I did a wonderful poetry course recently, on solitary spaces (Coffee-House Poetry). A particularly relevant theme for these times, but solitude is generally either central or just slightly peripheral to my field of vision most of the time. The challenging thing for me right now is that the solitude hasn’t been of my choosing. Hitherto, the solitary place was somewhere I willingly and gladly chose to spend time.

Here are some of the poems I during the course.

Untitled

I

In my room on the nineteenth floor I

no longer look down, but up. And fly.

II

That hour when all the city’s noise fades

and I yearn for the non-muted life.

III

It has been four days now since

I saw the mouse. I miss him. Or her.

 

On never waking up

I don’t hold with dreams.

But I remember this one, even now, many years later.

The apocalypse happened.

You and I were oceans apart and would never meet again.

We continued to connect in the cyber world.

Onscreen, I could see your face.

And hear your voice.

But I could not touch you.

Could not reach out and feel the warmth of your skin.

That hand.

Those freckles.

 

The heart breaks and breaks and breaks

“Where all the ladders start”

WB Yeats

 

As I place a foot on the first step

I pause and look to where I’m going

wondering what it might feel like to arrive.

It was a dare, no?

A test of sorts.

And a trick, too,

every ladder leading to another.

 

Here, I am

Too little has been said

of the door, its one

face turned to the night’s

downpour and its other

to the shift and glisten of the firelight.

from The Door by Charles Tomlinson

I don’t have a fireplace, but the power of Tomlinson’s words resonates. My door demarcates a space, both physically and metaphorically, and the shutting of it announces my entry into somewhere safe, certain, and unchanging.

Here, I am alone and untethered.

Since leaving early morning, I have spent the day with others. Now, I—gladly—return to aloneness. Yet am I truly alone? I am not with another person for sure, but I am with me. I am totally present to myself in this sanctum, this liminal space, akin to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “intermediate space”, where yesterday has vanished and tomorrow has not yet emerged.

This place of pause is my refuge. It is where my solitude is a choice and a preference.

As soon as I enter, there are rituals. I take off my shoes, change my clothes, and shower. As if all of the outside must remain there and not contaminate this inner world. I choose some music. A record, because I love the physicality and deliberateness of placing needle on vinyl to create sound, and the necessity of flipping to continue the joy of listening.

It is a minimalist home. Lack of clutter intensifies its reassurance. Recently, I bought a mirror. Floor to ceiling. As I walk by, I catch a glimpse of my movement in the reflection. Witnessing myself, I stop, and whisper “Oh, hello, there you are. Welcome.”

 

CQ

Home

Two years ago, May 1, 2018, I moved from London to New York. New York is an exciting city, full of possibilities. Every day there feels like an adventure.

The move marked my first time living alone. It was an interesting, slightly scary, and ultimately liberating challenge. With no one else to please, I had almost complete freedom setting up my home in my new city.

All my life, or so it seemed to me, I had dreamt of living in a New York style loft. It took me a little while to find this dream place. But I did eventually find it in Brooklyn.

I took my time setting it up, determined to minimally fill the space, and only with things that I loved.

chair

It was stressful at the beginning, getting my head around how another country functions and operates, but it was fun, too, creating something that had my stamp on it, a spatial environment where I felt safe, happy, and hopeful.

I even commissioned some art work—the artist was given the remit to imagine me in different environments that reflected my life and desires: the sea, my veganism, and movies. And thus the triptych that I love was created.

Art pieces

I eventually also got a cello and a piano. The space began to feel complete, even more so when I hosted regular recitals in my home.

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My daughter visited me in New York, and I travelled back several times, either to Newcastle where she is studying or to London, to see her. But, it bothered me throughout that we were living on different continents. A few months ago, I had a nightmare that the apocalyse happened and she and I could never meet again. And so, when COVID-19 arrived, it felt as if my nightmare was about to come true. In March this year, I hurriedly left NYC, leaving everything behind, anxious to be back in the UK while that journey was still possible.

And now, May 1, 2020, here I am in London. The lease on my NYC apartment has just come up for renewal and I have declined. There are too many uncertainties and it feels as if London is where I need to be, at least for the medium term. Working remotely throughout these past couple of months has proven how possible it is to do my job from here.

I miss my place and my space. In due course, I will sort out accommodation in London, but it won’t be my NYC loft. As someone who isn’t particularly attached to material things, I wonder why I feel so sad at the thought of never again seeing the home I created there. It’s a kind of grieving, which of course extends beyond the physical construct. I am missing my life as it was, the routines, the people, the interactions, the stuff that tethered me.

