Irish nature writer and essayist Kerri ní Dochartaigh reflects on the experience of writing, dreaming and falling pregnant during a global pandemic. Her beautiful commission ‘Agus Anois An Aimsir, And Now the Weather’ is part essay, poem and nature writing; touching on the unreliability of time and the changing of the seasons, and the comfort she found in the journals of Virginia Woolf.
Read the commission below, and enjoy a conversation between Kerri and Sunday Times bestselling writer Amy Liptrot on The Writing Life podcast.
‘The inner life has its soft and gentle beauty; an abstract formlessness…I often consider myself as a figure in a foggy painting: faltering lines, insecure distances, and a merging of greys and blacks. An emotion or a mood—a mere wisp of colour—is shaded off and made to spread until it becomes one with all that surrounds it.’
[Virginia Woolf, A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897-1909]
I’m not quite sure how it happened but – having only before ever read her words under force – for an Undergrad English Literature degree, half my life ago, I have found myself – in the thick of a global pandemic: utterly obsessed with Virginia Woolf. More specifically: with her journals. I find myself searching for ways by which to mark the passing of time. Neither this time – nor my time, at all, it should be noted; rather, the hours & days, the season seeped months & the circling years – of others. Even more specifically, still: I am hungry for accounts of time experienced by women. Women who feel – for the very first time, as though they are calling my name – accompanied by the ringing of a small, almost silent bell. I want to unearth time’s entrails, as though it were an insect I had stood on in the artless, unintentional act of simply passing through. I want to know that there have been times – countless droves of them – a chaotic, cacophonous constellation – exactly like this one, before. I want proof that this moment through which we are living is just a trick of mirrors & smoke, of circus acts & kaleidoscopes: I want to find the words that tell me when it all might end.
Time has become an oddly boned creature, and, for the first time in my life, perhaps; an event is coming towards me which will act as a stone placed in the damp, ancient earth. A marker in the landscape – a dot on the chart: after which point nothing might ever feel (or be) the same as before. It does not feel real, any of it; in any shape or form and the surreal outline that the world outside has taken since Spring 2020 arrived in the Northern hemisphere adds to the silky, shadowy sense of it all. Nothing is real, not a single jot of it. We are wee paper birds, hung above the firmament; as a wild, untameable wind makes a choreography of our porcelain bones. It may have all begun in Spring, but every single day of this ghostly, dreamlike year has felt like Winter: like those days on which the fog arrives, refusing – over and over – to leave.
‘Yes we are in the thick of it…Our first air raid warning at 8:30 this morning… rather like a sea voyage…All meaning has run out of everything. Scarcely worth reading papers. The BBC gives any news the day before. Emptiness. Inefficiency. I may as well record these things.’
[Entry from Woolf’s journal, undated aside for ‘1939’]
In the past, when I was a drinker, the exquisite, melancholic dreams I had once experienced (before fiercely lunged addiction set in) stopped completely. I never really grasped, until I stopped drinking, that alcohol had stolen away my dreams. That maybe it had drowned them. That maybe they had trickled out through the broken window of my old flat on Glengyle Terrace – overlooking the frosty meadows of Edinburgh – and the ancient, pinky-red mornings of Arthur’s Seat. I pictured them shapeshifting; being sculpted, like the sleepy volcano, into a part of the landscape, just outside my light-filled, hangover-tinged room. I left my dreams in Scotland, on a morning thick with haar – blown in from the sea, and vast, unnameable grief – blown in from too many days to even try to map. There is no lyrical metaphor at play, here…After a lifetime of dazzling, dancing dreams – of hummingbirds & whales, moons & witches, colours & melody, light & words & blood & teeth & bones & loss & fishermen & islands & on & on & on – it ALL. JUST. STOPPED.
I awoke one Scottish winter’s morning, seasick, with wine-red teeth, to find my nights had become a series of bobbing, emptied vessels, in a dark and desolate void.
When the Pandemic first hit, I scrolled through tweet after tweet, WhatsApp after WhatsApp, article after article and so on and so on; each documenting the ways in which peoples’ dreams had now become so vivid. Folk who had not dreamed for years, for decades, alas! – now were awakening in the dawn of any given day – to a cinematic, folkloric, heart-achingly beautiful play of the light. Scenes like those from an old magic lantern series filled their sleep, like fading photographs found in a bustling flea-market, like every childhood memory of splendour and grace they had ever thought they’d long lost. I, on the other hand, experienced nothing of the sort. And so I continued to lose myself in Woolf. In words thrown out on the stormiest of seas a century before. On the ritualistic recording of each passing day: days that felt like that they might never end, despite the turning world. Despite the cycle carrying on, as though nothing, whatsoever, had changed at all, in fact.
‘(First day of winter time) Why is life so tragic; so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss. I look down; I feel giddy; I wonder how I am ever to walk to the end. But why do I feel this…Here I sit…and like a lantern stood in the middle of a field my light goes up in darkness. Melancholy diminishes as I write. Why then don’t I write it down oftener?’
