Be More Squirrel

Where the Red Kite Flies Blog Post 5

May 2022

April 2022

Panic. This is what I’m feeling while I’m sat at home on the sofa in Malvern with the fire going. In May (it’s a comfort thing and also, it’s really not that warm). It’s a familiar feeling which I’d like to pretend could be confined to one area of my life but that would be a lie. 

It does feel more pressing, more physically felt though when it comes to my personal photography work. It has come in waves or little ripples throughout the last few months of working on my Where the Red Kite Flies project. And even before that there was the anxiety of writing and submitting grant applications, the worry of what I would do if they were unsuccessful. There it is, that quietly festering anxiety that is underlying at most times. The fear that I am not dedicating enough time to making work for the project, that the good photos won’t come (though I felt extremely comforted reading Sally Mann’s memoir ‘Hold Still’ and found this is something even she worries about).

When I’m here in Malvern I yearn for cabin life and wish in a way that my Wales life was just that little bit closer, a bit more poppable-over-to instead of a 4 hour drive after filling the car with everything I’ll need for the next week or two of off-grid life. I want to be making new photos, feel like I’m making progress and have those moments of play and connection that mean so much to me. 

Having a life split between two places isn’t a thing that’s new to me and it’s these same two places I’ve been split between for the last 10 years. I miss my Wales life a lot when I’m back in Malvern but I also adore my life here and I really love my commercial work, the interiors and portraits, which are so vastly different to my film photography but still very much me. 

So here I am, sat at my computer in a very mild version of panic mode. I have lists in far too many different places with blog subject ideas, all the people I need to get in touch with and plans I need to make. 

When I’m at my cabin for 2 weeks, immersed in my project with people lined up to do photos with, you’d think/hope that the panic would subside but it doesn’t. I still feel like I should be doing more. I still worry that the good photos won’t come. 

I could accept this as a personality trait and part of my process. I’m not sure I want to though. I dream of being someone who can let go, go with the flow (or as my friend Jose once said “Flow with the wind”). My phrase (we could call it a mantra but that feels a bit ick) for 2021 was “Trust the process”. This year I’ve gone with “Lean in”. Both of these tell me that I’m at least trying to get to a place where I am better able to quiet my worrying mind. 

Being a slightly anxious person who shows evident signs of overthinking, I’ve had many people suggest meditation to me over the years. I have always been incredibly resistant to it. The fact that people say you ‘should’ try it is instantly off-putting. As part of my project I have been having dialogue sessions with Hannah Fletcher from The Sustainable Darkroom. The intention of these was originally to look at my photographic process in terms of environmental impact but they have progressed to be so much more.  In one of our recent conversations, she brought up meditation. Again the spirit of resistance reared its head but when we got onto the idea of guided meditation I got the feeling that this was an approach that I’d at least be up for trying. I think it might be the idea of the doing-nothing-ness of meditation that mostly freaked me out. I’m not great at doing nothing. It saddens me that I am not great at just looking at nature. I struggle to sit on the porch of my cabin just looking at my most favourite trees in the whole world, I need a book in my hand. It’s not a glorification of needing to be busy, I just get anxious when I’m doing nothing and my mind enters over-thinking mode. I expect that all of this will scream “THIS IS WHY YOU NEED MEDITATION” to all of you converts out there.

So I found myself, a month or so after Hannah had sent me the link to a guided meditation she recommended, finally fairly up for giving it a go. With the fire gently burning, I closed the blinds in the lounge and lit a candle. I told Duncan,  who was still in work mode staring at a screen at the kitchen island, that I was going to do a meditation next door, unnecessarily justifying it by saying that it was project related. He made some kind of noise of acknowledgement. 

So I settle down, lie on the sofa and find the woman’s (or computerised woman’s) voice rather soothing. I could kind of get into this. It’s a 30 minute mediation which feels like a rather long amount of time to lie still but I’m up for seeing it through. 

At 8 minutes and 26 seconds in I hear him calling through the door: “You’re awfully quiet in there”. Sigh. I mutter something and then he opens the door to say “There was a squirrel at the back door! He was up on his hind legs tapping at the glass trying to get in. It was amazing!” 

So that’s one point against the meditation. I missed a squirrel knocking at our back door. Gutted. And he didn’t take a photo or a video so I can’t even see that and include that here. 

I continue the meditation after shooing him out (he said he’d forgotten what I was doing). 

At 12 minutes and 57 seconds the computerised female suggests I think about the answer to the question “What is the most important thing I need to know and understand at this time”. She tells me she will wait while I do this and will join me when it’s time to return. I relax into the process and feel the answer washing over me. What I need to know and understand at this time is that all this worry and panic is nonsense. It’s all about enjoying the journey, appreciating the process and most importantly having fun. 

I feel elated with this enlightenment and think that I quite like this process. We’re about 14 minutes in and there is silence while she lets me continue to mull over my answer. I feel I need to pause it and make some notes. I’m pretty sure you aren’t supposed to take notes during a meditation. But what if I forget my newfound wisdom? I pause it, make notes and resume. 

Time ticks by. There is still silence. I check the recording and it isn’t paused. They must think that I still need to be mulling over my answer. We're 16 minutes in. I’m pretty sure I should not be clock checking. 

At 19 minutes there’s still silence. I can’t help it. I skip forward to see when she starts talking again. It’s at 28 minutes in. I go there. And apparently return refreshed. 

I think this is what would be classed as a mediation fail. But it’s my first one so I’m going to cut myself some slack. And I do think I’ll give it another go but maybe when there aren’t opportunities to be missed in terms of squirrel watching. 

Mortimer, 1997/1998 

We have a soft spot for squirrels in our house. We very much enjoy watching them eat from the bird feeders and we call to each other “Squirrel!” whenever there is one hanging upside down from a branch in an effort to reach the globe-shaped, peanut-filled feeder. But my love of squirrels started long before co-habiting in Malvern. When I was 16 years old and working at my first job at a veterinary clinic in Toronto, someone brought in a baby squirrel that had been attacked by crows. It was so tiny that it fit into the palm of your hand, so young its eyes were still closed. We took it in to look after it and somehow it came to be that I took it home so it could have more around the clock care and regular milk formula feedings from a syringe. I named him Mortimer. One night my Mum stayed up all night keeping him warm when she’d found he was cold to the touch. When the day came to take him to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre so he could be integrated back into the wild we were all terribly sad to see him go. It was also the day that they told us that he was actually a she. 

So maybe I’ll try again with the meditation, especially if I tell myself that doing so may make me “More Squirrel”. Maybe it’ll make me be more in tune with nature. Perhaps when I'm at the cabin it will help me find my place among the trees and appreciate the delicate spongy texture of the forest floor with all its dropped spruce needles. I may also end up accepting that meditation isn’t necessarily for me (but not without giving it more of a go first) and that there are other ways for me to quiet my mind that work better for me. On my last visit to the cabin I gave myself the challenge of shooting a roll of 35mm in a day. As I am using only medium and large format for this project, this would free me up to take photos with no purpose. It was a joyful exercise and the photos attached here are from that day, along with one from 1997 or 1998 of Mortimer the squirrel.  

Side note: When I told Duncan that I’d changed my blog title from ‘Panic Stations’ to “Be More Squirrel’ he said “Hang upside down and eat nuts!” I’m sure there’s something in that. 

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