Solitude isn’t such a problem, although up to now it was of my choosing rather than being imposed. In this current liminal space of suspended time and eerie quietness, I hover and fluctuate between acceptance and rage. I also bask in nostalgia but try not to succumb to it. This is a new world, there will be a new order of things, and I need to let go of a past that is already approaching the quality of an illusion.

As always, I have been reading Larkin. This poem seems particularly apposite.

Home is so Sad

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,

Shaped to the comfort of the last to go

As if to win them back. Instead, bereft

Of anyone to please, it withers so,

Having no heart to put aside the theft

 

And turn again to what it started as,

A joyous shot at how things ought to be,

Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:

Look at the pictures and the cutlery.

The music in the piano stool. That vase.

 

Philip Larkin

 

 

 

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I took this photo in the room where I currently spend most of my days. Hopper’s Automat hangs on the wall facing me, while behind is a window with bars. I sit equidistant between both. I love Hopper’s art, something about the melancholic aloneness. His work has always spoken to me, now more than ever. I watched a documentary on his life on youtube—a commentator stated that in Hopper’s paintings, time is elongated, stretched, contemplative, a sense of time slowing down.

In the current lockdown situation, I have been considering time and its meaning right now. The days pass quickly, which surprises me, but at the same time there is a slowness to my life. I seem to do things, particularly reading, at a different pace. And I like that—it feels as if I am more attentive, somehow, that life is more consciously deliberate. I was reading a piece in the New York Times by Olivia Laing. She reflects on time and its current meaning:

“Most of us are perennially short of time, and now we’re left hanging in it”

For me, it’s not a bad place to be hanging. But the sense of uncertainty does challenge. I am not in the country where I normally live. I do not know when I will see my daughter next. I do not know when I will next touch someone. Will someone I know and love contract the virus, and suffer? When will this end? Will it ever end?

There are so many unknowns. Before all this began, I thought that I had reached a place where I was relatively ok with the not-knowingness of life. But the pandemic challenges this, and me, on so many levels. The future is indeed unknown—it always was, really, and we mostly collude with the illusion that we can to some extent predict, and even control our futures.

My daughter finds solace in the shared experience that we are all going through (albeit to hugely varying degrees of suffering). I agree, the corporate nature of the pandemic—no one can escape its impact—is reassuring.

And then there is also hope. It’s too soon for me to think about the end of this, when and how we will emerge from our physically isolated worlds. And what that world might look like. But in the meantime, I am optimistic. Mainly about humanity and the acts of compassion that I observe daily. And the new connectedness that I am experiencing with friends old and new across the globe. People are what matter, they give life its greatest value, meaning, and joy.

And on the note of hope, from Derek Mahon:

Everything Is Going To Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing beyond 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.

 

CQ

 

 

I have always loved politics. Growing up in Ireland, all things political were very much embedded in the fabric of the nation. Both nationally and locally, I felt very much involved in the political landscape (although I railed against its parochialism at the time).

When I later moved to London, where I lived for more than 20 years, my interest in the machinations of the English political scene took root and grew exponentially.

In 2018, I moved to the New York. Again, I became interested in and fascinated by the country’s political world. How could I not? How we make, and break, worlds and communities, how we strive to create a more just and equal society, how we struggle to hang on to the physical world that we all inhabit—all such fundamental and essential things to spend significant amounts of time considering, discussing, and acting on.

In the past, I have mostly acted by exercising my right to vote.

A right I no longer have.

In the USA, as a non-citizen, I obviously cannot vote. In the UK, where I have a home, I am also not a citizen and therefore cannot vote there, either. In Ireland, I remain a citizen but I do not have a place of residence and thus, no vote.

So, I have watched both recent UK and Irish elections as a bystander, and will soon do the same in the US. This does not at all dim my interest in politics, but it does make me feel just a little invisible and powerless.

To not have a say in the (democratic) world that I inhabit is actually kind of tragic.

CQ

 

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A trilogy of masterpieces.

I have previously shared my thoughts on Patricio Guzmán’s first two documentary films in the series—Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button. The final one, The Cordillera of Dreams, has now arrived in NYC movie theaters.

Guzmán was present for the screening of The Pearl Button I attended in London back in 2016. He mentioned then that his next film, the third in the series, would focus on the Andes (Cordillera de los Andes), the mountains that rise above and delineate the inland border of his beloved Chile.

