“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

This event happened last weekend, apparently a pretty huge annual one here in the US. I was pretty unaware of it until that night, when the guy who helped me in a store told me how sad he was to be working and not watching the game.

As it happened, the weekend also marked nine months since my arrival in NYC, May 2018. Overall, I now feel pretty settled. Returning to the city following a Christmas/New Year break in London, I realized how much NYC, and my apartment, feel like home. Also, over the past few weeks I have noticed that most experiences in my adopted city no longer feel like I am encountering them for the first time (which is a little sad in a way – I do want to hang onto the excitement of the newness).

My non-engagement with the Super Bowl led me to wonder, however, the extent to which I have truly integrated. Have I merely exchanged one big multicultural city (London) for another? And also, what happens to one’s sense of identity when you move from nation to nation, neither of which is actually your homeland of origin? I was surprised to learn a few weeks ago that everyone I encounter here assumes that I am English. I guess that living for more than a couple of decades in London muted my Irish lilt, but still… Being here in the US, I feel more Irish than I ever have, and gratefully so.

Things I have (particularly) noticed over the past transplanted months:

Language and spelling – gray vs grey / arugula vs rocket / squash vs courgette / sleeper sofa vs sofa bed, the plethora of commas (something I have embraced enthusiastically, being a passionate advocate of same)… The list is exponential.

Directness – it is not just the language that can be different here, but also the way it is delivered. People generally say exactly what they mean, which was disarming initially but I have come to appreciate the directness. It makes you feel that whatever the agenda is, it is transparent to all.

Friendliness – I like that people randomly talk to you, on the street, on the subway. When you start off knowing almost no-one, the acknowledgement of your presence from strangers matters.

Excitement – someone said to me that living in NYC is like being permanently electrified. There is so much to discover, to interest, to energise, to excite. If you are up for it, and I generally am, the options are endless. Take, for example, last week, when I went to a loft apartment in Long Island City for a classical concert. The organisation Groupmuse hosts intimate concerts in people’s homes. The price is a small donation for the musicians, alongside BYOB, and for that you get to hear pretty amazing music and also to meet new people. The concert on this occasion was a cellist performance. Wondrous, and only around 14 of us present. I plan to host a concert in my apartment, too. I love the idea of people coming to my space and sharing such experiences.

I perceive life in technicolor here. I also believe that what I perceive is not how I want it to be, but for the first time, seeing life as it really is.

Living in NYC has also moved my passion for literature and reading to another level. New York Public Library is amazing. And free. I have an endless request list there. Plus, there are numerous, and often free, book events throughout the city. Of late I have seen Colm Toibin, Paul Muldoon, Brian Dillon, Jorie Graham, Tessa Hadley, Dani Shapiro, Elizabeth Gilbert, Maria Popova…

Being surrounded by so much has inspired me in other ways, too. I play the cello in an amateur ensemble. With a friend, we planning to host literary salons on all things pretentious! I am writing, a little, and aiming to do much more. Despite the busyness of life here, I feel as if my brain is almost paradoxically lighter, and open to more.

There are downsides, of course. The UK where my daughter is at school so often feels too far away. NYC is super expensive, though I am learning how to exist here more economically., and there is much culturally that is free.

Although this is gradually and surely improving, there have been moments of huge existential loneliness – stripped bare of that which had previously supported me, moving alone to New York exposed a vulnerable me that inevitably questioned the meaning of my life on more than one occasion. But those experiences have also helped me to understand myself better. Being so exposed, so stripped bare, has encouraged me to critically question my self – my thoughts, behavior, actions – in a (hopefully) constructive way.

I love this a quote from the Baal Shem Tov that I came across in the introduction to Dani Shapiro’s book, Hourglass:

“Let me fall if I must fall. The one I will become will catch me.”

Someone asked me this week where I am heading, what my life plan is. I had no definite or concrete answer. And I am glad of that. I have largely stopped trying to plan my life, and also, I have become mostly okay living with a “not-knowing.”

From Denise Levertov’s Variations On a Theme by Rilke:

“….The day’s blow

rang out, metallic or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self

saying and singing what it knew: I can.”

 

Which is what I have gradually come to experience over these past months – a self-belief, and the sense that I, too, can.

