this too
Saturday, July 30, 2005
Ouf. Ouf, OUF. Kerplunk.

Oh, how I wish my life would flow, instead of festering in stagnant pools, sputtering through too-narrow gaps, crescendo-ing in hurry or anxiety, followed by ouf, OUF… kerplunk – kerplunk being graceless arrival in any change of routine, like my annual summer holiday which began today.

A blessed break, but too loaded, too short, too… too everything. Too tired, right now, too achy, still resounding with the huge, reluctant effort of trying to take control at work, so that crises won’t erupt and make me ‘look bad’ in my absence.

I deserve to look bad. I do a really crap job of things, only just managing to hide this, thanks to a well-honed sense of what will be noticed and what won’t.

Other bloggers have recently evoked this experience of work with painful lucidity.

Andy recalled a student sitting reluctantly before an unfinished essay:

Fast forward 30 years…
The surroundings have changed: the room is now an office, paper is superseded by computer, essays are replaced by technical papers, yet what I experience now in my work – only in my work, not in any other arean – is that same inability to focus, a shutter that comes down in my mind creating paralysis of thought and deed.

That shutter is like a science fiction force-field, an invisible, impenetrable barrier between mind and work, and it’s a common feature of both scenarios, then and now. At last, I think I see its source and its purpose – it’s my heart’s way of telling me that this is emphatically not how it wants to be engaged; this is not its purpose, not is plan. It doesn’t belong here, and if head won’t listen to it, continuing to ride roughshod over its desired, then this mental barrier is the only way heart has of communicating, throwing up road-blocks that I cannot ignore.

And Dale described how, at work:

I blog. I procrastinate badly. But as always, my old skills as a student -- so uncomfortably close to those of the sycophant -- keep me afloat. I listen. I know what people pay attention to and what they care about. Those things, I always make sure I do. But the conviction of unreality persists. I flirt with disaster, I think, in hopes that at some point something will seem real. But disaster never comes, and neither does reality.

Ouch. Yes. E x a c t l y.

And so, released from this dismal, guilty tension for two weeks, I have many pleasant plans, but right now my neck hurts and I am at a loss.
Friday, July 29, 2005
  Clearing space

This was a blog of few words this week, as I wrestled the flailing octopus of office back-log to a state where I can leave it for a couple of weeks. Ouf

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Still thinking about my visit a few days ago to the home studio of two photographers participating in this year's Cambridge Open Studios, Susan Andrews and Damian Gillie (and Lois, pictured at second link, who acted as guide to the exhibition). Photos that certainly provide the ‘knowledge and solace’ described by Robert Adams in ‘Why People Photograph’ (current bedtime reading), as well as huge waves of sheer aesthetic pleasure.
Thursday, July 28, 2005
  Far away

The voices of bloggers become pleasantly familiar. It feels as though you live inside my computer. Until you describe things so exotic and magical to me that I remember how very far away some of you are, like kookaburras, black bears and Indian Pipe.
Wednesday, July 27, 2005
  Like a daisy chain

The previous blogroll consisted of those I was addicted to before
I started my own.

Updated to include now unmissable friends met in the past six months.

Over there -->
(new ones starred)

Tuesday, July 26, 2005
  Matching hats

click on pictures to enlarge
Monday, July 25, 2005
  Taking your face

Click on photo to enlarge

[continuing the discussion here and here and here]

In the hundred-odd photos from yesterday
I find and finger your face

Here it is creased with smile
and here – just a second later –
the curves straighten
as you look at me
not liking to be snapped

Here is your characteristic thoughtful pose
tugging at your beard

and here, here for a moment
is your utterly open and vulnerable face
the one you didn’t want me
to catch

and take home to look at.

Sunday, July 24, 2005
  Knee-deep in rural bliss

I was out with my friends with the feet again yesterday.

We were here. I was somewhat reluctant to return to London, but came home to sleep soundly and dream of green and peaceful fruitfulness.