Guzmán left Chile in 1973, following the coup that marked the beginning of Pinochet’s dictatorship. The Cordillera of Dreams, similar to the others in the trilogy, is a philosophical reflection and meditation on the director’s estranged homeland (he has not lived there since his 1973 departure) through the lens of both landscape and history. We do not see Guzmán throughout the documentary but his presence is keenly felt through the self-narration. The cinematography—predictably sublime—moves between the majestic mountain peaks and valleys of the Cordillera and the tragic footage of the violent struggle experienced by protestors during the Pinochet regime. The mountains appear as both protector of the country that they overshadow and powerless witness of the atrocities experienced by the nation’s people.

The Cordillera of Dreams is infused with metaphor and anthropomorphisms. Guzmán states:

“Santiago receives me with indifference.”

I left my homeland by choice rather than necessity, yet I think I understand what Guzmán means. The Ireland that I grew up in is almost recognizable compared to the one I witness today from afar. When I do return to my homeland, I am no longer part of its fabric, my presence in a sense immaterial and superfluous.

Guzmán interviews writers and artists who remained in Chile throughout its turbulent times. I am in awe, not only of their courage in staying put, but also of the depth of the connection they maintain with their homeland. Although he left Chile so many years ago, The Cordillera of Dreams is indeed testament to the fact that Guzmán himself has also never truly strayed far from his beloved country.

 

CQ

IMG_3206

I went to the Strand this week to see André Aciman—of the Call Me By Your Name book (and movie) fame—having just finished his new title, Find Me.

Aciman is a very entertaining, funny, and generous interviewee. Find Me is in parts a playful read, which was to some extent mirrored by my experience of its creator in real life.

Find Me is not a sequel to Call Me By Your Name, at least not so in the strict sense. Aciman teases us by not allowing Elio into the narrative until Part 2, which starts almost midway through the book. Oliver reappears much later, almost at the end. Aciman shared the fact that, particularly in Call Me By Your Name, he was not that much interested in Oliver’s character. Aciman tends to focus almost exclusively on the very few central protagonists, those peripheral to the narrative remaining shadowy and ill-defined. Take Elio’s mother, for example. In Call Me By Your Name she is sidelined and pretty featureless. The movie changed this, developing her character and giving her more of a role in the storyline. Aciman was, and remains so in his new book, more interested in Elio’s father, and thus Find Me opens with him (Samuel, named as such in the movie but not in Call Me By Your Name), and in fact gives him the largest protagonist share of the narrative.

This opening section—called Tempo—focuses on Samuel’s encounter with a younger woman. As Tempo suggests, time is a dominant theme here, and persists as a thread throughout the book. Early on, Samuel states that “…life and time are not in sync.”

He continues:

“None of us may want to claim to live life in two parallel lanes but all have many lives, one tucked beneath or right alongside the other. Some lives wait their turn because they haven’t been lived at all, while others die before they’ve lived out their time, and some are waiting to be relived because they haven’t been lived enough. Basically, we don’t know how to think of time. because time doesn’t really understand time the way we do, because time couldn’t care less what we think of time, because time is just a wobbly, unreliable metaphor for how we think about life. Because ultimately it isn’t time that is wrong for us, or we for time. It may be life itself that is wrong.”

I am fascinated by the concept of time, how we measure our lives by it, and how time delineates—and seems to control— a one way journey from birth to death. I agree with Aciman—time is not a useful metaphor for how we perceive our lived lives, yet it one that is omnipresent.

Aciman proceeds to “play” with the concept of time, and how it shapes the lives of his characters. Part 1, for example, focuses mostly on just one day, and then the immediately following days. In Part 2, we have traveled a few years to arrive at the timeline, remaining there for a matter of days. Obviously much has happened in the intervening years, but there is a strong sense that within those deliberately chosen days, these hours are where life truly takes shape, determining its owner’s direction in the years thereafter. So yes, life and time are indeed out of sync.

As in Call Me By Your Name, music is a dominant theme throughout Aciman’s new book. He believes that music, and the arts in general, do not change our lives, albeit the joy they bring. An imaginary conversation takes place between Oliver and J.S. Bach in Find Me:

“Music reminds me of what my life should have been. But it doesn’t change me…Music is no more than the sound of our regrets put to a cadence that stirs the illusion of pleasure and hope. It’s the surest reminder that we’ve neglected or cheated, or, worse yet, failed to live our lives. Music is the unlived life.”

