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Little Things: An exercise in Effort


A week or so ago I took myself down to the ‘secret beach’ near my house. It was my first trip to the beach since lockdown. As usual, I had slightly miss-timed the tide and so, instead of being able to walk from its small shore out onto the wider expanse of Coll, I was restricted, trapped by the oncoming tide. Sometimes I am in the mood for marching out: taking the ground with long strides, feeling like I am getting somewhere. Sometimes I like to clamber up and over the rocks: no tide will get in my way; no warnings of incoming waves will prevent me from making progress. I will make my own way through.


Not that day though. That day I decided to accept the restrictions and make my world smaller. I actively switched my tuning from up and out and onwards to down and inwards. Fine, I thought. I’m going to focus on what’s at my feet.


I went rockpooling. I started to look for small worlds – and I found them. In one rockpool, the dark shadows of a miniature forest, its thorny branches blown by the wind. In another, the fronds of seaweed crowding each other out, the reflections on the water like fog creeping through the frame. Then, a thousand pastel shells immersed in the grains of sand on their way to becoming sand themselves. On my walk home, still more little lands appeared. An abandoned moss island marooned on a fencepost.


When you look for things at which to marvel, it’s hard not to trip over them everywhere. And this was active looking, active stilling, active pausing. Truthfully, it was actually tiring.


At home I reeled through the images and chewed things over. Why was that trip to the beach not as pleasant as all my other trips to the beach? What is the difference between this and my normal photo taking? From the outside looking in, not a whole lot. I often take photos of small things. I often look for worlds, shapes and patterns at my feet and in the corners. The difference is not in the images, but on the other side of the camera. The difference is in the intent. Usually, I feel free to take whatever captures my attention; this time I felt constrained.


Strangely, I realise it is the same feeling as a trip to the dentist’s. As the tools come out, I try not to squirm and force myself to find a corner in the ceiling where the polystyrene roof panels meet. Then I try to relax, try to get to a zone where unpleasant reality is distanced. I can do it, but it takes effort.


Looking at my photos, I swing in the other direction. Now, I feel irritable at these restrictions, unhappy with the little worlds I am forced to enjoy. Annoyed with the oncoming tide and having to make the best of things. Annoyed with dentists.


Am I really comparing today’s constraints to going to the dentist? Apparently I am. Either way, I’m obedient. I sit myself in the chair and dutifully open my mouth – for what? For the bigger picture. For my good health.


I don’t really like these boundaries, but I make them work for me. I grin and bear it. I transport myself to new worlds and own my own corner, my safe space in which to move – from ceiling tile to rockpool. I don’t like the feeling of constraint; and yet pushing against it, releases creativity, which is probably a good thing – like having shiny white teeth is a good thing.


Alison Johnston/Encompass

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I love the image. It's not surprising that you didn't venutre out since we are in lockdown and focus at what under your feet. I have noticed spring more this year, the way the tree outside my window is becoming greener by the minute and the speed at which the plants around me grow. :-)

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