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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I rise


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The American Flag, Alcatraz, 2016

 

I say this to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”

Martin Luther King


Today, on this historic day; a day which will surely be taught in future history lessons as a day when a nation lost faith in herself following the UK’s own crushing despair but a few short months before her; a day when wounds which were yet fresh and tender were ripped open anew, when hearts which were trying to heal were once more broken to find that once again, fear and hatred had won out over hope, and love. Today, on this average day in the school calendar of an average-sized middle school in England, in a poetry lesson with a class of year 7 students, a poem was read, and this poem was called ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou.

I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t even given the lesson much thought, so wrapped up was I in the immediacy of my routine concerns. Yet, as we talked about the historical context: the civil rights movement in the 1960s, about Martin Luther King and about other issues of race and prejudice, I realised how significant it was that we were reading this poem, on this day. I wondered how Martin Luther King would feel if he could see what has become of his legacy; fifty years later and we are really no closer to finding the equality he dreamed of. I thought about how Maya Angelou would have felt today. Devastated, no doubt. If the children had questions about Trump and the future, they didn’t ask me. They listened and instinctively felt the power and importance of Angelou’s message. After all, it is more important today than ever. We watched this song version and they joined in as they worked, singing along. It was a positive mood, uplifting and life-affirming as this poem is.

My year 8 class, on the other hand, was more vocal. We are reading ‘A Christmas Carol’ and we came across the word ‘indignant’: “Many people are ‘indignant’, I said, about the results of the US election”. They were angry. They are angry because they know, instinctively, that it is morally wrong. Yes our young people are angry. Young people who are on the verge of adulthood. Young people who have questions, which demand our attention. It is my job – our job – not to answer their questions, because sadly, there are not always answers: whilst I can tell them what indignant means, or how to find imagery in a poem, I cannot alleviate their fears for the future. No. It is our job to listen and to encourage them to question. I will teach them about history so there is a chance they will not repeat our mistakes; I will teach them that words can have the power to unite, and inspire passion, or to divide and inspire hatred, but the most important thing I can teach them, is to ask questions. Because it is people like Angelou and Martin Luther King; people who dared to ask questions, who gave hope to those who were oppressed and did not have a voice, whose words were not heard. It is people who ask questions of those in power who themselves have the power to make people stop and think that maybe there is another way. It is people who ask questions and keep on asking them with dogged persistence and do not give up, who give us hope.

Today was a good day. Today I felt humble and at the same time as though my job was the most important job in the world. When I looked around at the eager, determined, inquisitive faces of the twelve and thirteen year olds before me, I felt proud. I felt a well-spring of hope rising up inside me.

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

by Maya Angelou. Copyright © 1978
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A Californian Poppy, 2016
© images and words (apart from the poem) by Emily Hughes, 2016
(Written yesterday)

portals and the possibility of hope in a time of despair

I like to look back at photographs I have taken and make connections. Often I will find them, because even though it feels at the time when I am snapping away, that I am being quite random, I have discovered when I later trawl through my images that I am actually quite purposeful and even economical these days when I photograph, tending to hone in on similar themes and subjects. This is, unfortunately the sacrifice of having less and less time to get out and about, I might add, and when I travel it is never with the sole purpose of immersing myself in the art, rather a side line of stolen moments when I have managed to escape family duties. So, my holiday snaps are just that, really, although hopefully something more than that now as experience has trained my eye in what to look for; like a cat I have become quite good at pouncing on opportune moments, with a child hanging off one arm and wielding a bottle of sunscreen in the other. Often I will take a number of pictures of a space or place which is interesting and then work on them later at home to create something I feel I can be proud of, or even sell. Other times it’s a one-off moment, although these days I favour working with layers over anything else, because it gives me freedom and a kind of complex simplicity which seems to be where I am most content in my creativity.