Which brings me to another dominant theme—that of the life not lived. Aciman believes that we all have many potentially lives, a belief that I subscribe to, though it can be a challenging one to act positively on so that we truly realize our lived potentials. Adam Phillip’s Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life comes to mind:

“…one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not.”

“We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason — and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason — they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. Indeed, our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live.”

“Our lives become an elegy to needs unmet and desires sacrificed, to possibilities refused, to roads not taken.”

And this brings me back to Find Me, and its emphasis on not having those regrets, not accepting your life as an elegy to “desires sacrificed”, but about choosing to go down one road, allowing for this to be the wrong choice, and ultimately re-navigating your path.

Find Me is a thoughtful, introspective, and philosophical read. It is ultimately an ode to love, to the possibilities of love, and the richness awarded to a life lived true to such possibilities.

CQ

 

 

 

 

 

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On one level, I see myself as a writer. I am constantly writing something – lists (for today, this week, this month, this year, sometime…), quotes, reflections, mood stuff. When it comes to real writing, though, I think about it too much. So much, in fact, that I think my way out of actually doing any.

So, what has been left unwritten? I have a list (of course) of topics that connect my thinking and my lived experience. I am veering towards personal essays, musings that reflect my day-to-day life, particularly as it relates to, and is informed by, my encounters with literature and the arts.

I have long dabbled in poetry. As a young teen, I won a national competition in Ireland. (Something about autumn leaves, I think. I wish I had kept a copy.) For many years thereafter, I saw myself as a poet. In relatively recent times, I completed a Masters in Creative Writing. My final dissertation focused on the theme of skin and the the poetry I created on the topic. Here are two poems from that time:

Dandruff

I am itching

to brush the white specks away,

to dust the dead skin from

the collar of your coat.

 

But I am a stranger.

You may not take kindly

to the caress of my hand

on your soft threads.

You may be angry, irritated,

inflamed.

Or merely surprised, bemused

by the feel of me,

intrigued by the intimacy of the gesture.

 

That touch, a risk,

born out of nothing more, nor less,

than kindness.

 

Tattoo

You said

I wouldn’t dare,

wouldn’t stick the pain

of scraping, piercing needles.

Forbidden art.

Grey lines

etched on translucent skin.

Wings poised

to take flight.

To break free.

Beak open,

olive branch on offer.

To make peace.

.

This dove

cannot escape.

My skin, its cage,

locked from the inside.

Captive art.

You said

‘don’t do it’.

 

And I did.

 

I have come to accept that I am no poet, and now happily enjoy the works of others rather than write poems myself (although I have not entirely ruled out dabbling in prose poetry).

At the beginning of her memoir Things I don’t Want To Know, Deborah Levy quotes Georges Perec:

“I know roughly speaking, how I became a writer. I don’t know precisely why. In order to exist, did I really need to line up words and sentences? In order to exist, was it enough for me to be the author of a few books?…One day I shall certainly have to start using words to uncover what is real, to uncover my reality.”

I see writing as a making sense, a way of interrupting circular and directionless thinking. Jung said that “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate” My words seem to come from some liminal interior space – where truth and reality jostle for position. Putting my words out there is an attempt to ease the tension within. Of course, I could just keep a diary. Which I almost consistently do, but sharing my words, writing with an intended reader is different. It speaks to the other, and gestures towards a witnessing, not merely of my words, but also of my existence.

Wittgenstein said that “All I know is what I have words for.” I get that. My thoughts and words seem inextricably connected, one leading to the other. This interconnectedness is echoed by Lydia Davis suggestion that “maybe the notebook is a place to practice not only writing but thinking.”

For me, writing is both a way to stop running and a way out of the liminal space. Why don’t I write? Stopping, standing still, can be challenging and threatening. And perhaps there is also an element of fear around what might lie beyond the exit sign.

Henrik Pontoppidan:

“But one day, we are stopped by a voice from the depths of our being, a ghostly voice that asks “who are you?” From then on, we hear no other question. From that moment, our own true self becomes the great Sphinx, whose riddle we try to solve.”

To consider the (probably unanswerable) question “who am I?” feels important. Henceforth, instead of endless circular thinking, I aim to break this closed loop and direct the flow from thinking to words to pencil to page.

“Pages are cavernous places, white at entrance, black in absorption.
Echo.

If I’m transformed by language, I am often
crouched in footnote or blazing in title.
Where in the body do I begin;”

from WHEREAS [“WHEREAS when offered…”]

Layli Long Soldier

CQ

 

 

 

 

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This is my second Thanksgiving in the US. This holiday, and even more so July 4, remind me that I am a visitor here, and thus cannot make any authentic claim to truly own these national events.

