this too
Tuesday, May 31, 2005
  Railway stations...

click on pix for larger view

I've been away, and now I'm back but busy...
Friday, May 27, 2005
  Rain on red

I love the red of these umbrellas - dense and matte against the shiny surfaces of the pavement and railings.

Remembering this cool, smooth dampness from a couple of weeks ago is particularly pleasant today because it’s hot and sultry – only mid-80s, but anything much over mid-70s feels pretty hot in London, as there’s little shade or air-conditioning.

I note a few bloggers on the American East Coast bemoaning the cold and rain. Maybe I should have posted a picture of sunshine for you. Hope the thought of me wilting in the heat and dreaming of cool rain will make you feel better...

Thursday, May 26, 2005
  Reading on the bus

So why don' t I cycle? I live half way up a hill and
have never felt up to that, or the traffic.

I get on near the beginning of the bus route, so I often get a seat. Then the bus fills up, and up, and… well, how full-to-bursting it gets before it leaves my suburb and starts its long juddering trek of an hour or so into central London depends on how willing the driver is to flout the rules – most of them do.

So I’m sitting reading, and the aisle’s getting more and more full of poor souls sweating and swaying and sometimes falling over all the way to work. (In case you’ re wondering, yes I do get up and give my seat to anybody old or frail or carrying a baby. There aren’t a lot of those in rush hour, though. This is not an environment they can cope with – you often emerge bruised and battered.)

I’m reading this account of an exile’s return after 30 years to his village in Palestine. His feelings of loving recognition, familiar frustration, at a place that hasn’t changed, except to quietly decay, like its inhabitants, now mostly old women. Fishing out from deep inside himself the long-lost sense of home and all its contradictions.

The roundabout, the bridge, almost there. Looking up for the first time in a while to see between me and the door at least 15 people, squashed and unsteady and tired before their day begins, faces defeated or defiant. I need to get up now, smile, make eye contact, murmur apologies and edge firmly towards the door. If they don’t shift – which they mostly won’t, they’re in a bitter trance – keep pushing, keep murmuring sorry and excuse me, but be very firm or I won’t make it in time.

The emotion lingering from my book is quite appropriate: belonging, compassion, interwoven with a quiet scream of alienation.
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
  Back to nature

Every time I see the young birch trees planted outside the Tate Modern, I think of this. Remembering the sculpture, I look more closely at the slender trunks, the line and texture of their silvery white. Trees, sculpture, photo - and I put the trees into another photo.

I must have passed the birch trees last year, but I didn’t focus on them. This year I paused and looked long. This Spring I paused and looked longer at all growing things. More, I think, than any Spring since we moved from country to town when I was six.

It’s because of Nina, who taught me in her class last year the names and healing properties of many plants, and taught me that if I brewed an infusion and sat quietly inhaling and sipping it, paying attention, I could often trust my own sense of the plant’s properties.

And it’s because of reading Fred’s and Lorianne’s and Karen’s blogs, where they gently and skilfully record their natural surroundings. They look and photograph and share. I look, in my office, on a little screen, under fluorescent lights. Then I go out and look harder at the growing things around me.

I’m starting to identify more plants. Sometimes a name floats up to consciousness, amazing me – a name I knew when I was very small, down there near the ground, near to plants. A knowledge not completely, as I thought, forgotten.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005
  Hairline cracks

Every now and then, in a crowd of faces, I see your hairline. It was an odd shape and sat uneasily with the rest of your face.

I saw it only when a devil took you and you ordered your thick wayward waves shaved off.
I will not be what charms and pleases you, the compliant object of your gaze. Look, I am this ugly vulnerability. Take it or leave it.

Your hairline is imprinted on my forehead, like a third eyebrow. When I spot it, memory slugs me between the eyes.

Of course, you may be bald by now.
Monday, May 23, 2005
  Shopping and sitting

Monday morning. Hi. Good morning. Did you have a good weekend?

Well, I’ve been to the opposite ends of my world.