And in London life does go on, in all its sweet inconsequentiality. In Hyde Park, Planethalder saw a teenage boy fending off the kisses of his amorous girlfriend, intent on his copy of the new Harry Potter.
Friday, July 22, 2005
  Can't concentrate

Fewer tube trains - longer bus queues

Finding it really hard to do anything, hard to think anything, just wondering all the time what’s happening out there in the surrounding city, where the police shot someone dead this morning and the massive manhunt goes on. Wanting to run. I’ve been in London, and in other cities, with other bombers in earlier times. Indeed, once - now a far-off memory - in Lima, a Sendero bomber was caught about to bomb the building I was working in. But I’ve never felt so threatened, just wanted to flee, like I do now. I’m wondering why. On the one hand, this seems absurdly self-indulgent pondering. On the other, I can’t, right now, do anything useful about the danger, so why not?

I’m thinking: my heart, my emotions, my fear, are not so closed as they have been for much of my adult life. Why is that? Because I numbed myself for many years with work, with endless weary busy-ness, and no longer do that. Because at last, in late middle age, I think I’ve moved away somewhat from the childhood hurts that shut me down - I am more real, more present, and so I both experience stronger feelings and feel like I have more life, more loves to fear for.

And perhaps I do not rally in proud possessiveness to the ‘London United’ slogans because for ages now I’ve just wanted to get out of the place.

“We aren’t afraid, we’ll carry on regardless”, cry the headlines. It’s not quite how I feel. We’ll carry on, of course - there’s no alternative. But, rather than being unafraid, or trying to be unafraid, I feel closer to the friend who remarked that fear is part of life, always has been – this is part of how life is, something to practice with, to live and laugh in spite of, but not in denial of.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Seems like a good moment for these.

click on photos to enlarge

  Not again
I came back from lunch feeling great. I’d been to a yoga class. Losing weight, starting yoga again. I’m going to feel better, things are getting better. Lost in my own little bubble of self-improvement.

I logged onto my web-mail portal and saw the news-feed – more ‘incidents’, three tube stations evacuated.

Stomach lurching. Pounding heart. No self-protective shield of initial disbelief this time. Immediate horror and fear. Glued to the computer screen. Frantic unsuccessful clicking on an internet radio station. Within half an hour or so the reports start to say that no one’s hurt, that these appear be dummy explosions, only detonators, only bangs – a sick joke, a plot to frighten, or bombs that didn’t work? If I’m more scared this time, what about all the people hearing bangs, smelling burning, evacuated from the tube?

I feel sick and drained. Start to wonder how it feels to be in a war, to experience this over and over again – becoming inured in a way, but also holding fear and exhaustion in the bones.
Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Diet Day 20 and already I begin to sense my body emerging into consciousness, as the beasts who inhabit it grow fewer. The floury, starchy lump-creatures and the slithery, silvery sugar worms. The lump-creatures gather in my belly and thighs and weigh me down with exhaustion. The sugar worms crawl up my spine into my brain, poking at the synapses, keeping me awake and anxious. I can feel that they are fewer, for on some nights my body falls into a heavy, dreaming sleep I haven’t known for years, and on some mornings my head lifts lightly and looks up at the sky, and finds nothing between us but the space of possibility.
  Miming admiration
Damn it, as so often, I have no words. The thing with Dale’s writing is, his very lovely, skilful, heartfelt words take you to the place beyond words. Just go and read it (19 July), if you haven’t.
Tuesday, July 19, 2005
  Wedding photos
I received an email from my friend R, whom I last saw some months ago, with photos and a description of her son’s wedding. Her email made me smile, as she carped about the ceremony, the venue, the city and the weather (not, I hasten to add, about the protagonists). This friend of mine has as warm a heart and as brave a soul as I’ve ever encountered, but she’s such a control freak! I love her with the fierce love reserved for those we love no less because they often drive us crazy.

