Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Things You Do For Poetry

What do you do when you wish you were writing poetry but are not doing it? You go to Poetry Workshops; not the grown-up kind where you workshop poems you have already written but the kind where you do things of an amusing/serious and playful/contemplative nature. You go in order to help the words and ideas that are hovering above your head to find form and incarnate. Or you go because you haven’t got any words or ideas and you hope you will get some from the workshop. You are up for anything: making things with cardboard and sticky-back plastic, conversing with inanimate objects and pretending you are Frankenstein’s mistress or Cinderella’s left slipper. It’s all good. You don’t come away with a clutch of poems in your hand but you feel again that life is pregnant with possibility.

Looking through notebooks long after the event is a like going back and being a fly on the wall. I felt that yesterday when I came across stuff I had set down at a workshop several years ago. Someone got up and mimed the words of a poem we had not yet seen and our task was to write something based on her performance. The poem was "Don't Let That Horse" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Our task was to translate her mime into words. I wrote:

Ride off with me.
Bring nothing but the clothes you wear
and bring your violin.
Get rid of him.

I have a place, it isn’t much
but I will make it fine
with fresh organic soup and wine,
and you will play the violin and sing.
And just get rid of him.

It’s not too late to grasp the nettle –
firmly, love, then it won’t sting.

The thing is, apparently Chagall never did paint anything with that title. But today, after re-reading, I came across Equestrienne (and yess, I have learned how to post pictures). I will be the first to admit that my words may not be a contender for the National or any other poetry competition. But I think I may have stumbled on something in the painting that Ferlinghetti’s poem refers to. There is definitely a violin under the horse’s chin. The grasping the nettle bit was my own flourish, nothing to do with the mime. 'Sing' and 'sting' make a cheeky little rhyme.

The workshop was held in a fabulously done-up flat right next to, and overlooking, the Thames. I think I enjoyed the day, could have sworn I did. But somewhere at the end of the notes, apropos of nothing I can connect to, I have written:

the room grows colder
my heart also

I may have been pretending to be Snow White’s wicked stepmother.

I have got that word in again.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Touching Base

It is not my intention to talk about Big Brother but I did watch the crowning of the winner. I dislike the programme as much as ever and would be happy to see them pull the plug on it, but I was in need of distraction, and there she was – Shilpa the Good. And in spite of it all, one is impressed by her grace. Perhaps this quality, along with her beauty, is her good fortune, being well brought up and inclined by temperament to be sanguine. Whatever, what I wanted at that moment was not to be me for a space. Or, to be accurate, not to have my particular temperament within the context of my particular family, and I do not refer to the jewels in my crown that are Him Outdoors and our children. I refer to the dysfunctional element of the extended family. There is a certain occasion looming. It has begun to cast its shadow. I am aweary and it is still a week away.

There was a children’s story I used to read and re-read about a girl who was given a piece of magic wood that would turn into her double whenever she wanted to be somewhere other than where she was supposed to be. The double would do the homework, eat the cabbage and put up with the cold treatment of the cruel aunt who looked after her. In the end the girl ran away to France where her brother was and left the double to live her life for her.

I coveted this piece of magic, but always knew that I also had my own. I used to think of it as pretending. At school they called it being a “dreamer” (not a compliment). I made things up, invented other places and went to live there. I could pass a whole arithmetic lesson in this way. It didn’t matter how much chalk was thrown at me to answer the question – I wouldn’t be able to because I had been somewhere else. The only problem was, my double hadn’t been doing the sums in my absence. I began to train her up and she managed, after a fashion (never sums, but other things like typing and shorthand). Sometimes I spoke about the things I made up as though they were real. This was called lying.

