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

 

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