I do like the opportunity Thanksgiving affords to bring people together, in kindness, encouraging us to pause and consider all that is good and meaningful in our lives.

Kindness is at the top of my gratitude list. Coming here, a stranger to the city and the country, the kindness of others has made my stay so much more welcoming and joyful.

The poem Small Kindnesses, by Danusha Laméris, encapsulates this beautifully.

“Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.

We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,

and to say thank you to the person handing it…”

 

“…We have so little of each other, now. So far

from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.

What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these

fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,

have my seat,” “Go ahead – you first,” “I like your hat.”

from Small Kindnesses

By Danusha Laméris

 

 

 

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…of my arrival in NYC.

Someone at work today asked me what I have learnt over the past year. And so, what follows is a reflection on this question.

  1. Change. It suits me and I seem to have adapted pretty quickly. A good thing, I guess, although I do wonder whether my ease at readjusting at least partly results from closing the door too firmly on the past.
  2. Resilience. I have more of it than I had thought. Getting through many moments of existential loneliness has shown me this. And reassured me that I can do it.
  3. Aloneness. Life is really about finding my own meaning for myself. No matter who or what I am surrounded by, ultimately it is just me, and me.
  4. Mothering. I am not sure how I would have felt about this if I still lived in London and on the same continent as my daughter. As she heads towards being 21, I hugely miss the acuteness of my role in her life, while at the same time reveling in the joy of seeing her growing up and away, and happy in a world of her own making. I wish that there weren’t so many miles between us. And no experience in my life will ever match the wondrous time we continue to spend together.
  5. Joy. Moments that often surprise me, happening when least expected and triggered by the simplest of things – nature, people, music, art.
  6. Music. Joining an ensemble here with my cello has given me so much. Being able to “make” music with others is one of the best of things. I also now have a piano, and the very many hours I spend playing music and listening to it always rekindles a vitalness within.
  7. People. Last and not least. From casual and random interactions to the kindness of friends – new and old – I have come to truly appreciate the joy of a peopled life, something I did not value enough before.

And so, here I am. On to year two, with a little trepidation, but mostly excited and hopeful.

 

CQ

 

 

“Life is curious when it is reduced to its essentials”

Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys

When leaving London, I made it my mission to pack my up-to-then life into two suitcases. It proved to be quite a feat. I had lived there for more than 25 years, and although I am not really a collector of “stuff”, I had a home and therefore furniture, clothes, and very many books.

The task was achievable, and also extremely stressful. Most of the “stuff” was donated to charity. I sold a few things, including my piano.

And I did get on the plane with just two suitcases.

I do think of some of the things I left behind (and hopefully now enjoyed by someone else) – almost exclusively books. I had an eclectic collection and I suspect that I will replace at least some of them in due course. I left behind a box of prized works for my daughter. I think she will be glad of them in due course, and I hope that she will experience a similar amount of joy within those pages.

I miss my piano, daily. I have a cello here that I love playing. But I yearn for the sublime ecstasy (and solitude) that playing Satie and Mompou, in particular, gave me.

I have been reading Elisa Gabbert’s The Word Pretty – a gem. In the piece titled Writing That Sounds like Writing, she talks about overwriting and excesses in art. As she has gotten older, Gabbert has come to appreciate subtleties in, for example, poetry. Yet she worries that

…this is like rich people getting rid of all their stuff, the intellectual equivalent of mistaking asceticism for refinement. The Marie Kondo craze is basically the opposite of horror vacui–fear of empty space versus fear of bounty. Minimalism versus maximalism, simplicity versus complexity.

This has made me question my own actions. True, circumstance (I didn’t want to put anything into storage) was a main motivating factor. I also felt a desire to shake off the old and begin again, in a more minimalist and self-defined way–the totality of such a decluttering allowing for a simpler life, and a new way of seeing and being.

I am also aware that I am fortunate enough to, for example, replace some of the books I left behind, if I so desire.

Jean Rhys states that life is more curious when limited to the essentials. Of course, what the essentials might be is entirely subjective, and again inextricably linked to what can be afforded. Having less “stuff” – and I mean in relative terms compared to my previous existence–probably does make life more curious for me, but more than that it makes it lighter, less weighed down, less burdensome.

Perhaps, along with the casting aside of the material, I also discarded those emotional aspects that no longer served a purpose in my life.

 

CQ