Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Good and Bad at Games

Fame - what is it anyway? “The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little,” said Lord Byron, and he was experienced. But now we have Battle of the Blogs, courtesy of Leesa, and as I have been nominated (my one is here) it is only proper to enter into the spirit of the thing. This is quite out of character as I am and have always been bad at competitive games, the spirit of them I mean. I am sure that this is one of the reasons I was booted out of my Very Good School. Certainly it was an attitude thing, but it was not a case of I’m a free spirit and bollocks to the system, I would have obliged if I could; I was always, and remain, baffled by the concept of team spirit. I had none and couldn’t imagine why others did. I would rather have spent the entire games period scuffing my shoes behind the painted white line on the tarmac ground than run around trying to get the ball into the net.

Also (with hindsight) I was not robust, or my energy was not that kind of energy. I wanted to play the sort of game where there was no winning and losing, there was just the playing. This also ruled out board games like Monopoly or Risk and most card games. It was transformation I was after, pure and simple. Call it an active imagination or the desire to be anywhere but where I happened to find myself in the given moment. Luckily there were always one or two stragglers behind the lines that were kindred, and so it has continued. And there are those in the ranks of the game-players and trophy-collectors with whom I have contact, eye to eye, heart to heart, who take time out to stand in my territory, who graciously invite me into theirs.

I did win a couple of medals, though, for ski-ing: one of them was a gold one for racing. I competed because I was on a trip with the school and was told I had to. I didn’t mind, I was in it for the whoosh on snow and the mastery, the joy of the slalom weave around the posts, transformation, pure and simple. Being given a medal for something I loved doing anyway was strange and good. The golden medal (I imagined it was real gold) was something solid I could hold in my hand, feel the weight of. I wore it on my anorak and it lent me a shine. A bit of fame. It was ok.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Beautiful Cafe

We had the main hall of the village community centre, a building that was once the local primary school. There were candle-lit tables, an angel-headed guitarist, hot fruit juice, wine – and poets, including our invited one, Maria Jastrzebska, who writes poetry that is intimate and personal but not sentimental, political but not preachy. She also writes beautifully about M.E. There was a moment when we and the poet thought that no-one other than us would be there. I had steeled myself for this, you never know. Then the place filled up. There are those star-dusted moments when everything that should happen does happen and all is, for a short space, right with the world. In other words it was a good first Poetry Café.

I have also been poetry workshopping with three others at my kitchen table. Perhaps workshopping isn’t the right term, but I don’t know what to call it. We do things that lead us into something that is, or might become, poetry or story. I have just looked at that last sentence. It is appalling but accurately reflects my ability to focus at this moment so I’ll leave it. I’m not in too bad a shape considering all, but the mind is a fuzzy television screen with many white dots, behind which you can just make out the picture. The picture is Bonanza, that cowboy series from the 1960s and 70s. I am visualising, free-associating, you see, doing one of those things that might lead to poetry. Or not. Sometimes you sit there and it’s just words on paper, something ridiculous about, let’s say, Bonanza, or the sound of a rollerball moving across white paper, and you were going to say virgin paper but remember that virgin is one of those words you shouldn’t use. Then you say it anyway. Then you cross it out. Damn, it’s hard being a wordsmith.

There was, however, coffee in my kitchen, the real thing, a latte made with strong americano or espresso blend and hot milk. Poets need coffee. They meet (well, used to) in coffee houses rather than opium dens or pubs. They even meet in old school halls to read their stuff and listen to others and call it Poetry Café when there is no coffee at all but in the name. Poetic license.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Small Good Things

I have been considering how I might answer on judgement day to account for myself and my time on this earthly plane. What have I done here, what achieved? Well not a lot, is one way of looking at it. But I have had my moments and those will have to stand between me and eternal damnation:

I have learned how to make a wooden spoon. I made one at school (a Steiner one obviously) when I was 11, and if asked I could make one again now, from the first drawing on a piece of wood cut for the purpose to the last bit of fine sandpaper and rub of oil so as not to let it go naked into the world. In time it fashions its own skin. It was my father’s favourite cooking utensil. He took it with him into his second marriage. My stepmother loved it too, she used it even when the end was burned, having been left near the gas hob. She may have used it until her death. They talked about it, how when she cooked she always looked for it. To steal from the title of a Raymond Carver story, I count that as a small good thing.

