The Chinese Armoury Shop

When I started this blog five years ago, the intention had always been to make it about photography: this was my passion and my way of sharing my ideas and my images with the WordPress community; getting my stuff ‘out there’ if you will.

But things change, and I have come to realise recently that the reason I have lost enthusiasm for blogging in recent months, years even, is because I have lost my connection.

Let me explain…

Just over two years ago I embarked on a journey to become a teacher. It seemed like a good idea at the time. And it was, for the most part; now that I am nearly out the other end I can see that it was good for me. But the problem was that it nearly submerged me completely: it was a dark, long, lonely tunnel which I inhabited for a very long time. Too long. I lost my connection to the things I love: nature, photography, even my friends and family. So I couldn’t blog, even though I did try sometimes, it didn’t come from the heart anymore.

But, there was one connection that I did manage to re-establish in that time. As a fledgling English teacher I found myself re-engaging in books, reading and writing; in words. I had forgotten how much I loved words and how much I loved writing. I revelled in words with my students as I taught them to write: vocabulary, punctuation, syntax, grammar, reading analysis. I loved it all! (That was the easy part!). When I was a child all I ever wanted to be was a writer; I wrote stories and poems and I read voraciously. I look back on my early childhood now as a kind of extended daydream: I was happy in my own way, in my shell. But I had to grow up, and growing up was hard and it brought challenges and conflicts which I wasn’t prepared to deal with. Along the way somehow I forgot about the writing; or maybe it just seemed like another one of my silly daydreams: childish and indulgent.

So whilst I have dealt with the challenges of teaching and life over the past two years and the dark road it took me down, I have started to read again, and I have started to write. It has kept me going and it kept me from going under completely.

And here I am. I find myself needing to blog again. To re-connect. But with words and not with pictures.

I don’t even know if any one of those 962 followers is still out there? But maybe it doesn’t matter, for now.

Here is a story I have written this week. I will publish it in three parts because it is too long for one post. It was written quickly. It pretty much wrote itself. Actually I didn’t set out to write it at all, it just happened. It is based on my experiences with depression and anxiety and learning, with help, to find a way through the mire. To find hope. The person who has helped me will probably never know how much he has helped me but I have tried to express my experiences and my emotions going through all of this in a way which makes sense to me. It is immensely personal but also entirely allegorical so I hope that makes it more readable and relatable. It’s also a bit silly. Ultimately it is an uplifting story of gratitude, written by someone who has found strength, courage and above all lightness.

Thank you.

And if you take the time to read it and comment, or even just read it, then thank you.

I have never posted a blog without a picture before. It feels somehow naked. I feel nervous. I hope the words will stand up on their own.

Emilyx

The Chinese Armoury Shop: part 1

… have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. – Rainer Maria Rilke

The wound is where the light enters you. – Rumi

 

I was broken.

‘I need to fix myself,’ I decided: ‘I can do this!’

I put in an order for a suit of armour; the kind that warriors or super-heroes might wear. I selected my armour carefully, although I didn’t have much money so it wasn’t all fancy with leather buckles and rivets; nor was it shiny high-polished steel. It wasn’t lightweight, or futuristic, and there was no cape or emblem emblazoned across my chest. It was simple. The most basic model I could afford. I made sure it was good and strong and heavy so that it would hold all the broken pieces in tight and protect my limping heart. I tried it on. It was awkward: a bit stiff and wobbly, but it felt like a kind of wholeness. Its snug weight was comforting, like a blanket.

It defended me well. I found I could walk around where I pleased and I was fully protected from harm.

I was invincible!

I was pleased, and so I kept it.

I was quite young when I put it on, this armour. I discovered though, with some delight, that it grew with me as I grew, so I didn’t have to keep on ordering new suits. It was always there for me, like a warm hug from an old friend.

