~ Thoughts by a lake ~

Squamlake500

There are two moments that stand out for me from my time at the Squam Art Workshops, and for both of them I was alone. I discovered very quickly that you have to find your own rhythm when you attend a retreat of this sort; it's very easy to turn up at your cabin with a suitcase full of expectations, and it's definitely best to leave them on the plane. I was surrounded by friends I already knew, bloggers i felt i knew and could finally hug in person and people i had yet to befriend. One of my biggest thrills was getting to meet some Unravellers in the flesh – it's wonderful getting feedback in an email, but sitting down and discussing their experience of the course over breakfast completely knocked my socks off.

Cabin_chair500

After a few days filled with people and hugs (and a LOT of coughing – I wasn't able to shake off the cold, and spent the entire week sounding like Kathleen Turner meets Marge Simpson) i found myself alone on Friday afternoon. It had started to rain and i wasn't sure the clouds would clear – Friday was my designated day to take photos of the lake – but as i toyed with the idea of lighting a fire in the cabin, the sun suddenly came out (as captured above) so i grabbed my cameras and ran outside. People-hugging aside, this trip away has, surprise surprise, been all about the Polaroids for me. I've had moments, in both Montreal and by Squam Lake, when i thought my head would explode, there was so much new stuff to see and shoot. My camera and I were bonded at the wrist, and I discovered that Polaroid portraits are my new obsession. That afternoon, as i walked along the twisting path by the lake, i tried to capture the scene…. the changing leaves… the stillness. Sitting on a rock at the edge of the water, i flipped through my polas, as you do when the sun is on your face and you can only hear the leaves rustling. And it was at that exact moment the wind raised its head and whipped one of my Polaroids in the air, flipping it out onto the lake. I let out a very ineffectual and croaky 'noooo!' as i watched my Polaroid float away. For a split-second i wondered whether i should wade out and get it, but the water was cold, and i was ill, and as ridiculous as it sounds now, i honestly had to say to myself with a soupcon of irony you've just got to let it go. So i stood on the rock, and watched my photograph bob along the water, getting smaller and smaller. And it was then that, out of nowhere, a man in a green canoe came paddling around the rocks.
'Is that your photo?' he shouted.
"Yes!" i shrieked back.
This magical being of the lake paddled over, scooped my Polaroid out of the water, and paddled back to me on the shore, the sun glistening on his tanned muscled forearms, a dashing twinkle in his eye. Oh okay, it wasn't really an Eat Pray Love ending – he was actually a rather portly gentleman named John who was holidaying by the lake with his family. We spent a good half an hour chatting about life – turns out he'd spent a few years in London in his twenties and that was when i saw the twinkle in his eye. As I walked to the dining hall later that evening i kept marvelling at the saved Polaroid. I mean, what are the odds?

Saved_pola500[the saved Polaroid]

My other Squam moment happened later that night. I'd spent the evening with friends talking about work and life, sat by a crackling fire in what was affectionately dubbed the 'party cabin'. When i got back to my own cabin i discovered Jeanine had lit a fire before going to bed, so i entered the warmth and sent her some extremely thankful vibes through the wall. Earlier she'd been telling me about the previous night's skinny dipping and wine by the lake – Canadians are apparently very hardy! – and while i knew there was no way i'd be getting in to the water (are you sensing a theme here?) i knew i had to be out there, so i wrapped up extra warm and trundled out to the dock with my torch and tissues.

I felt a thrill being out alone in the darkness; it was a perfectly clear night, and i lay back on the wooden jetty, staring straight up at the stars. I didn't feel the cold, I didn't need to cough, i just lay there: looking, thinking, wondering, planning. I whispered a few words to the universe, and before I closed my eyes I saw a shooting star. People, i'm not making this up. It happened; it was magical. After half an hour of communing with the stars I took my tired self indoors and sat by the fire for a while before going to bed. i felt full. i felt content. It was a really good feeling.

i remember reading the post-Squam blog posts last year and feeling a mix of envy and curiosity. And i'm here to say that, yes, it really is that good of a time. But there was no levitating over the lake (i tried – it didn't happen ;) and while friendships are made and renewed, it really was mostly about reconnecting with yourself and your creative dreams, and sitting under the shade of the trees, and having some much-needed fun. Lots of smiles. No stress. The perfect way to spend four days. Elizabeth has created a special place we can visit, and i hope it grows and expands as the years pass. There is room for all of us.

I'll be there again next year for sure, so if you are too, can i take a Polaroid of you?

Wine500

Comments (34)

~ Being visible ~

Weeds_sky
Something really unexpected happened yesterday. Abby and I were in town; we'd had lunch out and were perusing the high street, drawn to shops with air conditioning (it was insanely hot yesterday). As we were nearing home time and starting to flag, we popped into one last shop for a last-minute present, and to try on a few of the dresses that were on sale. We were helped by a lovely young woman, who was wearing the most fabulous top (from here; i asked her). On our way out we paid, did our usual sister-comedy routine at the till when we realised we'd forgotten wrapping paper and a card, so doubled back, chose some, and paid again (are you keeping up?)

It was when we were about to leave that the lovely woman in the fabulous top looked at me and tentatively asked: 'Is your name Susannah?'

'Yes it is,' I said, feeling my face flush a little.

'I read your blog,' she said.

Friends, this has never happened before! I was two parts embarrassed to one part thrilled. It was humbling and weird and lovely, all at once, and completely made my day. We chatted for a bit before Abby and I made our exit, and when I got home i mused on how my word for the year  – visible – has now officially been achieved. Paula, I'm so glad you said hello!