I’ve been pulled and squeezed and drained by department-store hell, wondering in a maze of airless-overcrowded-overstimulating-fluorescent spaces, trudging in circles, coming out hours later, eye-sore, foot-sore, with a remarkably small package. Breathe. Gulp water from my bottle. Lean on wall. Enough? Well, no: strongly perceived need for something else which I forgot. Further half hour of pushing, circling, up, up, rummage, queue, push, circle, down, down, glimpse daylight and plunge towards it, burst back out.

People do this for pleasure, leisure? I’m clearly an alien.

That was Saturday. On Sunday I set down my bags full of clothes and gadgets, anger and anxiety, and dropped through mind into the quiet place. The bodies of others, not swirling, pushing, jostling, but side by side being still. Stopped. This. Now. All of us breathing. The wind in the trees.

Meditation is feeding your spirit, Martine said at the retreat, it’s feeding your being.

Friday, May 20, 2005
  Millennium Bridge

click on photos to enlarge
Thursday, May 19, 2005
  Exiles all?

“Isn’t it a characteristic of the age we live in that it has made everyone in a way a migrant and a member of a minority? We all have to live in a universe bearing little resemblance to the place where we were born: we must learn other languages, other modes of speech, other codes; and we all have the feeling that our own identity, as we have conceived of it since we were children, is threatened.

Many have left their native land, and many, though they haven’t left it, can no longer recognise it. This may be partly due to the natural homesickness that is a permanent feature of the human soul; but it is also caused by an accelerated process of evolution which has made us travel further in 30 years than people used to go in many generations.”

From On Identity by Amin Maalouf

Reading this the other day was for me one of those times when an eloquent exposition of a tragic situation is paradoxically comforting – somehow easier to bear if we are all lost souls together, not just me. Mind you, someone suggested here recently that what ails me is the menopause, rather than modernity or globalisation – a suggestion I cannot entirely refute. But what is that if not another kind of leaving one land for another? I do think that a sense of place, of being home, is a really basic need. That we are living in a world where it’s increasingly elusive and then wondering why many of us often feel lost. That living with this feeling is a major drain on energy. That vowing to create one’s own little fortress against it is no more than a partial solution.
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
  Blogs of life and death

Somewhat sickened by myself, especially since I did The Cube, but always delighted anew by other people’s blogs.

The photo was (loosely) inspired by today’s post from Zinnia. If you've not yet discovered her: she's a non-religious funeral celebrant and a fine writer. She may make you cry, as well as laugh. If you’re up for the former, start here and read forward.
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
  Creative Mindfulness

My blogging heroine Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries has started a new blog, Creative Mindfulness, to focus on the spiritual side of her life and writing, specifically in the context of her life-coach training.

Lorianne was at the beginning of my blog addiction (er, I mean practice) and remains at its heart. The first blog I started reading regularly – can it really be quite a lot less than a year ago? – was Céline’s Naked Translations blog, which I found referenced in a professional journal for translators. I’d seen a few blogs, quite liked the idea, but found them either much too techie for me or downright badly written. Now I found one that fed my brain and I kept going back and back. And then I started thinking there might be blogs by people who shared my other interests. So I did some googling, and googling meditation I found Lorianne, who wrote about and photographed things I loved and found important, and which moved me, and I was well and truly hooked. And then I started exploring her blogroll…

And now Lorianne has started a second blog, to share her Zen wisdom in a context both wider and more specific, both in writing and in audio recordings. Since she’s an experienced teacher of both university students and dharma students, as well as a superb writer with a mind and heart as lucid and brave as you’ll find anywhere, it’s an exciting prospect.
Monday, May 16, 2005
  The heart of the lotus... um, rhododendron

It was rhododendron time when I moved here. There’s a large plantation in the local park. And it seems to come around and around again so fast. My life measured out in rhododendron seasons. If it must be measured out in something, this is easy on the eye, better than coffee spoons.