Later I found others who did this. Some of them were writers. Someone told me it was one of the signs that you might be one if you made up a lot of things that were not “true.” It may be so. It may be for some of us that writing stories is a displacement activity. A fiction writer I know says quite simply that she has to do it or she would go mad. I don’t think I would go mad, but I do know that much of my vital life is lived in the imagination and that hard as it can sometimes be to get there as an adult with responsibilities (including those to dysfunctional family), once there I still feel I’m home and touching the good earth again.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Chocolate is a Bastard

Forget all the things I said, it is a low-down, cheating villain of a substance. It was organic too, 76% cocoa solids. A plague and a pox on their clinical trials. I have a migraine brewing in my whole body. My skin prickles, there is lead in my skull and a storm brewing behind my eyes. No, don’t offer condolences, it’s my own fault for allowing myself to believe in the essential goodness of something that has stabbed me in the back time and again. I think I am about to throw up. Good, I want it out of my system. I lied about the other things - it was a lousy kisser and no good in bed.

My Dark Passion

I am talking chocolate. I am talking the very darkest of the dark, the kind that is slow to release its sweetness and leaves you with an aftertaste of bitterness, wanting more. The one who said that sex is just a substitute for good chocolate may have been joking but those of us initiated into its compelling embrace laugh darkly.

This kind of pleasure must have a sting in its tail. In my case it’s migraine – what I get if I have too much or sometimes even if I have any at all. I can eat as much milk chocolate as I like and nothing happens except that I get fatter, but eating it is like kissing a mere mortal after Zeus. I have adapted. I have made compromises. It compels me still, whispers to me in words only I can understand, and I have the occasional mouthful.

Now I am told that eating 45g of it every day is good for people with M.E. There have been clinical trials at Hull Royal Infirmary that have produced “exciting results.”
I am like a lifer who is occasionally confronted with the promise of parole, the hope of which waxes like the moon, and wanes like it too. I have done alternative therapies, dietary regimes, acupuncture, drugs, supplements, crystals and, yes, Affirmations. I have done it all. And now they are telling me to eat chocolate.

They are not promising a cure. What they say is that the results are significant. People feel better and stronger when they eat the chocolate than when given a placebo. Hardened old-timer though I am, I cannot help but lift my head a little. We are not talking Cadbury’s Bournville here, we are talking a specially formulated 85% cocoa product: in other words, a real head-banger. Well - pink Migraleve has always been my friend. I am tempted.

Suddenly it doesn’t seem sexy any more. It seems like a potentially beneficial medicine. Something lost, something gained. I could cope with that.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

another country

So I went with my nicely completed forms, had the interview and all looks set fair. I’ll be teaching what I love but not doing too much of it, and as it’s for a university I’ll have the perk of being able to use the lovely library. It won’t be till September, so my gap year stays intact. And I never mentioned the letters M.E. And no one will have guessed. It’s not relevant, wouldn’t have fitted into the ‘disabilities’ section of the form (there will be obstacles to negotiate but I am used to this) and is in any case very bad PR, I always tell myself.

On the whole, it is not something I put up as a subject for discussion. I’ll mention it as one might mention a wooden leg, as something that might have to be taken into consideration in some circumstances. There is something about long-term illness and bereavement (here, at any rate) that embarrasses people. Better to cross the road and pretend not to have seen you rather than say – whatever it is they think should be said to someone bereaved. It also frightens people. A number of people have wondered if you could catch it (forgive me, I seem to be in italic mood today). Well, this is a question but once the illness is established, no chance. One then has to field the Good Advice, the but-isn’t-there anything-you-can-do, disbelief, hostility (oh yes, sometimes) and ultimately lack of comprehension. The fact that people don’t understand is something we have to learn to live with. Of course they don’t, none of us understand about others, the best we can offer and hope for is some imaginative empathy along the way.

So why am I here talking about it and why is it up there on my profile, especially when the last thing I want is for people to say, oh Signs, she’s the one with ME? It isn’t who I am but it has informed the way I live and the way I look at things. I take my time because I have to. I look at small things because I have to. I am not looking for the silver lining – the illness is a bastard, it is against all things creative. But I am creative and the way I have worked with it and around it is creative. I no longer expect to live the life I might have had. I live this one: in an age where people expect to do more and more without thinking about it, I have to think about everything I do If all I can do on a given day is walk to the end of the road to post a letter then I had better be awake and notice things. I have had to learn. It is good for poetry. I am a single-tasker. I am not a woman who “juggles her life.” I am time-rich. Granted, much of this time is not “useful” – that is why I can’t do a great deal of anything. But because there are spaces in my life I have time to send cards, speak to friends and look out of the window at the snow melting on the poplar trees. Though I hate the illness, I have grown to love the spaces.

