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Today, I got up late. It’s Saturday, and there was no urgency. I can take a later yoga class instead of my usual early morning one. I could have stayed in bed all day in fact, and probably no one would have known.

There is a great freedom in that. To cliché it, “my life is my own.” Pretty much.

It also means, however, that no one really witnesses my life. Especially this chapter in it, this new adventure in a different place and country.

Our lives are the sum of so many moments, the trivial and the not so. All the small things – which matter to me hugely – that constitute my every day aren’t really worth relaying to someone else, later. And so, these days, for the most part I am the only person who “sees” the micro and the macro that threads together my personal narrative.

Mostly, I am pretty content just witnessing myself witnessing me.

But there are times, too, that it feels as if I am looking for proof that I actually exist, that I am here / have been here / did that… Which is probably why I am drawn to writing, a potential affirmation of my existence. A record, of sorts.

Maybe that’s what diaries are all about. A witnessing, a proof to ourselves that yes, we do actually exist.

A few years ago, I saw (twice) the film Dreams of a Life. It tells the true story of a young woman who is found dead in her London apartment two years after a last sighting. She was found accidentally. No one had reported her missing. She literally disappeared, and no one noticed.

I am good at being alone. I like it. But I also thrive on being in the company of others. And I am happy to report that I am gathering “others” in my new land.

In Buddhist teaching (which I am currently studying and getting much from), the notion of the “no self” is a dominant one that challenges the delusion of cherishing the small, individual self. Our perception of our “selves” and others is merely a thought. Perhaps we fight that notion of “ourselves” being no more than a succession of thoughts by doing things, by chronicling them, by having others witness them, so that we can be truly reassured that we do indeed exist.

Of course, the presence of others need not necessarily equate with a witnessing. We all encounter many people every day, but how often are they truly present to us, and we to them?

As always, I look to poetry for further considerations.

First, Norman McCaig, from his poem Summer Farm:

“Self under self, a pile of selves I stand

Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand

Lift the farm like a lid and see

Farm within farm, and in the centre, me”

 

And second, Morning, by Yannis Ritsos (translated from the Greek by Nikos Stangos):

“She opened the shutters. She hung the sheets over the sill.

She saw the day.

A bird looked at her straight in the eyes. ‘I am alone,’ she whispered.

‘I am alive.’ She entered the room. The mirror too is a window.

If I jump from I will fall into my arms.”

 

CQ

 

 

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At the weekend I attended a listening gig, ie we all sat around to hear a full length session of Radiohead’s OK Computer. A laptop connected to a super fancy speaker (part of the mission, to experience sound via this new high-tech speaker) relayed the music to the auditorium.

First released in 1997, the album is well known to me, and I frequently listen to individual tracks. But it has been many years since I have listened to all 12 in their uninterrupted entirely. I create monthly Spotify playlists, somewhere between 60 and 100 songs that I dip in and out of, depending on my mood. I very rarely listen to entire albums.

It was such a joy – and so refreshing –  to sit there and do just that. To be present to the music, and to do nothing else for that hour or so. Even at live gigs, I am usually moving around, distracted by something other than the music. The OK Computer listening session (at the wondrous National Sawdust) was one of my purest music experiences for many years.

It also encouraged me to re-engage with the album in a different way.

I went back to the lyrics after the event, reminding myself what each track is / might be about, and of course the album in its entirety.

I am still not sure what each song is about, and it is all too easy to re-interpret the lyrics as prescient and resonant with our times.

Electioneering, for example…
“I will stop
I will stop at nothing
Say the right things
When electioneering
I trust I can rely on your vote

When I go forwards you go backwards and somewhere we will meet”

And Let Down

“Transport, motorways and tramlines
Starting and then stopping
Taking off and landing
The emptiest of feelings
Disappointed people clinging on to bottles
And when it comes it’s so so disappointing”

Perhaps it does not matter. Lyrics, like poetry and art, can be what we need them to be.

I can’t quite decide on the mood or tone of Ok Computer. A sense of disappointment, disillusionment, and even desolation, emanates from many of the songs, as if life is suspended somewhere between ‘starting and stopping’, between “taking off and landing”, between hope and despair.

But I want to veer towards the more hopeful, and to my personal favorite track, Lucky, where that liminal space might just reflect the optimism of the title…

“Pull me out of the aircrash
Pull me out of the lake
‘Cause I’m your superhero
We are standing on the edge

We are standing on the edge”

 

This Pitchfork article on the album is well worth a read.

