Susan, Smola and me.

As a reader of my blogs, you’ll know that in September 2020, I moved to a croft house in Levenwick, Shetland.  It has been a busy 7 months, buying a car, driving a car again after 12 years of not doing so, restoring the south bedroom to its original floor and fireplace and to a more relaxed palette, applying for work, getting project co-ordinator jobs, developing, devising and presenting successful online knitting workshops, digging out a byre, sieving soil, learning how to get furniture to an island parallel to Norway, that although is technically in the UK, it is miles away from London and finding that deliveries do not easily arrive on this island.

As well as living here, I have been researching Susan Halcrow and her parents and paternal grandparents who lived in this house for 3 generations from the early 1800’s.   I’m particularly interested in researching Susan (Cissie) b1876, d1960 who was born in this house and lived here alone after her parents died early 1908 and 1914 and then her brother died in the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

I, as Susan did, make the fire in the hearth, grow things, open the latch door and look out to sea every day.  We both live and lived here as single women.  

Through this new frame of mine, my Shetland practice became entirely local (Shetland) based and I began to want to develop a digital written piece with an online knitted design created through my own (phenomenological) lived experiences of living in the same house that Susan had. I diarised my life in small chapters related to the morning or light, or sun rises or moon and frequently of the wind.  Through a daily practice of experiential writing, I began to wonder about Susan and her life by researching photographs of her and working on a small colour blending knitting design.  That pattern became,  Good Wishes for the New Year  and it was exactly that – all about Susan. 

But, I wanted to develop a deeper understanding underpinned by archival researching of her and her family to write my story of Susan, this house and Shetland, juxtaposed with my own lived experiences in the same house and to share it internationally.  This can never be The story because I cannot talk with her but it will be a story to honour a woman who lived a long life within this house.

At the end of January, I read about The Visual Artist and Craft Makers Awards (VACMA) which is a programme of small grants schemes with a range of local authorities and art agencies across Scotland to support Scotland-based visual artists and craft makers in their creative and professional development. I had become really interested in the idea of writing a booklet about Susan and I living in the same house about 140 years apart. And to write part of the story through the experience of developing a knitting design with Susan in mind. 

So, I applied for a Visual Arts and Craft Maker Award (VACMA) 2 days before the closing date, and submitted by the skin of my teeth on 2nd February.  The application flowed because this is real for me.  I don’t have to make this up, it is my life, my home, seen alongside a very real woman who lived here – I just have to find the right way to write it.

I hope to creatively experiment through an auto ethnographic practice (personal experience in order to understand cultural experience) to enable me produce a 16-page digital booklet about the real life of 2 single women in different times living in the same house (140 years apart).

I will be experimenting with written word, photography and knitted design to tell our linked stories and I will also include a pattern design in the booklet. The project will bring together my previous 5 year’s skills and experiences, my Masters, Artist Residencies and my move to Shetland in an ongoing commitment to my creative practice.

Within time, I received an email from Shetland Arts to say that my VACMA application was successful, which I was over the moon about. To enable me to dedicate time to the project, I stopped all online teaching colour blending workshops until the end of May to give me time to knit the sample, research the family in the Archives at the Museum and to design the pattern and to write this work as beautifully as possible.

Though, from next week, my part time job has increased hours and I also volunteer at Women’s Aid too so I’m finding life very busy and full on but still, without fail, this booklet, the writing, research, design and knitting has been on my mind every day since February. I’ve been to the archives 4 times, I write when I can, I have, tonight, just finished the sample knit which has two different sleeve finishes and uses two types of yarn – as a sample, I am happy. The pullover will develop into another piece.  I have a wonderful test knitter, Cait, from Cream City Yarn, a wonderful yarn shop and creative knitting space in a one-room schoolhouse located in the suburbs of Milwaukee.

Maybe the booklet doesn’t need a knitting pattern design in it, but a recipe of life in this house, and of knitting and two women.  