Chronic illness/disability is another country. I didn’t choose it, but I know my way around and behave in the way that is best suited to it, sometimes not but it’s my choice. I send postcards: here is a picture; this is how it is;

Monday, January 22, 2007

Days Like This

I have spent a good part of this day trying to fill in an application form. It isn’t the hardest thing and I need it tomorrow for an interview but I can’t seem to do it. I have a kind of form dyslexia. Faced with one, I can barely remember what my full name is let alone the names and addresses of referees. Anything more complicated than that and I don’t understand the question. I once let a sum of money go because I couldn’t complete the form that might have released tax owing to me. I think, not for the first time, that I am not a proper grown-up.

It is, in any case, a rag-doll day. Last night I slept for thirteen hours. I have sawdust in my head and limbs. I do not let it get me down. I lie; it does get me down, but I find it best to pretend otherwise. I will not go so far as to make Affirmations, I am almost as bad at those as I am at filling in forms, yes and I speak as one who has worked through the whole of Julia Cameron’s “Artist’s Way.” There's one by Louise Hay that goes, "I love my ears. They hear well and enable me to listen. They have a beautiful shape. I love my wonderful ears." It's just not my thing. But pretending is something I can do and often it works, at least for a space of time, and sometimes that is what you need to get you through. Distractions are good, and I have a few: blog-hopping is one of them and I have spent some time today doing that, quite fruitfully I think as I have read things that are engaging, illuminating and/or funny. Day-dreaming about possible writing projects is another but this is potentially dodgy unless the daydreaming is focussed – in which case why not just get notebook or keyboard and begin writing.

But rag-doll days are not for “doing.” They are for going softly, pad pad, through the day in your red and white pyjamas, telling yourself that there are and will be days like this (outside my window is as grey as it is possible for a day to be) and all you need to do is to move through them. And fill in the bloody form.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Heaven's Door

In the antechambers of heaven there will probably be a small room set aside for the purpose of poetry work-shopping. This might sound strange in the light of things I have said about poetry workshops, but I speak now of the ones led by the right wonderful Mimi Khalvati. Today was the first session back after a long break. A room at the top, a table, fresh coffee and a small group of us, each with a poem or two. We say hello, exchange news, fill cups and begin. We focus on the work, we listen to it and to what arises in us as response. It is heaven because we lose ourselves in this. The work is more important than we are. It’s the purest kind of activity I know, apart from making love - and the writing, of course, when it’s coming.

I have that whited-out feeling that comes after this kind of activity. I have overdrawn on strength again, but it’s worth it and I am an old hand at making ends meet. I borrow a bit from coffee, the well-timed snack and analgesics. If anyone gives me Good Advice about caffeine, sugar and pills I am polite because usually they mean well. I no longer welcome Advice, though. I am very experienced and know perfectly well that borrowing from those is like borrowing from a rogue moneylender. But I weigh it all (for each of us it’s different) and do my time with lentils and brown rice, grated carrots and lemon juice. Robbing Peter to pay Paul can sometimes bring surprising results and leave you with something unexpected in your pocket.

After the workshop I was ravenous and bought a bag of chips with salt and onion-flavoured vinegar which I ate with a wooden fork, looking up at Lewes castle and the sky which was dark and full of stars. Et in arcadia ego.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Turning Up at the Page

I live near a forest, close to several high flood-risk areas and today has been wild. There have been fallen trees on roads round about. I had essential errands. Him Outdoors went to London for an interview and had to be collected from a far-flung station because of trees on the tracks between here and Victoria. Then I went to Brighton for a workshop meeting with other writers.