[Entry from Woolf’s journal, October 25th, 1920]
Some say they knew when they began to awaken, much earlier, or much later than they should – than they had before that first morning – and insist that every morning thereafter their mouths & tongues & teeth had felt as though they’d spent the moon-lit hours grinding on metal; precious or non-precious, silvery or rusted.
Others say they lost their sense of balance. Became, in the early light of soft dawn, disorientated; like the night had tipped them upside down, inside out; twisted all askew.
Many could not, in fact, even get up at all. Sickness like the ending of days, a headache like the moment before entering the eye of the storm; unrecognisable to their own shaken, altered selves.
I knew for reasons I have never heard another share; for reasons I have never told another, ‘til this day.
I had begun, again, in those Woolf days, to record my own days… Not merely with an eye to moulding them into something for publication – a set of words that would become an object I would have to give away – but in the ways that I had always done before. In the before that existed long before last Spring. In a before that is at least a decade before this time. I had begun journaling again, in the same ways I had before the world had metamorphosised into a thing I could not recognise. It is important for me to put across to you that there are other befores that exist long before the moments just before the pandemic. When these daily words came back again, I wept. I howled & bawled like a fur-covered creature. The rhythm and the ritual of it all – the carving of space for my inner thoughts; in the thick of such stormy chaos – felt such an act of devotion that I whined & moaned at the moon, a yellow crescent, holding sway just as the day began its summer-calm unfurling.
Then, in the middle of it all, in the thick of a world so emptied of daily change, so steeped in a constant, invariable monotony; I suddenly knew that something had dragged me outside the colourless, wearisome rhythm of the everyday. Somehow, despite everything that was piled up against it, I knew that something had slipped; from that world of fog & myth & longing, into this one; of blood & cells & growing.
I knew when I awoke, in a hazy pink room, sunlight creeping in through cracks in unseen places; silence echoing all around – with hooded crows on my window-ledge. When I heard tapping on misty glass; ebony birds begging to be let inside – as fog filled every nook and cranny – ethereal, otherworldly.
I knew when I pulled back the curtains immediately to find: no birds. No beak marks. No sign of fog at all in the world outside my light-dappled, moth-soft home.
I awoke one Summer’s Day, a decade and a half after after being told my body was too broken to carry such a thing – and I knew that something was growing inside me.
Something that had (somehow, against all the odds) carried my dreams back to me.
I found out I was pregnant in the first week of August last year, in the first summer in my new home, as night fell in my first garden; in the second season of a global pandemic.
Everywhere was still and warm.
Moths fluttered above our heads; pulled towards the lights that had only just gone on in our small, quiet stone cottage.
And then, as the second part of the year begins to unfurl, you start to move.
Slowly, softly; you are a moth-bird – beating your see-through skinned bones – against the surface of my skin.
At first I am sure I have imagined it.
A shimmery dream of a thing, a silky ripple of some phantom pebble – unthrown – unreal.
To begin with I convince myself that it is wind; not outside, of course but inside. Inside the belly that now we share between the two of us. But it is not wind, of course: it is you.
Newly formed, freshly made; you are learning how to move, inside the hollow of my curves.
It is you, of course.
Wee creature that one day, further along this unknown line – I will hold in ways so different from how I hold you now.
Tiny, fluttering thing – unseen, unheard – simply felt; in the parts of me I had never even seen before you came.
The world outside my womb is full of counting.
Deaths and figures, tolls and losses.
I had to find a way to mark the days before you came; in a way that might feel different from all of that.
I had to learn, despite it all; to carve a space for hope.
In the Autumn and into the Winter, I found myself apprenticed to observation.
I took to reading books about the weather. I took to paying attention to the light. I took to writing you letters about the world outside our window.
The world I cannot wait for you to see.
Deireadh Fómhair, October
A Lexicon for Fog
b r u m e m u d d l e
b l e a r o v e r s h a d o w
w i s p p e a s o u p
b e w i l d e r m e n t v a p o r o u s
w h i t e o u t f i l m
m u r k s m o g
b e d i m e c l i p s e
Notes on Fog
(1) By meteorlogical definition, for a thing to be termed ‘fog’, the world must be obscured to such a level that objects at a distance of one kilometre from the observer have been made invisible.
(Fog, like silence, demands an audience.)
(2) The Irish word for ‘fog’ is ‘ceo’. This is also the Irish word for ‘anything or nothing’.
(3) The Irish word ‘ceolán’ (directly beneath ‘ceo’ in some dictionaries) means ‘a little bell, a tinkling sound’.
(4) A ‘tone poem’ is a piece of orchestral music, usually in a single continuous movement, which evokes the feeling of a poem, painting, weather condition, event of note and so on. It is, in many respects, a narrative without words. In a handful of weeks, the creature inside my vessel will, if all goes well, begin to hear sounds. It will be drawn, above all, to my voice. I will carry it, at the first sign of fog, to hear the horns of the boats in the Harbour, the wee bells of the smaller vessels at anchor; only a little bigger than the one my body has made for it, against every odd.