If you would like to know more about my research on Susan and the Halcrow family, I will be writing a monthly piece on my Patreon site here.

https://www.patreon.com/TraceyDoxey

This project is supported by VACMA from Creative Scotland, Shetland Arts and Shetland Islands Council

The Unfolding Image

Susan Halcrow Spinster

Does the wind become my friend? Or is it the other way around, do I befriend the ever present wind?

Wind roaring down the bedroom chimney to my left, like tinnitus playing havoc with my mind. It is the first waking sound and often the last.  No one told me that I would have to prepare for a life of wind.

Alfie ventures out into the sweeping winds, ears pinned down to his skull, eyes squinting to the flare.  A sudden strong gust of wind is a Flan. The  Flan surges between buildings, finding any path to rush down, taking out a cat.  He has learned – he hurries across the tiny road to the shelter of the old abandoned walled garden.  How I would love that garden to be cleared, to be made good, to have the time and resources to do so, for it to be an area of calm and growth. When I walk in it, I think of its glorious days when Susan was alive, when she would have tended it, grown her vegetables, sat peacefully with her dog Ralph but now it is all overgrow as if in A Sleeping Beauty story, with rambling roses head height taking  over many years ago.

Nature reclaims – even in the winds. If it has to, growth creeps across the ground below the winds.

When I am not thinking of the cracked shower base, the car breaking down and being towed away then the  disagreeing conversations with the man that sold it to me, or the beds to order and get to an island, or the 3 day a week administration job, the knitting workshop administration and presentation to motivate participants, or planting the vegetables, repainting the window frames and the inside walls, I find time to move out of my thinking  head into the sensing body to be present to what is around me.  This is where my thoughts and feelings sit.  They wait patiently to be reawakened when I can fully perceive  and  experience the life I now have here.  And, in those brief wonderful connected times, I am free.

If I pick the first year of my arrival and go back 100 years to 1920, when Susan was here, I wonder what here life was like.  In some ways, it maybe was easier than mine because she had only the house and animals and garden – we complicate life by things that break – but harder because it was rare for a woman to be entirely alone in Shetland without family.  Susan was the last in the line although she had many cousins.

Susan would have been 47 in 1920, although she was crofting as her father had done, she was registered as Spinster in the censuses. For me, the connotations of Spinster are old, washed out, unmarried, without children, unloved women but no, not this  woman, her face shines in every photograph.  How can we speak to another through the lapse of time and loss of connections?  How I would love to talk with her, listen to her, knit with her, learn from her, walk Ralph with her but maybe there was no dog walking then – maybe the  dog just pottered around the  croft.   I worried about Susan and how she made a living – but there was no need of that.  I cleared that worry.

To sense one’s surroundings within and around us, to live connected to self and surroundings is an art that grows, is nurtured, is cultivated.  It takes a calm heart to fully listen to one’s own surroundings. How fully we perceive and  inhabit  our worlds and our ability to respond creatively to what we find depends on us being fully present.   Our sense of being alive in each moment depends on our capacity to play and imagine as well as sit or touch or listen or feel or taste. If we meet events with flexibility, curiosity, wonder and passion then we inhabit not only the world but ourselves.  It could even be when eating that cake, with a view of the sea, and really tasting that cake and really seeing the  sea.  Or it could be in the darkened archives reading Registers of Sasines, Valuation rolls and censuses as I have – we fall fully into that  recorded world.  But, of course, this can only be truly achieved when we have had the car mended, ordered the shower tray from afar, contacted 6 different people and organisations  to arrange for beds to be picked up from afar by Shetland transport and all the  other never ending daily practical requirements of modern life.  And then there are the emotional needs – what of those?

But, I wonder, If I did not have these ordinary things that tie me to the daily jobs, would my special thinking, living, breathing time all merge into one and be less precious? I had hoped that my live would merge and that my creative practice and life would have no boundaries.  Maybe Susan’s was a boundaryless life.  

