Tuesday, February 28, 2017

This passing moment

This morning, the last day of February, we have snow on the limestone edge behind the house, and the sun has been playing hide and seek since I woke up. This was the sky at 6.55 a.m.

This was the sky at 7.14:

And this was it just half an hour later:

I woke up feeling blank. But after paying close attention to the changing sky I am bright and bouncy and ready for the day, and now I've blogged, I'm going to pick up my sax and attempt to improvise on God Bless the Child.

"Let’s love today, the what we have now, this day, not
          today or tomorrow or
yesterday, but this passing moment, that will
          not come again."

James Schuyler, from A Few days

Thursday, February 23, 2017

mostly for parents

When I was staying with Isaac and Wendy in Boulder over Christmas I got very attached to their Alexa, and as soon as I got home I tried to persuade Dave we should get one. No dice. 

Have you come across Alexa? It's a voice controlled computer that Lux, Cece and I used to tell us the weather, listen to the radio (e.g. Carols from Cambridge on BBCRadio4) tell us a joke, time the baking we had in the oven, play songs we asked for - e.g. "Alexa! Play I want a hippopotamus for Christmas!" "Alexa! Play Big Yellow taxi by Joni Mitchell." There are far more sophisticated uses than these, but the girls and I were happy with our very modest requests.

Lux and Cece use Alexa with fluency, as you can see from this tweet of Isaac's:

Monday, February 20, 2017

It's time to make a pact

You could say that February has been a minor bete noire in my writing - both in the blog and in the books.

For example....

'February that year was muddier and greyer and more miserable than usual'
But I Told you Last Year That I Loved You

'February's always grey and cold. You look out of the window feeling desperate for fresh air, and then you look up at the leaden sky and change your mind.'
Zuzu's Petals

'The price is February. The grey days, the looming mists, the dripping rain, the faded grass, the inescapable mud and the long dark nights: I hate them all.'
Plotting for Beginners

'Talking in bed circa 3 a.m…
Me (surfacing from sleep, quasi-drugged): “Kit, Kit, Wendy wants me to go on a Senior Citizen day trip to Iceland with her, all inclusive for £10, with a good lunch. Do you think I should go?”
Kit (as if I am not talking gibberish): “What date is it?”
Me:  “9th of Feb.”               
Kit:  “Definitely go.”
Me:  “Why definitely?”
Kit:  “It’s a vile month, so you should do something to take your mind off it.”

This man is perfect for me: 
a/ he takes my dreams seriously
b/ he appreciates the horror that is February.'
Plotting for Grown-ups

And then last year on the blog it changed (February 8th 2016):

'This year, despite the execrable weather, I feel differently. I keep thinking back to this time last year, when Mary was dying. This year the thought constantly running through my head like one of those banner headlines under a newscaster is: "No February could ever be as bad as last year's February." And the next thing I think is: "I am still here, still alive. Mary isn't. I am lucky. I get to see another spring, I get to talk to my kids and laugh with my grandkids, and hear that 3 year old Cecilia said on the day of the Superbowl "I would like to be a Broncos player when I grow up but I more want to do fossils," I get to talk and laugh with Mary's kids, I get to sit in the sun and play my sax and share things with my friends and cycle up the Monsal Trail, and laugh at the hilarious things Dave says, and so on and so on.'

I have felt differently this year too, except last week, missing Mary, I sank back into the old ways and I tweeted:
"February is a very trying month."
Several people agreed, but Roopa Banerjee tweeted: 
"I like the hidden hope in February. The gradually lengthening day, the daffodils, the slight lifting of gloom."

And I decided that the lengthening days are what I am going to concentrate on in future. Because it is pretty wonderful when it gets past 5 o' clock and it's still light enough to see the snowdrops.

The other thing is what I say in the para above from my blog last year..."I am still here, still alive."

...which ties in with what I said last week -
"60 and 70 year olds don't care what they look like when they're dancing: they want to enjoy themselves. Next week they might be seriously ill, they might be dead." 

...which ties in with a quote from the Quakers' Advices and Queries no 30. which used to puzzle me until last year -
"Accepting the fact of death, we are freed to live more fully."

The years of active life I have left are numbered, and I am feeling that, rather than just knowing it intellectually. And to dismiss every February as a month to be tolerated, is dismissing a twelfth of what I have left. 

So today I am making a pact with February, as Ezra Pound did with Walt Whitman:

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman - 
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Come home, Fred and Ginger

Perhaps I should begin by saying that I didn't go into town to see La La Land. I went to see Manchester by the Sea. However, something unavoidable got in the way and by the time I got to the cinema, the only film that fitted in with my train home was La La Land. And as it was a dull February day I decided to see what all the fuss was about. 

