Monday, July 30, 2007

"Like a breath I knew would come"

It just happens like this sometimes. You wake up to a day like any other, go out for a walk like any other, and the day, for some reason or none at all, comes right up close to meet you; unveils itself, reveals itself in grass, sky and woodsmoke. One butterfly. At such times you understand how Rilke could come to an utterance such as

"Earth, is it not just this that you want: to arise
invisibly in us? Is not your dream
to be one day invisible? Earth! invisible!
What is your urgent command, if not transformation?
Earth, you darling, I will! Oh, believe me, you need
no more of your spring-times to win me over: a single one,
ah, one, is already more than my blood can endure.
Beyond all names I am yours, and have been for ages.
You were always right, and your holiest inspiration
is Death, that friendly Death.
Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future
are growing less.... Supernumerous existence
wells up in my heart."

Sorry folks, but I'm even going to put up a youtube thing. I know, I know. But this is how it feels. I can't be rock and roll ALL the time.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Round the Block

I meet up with a couple of people once a week, if we can manage it, in order to write together. We have done this for years. Sometimes what it written in the sessions becomes poem or story, other times it stays just as it is and serves no particular purpose. We like to do it and it is a convivial form of writing practice.

Today I brought along my Writer’s Block which is actually a block of ideas, images, words, all designed to “jump-start your imagination.” But sometimes the very notion of all the possibilities scares me. They are doors I don’t feel able to walk through. Then at other times I can open any thought, any image at random and go into it. Whatever “it” is welcomes me with open arms, but it can feel strange leaving at the end of the allotted time, as though walking out of a relationship just begun, ended before it has been given the chance to flourish. When I think of the many writing sessions I have undertaken, on my own or with others, my sense is that I was bridegroom and the words and images were brides who all said yes and opened to me, and I left them all stranded and perplexed. They waited for a while and then shrivelled away, disappointed. I could have gone back to any one of them and made something but they all wanted, expected so much of me and I couldn’t settle for anything smaller than they were, nor could I give the commitment wanted of me. Perhaps this is how it is to be a philanderer.

I wonder if it’s reproach I feel (mine or theirs?) as I open the door and catch sight of their faces; is it that I know how much is involved in the engagement and that I haven’t a hope of fulfilling my obligations or that I can’t spare the emotional and physical energy for even a brief affair? It is the hope they place in me that scares me, the fact that they have not stopped wanting.

786 Ideas to Jump-Start Your Imagination, says the block. The image of a car, yes? This is what came suddenly to mind this morning; a car that can’t get started on its own because the battery is flat, so you attach the leads to a vehicle whose engine is up and running. You jump start, the engine revs and you go for a bit, sometimes slowly, sometimes roaring along the motorway, doing the ton. Then you stop, turn back, go home, always before you reach your destination. You had set out for Cornwall, Ireland, France, Africa even, why not? But you don’t get to any of these places, you turn around and go home.

Then I opened the block at an image of a mangled and broken-to-pieces car. There were men in protective jackets and helmets gathered around, attending to it or attending, perhaps, to the people inside it. Synchronicity. And that’s another thing: so many of the journeys seem to want to begin with a trip down Misery Lane or Disaster Highway. On the other page there is simply “9.11”. I have never, will never want to use such an event to jump-start. Not that I have anything against it on principle, but I have nothing meaningful to say about it. Well maybe I have got something against it on principle. Why should I use this kind of disaster as a vehicle for one of my abortive journeys?

So I turned the page: “Write about the worst lie someone told you.” I could have made that one up, I suppose, but if these jump-starts are any good they usually draw from the source of lived experience – a slide into the ditch of Misery Hollows. I am not in the vein.

Flicking to the next thing brought something a shade lighter: “Write about the worst driving you’ve ever done.” No great incidents there, nothing that involved anyone getting hurt, nothing more than an unsightly dent in the side of my car, and not even another driver involved. Actually, no story. But yes, of course story (I know, I know) – context! Can I be arsed, though? I was driving the car in the grounds of Sussex University where I’d been at the bookshop looking for a couple of creative writing books because (being a teacher of such) I wanted to keep my finger on the pulse. Irony? And I simply edged the side of the car along a place where I was not aware of an obstruction. No, really.