R is a great talker. During the years we worked together, I sometimes felt I didn’t really want to know quite so much about her life and times and those of all her acquaintance. In connection with our work, we discussed often and exhaustively women’s equality and oppression, childcare, childbirth, childlessness, abortion and contraception. And in all that time, in all that talk, she never told me she had given birth, given up her son for adoption. I don’t think I’ve ever been more shocked than I was the day, four or five years ago, when she said , “well, maybe I will have another drink”, and took a deep breath…

They had made contact then, but had not met. He was in his thirties, happy with his adoptive family, reluctant to disrupt things. Eventually, though, they did meet – and became good friends. I don’t live in the same country as either of them, and have not seen them together. But I have the impression it works because they’ve been able - an astonishing tribute to both of them - to relate in the present. Not: this is a duty to the past (though the past must be with her always), but, on both sides: this is me now - have we a meeting-place?

R was the first person to phone and ask if I was ok on the day of the bombs. She’s the one who, if you’re late, presumes you’re dead; if you’re ill, presumes it’s terminal. I think it’s because her father died before she was born and her mother when she was a child – she’s always known the worst can happen, and to her.

But the best also happened, this happy reunion, freeing her heart of the unhappy secret it carried for 35 years. Last week her son P, brought up in the US, got married to a French woman in the German city where they both now live. R, a native German speaker who is fluent in English and French, served as interpreter for and between the French and American families. She, who was the beginning, was the bridge. Dreams do come true.
Friday, July 15, 2005
  Something beautiful (continued)

Click on photo to enlarge

I was entranced when some months ago Lorianne wrote about and photographed Tibetan Buddhist nuns constructing a sand mandala, so when I heard that as part of the celebrations of the Dalai Lama’s 70th birthday, monks visiting from Tashi Lhumpo Monastery in Karnataka would be making a mandala in London, I was determined to go and see them. It turned out to be a funny old week, though, and the first time I could make it was for the closing view and ceremonial dismantling of the mandala last Thursday.

The day after the bombs exploded in Central London, the monks began, in the basement of a Clerkenwell art gallery, their week of painstaking work constructing this symbol of peace and compassion, while the city around them reverberated with pain and shock.

It is cool at first in the basement on this afternoon of baking hot sunshine, but as the place fills up with a large crowd it becomes very, very hot. The mandala is complete - and gorgeous. The monks pace to and fro methodically, tidying away their tools, laying out their ceremonial costumes and arranging ritual offerings. Dimunitive Tibetan women worriedly urge us to stand well back.

When everything is ready, the crowd sits down and a sweet, giggly monk speaks about compassion. He is so peaceful, the wooden floor so shiny, the room so warm, I struggle not to fall asleep.

click on photo to enlarge

This is the Chenrezig Sand Mandala. Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara), Bodhisattva of Compassion, is symbolised by a lotus on a throne at the centre. To the East, the entrance point, is a blue dorje (noble stone) symbolising Buddha Akshobhya; on the red petal to the South is a yellow jewel symbolising Buddha Ratnasambhava. In the North is a green sword representing the symbol of Buddha Amoghasiddi, and in the West a white dharma wheel. Each is placed upon a lotus and moon throne. They are surrounded by a protective mala (rosary) emanating from the heart of Chenrezig. Surrounding the central residence of the Buddhas are five walls made of coloured glass, representing the Five Wisdoms. The floor of the mansion is divided into four triangles, which extend beneath the central lotus: East is blue, South yellow, North green and West red. These are also the colours of the gates, each topped by a wheel of dharma, with two deer seated on each side Outside the five coloured inner walls of the palace are designs of lotus flowers on a red background, representing the Sixteen Offering Goddesses. The mandala is placed inside a thousand-petalled lotus flower, outside which is another protective mala, and finally a protective ring of fire. Traditionally, the practitioner would visualise circumambulating the palace, starting at the Eastern gate, whilst meditating on compassion - on the Tantra of Avalokiteshvara, visualising purity. The mandala is constructed to bring peace and harmony.