 

CQ

“People are supposed to be married, supposed to go through this world two by two.”

from Clock Dance, Anne Tyler

I spent New Year’s Eve at a dinner party. I had a truly super time – lovely people, wonderful food, great fun. Eleven sat at the table – five couples, with me as the uneven eleventh. A not unusual situation. I have been divorced a long time, and more single than coupled ever since. The uneven number thing did strike me, though. Coupledom is the norm. Singledom creates an unevenness, an asymmetry that can be uncomfortable for many, and even threatening for some.

Most people I know (particularly in London, less so in New York) are married. Having once been married, and now residing in the alternate de-married world, I often consider my status/non-status. Rachel Cusk, in her novel Outline, says much that is interesting on the topic, including:

“You build a whole structure on a period of intensity that’s never repeated.”

“You don’t renounce it because too much of your life stands on that ground.”

Her words remind me of Philip Larkin’s, from his poem Marriages:

“To put one brick upon another,

Add a third, and then a fourth,

Leaves no time to wonder whether

What you do has any worth.

 

But to sit with bricks around you

While the winds of heaven bawl

Weighing what you should or can do

Leaves no doubt of it at all.”

Cusk also considers the illusory impossibility of marriage:

“When I think back to the time before, and especially to the years of my marriage, it seems to me as though my wife and I looked at the world through a long lens of preconception, by which we held ourselves at some unbreachable distance from what was around us, a distance that constituted a kind of safety from what was around us, a distance that constituted a kind of safety but also created a space for illusion.”

from Outline, Rachel Cusk

Elsewhere, Larkin is more playful in his ruminations:

“My wife and I – we’re pals. Marriage is fun.

Yes: two can love as stupidly as one.”

Marriage, Philip Larkin

Where does all of this leave me on the topic? I am not sure. For the most part, I am perfectly okay with my uneven number contribution to social gatherings. I hold no envy for married friends and strangers. Marriage is a complicated business, and one that I do not currently subscribe to.

Of course, coupledom and marriage are not synonymous. I absolutely believe in the possibility (and impossibility) of love, short-term or other:

“Il n’y a de vrai au monde que de déraisonner d’amour”

[The only truth is love beyond reason]

Alfred du Musset

This belief brings me to Shikibu’s words:

“My pillow

has become

a dusty thing–

for whom

should I brush it off?”

Izumi Shikibu

For whom, indeed? It will be interesting to see whether this time next year my contentment remains at being the uneven 11th, or whether I will choose to present myself within the evenness of a coupled 12.

 

CQ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I took this picture at dusk while walking by the canal. It made me think about reflections – both the physical and the contemplative kind. The twilight time of year is particularly conducive to the latter as we pause, consider and reconsider the year that ends, and move on in a (hopefully) more surefooted way to the commencing one.

Although I am not generally into New Year Resolutions, I do appreciate this pause, the freedom to reflect back on past months. David Sedaris believes that we tend to remember sadness, not happiness, happiness being harder to put into words. There is a truth in that. However, I remember many moments of exquisite joy in recent times, mostly derived from the simplest of things – the beauty of water, the sense of sun’s warmth on my face, the smiles and kindnesses of others, the awareness of earth beneath my feet…

I have learnt more about myself this past year than ever before, which has both surprised and at times shocked me. In his wonderful novel, Early Work, Andrew Martin states that “the provisional life is easily unmade.” I like this, it inspires hope. As does Anne Lamott in Almost Everything–Notes on Hope:

“We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.”

One thing I have learnt over the past year is that being open to change makes the experience of living so much more fulfilling.

“Living is no laughing matter:

you must live with great seriousness

like a squirrel, for example–

I mean without looking for something

beyond and above living.

I mean living must be your whole occupation.”

from On Living, Nazim Hikmet

Life is indeed a serious business, the realisation of which grows year on year with age. Living it in a lighthearted way, however, need not contradict this realisation.

Beckett’s refrain “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” is particularly apt as the old year fades. For me, as the new year approaches, Larkin’s (uncharacteristically) optimistic words resonate:

“New eyes each year

Find old books here,

And new books, too,

Old eyes renew;

So youth and age

Like ink and page

In this house join,

Minting new coin.”

from Femmes Damnées, Philip Larkin

 

CQ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I have developed a thing for mirrors.

In my new space, I have a large one, something I have never had before. In fact, I pretty much avoided mirrors up to now, large and small.

