“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

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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).

 

Untitled

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