I have found people to play with. In the tarmac playground at primary school, I bounced a ball against the brick wall that separated us from the railway track. I only played with the ones that knew without telling how to make things up as you go along, who could perhaps skip, count and chant dippidippidation my operation, how many people at the station but could also see that there was a door in the brick wall that might lead to the best and the worst of all possible worlds. I played with the ones who would go through the door without asking questions, brave soldiers. And sometimes my comrades-in-arms were stronger than I was. Shakela who, tired of my reading the Beano all the afternoon she came to play, seeing there was very little time left, said: let’s pretend that each minute is a whole day and we can fit in as much playing in quarter of an hour as we could in two weeks. Quintin who had to stand up and be told by Miss Williams that he was filthy and should be ashamed of himself, and who said, I had a bubbly bath last night Miss, and I’m clean and turned to me smiling, showing all his white teeth, who was the butt of Miss Williams’ anger (you’re disgusting Quintin, what are you?) and who at playtime shared with me a chocolate egg that looked like a real one with a white crispy shell.

Who can pull rabbits from a hat and let them go? Turn wine into water and pour it into the river home of a talking fish? I allowed for many possibilities. So my old friend who wanted stories was glad of a woman as beautiful as her hair was black who came from another planet in a spaceship to leave us notes in strange handwriting that said when the moon is blue your wish will come true and a gift of green Palmolive soap, a handful of nuts and raisins stuffed into a sock.

And I write poems. If the One with the black book doesn’t accept these things as currency then I will take my bag of tricks and go elsewhere.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Life on Earth

Just been watching the second series Life on Mars which is the best thing on TV since the first series. Apart from the characters, the script, the whole idea of it, what I enjoy is being back in 1973, even a pretend 1973. You can never really recreate the past, though they do a good job with the rusty Ford Cortina, everyone smoking all the time everywhere and Yellow Brick Road.

I have been up to London to spend a night in the Hammersmith Novotel with Him Outdoors who has been attending a conference. Walking along the stretch of road between Hammersmith station and Novotel, I realised I had not walked that stretch of road for 40 years. It has all changed, of course, but I’m sure I recognised the odd bit of pavement and know where the old kiosk used to be where I bought my Maltesers en route to the crammer that was supposed to put right my “falling behind” on account of my two years at a Rudolf Steiner school. The crammer was pretty awful – no stories, no songs or pictures (doodling on exercise books strictly forbidden) but I suppose they did their job. I passed the entrance exam into a Good School - which I was chucked out of a few years down the line. Now in the late summer, or autumn, of my life (depending on whether I’m spared some or many more years), I think I have changed less than the area has. I like playing games where you make things up and I try not to walk on the cracks. I like eating the chocolate around the Malteser before biting into the crunchy part. I think about what I will do when I grow up. If I were to be time-warped back to 1967 I would feel right at home. When I go to London now I feel a stranger. It isn’t my place any more. I am constantly surprised by the swarms of people everywhere at all times. I wouldn’t be able to get proper coffee but I don’t mind instant and know how to make pretend latte.

We went to see Nothing But the Truth by John Kani at the Hampstead Theatre. John Kani also acted one of the central characters in the play. Set in post-apartheid South Africa`at the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it is in many ways a play about memory and identity, exposing the shortcomings of the reconciliation process and the necessity of talking about the past. During the performance, we found the response of some of the audience very peculiar. Listening to the endless tittering, it seemed that much of the play was received as a kind of laugh-a-minute sitcom, though everyone did at least shut up during Kani’s wonderful, moving monologue at the end. And people rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation.

I am preparing for a couple of days creative workshopping with some poet friends (all writing teachers) here at Signs Cottage, followed by a triumphant inaugural poetry café event in the local community centre on Friday night. Getting together and making things up as we go along is the kind of thing I would have liked doing in 1967. Then I would have had to justify the time spent. Now I don’t. Wish me strength.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Birds and Words

It is extraordinarily quiet here. Nothing but birdsong and the hum of my computer. My garden seems to have been adopted by a couple of blackbirds. As they do not have any distinguishing features I can’t swear they are the same ones, but there are always two out there now, hopping about on the cedarwood roof of the garden studio. A whole lot of blue-tits as well, which I like to see, so many of them having been driven away last year by thug starlings. For a couple of weeks then I got into a bit of a Hitchcock’s “The Birds” condition with the endless raw-throated caw-cawing of them as they fought each other for the bread and cooked rice on my neighbour’s bird table. But it isn’t like that now. There is a muted feel to the landscape and the sky. I like it because it asks nothing of me. After poetry workshop I am tired.