Matthew Sweeney’s take on this resonates. From his essay, Huge Mirrors:

“This is an old apartment and therefore the mirrors are huge and ornate. They go with the high ornate ceilings… The problem is I’ve never been too fond of mirrors. I rarely look into them, and only then to make sure my hair isn’t sticking up, or there’s no toothpaste showing, or when I’m fine-trimming the beard, to make sure I’ve missed no section… As for gazing into the mirror to see if  I look OK enough to go out into the world, or — perish the thought — if I look attractive today, the answer is no wayQue sera, sera, as the song goes.”

Now, I seem to have swung the other way; I have deliberately chosen to house a large mirror in my otherwise sparsely furnished apartment. And I have positioned it in the living space so that I walk past it frequently, thus catching at least a glimpse of myself several times a day.

Sometimes I stop and stare.

Sometimes I watch myself dancing.

Sometimes I take selfies.

I have been reflecting on the why—the why of this shift in my relationship with mirrors, or at least with this one in particular.

At work, I initially resisted switching the camera on for conference calls, not wanting to be perpetually confronted by my screen face. I now no longer care. Not only does it not bother me, but I seem to have developed a intense curiosity about seeing “myself”. And this is not because I consider that age has suddenly made me attractive or “nice-to-look-at” ;)

I think it is more about shunning a previously held dualistic approach to personal identity. I have spent most of my life in my head, largely ignoring my physical self. My mind was an okay place to spend time and I could quite easily justify indulging it. I still do. Buying books is not difficult for me. Buying clothes can be more challenging.

This emergent sense of the totality of me began when I discovered yoga. Not only did it show me new ways of engaging with my body, but it also revealed how my mind and body could work symbiotically. Although I play the piano and the cello, I had never previously experienced the same synchronicity. Yoga encouraged me to believe that these two aspects of my self could be “friends.”

Hiding less from my physical self, I feel that I am getting to know me more authentically, more honestly, and thus moving towards a better recognition (and acceptance?) of self. As we approach another new year, my thoughts are not so much about changing me, physically, mentally or spiritually, but more about enhancing the me that I now see so that all components of who I am might live more harmoniously together.

As I walk by my mirror, and catch a glimpse of a reflected self, this witnessing of me, by me in the absence of others, reassures.

I exist. And my mirror never fails to tell me so.

 

CQ

This sentence comes from a wonderful book that I have just read, Early Work by Andrew Martin. The sentiment feeds into something that I frequently consider and question – and most especially since coming to NYC – what might my life have been like if I had made different decisions at various metaphorical forks?

Such speculation is pretty pointless. It also assumes that as individuals we control our destiny, a questionable assumption.

Nonetheless, such speculation is also hard to resist.

It reminds me of the many times my daughter at an early age would repeatedly ask, “what if…?”, as she wondered about other possibilities and outcomes.

Robert Frost’s seminal poem The Road Not Taken, is of course responsible for my constant ruminations on decisions I have made, choices that with the benefit of hindsight I am tempted to question:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler…”

The poem continues:

“I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

I often reflect on some of my big life choices – doing medicine, leaving clinical medicine – as well as many of the less impactful ones that I make every day. Mostly, I am pretty ok with where I have arrived, thanks to these decisions as well as to my post hoc questioning, which undoubtedly influenced subsequent paths.

I was listening to Larkin Poe’s Ain’t Gonna Cry yesterday:

“What is my mission?

Why am I swimmin’

In the dirty water

Of a bad decision?”

I have reached a point where regrets about choices and decisions feel like a waste of time. Clean water is not that difficult to find, if you truly do want to find it.

Billy Collins poem, I Go Back To The House For A Book, explores the notion of the unlived life:

“I turn around on the gravel
and go back to the house for a book,
something to read at the doctor’s office,
and while I am inside, running the finger
of inquisition along a shelf,
another me that did not bother
to go back to the house for a book
heads out on his own,
rolls down the driveway,
and swings left toward town,
a ghost in his ghost car,
another knot in the string of time,
a good three minutes ahead of me—
a spacing that will now continue
for the rest of my life.”

We all potentially have many unlived lives. What is more certain, though, is the fact of this current one. I have always had the sense that I was born in the middle of someone else’s story. Even if there might be a truth in this, it doesn’t mean that I cannot shape what I now have.

Mostly, we judge our choices and decisions from a different place and time. We are also different people now to then, even if then was only yesterday.

