Thinking backAfter blistering skies and smothering heat and then storms last week, Saturday was a dull, dull day. The sky was so pale a grey it was almost colourless and the light was… nothing, colours flat and acid.
I’d scheduled nothing special for last weekend. Every few weeks I need some catch-up time. Sometimes, though, this proves disastrous because I end up doing literally nothing, fall into a well of nothingness, fall too fast to touch the walls of ‘who I am’. This past weekend proved to be one of those times. Oh dear. When one lives alone, everything must be willed. The smallest failure of will means stasis, fear.
This happens to me much, much less often that it used to. I recall clearly the first ever time it came over me, on a week’s holiday about 20 years ago. I’d been on a tiring, frightening, exciting work trip to Kenya. It was my first trip to Africa and only my second outside Europe. I was between bosses and therefore sent alone, with a large suitcase-on-wheels full of leaflets, to infiltrate the United Nations women’s conference in Nairobi, try and round up some of the social democratic women politicians from around the world who were attending the conference, get them to get together and express some shared opinions. I went with no hotel room booked, no credit card and not much money. I was terrified. And it turned out very well. I stayed on a university campus outside Nairobi, where I met many women from all over Kenya and the rest of Africa. I located acquaintances from richer countries, nagging them quite successfully to collaborate and hanging out in their swanky hotels, tagging along on their safari trips. And, adrift in Nairobi with my suitcase full of leaflets (whose wheels soon came loose on the unmade-up roads), I was adopted by a couple of batty old English women who took a fancy to me, chauffeured me around and told me tales of their lives in the British colonial service. It was a dauntingly, memorably rich experience and one I’d never expected to have.
Back from Kenya, I went straight to visit an old friend in Berlin, where I didn’t much like her life, or friends, or who she’d become. Then I had a further week off before returning to work. Anticlimax, overload, loss, weariness overcame me and I stayed in bed for a week, couldn’t move. I was shocked at myself; I’d never done this before. It was the first of many such times over the next years. Many, many weekend when I never got out of bed. In between, I worked very hard, very long hours – sometimes enjoying it, sometimes frustrated, increasingly lost in it.
Finding myself at 30 without a partner, without children, living with little sense of home in a fashionable but crowded, noisy, grassless area of North London, I’d wanted this, I think – work in which to lose myself, work which would blot out all the other questions. But I hadn’t known that being lost in work would feel the way it did: whenever I stopped working, utter emptiness.
So in the following years I worked harder and harder. Weekends, nights. And whenever I stopped, I stared into a gulf, unable to remember what else there might be to get out of bed for. Sometimes I drank a lot and got horribly, weepily drunk. My liver quickly had enough of that and nausea began to precede drunkenness – a blessing really, or I might have been left with a worse legacy than depression.
It wasn’t all bad. I travelled a lot, mostly loving it, and was changed by this, growing a sense of the world around my sense of self. I learned to be efficient and organised (NOT my nature), learned that in a host/organiser role I could transcend shyness and move from the margins to the centre. I found a political cause (obsession? delusion?). And most of all, slowly, slowly, I re-found my mind, the sense of a functioning intellect that I’d lost, or thrown away, when I screwed up at college, only scraping a degree. Exercising my mind in lots of translating and interpreting, helping other people to exchange words, I re-found my own words. Editing the writing of colleagues, I found that I could write, began to write myself: papers, articles, other people’s speeches. (Of course, I got no credit for this. I don’t know who coined the term ‘sherpas’ for people like us who toiled to make political summits happen. It’s an excellent analogy which holds at all levels).
A lot of it, then, was good. A lot of it goes to make up who I am now, and I would not be without it. But working all the time is no way to live, and for me the downside was increasingly, unfailingly, this plummeting into emptiness whenever I stopped.
It was 7, almost 8, years ago that I left that workaholic lifestyle, after nearly 15 years of it. Since then, I’ve been slowly filling up the pit of emptiness with what I care for, what I am, what I can be, apart from a workhorse. It’s been tough, incredibly rewarding, very sad (because I didn’t do it earlier). And I’m not there yet; I still fall into the pit from time to time, as this past weekend reminded me.
