Monday, January 31, 2011

Virtual RL

Once in a while I receive emails from people who either pass through Signsville or look in quite regularly and prefer to say something out of the box. And it's lovely to get these. I see that many more people look in than comment. In spite of having Sitemeter and Statcounter, I am not an accomplished stat-checker and unless it is made very obvious, I have no idea where everyone comes from, what pages they view or how regularly they visit. Since beginning the blogging, I have learned that some people will go to great lengths to hide the evidence of their visit and also to monitor and track the visitors that come to them. I suppose I can sort of understand the appeal of an invisibility cloak but I have never really got the point of the tracking thing - unless one is running a blog as a commercial enterprise, and then I suppose it might be useful.

Blogging, social networking and all - it's a new way of being in the world and it's still early days. We are learning about how it all might work, for and against us. On Youtube one sees strange, hostile threads that seem peopled by those who are looking for a place to offload their anger and resentment. But on blogs people mostly (there are always exceptions) make the effort to be courteous and thoughtful in comments and responses. To meet the other is not always easy. Unless one is constantly putting out platitudes there is the impulse to speak truly as one finds but this may sometimes involve taking issue with something and one then risks giving offence. Or there might be an impulse to make a pronouncement on a post which did not set out to ask for any such thing. There are spaces in the conversations one has online which allow for a degree of thoughtfulness not always possible in RL. But still, too much carefulness inhibits the natural flow and spontaneity. I do every so often (as some will know) wonder if I should stop blogging, and the end of last year could have been a natural point at which to end it. But having done this for four years it does seem to have become one of those things that I now just do, and it would feel stranger to stop than to carry on. So you could say it is in the realm of RL rather than just virtual.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

free lunch

More of this perishing cold weather but the sun shineth and I have a casserole - pork with orange and star anise, ready in the slow cooker which has been doing its slow thing through the night in preparation for a visit to Brighton flat by Mater and spouse. Pork, you might say, is a funny thing for a vegetarian to be preparing, but I have relented somewhat. That isn't the right word but I prefer it to 'relapsed' which doesn't feel right either. The cold weather plus cooking for others means casserole, means meat. I am ok eating it occasionally but do not find I want it more than this. Mater's spouse simply wouldn't know what to do with a chick pea.

I went to a poetry workshop in the large Quaker meeting house near the sea front yesterday - the workshop leader someone I know well. The room we sat in was so reminiscent of the kind of rooms I used to teach in, and indeed the room where I attended my very first writing workshop. A combination of shabby and generous, high ceilings, old boards made of compressed sawdust, painted blue, with dog-eared notices about watercolour and meditation classes. Central heating radiators enormous and inefficient. Someone left urns full of boiled water, but nothing to make coffee or tea with. The class happened to coincide with a Make Brighton Healthy day - lovely free lunch for anyone who wanted (veg soup, tabbouleh, salads, fresh juices) and complementary therapies.

Sometimes there is such a thing as a free lunch.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Teaching Classes

When I first began to teach writing classes, in the early days, long before the new achievement-measuring, paperwork-obsessed regimes, and no-one even asked to see your lesson plans let alone learning outcomes, I used to keep a record of what happened in each class. I noted the paticularities of each student and these would inform the kind of lesson plans I created. At one point I was teaching three classes a week and because each group was different, so were the lesson plans. I had the freedom to change direction at any point if that seemed right. Later on, that would prove difficult to do because if you had put one thing on your Scheme of Work form and were then seen to have done something else it would create all kinds of confusion. What if an Inspector came and noted the discrepancy? How could anything be Measured unless you stuck to your pre-constructed Plan? Later on I would find ways to circumnavigate these difficulties, but in the early days I just kept notebooks. My brief - the one I gave myself - was to create an environment where whatever it was that wanted to emerge for a particular student could be enabled, that people should experience the intense play that is a part of the process of working creatively with words and language, that they should begin to express themselves in a way that was authentic.