The six monks take up their places behind the mandala, don their ceremonial hats and begin deep chanting and blowing of horns. It is haunting, deep in every sense. It is also hot and airless. I remember fainting in church as a kid during interminable high-Anglican services of incense and chanting. Tired and tense, rigid with anxiety since the bombs, I feel very English, very me, unable to surrender to the flowing colours and sounds of this ritual. Breathe. Join with it. At moments I can.

Then it is over, a pinch of sand is taken from the representation of each Boddhisatva, symbolising their departure, a dorje dragged from each corner across the mandala, and all the sand gently brushed away – the week of painstaking work surrendered, the compassion shared, only a swirl of pastel shadows left, then a bare table-top. Everyone presses forward to take their little bag of sand, the beauty still imprinted on our eyelids, the compassion still in the room.

It's a happy thought that this was taking shape in London throughout this past week.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

click on picture to enlarge

The Mayor called a demonstration at 6 pm in Trafalgar Square, for Londoners to express their sorrow, unity and resilience a week after the bombs. It was really quiet and gentle. No one pushed. I almost wanted someone to jostle me, to make me feel normal. Like when you think you must be iller than you know because everyone’s being so nice to you. The evening sun dazzled. White plane tracks across the blue sky. Ben Okri read a poem. “What are all these people here for?”, asked a bemused tourist coming out of the National Gallery.

  Kind of Chinese-looking

Living very near to a big, Victorian city park, full of huge old trees, is a constant pleasure. I've been there several times a week for 17 years and still look up, look around and see something new.
Wednesday, July 13, 2005
  Remembered streets
Above my bed, where I can’t get to sleep tonight, is a painting. An ink and watercolour panorama of the densely packed red-brick terraces of inner-city Leeds. The place I have most loved, which wound itself tightly round my heart in the few years I lived there. The only time I’ve known such pleasure and belonging in the colours and contours and atmosphere of a place. The sense of place I’ve so much missed in all the years since, in London, and so much wanted to find again.

The city has changed since then, though many of the old terraces remain. The fine restoration of the Victorian city centre and the river- and canal-side warehouses. An economic renaissance (I left in 1980 – Thatcherism, post-industrial depression – in search of work). But, as so often, an economic renaissance that didn’t embrace the whole community. There have been riots. The places where I lived are perhaps grimmer than they were then. A simplistic analysis, no doubt.

Dead bodies in the wreckage. CCTV footage. Young men reported missing in Leeds. The possibly emerging story of kids born around the time I was there, growing up in those terraces, growing up to be suicide bombers.

I don’t want this to be true.
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
  Small smiles (updated)

Passed on the way to work.
When big things are grim, small smiles mean a lot.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

And on the way home:
the bus swerved and a woman waiting to get off was pitched into the lap of the nearest (male) passenger. "Sorry", she said, batting her eyes at him, "I bet you get women falling all over you all the time". "I wish", said the man, flushing a little but steadily returning her gaze.
I have never seen strangers flirting on a London bus!
Monday, July 11, 2005
  Feline familiar

Ok, I give in. For my cat-loving blog-friends and, er, Jude, may I present - looking suitably sceptical - my very dear, old, witchy, crotchety cat companion, Emma.
Friday, July 08, 2005
  You find yourself disintegrating
The distinguished British journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in today’s Independent newspaper (entire article sadly not available free on line) says what I am thinking better than I ever could – and more besides, which, as I’m not a Muslim, I can only feel for her, not with her:

“By eleven-thirty I had buried my head under pillows to stop the noise of the telephones and faxes, all asking for interviews. Shaking, feeling cold and overwrought, I had nothing to say to those who would ask me what I thought of these atrocities and why Muslims did such things and whether we Muslims condemned such actions…

Every time these dreaded events occur, you find yourself disintegrating, one part deep human compassion for the victims and their families, another calling you to the truth that our governments too shed blood for no good reason and create conditions for hate to infect life.

Yet another part reminds you that all lives are of equal value and that the pain we feel on behalf of our own citizens is not a licence for cruel revenge. My city, my faith, my city, my faith, I love them both, both traumatised, both abused. Where to turn?