One last flick of the block: “Invent a character who sees a phone number on a restroom wall.” What is a rest room? A euphemism, like all these words. Anyway, the next bit: “Describe what happens when he or she dials it.” This is quite good because in this day and age once could do that while still sitting and finishing one’s business, because of mobile phones – though the image they helpfully provide shows a set of push-button numbers, the kind you would once have found in telephone booths, the sort with letters grouped in threes underneath each number.

And why would this character, he or she, dial a random number in this way? Pluck something out of the air and see where it leads? For the same reason, perhaps dear reader, as I open the Block looking for the jump-start. Because there are times when one has to go somewhere – anywhere, begin a conversation, take a risk. There may be danger. There may be the fulfilment of a dream. There may be nothing. I thank you.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bearing Her Teeth

Recently curiosity got the better of me and I had a look at one of those sites that is supposed to reveal who is linking to you. On the whole, nothing came up that I don’t already know about. I didn’t realise, though, that I might also come across blogs that just happen to mention you. Too much information? Oscar Wilde said that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, and I can see how that might be true for some people, but I am not yet sure where I stand with this. Anyway, so I came across someone who quite liked what she had read, and some of my photos of the Scottish holiday, and urged people to give it a look, even though she reckoned they might be put off by the wording of my profile. Ok, fair enough. But then she said that the blog was too full of medical matters for her tastes. This did baffle me, because I really don’t think I do much on those, unless you count the fact that I talk about M.E. I really have very little to say about trips to the GP to talk about blood test results and the fact that there is nothing they can offer me except for repeat prescriptions of co-proxamol when required – more of which at the end of the year when it is to be withdrawn. But I should warn this, or any other person who doesn’t like such things, that the next section of this post is about Going To The Dentist.

Tomorrow I am going to the dentist. This is in my top three things of what I most hate doing in life. At this very moment it may even be number one. I was born with dreadful teeth. Well not literally, but they were a disaster waiting to happen. I had my first fillings aged 5 from a dentist in the German village where I then lived who thought nervous children should be dealt with sternly. I was so scared I piddled on his floor once, which served him right. Aged 7 I had already experienced abscesses, extractions and laughing gas (I didn’t), root canal by age 10 and the conviction that if I no longer had to go to the dentist my life would be bliss. From age 16 to 26 I just didn’t go. Of course I paid, and have done, one way or another, ever since. People with M.E. do not, as a rule react well to local anaesthetic and I am no exception. Given the nature of my problems, (and look how restrained I am – I have no intention of describing them), it is not realistic to have treatment without anaesthetic, and I usually need about three -even then I jump in the seat. Truly, I do not know which I fear most – the treatment itself or its aftermath.

Having suffered the consequences of previous cowboy dental treatment, I go private and pay huge amounts of money. For this, I have to acknowledge, I get Mozart and Vivaldi in the background, a beautiful black leather reclining chair, coffee and tea facilities, Vogue and Horse and Hound in the waiting room which has paintings by local artists on the walls and free miniature tubes of toothpaste in the loo. I also get a quantity of time that wouldn’t be available on the NHS. Some of this time is taken up with the dentist telling me that all my life’s problems, including M.E. would have been sorted if I’d come to him earlier and allowed him to do unspeakable things to my jaw so as to correct my Bite.” He has a thing about Bites. It is his speciality. I listen and do not argue. I need every shred of his good will. My palms sweat. The necessary work begins.

Pray for me now and at the hour of the dentist.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Eight Random Facts About Signs

I have been tagged by Cusp.

Here are the "Rules":
(Note from Signs: Please adapt or ignore as you see fit).

1. Let others know who tagged you.
2. Players start with 8 random facts about themselves.
3. Those who are tagged should post these rules and their 8 random facts.
4. Players should tag 8 other people and notify them they have been tagged.

1) My mother was chosen to present a bouquet of flowers to Hitler when she was a child at school in Germany. She had long blonde plaits and Aryan-blue eyes, they didn’t know her father was a Jew and in Buchenwald. She lived with her grandparents. Later, she was sent to England on Kindertransport.

2) My father’s skin smelled of apple pie and sandalwood. My mother says this was because, as a baby, his mother bathed him in goat’s milk. He came to England from Germany in the nick of time, with his family.