Now I've seen it I still don't know what all the fuss is about. If this is the writer-director's homage to old time Hollywood musicals, he either hasn't seen enough of them, or he just doesn't have what it takes to create an homage. I could have lent him my collection, if he'd asked.

Firstly, the film was too long. After the first half hour I was wondering if I should check the timetable for an earlier train. Then it got going. But...

Singing and dancing are surely central to a Hollywood musical, but neither of the leads have more than mediocre voices, and as for the couple's dancing!!!!!!! (and I am a woman who despises exclamation marks.) I could have done that dancing. Any tap class beginner could have done that dancing. The choreography was uninspiring and hopelessly basic. It was dull. It was milk sop stuff. Yes, you could infer I was disappointed.

The acting was terrific, and I liked two of the musical numbers - City of Stars and Audition. For me, Audition was the best part of the whole confection. Hmm...I also liked the what if sequence at the end of the film. That was good. And the whole film was certainly more entertaining than standing in a field in driving sleet waiting for murmurating starlings that don't arrive.

But what's going on with the ending? This was surely a rom-com. The couple said they would always love each other (quite convincingly too.) Then five years later she is happily married to someone else and has a child. Is this the only bit of reality to invade the story? That people who are single-minded enough to achieve their dreams in showbiz can't stay faithful and committed to someone who they say they will always love? 

Enough. I need to get back to rereading Billy Mernit's Writing the Romantic Comedy. He talks such good sense.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

How you feel is how you feel

Some people, kind people, don't understand that the way to be a friend is to sit alongside a sad person, and to accept their feelings....to accept their feelings as valid. 

Some people, kind people, think the way to be a friend to someone who is sad is to try to persuade them to see the bright side - "Cheer up - it's not the end of the world!" "Cheer up - think of all the things you have to be grateful for!"

If you do that, the sad person feels misunderstood and even more alone than they did already.

Let's learn to accept how other people feel, no matter how uncomfortable it is for us, because it's the best way there is to comfort them.

Yesterday it was Mary's anniversary - two years since she died. I felt happy. I was still in the dancing zone. It was a bright sunny day after a week of yukh. I considered this - that I was feeling happy - and thought - Well, I am not going to feel sad or feel guilty about being smiley on Mary's anniversary. I miss Mary everyday. Everyday. There is a big Mary-shaped gap in my life that no-one else will ever fill, and if I don't feel sad on this particular day, I know Mary wouldn't mind, so why should I?

Mary with her two lovely daughters

Grief is a thing which varies from day to day and there's no making sense of it, no pattern to depend on so you can protect yourself. It hits you hard and unexpectedly sometimes and then it recedes. 

I've been considering poems about grief and bereavement this early morning, and this is the one that captures how I felt yesterday. Today could well be different. 

The Dead Woman
If suddenly you do not exist,
if suddenly you no longer live,
I shall live on.
I do not dare,
I do not dare to write it,
if you die.
I shall live on.
For where a man has no voice,
there, my voice.
Where blacks are beaten,
I cannot be dead.
When my brothers go to prison
I shall go with them.
When victory,
not my victory,
but the great victory comes,
even though I am mute I must speak;
I shall see it come even
though I am blind.
No, forgive me.
If you no longer live,
if you, beloved, my love,
if you have died,
all the leaves will fall in my breast,
it will rain on my soul night and day,
the snow will burn my heart,
I shall walk with frost and fire and death and snow,
my feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping, but
I shall stay alive,
because above all things
you wanted me indomitable,
and, my love, because you know that I am not only a man
but all mankind.
Pablo Neruda

Sunday, February 12, 2017

I love to dance!

I went to a party last night. It was for a friend who was turning 70. His 'kids' had planned the surprise party with exquisite care, and he loved it.

I loved it too. After a month of anxious concern about politics here and abroad, I got to dance. The last time I danced was two years ago at my nephew's wedding, which is too long ago when I love to dance. Actually, no. The last time I danced was in my pyjamas with Lux and Cece in their kitchen. I LOVE TO DANCE!

Last night a small rock band played oldies like Blue Suede Shoes, La Bamba and That'll be the day, and the hall was filled with 60 and 70 year olds, all having a fantastic time.

60 and 70 year olds don't care what they look like when they're dancing: they want to enjoy themselves. Next week they might be seriously ill, they might be dead. And what's also nice is that offspring of 60 and 70 year olds tend to be past their teenage years, and are no longer embarrassed by their parents' dancing.