Scared and gloomy as I am, though, about stagnating here, finding the rhododendrons in glorious full flower this weekend just underlined the feeling. Lush, damp, cloying pinks of worry. Soft, mauve, fragile clusters of self-pity. Thick, white, drooping hollows of disgust. The dullness in my heart, in my down-turned eyes, confronted by these bright, bright colours near the ground, bathed in the low late-afternoon sun. Gazing, gazing and taking photos, I feel better. But only superficially, like popping a painkiller. I go home and crouch, depressed, in corners, remember my only bout with serious depression, forever linked with a view of the Auvergne mountains, pierced all too wide, wide open by their sharp beauty.

I’m grateful for the comments people left me over the weekend while my home internet browser blew up in a cloud of ‘fatal exceptions’(!). Grateful for the thoughtful words and useful references, and most of all for the sense of recognition, that confusion and uncertainty and moving forward in jerks and stops are normal, that smoother progress may be at a cost of richness ignored along the way.

It does seem to be time for me to confront some hard stuff and I think I got a glimpse this weekend of what some of it looks like - ugly. I filled my eyes with big, bright flowers and saw in the heart of them something harsh and grey. The truth, one truth anyway, I think, is that were I to step off my hamster-wheel, push aside the daily effort and boredom and frustration that so wears me down in commuting to a London office job, I’d have to confront the things that really stop me… living – my own scarred, awkward, selfish cowardice and ineptitude and neediness. Not alone there, but I don’t know if I’m up to it. And I fear that even if I am, it may prove to be too late and I couldn’t live with the regret that I left it so long.

Have I the guts to hold this thought and be with it, gaze into it’s heart and watch it change from white to pink to purple, gaze until it dissolves and I can see what’s behind and beside and around it, and I’m no longer separate from it?

Lest this feel like more pain than I can stand, David St Lawrence reminds me that the alternative is not less painful, just more ridiculous: ‘The slow death that comes from endless safe decisions. That is like being bitten to death by ducks’.
Friday, May 13, 2005
  Stagnation or gestation?

One of my first tasks in the new job at the university was assisting O, who was sending me increasingly worried e-mails about the delays in obtaining his UK student visa. I was able to help. Yesterday O successfully defended the PhD thesis he came here to write. As we drank champagne, I felt so happy for him… and so cold at heart for myself. In these three years and nine months, he’s birthed a fat book and a new self. And I?

I came here thinking this would be my last job – a destination or a bridge. The first time I’d worked in a large institution with defined career structures. Since they seemed, unlike the employer I was fleeing, not to be hugely ageist, this might be a last chance to make it into management and a decent income. If that didn’t work out, at least it would be a congenial place to make a living while I built up a freelance business on the side, a berth until I was equipped to sail for somewhere new.

Option 1: no. Too late for me to take to bureaucracy. I fumed and tore my hair and realised I was not equipped to climb its ladders.

Option 2, the bridge to somewhere else, is the vision I still hold. But three years and nine months is a long time to be in transition.

I can make excuses, some of them good ones. It’s been a time of growth, of study, therapy, cultural epiphanies and new friendships, grasped from London before I leave it. A time of quietly building experience and contacts in the work I want to do, and more success there, in a small way, than I could have hoped for.

But I’ve run out of excuses. I was sure I’d be gone before my 50th birthday last year. When I wasn’t, I stopped setting deadlines – if was more important than when. Perhaps, though, I also stopped believing.

Now, I think: I must go. Just GO, or you never will.

And I think: and what if I go, and I find I’ve brought myself with me, myself with all my stuckness, and somewhere else is just the same as here? I cannot go until I know I won’t do that. The real journey is inside, before I go.

Am I on that real, crucial journey inside, not ready yet for the next step? Or am I making excuses?

I’m moved to write these thoughts by Andy, whose writing often strikes deep chords, especially what he wrote here and here. I won’t draw parallels. Everyone’s life, and heart, is so different. Well, perhaps just the obvious one:

Change is so hard. To be able to think and write about it is a blessing and a help. But when does it become a substitute for action? And if one of the things you want to do is write, it’s even more confusing.
Thursday, May 12, 2005
  James and Other Apes

The other day I saw James Mollison show and talk about his photos of gorillas, bonobos, orang-utans and chimpanzees. Passport photos. Close-ups of astonishing and astonishingly varied faces. Stunning, beautiful, ugly pictures, more eloquent than a thousand words about the kinship of people and apes and the sad stories of baby apes orphaned by wars and by the trade in bush-meat.