3) I have been to eleven schools and wonder if it is for this reason that I have never felt I belonged anywhere, or because I feel myself to be a diaspora Jew. My father thought that it was that it was good, not belonging too much to anywhere. He said, “My home is where I hang my hat.” I sometimes think I should get myself a hat and a nail to hang it on.

4) As a child I lived in Germany for some years. Back in England, I couldn’t get used to the food, especially school dinners. We had to finish everything on the plate, but at my table there was a hungry Greek boy who ate everyone’s leftovers, so I passed my potato lumps, cabbage and meat gristle to him when the dinner lady wasn’t looking. He nodded and smiled. His name was Gregory.

5) I know by heart all the German stories and songs I used to have on gramophone records. Whenever it snows at all I think of Frau Holle in the sky shaking her feather bed and pillows, and the children’s chorus refrain: “Frau hi ha Holle, du, schuttle immer zu!”

6) I once met Harold Pinter’s mum in the launderette near Primrose Hill (before it was posh) doing a bag wash. She looked and sounded like Terry Jones in the Monty Python Jean-Paul Sartre sketch. She told me who her son was and asked whether I’d heard of him. She said that he didn’t visit her very much.

7) My sister and I had our fortunes told by George Melly. He was sitting in a teepee dressed as Gypsy Rose Lee at a (Labour Party fund-raising) garden party down the road from where I lived. He told my sister that she would spend her life looking after an aged parent and that I would be a famous actress. I was delighted but my sister was not best pleased. As it turned out, my sister became an actress and I, though only god and the angels will bear witness to this, have vowed to look after my aged mother (in my fashion) when the time comes. She is still going strong with weekly Pilates and aqua aerobics.

8) When I was three or four my Spanish nanny, who loved me dearly and wanted to secure my place in heaven in the hereafter, had me secretly baptised in a Catholic church. I don't know how the secret was discovered. I remember the priest pouring water on my head. I haven’t seen the the nanny since I was five and she went back to Spain to look after her mother and unmarried brother, but we sometimes exchange Christmas cards. She never married or had children. She thinks of me.

I have tagged:

Anna Mr
That's So Pants
The Periodic Englishman

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Usually it’s the words of pop songs that come to mock me in the middle of some personal crisis. “Stand By Your Man”, as an example, played repeatedly – in my head, I mean – when I was breaking up from my first husband and clearly not doing what Tammy Wynette’s chorus kept urging me to. It was “Three Times a Lady” by the Commodores when embroiled in a disastrous relationship with an angel-headed, drug-abusing psycho and Helen Shapiro’s “Walking Back to Happiness” when committing to a terminally boring secretarial job in a windowless office so I could get a mortgage. The serious poetry comes when the vacuum cleaner breaks down or the sink gets blocked. Now it’s Yeats’s “Second Coming”. What is wrong with my head?

It can’t be denied, though, that things are falling apart in the world of Signs in a relentless, albeit mundane, fashion. Everyone knows that machines, appliances etc. talk to one another and the minute one of them breaks down you can be sure a couple of others will do likewise in sympathy, or perhaps it’s just spite. So anyway, the car’s engine is malfunctioning, the washing machine is dripping, there’s something wrong with the fridge/freezer and the vacuum cleaner. And in other areas domestic: I can no longer ignore the damp patch that is spreading its evil fingers from the corner of the bedroom ceiling; and my beloved cat has been unwell, necessitating frequent trips to the vet in my now unreliable and possibly unsafe car.

As anyone even moderately encumbered with M.E. symptoms knows, it is enough to be doing the essential stuff of life – and when one is artistically inclined and wishing to work on one’s novel, sequence of poems, pastel drawing, piece of competitive crochet, or whatever it happens to be, the essential stuff is more, much more than enough. It has gone mid-day and I am still in my “wake me coffee time” nightshirt. I want to bathe and wash my hair before dressing, will need to rest after, so it must wait while I bash out blog post about the falling-apart centre of my domestic life and then – yes – add another few hundred words to the magnum opus. I also want to see the new Harry Potter film with a friend and it’s important, yes, because I like stuff like this and Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Northern Lights (can’t wait, really), magical, fantasy, get-you-out-of-this-world stories, and I have to wait until Christmas for The Doctor to come back.