With M.E. you live your life (if you’re lucky) with a small amount of strength that you spend cautiously or you end up in the red. When this happens you pay back with interest. Payback time is not the kind of rest that other people have. It is painful, not restful, and the interest rate can be put up with no warning. But sometimes, or often, you overspend because there is some bit of life to be lived and you want to, even more than you fear the possible consequences. So today I went to Brighton instead of making my excuses and lying down, because that’s my work, even though it earns me not a penny, unless I count a £100 poetry prize (I’m still dining out on), the very occasional poetry reading where I am grateful to get whatever they can spare from takings at the door and £66 for a couple of stories a few years back.

Some of the others at the workshop meeting would say the same. One works as a part- time librarian and teacher and has to fit her “real work” into the gaps. Most writers know about this, and the pressure they feel to do the work and turn up at the page, whatever else is happening in their lives. Without the pressure, they wouldn’t do it. It’s what I’m for and where I am most concentratedly alive – but still it can be a struggle to get to That Place.

Apart from practical problems to do with time and strength, there is a strange resistance to be overcome, especially when beginning a new piece of work. I used to just write short prose fiction. When I was immersed in a story I was carried by it and couldn’t wait to get back to doing it, whatever else was happening. The way to keep the momentum going once it was finished was to begin another one straight away. When I began to write poetry people said that it must be easier - basically because poems tend to be shorter than stories, but I don’t find it so. It’s harder because I have to re-boot every time I begin a new one and sometimes I feel that after a great deal of sweat and slog I haven’t got much to show for it - at the crudest level, I mean: words on paper (in the “bums on seats” way of thinking).

For now, I’m doing that other thing: re-drafting old work. Quite nice when you dig up a story or poem that, with the clear eye of distance, seems to have something, not so nice when you come across that piece that was so wonderful it almost wrote itself and now you look again it’s a bit, well, crap. But the sine qua non is the business of “turning up at the page” – the virgin page, (how I like to get that word in), that is the place of the yet-to-be written. I resist. We all do. It’s why there are books and books about how to push through it.

It’s why I’m turning up here, dear reader, writing about writing again.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Her Indoors

I need a new house. The stairs (too many, too steep) and other reasons. The trouble is I love the house. The trouble is I think she is human and loves me too. I feel as though I’m about to trade in a good and faithful wife for a new model. I feel like a complete bastard.

The new one must be pleasing to the eye, undemanding and low maintenance. I will look at photographs of her, study her dimensions and assess her character. I don’t want one who has let herself go.

My old house is shabby but good. Her skin is cracked and wrinkled. The wooden frames around her windows are rotten. She has chimneys and fireplaces you can burn coal and wood in. I have caught her on a windy day singing to herself. She has many virtues but is modest. I complain about her: she is too tall, too thin and I can’t fit more than a handful of people in her rooms, though the kitchen once gathered ten of us around a table at Christmas. She sometimes achieves the impossible.

When I am alone with her she folds herself around me. I can hear her heart beating. She is close friend to my cat who loves her unquestioningly and would be happy to remain within her sanctuary for the rest of her days. She is the only house I have lived in for so many years. She is the most home I have ever had. She waits for me when I am out.

When I sell her she will wait. She is patient. New people will come and strip her, give her a facelift, pull out the old appliances, but she will think that at any moment I am coming back, bringing the cat with me. When I don’t she will be confused. She won’t know herself. Her heart will start beating to a different rhythm. One day I will go back and look at her and she will no longer know who I am. It may be that I look at her and wish myself back with her, but it will be too late because she won’t be mine.

On the other hand, perhaps she’s cool about the idea. It’s just me losing the plot.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Show Must Go On

It isn’t often that I think about Leo Sayer. I wouldn’t be now had I not decided to take a very quick peek at Celebrity Big Brother, and this because I felt moved to check out the phenomenon that is Jade Goody by reading about it in that’s so pants. BB still has the power to make my jaw literally drop. I am gob-smacked by ghastliness. After two seconds I feel as though I am there with them picking my toenails on the sofa, after thirty (in which at least three celebs broke down and wept because of nomination syndrome) I have served ten years, am waiting for parole and have turned hyperbolic. I stayed long enough to take in Leo irritating a couple of “mates” by banging on about his erstwhile successes, then I switched off.