In time though, it became heavy and cumbersome (it started to weigh like an anvil on my shoulders); it was also chunky and unwieldy (it restricted me and blocked out the light); it was even too strong at times (it deflected everything in its path); and because I couldn’t feel in the same way, because I was weighed down, in a place of darkness, surrounded by this lumbering husk, I didn’t know that sometimes it was so strong it wounded other people too. (It was invisible as well as invincible, you see, but I think maybe you guessed that already).

But it was warm and cosy; a place of refuge. It made me feel safe. And so I kept it.

Some people tried to penetrate the armour or make me take it off. I became angry with them and they saw my anger and my pain and my sadness written in my face and they were scared, so they ran away. They didn’t ask again.

Others didn’t know any differently. They shrugged their shoulders and just accepted the brittle casement as a part of me: a little dash of eccentricity, perhaps.

So, over time, the armour became quite useless, because the war I had waged was over. It had been over for the longest time.

I was alone.

But by then it was too late. I couldn’t remember how to take it off even if I wanted to. It was stuck fast, moulded to my body.

I tried everything I could think of: I tugged at it and tried to rip it off; I chipped away with a chisel; I beat it with my bare hands until they were bruised and bloody. Nothing worked. Eventually, I learned to ignore it and I became quite skilled at pretending it wasn’t there. I thought that if I told myself that it had gone enough times then it would be so. Just like that.

But it didn’t go.

Then one day someone told me that, in the end, you are always on your own. You are born alone; you die alone. And you deal with the pain life deals you alone. When I heard this I felt my armour clench my rib cage like an iron fist, squeezing me tightly.

‘No!’ I said, struggling to breathe as I felt my heart contract, “it can’t be so.”

After that I fought harder against my armour because I could feel it weakening me. My heart was fading. I missed the light. My joints and muscles were constantly aching from the burden of it.

I was tired of being invincible.

One ordinary day, as the rain fell in a curtain of drizzle from a grey sky onto a grey landscape below, I was walking down the street, wearily dragging one foot in front of the other when a small boy approached me, halting me in my path. He appeared so unexpectedly – almost as though he had stepped out of another world – that I stopped immediately. He had wide knowing eyes and a solemn look and looked like an extra from Oliver, with a jaunty flat cap and old-fashioned breeches. He appeared to be lost: he was standing, quite still, on a rather extensive crack which seemed to have just appeared in the grey pavement beneath him. Or at least, I had never noticed it before.

‘Hello. Um, are you lost?’ I said, looking around to see if his parents were nearby.

‘No. But I think you are, miss. ‘ere you go.’ And he held out a small, dog-eared business card to me. ‘Remember: don’t mind the gap.’ he added decisively, with a small curt nod.

Puzzled, I took the card and read the details:

Mr Sharp

Specialist in Traditional Chinese Armoury

No. 3 Curzon Street

‘Curzon Street,’ I wondered aloud and looked up, ‘but I don’t know—’

But the boy had disappeared mysteriously into the sheet of drizzle and I was quite alone again. I put the card in my pocket and shuffled on through the persistent rain.

When I got home, I pinned the card to the noticeboard in the kitchen and continued to puzzle over it. There was no website address, or telephone number.

Curzon Street.

I knew there wasn’t any Curzon street in this town. Even so, I googled it on my phone just to check and found the nearest one was some miles away. Then, I googled ‘Mr Sharp’ and ‘Traditional Chinese Armoury’. Nothing. Just some pictures of samurai swords and costumes which looked like they were straight out of Red Cliff. Nothing to link the three things together. Nothing that made any sense, anyway. I took myself off to bed, feeling suddenly weary.

The next day I came down to breakfast and looked at the card again, giving it a hard stare. I was tired, not having slept well; I’d had strange and vivid dreams about samurai warriors and epic battles all night.

And then I realised.

The crack in the pavement!

Don’t mind the gap,’ he had said. It seemed so obvious now!

And I smiled a broad smile, and laughed. Then I grabbed my coat and rushed outside, feeling suddenly lighter.