Working on the premise that doing as much of what one likes is a good thing, and vital for the chronically ill/disabled, then seeing Harry Potter, (all two and a half hours of it) is obviously appropriate. But there are things to see to, food to be bought, supper to be cooked, food and supper being high on the list of priorities because I want to do my bit for Him Outdoors who has been - outdoors, or elsewhere since early in the day, dealing with office politics, the M25 and long hours grafting (and has the exquisite grace, in relation to yours truly, to call himself Patron of the Arts). Preparing nice food is something I am usually good at, though this too is going through a rocky phase, not sure why but things I have cooked for years and ought to be able to do in my sleep are turning out wrong and I end up with a pig’s ear of a dish – as I was moaning to NMJ last night after making kedgeree.

“Surely some revelation is at hand”: I think (and hope) not. It’s just that things fall apart sometimes. The centre holds, as it must.

Friday, July 13, 2007

nothing ventured

It did occur to me at the beginning of the month, it then being six months since the beginning of this blog, that I could respectably sign out (excuse the pun) having proved to myself that I could do this for a whole half year. Not that I set out in order to prove anything. I just fancied the idea of having a go. I don’t know that I had any particular brief. I knew I would be talking about M.E. and creative process because those are, one way or another, at the centre of my life, but that’s all I knew.

Other than one poet who had a blog, I knew no-one who did, and I still don’t, outside of the other bloggers I have got to know since doing this. A couple of non-blogging people have said how “brave” I must be and how they couldn’t imagine doing it themselves. Mostly people have been baffled. Why would anyone do this and wasn’t it mainly for teenagers or perverts? More recently, blogging seems to have become mainstream and it is more generally thought that everyone is doing it. But still, I have a sense that it is considered a bit (though no-one would actually say this) weird, sad even. “I have too many interesting things to do with my life,” is what one person said to me, as though I had extended an invitation.

Well writing things down as a regular practice or habit is perhaps a weird thing to do altogether. Anyone who becomes immersed in writing a novel knows this: you spend hours every day for months, years at a time, deeply involved with people who don’t exist. As a blogger you become involved with people who exist as disembodied beings, you may not even know what they look like if they don’t choose to put up an image of themselves. They touch you in ways you wouldn’t have imagined.

And sometimes it happens that you get a message out of the blue from someone who is not a blogger, who has been reading your blog for several months and for whom your words have been, in some way, meaningful. And this is the kind of lovely gesture that can make you decide to keep doing this weird thing a bit longer.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Wizards and Muggles

My son has got his results for the end-of-first-year philosophy and maths exams. He has got a first, which means he can now switch courses. Does this make sense? No, it’s a strange catch-22 situation he had to get himself out of: he went to Oxford to study philosophy and maths which he has always loved, found that once there he no longer loved maths, or the kind of maths he had to do, and, with parental encouragement, decided that life was too precious to spend time (especially when you are nineteen years old) slogging at something your heart’s not in. He applied to change to study P.P.E. and, after interviews and faffing about, was told that yes, he could do that – but only if he did brilliantly at the subject he wanted to ditch. Well he did, through sheer hard slog and determination, which means I don’t have to go up there and shoot them all. One can’t, of course, do that kind of thing anyway once kids grow up and have to fight their own battles. But one is tempted. Because of getting a first, he now has the status of being a “Scholar,” gets awarded the princely sum of £300, a special kind of Scholar’s gown (costing £150, so that’s half the money blown) and the honour of speaking a Latin grace at formal dinner. I said that it all sounded just like Hogwarts school for wizards in the Harry Potter books. My son said yes, where do you think she got all that from? And later many of the Hogwarts scenes were filmed in Oxford colleges, especially Christ Church hall, where son will be having most of his meals next year as his own hall is up for refurbishment.

Meanwhile, Muggles here plods on with her own tasks, still not sure whether to go for idea a) or b) in the novel-writing project. And what about sending off a few poems, she often asks herself, as clearly they won’t publish themselves just lying around in a disintegrating file, not to mention the computer Word thing, where she often can’t find them because of forgetting the titles. Application and determination. I sometimes wonder how I produced these high-achieving kids. Where did I go right? Certainly not by setting good example, in that department at any rate. But better late than never, even if I’m several decades behind; and I take heart from hearing about female writers well past their supposed prime who publish their first novels and go on to write many more.

