garden notes, inspiration, little ones, poetry, reading, stray thoughts
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Risking failure more minor

Magnolia stellata bud

Magnolia stellata

“Difficultly then, whether of life or of craft, is not a hindrance to an artist.[…] Just as geological pressure transforms ocean sediment to limestone, the pressure of an artist’s concentration goes into the making of any fully realized work. Much of beauty, both in art and in life, is a balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance — a gnarled tree, the flow of a statue’s draped cloth.”

“Leaving the refuge of silence demands the willingness to be seen, to be judged. It demands that we turn away from our desires to please, to fit in, to spare the feelings of those we love, and also from our desire to create a shapeliness that does not reflect how awkward, unfinished, and ambivalent actual experience is. For the writer, the person of public speech, it demands risking the fates of Mandelstam or Horace, Sor Juana or Christopher Smart. Or more likely, risking failure more minor: boredom, triviality, confusion. Risking seeing that we are lesser beings than we had hoped.”
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield

Today was the children’s Easter service, held in a local church. T was playing one of the disciples. ‘No lines, but it’s still acting,’ she explained to me patiently at breakfast. ‘We have to use our faces to look surprised when we find out he’s risen.’ She’s showed me. She’s always done a very good line in shocked. The Moose was meant to be singing and doing actions — but his actions mainly consisted of giving me the thumbs up & signing for me to take his photo. Both of my older children do this: miming the click of a shutter at me & then posing while I take a photo. Sometimes I pretend not to understand, but it only makes them mime more frantically.

They’re at a church school, though we’re probably best described as atheists. At her non-church pre-school in London, T spent a whole term learning about Eid and Diwali. She came home one day that December and told us that she thought she wasn’t a Muslim or a Hindu after all, but one of the ‘crispy-ones’ because she believed in Father Christmas.

There was a time in London when I fiercely despised all church schools. People getting a tick-mark each Sunday, so that when the time came to apply to school the vicar or priest would support their faith-based application. Somehow the church schools were always the best schools (or at least perceived to be the best). Sympathetic looks at playgroup when I said that we weren’t believers. The thing that annoyed and amazed me the most was people’s assumption that it was fine for their children to get a better education simply because they had a faith.

Here, our nearest school just is a church school; no faith application needed. But I can’t pretend to be innocent. We moved here for the good schools & so in the end I’m just as guilty as the smiling-faith-havers. Possibly more guilty: the ability to live near a ‘good’ school comes down to money, not faith. It’s the whole system that I despise now. (See also the coming election: how disconnected I feel this time round.)

Anyway, I can say all this, and you can agree with me or disagree, but you’re not going to kill me over it. I listened to the news this morning thinking of how all I risk here is ‘failure more minor’, as Jane Hirshfield has it. It seems a gross naivety not to acknowledge how much we take our right to free speech for granted.

I often compose what I write here quickly. Not so much the thoughts on books, where I feel the weight of the years that someone has put into writing the book I’m trying to describe, but things like this. There was hesitation — is it too creepy, too attention-seeking, too personal? — but also speed. It shaped itself — motifs and repetitions, small echoes within the disparate threads. A few notes from my notebook. And then, a couple of hours to let it ‘mature’, a short editing session and simply the courage to hit ‘publish’. Finally to hope that I’ve walked a fine line with enough care. That’s what I love about blogs: immediacy, intimacy, strange hybrid forms — like an essay that takes its time to get to the point; or a book recommendation that starts from the place where a reading intersects with a life.

I feel vulnerable here all the time. A very few friends read it. For the most part, it’s my secret. I’ve thought a lot about that. About why I don’t talk about it, why I like to keep it apart. Gradually, it’s something that I’ve mentioned to a few people, some old friends, some writing friends, some people I just happen to be talking books to. I’m trying to do that more; to claim this as important to me. Hirshfield describes my feelings well: “Leaving the refuge of silence demands the willingness to be seen, to be judged. It demands that we turn away from our desires to please, to fit in, to spare the feelings of those we love, and also from our desire to create a shapeliness that does not reflect how awkward, unfinished, and ambivalent actual experience is.” But she also reminds me that all I’m risking, for better or worse, is failure more minor.


I wholeheartedly recommend Nine Gates which I found beautiful, moving & instructive. I have Shawna Lemay’s wonderful Calm Things to thank for the introduction. Jane Hirshfield has just published another book of essays, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World which looks equally enticing.

Here is a poem of her’s, ‘The Pear’, that I’ve loved since I first read it. A definite keeper.

And finally, perhaps most pertinent of all to me, as someone who once felt like she could tread so lightly through life, leaving every door open, and not leaving a single footprint behind, is a line from an interview with her:

“At some unnoticed moment, I began to understand that a life is written in indelible ink. What I’ve chosen, what’s happened unchosen, can’t be unmade or redone. Poetry, though, is a door that only continues to open. Even the unchangeable past changes inside a poem. Not the facts, but the feeling, the comprehension. The heft of a life in the hands grows both lighter and weightier.”


Now I really do risk boring you. The photos. Magnolia stellata in a small pot in our front garden. More than ten years ago, when we first bought our flat with its tiny gravel garden, I dreamed of having a magnolia one day. Then I realised that it already was one day & bought this. Now we live in the future and have a house with its own huge magnolia in the garden. Still, I’m glad I didn’t wait.


  1. Love this, always love this. It takes courage to be a blogger I think, if you’re a certain kind of person, though I am not that kind of person—for me, blogging comes too easily. Takes a different kind of courage to sit on things a bit and think about whether and how something is possibly good. But for every kind of person, I also think that blogging takes faith—that the post will find its end. You’ve just got to follow it. It’s where the art is. And you do it so well.

    • Sarah says

      Well, if you hadn’t come along in the first place & said you’d be reading, who knows if I’d have kept going! Thank you! Wish I could do your art of blogging course & discuss all thing bloggy – such an amazing medium & one that I often think has impacted my parenting & reading lives like nothing else.

  2. Rose says

    Hi Sarah, I’m new to your site, having somehow made my way here by typing in Calmthings, which took me to Shawna’s site but happily to you too. In this post, you’ve so clearly articulated my own hesitation at becoming visible through my writing. Even writing this reply feels like a step too visible. But the need to acknowledge the beauty of your insights and writing is greater. As I read your thoughts about Hirshfield’s work, I nodded in agreement. It was as if you’d been looking over my shoulder for the last few weeks as I sat here an ocean away reflecting on this very topic — even reading that very poem. I felt invisibly visible! If that’s even possible. Well, this will become an essay if I don’t stop. Final thoughts: thank you for your courage in sharing; thank you for your beautiful writing. I, for one, hope you continue to share in this way. I plan to visit here often! All the best.

    • Sarah says

      Rose, thank you so much for stopping by & for leaving a comment. I can remember feeling just the way you describe about commenting on other people’s blogs. But then I started writing here & realised how lovely it is to *receive* comments & felt bad about all those years that I’d enjoyed people’s writing without letting them know. So lovely to hear that I’m not the only person to have these thoughts: to have made you invisibly visible, wow! All the best for your own writing, however visible you make it! I’m really happy that you’ve found your way here.

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