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

 

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

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

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing behind the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,

but there is no need to go into that.

The lines flow from the hand unbidden

and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything

and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

 

Derek Mahon

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

“The mountains we climb are mountains of our minds”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is at that moment that we are most alive.

 

CQ

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

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

He continues:

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

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

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

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

 

CQ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Nobody hears

your footsteps walking away along the gravel drive.’

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

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

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

Even hopeful enough to consider writing my own book.

 

CQ

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

CQ

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

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

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

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

The Trees

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

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

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

Philip Larkin

 

Somewhat embarrassingly, I agreed to be interviewed about my movie addiction a few months ago for a newspaper that I have never read. And never plan to. No idea why I agreed to the proposition (no money or free cinema tickets involved). Possibly because film and cinema is so central to my life, and has been since my first experience as a child seeing The Sound of Music with my grandmother, that I wanted to share something of what it all continues to means to me.

I once plotted the shape of my formative experience against specific films that moved/shaped/inspired me at various timepoints. My observations of life on the screen have indeed moulded my own lived experience, and for sure served to make me, me. I have physically travelled relatively little, but I have journeyed through many worlds, landscapes, and cultures through the medium of film.

The London Irish Film Festival took place just over a week ago. I didn’t manage to see as much as I would have liked, but the events I did attend were hugely rewarding. On Thursday November 24th, I was at the Barbican to see silent Irish films (a first for me), with a live musical accompaniment from the wonderful O’Snodaigh brothers and Cormac de Barra. The music was an event in itself, and I marvelled throughout at how the musicians responded and reacted so acutely and viscerally to what was enacted on the screen. The series of silent films were not only part of the festival, but also of the 1916 commemorations, charting the Anglo-Irish relationship from a cinematic perspective. Fascinating. This theme was carried through to a day long event at Birkbeck on November 26th – specifically focusing on the relationship between Ireland and England in the 1980s, again through the eyes of filmmakers. I left Ireland in 1989, and much of what I saw at Birkbeck resonated with me – both the Ireland that I left behind, and the London that has become home. The discussions that emanated from the screenings were equally fascinating.

On the final day of the festival, I saw the premiere of Emerald City, directed by Colin Broderick. All the cast, and their families and friends it seemed, were there for the screening, which made for a vibrant, joyful and moving event. I enjoyed the film, yet it was the Q and A afterwards that completely sold it to me – the passion and commitment that created Emerald City is truly inspiring.

I was back at the cinema the following day, to see Paterson. It is an absolute gem. I was seduced and enthralled by every second of this film, by its inherent unfolding narrative where little actually happens. Which is why it is a triumph. Jarmusch has created an ode to the ‘ordinary’ life, to the mundane. Glorious in its banality, Paterson is a celebration of life. Not a life that is searching for something different, more exciting, more exotic. But a life that takes pleasure in the essence of what it already has. Few directors would have the courage to present such ‘ordinariness’ so triumphantly. Deeply steeped in the cultural history of New Jersey, with passing references to William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg amongst other, Paterson is more explicit about its connection with the poet Frank O’Hara. Adam Driver (wonderful), who plays the character Paterson in the film is a bus driver who writes poems during his lunch hour. Since watching the film, I have been re-immersing myself in O’Hara’s Lunch Poems:

‘It’s my lunch hour, so I go

for a walk among the hum-colored

cabs.’

from A Step Away From Them

I left Ireland in 1989 because the mundane and the routine of life that I saw around me, and believed that I would fall into if I stayed, terrified me. Paterson has shown me something else – our expectations of what life might, even should, deliver reveals so much about ourselves, and our need for the external to fix the unresolved within.

Paterson reminded me of another film that I saw a couple of years ago – Shun Li and the Poet – which is a very different cinematic experience but it moved me in a similarly lyrical way.

Twenty four hours later, Nocturnal Animals. I did not really know what to expect from this film. I had liked Tom Ford’s earlier A Single Man, and his current feature has a similarly sleek, minimalist and polished feel. But Nocturnal Animals is much more disturbing. I found some of the scenes hard to watch – the sense that something awful is about to happen was deeply distressing, at least for me. Yet I enjoyed it. It is a good, very good cinema experience, with some great acting.

Finally, The Unknown Girl. I had been so looking forward to it, being a huge Dardennes brothers fan. But I was disappointed. The plot was flimsy, the storyline lacking a sense of mattering. I did not connect with the protagonist, Dr Gavin, played by Adele Haenel. In fact her character irritated me, intensely at times. The Unknown Girl never captured my sympathy, or my involvement. Which was a huge disappointment as I expected so much more from these particular directors.

CQ

I was devastated by the Brexit win. And non comprehending. And angry in a way I had never experienced before. I struggled to know what to do with these emotions. Being surrounded by like-minded people helped. I ‘got over it’ in a sense, extreme emotions predictably easing with time. However, I do wonder where it all went, the despair that I experienced at the time, that deep sense of alienation and isolation as a European cast aside. I retreated to a bubble of sorts. London of course is ‘different’ – we voted in – and I generally surround myself with ‘my kind’.

As the US elections approached, I was better prepared. I knew that the unexpected, the dreaded outcome, was possible. I stayed up all night to watch the horror unfold. By the early hours, it was clear that Trump was going to be the next US President. And yet I stayed with it, needing to witness the event. Otherwise I might never have truly believed that it had happened.

I was less devastated than I had been over Europe. Probably because the earlier experience encouraged me to believe that the unthinkable might happen. The ramifications for the world, for humanity, feel even greater than for the Brexit event.

For once, I am glad to be older. I have witnessed good things – the fall of the Berlin Wall, peace in Northern Ireland, the successful gay marriage referendum in the Republic of Ireland – that fuelled an optimism and a real belief in the compassion and kindness of humanity.

The bottom seems to have fallen out of such hopefulness, particularly for the next generation as they face decades of right wing extremism, fascism, and a move away from compassion and towards racism, bigotry, and evil. I feel sad that this will be my daughter’s legacy. I have always believed that having a child is probably one of mankind’s most selfish acts, and we compound it by expecting our children to clean up the mess, to somehow right our wrongs.

It is wonderfully inspiring to see young people so much more politically engaged, so galvanised into resisting and not being complacent about the wave of right wing extremism that is increasingly engulfing us. I believe that they can, with our support, make a difference. They can truly enable positive change. But it is a big ask, and a lifelong one.

There are no Brexiters or Trumpers in my bubble. And yet they exist in huge numbers. Just not in my world. I have been asking myself how did this happen – how has society become so segmented. I saw Ken Roach’s I, Daniel Blake last week. This is a harrowing, and necessary, film. It consolidated my belief that I have not been adequately and actively listening and engaging with the world that exists outside mine.

I feel changed by these experiences of 2016. My challenge now is to ensure that such change translates into something and someone more compassionate and less self-centred than she has hitherto been.

Bubbles are made for bursting.

 

CQ

 

 

 

My daughter is 17 and currently meandering around Europe, enjoying a new found sense of freedom and of adventure. Her excitement as she increasingly appreciates life’s possibilities is almost palpable.

And who knows what these possibilities will materialise as…

I came across this poem in a recent issue of The New Yorker. I love its ambiguity and its realism, although I never felt that my daughter was ‘mine’, or that I held any ownership over her.

 

Fourteen

Marie Howe

 

She is still mine–for another year or so–

but she’s already looking past me

through the funeral-home door

to where the boys have gathered in their dark suits.