My partially completed project

Patience is a virtue, but it isn’t one of mine. I’m impatient with anything that doesn’t move swiftly: queues, customer service, furniture assembly and meetings are at the top of my list. Waiting to be served I fidget or jingle keys, but when I catch myself, I offer a fake smile not to appear rude. Yet within me, a war is raging. I’ve learnt to stop, observe, and breathe. While this helps, it doesn’t stop the impatience rising the next time I am triggered.

It’s not a character trait I’m proud of. I worry that with the build up of pressure the cork with pop and the banshee will be released. The handful of people who have come face to face with this unbridled demon will attest to its horror. I’m impatient with almost everything, but most of all I am impatient with my own shortcomings. Yet there are situations where I act completely out of character and display the patience of Job.

Take a shamble of tangled wool for instance. Without the slightest hint of irritation, I search for the end of the yarn and slowly begin to trace the strand through one loop after another to set it free. I don’t tug or pull, display no frustration, just a clear focused mind to get the job done. I don’t profess to understand this inconsistency of my personality. I just see it as one of my more likeable quirks.  

I have learnt to unravel wool early. When a jumper became too small, my mother would unpick it. I had to sit, arms outstretched, shoulder width apart for the yarn to be wound around them. This helped to unkink the wool. I was told to stay still, keep the tension tight until the last strand was passed to me. I then laid the wool down carefully and began to roll it into balls, so my mother could knit me a new garment.

All this came to mind this morning when I was greeted with yarn from one end of the lounge to the other. I looked at the culprit but recognised it was my fault. I should have known. My dog finds wool irresistible, and in the past, I have found dismembered skeins winding through the kitchen and out the doggie door, as if attempting a futile escape.

I felt irritation rise as I picked up my latest project from the floor. Luckily, it was still attached to the mangled skein. It took some time to find the loose end. Slowly, I began to wind the wool over three middle fingers on my left hand. I wondered at that moment how many people would still know how to turn this mess into a ball, ready to start again. I prised the tightly wound strands from my fingers and began winding the wool vertically, making a small cross. Then, moving the fledgling ball a quarter of a turn to the left, I wound on more wool, moved the ball another quarter of a turn and repeated the process.  Eventually, a perfect sphere of wool emerged. This ball had to be passed through the many twisted loops it encountered, one after the other until it arrived back at the last stitch of a completed row ready for the real work to commence.

The secret to unravelling tangled wool is to loosen the knots one by one until there is space for the ball to pass through. This may sound easy but requires considerable patience. It occurred to me that this process is a template for unravelling any messy situation. The key is gentle prodding, teasing, and pulling at the knotty problem, this way and that, to allow enough space for a solution to emerge. Even the smallest gap allows the golden thread to pass through until the next blockage is encountered. Then, it is a matter of repeating the process until there is enough leeway for the resolution to be able to surface. Slowly but surely, the gentle art of unravelling creates the space to solve even the curliest of problems.

My half-completed blanket is now safe atop a chest of drawers. The crochet hook awaits my hands. This project is going to take longer than I expected. Much longer. Yet I don’t mind. I marvel at my inexplicable patience and wonder what I can learn from this experience. Maybe it is as simple this: Whatever unravels in my day has a thread I can follow. If I can find the patience to approach the task with an artisan’s sensibility, I don’t have tie myself into a Gordian knot.


Recently, I completed a mosaic tray, a bright little piece to give me cheer. As grief strikes, and I am once again drawn to mosaics to make sense of my world – piece by piece, working at ground level, only understanding what emerges from a distance. I am keen to start a major piece, one that will absorb me within it. It is slowly taking shape in my mind and one day will emerge in fullness to adorn my home. It will, once more, be a testament of love.

Mosaics are time consuming. From drawing the pattern, through to cutting or smashing tiles and then finding the pieces that fit together, it is a labour intensive process. Not every fragment fits neatly, and there are always pieces left over. I never discard these, as they may become invaluable in a future project.

In some ways, mosaics are similar to jigsaw puzzles. You always have to find the fitting piece for the picture to emerge. You also need concentration, turning the piece this way and that to see if it works here or there. Tile cutters can help with nibbling away at a piece which is too big but glass tiles easily shatter, which makes the process a painstaking exercise.

While smalti glass is my preferred medium, I also like working with bright ceramic tiles. Smashing these with a hammer can be therapeutic. It is ironic that a perfectly good tile has to be broken to be reassembled in new ways for a picture to reveal itself. No wonder I am always drawn to mosaics when life has dealt me a blow. At first, I am in free-fall and then, crashing to the ground, I lie broken, contemplating the pieces, wondering how they will fit back together in a new life I will fashion.

There are pieces I will always keep, pieces I discard, and slowly a picture emerges, full of new possibilities and promise of beauty. These pieces are ephemeral, their existence attested by words and sometimes not even that. They are elusive, passing through my mind, waiting for my next move in their reassembly. Is it any wonder I am drawn to mosaics? Holding a tile, I can feel its shape in my hands and my eyes can see the image emerge. I like that I am working with something concrete that has both contour and weight.

The tray I have made is simple and naïve. It suits the season and my mood. The childlike simplicity allows me to play for a while and contemplate what will come next. Within it is the promise of growth. It allows for something larger and considered to emerge in my mind.

And it will, when the time is right.



Aphantasia is a pleasant-sounding condition except that it isn’t. It refers to the inability to make mental images. If you close your eyes and can picture your bedroom, you are part of the 98% of the population who can create mental images at will. I belong to the other two percent.