¶ 6:15 pm14 comments
Like a sponge that’s absorbed too much water, I ooze sweat, drenching my hair and clothes. The air is thick and smells and chugs slowly down my windpipe. I’m expanding, dissolving.
Behind me on the bus, three inches from my left ear, a young woman speaks loudly and monotonously into her mobile phone. The contours of her African language escape me, so nothing mitigates the harshness of her tone. Collapsed in the park, I feel eyes upon me. Right next to me stand two ducks. A heterosexual couple, iridescent male and speckled female. But so alike in their gait, the quizzical angle of their heads, you have to look at them separately to notice they aren’t identical (is that how other species see men and women?). They crane towards me, peering, then slowly circumambulate me, wanting my banana.
I received this paper doll of a figure from a Malevich painting as a birthday card. Whilst its cool lines please me in a purely aesthetic way, it also takes me right back to how much I loved playing with paper dolls as a kid. What about a paper doll you can undress? It’s dreadfully, dreadfully hot here – dripping-sweat-onto-the-keyboard hot. After work I shall sit and read and write in air-conditioned Starbucks until it closes, as the sun will beat into my bedroom windows until late.
The best thing I saw all day was Augustine in the shower. I keep going over there to fantasise about the feel of cool water…
P.S. Re that 'explicit introspection' thing, not while it's this hot!
¶ 5:19 pm5 comments
Struggle, struggle lately. Even though I know that struggling doesn’t help. Struggling just to survive in London, to survive the job. Struggling to move myself forward instead of running endlessly up a down escalator. Struggling not to hate myself for finding it so difficult. Struggling not to start falling down the down escalator. Struggling with the panic and despair when I find no time, no energy to move towards changing all this. Struggling even more in the past week or two when the migraine went on and on for days, always returning when the pill wore off – drowning in pain and nausea, losing sight of the possibility of feeling better, sleeping little and growing more and more weary. In yesterday’s intense heat and humidity, the struggle became so intense that I longed to lie down and give up. Didn’t do that, but maybe out of sheer exhaustion and despair I let go of the struggle a bit. Something broke, anyway. Like a thunderstorm after black clouds gathering and gathering. Today there is a fresher breeze and I feel less embattled.
In today’s new space, I’ve decided to set a deadline for ending this craziness, for leaving the job. I’m setting it for the end of 2005. I don’t like deadlines. Self-imposed ones seem like pointless stress. But I have to make this solid and real, so I can believe in it, see it and touch it.
And I’ve decided I will try to write more explicitly, more concretely, here about the experience of moving through a change which has no reason to be hard, but which seems to be inexplicably, unimaginably hard (like pushing through concrete, in fact). Maybe because it requires me to believe that I don’t have to replay my parents’ frustrated lives. Explicit introspection is a challenge. It goes against what we’ve been taught is acceptable. Feels like too much ‘me, me, me’. But other people’s ‘me, me, me’ in fact often interests me a good deal, speaks to me about myself as much as about the writer, since we’re not nearly as unique as we feel we must be. We’ll see.
¶ 5:04 pm17 comments
Monday, June 20, 2005
Too many conflicting, co-existing concepts of age.
I’ve almost reached my father’s age when I was born – 52. This, I grew up being told, was OLD, TOO OLD, too old for anything, the reason for our family’s unhappiness.
I’m younger than quite a few friends who are vigorous, useful, sometimes blithely silly, and don’t seem old at all.
And I’m much, much older than adults who, when I was a child, seemed very old. Did people wear out more quickly 40 years ago and genuinely have a different concept of themselves? Or was it all a ruse: tell the kids that older people are fundamentally different, live on the far side of a great barrier, so they’ll fear and respect us?
Too confusing. Mostly doesn’t matter. Life is today, being present, doing what you can.
