Textures in Time

Katie da Cunha Lewin reviews Sara Baume’s handiwork

Sara Baume, handiwork.
Tramp Press, €13.00.
Buy direct from the publisher.

In these weeks of lockdown, I have, like many others, tried to find new ways of spending time in my home. My partner and I live in a small flat with a little outdoor garden, and are stuck moving between our bedroom and sitting room, alternating to give each other privacy and space. My partner is normally the maker, and is a talented whittler, carver, and sculptor. But as the early days of the lockdown dragged on, I felt myself itching to do something creative with my hands, and to find new rhythms of movement. I started off with simple candle- and soap-making, in which all I needed to do was melt a base, mix oils, pour into moulds. My friends and I compared the results of candles over Zoom, asking how fragrances had held and if any of us had experienced holes or dips in the surfaces. We had varying degrees of success.

This turn towards making seems to have been also taken by many others. A recent post on Twitter told me that friends and acquaintances were variously trying sewing, painting, quilting, weaving, and making pottery. Writer and translator Jen Calleja wrote of her salt dough creations, voicing a conflict I too have had: that although at first her “art project now felt decadent and even selfish”, she “felt proud and at ease for the first time in months” when she saw her finished creations gleaming on a plate. Calleja celebrates something joyful for the sake of its joy, and not what it signifies. I’ve also felt strangely guilty in my moments of crafting, worried that my attempts to be “productive” were shields for my ego, or that I was undermining the seriousness of the pandemic by frittering away my time on little tasks with no purpose.

Writer and artist Sara Baume meditates on crafting in the concise paragraphs that make up her new book handiwork. Baume is trained in the fine arts, and has written two works of fiction, Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2015) and A Line Made by Walking (2017). handiwork is her first non-fiction book, and here Baume is careful to distinguish her writing life from her crafting life, seeking to strike a balance between the two very different routines she describes. Written while she worked on a series of plaster painted birds for an exhibition, Baume composes her routine, explains her process, and describes the care and attention she gives each thing she makes. Her house is one of “industry” in which both she and her partner create, moving around each other in a delicate choreography of crafting.

But handiwork is not a straightforward recount of the structures of Baume’s day in making. Instead, it reflects on the relationship between her forms of making and her recently deceased father, who was a builder. Baume intercuts the descriptions of the movements of her hands and the layout of her workspace with thoughts about her father, and his father, tracing a line of inheritance between the three of them. As I read handiwork during the Covid-19 pandemic, I found Baume’s words taking on an additional resonance as I — we, all of us — attempted to parse a very different kind of grief: the mourning of those who have lost their lives and the disproportionate effects of the disease on vulnerable and BAME people. Baume’s crafting of her plaster birds is not just a pleasure, and an exercise in skill, but a way to stave off the loneliness of grief: “This making of the flock, which had for two years been fending off the awareness of [my father’s] daily absence.” Crafting conceals emotion in its proliferations.

I learned something of this in the past few weeks. I turned to something that looked tricky to me: macramé. I had long admired its fiddly knots and wondered at how they were put together. I threw myself into it, but on the first go I couldn’t get the knots right, and my fingers wouldn’t find the pattern that needed to be repeated. I became so furious with myself and my hands that I threw down my unsuccessful creation and fumed in the other room. But grief and stress can do amazing things to concentration. On the day my beloved grandmother was rushed to hospital in Portugal, where she had been stuck since lockdown began, I needed something to disconnect from the moment. I turned to my basket of white cotton cord and forced myself to sit and patiently finish my series of knots and twists until I had made something resembling the object I was looking at on my screen. It took some time, but the string took on a new life, and now hangs, crooked and imprecise, on a hook in my living room.

Since then I have been making macramé plant hangers and wall hangings, learning through videos of sunny smiley girls on YouTube. But the origins of these sessions lie in this original escapism. I needed to be distracted and so I threw myself into an unfamiliar activity, hoping that I could alleviate anxiety, fear, and stress, and make something new from it all. I found that it worked, and for those few hours I was lost in my concentration, feeling my way into the positions of making. I experienced what is called “flow”, which Baume describes through one of the many avian metaphors she prefers: “soaring”. She also includes a quote from Stephen Knott, writer and academic, who describes flow as “utopia in a moment: an atemporal release and liberation from capitalist time and its schedules by intense concentration on an activity”. I have always envisioned “flow” much as the word itself suggests, as something to do with water. While trying to describe that process of blissful, unthinking absorption, I have sometimes found the best way to talk about this concentration is through the image of descending into a body of water and holding your breath for as long as you can.

As much as flow is the ideal form of concentration, Baume does not wholly idealise the process of making, and gives space to the problems of organising one’s routine. “I have always felt a terrible responsibility for time”, she writes. “I worry that the thing I am doing at any given moment may not be the best particular thing for that particular moment. Should I be reading, writing, carving, painting, I ask myself—” This is of course a privilege: to be able to select between these activities is, for some, unthinkable. But perhaps there is a more generous reading of Baume’s discomfort here which is through the problem of productivity, and how it can figure as a controlling, authoritarian principle in our minds. For Baume, the anxiety of wasted time is brought to bear most strongly in the broken or imperfect: “The agony of discarded objects comes not from waste but the monstrous loss of time — time that has been meticulously embodied only to vanish at the instant an object is rejected.” Flow, then, can only ever be a stop-gap, a freedom from the nags of time, and from the self-critical voice — or, as Baume has it, the “nemesis” — that seeks to draw one out of immersion. The beauty of experiencing flow momentarily eradicates the problem of lost time because it gives us an insight into what it would be like to not be in thrall to it. Even so, each object that is produced in these dances through time can never quite evidence how it came to be; the problem of making is that nothing bears the marks of its creation heavily enough.

Time has of course been on everyone’s mind over the past few months, but I have been trying to concentrate on the immediate moment and not on loss. I’ve been thinking about the textures of lockdown, of what things make up the backdrop to my newly limited life. Which textures, for me, have been the most present? The feeling of running my hand through the little brush of cornflowers I have grown and the dried, curled leaves that have lost their green in the sun. The feel of my partner’s newly shaven head — now in its second iteration — and the way the hair changes texture as the length alters. The hair of my cat as she moults with every stroke, and the texture of the special kind of rubber that makes up a yoga mat, as it slips and sways underneath me while I inelegantly puff my way through an online class. But the overwhelming texture is that of the cotton cord I loop and slip between my fingers. I think about the moment on that Saturday when I willed myself into concentration, fixed my gaze to my hands and my work, while I tried not to worry for my grandmother, so far away.

About Katie da Cunha Lewin

Katie Da Cunha Lewin is a researcher, tutor, and writer based in London. She has a PhD in the work of Don DeLillo and J.M. Coetzee from the University of Sussex and was the co-editor of Don DeLillo: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, published by Bloomsbury in 2018. Her writing has appeared in The London Magazine, the Times Literary Supplement, the Irish Times, The White Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.