Monday, 30 November 2009

Lighthousekeeping


     It was a long story, and like most of the stories in the world, never finished.  There was an ending - there always is - but the story went on past the ending - it always does.

(...)

Pew - why didn't my mother marry my father?

She never had time.  he came and went.
Why didn't Babel Dark marry Molly?
He doubted her.  You must never doubt the one you love.
But they might not be telling you the truth.
Never mind that.  You tell them the truth.
What do you mean?
You can't be another person's honesty, child, but you can be your own.
So what should I say?
When?
When I love someone?
You should say it.

(...)

     There is is; the light across the water.  Your story.  Mine.  His.  It has to be seen to be believed.  And it has to be heard.  In the endless babble of narrative, in spite of the daily noise, the story waits to be heard.
     Some people say that the best stories have no words.  They weren't brought up to Lighthousekeeping. It is true that words drops away, and that the important things are often left unsaid.  The important things are learned in faces, in gestures, not in our locked tongues.  The true things are too big or too small, or in any case always the wrong size to fit the template called language.
I know that.  But I know something else too, because I was brought up to Lighthousekeeping.  Turn down the daily noise and at first there is the relief of silence.  And then, very quietly, as quiet as light, meaning returns.  Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.

(...)

     I copied the stories out as fast as I could, but all I had so far were endless beginnings.

(...)

     The rest of my life.  I have never rested, always run, run so fast that the sun can't make a shadow.  Well, here I am - mid-way, lost in a dark wood - this selva oscura, without a torch, a guide, or even a bird.

(...)

     'Do you know the story of Jekyll and Hyde?'
     'Of course.'
     'Well then - to avoid either extreme, it is necessary to find all the lives in between.'

(...)

     'What did you do before this?'
     'I was married.  Then I wasn't married any more.  Tipped up, flung out, recognise that?'
     I did.
     'End of story.  Gotta start again.  Gotta be positive.  Gotta move on.  Don't look back.  No regrets.'

     That's how he said it.  He said it like a mantra.  I wonder how many times a day he had to say it to make it true?  It was a poultice over his heart.

     I don't know how to poultice my heart.

(...)

     After the Talking Bird, the nice man at the Tavistock Clinic kept asking me why I stole books and birds, though I had only ever stolen one of each.
     I told him it was about meaning, and he suggested, very politely, that might be a kind of psychosis.
     'You think that meaning is psychosis?'
     'An obsession with meaning, at the expense of the ordinary shape of life, might be understood as psychosis, yes.'
     'I do not accept that life has an ordinary shape, or that there is anything ordinary about life at all.  We make it ordinary, but it is not.'
     He twiddled his pencil.  His nails were very clean.
     'I am  only asking questions.'
     'So am I.'
     There was a pause.
     I said, 'How would you define psychosis?'
     He wrote on a piece of paper with his pencil: Psychosis: out of touch with reality.
     Since then, I have been trying to find out what reality is, so that I can touch it.'

(...)

     In the morning I was woken early by the chromatic bell of the Orthodox Church.
     I unlatched the shutters.  The light was as intense as a love affair.  I was blinded, delighted, not just because it was warm and wonderful, but because nature measures nothing.  Nobody needs this much sunlight.  Nobody needs droughts, volcanoes, monsoons, tornadoes either, but we get them, because our world is as extravagant as a world can be.  We are the ones obsessed by measurement.  The world just pours it out.

(...)

     What should I do about the wild and the tame?  The wild heart that wants to be free, and the tame heart that wants to come home.  I  want to be held.  I don't want you to come too close.  I want you to scoop me up and bring me home at nights.  I don't want to tell you where I am.  I want to keep a place among the rocks where no one can find me.  I want to be with you.