I am teaching English now and when I teach children how to write I try to reveal it as a practice of layering. There is no neatness to writing really; just like art, it is a messy, but wonderful business. Behind that final draft there are layers and layers of crossing out and re-writing, different coloured pens, feedback and comments, where I have asked them to think about things differently, or to dig deeper and find the layers of meaning. I try to show them that writing, just like art, is not an end product as such, but it is a process. A process of becoming. There is no good or great writer for whom the words just magically transpose onto the page. Good writers will cross out, they will edit ferociously; they will be critical of themselves and they will agonise over every single word until they have hit just the right note. Because good writers know that words, and how we put them across, are important; they have resonance. Nowadays, of course, the word processor often erases the visible marks of the editing process, but even when I write an essay now I end up with six or seven drafts before I get to a final version I am happy with, and when the children are writing I think it is important that they see this. It is vital that they understand that neat does not always equal good content. I ask them to take pride in their work and to take time, but I do not obsess over neatness because I feel it is highly overrated. My own handwriting leaves a lot to be desired and spelling might be a challenge, but it does not mean that I cannot be a good writer. We plan and write together on big flipcharts so that they can see for themselves how this process works: I might go back and change a word or phrasing I did not like; I might underline or highlight repeated words and look in a thesaurus for alternatives, or star in another sentence here and there. It’s a thoughtful process of revision and it is important that children see it as such.

Educators like Ken Robinson have been telling us for many years now that creativity is the most important skill we can foster in our children in order to prepare them for a deeply uncertain future. And if this is true, which I believe it is, then neatness is not a part of that. The world we live in today is a mess. It is complex. It is sad, but we must not attempt to simplify things for our children and belittle their intelligence. There is no matter of black or white any more. As I look out on grey, uncertain skies and hear the wrathful winds lash relentlessly at the chimney, I fear that it won’t be long until those old Victorian bricks give away, but most of all I fear that these storms are hear to stay. We must allow our children to see this whipped up mess that we have created and give them hope that they can navigate the storms more successfully than us. For this is imperative. The world may be a mess; it may be a hopeless shade of grey, but it is a glorious mess.

And now I find, once again, that meandering words have taken me in a direction I did not intend to go on this stormy morning. These are words I did not intend to write, but somehow they have been written. What I wanted to write about were portals, magic and mystery. My two children are endlessly preoccupied with science fiction and other fantastical stories about magical worlds. From Star Wars to Harry Potter, to The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, it seems the battle is always the same: the age old dichotomy of good versus evil (although of course the details vary wonderfully). There is great comfort in these stories too, for them, because, although they usually begin with feet planted firmly in reality, they quickly move into a different realm where fantasies can be played out and indulged in a grand scale, and of course, the children know that good will always overcome evil. This is even more important for them now that they realise that real life is not like this. Our children need great stories like this which provide them with refuge from the grey fog of daily life. As do we, I think.

Often these stories contain some kind of magic portal or entrance which allows humans to access the ‘other world’,  like the twister which snatches up Dorothy’s house and dumps it in the glorious, technicolour Oz; the great old wooden wardrobe which houses those wonderfully evocative fur coats through which Edmund, Peter and Lucy fumble to reach the winter wonderland of Narnia; the platform 9 3/4 which boards Harry on his train to Hogwarts; or the famous rabbit hole (and later mirror) which transports Alice to Wonderland. Sometimes they are actual doors or gateways, like the wardrobe, or the door in Monster’s Inc. which allows the monsters to enter children’s bedrooms, but other times they can be a small object, like the magic key which transports Biff and Chip into different time period in the famous phonic adventure stories which those in the UK with young school age children will know and love. These portals or thresholds which provide passage from one world to another are important features of stories like this, because they are physical symbols of transformation and transgression, but also because they allow us humans the possibility of fantasy and of something else wonderful – of hope.

Without realising, I frequently photograph ‘portals’ – usually doors and windows, and I think many photographers do likewise. They are endlessly fascinating, so saturated with symbolic meaning, as well as being visually intriguing. And so my wordy saunter brings me back (not too neatly I hope) to my photographs and travels. This summer I was lucky enough to visit Brazil with my family, a country rich with cultural diversity and with a sheer expanse beyond my capacity of conception. It was not my first visit, and for the second time I was captivated by the dazzling natural beauty of Rio de Janeiro, as well as the impressive mountainous landscape of the countryside dotted with dusty little villages where locals sit on their doorsteps and lazily watch the world go by. Then there are the more touristy, but charming colourful seaside towns along the North East coast. I encountered many appealing doors, windows, and other less traditional gateways on our travels and have many tales I could tell, but looking back at them now makes me wonder about the prospect of exciting adventures to be had beyond the threshold of these portals, and the possibility of stories untold.

Without possibility, there is no hope.

 

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© images and words by Emily Hughes, 2015

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