How are you keeping? I’ve been working on recording lately. I fear it’s not so easy to talk about recording without being a bit boring and going on about recording equipment. And it’s also tricky to talk about songs that I’ve recorded which you can’t yet hear. So, instead, I was thinking of my Texel sheep fleece. I’ve had no end of joy sorting my fleece which is called “skirting” and then carding the wool into fluffy worms called rolags in preparation for spinning. I am doing some knitting. Do you knit? I know several of you who do and who are VERY accomplished with knitting. Right now, I’m just remembering how wool works and how knitting needles and stitches work. I’m trying not to have a wiggly length of knitting, unless on purpose, and I’m noticing when my attention starts to drift and stitches disappear. Eventually, I hope to achieve a consistency that will allow me to knit my homespun wool into a sweater.
Do you have trouble keeping still? I do. I don’t know if trouble is the best way to describe the feeling I have. Some people might say, “She’s never idle.” And then it would sound like a compliment. Someone else might say, “She always has to be doing something.” That doesn’t sound quite as nice. I always want to be sewing or knitting or polishing something or tending to the plants, reading a book, noodling on the trombone, looking things up. I think I am worried that I will run out of time to do all of the things that I want to do. And I’m also not sure if all of the things that I do add up to a grand something. Are we meant to have a grand something to show or submit at some point to someone or some place? I know that I will run out of time. That is the nature of being human.
Perhaps, I am thinking of this because today is the anniversary of Dad’s death. Sometimes, I would like to usher myself to a solitary spot during this time and see it out on my own. I’m not a comfortable person to be around right now. I am prickly and fidgety. Another part of me wonders if I could watch movies or read a book all the way until it feels over. But it’s never the right movie or the right book, is it? Because nothing feels quite right without Dad in the physical world. The feeling is never quite over.
I came across a book of poetry by W.B. Yeats for 50 pence a couple of weeks ago and I bought it only to find that I already had a different version of it. I’m sure I probably have more than two copies, actually. But Dad loved Yeats. He read some of Yeats’ poems to me years ago. When I try to think about why Dad loved Yeats, I can’t really remember why. That’s a piece of information which got lost like a bit of data on a magnetic tape that fell off with age and poor archiving conditions.
I looked up the poems I remember him liking the best, or at least I remember him reading them to me – The Circus Animals’ Desertion, The Second Coming, The Magi, Sailing to Byzantium. Poetry can be so frustrating, really. What ever are they talking about and why can’t they speak straight? I feel thick and unyielding when I try to navigate the words. But some things bubble up to the surface:
“Consume my heart away; sick with desire And fastened to a dying animal It knows not what it is.”
In the end, Dad’s body let him down. His heart and spirit were fastened to a dying animal. Riddled with cancer, cancer in his very blood, there was no stopping it. No matter how much he wanted to defeat it, no matter how many drug trials and how much hope he threw at it, in the end, it was indeed Yeats’ rags and bones – with so much left that his heart wanted to do.
That’s what I say in the song I wrote for him a few months after he died, “There were things we wanted to do, adventures, me and you.”
And ever since Dad died, I’ve been hounded or inspired, depending on the day and my grief, by the question of how best to employ myself, spend my time, make use of my life. This question often sat with me before Dad died, and he and I spoke about it many times. After all, the question around which I based my degree at college was “What is the good life?” And I wasn’t necessarily thinking about a margarita on a sandy beach – though, of course, that is one of the options, isn’t it? Endless pleasure-seeking on one end and humanitarian aid work on the other end. Folksinger somewhere in the middle?
And no amount of knitting, fleece-skirting, songwriting, or reading with Yeats has brought me any closer to a grand design. Sometimes I think about all of the places I kept in my mind before lockdown that I wanted to visit – model farms, campgrounds, desert landscapes, writers’ homes, crofter’s cottages, remote islands. They were all there as possible destinations. Now, I wonder if I will get to them, ever. Because I am very much still locked down – moving about the world cautiously – not taking many chances.
I always wanted Dad and Mom to come on tour with me over in England and see everything I was seeing, meet all of my friends, hear me sing here. But by the time I was touring in earnest, Dad was already advised to avoid airplanes, public spaces, crowded rooms. Sounds familiar. Airplanes, public spaces, and crowded rooms have been my life for the last ten years or so. And I wonder what the future holds for that kind of work – particularly for a working-class folksinger whose delicate web of home concerts, libraries, folk clubs, community centers, and kitchen dance floors were held together with friendship, luck, and a lot of miles.
This is an unanswerable question at this time. Just one imponderable among many puzzles for many people right now. Many of us don’t fall under the category of “key worker” which can make me, at least, wonder what kind of work is key at any given time under differing circumstances.
So, for now, I’m lashing bits of audio kit together to record songs that I’ve written, I ply one needle or another, and I check on the tomatoes. I read, sing, write, sleep, eat, and I know that I’m lucky. Lucky to be alive and healthy and living in a beautiful place. But what shall I do with my good luck? How am I best employed? I still don’t have the answer. Drinks on the beach or humanitarian aid? Schoolteacher or folksinger? Baker or candlestick-maker?
It would be good to talk with Dad about it all.
Right now, one stitch and one note at a time.
Thank you for lending me your ear. Please keep safe.