When I close my eyes, I see black. I am unable to call to mind my daughter’s face, my house or even what I am wearing. This also feeds into my inability to recognise faces, especially of people I don’t know very well. I make up for it by smiling and never using people’s names. I have had many a conversation with people who clearly know a lot about me while I remember nothing about them.

Professor Adam Zeman who coined the term aphantasia, described it as a “fascinating variation in human experience.” This may be true for an academic looking in dispassionately, but it isn’t how I feel about it. I experience it as a loss; a door shut to a world I would love to inhabit. Imagine not being able to recall the face of your parents, people you love, loved ones who have died. Without a photograph, I am lost.

Strangely enough, I dream in technicolour, and it is the only time I can see loved ones in my mind’s eye. I do wonder why I can access images in my sleep but not when I am awake. I even will myself to dream about a lover I miss, just to see his face once more. It never works. My subconscious is random access only.

I first realised I had no mental images when a friend at high school showed me a piece of art she had created. I couldn’t work it out. ‘This is what I imagine the inside of my mouth looks like when I am kissing,’ she ventured. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked, confounded. She patiently explained the range of images that went through her head, while I saw nothing but black.

In my twenties I went to ‘relaxation classes’. I became increasingly frustrated when the instructor said, ‘Close your eyes. Now imagine walking along a sandy beach. Waves are gently lapping at your feet and there is a cool breeze caressing your face.’ While I love beaches, I can’t form an image of the sea, nor can I hear seagulls or feel the sand under my toes. These exercises served only to make me feel frustrated and tense – not the intended outcome of the class! When I tried to explain my problem, I was told to try harder. That’s like telling a blind person to look more carefully next time.

Aphantasia does have its funny moments though. Once I called home for a recipe I wanted to pass on to a friend. ‘It is in the red ring binder on the right-hand side of the page’, I said confidently. It wasn’t. The folder was blue, and recipe wasn’t where I thought it was. Then there are times when people ask me to describe what something looked like. I just stare blankly, and they inevitably get frustrated with what they perceive is my lack of attention. I sincerely hope I will never be called up as a witness in a court of law.

Since my memory has no pictures at all; everything is stored in words. I am always amused when people tell me that my writing is vivid and that they can see exactly what I am describing. I wish I could. For me, words evoke feelings and that is what I get out of reading a descriptive passage or a well-written novel. I have no idea what the character may look like but I am invested in their personality or how they react to situations. Sadly, I forget a lot of what I have read but I always remember the feeling I had when reading the book.

As it is with many long-term conditions, the brain learns to compensate. Mine has allowed me to gain a rich vocabulary to make up for my non-existent visual memory. I love words, playing with them and rolling their sounds around in my mouth. I will search endlessly for an appropriate synonym, checking nuances before choosing the right phrase, for I paint pictures with words for others to see. I just wish, for once, I too could have access to this miracle of the mind.

Memories of love

My father in the early 1940’s – he would have been 99 on Feb 4, 2022

My father was a good-looking, debonair man. He flirted with ease and knew how to flatter women. He liked telling stories of his youth’s exploits. For him, women represented a source of fascination, conquest, and pleasure. The exception was Agnes, his first wife.

Throughout my childhood, a slightly tattered, black and white photograph of Agnes leant on a mirror in my father’s heavily draped room. She was a slender woman with shoulder length wavy hair who was destined to have her smile set for posterity. The photo was taken in Budapest, sometime in the late 1940’s.

I would look at this picture for hours and wished she had been my mother. Instead, Agnes died of TB. Penicillin could have saved her, if only the drug had been available in post-war Hungary. In the picture she is in her early twenties, full of life and pregnant with her first child.

Agnes was the only woman who had rejected my father’s advances. I don’t think she was playing hard to get, she just wasn’t interested in his games. They fell in love, married, and started their life together in a city that lay in ruins. In their short life together, she doted on him. Whatever wish passed his lips, she would try to fulfil. My father recounted a story of craving doughnuts in the middle of the night. Agnes got out of bed to make yeast dough so he could have his favourite jam-filled, fried doughnuts for breakfast. I wished I could have had a mother like her. And he did too.

She fell pregnant and they were looking forward to starting a family. Agnes loved the feel of the child growing within her but developed a persistent, blood speckled cough. Doctors confirmed the worst but only to my father. He set about trying to get penicillin from the West. Relatives who had emigrated were begged to help. None did. The cough persisted and she grew weaker. It became clear that she would not see out the pregnancy. The doctors enlisted my father to persuade Agnes to abort the child they both longed for. I don’t think my father ever forgave himself for that treachery. Agnes couldn’t understand why he was so adamant but yielded to his wish. This may have extended her life by a few short weeks.

My father described his anguish when she died. He walked out of the hospital and straight into oncoming traffic. He didn’t notice the screeching cars or people yelling at him. It is hard to know how he went on with his life. He had lost his son and his wife within a few short weeks of each other. No-one would ever be able to fill that emptiness. Only drinking somewhat numbed his pain.

My father died a long time ago and Agnes is suspended in an eternal autumn day. She is a hand-me-down memory, a two-dimensional figure etched on brittle, glossy paper. Yet I think of her more than I do of my father. Or maybe I think of my father as I struggle to be the woman he wanted me to become. Agnes is the looking glass, the flawless woman, the perfect mother, the ideal lover, the unattainable Madonna. The mother I never had. The mother I still strive to be.

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