(5) Fog-Horn: To prevent collisions at sea, all vessels that are moving in water must signal their presence in fog with a Fog-Horn. Ships at anchor must use a bell instead.
(6) To dream of fog means that things in life may not be as they long have seemed.
A foggy landscape means you may have been stolen from, or that you may not have been told the proper story.
Watching fog lift suggests you will, finally, be able to see things more clearly, and to be more open with your private life to the outside world.
(7) Fog is, perhaps, one of the oddest, most beautiful things in our world. It is a spell, a trick, a gift, a reminder: a dream.
(8) It whispers our name, in the early light of morning, a veiled winter song; one that could hold anything, or everything, inside its tinkling silence.
I thought it was wind
…that had taken to playing my insides like an ancient instrument.
An instrument of fine bone: creaturely and slender,
like that swan in the documentary I wasn’t able to watch.
Wild and howling at times, rattling at my ribs like the Cailleach;
goddess of the hearth, inside my cage.
Then, at other moments – so gentle as to feel more like a flickering
– like a perfectly formed glow-worm; grown wings.
I thought it must be coming from outside;
that shimmering, spiralling feeling inside my belly.
That it must be the weather, just.
Only the weather.
That it must be only the wind finding places to hide.
Where I come from, we can smell the snow long before it arrives.
We can feel it, deep down inside of us: in beside our bones.
Where I come from, the mountains above the wild sea turn white in the Autumn and sometimes they are even still white in the Spring.
We can watch Whooper Swans, blown in from the same places as the snow, blending into the lands around us as if it were all a picture in an old children’s book; folkloric, dancing.
Where I come from snow is still something that means something – lots of other things – in fact.
There are things hidden inside the flakes & swirls, the lace & the tightly packed diamonds. Things that we hold within our own bodies, too.
The winter you spend inside me, we are held within 5 kilometeres of our stone home.
I gather, from a garden full of wren-song and salmon-pink light, poppy heads. Grown from seed, in the same summer that you began to grow. A handful of hours later, I watch, from our bedroom window, whiteness hide the garden away from view.
I hold my belly and I tell you, for the first time, of the place where I was born.
Of the place where I learned that nothing stays the same for the whole livelong day.
That time ebbs & flows like a body of water; that moments wax and wane like a milk-white moon.
I tell you of the place I learned that nothing precious is ever fully lost.
That nothing beautiful can ever really be broken.
I open our yellow door with its fox knocker bought before the world changed shape entirely – and I stand beneath a sky still full of magic.
Beneath a kind of light that takes the world and makes it sing.
I stand in the garden listening to the song of new-born snow-light.
And as you move I realise you must hear it too.
Deep down inside of you: in beside my bones.
(1) As well as the diaries of Virginia Woolf, I sought solace in the following books whilst writing this:
- Sara Baume’s handiwork, Tramp Press, 2019
- Kathryn Scanlan’s AUG 9 – FOG, MCD, 2019
- R Carpenter’s This is a Picture Of Wind, LongbarrowPress, 2020
- Nancy Campbell’s Fifty Words For Snow, Elliot & Thompson, 2020
- Luis Sargasti’s A Musical Offering, Charco Press, 2020
(2) As well as my baby’s heartbeat and the the weather, I was comforted by the sounds of the following albums:
- Colm Mac Con Iomaire’s ‘Agus Anois An Aimsir’
- The Gloaming’s ‘The Gloaming’
- Lankum’s ‘Between the Earth and Sky’
- The Blue Nile’s ‘Peace At Last’
- Lyr’s ‘Call in the Crash Team’
- Kathryn Joseph’s ‘From When I Wake the Want is’
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer.
Kerri ní Dochartaigh was born in 1983, in Derry-Londonderry at the border between the North and South of Ireland. She read English Literature and Classical Civilisation at Trinity College Dublin and trained as a Waldorf teacher in Edinburgh. She taught in Edinburgh and Bristol, before returning to Ireland in her early thirties. She writes about nature, literature and place for the Irish Times, Dublin Review of Books, Caught by the River and others. She now lives in a railway cottage in the very heart of Ireland. Thin Places is her first book. Image (c) Manus Kenny
Amy Liptrot has published her work with various magazines, journals and blogs and she has written a regular column for Caught by the River out of which The Outrun has emerged. As well as writing for major newspapers including the Guardian and the Observer, Amy has worked as an artist’s model, a trampolinist and in a shellfish factory. The Outrun was awarded the 2016 Wainwright Prize and was shortlisted for the 2016 Wellcome Prize.
Weather With You is part of Open Doors: a series of commissions and open submissions programmed by the National Centre for Writing, with support from Arts Council England’s Ambition for Excellence programme.
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