Outside the brilliant sun was shining in a bright blue cloudless sky. There was a nip in the air and the mellow must of autumn had begun to make way for the crisp chill of winter. It was the kind of day that pinched your cheeks and made you feel alive. The kind of day I hadn’t noticed in a long time.

I ran down the road to find the spot where I had encountered the small boy and discovered it straight away. The crack was still there.

At this point, I wasn’t really sure what to do. How do these things work? I wondered to myself. Are there magic words I need to whisper? An incantation perhaps? I decided that was a silly idea, so I tried just jumping up and down on the crack, but that did nothing. Then I tried sitting on it and screwing my eyes shut tight and wishing into oblivion. Still nothing. I was starting to get odd stares from passers-by so I stood up and leant against a nearby wall, feeling a bit dejected. I felt for the card in my pocket and pulled it out and looked at it, begging it for answers. Come on! Tell me how to do this! How do I get through the gap?

My frustration whipped up like a sandstorm inside me and I became angry.

‘How can you be so stupid!’ I scolded myself. ‘As if a piece of card is going to talk to me! As if it could give me the answers! As if a crack in the pavement could show me the way!’ And I threw the card down in a fit of rage.

But as it fluttered to the ground, I noticed that there was something written on the back of the card that I hadn’t noticed before. I picked it up and read it:

Live the questions and the answer will find you.

‘Live the questions? But what does that mean?’ At this point, I was getting more and more exasperated. My armour was starting to hurt, like a faint bruising sensation. I thought a bit more, even though it was making my brain and my body ache.

Maybe I could still work this one out.

So, if I live the questions to get to the answer, then by that logic in order to find the answer to all these questions I have to start asking some questions in the first place.

‘But what is the question?’

I asked it out loud. Simply. Bewildered. Confused. Staring at the crack in the pavement. I couldn’t quite believe I was talking to a pavement, and a broken one at that.

Then I waited.

And then, something started to shift.

I felt a low rumbling sensation beneath my feet and a groaning noise as if the earth was yawning; then there was a loud clunking which sounded like large hammer hitting the pavement. I looked around, but no-one else seemed to have noticed a thing. I looked down to see that the crack had indeed opened up. There was a dazzling white light radiating out from it and it was now wide enough to fit a slim adult-sized body (luckily I was fairly slim, even with my armour on).

I didn’t hesitate: I jumped in.

I felt like Alice and I wanted my Adventure in Wonderland to start right at that moment.

I slid through the gap (it was perfect – made to measure) and landed with a bump on a fairly unforgiving ground.

‘Oooof!’

Ok, so no floating daintily down a winsome tunnel of curiosities and landing on a soft bed of leaves for me I guess, I thought as I rubbed my bruised bum.

I looked around, trying to find a point of reference, but it was like midnight down there. The brilliant light had disappeared. Just as I was wondering what to do next, a quiet, gentle voice nuzzled through the void:

‘Are you ok?’

*******

 

 

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to the shore (for my mum)

For those who seek strength at this time of year, Emily x

shore, 2013

She ran down to the seashore because he had told her to run, and she didn’t know where else to go. Her faithful chocolate lab, Chess, galloping at her side, long pink tongue flapping in the wind. It was cold – bitingly cold – so she pulled the hood of her fur-lined anorak tightly around her face, still smarting with indignation. At least she had had the foresight to grab her coat; silly she hadn’t thought to change her shoes, she scolded herself regretfully and rather pointlessly as she felt the wet sand squelch uncomfortably into her flimsy ballet slippers and between her toes. When she got there she didn’t know what to do so she stood and threw stones into the shallow water, watching the ripples expand and disappear. Through her tear-filled eyes the horizon looked pleasantly blurry. In fact, it was as if the whole world was out of focus, at that very moment. She watched the tide wrinkle in and out, gently, rhythmically, for some time. It was something she could rely on. As sure as her breath: in-out, in-out. She turned to look at Chess, whose eager brown eyes were fixed on her as he panted noisily, awaiting instruction it seemed. But she had none to give. Her frenzied gaze steadied, resting on the horizon ahead. As she looked on, she realised at that moment that she didn’t know what was coming next, but whatever it was, it didn’t scare her. Suddenly, decisively, she turned her sodden, sand-caked heels away from the shore and didn’t look back.

