is thankfulness.  Thankfulness for rich memories, for experiences that can’t be taken away, for the gift of crossing paths with others in unexpected and soul expanding ways.  When the news veers from the horrific to the heart-rending, helplessness is an understandable feeling.  But I choose something stronger than defeat. I choose thankfulness. Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead’s wise words come to mind: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the word. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens abound. I see them in the PTFA groups who organise movie nights, school fetes, raffles, etc to help improve the school atmospheres and provide so many uncountable extras. I see them in people raising money and collecting donations for charities and causes farther afield. I see them in the members of my orchestra who come together to share music and remind ourselves as well as our listeners of the great beauty and achievements of art. They pop-up in on-line communities that form and reform around topics that people are passionate about, or in the writing groups I participate in and facilitate. I see them when I visit a place where I may not speak the language, but I need no translations to understand interactions of kindness and trust. They are the living forms of the celebrations of light and faith that so many traditions observe during the winter months.  They are the nodes of communities: neighbourhood gatherings, church groups, knitting circles, community sports teams, book clubs, friendships carried through decades and across distances.  Wherever there is a genuine connection in which people see each other, create conversation and share small bits of understanding, I believe there is good work being done, change is being made for the better.

When sadness lingers at the edges of the newspaper or the day, I find it a balm to stop and look for these small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens, carrying on with their important and humble work.  I am thankful for all the ways they replenish our humanity.

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Where to start from?

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Where to start from? acrylic on canvas board, Lynne Cameron 2012

It’s been a quiet and fruitful autumn.  I last posted in September, feeling a need to harvest the many crops of the past year of writing, Writing Circles, running and reading.

And in that time of quiet, a time of gaining perspective on what matters and what I hope for next in this journey of exploration and slowly gained understanding, I’ve found myself growing in two opposite directions.  Maybe this is what makes trees grow so tall – reaching upwards and outwards towards the sky and horizon while at the same time stretching roots deep into the earth.

My reaching upwards and outwards has taken the form of a heeding a call to go back to the classroom, back to teaching physics.  Starting in January, I’ll be teaching in a local independent school here in Cambridge that I’ve long admired.  An opening for a maternity cover came up.  After much consideration, I applied, interviewed, was offered the position and accepted. I’m looking forward to the challenge: from the rigour of teaching the year 13s who are preparing for final exams to the fun of teaching the year 7s who are just beginning to build a physics framework and all the mixtures of year groups and abilities/interest levels in between.  It will be ‘full-on’, as they say here in the UK, but it feels like the time is right.

My stretching of roots deep into the earth has taken the form of more writing, and finding spaces for writing in all corners of the day and city. I don’t necessarily need a room of my own, but I do need to ring fence times of my own where I open the notebook and move the pen, or open the notebook and stare out the window in silence, or open a previously-filled notebook and extract some ramblings into the beginnings of a poem.  The writing keeps me rooted.

Having times of calm or at least quiet reflection, which for me takes the form of writing, is a way of letting all the different strands of my life settle.  During the day, I’m happy for those banners to fly gaily in the wind, twisting and tangling, waving their stripes.  But I believe we also need times when the winds diminish and all these streamers come to rest.  My own personal mandate, as I go forward with teaching this January, is to frequent the blank page, returning often to a centre of stillness.

So what does this mean for the Writing Circles and the posts here at One Tree Bohemia? A hiatus, but not an ending.  If my experiences in and out of the classroom, in and out of physics, in and out of writing and teaching English have taught me anything, they have taught me that there is no such thing as an ending.  There are chapters, there are pauses, there are long breaks, but the things that make us the individual creatures we are, our gifts, skills and passions, never desert us.  They always come around again, and nothing is ever lost or wasted.  Sometimes (usually) they find expression in unexpected and different forms from before, but they always take the form they need to take at that moment.

This post waves ‘goodbye’ in the sense that I don’t know when I’ll next be here, writing in the forest.  I am so grateful for the many visitors, both vocal and silent, who have stopped awhile under my tree over the past few years.

As a closing and a blessing, I’d like to share a painting by my friend, Lynne Cameron. I have loved this painting since I first saw it when I ran a writing workshop, Empathy and Creativity, as part of Lynne’s exhibition, The Living Impulse. And over the years, as I have grown as a writer and watched Lynne grow as a painter, I have come to love it even more. Last autumn, I had the opportunity to purchase it, and taking all the hard-earned money from my accumulated rejections, I bought the painting. (And in a funny kind of poetic justice, I’ve since had 6 pieces of writing accepted for publication!)