His songs came back to me, though – The Show Must Go On, One Man Band and a haunting one called The Dancer about a girl trapeze artist who loved a singer, (especially the refrain: “and it rains all down the avenue just for you, boy”). I had a look at YouTube to see what I could find and discovered that L.S. had walked out of The House because they wouldn’t provide him with clean underpants. I watched the clip of him bashing at the door to get outside, telling the security people who kept grabbing him to fuck off, that he wanted to go back to Australia and that being in the BB house was demeaning. He was upset.

I haven’t looked, but the tabloids must be full of it now – how he was too much up his own arse to wash his own underwear and ha ha it serves him right, who does he think he is, we can probably write it ourselves without bothering to look. Publicity is obviously the point of the whole thing: ratings. In order for these to remain buoyant one has to up the ante and apparently what keeps us turned on and tuned in is seeing people demeaned, especially the up-their-arses celebs. The very first BB ever, which I did watch, seems almost like the Garden of Eden.

But nothing lost, one could say, and if the story hangs around Leo like a bad smell why should we care? Off he goes, diminished, as they all will be, must be, if the show is to succeed, which it will if we read the glitter in Davina McColl’s eye. We watch, get hooked and are diminished. And it rains all down the avenue.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Distraction (on not writing)

I should be getting on with some writing. I want to be getting on with some writing. It is Saturday evening, there’s nothing on TV that needs to claim my attention and here I am under the faithful light of my trusty anglepoise. I am, as Mslexia magazine would say, “a woman who writes”, I have that affliction (for more on this, do have a look at the “Gene Genie” post by that’s so pants) and I am distracting myself. Of course, you might say, blogging counts – tap tap go the keys and out come the words – but it isn’t supposed to take the place of the other. And I am doing what I suspect many of the afflicted do when they are busy not getting on with it: I am writing about not writing. This is a close bosom friend of the slightly more elevated occupation of writing about writing. Sometimes I manage to do both at the same time.

This going straight to keyboard is relatively new but already I am used to it. Perhaps it was significant that when I tried to write in my notebook the other day the ink in my pen ran out. I am spending more time at the computer screen, composing straight onto it, which is something I would never have done before. I am perhaps influenced by a writer I have recently come to know who puts in full working days, all in front of a screen. A proper grownup writer. No scribbling in notebooks for her.

But then I miss the running of ink on paper, the flow of thoughts coming down through the body, moving the arm and the hand that holds the pen, seeing the ballpoint dancing across the line and filling it up with words. I love all the paraphernalia of that kind of writing and the paper page that says, do as you please and let whatever wants to come be written on me. The screen doesn’t say that. If you make a mistake or change your mind you delete it. You don’t cross it out and then maybe come back to it later. The typed letters don’t reflect your mood or the state of your health. This is good. You can feel terrible and the characters look as they always do. It takes less strength to tap keys than it does to wield a pen. On the other hand you can’t say things like, the keyboard is mightier than the sword. It doesn’t sound right.

The computer screen can feel like a room I walk into. It takes me in, no pain, no strain. But it also gives me less strength. And staring at a screen takes a toll. Writing on the page, if I have the muscle power and when the words come, always makes me feel (relatively) well and connected to the world. On the other hand (I appear to have three), the tunnel vision experience of being inside the screen, a room within a room, offers possibilities. And perhaps I need to lose it for a space: my connection to the world.

Off I go to read Mslexia.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Poetry Police Alert

I have been inspired by Ros Barber’s post, “Words You Should Never Use in a Poem,” to out myself as someone who ought to be on the hit list of the Poetry Police. It isn’t long ago that I sat above a pub at a poetry workshop session having a bit of a hard time on account of including Virgin, Moon, Rose and Heart (I didn’t capitalise them) all in the one poem. Poetry surgery is a dodgy business and I’ve been the one with the scalpel as well as the one on the receiving end; and though I like to think my bedside manner is impeccable there have been times when the knife has slipped a little here and there. I try to leave the heart intact. There, I’ve used that word again. The heart of the poem, I mean. It can happen, and I’ve seen it done, that a piece of work is perfected to within an inch of its life and gives up the ghost.