It is through my writing that I find myself, reflect, understand some of the things that I am going through. This  is when I inhabit my world fully.  This is where my authenticity lies. To get to this point can often be slow.  I start with a thought and the words follow.  It takes time. The right time and a meeting  of mind and openness.

An unfolding image.

If you would like to read my monthly updates on my findings in the Archives regarding the family that lived in this house for 3 generations from 1838 to 1960, then these writings are on my Patreon site.   https://www.patreon.com/traceydoxey

I am also writing a booklet on Susan and me living in this house 140 years apart.  There will also be a knitting pattern. follow this on instagram @traceydoxey

This project is supported by VACMA from Creative Scotland, Shetland Arts and Shetland Islands Council

I’d love to hear your thoughts

Easter

I have lost all sense of how I feel about this new land of mine in which I inhabit. The night of gales so harsh brought snow blizzards in 53mph winds. It was not a surprise to me but still I was not ready. Every experience is still in my first year. The long, dark, lonely, isolated winter had, I thought, passed but the night of harsh weather brought it all back and I wonder what is my purpose to being here.   I knew at 6pm yesterday that the night hours would be harsh and I began to compare the weather here with the photos of Sheffield in blossom and there is no comparison, no point in looking south because either I embrace the weather here, or it will beat me. This is not an island for blossoms.

I looked out at the sheltering boats in my sight line, knowing they were there because of the roaring North Westerly winds.  I wondered how these men survive out at sea and the oil rig guys and then the poor sheep ready to lamb.  Before daylight vanished yesterday, before the light was anywhere near dark, the snow had been blown into a low sea of ripples coating the road as if a fine sanded beach but the snow was frozen into solid ice.  Ice ripples. It is both magnificent and daunting to see this elemental response to winds, snows, freezing temperatures and exposure to the elements through no shelter. I gathered wood for the fire and shut the door.

In the morning, in the bedroom facing the sea with a chimney full of swirling, angry winds, I have lost all sense of what I feel. Remnants of the long winter are still within me, in my bones and memory. The Easter blizzards have brought back a reminder of an isolated feeling.

At 5am, the sun will not show a hint of light, whereas during the week running up to this storm, the sunlight glowed at the same time. I imagined the sun wrestling in the sky with winds, snows and clouds so ferocious that all it could do was wait for a gap, wait for the elements to die down so it might shine.   The forecast gives no respite for 2 days.  It feels as though we are plunged back in to winter except that we have more day light hours. It is lighter.  The cats want to go out but Alfie is terrified of these winds but he can wait no longer.   I stand at the door shaking to my bones whilst he goes for a pee under the poor Christmas tree.  I think it is his doing that has made the tree lose needles. Tiggy thinks twice about the whole idea of going out but finally has to. They shoot back in the  house, brushing my legs with their bodies.

I  leave the outside porch light on to let the boats know that we are here on the  land, whilst remembering the story I was told last week of  the winter storm where a ship hit the rocks at the south end of Levenwick. Eleven men scrambled off the sinking ship on to the rocks, in to the sea and up the cliff.  It was pitch dark but in the  darkness, they saw a light in a small house which they made towards and were taken in.  If they had not seen the light, they would have perished outside, wet, in a freezing storm at night.  The rest of the crew were lost at sea and only the Captain and his sea chest were washed ashore.   Years later, the cabin boy, who survived, returned, as a skipper of his own boat, to the house where they were taken in.  He sat upon the cliff and cried at his memory – then he sailed the boat that he was skippering to  the place of the wreck, stayed a moment then sailed on.   This is a land of survival.  The cats and I are adjusting, learning, swimming, treading water as we only can.  City bodies on an island. 

It is way past the time of sunrise – the sky is still midnight blue, the sea as if ink. What will the day bring – I will have to go and dig out the coal, bring in the peats, light the fire and be grateful for this opportunity to live in this environment but even so, I am aware that this is the harshest of gales that the cats and I have been here for and feel that instead of looking at the harsh extremes, I begin to  actually see the extreme beauty where nothing is missed and  I am aware of everything.  

Living a real life, missing no details.