Because I said I would write a poem, I did, and when I had done it I could see that it had been there for a while waiting to be written. It came out of a holiday in Lesvos last year and some notes I had made at the time. I haven’t been writing in notebooks recently and I miss it, am reminded to take up my pen again – literally. Keyboard is good but not the same process at all. Opening a notebook which I haven’t looked at for some months is always a surprise. The person who made the notes is a surprise as well as the things she feels it is important to notice. In Lesvos there were days when the wind was strong, you knew by looking out at the trees that grew just by the beach. On my first day I wrote:
“Blowing so hard, I can’t hear myself think. Something frantic about the trees – what kind are they? Evergreen-type foliage, agitated and restless. How can we rest with this going on in plain sight?”
On my last day:
“The trees are called tamarisk. Their trunks are sturdy, weathered bark and they grow forked into twos and threes. The cloud of green that has been so busy with the wind is made of spindle-green filaments, delicate when seen up close. The roots of the tree go right down into the salt-water, which they do not mind.”
Out of this, and other bits about my daughter’s sunburn and an old donkey by the ruin of a temple to Dionysus, the poem came. Or the beginnings, the substance of one.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Just Do It

I am feeling anxious and unwedged. Nothing I can’t name, and naming the demons does give a certain hold on things. Not enough of a hold, however, to let me get on with writing, the other sort, I mean. Some people write to keep themselves sane but I need all my sanity to feel centred enough to do it. On the other hand, doing it can also help centre me. On the third hand, I do not do writing as therapy. On the fourth hand, just do it. I need to write a poem by Saturday. I have plenty to work on, but it has been too long since I made a new one and this Saturday is workshop day. I never usually sit down to write a poem knowing what it is I want to write about. Very occasionally I do feel, as a poet friend of mine has described it, “with poem”, as though I am about to give birth to one. Usually it is by setting myself a certain task, going to the coalface, that I hit a seam. I know that a fixed routine helps but M.E. makes its own agenda and is unpredictable. I have to work around it.

There is a steady trickle of people coming to look over the house. They are charmed by it in for the same reasons as I am. They also notice the things that have contributed to the decision to up and move. Our last viewer was a woman whose husband had died two years ago. She said the house was lovely, looked over the treetops from the room with the extraordinary view and said “oh” several times when she went up and down the steep stairs. I wanted to say don’t even think about it. She is not young and doesn’t look like the aerobic and pilates type. The stairs will be too much for her. “I will think about it,” she said. “If it is meant to be, it is meant to be.” Buying houses does this sort of thing to people.

Another woman said she couldn’t wait to see the garden studio “where you do all your writing.” As I hadn’t said a word about writing this threw me a bit. I didn’t tell her that I don’t actually do my writing there in the winter, preferring the snugness of the tiny room in the house. She kept staring at me open-mouthed. It was odd. Like I said, I’m a bit unwedged.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

On the Market

Damn, I am having to keep the place tidy. I was reminded of this when the estate agent rang at the ungodly hour of 9.30 am to schedule in another house-viewer. I have been going around dusting with old vest, feeling like one of those women from Last of the Summer Wine or Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, telling the cat not to breathe on the furniture. I lit a sandalwood joss stick and the place smelled as though someone had just been smoking dope. Hippy chic, makes a change from coffee and freshly-baked bread. Vacuuming is out of the question. But I have emptied wastepaper bins, cleared surfaces and stuffed things under beds. Someone came with baby in the crook of her arm. The house spoke to her, I could see by the way she looked out of one of its windows. Imagining.
“It’s lovely,” she said. I nodded glumly.
“Yes, I think so.”
“But the stairs are steep.” We went back downstairs. “The stairs are really steep.” I couldn’t disagree. It’s one of the reasons I need to move.
“You get used to them,” I said. It is sort of true. They are a pain and I am used to them, it doesn’t make them any easier.
“Why are you moving,” she asked.
“Work reasons and, you know, time for a change, children at college (don’t mention illness).
“Must feel like such a wrench after all this time.”
“Um - ”
Outside, she cocked her head and listened. Only the faint sea-roar of traffic in the distance.
“It’s quiet here,” she said. “What kind of tree is that?”
“Apple,” I said. We make apple jelly in the autumn.