On Friday, my birthday, I was crawling out of migraine, shaking and slow and very old – and yet, even then, not convinced that life is passing by this fast.
Then it got too hot to think and I became a grey-white, swollen, slowed-down, labouring slug. Not sure I’m human, never mind young or old.
We went on Saturday to the big and wonderful exhibition at Tate Modern of paintings by Frida Kahlo, who died the year that I was born. Such delight. Such colours and emotion and pain and play and strength and eyes, her eyes over and over, looking at me. I curl up and squeak with fascinated pleasure and my mind is young, young, with the aliveness of it (though not without qualms at so much joy in so much pain). And my body is old and swollen and wants to lie down on the gallery floor. Too confusing. Try to remind myself that the capacity for searing delight and searing self-disgust, for soaring in my own head and slithering on the ground like a fat, old worm, are two sides of a coin. The only choice: not joy or disgust, but extremes or no extremes. For learning to hold the extremes, accept them, a lifetime’s not enough.
¶ 12:20 pm13 comments
Three of the bloggers to whom I passed the most recent Book Meme have posted their versions, and I loved reading all of them. I was delighted and gratified when Tamar passed me the first meme, but didn’t pass it on, rather feeling that everyone should feel free to do these things if they want to. I was equally delighted when Lorianne passed me the second one and intrigued to note that, as I thought, on a different day completely different books came first to mind as significant for me. That second time I decided very tentatively to break my lifelong pattern of ‘not playing’ – always good to break patterns every now and then. I’m glad I did.
Ernesto (2 June - I couldn't find a permalink), not at all to my surprise, nominated five books of which I’d only read one. I mean to read the others. If you read the reasons he gave for nominating them, you’ll understand why. Many years ago I squandered the opportunity to be educated in francophone and hispanophone culture – university was wasted on me, as it is on many an immature and troubled 18-21 year-old. I did learn the languages, though, and it’s never too late to continue educating myself if I want to – an exciting prospect. He also made some observations about books and reading that resonated really strongly with me: “Let’s say that the last time I moved the only thing I owned were books… Literature in Spanish has its own room… I realised whenever I felt sad I’d go to the bookshop and buy like a madman… The thing with books, as with stuff in general, is that they anchor you somewhere. Books can become a very heavy weight.” Yes. Yes to all of that.
Andy’s list was a fascinating mixture of stuff I would never read (mountain climbing, endurance) and choices with which I totally identify (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, An Equal Muse, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin). He noted that his reading goes in periods across his life – times when he read a lot and gained an enormous amount from reading, times (as a father of young kids, in his case) when he didn’t. He also noted sheepishly that all his chosen books were by men, as were most of the books on his shelves. I note even more sheepishly that, although not all my choices were by men and I do love many books by women, the majority of my great favourites are by men. I’ve sometimes rationalised this as the view into the mind of the other sex being the greater adventure. For I totally agree with something else Andy says, “a common thread… seeing inside another’s mind and finding there a reflection of my own… I see the character they are, admire their strengths, forgive their weaknesses and in so doing gain a little more understanding of myself.” Yes, absolutely.
Karen also proved to be the soulmate I thought she might be: “from childhood I have found my best refuge in books… I loved being taken to a different world. I still do… There are books I treasure because they bring me back to a part of my life… There are books I keep because they said something to me once, or because I sense that they have something yet to say to me, although I cannot read them now”. Yup, me too, all of those. Her choices were wonderfully eclectic, I thought, some of them familiar to me and some not. I must DEFINITELY read The Introvert’s Advantage, which she recommends as complement to The Highly Sensitive Person – the choice she shared with me. Thank you all so much, this will give me books to read and really interesting stuff to think about for some time to come.
¶ 5:32 pm7 comments
Looking up bigger if you click
Looked up outside my office and saw this. Need to look up more often.
¶ 12:12 pm5 comments
I wouldn’t show more of this photo of my friends than their feet, not without asking their permission - which I’m not likely to do, as none of these people know about the blog. That much is easy. But there’s a lot I’m not too sure about when it comes to photographing people.