The other day, in a hunt for something else relating to the project I'm now working on, I came across one of my notebooks where I had recorded the progression of a particular class. Lots of descriptions of students that bring them again vividly to mind, and I realise a large part of the work was this holding in my consciousness of the different people. So much of what happens in a class, or any group (or relationship, for that matter) moves invisibly, and slowly, before anything concrete or substantial manifests. Which really makes a nonsense of the idea that you can state a learning objective for a particular student at the beginning of the class and then measure to what extent it had been achieved at the end.

At one point, in the notebook, I recorded that "they want to know where I come from. No, not London, Primrose Hill, Hackney, but where I really come from, you know, originally, because of that look about me. Something foreign. And the way I speak. I tell them my parents were refugees from Germany before the war, but that I am from here and that I lived in Germany for some years as a child.
"Oh," she says, "I thought you had a speech impediment." Everyone laughs loudly to cover the indelicacy of such a remark and she doesn't understand why they are laughing. She noticed something about the way I lightened on the letter L and thought it was a speech impediment. That's all. She doesn't see what is funny about that."

LOL :)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

qui tollis

I miss movement and swimming, walking in the forest. Decided yesterday to begin walking again, the weather was dreich today but I walked with a friend after cake and coffee rather than toughing it out on my own. Dreich is a good old Scots word and today being the day after Burns Night feels like the right time for it. Instead of the usual haggis and whisky fest at the neighbours, this year I was back at choir practice singing the Qui Tollis from Mozart's Mass in C Minor, nothing else would have dragged me back, and it seems fitting to slot in with the Qui Tollis. Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, receive our prayers. And lift this heavy condition from my muscles. Not being flippant here - well not entirely; though goodness knows Lamb of God has been petitioned before now concerning this and I have not heard back on the subject. The singing, though, was good. As a Burns treat a few choir members got up at the end to sing something - there was Parcel o' Rogues and songs of love and melancholy - how those go together, particularly as we are still in the dreich, dark days with more cold weather on the way. This being so, it is as good to go deep into the melancholy as it is to walk deep into the forest.

I am reading Robin Robertson's latest collection, The Wrecking Light - bleak and wonderful. In an interview he said,

"I grew up with a very strong sense of place, in a landscape that seemed freighted with significance, mystery and power. Everything since has seemed a displacement: a deracination."

I have been thinking about this, and how that place of displacement is so often the place from which the sort of writing that I like best comes; and also the place from which I most often write, when I can.

Friday, January 21, 2011


Well at last - something. Meaning that I have actually felt able to sit down and do a couple of hours at the notebook; a small idea that came to me the other day in Brighton as I stared out of the window. Nothing to do with immediate surroundings, but everyone knows the importance of having time to stare out of windows. Not so much an idea as a title out of which something can be unpacked that I may be able to work with - taking into account the limited strength available to me. I will shut up about it now, I have a tendency to ramble a little incontinently when beginning or thinking about something new and it really does not help to talk too much about a newly-born idea, especially if one tends, as I do, to write out of a kind of inner pressure. Talk about it and the pressure subsides, or the idea itself suffers from exposure.

I will not stop to think about the number of half-baked projects that have been left to go cold or in a state of suspended animation. The reason is M.E./CFIDS and not lack of will, in spite of which I can thread small achievements like pearls on my necklace of shining things, which I wear close to the heart.

And something else: you see the shadowy image there in my profile - me walking on the beach in Caithness, not so very long ago? I'm blonder than that now, since the day before yesterday, in preparation for the silvering of Signs. No more artificial colour - not that I wouldn't have been happy to continue for some time to come. It is part of my genetic inheritance that we silver up early, before we are ready for it. But even the least toxic product I can find makes me feel bad afterwards and is too much for me to process. The hairdresser's name is Marie. She is young, French, slender, thoughtful, pale - her raven-black hair is certainly from a bottle and it suits her. Looking at my parting she smiles. It is a good colour, you are lucky. Many women like you are turning to silver.