For the first time in weeks I woke up happy. It was the best medicine. I now feel energised for all those letters I've got to write to Theresa May.

There's only one way to beat the sadness of life - with laughter and rejoicing.   
Rohinton Mistry

Friday, February 10, 2017

Return to basics

February is bleak and dreary out here in the sticks. We have fog, frost, rain, snow, khaki fields and mud. I'm glad I'm not a sheep.

I have to mentally bludgeon myself to go out on my bike.  

February entertainment consists of going to the local starling murmuration site at dusk, standing in the cold for half an hour with other people and seeing nothing, nada, zilch. 

And going again the next night and being driven home by a wave of sleet.

Meanwhile in Calais, lone refugee teenagers are sleeping rough hoping that we can make enough fuss to persuade Theresa May to change her mind and give them sanctuary. I just found three petitions online. Here's one

At least I can sit and write. Or attempt to write. The current project hasn't been going too well so I've been doing writing practice, namely some of the exercises in my favourite writing book - Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

Also I've been reading and working from her book on writing memoir - Old Friend From Far Away, in which she says:

Writing is the act of reaching across the abyss of isolation to share and reflect. It's not a diet to become skinny, but a relaxation into the fat of our lives. Often without realising it, we are on a quest, a search for meaning. What does our time on this earth add up to?

I like that.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017


I went to a Quaker conference about forced migration at the weekend and I am still processing it. The accommodation was good, the people were friendly, and yet I was hugely relieved to get home afterwards and I've been trying to work out why.

Everyone there was concerned about the plight of asylum seekers and refugees, and about the UK government's attitude. When Theresa May was Home Secretary she set out to create a "hostile environment" for them. (her words.) She succeeded. You would be shocked if you knew what happens. One asylum seeker told us her gruelling story and at the end when she was thanked, she said "I hope you enjoyed it." Everyone sighed and said "No, we didn't, but we are very pleased you came to tell us."

I heard about the work being done by Quakers all over the country to help people seeking sanctuary in this country - legal advice, general support, providing money, food, clothing, language teaching, hospitality, accommodation and friendship. 

The feeling was that just as the two world wars were a challenge to Quakers - should they respond by fighting, conscientious objection, serving in the Friends Ambulance Unit, or doing relief work? - how we each help forced migrants is today's biggest challenge. 

What am I going to do to help?

I was thinking about all of this when I messaged the Aging Hippie in California this morning. We agreed how we started each morning depressed after reading the news, and that we'd like to give up reading it, but she said "No, we need to know and to respond if we can. It's a depressing struggle but we have to continue. They are waiting for us to burn out." She's right.

Onward and upward, friends!

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

To read or not to read. That is the question.

A friend of mine, who has more or less the same taste in fiction as me, reminded me last week that a book I'd recommended to her had upset her so much she'd stopped reading it. It was Helen Dunmore's The Siege. It's about a family fighting for survival during the siege of Leningrad. She couldn't bear the suffering. And I puzzled over why I could. I think it's partly because it's a historical novel (set 70+ years ago - which distances it from me somewhat), partly because they did survive (well, most of them), and partly because I love Helen Dunmore's writing. I don't always like her books and I stopped reading The Greatcoat which I thought was weird and tedious. But her writing is beautiful, and her latest book Exposure is gripping as well. It is brilliant.

This friend is the one I've told you about before: she always reads the last page of a novel before she begins, so that she knows how it ends and doesn't rush through great writing to find out what happens. So I told her the ending of Exposure and told her she must read it.

Another author whose writing I think is beautiful is Sebastian Barry. My favourite novel of his is A Long, Long Way, which is set in the First World War. There are parts of this that are so upsetting to read, despite its being historical, that I had to take a break of two weeks in the middle of reading it. Barry and Dunmore are both poets, and it shows in their prose. Dunmore is very sensual and neither of them are wordy. 

Why am I blogging about this today? Because Barry has just won the Costa prize with his latest novel Days Without End. I read the reviews when it was published and thought it might be too near the knuckle for me, and decided not to pursue it.

Here is an excerpt from today's Guardian about Barry winning the Costa: 

In a decision that the chair of the judges, author Kate Williams, said took 90 minutes, Days Without End was picked unanimously by the panel as the winner. “It is brutal, it is terrifying, it moves you to tears, it horrifies – and at the same time, it has these fantastic moments of light and beauty, and of friendship,” Williams said. “It takes you from the highs to the lows of human experience. It is an absolutely magnificent, incredible book.”

I am trying to decide if I want to read it.