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

I’d love to hear your thoughts

Blue Winter

10.01.2021 08:21am

Blue light

This weekend has been all about a northern Winter, blue light, snowfall, walking to the top of the hill, and scraping the ceiling.

Two of us have had an attempt at sanding paint off the ceiling now.  I bought a fairly expensive belt sander and duly plugged it in and hit the ceiling with it. Holding 3kg up above your head whilst wearing goggles and a face mask, standing on a chair, is testing to say the least.  It didn’t work.  So I started scraping the paint with a ‘magic scraper’ but it wasn’t magic at all, then Nitromorsing, then I paid a man to have a go at sanding and in one hour the entire room was filled with paint flakes and dust but there was nothing in the dust bag and some areas were sanded but more paint was still left on the ceiling and it was all looking very intact with 50 years of rippled paint beaming down at me. He said it couldn’t be done and to go over it with another ceiling. I thought about it.   I poked and wiped a little area clean on the glass in the window so that I could see out, heart slightly sinking at the magnitude of it all – then shut the door for two days. 

Saturday, I returned to the ceiling with fresh vigour, armed with new paint stripper and optimistic hope.  Somehow, I had forgotten the midweek sinking feeling.  Two hours later, there is little effect on the paint from the paint stripper and scraping so I pick up the sander again.  Whilst sanding above my head, I can feel my stomach muscles tightening to hold the weight of it all and to balance – maybe this hideous act of restoration can be exercise too.   Saturday tea time, I close the bedroom door and shower off the dust.

Sunday, I wake to more fresh snow and decide to ignore the bedroom ceiling until I have walked to the top of the hill which overlooks both Levenwick on the East and St Ninian’s Isle on the West side of Shetland.  On passing Jimmy’s, I catch him feeding the birds and mention that I’m walking to the top of the hill and the abandoned mast – just in case I never return and I’m either in a blizzard or lost or slipped or dead – I’m on the hill, right?  I’ll call in on the way home to let him know I survived.  Living alone risk assessment –  it’s a good idea to tell someone where you are going when it’s remote and there’s bad weather.  In my bag I packed a little back up 1. a newly recharged domed torch that sticks to the fridge and can flash.  I figure this is a good idea in cases I need to flag down a helicopter.  2. a foil blanket in case I get caught out and need to hide under something. 3. a flask of tea.   No money and no chocolate.  

I’ve not left the village before the first blizzard of sharp harsh hailstones, bigger than pepper corns, lashes across the land from the West.   I take shelter against a wall in an old, roofless shearing shed.

Even I think it’s a stupid idea and I know Jimmy will be looking out of his window wondering where I am.  After ten minutes, there’s a seasonal change from harsh winter blizzard with hail to calmness and a speck of blue sky so I set off again.  The blue light is reflected on the new snowfall, which reflects back a whiteness.  Pink edged, dark grey filled clouds begin to surround me, there is a faint sound of wind but it is positively calm compared to 5 minutes ago. Out to sea, a snow storm rages.  I can see it pouring, sieve like in vertical strands connecting cloud to sea.  I’ve begun to watch the shape and colour of the cloud formation indicating the weather in that particular spot.

Only two sets of foot prints have been before me – one of human and the other of a large dog. The pink frills edging the clouds become peach then fiery gold – the sun, suspended in the moment, is hiding somewhere behind the snow clouds colouring the cloud edges burning them into a golden light. Whilst writing, the paper page turns pink from the reflection of the clouds many, many miles away.

I am the only living human on this great hill –  I know this for sure because there are no other footprints. Sheep follow alongside. Abandoned snow topped peat banks to my right marking what would have once been a busy place. To the north, the sky is one sheet of orange/ grey, as if fire smoke and to the South, dark rolling fog coming towards me.  It is magical to see the earth’s weather system for miles in both directions – doing different things. The southern weather becomes quite frightening to watch – as if a harsh storm is rolling uncontrollably covering everything in its path.  On the hill, I’m hoping for a view of St. Ninian’s Isle but the likelihood is becoming slim.  I now begin to look for possible shelter – not even a building but a wall.

The ice on the road is frozen like the waves of a sea. Frozen ripples with small snow drifts at either side. The light is blue – not the sky, but the light itself. The ice is too slippery so I walk in the snow alongside.

Slowly, slowly, not entirely walking but meandering, Bowie on a loop in my head, I reach my goal of the abandoned telegraph masts at the top of the hill with 360 degree view at exactly the same time new hail as sharp as nail points stab my face.  The wind howls and whistles around the masts. Briefly,  I look over the edge of the cliff to St, Ninian’s way down below – a perfect natural tombolo beach visible from above.

I turn, to face away from the instant hail storm then start the return journey.  It’s easier going back downhill. 

Bleak blue light

Coldness on my back from the chasing wind.   The sea, way below, ahead of me is now a deep Navy Blue.  The storm sky has coloured it.  At ground level, snow falls gently, sheltered by the hill and for now, the wind has subsided. 

Back to the sander and dust storm.

A Shetland sunrise

6:25am. A calm, slightly damp, silent, start of a day, with a waft of wind around my bare legs.

The one star left, after the star-studded sky has evaporated, is high and to my right – it may be a planet, I need to learn. Last night, at 3am, the Plough, ploughing amongst a sky of stars, I, noticing its different position to that when I was in Sheffield.

sunrise reflected in the window


Here, 60 degrees north, the tilt of my view is different, sharper, present.  On opening the door, in dressing gown, slippers and down coat, I’m greeted by a peachy ribbon hugging the sea top and sky bottom, falling temporarily in its homemade fold in the Earth’s atmosphere.  Since moving here, it has been my greatest pleasure to be greeted by a line of colour dividing earth from sea – this is on lucky weather days.  Some days, there is no differentiation between either.  Almost seven weeks since I arrived and my first waking moment has never changed.  I look out to sea, to the horizon, in search of a sunrise. 