Meanwhile, until the rest grows out, it has been lightened with blonde streaks (my first time in foils), looks rather yellow and a bit - I don't know - Worzel Gummidge. Still hot, though, obviously - if Worzel Gummidge floats your boat.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Rainy Monday

Alone in Brighton, doing what I needed to do, which was very little. Woke early, went over the road to the lovely, retro corner shop that is like the corner shops I remember from London childhood, with the same smell of mints and cigarettes and grumpy-but-friendly hunchback woman behind the till. Forgot about being a vegetarian and bought a packet of Walls bacon, six eggs, and a couple of oranges for squeezing. Relentless rain. A new antique shop has opened opposite our flat. Yesterday we bought a small wooden clothes horse there and the woman recognised me today in the road. I probably didn't smile enough so she asked me if I was all right. I said yes and remarked on the weather, wondering if a small transaction and the fact of her knowing that our flat is opposite her shop is enough reason for her to put such a question to me. But remembered also that people used to accost me in the street all the time when I was younger, telling me to cheer up. After breakfast and just one side of notebook-writing, fatigue and muscle pains drove me back to bed. Slept until nearly three, so not many hours of daylight today.

I am enjoying Candia McWilliam's new book, even though I haven't read very far. She was a successful writer and quite a beauty, then became an alcoholic and was afflicted with a strange condition that meant she could no longer open her eyes. She turns her gaze on herself - her past, her family relationships, and she looks inside herself, is honest and unflinching. I am wondering if it is more intrinsically satisfying to know about where people fall and fail, and how they deal with that, than about success and achievement. I don't know. The writer Susan Hill has been in the papers recently - her life an extraordinary catalogue of achievements, though she was never glamorous. Even so, she often worked through, and out of, pain and bereavement. One of her best books, In the Springtime of the Year, was written after the sudden death of a man she deeply loved. She lost a prematurely born daughter.

She had no patience, she said, with writers who moaned about how difficult it was to write - made a song and dance about it. Just get on with it, is the thing. After all, you don't have to do it. I don't know what she would have made of my one-page effort today.

Tomorrow a gathering at Sussex University - to launch Poetry South East.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

"no way out but through"

Already over two weeks into the new year, I'm still reviewing the one just gone. A difficult year, though we took possession of the Brighton flat, which continues to give us and others its light and beauty. The difficulties are not easy to name - not because one is coy about the naming but because they do not offer themselves up easily for it. Something my sister and I recently found ourselves in agreement about, and something it has taken this long for us to properly acknowledge (we are both in our fifties) is that we carry an almost imponderable, impenetrable something from being children of holocaust survivors. To say anything more than this is to risk either being unforgiveably glib or having to write a whole book in order to make sense of the predicament.

At my poetry workshop yesterday the workshop leader said, in response to the piece I brought, that my poem made her feel ill. This was not an insult - she was alive to something in it that may be experienced as illness, though a couple of people have also experienced it as beautiful. And she did like the poem. Someone wondered whether it was inspired by Greek mythology. No, she said, this comes from fairytale - and she was right, though it didn't come from any tale one could give a name to. I have always, in a sense, known what it is to be lost in the forest, both powerless and powerful, learning how to read the signs because my life depended on it, or might. Grimms fairy tales I took from the big black book in the living room, but reading them I knew I was already in the territory. No way out but through. Someone put a notice with those words on the inside of the toilet door at the place where we have the poetry workshops, and when you think about it what a perfect place to put such a notice.

Just now, a day at a time is probably the best way forward. And one foot in front of the other, as before, but this time, perhaps, with a little more - what is the word? Attitude.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Well I may as well come right out and say it: I am having a bad spell. After close to a quarter of a century of this disease it isn't exactly news. People who have M.E./CFIDS have bad spells, and I'm not speaking of the severely afflicted who rarely, if ever, have anything else. It is not something one particularly shares with others any more because that is one of the things about a chronic condition: after a few years there is nothing more you or anyone can say about it. But still - here I am saying it.