     I used to be a hopeless romantic.  I am still a hopeless romantic.  I used to believe that love was the highest value.  I still believe that love is the highest value.  I don't expect to be happy.  I don't imagine that I will find love, whatever that means, or that if I do find it, it will make me happy.  I don't think of love as the answer or the solution.  I think of love as a force of nature - as strong as the sun, as necessary, as impersonal, as gigantic, as impossible, as scorching as it is warming, as drought-making as it is life-giving.  And when it burns out, the planet dies.
     My little orbit of life circles love.  I daren't get any closer.  I'm not a mystic seeking final communion.  I don't go out without SPF 15.  I protect myself.
     But today, when the sun is everywhere, and everything solid is nothing but its own shadow, I know that the real things in life, the things I remember, the things I turn over in my hands, are not houses, bank accounts, prizes or promotions.  What I remember is love - all love - love of this dirt road, this sunrise, a day by the river, the stranger I met in a cafĂ©.  Myself, even, which is the hardest thing of all to love, because love and selfishness are not the same thing.  It is easy to be selfish.  It is hard to love who I am.  No wonder I am surprised if you do.

From Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson, first published in 2004 by Fourth Estate

This is a book about love, what it is how it is where it is.  She is best at that.  As a novel, it's uncomfortable, or unconventional, or both.  Like Oranges, which I found a more complete read in its way because it is more coherent and the story itself is less a cipher than this one it, it is philosophical.  It is episodic, with the plot-story broken up by an outside sequence of images and with reflective passages.  The thing I like about both of them is how honest they feel.  One shouldn't usually read the author into a novel, but the direct nature of the first person narrative and the tangible emotions of the speaker almost force you to in this one.  Details like the age of Silver, born in 1959 in Winterson's own birth year, invite parallels that are hard to throw off.  I'm not looking for a connection with an author through a work, but I love it when I find it, provided it is done well.  You are reading a story, and then you are almost reading a letter hidden for you personally among the pages - it's that once-removed connection that I joy on finding in these novels.  The feeling of being spoken to, included, important, valued, worth talking to.  There is great poetry and great thinking and not insignificant plots and characters behind both Oranges and Lighthousekeeping, and differently behind Sexing the Cherry, which didn't draw me into itself in the same way that the other two did though I think that is to do with its subject matter being removed from my personal habitual preoccupations, but I think that I have identified why I finish them and turn them over to start again - because when someone writes you an honest, clear, direct, heartfelt, emotional letter, when someone opens themselves like that to you and makes you feel like the recipient of a gift of themselves, you start again.  I have a series of half-composed replies in my mind.  Part of me is tempted to write them, just to see what coalesces from them.  Maybe even send one, you never know.  Does the honesty in her novels imply that she is receptive to it from others?  And what is the worst that could happen?  No reply and she assumes I'm a little batty.  Which, let's face it, I am, but still.  Knowing my luck, she'd think that and then I'd actually meet her...  Pipe dreams.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Epigram

May the Lord in his long silence
      remember all of us.

Last lines of 'Heaven' from the collection The Russian Jerusalem by Elaine Feinstein

I prefer this little couplet in isolation than in context - the 'us' mentioned in the poem could be 'poets' and I don't like the exclusionist overtones of that.  Without the preceding lines, there is an Eliot-like quality to this that rails against and yet is drawn to religious feeling.  The 'Lord' is silent, and long has been, but the prayerful syntax asks for his attention nonetheless.  It is conflicted, which has always seemed to me the most appropriate attitude to religion.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Projects, Plans and Propositions.


In theory, I have some work this week...it's just that it's going to be very last minute if it does show up.  This means I'm sitting in my flat idling away hours - which is an activity I find difficult.  Letting time go without making use of it I object to.  Nothing should be undertaken with the sole aim of 'passing the time'.   'Resting', that's different.  That has a purpose.  It's a gap between doing things, recuperation and preparation and all of that.  I've DONE that, now.  I've been to Cornwall and exercised and read trashy novels and slept a lot.  I've had the holiday.  I now want Tasks and Projects.  I'd like to go to Jersey and visit Eleanor (school friend), who has achieved possibly the most jammy junior doctor posting in the country, but I can't because I don't want to miss my opportunity to do Constructive Work...even if it is data analysis for comms companies as opposed to anything really worthy.  I'm planning Dublin to see Elaine in January, partly with the aim of persuading her we should be housemates in London.  But that's AGES away.