But I’m a tough old boot and I can take it, especially when there is a bar downstairs selling good beer and one hasn’t yet given up smoking Camel cigarettes. The funny thing was, I thought to myself as I rubbed beer into my wounds, that there I was with Art Garfunkel on the jukebox singing Are The Stars Out Tonight, and outside the sky was clear and full of them shining. I went back upstairs and a great big moon shone through the window and looked at us as we tried to edit her out under the light of a 40 watt bulb.

I know, of course you need to work at a poem, pruning is a part of the work and no-one likes to murder their darlings. It’s because words are so powerful that one pretentious or overblown word in a poem can bring the whole thing down, and I can’t help sympathising with the miserable John Osborne who held it against his mother that she said “lemon” instead of naming the colour yellow. But we also have a duty to put a custard pie in the face of the Poetry Police and reclaim the Virgin and the Rose. You can say Condom and Pisspot any time you like - oh yes, they won’t do you for that, and nor would I come to that. They are good words. But so is Moon – and I have been told in all seriousness that you can’t have it any more because it’s been used too often. Ditto Heart. Carol Ann Duffy can’t have minded this when she wrote “Rapture”.

Anyway, I left in Moon and Virgin and the poem was published. This doesn’t prove anything other than when push comes to scalpel you should go ahead and use the words you feel in your soul (ouch) are the right ones, and let the Police go whistle.

I'd give the moon for a Camel.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Remembering Bethlehem

Some mothers didn’t talk about sex. Some mothers didn’t mention money, death or private parts. Mine didn’t talk about god. When I was twenty one I asked her why we never talked about god. I can’t remember what she said but I felt an embarrassment in her. It was the last thing she would have wanted to talk about. When deep questions arose in her as a child her grandmother would say,
“Mein kind, dass ist die Natur,” and that satisfied her.

I was born with god in the wings. Though genderless, god looked first like my paternal grandmother who died when I was six and later like the revolutionary Marxist cricket writer, C.L.R. James. I knew, though, that he was mercurial, a shape-changer, or no shape at all, and lived in the pines, in the forest that bordered the German village where I lived as a young child. Bethlehem was also in the forest. A star tagged to the top of a tree I could see from my bedroom window pointed to the stable and the wax candles on our christmas tree came from there.

Back in London, there was no more Bethlehem. In assembly, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the hall, which served also as gym and dining room, the moustachioed headmaster sang holy, holy, holy, and said thy will be done. Everyone knew about the thing that will be done. It was called Thy. Forever, amen. No-one there had been close to Bethlehem, under the same sky.

Today my son headed back to university, mathematics and logic. Last night, out of a conversation about homoeopathy, alternative medicine and a Devon-based shaman who uses earth elementals (gnomes, fairies etc.) to heal sick people, the talk came around to belief. I have a sense that my son may have inherited the god thing, but these days anything that can’t be properly argued and validated smacks of lazy thinking and quite right too, I suppose. But there’s not much I can say to support my belief that god is out there and in here (still looking like C.L.R. James), other than that it would require a degree of faith I do not possess for me to unbelieve. Also, I live near a forest. It isn’t the Bethlehem one, but sometimes I catch the drift of something that reminds me and I remember it, just as it was.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

MacDonald's and grace

I had to go to the supermarket, there was nothing to eat and my son with a cough and a cold needing things to take back to university with him. En route to the little town, just coming to the bypass, I knew I was sliding into a blood sugar low and remembered I hadn’t eaten for some hours. Moments later a terrible craving came upon me for food. I do not absorb nutrients efficiently so this is common. I picture slabs of fish, meat, cheese – protein. I will do what is necessary to get it, if I don’t it is a bad outlook (I shiver, change colour and am best avoided). Last year, after teaching the two-hour class that was fifty-minutes drive from my home, it would be a toss-up between racing to the nearest garage for food or putting my foot down to get home. The food won and I would sit in the car by a petrol pump cramming it in before racing home to sleep like the dead for three hours.