Looking at the photo essays on young gang members in Los Angeles and San Salvador which I mentioned here last week made me think a lot about this. I enjoyed these very much, found viewing them on line particularly involving and felt this was a powerful way of using and viewing photos. I enjoyed them because they were a personal, close-up view of people very different from me. I also wondered if it was quite ok staring so closely at these strangers in moments of anger, desolation, violence. They must have consented and interacted closely with the photographer over quite some time. Nonetheless, somehow, looking at these still photos raised more questions than viewing a documentary film. And looking at them on my own computer screen raised more questions than seeing them displayed on a gallery wall. Perhaps something to do with the way they came entirely under my control on my computer screen and I could view them as I wanted, for as long as I wanted.
Even when I got a digital camera last Christmas and started taking photos (mostly motivated in fact by the dawning notion of starting my own blog), I thought I probably wouldn’t photograph people. It seemed too difficult – hard enough at first to get an inanimate object framed and in focus. I’d hardly ever taken photos before – always had enough artistic sense to disdain random snapshots and too much impatience to learn any better.
I thought of a man I used to know, a journalist. Near the end of his distinguished career, budget cuts meant that instead of sending a photographer with him on foreign stories his editor thrust a camera into his hand and told him to do it himself. With an automatic camera and little technical interest, he was very good. He had a fine aesthetic sense, but mostly he was good at engaging with people, getting up close, putting them at their ease – all the stuff that stood him in good stead as a reporter. I didn’t think I could do that. I’m quite slow to engage with people, especially strangers. Still, as I took more photos, I found that I did want to try.
So when I recently went on an outing with four friends it seemed like a good opportunity, and I took loads of pictures throughout the day. After a while they grew used to me wielding the camera and I got some nice candid shots. Also some touching ones. One in particular: quite by chance, I caught V in a tender, vulnerable expression I’d seen only once before, when he sat a small child on his knee and talked to him. I was quite surprised and pleased with the photos. Spent a while staring at them on screen, cropping and adjusting them. Thinking: hey, yes, this has something of how I see you, I 'got' you. Then I began to feel uncomfortable, as though I’d taken something and given nothing in return, maybe more then they’d want me to have. I don’t know whether to show these photos to their subjects – uneasy if I do and if I don’t.
Partly, it’s just about being new to this hobby. Something I have to feel my way through and get used to. Some things, of course, are clear. I would always ask both friends and strangers if they mind being photographed. Except perhaps the odd individual who walks through my shot in a public place, or someone observed in a deliberately public act where it obviously goes with the territory. But it often isn’t that clear. Often friends, especially, may not like to say no, but may actually feel uncomfortable, or intruded upon, or less relaxed than they might on an occasion that’s meant to be fun.
When I started taking photos, a friend told me about someone else she knows who took up photography not so long ago, surprised herself and all who knew her by loving it, studying it seriously. ‘She did a portrait of me’, my friend said with a deep frown, ‘you know, the warts-and-all kind’. She was clearly unhappy about this, but probably hadn’t said so.
Then again, any discomfort may sometimes be purely my projection. That doesn’t mean, though, that it’s not a problem. I like to stare, to take in people with my eyes, to notice as much as possible about them. This is sometimes a positive thing: most people like to be seen, really seen and appreciated and found interesting, as an engaging story of Tamar's recently reminded me - and I’m good at that. And it’s sometimes a very negative thing: grabbing something of a person without giving anything of myself, without making any social effort. Well, I guess that’s exactly what voyeurism is… and I fear I’m no stranger to it.
I suspect there are no answers, just a need to stay aware of the complexities.
¶ 1:46 pm11 comments
Friday, June 10, 2005
Hijos del DestinoCurrently on show at my university workplace are photos by Donna DeCesare, Hijos del Destino: Images of Youth Violence in Latin America. Some of these are also in her online photo-essay/fotonovela, Edgar’s Story.