A quiet, unpretentious man, he murmured the name of each ape as they appeared on the screen. He recounted how his willingness to engage in mutual grooming eased relations. How one female took a shine to him, rolled over and offered herself every time she saw him. ‘It was, uh, very awkward’, he said. The whole audience smiled from ear to ear.
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
  To write, to wrest from life
Ernesto has a quotation from the Mexican writer Rafael Toriz which makes a mind-stopping contribution to the ‘why do we blog?’ debate:

Así, mientras se acaba el amor, la tinta y la melancolía con la que vivimos, permanece al final la huella: la marca en la piel del texto recuerda aquello que fue y estuvo, lo que en algún momento latió y aún en el presente puede ser leído.

Sólo se escribe cuando ya se ha perdido todo, cuando sólo queda arrebatarle a la vida –con palabras– todo aquello que nos va negando.

Translation – more or less:

So, while the love, the stain, the melancholy that we live with cease, in the end there is still the trace – the brand on the skin of the text recalls what was, what was there, what beat with life at some moment and may still be read.

We only write when all is lost, when all that’s left is to wrest from life – with words – everything it keeps denying us.
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Not my God,
but my sense of glory in this glorious patterning.

Cambridge, 8.5.2005
Monday, May 09, 2005
  No going back
I was so moved by Natalie’s account of her very old aunt and uncle, ill and frail and barely cared for in hospital. With which of us does this not resonate?

Then Leslee took up a related theme, remarking on the continuing strength of family ties in Mexico. I sometimes think I don’t need to blog while Leslee’s there to write so well about many of my preoccupations!

I often have such deep and contradictory feelings when I go abroad or spend time with British people whose immigrant families still live in accordance with their traditions.

I think of a former colleague whose parents came to England from Bangladesh - a big close family. She was so safe, so supported, so sure of her own worth and so lovely because of this – less guarded. She seemed almost a different species from someone like me. But also so limited, so held back by the expectations of her culture - a clever woman who didn't go to college; a bright, unusual person with no choice but a conventional arranged marriage.

What we've lost makes me sad and angry and frightened. But I walked away from my own family because they are seriously unpleasant, and – unhealing wound though it is - I'm deeply thankful that I had the option of doing that. I truly don't think I would have survived them.

There's no way back, I think. Only perhaps a way forward, now some of us are noticing what we threw out with the bath water.

Sunday morning: eyes stuck shut - world, please go away. I’m expected in Cambridge. I could just stay in, but I doubt it would be restful. Tired, depressed days doing nothing usually are not.

Sunday afternoon: walking from Cambridge to Grantchester. The grass is high, the buttercups and cow parsley, too - they and the hawthorne hedges in full flower. Brilliant sunshine alternates with black skies and thunder, lightning, hail – but all over in 5 minutes. Everything damp, even lusher, the aroma even headier. The river slopping over its banks where it meanders through the green and dripping fields. A few intrepid souls out boating in the rain. Mostly just me stomping through the grass, alternately wetted around my waterproofs and baked dry by blazing sun. Walking fast, getting up a rhythm, getting warm. I’m to meet friends later and am not sure how long this walk takes.

Sunday evening: reading on the train back to London – Tolstoy’s Resurrection (thank you Richard). Transported to another time, through a timelessly lucid, observant, uncompromising mind. Propping my eyes open to go on reading it in bed, although tired now from the exercise – differently tired from this morning.

Not exactly happier, but anchored, fed.
Friday, May 06, 2005

Walking on the brown smear of beach down by the water

dwarfed but distinct, perky.