How do I know why they do what they do? The majority of Muslims are appalled and confounded by such pitiless zealotry. We don’t know what they want, these brigands. If it is al-Qa’ida again, yes there will be jubilation in their twisted little cells, bearded macho satisfaction that they have caused havoc in such a place. Beyond that, I doubt that they know what they do and how their actions cause ever more suffering to innocent people, including other Muslims…

If this was the work of true Muslim jihadis, what did they achieve yesterday? They have shattered the focus on Africa and the fight against poverty. Muslims are among the most deprived people in the world. They have given Tony Blair his ID card and further authoritarian power to bypass the rule of law…”

As I read her article, I start to cry the tears held rigidly behind my eyes since yesterday. Oh dear, there’s a man sitting diagonally opposite me at the café table. How embarrassing. Oh, he’s blind. If I don’t sniff too loudly he won’t know. Well, everything is surreal today. I don’t know about the ‘British way of life’. We’d be better, I think, with a little less of the British stiff upper lip. Better if we cried more.

Thursday, July 07, 2005
  Shocked (updated)
Wherever you are, global news networks mean that you will be as well-informed about the bombs in London this morning as I am.

I am in my office in Central London about 10 minutes walk from the explosions at Russell Square and Tavistock Place. I'd already arrived here about 9.30 before we heard that anything was wrong. All morning there were sirens passing and helicopters overhead. Now it has gone quiet. We are still advised not to go outside, not to try and go home, there is no public transport.

It is no surprise. But I guess after so much time the thought was no longer in the front of our minds. Too soon to really take in what this has done to lots of ordinary people's lives. The mind shuts down, goes numb, in the face of the unthinkable.

6.30 pm

I heard about 4 that buses were running, so I've come home. Walked south over Waterloo Bridge and down to Elephant and Castle, about 40 minutes walk, where there were plenty of buses. All was quiet on a sunny afternoon, with many people walking and pleasantly light traffic. You would not have known that anything was amiss. People were less aggressive than usual, perhaps. Less liable to elbow you off the pavement or run you down. Strange to have been so near and yet heard the news as though from a great distance.

Time to be quiet and try to take it in. And watch the casualty figures mount. And feel broken hearted for all the dead and injured people and devastated families here in London today. And all the dead and injured and devastated in Baghdad on so many days. And so many in so many places all around the world. All of them the same, the same alive and even more the same in death.
Wednesday, July 06, 2005
  No middle lasts

“We are forever in the midst of beginnings and arrivals…. We work in the midst of all these beginnings and endings. We coast past the silent blue ambulance lights on the freeway and complete our commute in the midst of dying and loss. Through the seasons we cut sandwiches, chop celery, wipe two-year-old noses, put together formidable business plans, and hold important meetings. All the while, life arrives and departs as we labour.

Most of our days we do not perceive beginnings and endings; births and deaths feel blessedly far away, we find ourselves almost always in the middle of things. Sometimes for years we seem to be nothing but middle. Middle and muddle. Real beginnings and real departures seem a distant memory, and after a long time without the rawness of those firsthand experiences, they become something we are not sure we want anymore, something we want to hold at bay…

The door does open, the footfall turns into a person, the person enters our fragile aloneness. It is a neighbour, a colleague, or a death, come to us at last, no middle lasts.”

David Whyte
Crossing the Unknown Sea: work and the shaping of identity

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Hmm, perhaps not the best choice of photo, as today’s news gives it other connotations. Trying very hard not to repeat the cynical pose in the face of success of London’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics. So much money. Imagine if that was directly invested in renewing London’s shockingly decaying infrastructure for the benefit of the people who live here, rather than our just hoping to benefit from the ‘legacy’ of Olympic redevelopment. Or all the other things you could finance, at home or abroad, with so many Billions. I’d like to be, hope to be convinced that this is a positive thing.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Something I am unequivocally NOT cynical about:
Happy 70th Birthday to the Dalai Lama!
Tuesday, July 05, 2005
  Wake up and smell the roses

click to increase aroma
Monday, July 04, 2005
  Sadly cynical (updated)