* * * * *

In other news, I've been rather visible on the internet over the last week or so – i know, i know, it's an addiction. You can find me chatting about the creative life over on Create Well… Create Often, and I'm moaning talking about my rainy summer in a guest post for the lovely Stephanie Levy. And if that's not enough, you'll find my final Super 16 column for Paper n Stitch here

Happy Wednesday! and ps. i have a Creative Life interview to share with you tomorrow that i am really excited about……

E-courses & originality

[self portrait from 1995, aged 22]

Yesterday it was brought to my attention that someone had launched an e-course that not only had the same flavour as my own but the course plan was almost identical and, most bizarrely, the website was pretty much a carbon copy of my Unravelling page. After emailing with this person I’m happy to report that the matter has been completely resolved, the site has been taken down and i received a very sincere apology. I don’t feel i need to speak any more about this, but it got me thinking about originality and how we find our own voice.

It took me a very long time to find mine and it is still a work in progress as the things i want to say with that voice, and the things that i know, change and evolve as every year passes. The most wounding accusation you could ever level at me would be that i wasn’t original, that I was copying someone else. As babies we learn to speak by imitating the sounds our parents make and even into adulthood we learn by imitation. And we are all inspired by others; the internet gives us access to such a wealth of information and heck, isn’t there always someone else whose idea is the Best Thing Ever and you wish you’d thought of it? But here’s the thing: as you try to find your feet as a creative person it’s natural that you’ll find artists you’re particularly intrigued by and will set about analysing and imitating, whether you realise you are doing it or not. Same with blogging or writing or making music – we gravitate towards our teachers, the people whose art and/or success we wish to emulate. But the aim must be to take this inspiration in a new direction, not use the same outline and fill it in with different colours – the shape is still the same.

As recently as October 2007 I found myself sitting in Christine Mason Miller’s studio in LA, collaging paper and paint alongside the artist who’d been an inspiration to me. As an illustration of what a diamond friend she is, Christine didn’t point out that my creations looked remarkably like hers; instead, she showed me how to apply the paint. At the time i was struggling with my path and playing with mixed-media was a great way to stretch my creative muscles in another direction; however, I would never have dreamed of trying to sell work like my friend’s. Apart from humbly knowing that she is a much more talented artist when it comes to paper and paint, I so ardently want to give the world my OWN vision…My own pictures… My own words. I’ve been striving to do this from an early age.

The photo above is me in 1995, a fledgling photographer at art college, trying to figure out not only what I had to say, but who I was. Most of my self-portraits from age 20 – 24 were naked; I reasoned that my skin was surely the real me, because when I put my clothes back on, I was trying to look like someone else. There was an older girl I admired at college and I spent a lot of time trying to dress like her, reasoning it was my new look. She fascinated me and I wanted to be like her. If blogs had been around back then I would have hung on her every word; I was working out what it meant to be me by trying on another skin first.

[My new dress ~ very me circa 2009]

Fast forward to London, 1998; I’m doing my journalism degree and had the incredible good fortune to get two weeks’ work experience at the Independent on Sunday newspaper. Journalist Annalisa Barbieri took me under her wing and seeing my eagerness, and recognising my writing ability, gave me several articles to write before offering me a weekly fashion column. You can imagine how ecstatic I was! At the time Annalisa had just had her first book published, and she gave me a copy with the following inscription inside the front cover:

‘Carissima Sue, le parole belle si fanno piano piano. Bacioni, Annalisa. Nov 98’

Roughly translated she told me that ‘beautiful words are made slowly, slowly’ – it takes time to find your voice. Be patient.  Let the words develop. At the time i was impatient to have a book published, be a successful journalist and live the life I’d dreamed of. Now I understand the wisdom of letting time pass, of letting your voice mature. Eleven years later, and I think I have finally found my voice.

There’s nothing new about creating an e-course, or a self-awareness course, or, for that matter, a photography course. It’s been done before and it will be done again. But Unravelling is my voice, my heart, on a page. I’m offering my course to the world to share what I know, and what I have learned from four years of grief, therapy, healing, photographing, writing and being patient as the words matured inside me. I share as much as I can on my blog, in my photographs and in my teaching, and I do it to help, to inspire and also, because I am a single person who is proud to look after herself, I do it to pay my rent and bills. So if what I do inspires you that is truly fantastic – but please share your own unique voice with the world, not a differently-coloured version of mine. Deal?

For more wise words, please go read Meg’s excellent post on authenticity, over here.

~ Brit bloggers unite ~

Emma_dress500[Emma and her beautiful dress]

I do some of my best brain-storming in Starbucks, iPod plugged in, caffeine on a drip and notebook in hand. The iPod not only focusses my mind but also drowns out the cackles and hollers from the teenage girls that sit in packs on the sofas, slurping their frappucinos and hot chocolates. However, if you'd have visted Starbucks yesterday you would have witnessed six thirty-something bloggers sitting in a circle doing a fair amount of cackling and hollering themselves.

Of course, we sounded like a bunch of geeks, talking about stats and comments and Squam; about who knows who, with their strange code names like Dooce and Swirly [sidenote: obviously none of us know Dooce personally]. Sloping away from Jamie's and his impossible waiting times we retired to Wagamama for noodles and green tea; more coffee came later, and a pit stop by the weir for the all-important photoshoot:

Bathgirlies500[Bath babes: Jo, Emma and Penny, Leonie and Megg]

Thank you for a wonderful day, ladies – I'll see you all very soon!