I started making the above jumper a good year ago.  Ages and ages.  Like, the last time Eleanor was in Cornwall and we went to the Isles of Scilly - which was Sept 2008.  AGES.  In fairness, I have been a little busy since then and I made a large mistake that meant I had to re-do a load of it.  It is a measure of how little I've had to do recently that it's about half as big again today as it was two weeks ago.  Lots of Time Team and train journeys have contributed, and it IS good that it's getting further and further along, but it's a mark of the fact that I haven't been doing any writing - which is something I was bookmarking this patch of time for.  I had been looking forward to a concerted period of writing poems, to really try and practice that and see if I can't improve and expand what I do.  I have no great pretensions, I think, to much in the way of grandeur for my writing, but the poetry is the bit that I'd most like to develop...only I'm very shy about it.  Posting bits and pieces on here is one thing.  If people read them, they rarely if ever comment; I never know what they think.  I'm not brave enough to actually ask (this still isn't me asking, but if any of my ~10 readers ever had a comment about anything I have ever written I am *always* interested in it) - there's a small part of me that *likes* not knowing if people skip over them, or read them and think nothing of them, or read them and just think they're angsty and lacking in any real skill with it.  So.  I have been planning that I might to put together maybe 20 poems that I like enough to actually *ask* for responses about.  ...But now it comes to it?  I haven't got the energy to start.  There are reasons, I suspect, to do with feeling unsettled and uncertain about the future right now - I haven't even done much in the way of diary entry writing, which is weird for me.  It's just not helpful...I'm not going to get an opportunity like this again.  I intend to change this.

The SoD was always the boundary to my holiday.  Having had the weekend to recover from that (and I needed that...I was hoping that hangovers would get easier with age, but it turns out they just get worse), Playtime Stops Now.

The plan, then.  I am NOT going to waste this chance.  I am going to structure my time.  Yes.  I am going to get up at a sensible time, and go to bed at a sensible time.  I'm not usually too bad at those, I'm just bad at actually sleeping when I'm *in* my bed.*  Therefore, I am going to drink less caffeinated tea (I drink very little of that anyway, but my favourite right now does actually have enough in that it affects me - I'm migrating to fennel tea instead, which looks even MORE like wee in the cup, but tastes great and only involves fennel seeds), drink less whisk(e)y and go running every day.  This will generate some energy levels and not be bad either for my weight or my fitness.  And I am only going to watch telly after 6pm.  This was a rule my mother used to insist on when we were teenagers, and it still feels naughty to watch things during the day, despite the fact that I am still just about young enough to still glory in the rebellion.  I am either going to Read Improving Books (Alice in Wonderland counts), or write, for most of the day.  I know that I have long been harbouring an ambition to watch all sixteen series of Time Team all the way through, but it's not that constructive a proposition unless I ever actually MEET Tony Robinson (I would LOVE to meet Tony Robinson in person - I wonder if he's at all a nice guy?  He's certainly done a lot with his life).

...writing this here is by way of spurring myself to fulfill it.  If I write my plans down, particularly somewhere public, this will hopefully mean I carry them out.  Let us see...

*Ha ha. Yes. Thank you for the funny joke. Am single, recall. It's just that I'm a light sleeper.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Cooking for Christmas

I've been in Cornwall for the last ten days, walking and playing with the large number of pets my family possess. Sometimes, this involved danger:

This photo was taken as Tolly was exploding out of his box towards me. I have plenty of scratches, but he had a whale of a time. He LOVES boxes. You only need to point one out to him and he's straight inside, and he'll stay there for AGES. If you torment and tease him, usually all that happens is that he pokes a paw out. He'll rarely be driven to move.

I also reaffirmed my status with my dogs - taking Rocky to beaches makes him one happy spaniel*:


And Cornwall can be breathtaking. Liz was staying with me for the first few days, so I had an excuse to walk the whole way around the Roseland peninsula...


...AND Sennen Cove, right down by Land's End. I think this is the Longships Lighthouse, flung out beyond the end of the peninsula...next stop America, kind of thing:


After Liz went, I had been planning some Get My Life In Order time. That didn't really happen. Cornwall always does this. It's so far removed from all the things I have to think about and plan and organise and sort that planning to get Life Admin stuff when I'm there is a bit hopeless. I was going to write Lists and personal diary entries and book plane tickets and things. In fact, I didn't. I walked the dogs some more and read some trashy novels. I got a break. Sadly, this didn't make anything magically get done before I got back to something approaching the real world here in St Albans.