This image is available to buy in my artfinder shop.

© image and words by Emily Hughes, 2013 and 2016

 

moonshine

12

Brazen world
overcast with sorrow;
a concrete sky
slinks into a frothy slick
of ashen wilderness
and the moonshines,
quietly.

© image and words by Emily Hughes, 2016

blackberry treats

“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald

I love this quote, and try to remember it every year when the leaves tumble into crunchy piles of a thousands shades of amber. Every new season always feels like an opportunity for renewal, but especially autumn, when the cooling, crisp winds which make us reach for our jumpers and hats breathe a haze of rich, gold-infused light over the heavens. And especially this year. Maybe because it came at the end of a wonderfully long, heady summer, or maybe because I have taken on new challenges and my brain is whirring as it learns new things. Or maybe it is because, as I head into my own autumnal years, I feel more of an affinity with this season which I have previously always approached with a sense of loss and longing, and am finding it can energise me as much as the sprightly newness of spring, or the carefree, lazy days of summer.

The children always love this time of year because for them it signals the start of the season of treats, fun and indulgence which starts around Halloween and peaks with Christmas, of course. They find the chilly days and dark nights exciting in a way which I, as one who worships light, have never really understood before. Even bonfire night usually fails to ignite a spark of excitement. However this year, the quiet, mellow joys of this mature season have infused my heart and pooled into its chambers with a surprising, juicy burst of delight – just like that first taste of freshly plucked sweet-sharp blackberries.

blackberries

yellow leaves

Felix and Flo picking blackberries

blackberry in hand

Felix and Florence on gate

red leaves

Flo eating blackberry

Felix at lake

© images and words by Emily Hughes, 2015

these watery things

My life is going through a lot of changes at the moment. These are changes which I have instigated. Things are shifting. It is exciting, but extremely unsettling, and there are times when I question my motives for stirring up the waters. I question why I am constantly compelled to confront what is real and safe and solid. Sometimes it helps me to express these feelings with my images and sometimes I write words too, which I cannot call as substantial as poetry or prose, but…. well, they are just something.

***

In these moments, when the frayed ends of a tightly wound skein begin to unravel. When the warm, solid earth beneath my feet seems to shift. When I look up, and even the clear blue sky wavers and shimmers, teasing like a mirage in the temperate desert heat. Watery things are playful things; beguiling and dissembling. They steal the light and scatter it joyfully like pebbles, skimming this way and that. Dodging and darting here and there.

Impossible to gather in my arms.

Every time I look, things are different… as if my eyes are shifting. A pair of aqueous orbs.

Every time, it is new.

Don’t confess your secrets to those watery things. They will suck them in greedily and and then spit them out like polished cherry stones.


sometimes I daydream3sometimes I daydream...sometimes I daydream2

 

© images and words by Emily Hughes, 2015

how to make a daisy chain

First off, I’m sorry for the misleading title (it is about daisy chains, but there is no set of instructions I’m afraid). And whilst I’m at it, I would also like to apologise to regular readers especially for the overload of family pictures recently. I hope it’s not all too saccharine for your tastes (but you know I can do acerbic just as well as I can do sweet, I think). It has just struck me with some force, this spring holiday, how they are at such a magical age; on the cusp of knowing, discovering the world – their world – through their own eyes as they are. So many questions and misunderstandings tumbling from their tongues. At once categorically assertive and desperately unsure. I’m painfully aware also, as they bow their heads and giggle about private jokes and shared experiences which are theirs and theirs only, how much I am no longer a part of that; how every troubled thought, or stubbed toe nail no longer requires a kiss and a cuddle and soothing words as they learn to regulate their own emotions. Don’t get me wrong; I’m also glad for this. Very glad, that they are learning to forge the paths of their own world and navigate through thorny issues like fears and friendships. But along with that comes a distance. A gap. Only small just now, and still easily overcome when troubles spill over into tears and I am needed. But it is there in the closed bedroom doors and the occasional quiet withdrawal of hands from mine. In the silences to my many questions about their day. And then there are the rolled eyes, the But mummy, you wouldn’t understand, and Don’t take that tone/attitude with me! altercations which are now part of our daily patter.

