This week’s ‘big thing’ is the night sky. Stargazing. Is there anything in the world more awe-inspiring? Or more likely to make you feel very small indeed, our tiny life but a blink of an eye as the galaxies roll ever on.
Where was I? Oh yes, stars. Leaning back and trying (and failing) to find constellations is to blink profusely at the mind-boggling bigness of the universe. Are those tiny pricks of light really trillions of miles away? What’s a light year? And why do we use a term of time to describe distance anyway? The two sides of my academic life collide on such occasions as the artist in me starts to quote poetry and the scientist (the shy, nervous one) frowns and gets all perplexed.
At the turn of the new millennium (who remembers the fraught Y2K anxieties?) I stood in the middle of a field in the middle of Ireland with a group of people I barely knew and stared up at the sky. To our happy surprise the Milky Way was shining in a fluffy arc, decorating the darkness with sci-fi twinkles. Orion shone his sword, the Plough stood firm and Cassiopeia zig-zigged nicely. It was gorgeous. Just for a moment I was rootless and felt free.
Fast forward twenty-odd years and I’m in another field, a forest in fact, with best mates on an Autumn camping trip. We’re wrapped up in blankets and holding onto flasks of hot whiskey, leaning ever backwards to stare into the sky. Much consternation ensues regarding planets vs stars and time vs distance. We point and frown and come to some alarmingly unscientific conclusions (whiskey is helping). And then, just as we’re sighing with the majesty of it all, a visitor tip toes towards us and we all hold our breath. It’s a pine marten. His big round nose nudges a tin mug and he sleeks on past, sanguine. A wild animal, still very rare in Ireland, had joined our nature appreciation session. The perfect reminder to look up and look down at all the beauty around us.
So even though pesky clouds tend to get in the way of stargazing (invariably the exact moment a meteor shower is predicted) they are up there still. Macbeth may have asked them to ‘hide their fires’ but I hope they don’t listen. If memory serves he’s not the best life guide anyway.
If this month’s focus from the shed is on all things big then I can’t ignore something HUGE that’s been following me around all my life. It sits by my bed, fills my head, and threatens to topple every shelf in my house. You’ve guessed it. It’s my ‘to be read’ pile.
I never catch up on all the reading I want to do. And when I drift from secondhand shop to library to indie stores, filling my arms with books, I tell myself that buying and borrowing them is kind of the same as reading them. Isn’t it?
Later I’ll get a cup of tea and sit down to look at the pile and smile. I feel well-read and interesting. Erudite, even. But if someone questions me on their contents I fumble an answer (think Father Ted’s confident reply that he preferred the ‘crime’ section of ‘Crime and Punishment’).
I’m not alone, there’s even a word for the phenomenon. Tsundoku (Japanese: 積ん読) is ‘the art of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them’. There’s something quintessentially alluring about new books: the smell, the cover, the blurb, the very heft in your hands. All that knowledge still to be acquired, or the exciting plot to lose yourself in.
The thing is, I don’t plan to shake the habit. Clutter you say? Away with you. I’ll accrue more and more, no doubt, until I’m fairly drowning in pages. Words are my friend, it’s that simple. And who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by their friends all the time? Especially quiet ones who sit tight until you pick them up to go on a journey together.
When was the last time you felt goosebumps when you looked at something? Or were rendered speechless in the presence of something bigger than yourself?
I don’t think we have enough awe in our lives – those moments when the world seems to fall away and time stops. Routines and tasks take our attention until days merge and barely delineate. And it’s been especially hard during lockdowns to get out into nature or visit churches and museums. But seeking out moments, however tiny, can shift our focus just enough to allow our hearts to open. Our brains and bodies appreciate the chance to look up and out, bringing a sense of smallness that stares wide-eyed at something, be it a church spire, a tall tree or even a skyscraper.
During the Bennetts’ Big Trip I had incredible moments like this: sunbeams glinting through stained glass in a German church; Norwegian glaciers that filled lakes with mint-green water; the soaring towers of cathedrals in Spain and France; the frescoed ceilings all over Italy. And most of all, a shared moment with a wild goshawk at the top of a mountain in Norway – her flecked breast and yellow talons and astonishing glare as we stared at each other, both perhaps unsure what to do next. She flew away soundlessly and I simply started to cry.
This sense of being small is what does it. Astronauts speak about how it feels to stare down at the planet, new parents sense it when their baby clasps their finger for the first time. Moments of transcendence at a concert, in church, on a mountain, by the sea, can all nudge their way into our hearts and bring blessing.
Awe can come when you least expect it but we can also seek it out. Those ‘wow’ moments are out there waiting to be found. I’m open to them. Are you?
July has happened. The shed focus on all things small took place in blazing sunshine, interspersed with the odd barbecue and lazy afternoon. Now August has arrived with a bang (I’m sheltering in the shed as thunder booms overhead and rain drips down the window). Happy Summer everyone!
So July was small but August will be BIG. I’m stepping back slightly so that I can see things from afar. Perspective is everything after all.
These days my big thing is that I’ve started a new job (an actual job, with a salary and everything, crikey). It’s part time but, inevitably, still takes up a lot of head space and life space. I’m currently doing online training and induction with a lovely team at The Reader (have a look here – aren’t they brilliant?) where I’ll be working with young people in criminal justice settings. My Twitter bio did a fantastic job of magicking up these two roles of writer and reader. I’m now officially both. The two hats sit atop my head in jaunty fashion and are happy enough together.
I took a leap for them both: I never allowed myself to write (just a wee hobby surely?) and I never thought I could do such a challenging job. It’s a big leap into the unknown which feels both exciting and terrifying. Do something every day that scares you, apparently (okay, but can I just finish this cup of tea first?)
So Shedwriting’s big things include: a new job, a new agent, a long travel memoir manuscript going through an edit (deleting stuff is ouch), a non-fiction book proposal with a huge pile of unread research material, a big trip year out that is still my biggest thing for all sorts of reasons, big skies and trees, big fears and worries, and last but by no means least - big dreams.
What’s your version of a big thing lately? Step back a bit and see how it looks from afar – it might not be so big after all. And if it is, you know the drill – baby steps, loving support and deep breaths.