Schmetterling by Sandra Horn

Dad always worked with his hands. He’d been trained as a carpenter and joiner, but after the war he joined Mum’s family building firm and learned to be a plasterer. I think these jobs must require total absorption – getting the consistency and thickness perfectly right, making changes in body movement to accommodate to distance-from-core,  constantly judging the state of the receiving wall...and all on what looks like automatic pilot; a deeply-embedded skill.

All the time he was working, he sang. He sang completely unselfconsciously, almost as if he didn’t know he was doing it. He’d had his voice trained as a child by a formidable aunt (she was an LRAM, spoken in a hushed whisper) until she threw him out for misbehaving. He had a fine tenor voice and had picked up snatches of Italian opera. They were my first foreign words, but not much use in general conversation: None shall sleep! Your tiny hand is frozen! On with the motley, the powder and the paint! Love me, Alfredo!

My big break came when I went to Italian lessons decades later and the teacher asked each of us what we did. ‘Scrivo!’ I warbled (Rodolfo, Act 1, La Bohème). My favourite Dad story is that he was once plastering a vast factory building and all the windows were open. He became aware of someone outside shouting ‘Excuse me, mister!’ and he went to a window and looked down. A small boy was standing there. ‘Yes, Sonny?’ asked Dad. ‘My mum says, please, do you know The Lost Chord?’
This long preamble is about bits of the brain doing their separate ‘things’ at the same time. It can be a blessing or a curse – happy synchronicity or destructive interference. When it’s happy it’s called multi-tasking and women are supposed to be particularly good at it. When it’s not, it’s like being inhabited by those butterflies, whatever they’re called, little browny jobs that flit about endlessly and very fast and never settle anywhere for more than a nanosecond. 

I’m not like Dad. If I’m singing, I’m singing. Introduce anything else into the job and I’m sunk. The other side of the coin is that when I’m not totally absorbed in something, I’m full of little brown butterflies. The other day, for example, I was thinking about Dad’s story and The Lost Chord was flitting around in my head, alternating with Pretty Flamingo, and images of Dad leaning out of the factory window and Paul Jones with a microphone. This sort of thing happens all the time and rarely makes sense. It’s very distracting. It can shut out everything else. I have to be very careful to make sure I’m not away with the butterflies when I’m walking downstairs, for example, or I’d miss a step and end up in a heap at the bottom. I drop and smash things if I’m in butterfly mode; I just don’t see the glass, the vase, the precious plate. They are sacrificed to a mental pot-pourri of, say, a snatch of Robert Frost: and miles to go before I sleep, Ravel’s Bolero, Klimt’s The Kiss and did I remember to hang the bathmat up? Then someone comes in, someone speaks to me, the phone rings, the butterflies crash-land and in that moment so does the plate/ vase/glass. 

What has all this to do with writing? Well, I’m not sure whether the act of writing banishes the butterflies or the butterflies have to go before I can even think of starting. They disappear when I’m in a state of quiet concentration, not always easy to attain when I’m tired, fretful, under the weather, etc. It’s an effortful calmness, if that makes any sense at all! Something like this:

*Cover your ears against music,
Chatter, noises of the town.
Search for an almost-silence,
A feathery soft swish.

Empty your mind of sunsets,
Scarlet poppies, apricots.
Contemplate goosedown, tundra,
Iced Sherbert, moon.

Sometimes I think it’s the need to write that becomes a butterfly-banishing force; sometimes I think that they flit off randomly and leave me with some head-space for a while so I can write. I prefer to believe that writing saves me from the flittering; that as soon as there’s a scintilla, a crumb of an idea I want to put on the page, something changes fundamentally and I can focus.
I’ve just stopped for a coffee and into my head popped this ‘joke’,  which relates to this post in a sideways sort of way: An Italian, a Frenchman and a German were arguing about which of their languages was the most beautiful. They took the words for butterfly as an example. ‘Farfalle’, sighed the Italian. ‘Papillon’ crooned the Frenchman. ‘Schmetterling’ said the German and the other two burst out laughing. It’s not funny at all. Schmetterling is perfect. It’s EXACTLY what the little brown jobs in my garden and in my head do! 

*extract from How to Paint a Snowscene, Artemis issue 16, May 2016.


Susan Price said…
Lovely post, Sandra.
Umberto Tosi said…
What a delightful musical tribute to your father and cameo of yourself, Sandra. He sounds like a fascinating, zen-like character. I thoroughly enjoyed your post.
Enid Richemont said…
Love this post, Sandra, and your dad was clearly someone very special.

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