My mum asked me to do some of the Christmas cooking. I think she thought she was asking me a favour. I love doing this kind of thing, and I had the most marvellous excuse for it. She has some ancient Christmas recipe books, and getting them out is a talisman all by itself. This one has notes in it dated 1984, the year I was born. She was making things from it with a month-old baby in a cradle somewhere. I love the eternity of Christmas. It's reassuring in its regularity and reliability. The traditions are a comforting thing to have nestled in the winter, and it's an excuse for fantastic music which never hurts.  I never do this cooking, my mum does.  Sometimes I've made mincemeat when I know I won't be home for long, but never the things that are so much for the day itself.


Mincemeat is actually a very simple thing. Delia has a peculiar recipe that involves cooking it, which from all reports I've heard doesn't work at all. This one, above, works perfectly. I've actually got a jar of the batch I made last year still left - it'll almost certainly be none the worse for an extra twelve months' maturation, and I'll make a batch of mince pies sometime after Advent actually starts. For the record, mid-November is NOT the time for mince pies.  It's such an ancient thing, dating from the fifteenth century.  It's doesn't involve meat in the same way that it did then, unless you don't use vegetarian suet and the recipe has changed in other ways too, but it's still identifiable.  It's good to feel rooted to something.

I made a Delia Christmas Cake, skipping out glacĂ© pineapple because I don't like it.  That's one of the reasons I love this cooking...  I made Christmas puddings, and hovered around them for the six hours they steamed for.  My hands were sticky with chopping cherries and candied peel.  The kitchen smelled of Calvados.  I even remembered to make a wish while I stirred the pudding mixture.

And so the wheel turns and we carry on...



Even if I wish it would do that more slowly, sometimes. 

*Even if he IS out of focus. We were in a cave - it was raining. It didn't hinder the small dog's enjoyment of sand.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

And has it come to this?

I really never intended to stoop to posting song lyrics, but since this is Paul Simon I choose to believe it's poetry. It is poetry. I've muttered about adoring the album Graceland before. Here's the song of the same name. The words are inspired.

The Mississippi delta was shining like a national guitar
I am following the river down the highway through the cradle of the civil war
I'm going to Graceland, Graceland!
In Memphis Tennessee I'm going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families and we are going to Graceland
My travelling companion is nine years old - he is the child of my first marriage
But I've reason to believe we both will be received in Graceland

She comes back to tell me she's gone
As if I didn't know that - as if I didn't know my own bed
As if I'd never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

I'm going to Graceland
Memphis Tennessee I'm going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families and we are going to Graceland

And my travelling companions are ghosts and empty sockets
I'm looking at ghosts and empties
But I've reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland

There is a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline
And sometimes when I'm falling, flying or tumbling in turmoil I say
Woah, so this is what she means - she means we're bouncing into Graceland
And I see losing love is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart
Everybody feels the wind blow

In Graceland, in Graceland
I'm going to Graceland
For reasons I cannot explain there's some part of me wants to see Graceland
And I may be obliged to defend every love, every ending - or maybe there's no obligations now
Maybe I've a reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland

Title track of album Graceland (1986) by Paul Simon

If I wasn't in Cornwall, I would be trawling through my T.S. Eliot for something I can half remember, too - but I don't have a copy down here and I want it on the page and not on a screen. AND Thom Gunn. Actually, despite the fact that a goodly chunk of my luggage was taken up by books I didn't bring nearly enough and certainly not enough of the right ones. I've been reduced to reading not very sophisticated fantasy from my brothers' bookshelves. It's mostly there because at one stage or other I passed it on to them - in all fairness - but it's definitely hackneyed now.

Empty Tomb
Walls bleed us yellow in squares I'd papered over with postcards.
Our room is throbbing, still aching, still groaning still
With the things of us leached in
who now drip back burning the blistered paint.
The once hallow space hollow –
our womb, its progeny untimely torn and
Dead at the leaving.