Of course, she probably won’t come back because of the stairs. And this will pass.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

ever after

The Good Day lasted about 3 hours. Then I realised: What with pretend lattes and herbal tea, having been without fresh ground for a few days, I’d forgotten about the temporary high of the caffeine kick.

I came down to earth in Argos (this sounds like something from Star Trek, or perhaps it is the possible first line of a poem). Sheer pull of gravity, a dizzy head and pain in muscles made standing looking through catalogue deeply unpleasant. I was looking for calico curtains to cover the open-to-view “wardrobe” area because of house now being on the market. Had nearly nailed the items needed when I was approached by a bright-eyed teenage girl in a wheelchair. She asked could I move to another desk as this one was low down and therefore suitable for her and her friend, also in a wheelchair. All the other desks were occupied. I hesitated.
“I’ll just be a minute,” I said.
“We’re in wheelchairs,” she said, “this is the right height for us.” I moved. By the flat-screen TV screens I sat down. I looked at the lovely, chattering girls in their wheelchairs. The mother of one of them was leaning down, listening. She looked up at me, baffled.

The house has been viewed twice today. I am feeling too full of M.E. to think about it very much – hey ho, silver lining. But in other respects, a perfect Sunday afternoon because I sat in a cosy picturehouse with popcorn and a good friend, watching the new Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore romcom, and it was everything the reviewers on rottentomatoes say it is. But today it was just the ticket.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Jeopardy

I might be having what we call a Good Day. These come unannounced and never for any particular reason that I can see. It may be that one has rested more conscientiously than usual, but reward doesn't necessarily follow – resting is something we do because things get very bad if we don’t. It is as though one is at the mercy of some capricious authority who decides on a whim to give a day’s holiday. If he (for it is a he) is in a good mood it may be more, you don’t know. The day, if it is very good, can bring with it a terrible euphoria of the kind I believe is sometimes experienced by long-term prisoners when they have been deprived of natural light. An open window, a line of birdsong can do it. The euphoria is dangerous for two reasons: there is an overwhelming impulse to make up for lost time and one initiates and commits to all kinds of projects and engagements that will later have to be cancelled or managed with great difficulty; and in this heightened state it is possible to believe that the long illness is over and freedom has come. Deliverance. The comedown is terrible.

I am being careful.

Friday, February 9, 2007

What It Is

Every so often I am reminded of the things I love. I am not about to list “my favourite things” (though actually why not? It’s the kind of thing Natalie Goldberg gives as a creative writing exercise and what I do like about her is she doesn’t pretend to be highbrow). Top of my list is poetry. It makes me better. It doesn’t, in my case, make physical illness go away, but poetry, when it’s the real thing, revitalizes the spirit by naming the world truly and re-creating it. It is, for me, a proper recreation, but sometimes I forget, am stopped in my tracks, reminded.

A poet friend has just emailed me something she has written. She works for a farm project and one of her tasks is to provide freshly-written poems for the organic vegetable boxes that are sent out. The one she sent me has as its focus apples in midwinter. It’s about loss, grief, intense desire – and sexual fulfilment. All that from a few lines, words, apples. Why this should uplift and inspire me as it does is mysterious.

Less mysterious is the enjoyment I get from a cup of pretend latte. I have run out of real coffee and am using granules. I have them with one third hot water, two thirds hot milk and a spoon of sugar. It tastes much better than it ought to, is more than the sum of its ingredients. I may even have another as I look through the stories posted for Mr. Moon’s short fiction competition. I have already made my shortlist of six. I find sustained reading of fiction very hard, but it helps that each one is short, and I want to give it my best shot – seems only right as I am one of the contributors.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

just passing through

I feel I should say something to all the people who find themselves here because they have googled Chagall and/or Ferlinghetti, not to mention Leo Sayer. I didn’t know that my humble blog would light up with the promise of something I am clearly not going to deliver. Also, if you happen to be looking in, sorry to the person who googled ‘reading the signs of marital breakdown’. I trust you found what you were looking for elsewhere. Mostly people who land here by accident move on, but some have stayed to have a look, and I find myself pleased by this. Why? Don’t answer that. I won’t either.

