Archives for category: Literature

“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

IMG_1151

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

image1

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.

IMG_0408

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.

19ae78b515b8d8347812fa0886e8f7f4

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.

image1

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

 

It has been many years since I read Jennifer Johnston’s works – The Captains and The Kings and How Many Miles to Babylon? stand out in my mind. A couple of weeks ago I picked up The Christmas Tree (1981), which I had not previously read in a local bookshop.

When choosing a book to read, I realised some time ago that I gravitate towards titles where I hope to find myself within the text. This really struck me while reading The Christmas Tree – the central character Constance frequently reminded me of me.

A slight read in terms of length (183 pages), the book unfolds as Constance’s narrative, where she shares both her feelings about dying from leukaemia and her recent and long past memories. Constance is not old – her baby is nine months – but she has decided to face death without embarking on what she sees as futile treatment. This choice – a freedom of sorts – is resolute and critical, although Constance also realises how insignificant this personal sense of control ultimately is in the face of imminent death.

‘If only it were possible to choose your time to die, I thought, this would be a good moment. A time to be born and a time to die. Only you hadn’t the right to choose. All the other choices that you had fought to be allowed to make, were all irrelevant in the end. Someone else made this choice.’

Constance realises that this will be her last Christmas, and the book opens with a memory from her childhood.

‘It was always a great day when the Christmas tree was brought into the house.’

Constance’s sister Bibi hovers throughout, desperately hoping that she will change her mind and agree to a hospital admission. Bibi refuses to acknowledge the fact that Constance is dying. The sisters love each other, as siblings do even when there is little else to connect them.

Constance: ‘We have a lot of genes and some memories in common. That’s all.’

Constance left Ireland, for London, many years earlier, only now returning to Dublin to die. Bibi remained in Ireland, looking after their parents, particularly the protracted care of the slowly dying mother. Constance disagreed with Bibi’s desperate need to keep their mother alive at all costs, which undoubtedly contributed to her own decision to avoid such a fate.

‘I saw an old woman who should have been dead being kept alive and tormented by the whole process just to make you and all the doctors and nurses feel good.’

Constance also muses on ‘the road not taken’, particularly her decision many years earlier not to marry Bill, a local boy and now her GP, and friend, in her dying days.

‘Suppose I had married Bill and we had gone to Connemara and had six children, would we have been better people? Happier? Would I have comprehended more in that isolation than I succeeded in doing in the isolation I created for myself?  Would I have been able to write, in those circumstances, the books that I wanted so much to write? Damn fool questions with no answers.’

Constance is resigned to the process of dying, and what it necessarily, or so she believes, entails. She remembers the pains of labour – just months earlier – and how it had a pattern, a rhythm.

‘It didn’t frighten me, even when the pauses became inadequate for me to collect my equilibrium.’

But now is different.

‘I am frightened now. There is no rhythm now. I get no warning. It is like being eaten by some animal that tears at me until its hunger is temporarily satisfied and then it sleeps uneasily until the hunger starts again.’

‘I smell of death these days… It creeps out through my pores again and clings to my clothes contaminating anything I touch. It depresses me almost more than the pain.’

The ending is predictable, but not tragic. In fact, there is something hopeful and redemptive as Constance’s baby daughter appears and reminds us that our lives and stories can continue without our physical presence. We are all of us born into the middle of someone else’s story. These narrative threads, like silver linings, extend without us, and beyond.

Following on from my last blog piece on ageing, I came across an interesting book review in this week’s issue of the Lancet. Desmond O’Neill speaks about Four Last Songs: Aging and Creativity in Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen, and Britten by Linda and Michael Hutcheon.

The book I will check out for sure, but for now I particularly like Desmond O’Neill’s positive take on ageing:

“By reframing old age in terms of potential rather than problems, it counters those who portray ageing in terms of unmanageable deficit and loss. Creativity also illuminates the complex interplay of growth, loss, and transcendence in later life.”

 

CQ

 

The American writer and essayist David Foster Wallace committed suicide seven years ago, on September 12, 2008. I have just read his wife’s – Karen Green – grief memoir Bough Down, a beautiful and moving collage of poetry, prose and images.

image1 (1)

image1

Green found her husband following his suicide:

‘I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down. I keep hearing that sound…’

‘The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down. The question abides in the present tense. Because I thought and still think maybe.’

Bough Down is a wonderfully strange read, sometimes challenging to follow Green’s train of thought. But perhaps that is how it should be. The experience of grief, and of love, are ultimately subjective and individual, uniquely lived by those affected.

‘It’s hard to remember tender things tenderly.’

‘I have few desires and fewer aims. I dream of standing on the shore and not seeing his ear whorls in every shell.’

Pine, to wither away from longing or grief.’

Green addresses Foster Wallace throughout, Bough Down unfolding as a love soliloquy:

‘I could love another face, but why?’

The depths of Green’s distress are compounded by the nature of his death:

‘I call the doctor: I am suffering, it’s embarrassing, and I need I need I need…The doctor says if you were so quote perfect for me unquote you’d probably still be around, no offense.’

This is a gem of a book, raw, honest, challenging, sad and beautiful.

‘Ultimately, the loss becomes immortal and hole is more familiar than tooth. The tongue worries the phantom root, the mind scans the heart’s chambers to verify its emptiness. There is the thing itself and then there is the predicament of the cavity.’

image1

CQ

Being able to ‘read’ and to understand the language of pain and suffering is for me an essential life goal.

Below is a link to a recently published personal reflection on how I started on this journey.

http://www.hektoeninternational.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1746

CQ

The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano died this week. I love his writing, my favourite being The Book of Embraces. I have bought numerous copies of this title over the years, all but one of which I have given to family and friends. It is that kind of book: true to its title, it demands sharing.

The Book of Embraces defies classification, being partly prose, poetry, fiction, history and autobiography. At a very rough guess it contain more than 200 entries, the longest just two pages in length.

Some of my favourites:

Dreams at the end of the exile/1

Helena dreamed she was trying to close her suitcase and couldn’t, and she pushed down on it with both hands and knelt on it and sat on top of it and stood on top of it, and it wouldn’t budge. Mysteries and belongings gushed from the suitcase that wouldn’t close.

Grapes and wine

On his deathbed, a man of the vineyards spoke into Marcela’s ear. Before dying, he revealed his secret:

The grape,” he whispered, “is made of wine.

Marcela Perez-Silva told me this, and I thought: If the grape is made of wine, then perhaps we are the words that tell who we are.

Resurrections/1

Acute myocardial infarct, death clawing at the center of my chest. I spent two weeks sunk in a hospital bed in Barcelona. Then I sacrificed my tattered Porky 2 address book, which was falling apart, and although I could not help it, as I changed address books, I relived the years since the sacrifice of Porky 1. While I was transferring names, addresses and telephone numbers to the new book, I was also getting a clear perspective on the muddle of times and people I had been living with, a whirlwind of many deep joys and sorrows, and this was a prolonged mourning for the dead who had remained in the dead zone of my heart, and a long, much longer celebration of those still alive who fired my blood and swelled my surviving heart. And there was nothing bad and nothing odd about the fact that my heart had broken from so much use.

CQ