Much as I welcome and devour photographs on line, I usually find viewing an exhibition of prints a more intense and aesthetically satisfying experience. This time I was much more moved by, drawn into, the online essay – moving quickly from one photo to the next and viewing the bilingual text alongside suited the subject particularly well, I thought.
Both in print and on line, I found these candid, disturbing and involving. They also fed into my current ponderings on the ethics of photographing people, as I start very tentatively to try this myself.
¶ 6:07 pm7 comments
Hmm. Thinking about calling it a day here. The last couple of posts are not a bad note to end on: there's always beauty, even when there ain't much else...
¶ 12:23 pm20 comments
Friday, June 03, 2005
In a wood
It’s an SSSI, a rare and special place. We oohed and aahed - amusingly, I suspect – at every tiny insect that alighted on us – so many unfamiliar ones, multi-coloured, iridescent. The custodians of this 30-acre wood have lived here in their caravan for 10 years: planting, coppicing, hedging and hurdling, chopping firewood and burning charcoal, tending lightly in the old way and coaxing a modest living. Finally, they have local authority permission to build a small wooden house, to know that this will be their permanent home.
charcoal burning Breathing this place in, bathing my eyes in green, green, green, is difficult to write about because it was a pleasure beyond words. I was a happy centipede
Somerset House is very close to my office. I could watch the fountains for ever. They play at different heights, in unfathomable but symmetrical rotations. It’s utterly satisfying, like listening to Bach cello suites. I’ve seen office types throw off their jackets and run through them, or just stand there and get wet.
I spent last weekend very happily in a wood, above, but more of that later, as Lorianne has sent me the latest book meme. Because, she says, “I can’t recall her ever doing a meme… and I’m sure she has exquisite literary taste”. Just as well Lorianne missed the last book meme I did: she might not have asked me if she’d read that, as I took the opportunity to enthuse about Jane Eyre, an enthusiasm she does not share.
As for exquisite literary taste, I don’t think so! I think I have the obsessive, all-over-the-place sort of literary taste typical of someone who was the first in her family to discover books, and thence education, and thence a wider world… When I was a kid, I read novels by outmoded and prolific English novelists whose books filled the shelves of the public library: Howard Spring, Somerset Maughan, Hugh Walpole – not great writers, but verbose, imaginative creators of landscape, character and emotion. I read without discrimination, without context. I remember with angry embarrassment a university entrance interview where we discussed Jane Austen - I was quite unaware of her satirical intent… But if you read enough, and as you start to live as well, taste and discrimination come. And voracious childhood and adolescent reading usually sets a lifelong habit. Like many students of literature, I went through a few post-college years when I couldn’t read for pleasure and obsessively watched films instead, but it passed. I still read voraciously, immoderately, and any opportunity to talk about books is good.
1. Total number of books I’ve owned
Somewhere between 2 and 3 thousand? I’m always ‘lending’ them and not getting them back. Nonetheless books cover a whole wall of my sitting room, long since outgrew the shelves and sit in piles on every surface – major clearout long overdue. French and Spanish literature and dictionaries from university and from my more recent studies for translator’s exams. Novels serious and popular in equal numbers, mostly in English, but quite a lot in French, Spanish and Italian. Crime fiction. Feminist fiction. Political books. Travel books. Self-help books by psychologists and life-coaches. Buddhism. Herbalism. Cookery books. Books on sociology, media and communication by colleagues in the university department where I work.
2. Last book I bought
Doctored Evidence by Donna Leon. The latest Commissario Brunetti mystery. Long row of these on the shelf. I always rush to buy the new one out in paperback. Formulaic, but beautifully written, lovely characters, politically sophisticated. Sheer pleasure for lovers of crime fiction and of Venice.
3. Last book I read
The Bone Womanby Clea Koff. A forensic anthropologist’s limpid and harrowing account of her work on UN excavations of mass graves in Rwanda, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Nerdily addicted to her work, to solving the puzzle of bones, she’s also a passionate humanitarian and a spare, vivid, heartrending writer. Wonderful.