For most of my life I have been a wanderer; not so unusual now for people to move around a great deal, but when I was young it was my experience that those around me, my peers, were settled people who belonged to the place where they were. The I Ching has on a number of occasions (new year) seen fit to pronounce that “the wanderer has no place to lay his head” and I nod, feeling like Clint Eastwood in one of those films where he chews his cheroot and walks into the sunset to the sound of a single note from a harmonica. I was born under a wandering star. It didn’t suit me actually, I would have preferred a star that was fixed, a little time to find my bearings, but there it is; and I got used to it, the wandering, and now I am restless when I find myself too settled, even though this is better for me. I am used to being in the playground on the margins, looking on at the skipping rope turning for the “all-i-in together, if you miss a loop you’re out” or bouncing the ball against the wall, making friends with the stragglers, moving on just when I’d negotiated a place in the rope queue, to begin all over again in a new playground. I have often been warmed by the kindness of strangers though I don’t depend on it.

This is by way of introducing myself, dear googler who may or may not have a place to lay his/her head and be bouncing a ball on the edge of where we skip around in cyberspace. Or it is perhaps by way of putting up another post when I am not at all sure I have anything to say. Where the signs peter out, poetry begins. Or not.

Monday, February 5, 2007

A Hint of Purple

I am preparing my house to be “viewed”. Having previously imagined it as a faithful wife long past her prime, I now feel she is a girl I am trying to prepare for the marriage market. People will soon be coming to assess her suitability as future wife. That she is too thin they will already understand from the measurements provided by the “go-between.” But they, being of modest means, will be realistic. They will look for her good qualities. What can I say? She is disobedient, untidy, unpredictable and hums to herself in unseemly fashion. But she makes people smile and how airily she looks over the tops of trees and houses. In her garden there are apples, cherries and cobnuts and the fine limb of a studio that is without spot or blemish. Two friends came today in order to help prepare for her coming out. The clutter is stashed in boxes. She holds her breath. I have not yet found a house to replace her.

I already feel houseless, or only half here. But perhaps that is also the excarnating after-effect of trying to show willing and be sociable at a Sunday lunch party of more than 40 loud people at the top of a restaurant where we were all instructed to “circulate.” No sooner had one established the ground for some form of tolerable mutual exchange than it was time to move on and begin again with someone else. I wonder how I would manage with speed dating. At one point I interrupted someone in full flow to say that I had to go outside. I told her I had M.E. and could no longer understand what was being said to me. This is unlike me. She is not someone I know or am likely to meet again so there was no need to volunteer this information. I could have professed an urgent need to go to the loo or done something or other - what anyone else does at parties when they want to extricate themselves. Perhaps this is the M.E. equivalent of becoming old and wearing purple. Or it is the beginning of the kind of incontinence manifested by the Ancient Mariner who felt compelled to tell his tale.
Oh dear, said the woman, I didn’t know, have you tried cutting out yeast, I once knew someone who –
Certainly it is easier to hold someone with a glittering eye and tell one’s tale than to listen. I went outside. I saw my daughter smoking a Marlborough. I asked her for a drag. It was good. I went back inside. I drank an Americano in one and had cake. I got second wind. I looked at the faces of my two children, my son up for the day from university. All manner of things will be well. If only one were still smoking cigarettes.

My kingdom for a Camel.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Hitting the Wall

Some women say that after childbirth they forget all about the pain and that this is nature’s way of making sure you go on and do it again.. Or that the love you feel for your children makes you forget, or you just do because otherwise you would go mad thinking about it. Perhaps it’s just the way I’m wired, but I never forget anything: the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful is all imprinted, scratch me and I’ll sing. It is this way with everything, I have extraordinary powers of recall for the way things were and the particulars thereof.

The exception to this is M.E. I stood in the supermarket today and hit the wall. The wire basket on my arm was becoming too full to carry and I knew I couldn’t go outside to get a trolley because that would mean walking up an incline and I fucking couldn’t. Added to which there was a duvet drying in a launderette machine up another incline and how was I going to get the shopping to the car, deal with the duvet and get myself home? It is like a recurring nightmare where you suddenly realise that you have been here before and actually if you try hard you might be able to wake yourself up. Never mind how the situation was sorted – strategies. But still, after all these years, I am taken by surprise. I get myself into situations that I should know from experience will lead to this. I commit to things I shouldn't. I forget about the wall. Perhaps that is in itself a strategy.

Twenty years in and I am surprised by incapacity. This does perhaps contradict what I said before about having come to terms with things as they are. It's the other side of the coin: the crazy expectation that I will "take up my bed and walk", or a knock on the door will come, a tap on the arm that says, you’ve done your time. And sometimes I wake up, it's a new day and I forget to walk the line.