What I love about this painting is that I don’t know if I am looking at something very large or very small, I don’t know if I’m looking at a beginning or an ending.  It is possible I am seeing all of these at once.  When I first held the painting, I oriented it differently from how Lynne imagined.  My son then pointed out that I could hang it from different angles, from different sides.  It’s many many paintings in one.  The title is ‘Where to start from?’  It asks a question and opens a world.

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Where to start from? acrylic on canvas board, Lynne Cameron 2012

Posted in Music and art, Non-parabolic trajectory, Physics, Poetry, Present not precious, teaching and learning | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Harvest

September is often a time of change and beginnings.  Around here, it’s the start of a new school for my son, new activities for my daughter, and a lot of travel for new projects for my husband.

September is also a time of harvest. A time to gather the ripened fruits and grains of the year, savour some, store some for the winter, and collect seeds for next year’s planting. A time to look at the fields and consider which need rotation, which need rest, and which are ready for winter crops.

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This year, I find I’m more in harvest mode than new beginnings mode.

Last year was fruitful: In September, the first Writing Circle gathered and set the tone for a programme that I am both proud of and honoured to facilitate.  Spring and summer saw two more groups assemble, each time with faces both familiar and new, and each time with writing that was vibrant and so very exciting to see emerge.

 

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As for my own writing, I filled 8 journals with freehand musings. How many words? The calculation is interesting to me: approximately 8 journals x 200 pages per journal x 20 lines per page x 6 words per line = 192,000 words. Surely there must be a few worth keeping from that hoard.  (To compare, a typical novel is about 90,000 words, probably preceded by many thousands of others that didn’t make the cut).

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As my family settle into their new routines (and I help them navigate those transitions), I have decided to take time to tend to the past year’s writing harvest. Time to sort, mill, mix, knead and proof those words. I’m still enough of a scientist to know that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It only changes forms, and the transformation I’m choosing is from generating raw material and excitement to working with what I have in hand. So many words. Perhaps each is a grain.

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It’s time to let the fields rest, so that come 2016, the soil will be full of nutrients for Writing Circles to come.  Because it is not the season for sowing, I have decided to postpone this autumn’s sessions of Spilling the Ink and Continuing the Craft. But please stay tuned to hear what offerings will be available in the new year.

In the meantime, what will you be harvesting this autumn?

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August – a month away.

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So many beaches, so many waves. Santa Barbara, CA.

We’ve been in the California for the month of August. I haven’t spent this long in the US since before we moved to England, nine years ago.  Unlike most of our other trips to the States, we haven’t been racing around visiting family and friends.  With the exception of a trip I took with the kids to New Mexico to see my family, we’ve stayed in Santa Barbara, as my husband is here on an extended workshop at the university. In many ways, it has felt like a quiet month. Time away from the usual rhythms and patterns of our full lives in the UK.

Sure there have been a lot of adventures and outings: We went to the Channel Islands! We hiked up Rattlesnake Canyon! We play at the beach! We saw the Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona! We watched the sunset from the top of Sandia Peak! I could go on and on.  Time spent outside in the wide open spaces of the western US refills every reservoir that runs low when I am away from these landscapes.

View from Cavern Point, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

View from Cavern Point, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

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Barringer Crater in Arizona (2.5 miles around, 4000 ft across, and 550 ft deep) created 50,000 years ago by a meteor about 150 m in diameter.

Watching the sunset from the top of the Sandias, Albuquerque, NM.

Watching the sunset from the top of the Sandias, Albuquerque, NM.

Northern New Mexico. The landscape I love most.

Northern New Mexico. The landscape I love most.

But for me, the tone of the month has been quiet. I think what I mean is that by stepping away from my multi-faceted roles in Cambridge, I have found a brief respite from the tug and push and pull of all those projects. I can stand back and look at the lives we are creating, see how we are filling them with passions and growth.  It’s all a matter of perspective. I get to see the forest for the trees.

When we return to the UK, the academic year will start rolling, picking up a momentum and shape of its own.  We’ll find our ways back into school, work, music lessons, activities, committee work, etc, etc.  But for now, for one more week, I’ll relish these quieter mornings with a relatively uncluttered desk and time to write, play, and be outside.

A very inviting writing desk. At the Presidio, Santa Barbara.

A very inviting writing desk. At the Presidio, Santa Barbara.

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