I say I am one of the lucky ones and it is so, the heroes being those who are mostly house or bed-bound and either finding a living source within even so, or that the illness overwhelms them. I have been there and take nothing for granted.

So it was that I zoomed into a MacDonald’s drive-through place and ordered a double cheeseburger and medium coffee. Like others in the right-thinking universe I avoid the place, but it is cheap and quick and gives you an instant hit. The woman handing out the wrapped cheeseburger at window no. 4 asked if I wanted sugar with my coffee. I said yes and crammed the burger into my mouth. She smiled and asked how many, I said one. She fished around and held out her palm in which there were two paper tubes of sugar and a wooden stick to stir with, and she gave me a wide-open smile from her eyes. I took it in with the first mouthful I swallowed and it was good. “One extra for luck,” she said. “You look hungry.” She had a good voice too. Kind. I said I was, very hungry, but this would make it better. She looked pleased. Someone drove up behind and I moved on. I drank the coffee in the supermarket carpark. I had both sugars. Sometimes life is so sweet. So good.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Me, My Profile and I

Who am I? This is not a rhetorical question, nor am I looking for answers. I came up against my profile as I showed it to a friend who wanted to see how the blogging thing all worked. I didn’t recognise the person the words referred to. The experience lasted a microsecond but in that moment there was a sensation as if a connection had gone or a fuse blown. Who she?

The idea that you are what you most habitually do is a reasonable one, though I have in mind a friend who worked as a temp, making ends meet by doing the mind-numbingly boring jobs that none of the permanent staff would touch.
“I file,” she said, when asked what she did. I always felt she carried this off quite beautifully with a kind of never-apologise-never-explain chutzpah that I didn’t possess. “I type” didn’t have the same ring to it and I would try to elaborate, which was a mistake. What we did wasn’t what we were, could never be what we were, though it ate up the precious days. Two evenings a week we went to A level Eng Lit night classes where she fell in love with the teacher and we learned Chaucer, Shakespeare, Blake - and that Keats had asked to be written on his tombstone the phrase:

“Here lies one whose name was writ in water”

which I liked, though I couldn’t have said why; the chameleon poet who didn’t want his name set in stone. Blogging profiles are fine because you can change and play with them, but there’s still the business of trying to establish an identity by listing occupations and preferences. It doesn’t touch on the mystery and essence of who one is, though I reckon the profile of the lovely Non-Working monkey (“unemployed, but with enough money to buy crisps”) comes pretty close.

Saturday, January 6, 2007


This year the weather people are again talking about the cold that’s coming, the hard, icy winter - last year was supposed to be colder than any since 1962, the year that Sylvia Plath died, that terrible early February of the full moon and the howling wolves. I lived around the corner from her and remember it well. Or to be more precise the details I learned later became the imagined past and filled the place of memory. I read Ariel when I was fifteen, heard what happened just a short walk away from the flat where I lived with my mother and sister near Primrose Hill and I thought that if only I had known her I could have done something to change the situation, that we could have been friends and I could have saved her. That she may not at that point have welcomed the friendship of a nine-year-old child didn’t occur to me until years later, but by then the idea had lived in me so long it had taken a kind of root. And I wrote a story called “Saving Sylvia”. So it goes.

My neighbour says he is ready now for whatever comes. It can hail and sleet and huff and puff and his house can withstand it all. He is a builder. He has filled in all the cracks, lagged and plastered, rendered and made good. In our house there are cracks and imperfections but I think it will do and can’t help wanting the clean, sharp bite of real cold, something strong enough to harden the earth. Clear bright nights with stars. I fear it when I think of my children, grown as they are, out in it without enough warm clothes, but want it too, more than the long, grey, warm and wet days with cars slushing through congested streets and flooding in the low-lying parts of the county, the sky with its endless incontinent weeping and mutterings about the effects of global warming. I am ready for the cold.