 

CQ

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In my new space, as yet sparsely furnished (and I hope to keep it pretty minimalist), I am unconsciously using my time differently.

I don’t have a TV, nor plan to. I also seem to watch much fewer movies, something that used consume much of my time in London (although I did watch this wonderful film on MUBI last night, JÚLIA IST). There is a cool cinema near where I live – I have recently seen RBG (great), Hereditary (not sure why I went to see this, curiosity I guess, not uninteresting) – but I seem to be more drawn to creating something myself, writing. I fantasize about writing using an original Olivetti. I have even found a store here that reclaims and restores them. Soon, I hope. The wonderful thing about living alone is that I can prioritize needs in a purely self-indulgent way.

I am doing a poetry writing course, which I am loving. Every Sunday morning I head to the Bowery, were 8 / 10 of us gather, with a tutor, and workshop poems and ideas. We have spent time walking the streets, gathering inspiration from the novel and the mundane, and this weekend we head to The Metropolitan Museum of Art for some ekphrastic poetry writing, which I am very excited about.

By the end of the course, I hope to have a portfolio of poems in various draft forms, but all around the theme of Self-Portrait.

I share the first – and most raw – below, and as yet untitled (though, in line with my spartan apartment, I may stick with the “Untitled” title).

 

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Red lipstick on thin, narrow lips.

A family legacy.

She peers through black-framed glasses.

Japanese.

She likes them.

They are kind to ageing eyes,

and offer her a bigger version

of the world she is hungry for.

 

Black on red. Cartoon-like.

Or maybe it’s Chaplin.

 

Red splits apart, revealing

misshapen and unforgiving teeth.

Quirky, she thinks, kindly.

 

She smiles at herself, and whispers,

“Yes, I am ready.”

 

CQ

I just noticed that my last post was in December 2017, and was titled “Everything is going to be alright”, from Derek Mahon’s poem of the same name. Prescient that, as I write from a place (NYC), where pretty much everything seems and feels different and unfamiliar. And where everyday I need to reassure myself that I am doing ok.

I suspect that it is no coincidence that I am finding hope, joy, and solace, in poetry. Poetry has appeared and disappeared at various times in my life. At one point, I used to write poems on a regular basis. But I came to judge them harshly – objectively (if that is even possible here), they were certainly far from impressive. However, I now believe that that judgment in itself missed the point.

I now return to poetry – both reading the works of others and writing my own – from a difference place, both literally and metaphorically, and this feels me with a enormous sense of optimism.

Here are two haikus I wrote before my move west on May 1. Re-reading them just now, they are certainly prescient, but more importantly, hopeful.

I

My footprints in snow

lost with each retreating step

icicles drip tears

 

II

The dove tries anew

wings spread wide she flies and soars

olive branch in beak

 

 

CQ

 

I always seem to return to Derek Mahon at this time of year – proving perhaps poetry’s powerful capacity for personal resonance.

And so it is with Everything Is Going To Be Alright. The words speak for themselves. Even better, hear and watch Mahon read the poem himself.

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing behind the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,

but there is no need to go into that.

The lines flow from the hand unbidden

and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything

and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

 

Derek Mahon

 

 

I have just seen the documentary film Mountain, a meditative consideration of the rocky and often snow-covered peaks that loom large and magnificent throughout our landscape.

Jennifer Peedom’s shots are extraordinary from the outset, almost dizzyingly so. The camera shifts vertiginously from one sequence to the next, the act of the image-capturing itself a marvel how was it even done?!). The text, narrated by Willem Dafoe, and co-written by Robert Macfarlane and Peedom, is understated, and as such aptly complements the sublime images it accompanies. There are many silences, which facilitate a pause, a breath-taking moment to consider the majesty and beauty of what is being revealed.

The film is a 76 minute wonderment. I now realise that I have never really used the word s‘awe’ and ‘sublime’ appropriately before.

Beyond the sheer physicality of the film, Mountain left me a number of things to reflect on.

Firstly, I was struck by something Dafoe said early on:

“The mountains we climb are mountains of our minds”

I guess that this analogy refers to the extraordinary psychological challenge that those who set out to scale the highest mountains face, and one that surely matches if not exceeds the physical demands.

