Today’s instalment for the Letters from Cardiff in lockdown series comes from writer, tutor and mentor Briony Goffin. We’re looking for your stories, so please contribute to Letters from Cardiff in lockdown!
On the 22 December 2019, I sent out a tweet. “To whoever decorates this tree every year, I love it! Thank you for all your efforts and the daily delight you bring Roath dwellers, particularly me and my family.”
In just a few hours, this tweet had gained 295 likes. A community converged in expressing its reverence for this annual ceremony, for this Ninian Road spectacle, for this beautiful twisted hazel, dripping with its coloured orbs.
Several months on, and I’ve been thinking again about ‘ceremony’. Ceremony as a comforter and as a unifying force. When time has felt blurry and boundaryless, save for the CBEEBIES schedule (our house), and minds have been consumed with death, statistics and when we’ll have chocolate back in the cupboard (my mind), it’s in the little domestic ceremonies that we find joy and security.
In our family, during these last few weeks, we’ve really honed the second breakfast, the afternoon tea, the choc-ice on the front wall (yes, much of our rituals are food-based) and, recently, the early morning walk around the back alleys of Roath, swooning in the scent of jasmine and pale apricot roses tumbling over red brick garden walls.
Some rituals have evolved, some have fizzled out; some have been deliberately cultivated and some have been discarded. For all those rituals those that have persisted, it seems the essential ingredients are pleasure and predictability.
A week before lockdown, I had already decided to place a pause on the Sunday Writing Sessions. These creative workshops, held in Chapter and MADE, had been running on the second and fourth Sunday of every month, since 2012. These workshops are built around a kind of warmth and comfort that is intended to encourage writers to take creative risks; to produce new writing that is raw and truthful; to share this writing aloud, before their fellow writers; and to have a whole lot of fun along the way. A sense of safety and security is everything in this process and, in the current circumstances, I no longer felt I could offer that.
In the gap that the workshops left behind was born a new weekly newsletter. I wanted to offer my students continuity and connection – a way of keeping up the writing but, most importantly, a way of keeping up the contact. Each Sunday, I would pull out nine words from my ‘word bag’, a handmade-for-purpose (by my mum) drawstring bag, containing around eight hundred laminated words, and place these words amongst our family treasure (mainly seashells and small plastic toys) in an old wall-mounted printer’s tray.
The invitation would be to choose a row of three words from the nine word grid (either side-to-side, up or down, or diagonally) and let these words inspire a piece of writing, which could be poetry or prose, fiction or autobiography, or a mixture of any of these things. For those writers who wanted to, they could send me their writing and a week later I would compile an anthology and send it back out. To date, these anthologies have amassed 78,568 words, 247 pieces and included 76 contributors, with many more joining in behind the scenes at home.
I cannot speak on behalf of my students but, for me, these weekly newsletters have become one of the most joyful ceremonies of lockdown. I revel in the planning, the choreographing and the curating. I photograph the whole process, from picking out the words, to assembling them on the printer’s tray. We have a ‘photoshoot morning’ in our house, I dress mindfully for the occasion (lots of colour and a big bow in my hair), I wear makeup (the only time in the week), and I might even take off my slippers, which is quite the gesture, given I’ve even been wearing them for my daily exercise around Roath. I tidy up a small corner of our terrace house, sweeping toys, half-baked craft projects and empty amazon boxes out the way. In general, I try to make things look as pretty as possible.
I wanted the newsletter to feel like a weekly treat in the inbox of my students, visually appealing, familiar and, hopefully, inspiring. Across the weeks, it has become more eccentric and more theatrical. I wanted the word bag to feel like an object of desire, with its own stage sets and photoshoot, building anticipation for the ‘big reveal’. My lipstick has got brighter, there has been the odd wide-brimmed hat, and my children have started to wander in and out of frame to ‘help’ mummy with her ‘work’.
Despite a slight air of daftness, the intention remains a serious and heartfelt one. The process has given me a sense of purpose and hopefulness at a time when I could have easily felt lost and low. Like all ceremonies, those properties of beauty and predictability are a sincere expression of love and commitment to my friends, students, colleagues and community. As of 1 June, the newsletter will be going to a fortnightly edition, to keep the format fresh and sustainable in the longer term.But my dedication is unwavering and I know that original frisson of pleasure will still be aglow as I press, ‘Send to Audience’, every other Sunday morning, for as long as we all need this in place.
A link to the latest newsletter is here, where you can also subscribe to future newsletters, as well as reading back copies. Everyone is welcome, the more the merrier! The Sunday Writing Sessions – newsletter.
Have a look at Briony’s other project, in association with Cardiff and Vale Health Charity: Things I have been doing in lockdown
Follow Briony on Twitter @brionygoffin.
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