The relapsing seems to have become a January thing whereas my worst months used to be in the summer. Actually, I no longer know what my worst/best months are. I think I am less able to override these days. There are several poetry-related projects I would like to turn my attention to, places where I am scheduled to be in the next few days - but I need to be better than this.
Fortunately I have a packet of magickal incense wands - a Christmas present - and I am hoping that these, plus incantations of the uplifting and melodious kind in a ritual of my own devising, will do the trick. But on the other hand, I don't think I'm in a fit state to conduct this yet.

Pass the co-proxamol.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

small boat

I woke up early, a few minutes after six. Anything before six counts as night-time so at least I made it to morning - but with only five hours sleep. Whenever I plan to do something on a particular day, I wake early. Today I am having some poetry people over for lunch in Brighton. The flat is set up for uncomplicated cooking. I have prepared vegetarian chilli and coleslaw with dill dressing. Will make beetroot with chopped herbs, and saffron rice. Fruit crumble for dessert, I have used plums and added some brandy butter left over from Christmas.

I walked into Brighton town yesterday, thinking to do various errands all at once. I exchanged some Moroccan slippers (lumpy inside so not comfortable) for a kilim cusion cover that I will probably take back to Signs Cottage. I went to Waterstone's to pick up a book I had ordered: What To Look For In Winter by Candia McWilliam, highly recommended to me, and the ability to read and focus has improved somewhat. Hallelujah, even though I can't read anywhere near as much as I once did. At Waterstone's I thought I would have a coffee then do a food shop for today's lunch. PWME are familiar with the wall of exhaustion that one can run into. I could feel it coming (a tsunami wall) and tried to ignore it. Ridiculous, as was the notion that I could have got myself plus shopping up the steep incline. A taxi back from town is very cheap and makes this kind of excursion possible. Near the Clock Tower there is always a small line of taxis waiting. I took one. Brighton is kind in so many ways, and beautiful. The Brighton Waitrose, however, is not a good experience - nothing like the one I pictured here which is still more or less supermarket heaven. Bad muscles and malaise after, and what is sweetly referred to as "emotional lability" - one of the side-effects of neurological disorder. The image: a small boat in bad condition suddenly having to negotiate storm conditions; you look out and see nothing but a grey wall made of water that may at any moment engulf you. This was actually a real situation, on my return from Gozo via Malta about twenty years ago, returning from a wedding I should probably not have attended in the first place. The boat was a relic from the second world war and a small group of us nearly perished in the sea. But lived to tell the tale. As one does.

Outside, a brilliant blue sky today. Timely and welcome.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


There are moments when I think I might have said everything that I am ever going to say. As if to give weight to this thought, the sky this morning, when I was writing, grew dimmer and dimmer. Lit candles were not enough, I had to switch lights on. If there is nothing left that I want to say, would that matter so much? Put down the pen, box up the notebooks: will the world take breath, feel the loss of my scribbled or tapped out words? I do not think so. It would not be so terrible. It is a work enough in progress to keep step with the meticulous work of a day's rising and falling.

Outside, the crows have been making their unseemly noise that sounds like heckling complaint from a raw throat. The ice has melted and life is presumably easier for them. What sounds like complaint is probably exultation. They have found sustenance of some kind. My dead butt of Golden Virginia, hidden in the long grass. Not that. They will ignore that. I will ignore it: a blip. I will give it up again, along with the other bad habits. I will give up cream in my porridge, the extra scoop of coffee in the morning, the sugar later in the day, the butter, the biscuits, the negative thoughts that clamber claw around hamster-like on a thin metal wheel, going fast and nowhere.