But still they want the hugs, and sometimes stories at bedtime. Still they want to laugh and dance, and share silly jokes with us at dinner time, even though I’m embarrassing in front of their friends. So those precious in-between moments – the ones without the sulks and the temper tantrums and the arguments and when I’m not so tired I don’t have the energy (and then I kick myself for missing them) – I just need to reach out and snatch them, every so often, and hold them close by to my heart. I guess the camera is just the way I know how to do that.

So, last week, we were enjoying the beautiful spring weather at their great-grandfather’s house in London. His unkempt garden had a rich crop of fine looking daisys, so my seven year old asked me to help her make a daisy chain, since she didn’t know how. I thought, Oh my goodness I can’t believe you don’t know how? It seems like something every seven year old girl should *just* know how to do. And then I realised, how would she know if no-one showed her? So I did. And we had fun picking the strongest, tallest specimens. I took pictures, and then after a while on her request I put the camera away, and we carried on until the sun got too warm and we went off to find some shade.

There may be some kind of tenuous connection in all of that, between daisy chains, life, family and instructions, or lack of. But it’s a bit hazy. And I’ve never really been one for tying up the lose threads into a perfect bow. I’m happy to leave some questions unanswered, and accept that sometimes problems cannot be neatly solved, like algebra. Life is a bit like hair, really (those of you who are female and/or have daughters will appreciate this) – no matter how hard you try to create the perfect style and tie it up all neatly, after a while some tendrils will always work their way lose. And really, in the end, it doesn’t matter at all.

 

7
4

3

1

2
5

6

 

 

Edited to say: I intended to post this over a month ago, just after the Easter holidays, and somehow it never made it past ‘draft’ version. So apologies for the delay! I’m so jealous of that sunshine now as I type with my thick fleecy socks on, and a hot water bottle in my lap!

© images and words by Emily Hughes, 2015

tell me a story

 

 

mabou

 © Robert Frank, Mabou 1997 – image reproduced at Mutual Art

opening line

Stories are necessary, enchanting, evocative things; but they can also be the means by which our dreams are traduced or defused, defiled or filed away. We learn to read sideways. We learn to read by the light of secret planets and signs.

Excerpt taken from From one state to the next by Ian Penman (included in the forward to Robert Frank, Storylines)

One of the things I love most about blogging is the opportunity it provides to make connections with so many other creative and inspiring people. I remember vividly the excitement of starting this blog four years ago; gaining followers, having people comment on my pictures for the first time, discovering other like-minded bloggers. I posted a series of pictures my husband and I had taken in a house in Italy, and a fellow blogger (writer) asked if he could pen some words to them as a writing prompt, and so an artistic collaboration evolved with Nathan from The Whole Hurly Burly. I was curious to see what he would come up with, and it was indeed a fascinating process seeing your own pictures take on new meaning through somebody else’s eyes. It was good, from my part, to know that a collection of pictures which I had put together had the possibility of narrative, and that they could not only tell a story, but provoke an emotional response, and one which had resonance.

Sometime later I found the courage to instigate another artistic collaboration on a larger scale when I imagined the journey of a photograph project. A humble forgotten photograph has taken on new life, weaving words, stories and memories in its flight around the globe.

I remember the exact moment when I realised that exploring narrative in photography was something not only important but necessary, and that combining words with images was what I wanted to aspire to do in my own photography. It was when I went to see the Storylines exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2004.