Sorry, I may recover from the election and be capable again
of coherent thought by next week - lining up little ducks (geese?
Julie says they're geese - I think she's right, Canada geese?)
was about my level today.

Thursday, May 05, 2005
  Turning in his grave

"Great accumulations of wealth menace our liberties, control the great London organs of the Press, lead us into Wars abroad, and poison the Wells of Public Life at home… It was contemplation of these things which led me to become a Socialist and to take an active part in building up the Labour Party."

I wonder what he was thinking here. His expression is exactly like that of the sheep which so struck me back at the start of the election campaign (I probably should have mentioned that the sheep, like Keir Hardie, was not photographed by me). I'm not being flippant. When the whole scenario is this painful, into people's eyes is not a bad place to start by looking...
Wednesday, May 04, 2005
  Crystal Palace ghosts

When I first moved to London, I used to walk for miles and miles, trying to feel my feet on the pavement, feel present, get a sense of the place. My feet got sore, but never felt they touched the earth. I was nowhere – a density, a noise-level so great I could distinguish nothing. Culture, architecture, history painted on so thickly all the layers turned to black, the beauty upon beauty turned to mud. That’s how it has remained. London, mostly, isn’t something I can feel. My senses are too attuned to detail, small things.

So the enclaves of quiet, of emptiness, where something comes through, can be touched, are precious. This is one: a hole in time, where I feel the air against my skin as I plummet, where stones and ghosts are suddenly audible. The site of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham.

Once, the grandeur of the great glass palace, luxury, novelty, fashionable crowds. Since the fire of 1936, fading rubble on a bare hilltop.

The wide stone terraces a dusty sward. The flights of stairs to nowhere. The solemn, abandoned sphinxes. And the broken statues… poignant, gracious, self-contained.

My favourite sits some way from the ruined terraces, parked in an open space where kids gather to play football with empty Coke cans or lounge and smoke spliffs. Feet on the ground, hands calmly folded, she sits. And, headless, somehow she smiles.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Tamar, whose warm and eloquent writing in her blog, In and Out of Confidence, I read with ever-increasing pleasure, invited me to do the currently circulating Book Meme.

In Fahrenheit 451, which book would you be?

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. For everyone who has been a passionate misunderstood child; for every clever, stubborn woman who has seen herself as plain and shy, who has simultaneously, impossibly, despised and esteemed herself in equal measure, it must be preserved.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Many times. Most recently, Thomas Janeway in Waxwings by Jonathan Raban. Clearly somewhat based on the author. Much play is made of his unruly, unbecoming frizzy curls – jacket photos show that Jonathan Raban has the straightest hair you ever saw…

What was the last book you bought?

Here is Where We Meet by John Berger. His new book, bought in hardback to celebrate the huge, huge pleasure I have found in the current London season of films, exhibitions and discussions about and around his work. Novel? memoir? travel book? Just itself, as he seems always to be just himself.

What was the last book you read?

The Master by Colm Toíbín, already mentioned here.

What are you currently reading?

Kandahar Cockney by James Ferguson. The true account of his Afghan friend’s life in London. Warm, but fairly unflinching. A terribly important story.

Which five books would you take to a desert island?

Today’s answer. I suspect it would be different every day:

Teach Yourself Herbal Medicine by Nina Nissen. A precious small book which distils the wisdom of a 21st century healer and wisewoman, whose class I had the good fortune to attend for year.

Change Your Mind by Paramananda. An introduction to Buddhist meditation by a poet and rigorous, heartfelt teacher. The first book I ever read on the subject. Not surpassed, though many others have meant a lot.

The six Palliser novels by Anthony Trollope. Everything I look for in fiction. From the nineteenth century, from the other sex, this frankly astonishes me. But they are.

The Children: Refugees and Migrants, photos by Sebastião Salgado. His heart is as great as his talent.

The Essential Rumi. Every poem new every time I read it.

Who are you passing this to?

Everyone who hasn't done it and would like to.

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Location: London, UK

Freelance copy-editor and translator. Keen on language, literature, photography, art, music, buddhist meditation and the countryside.

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