I have renamed the bench a Thinking Bench, rather than a Procrastination Bench.  I procrastinated in that quiet garden in Sheffield, here, I view the changing light, devouring its fleeting moments. 

This place is not an easy place to live but I am alive by its weather challenges and gift of light because it is becoming briefer at this point of the world.   Nothing is missed, nothing taken for granted, nothing is sure – the changing light is a gift. 

The door is open.  Shetland

If you are interested in visiting this part of the island – bookings are open from spring time for single traveling, exploring ladies who want to experience this part of the world in a safe, unique house by the sea. Air B&B offer 20% off for the first 3 bookers. https://airbnb.com/h/levenwick

Hope and Memory have one daughter and her name is Art …

W.B. Yeats – Preface to Celtic Twilight, 1893

At times, I am an artist who has, on occasion, created small, site-specific worlds in abandoned croft houses across Shetland as a response to the researched details in the realities of stories which I seek, hear, see and experience.  My art is a respectful conversation with the women who used to live in those beautiful places. I have an instinctive autoethnographic response in writing, site-specific films and photographs by using textiles, hand block prints and words. If I make art, this is currently my artistic practice, evolved from years of embedding myself within other cultures and places including Shetland and China.  

When, as a mature student at art school, a wise man who lived a stone’s throw from my house (once a Provost of Derby Cathedral then a retiring Vicar on the Chatsworth Estate), said to me, ‘I read widely, if somewhat cursorily,’1  I was reading Winterson and he,  Dostoevsky. On that comment, we swapped books, I went home and looked up the word cursorily in the dictionary and began my love of existential works – he read a modern ground-breaking 90’s book on sexual Identity and love; this was some time in 1996, he in his 80’s, me just turned 30. 

Exuding wisdom, not always in what he said, but how he thought and mostly his ever open, learning mind was a turning point in my life and our conversations became somewhat magnetic for me.    

Every now and again, this man, now long dead, returns to me either in the form of a found note, the gift of a book, a photograph, or lead chandelier crystals.  As he handed over the large prism crystals and cut nuggets that were once part of something larger but now lingering in an old shoe box in his shed, he said, ‘Tracey, never sell these, I had them during my grandiose period.’2  I, who don’t even remember what I did on Saturday, remember these words and both moments as if he had just spoken whilst sitting next to me on this bench in Sheffield.  Words that have shaped every year of my life since spoken.

But he didn’t speak to me here, his memory does.   I have hung those crystals in windows of every place I have ever lived in the 25 years since the he said that line, including in the old hutongs of Beijing and Suzhou.  He is not my story – I can tell you another.

In 2008, after 3 months of living in China, I found out that my partner was cheating on me whilst I was working full-time.  At first, I fell down, felt my heart damaged, tightened and fractured but after telling my Chinese friend, a Buddhist barber who lived in a one roomed house in the old hutongs of Suzhou for 50 years, he sat down and in front of me, wrote me a note in full Mandarin which I had translated at work.   He wrote, ‘There’s an old saying in China and Buddhists say it too. Falling down is not terrible. The terrible thing is that you don’t stand up in time.  You should stand up and brush off the dust and go on walking proudly as you used to do’.3 He also told me to let it go. 

5 years after this conversation, I travelled over 3,000 miles to meet him on an ancient bridge in the old hutong lanes of Suzhou.  He didn’t know that I was revisiting China, there was no way of contacting him, he hadn’t seen me in 5 years, he was walking with his head down, he raised his head, raised his arm in greeting and his eyes spoke.

Now, I think of the strange impossibility of both men meeting and talking together. I don’t know if they would meet in the heat of China or the well-heeled sitting room of a Chatsworth vicarage but what deeply moving stories they would have recalled for each other.  Wise, Christian, Mr Beddoes, beady hawk-eyes twinkling at the sheer marvelousness of the opportunity to speak with the ever deeply calm Cai Gen Lin, his Buddhist chanting songs playing in the background of his one roomed house, 24 hours a day –  both religious men responding to the other with great respect, without speaking each other’s spoken language but speaking through their understanding, eyes, hands, gestures and intrinsic visible knowledge.  Their stories flowing – neither could ever imagine – such worlds, religions, lifestyles and cultures so far apart both in distance and lifestyles from their own –  that only words could bring them close enough to feel those distant worlds. Imagine THAT story – I am their link.  I suppose, in a way, I am their story.

Yet, I have sat in silence with Cai Gen Lin and felt and known his worlds in China as I sat with Mr Beddoes in the scullery drinking warmed up old coffee on the stove hiding from people knocking at the door.

And then there are the stories of Shetland from my repeated visits between 2015/19 to listen to the oral histories of the old knitters and found that they mostly did not want to share their stories because they thought that I would steal them and their knitting patterns which, during my R&D trip in 2018, raised the question of, ‘Who owns words once they are said?’

I have so many stories inside of me – so many seen and understood lives.

I want to create the daughter of Hope and Memory – Art- but this may now be through words and not images.

Notes:

  1. The Very Reverend Ronald Beddoes, circa 1995 in the old vicarage, Edensor Village, Chatsworth Estate. b. 1912 d. 2000
  2. The Very Reverend Ronald Beddoes, circa 1995 in the old vicarage garden shed, Edensor Village, Chatsworth Estate. b. 1912 d. 2000
  3. Cai Gen Lin, The Old lane by the bridge off Ping Jiang Lu, Suzhou, China, March 30th 2009 b. 1945, the 2nd child of 9, when China was still in Civil War.