Frank is a storyteller; he attempts to convey narrative and sequence in his work employing not just photography but text – sometimes just single words and images, sometimes scratching the words into the surface of the negative – as well as video and film to create a dialogue (although more recently he has focussed exclusively on still photography). His later more experimental autobiographical work (and especially his polaroids and Mabou series from his home in Nova Scotia) for me is extremely powerful; saturated with emotion and complex layers of meaning. Photographs are grouped together haphazardly, peppered with random words sometimes scratched angrily or smudged. Fragments of writing, like diary entries, sometimes typed or handwritten are cut and pasted onto sets of images, creating crude collages which further add to an impression of fear, confusion, but also of profound sadness. There is so much to look at and explore in this work which reads like an expulsion, an exorcism even, of inner torment.

Although his later work never received the critical acclaim of the earlier projects such as The Americans (perhaps because it is less accessible?) I found it very moving. It speaks (to me) and tells the story of a deeply disturbed state of mind. Of a man who is broken.

 
© Robert Frank, Mabou 1987 – image reproduced in Fashion for Writers .
 
I often write little short stories, or poems to go along with my images. I do it because it’s something I enjoy, often as much as making the picture itself, and I think that words have a tremendous power to bring life and meaning to a picture. This picture ‘the feathers’ is one I made a couple of years ago and recently re-worked into this final image. It features a fine pair of pheasant feathers, and is inspired by a sweet little story, when my husband bought home a surprise one snowy winter night. I posted this a while ago on here (some of you may remember). I have edited it very slightly since then.
 

 the feathers colour
 
‘the feathers’, 2014 
 
The Feathers
 
We heard the slam of the car door, then the familiar thud of his footsteps. The door opened. It was dark and cold out, and we could see he had something bulky and unfamiliar hanging from his back. Smiling in the shadows, he dangled his prize in front of our faces. I screamed.
Two dead pheasants.
The boy was amused; the girl less so.
He hung them in the garden shed in the dense, bleak night, and after the snow had begun to fall, and a snowman had been made [two hazelnuts for eyes; a jaunty snow hat, and an elephant for a companion], he began the long, diligent labour of preparing the birds with his strong, adept hands. The snow had created a perfect crisp white work surface for the task. He plucked the feathers (taking care to put aside the two longest, most elegant), then they were gutted and washed, cleaned, and finally – pink, bald and dimpled – ready for the pot.
The girl looked on with growing disgust.
“I’m NOT eating that!” she wailed.
But she kept on watching.
When the day came to cook them she quietly observed him from a distance as he worked. Slouched against the kitchen door frame.
“Want to cook with dada?”
“Okaaaay” she relented (she never could resist).
Later, I went outside. The sky was blank. Bleached white, as if it had been erased. It felt as though I could reach up and touch the clouds, weighty with snow. I found the stray feathers from the birds cocooned in their white blanket, abandoned where they had been strewn a few days before. They were graceful with strong supple whiskers. They were bold and colourful in rich auburn shades and a fine tiger stripe print. But they were also wispy little locks of silky-soft fluffy down-like bristles. As I photographed them the snow started to fall, slowly and tentatively, executing perfect pirouettes downwards towards the waiting ground.
The gleaming flakes clung to the feathers and gave them new form. It seemed like a fitting tribute to those birds to capture them there in that moment. In the snowfall. All that remained of their plump weight. Of the organs and the blood. The flesh.
And soon the snow will melt as the air starts to thaw. The feathers will turn to sludge and join the mud of the earth. Their proud, shiny plumes; soft tufty barbs and fine opaque quills will spoil and fade to nothing, or be carried away to nowhere on the gust of the next windy day.
But there is still something.
There are still two:
One for a boy, one for a girl.
Strong and tall and vibrant.
Remnants.
From the earth, which fed us.
A simple, hearty supper shared amongst friends.
And then, to the earth it returned.
[And the girl?
Well, she ate, and enjoyed her meal.] 

*********

 This blog post is a re-working of two previous blog posts; words and pictures, and the feathers.

The feathers is also available to purchase as a limited edition print from my artfinder shop.

 © words and images Emily Hughes, 2015

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