But the words made me think too of the sometimes near impossible goals that we set ourselves in our – non-mountaineering – lives. These ‘climbs’ and ‘scalings to the summit’ are often invisible to others, and as a result too infrequently applauded or even acknowledged.

I have never climbed a mountain, nor really aspired to. Yet I am utterly compelled by the attempts and feats of others to do so. I have read pretty much every book, and seen every film and documentary on climbing Mount Everest, for example.

I tend to seek out ‘me’, and my story, or at least components of it, in pretty much all of the fiction/biography/poetry/cinema that I experience. Consciously or otherwise, I have an innate self-selection process that draws me to stories, whatever the medium, where I might find personal resonance.

And so it is with the sublime, and the almost impossible stories of scaling the heights, of getting to the top. I am somewhere in those stories, though my climbing is psychical. The truth is that I am way too fearful to attempt the most novice of physical climbs. But nonphysical challenges hold much less fear for me. I get the adrenaline, the euphoria that these physical risk takers experience – ‘the risk is the reward’. So too for me, but in an infinitely more limited physical microcosm.

Secondly, Mountain gives us more serious issues to consider. It encourages us to question why we feel the need to control our environment, to ‘conquer’ it, to make it ours. Getting to the top of Mount Everest does not actually equate with owning anything. In fact, seeing as we do the queues lining up the ascent, you begin to wonder what exactly humans are trying to achieve. My own theory is that we struggle to cope with the unknown, the unattainable, the inexplicable, particularly as so much more is known and explored that it was, say 100, 200 years ago. Uncertainty, a not knowing, has become an anathema to humanity. And thus, we distract ourselves from such uncertainty – which ultimately equates with our eventual nonexistence – by seeking to conquer. If everything is ultimately within our grasp, perhaps mortality might become so, too. A fallacy, undoubtedly, but the illusion somehow fosters a sense of safety.

Thirdly, Mountain encourages us to consider the beauty, and fragility of all our lives. Perhaps we have forgotten what it means and feels to be alive, to truly notice our lived experiences, and to be grateful for such awareness. There is a beautiful moment in the film when Dafoe refers to the risks that extreme climbers take on. We truly live when death becomes an almost reality – so close, we can almost feel it.

It is at that moment that we are most alive.

 

CQ

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As I sort and pack books, I cannot help but leaf through many, mainly to remind myself what they were all about (sometimes I think that I have read too many books, and as a result do not always remember the content). Just now, I came across Immortality, published in 1992. On the opening page, we are introduced to a woman – who ‘might have been sixty or sixty-five’ – being observed having a swimming lesson by the writer/the ‘I’ of the narrative. He focuses on a gesture she makes at the end of the lesson – smiling and waving to the lifeguard as she leaves. The narrator is moved by the gesture:

“That smile and that gesture had charm and elegance, while the face and the body no longer had any charm. It was the charm of a gesture drowning in the charmlessness of the body. But the woman, though she must of course have realized that she was no longer beautiful, forgot that for the moment.”

He continues:

“There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless.”

This passage affirms my theory that we read to find and recognise ourselves. I, of course, am that woman, momentarily escaping the constraints of biological age. I like what Kundera says about existing outside of time, and being ageless, although I suspect that society – which includes ourselves – enforces a pretty constant reality check on how we are perceived by others. Thus, being ageless is a rare luxury.

But I also find myself a little angry with Kundera when he appears to pass judgment on the charmlessness of the woman’s face and body because of age, which has also denied her her beauty. Being middle-aged myself, I no doubt take a sensitive and defensive stance on such attitudes.

Perhaps I should suspend my own judgement until I finish re-reading the book.

 

CQ

I have spent much of my life alone. Mostly by choice. This might suggest that I am a reclusive solitary. I don’t believe so. My world is very often a peopled one. I am, nonetheless, quite content to spend long periods on my own.

Of late, I have been questioning that blurry distinction between aloneness and loneliness. I will be relocating later this year to another city, another continent. London has suited my need to be alone, and I have rarely felt lonely here. But then, being alone, or not, was usually a choice rather than an imposition. My daughter, and only child, is about to leave home. I have lived with her for 19 years, and although our lives are lived increasingly in parallel, her vague presence has no doubt protected me from many potential moments of loneliness.

Heading off to another place and another way of living, aloneness, and perhaps loneliness, may be forced upon me unless I make heroic efforts to ensure otherwise. The evidence suggests, strongly, that the more socially active we are, particularly as we age, the less likely we are to become depressed, and the more likely we are to delay the onset of cognitive impairment, and even possibly dementia.