And now it is almost epiphany. Here is the beginning of T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”:

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

Keep warm.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Queen of Grunge

The festive season is at an end, though epiphany is on Saturday and it’s not over till the fat lady sings. I suppose I mean that shopping is back to normal, you can feel it in the air when you go out to buy bread and milk. People don’t move as though they are ready to do damage for their next fix. The soap and talcum gift sets in the chemist’s are slashed to half price. I hate shopping. I don’t mean the bread, milk and vegetables kind, or even the detergent and toothpaste kind – there is a purpose and rhythm to this that I can understand. It’s the clothes and accessories kind I hate. When I was eight the most boring thing to do was trail around with grownups shopping for clothes but I assumed that one day I would come to love it, that it would assume the same importance in my life as it clearly did in theirs and that this, along with preferring to lie in bed in the mornings rather than get up, and liking cabbage, was what happened to you when you grew up. When I was thirteen there were unmistakeable signs that the shopping thing had happened to other girls and I waited for it to happen to me too. It never did. I like to have nice things, am pleased and grateful if they are given to me but don’t go out to buy anything new unless things fall apart. My last shopping expedition was two years ago with a friend who was tired of seeing me in the purple shell-suit trousers I bought in a charity shop in 1992. I have the same woollen jumpers I had ten years ago. I look after them and build a kind of relationship with them, they come in and out of favour but there is never any need to throw them away. I wear the purple shell-suit trousers with my late father-in-law’s purple cashmere jumper, sometimes with a string of pearls, and a couple of people have thought they were made of crushed silk. Or I wear them with my ten-year-old Birkenstocks and a Weird Fish hoodie I found a few years back. Him Outdoors calls me the queen of grunge. So clearly I have style.

This is all good because shopping takes strength I would prefer to use to use for other things, like starting up a new Poetry CafĂ© in my neck of the woods – which is what a friend and I spent yesterday working on. The work involved: checking availability of a room in the local community centre, contacting a guest poet to come and read, deciding what kind of tin we would use for collecting entrance money and eating a gingerbread house. The community centre said yes, the poet said yes and the gingerbread house was delicious. We still have to find a tin.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Teeth, Adrenaline and the Universe

I have a core belief that the universe is not a safe place. A cognitive behavioural therapist revealed this to me and encouraged me to challenge it, even though I think that, as beliefs go, it’s quite a reasonable one. I can live with this. But today I went to the dentist who gave me a shot of local anaesthetic with adrenaline, in spite of my notes saying No Adrenaline – on account of it not sitting well with people who have M.E. It did occur to me to check, as I usually do, that he was remembering to give me the other thing, but as I am a frequent visitor and we have been through this many times, I decided to trust the situation. My heart immediately told me something was wrong. It began to skip about. A good messenger, the heart.

My old German grandma who had fled Nazi Germany with gold pieces sewn into the lining of her fur coat, used to tell everyone they should “be heppy because things can only get vorse”. So clearly I get my core belief from her. Are things getting worse? The muscles in my shoulders and legs say yes. And am I happy? In the teeth of it all - you bet.

Monday, January 1, 2007

first foot

We threw coins for the I-Ching last night. I was a bit drunk, he was very drunk and the signs were not auspicious for either of us – something about stagnant ponds and the darkening of the light. But I have survived the year of the sagging ridgepole and understand that care of the cow brings good fortune. And the oracle may have been disgruntled because we were drunk. In any case it is my experience that continuing to place one foot in front of the other tends to lead to all kinds of unexpected things and is a necessity, if one is able to keep doing it – and I can, being one of the lucky ones.

Beginning this blog is a step. I think I know (but can’t be sure) why I’m doing it: things have been a bit – how can I put it – “stagnant” in the pond of creative endeavour. I am having a gap year from teaching work for health reasons (see profile) and it is good to have time to stand and stare at the darkening of the light as the sun goes down into the trees on the forest, but many days without writing is no life for a writing person. So I set myself a New Year challenge to turn up here as a way of giving myself a bit of a kick in the right direction.
Last year I discovered the world of blogs – reading them has become my distraction of choice – and I felt like joining in.