The what-ifs, the could-haves, the near-misses… such speculation is best reserved for dinner-party fun. And the fun is inextricably linked to the realisation of the impossibility of ever knowing. Life leads you, if you allow it, to a place where a not-knowing is actually not so scary.

It is worth remembering too, that even if we might now, given the chance, do things differently, might make different choices today, every decision and action we make moulds and shapes us into who we are.

I love this, from Dani Shapiro’s The Hourglass:

“Let me fall if I must fall.

The one I will become will catch me.”

 

CQ

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From Adrian Tomine’s New York Drawings

I have been thinking about silence a lot this week, partly inspired by a wonderful piece on the subject – “Listening for Silence With the Headphones Off” –  in Pitchfork.

There is much to reflect on in the article. My favorites include a quote from the poem “Self Portrait at 28” by David Berman:

“All this new technology
will eventually give us new feelings
that will never completely displace the old ones
leaving everyone feeling quite nervous
and split in two.”

And also this:

“Music can both drown out the noise of living and fill an uncomfortable absence.”

The writer of the piece – Mark Richardson – mentions that silence can be both an expression of power and of powerlessness, and suggests that it might be framed as listening to listening. The latter intrigues, and I continue to ponder on this.

My own fascination with silence began at the moment when I acutely “lost” (a ridiculous word for describing something for which I had no culpability) hearing in one ear. Nerve deafness, from which there has been no recovery. Since then I struggle to locate sound, and my perception of music has of course changed. But I am pretty used to it now, even the tinnitus has become part of who I am. There is much noise in the world that I can selectively blank out. If I lie on my hearing ear side, I imagine that I am listening to silence. I have come to cherish such moments.

I am also exploring a different kind of silence – the quietening of my mind through Buddhist meditation. This is a challenge, and will be a life-long one, if even ever achievable. But the process itself is a hopeful one. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on the topic, he states:

“There’s a radio playing in our head, Radio Station NST: Non-Stop Thinking. Our mind is filled with noise, and that’s why we can’t hear the call of life…”

Thich Nhat Hanh aspires to “Noble Silence”, the kind of silence that is also a presence, to a being there that is therapeutic and healing.

Other types of silence can be destructive, and perhaps stem more from a imposed – self or other – silencing.

“There was silence in the room for several minutes and this silence felt like a kind of suffering to Gustav.”

from Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata

I have spent many years in therapy, which has been a transformative experience. Those years of weekly sessions were akin to a stepwise and cumulative breaking of a life-long imposed silence.

For me, walking into the analyst’s room comes from a place of stillness. When we are born, we exit the silence of the womb and a lifelong cacophony of noise ensues. When we die, we return to a place of stillness, or so it seems. The therapeutic space is a liminal one, a microcosm of a lived life, bookended by silence.

Words are critically important to me, but I have come to see both them – spoken and unspoken – as inextricably linked to silence. Even if not acknowledged as such, sound depends on its counterpart for its existence. Music cannot be heard without the pause that precedes it. Silence is part of everything that we say, and as implicitly part of our communication as the words that emanate from it.

Alexander Newman considers that:

“There can be no psychotherapy except on the basis of silence – even the ‘talking cure’ presupposes silence.”

Similarly, from Gregory Ala Isakov’s song, Caves:

“Did I hear something break / Was that your heart or my heart / Like when the earth shakes / Then the silence that follows”

I am not sure that I agree with Wittgenstein’s statement “All I know is what I have words for”. Having spent my life living in words, I am now increasingly curious about, and keen to explore, the wordlessness of silence.

“For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.”

from Pablo Neruda, Keeping Quiet

 

CQ

 

 

 

 

Wrote a poem. It made me smile.

 

For the Sake of a Name

 

“My name is Mabel,”

I said as I paid for my coffee.

No, strike that, it was Kombucha.

Telling the lie was thrilling.

I wanted to laugh out loud

because I am so not a Mabel.

I have never actually met any Mabels,

although maybe a cat, once,

and a lonely spinster in a Virago novel

who liked a tipple.

 

This Mabel likes Kombucha.

 

I wait expectantly

for the “Mabel” shout out.

 

They forget the order.

 

I argue my/her case.

A Kombucha arrives,

silently.

 

Name-less.

Mabel-less.

No froth on top.

 

And utterly tasteless.

 

CQ

 

 

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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