I don’t like feeling cynical, but it’s certainly how I’ve been feeling over this weekend when the whole country appeared obsessed with Live8. Good intentions. Free fun for all. Yes, my heart turned over at Paul McCartney singing ‘Long and Winding Road’. Even if the event's premise was facile, it’s prominence provoked discussion which was sometimes less facile. I suppose the main reason it depressed me was the breezy co-option by the UK government of both the concerts and Saturday’s 225,000-strong demonstration in Edinburgh: We welcome this. We’re on your side. You’re helping us to hold out for the right things at G8 and in the EU. Such bullshit. Maybe 10% of it not bullshit – the small voice inside the Labour politician that remembers what s/he may once have believed. It’s playing right into their hands. They can mouth a few virtuous things and come out of the Summit saying, well, we tried, it’s all the others who don’t want to challenge the prevailing financial order.

I don’t like feeling cynical. I once was not. I once was a member, an activist, a believer in radicals joining the mainstream and changing things. After working with politicians for many years, it’s not that I think they are necessarily ill-intentioned; more that I saw how anyone prepared to live such a crazy life has to be motivated mostly by ego – which seriously limits what we may realistically expect of them.

Sometimes I feel as though I’ve almost come full circle, become again the lost little nihilist I was at 18 when I’d just foresworn my teenage Conservatism (I met some rich, elitist people at my rich, elitist university and the scales fell from my eyes) and had yet to discover any alternatives.

Not quite. Being present, being kind, trying to see myself clearly so I can see others clearly – this is certainly revolutionary, but is it enough?


Fortunately, there are good people out there holding a serious and lively debate about this, not just feeling miserable about it! One is Ethan Zuckerman, whose blog I'm delighted to have found. I guess I'm NOT reverting to nihilism, but do need to find a new context for active world citizenship. People like Ethan and many of those to whom his blog links give me hope that I may just find it.
Friday, July 01, 2005

  Not much fun

Our academic year ends today. Everyone’s finishing up and going away. Rushed tie-up meetings in progress. Huddles of colleagues block the corridor, chatting about their plans. My half-French friend e-mails that she’s leaving today for the country house in France.

I feel like Cinderella. Like a hard-done-by little kid. I’m tired and wretched and I’d like to be going away. Masses of things remain to be done at the office. The earliest I can take any time off is August. And I have no money to go abroad. I’m going in August, instead, on a Zen retreat in the Devon countryside, and I shall love it and return refreshed. Right now, though, I’d like to be doing something fuller of fun and excitement. I work like shit, have been for 25 years, and I barely earn enough to live on. I’m sick, sick, sick of it and full of self-pity. (really Zen, huh?) And I know I shouldn’t be. I’m healthy enough. I’m free. If I’m stuck here it’s only because of my apathy in the face of life. If I’d organised myself and made the effort, I could have been gone by now, taking a little of the money from remortgaging my flat and having a real break, some interesting, stimulating travel experiences, some time to write and take photographs, to reflect on future options.

No-one to blame but myself. Bad feeling. So put the effort into doing it now, planning the get-away for next Winter. I’m trying, I’m trying. It’s hard. I just want to stop the merry-go-round and get off. Now. But life is not a merry-go-round. Perhaps I’ve never had enough fun because I’ve never taken my dreams and desires seriously enough.

I’ve just commented to another blogger having a fed-up day that restlessness is the price of creativity, of being himself, and infinitely worth the ‘down’ times. Always so much easier to tell someone else, isn’t it?

It’s on days like this, actually, that I'm most truly grateful for having discovered the blogosphere – diversion, stimulation, companionship at the touch of my keyboard. Brightening life this lunchtime: Abdul-Walid takes his leave with a poem (oh hell, he's gone already!), Ernesto links to his article in a great on-line journal (in Spanish) and Lorianne reviews three books, all of which I want to read.

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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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