It isn't true. I have no real intention of giving up my bad habits. To acquire good ones is what I should advise myself to do. But why should I? Shed a little light on the situation, is all. Learn from the click of the switch as the electic light comes on and makes everything clear. The natural light from candles does not shine so brightly but at least one can see to read and write. Learn from the sugar fix and caffeine scoop that get you through the moment, the pain-killing medicine that gives you an hour or two of believing that nothing is going to hurt so much that you can't keep moving forward. Learn from the tin-a-ling of the mobile phone when a text message comes: instant connection to someone or something; the sliding switch of the Kindle - words appear on the screen as if by magic. You can buy a book, or several, by pressing a few buttons. Learn from the jars of spices already ground, labelled and ready to throw into the pot. Who says you must take pestle and mortar, get substance by the sweat of your brow?

We do not need luxury, said someone. We do not need expensive holidays, furnishings, fine wines, boxes of chocolate wrapped in silk. We need light, space and air, an apple and a glass of water. But if we cannot get these, say I, if they are harder to come by than the naming of them suggests, then flicking a switch, opening a can, unwrapping a chocolate from the expensive gift box, are also acceptable and may do one good.

The I Ching says it furthers one to have somewhere to go, and then changes (it is The Book of Changes) to it does not further one to go anywhere. It says that the times are not auspicious for setting out, risking, making oneself too visible. One should rather stay put, hold fast, not draw attention to oneself, lie low. Anything else is unsafe. Learn from the inanimate object that remains itself in all but the most extreme conditions. Learn from the stone that warms when the sun shines and grows cold when it withdraws. Learn from the objects that lie for years under beds, sofas and cupboards, gathering dust but remaining what they are, ready for use when the time comes for them to be uncovered; from the golden angel who did not sit on the Christmas tree this year but stayed in a cardboard box and did not mind. The ultimate Zen attitude.

Learn from the sun and moon that allow themselves to be eclipsed.

Monday, January 3, 2011

splitting apart

So lets talk about lard. I have jars of it in the fridge, courtesy of an unimaginably expensive goose that we cooked for Christmas. I have been eating some of it (temporarily lapsed vegetarian) on toast. It reminds me of the schmalzbrot I used to eat as a child. In case you don't know, schmalz means lard - pork lard, usually, made flavoursome with onions, apples and juniper berries, perhaps. It doesn't figure much in what most people hereabouts nowadays think of as a healthy diet. But if you're going to kill a goose at least give it the respect of eating and appreciating every bit of it, even if most of it is lard. I boiled up the carcass and made two substantial soups out of that. The lard, though, is going to be a problem unless I can find a way of sharing it around, unlikely as I'm surrounded on all sides by vegetarians. People used to make soap out of goose fat and ashes, or rub it on wounds. Perhaps I'll get to work making useful products out of lard and set up a stall in the village centre where there is much enthusiasm for recycling of all kinds. I might even recycle myself as I am fast turning into a tub of schmalz. Yes indeed, I feel a meltdown coming on. Actually, lets stop talking about lard. But lardy cake, just saying, is a wonderful thing, especially if you want to gain a pound or two in the eating. Which I don't.

So lets talk about resolutions. You don't need to have made any to talk about those, but I actually did make some on the cusp between last year's end and this one's beginning, which is already feeling some distance away. Something to do with managing my emotions better so as to conserve energy - and what writing project to focus on. Poetry was what I decided but, like I said, that was then, and I am drawn also by the idea of continuing with prose project. Last year I wanted a clear Sign as to which way I should go and I did win a poetry prize. But on the other hand I also got a story short-listed. On the third hand, poetry is probably going to win because it's simply more practical for me to focus on that now. So managing emotions is going to be much more of an issue, but as I've made a resolution about those it's all in the bag. Sorted.

The post heading, by the way, is from I Ching and the less said about it the better, although it could by a stretch of the imagination be referring to my trousers if I carry on with the lard. The judgement says: "It does not further one to go anywhere."