I will keep lighting the candles. Have I said about the candles? When someone has an interview, exam or something similar, I find out the time of the event, light one and keep it lit for the duration of the event. After my son’s first exam he asked me when I had lit it and blown it out. When I told him he said I had got the time wrong by half an hour and that this accounted for how he had struggled at the beginning and end of the paper. Which was ok, he said, because if he did badly he could tell the examiners it was because his mother messed up with the candles. I said this was fine, because now I would make sure I got the times right and all would go spectacularly well. And it did. So perhaps I have a bit of wizardry in me after all.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

T.F.I. Wednesday

On a more upbeat note, and against all the odds, I took the day off from invalidism. I drove to Brighton with my son and met up with my London-based daughter to buy clothes for them both in the lovely second-hand shops that can still be found in the Lanes. How much longer those places will be there before being taken over by expensive chiquerie remains to be seen. But Brighton is still good. My kids would like me and their Dad to move there, and as I stood under a canopy watching the sun and rain fight it out next to the knitted thigh-length socks of many-coloured stripes (two pairs for a fiver), smelling the coffee, seeing the trendy long-haired geezers with sleek grey hair tied back into long pony tails (only in Brighton, these) and feeling the beat of the place, I thought – why not? Why not just up sticks and move back to the centre of things, it might not make me better but then again it might not make me worse. That thought lasted only a couple of seconds, all said and done we have not sold our old house yet and, fed up thinking about it, have taken her off the market. But if the thought comes back, I’ll have a look at it.

The whole world and my daughter have given up smoking. I rejoice, even as I surreptitiously light up the last of my stash before I too rejoin the right-thinking universe and do cold turkey again. My daughter is very cool about the whole thing. Yes, it feels a bit as though your best friend has just died, but on the other hand it’s quite easy – the times you want to have one, you just don’t, and obviously it’s a drag thinking about it all the time and wanting it, but so it goes. We went to have char-grilled burgers in a tiny place hidden away up an alley you would be certain to miss if you didn’t stumble into it by accident or know it was there. We could smell the smoke that, even five days ago, came from the lit cigarettes. I remembered the sign that used to be up saying that they served Absinthe (only two shots per person). My daughter said that everywhere was becoming really controlled and “anal.” My son said that it was a good thing, the new smoking ban, and they bickered mildly about this for a while. I fell, as usual, somewhere between the two.

Also against the odds, I have thrown myself into, or possibly at, the resurrection of my novel idea. I have one first person narrator and plan to alternate between this and third person. I have re-written a whole chunk, well fifteen hundred words of first person narrative, converting it into third person. It’s rubbish as it stands of course, too subjective, but really – a woman in my condition can’t afford to look too closely: never mind the quality, count the words is the thing at this point.

I’m a bit manic from having got away with my day off. I’ll pay, of course. Or not.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Message in a Bottle

The situation is this: I am, post-shingles, or very nearly, rather more debilitated than usual. To re-iterate my idea of chronic illness being like living in another country, I have moved further abroad. I am trying not to let it feel like exile but, let me put it this way – you don’t want to come here, really. Let’s imagine I am here so you don’t have to be. Anything you want to know, I’ll tell you, I can still write – a bit. Short sentences, and if I suddenly trail off in mid sentence or thought, you will understand. So, no, don’t come here: there’s no night-life, not much day-life either, and you can’t move around much. The food’s rubbish, just marmite sandwiches (ok, and fruit), and whatever else is around, you won’t fancy it. Books, yes, but you won’t be able to read them for more than ten minutes at a stretch. Friends are those dots on the horizon that wave to you and shout things like hope you’re better soon. In reply you are allowed to send them smoke signals. I saw one today in the doctor’s waiting room and ignored her in case I ran out of steam mid-conversation. However one explains, it always makes a bad impression.

It’s not so bad once you get used to the light. You have to get new spectacles, obviously, to carry on reading the signs and see what’s around. My neighbour’s tree is full of small cherries. My apple tree already heavy with fruit. I hear the floods have been very bad. News reaches me.