I have been reading Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City. The tagline for the title is Adventures in the art of being alone, thus suggesting a conflation of both terms, ‘lonely’ and ‘alone’, and an implication that they might be synonymous. I wonder whether I have tried too hard to see them as separate and distinct entities – aloneness being ok, even noble, while loneliness suggests an element of the loser. My own adjudication.

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I am only a third of the way through Laing’s book, an intriguing read thus far that looks to art, both the works and its creators, in an exploration of loneliness, and how inextricably linked it is to the essence of humanity .

Laing reflects that ‘You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.’

True. I remember after my marriage ended, being acutely aware of my aloneness when witnessing the togetherness of couples and families so omnipresent in the urban setting.

As I read Laing’s thoughts on art, Alice Neel comes to mind. Her painting Loneliness has always resonated with me, signifying an emptiness that being alone can instil, and also now suggesting an intertwining of aloneness and loneliness that I hadn’t hitherto appreciated.

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I also think of poetry, particularly Carol Ann Duffy’s Practising Being Dead, which ends:

‘Nobody hears

your footsteps walking away along the gravel drive.’

I suspect that the arts – music, literature, cinema, theatre – have protected me from loneliness. When I find connection within the words of others, I am in a peopled place.

I have spent many hours over the past years in my little study, which is overcrowded with books. As I begin the process of packing up, I am gradually gifting them to friends and charities.

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It feels a little like losing friends somehow. These shelves have been weighed down by books that have kept me company for many years. The people, thoughts and adventures they contain have transported me to alternate realities, and alongside keeping me company, that have also allowed me to imagine, to dream, and to be hopeful.

Even hopeful enough to consider writing my own book.

 

CQ

 

I have just obtained an annual pass at my favourite cinema group. I love all aspects of the arts, but probably cinema is where my greatest passion lies. From my first movie experience – The Sound of Music with my grandmother in rural Ireland – I have travelled the world, ‘physically’ and emotionally, through the screen. My chronological life could be mapped out by key movie milestones.

There are so many ways to access films from one’s sofa today – MUBI and Curzon Home Cinema are my faves – and I do regularly avail of these options. However, I also love going to the cinema, often on my own, and giving the screen experience my absolute attention for 90 minutes or more.

Highlights from recent trips include Paterson, which utterly seduced me. This was American (Indie) cinema successfully achieving the nuanced approach to film making that has always so drawn me to European – particularly French – moviedom. Over the past week, I have seen Toni Erdmann (quite wonderful, it surprised me with its wonderfully balanced sense of humour and melancholy), 20th Century Women (impressed me, and continues to do so days later; a not-straightforward-narrative, and one that was ultimately gratifying), and then, Manchester By The Sea.

Kenneth’s Lonergan’s third feature (I liked his first You Can Count on Me, and even more so Margaret) is a very very wonderful experience. Having said that, I found it almost unbearably tragic and so unremittingly sad. It is full of broken people, and broken lives. And Lonergan treats his audience like grown ups, refusing to fix stuff so that we can leave the auditorium somewhat relieved and reassured. But he does reassure us, in the sense of emphasising that life is a messy and uncertain affair, and that fiction need not necessarily escape this reality but can be true to it. Manchester By The Sea demands so much from the viewer. Little is verbally revealed of the inner turmoil of the characters, yet we know it and feel it acutely. We complete the story in our own minds because we recognise the fragility of our existence and our sanity.

This is great cinema. And a quite wonderful affirmation of the complicated essence of living.

 

CQ

On December 2, Philip Larkin was finally memorialised in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. Exactly 31 years to the day since his death.

Larkin was, and remains, a controversial figure, ‘jammed somewhere between celebratory and condemnatory impulses.‘ I have often argued for appreciating the work of poets through their words without dragging their lives into the mix. For me, poetry can stand alone, can be complete in itself as words on a page. Perhaps that is a naive standpoint, but I remain content experiencing great work as a thing in itself.

And for me, Larkin is a great poet. One of the best presents I ever received was the entire collection from my daughter a couple of Christmases ago.

And it being Christmas again, I thought of that gift as I read about Larkin finally arriving in Poets’ Corner. As I put up our Christmas tree, aware of another ending year, Larkin’s wondrous poem The Trees presented itself.

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Philip Larkin