4. Five books that mean a lot to me
L’invitée (She came to stay) by Simone de Beauvoir. Aged 20, I went to France for my language student’s ‘year abroad’, to the small town of Ambert in the Auvergne, as English assistant in the secondary school which served the town, surrounding villages and remote hamlets and farms. It was the loveliest place I’d ever seen – Autumn mists curled around mountains; a smell, a piercing clarity of nature I’d never known. And – back then, 30 years ago - a remoteness, an insularity, I’d never known either. France had empty spaces, isolated communities unknown in crowded England. These kids had no interest in learning English, and a foreigner was not welcome in town. I was so alone. Two of the previous three assistants hadn’t made it through the year, and I didn’t either. Meanwhile, in my lonely bedroom in the lycée, I devoured the contents of the town bookshop. These, blessedly, were serious literature, not the very limited stock I might have found in a small-town bookshop/stationer at home, and included the complete works of Simone de Beauvoir. I poured my lonely heart and mind into her several volumes of autobiography and her often autobiographical novels. I especially loved L’Invitée, clearly based on her own life with Jean-Paul Sartre, here transmuted into a famous theatre director. Told in the first person, the narrator struggles to accept her famous lover's charm, his groupies, his distaste for the countryside she loves, his ill-health. And it's a fascinating political and cultural portrait of France just before World War 2. All De Beauvoir’s books remain among my favourites.
Rayuela (Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar. A big fat experimental 1960s novel about exiled Argentinian revolutionaries in Paris. I’m not a huge fan of experimental, self-reflective novels, but this is the exception – never clever or difficult at the expense of heart and emotion; a great love story as much as a great game of fiction. I studied it in my last year at college. The famous Cambridge supervision, where one or two students have the (supposed) privilege of a weekly hour’s tete-a-tete with an expert in his/her chilly rooms in some venerable college. In the dark, old-fashioned sitting-room, over García Márquez and Cortázar, I fell for H, my supervision partner, as we grew entranced by the books and suppressed our giggles at Dr B, who came always in full riding kit and toyed pensively with his whip throughout our hour together. Some years later, when H and I moved in together and adopted a cat, we called her La Maga after the heroine of Rayuela.
The Golden Notebookby Doris Lessing. Long, intense wonderful novel of radicalism, relationships and how being a woman is enough to drive you mad. Loved when I first read it in my 20s and returned to over and over. A book that absolutely incarnates for me the experience, the magic of words as a reason for living, even when life is dire.
La Tabla de Flandés (The Flanders Panel) by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. The book that brought me back, in recent years, to reading lots of Spanish fiction. Long and lovingly detailed mystery story woven around a Flemish painting of a chess game. I was delighted by the particular blend of obsession, melancholy and page-turning story-spinning that characterise Pérez-Reverte’s novels. An enthusiasm shared by a number of my friends - some reading the novels in Spanish and some in English, its been a source of enormous pleasure, solitary all-night reading marathons followed by frantic exchanges of emails and intense conversations over dinner.
And, on a completely different note, a book that really changed my self-perception and outlook on life when I read it a few years ago: The Highly Sensitive Personby Elaine Aron. An academic psychologist’s argument for the existence of a substantial minority with simply more sensitive than average nervous systems. The big aha. Yes, this sounds like me. Maybe it’s not my ‘fault’ I’m so easily exhausted, overwhelmed by a level of activity and stimulation most people take in their stride. Leslee has been writing about this recently.
5. Which five bloggers am I passing this to?
Natalie – because she’s first a visual artist, but I love her writing
Ruth – because she’s first a musician, but I love her writing
Andy – because his first loves, I think, are photography and the countryside, but I love his writing
None of these fine writers say much about their literary tastes and influences, and I’d love to know what they are.
Ernesto, who writes constantly about what he’s reading: a huge and eclectic and impressive range in at least three languages. And all of you, only if you want to… I was happy to do this, because I’m always happy to talk about books, but no fun if it’s a chore.
¶ 6:17 pm10 comments