Entries in writing (9)


The Moment



                To write down all I contain at this moment

                I would pour the desert through an hour-glass,

                The sea through a water-clock,

                Grain by grain and drop by drop

                Let in the trackless, measureless, mutable seas and sands.


                For earth's days and nights are breaking over me,

                The tides and sands are running through me,

                And I have only two hands and a heart to hold the desert and the sea.


                What can I contain of it? It escapes and eludes me,

                The tides wash me away,

                The desert shifts under my feet.


                The Moment - Kathleen Raine






In 1978, back in Britain for a few months, we rented a gloomy old vicarage just outside Oxford. This was our sixth move in nine years. Uprooting small children and raising them in other people's homes quadruples the strains of parenting. I was shattered. I was miserable. 

One afternoon, I was stripping down the double bed, barely listening to whatever was on the radio. Then, suddenly, out of it came the sound of dripping rain so real I stopped flapping sheets around and lay flat on my back staring up at the ceiling. 

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Silence downstairs. (One was asleep under the piano she'd been banging for hours, the other deep in a book). And for a few moments I was truly there, in that dripping radio forest, with wet bracken and soft soil under my feet. 

And then I heard: "Simplify, simplify." I realise now it must have been a reading from Thoreau's Walden. But then I didn't know and didn't care. I just got up and switched off the radio. It really did work like the voice of God. From that day on, my life changed. I know what I care about. Everything else - I let slip. I barely shop, except for food and necessities. I have fewer possessions - and am happier - than almost anyone I know. 

Years later, in a Chinese restaurant called Blue Sky, I read the mesage in my fortune cookie. "You can have what you want most in the world, but to pay for it you must give up what you wanted second and third." Everyone else round the table looked glum when I read it. But I just thought, I know. I was so glad I'd learned the lessons all those years before. Otherwise, I'd have wasted so much of my life. 

Anne Fine to Annie Taylor


losing it

I've just had one of those moments that happen too often. When a thought I've been happily following simply slips away while my mind snagged on something else. I'm a lateral thinker and talker, constantly interrupting myself to say remind me to tell you about that later or to stop, mid-sentence, to follow another tangent whose logic is entirely apparent to me. Not always so to others. And there's the related problem of other people sparking off new thoughts that I need to follow - and on it goes. I fear it makes me seem scatty at best, tiring (or mad) at worst.At the weekend, whilst waiting for lunch, my request for a piece of scrap paper (to jot down a trail of thoughts) was met with a holding gaze of disapproval as a waitress slowly tore a ticket off her book for me to use. This came after my asking to move tables and usual menu indecision and marked me out as a person to be hustled out as quickly as possible.

The pressure of the mental catherine wheel is eased by jotting things down: pinning words and phrases and little mind maps that spiral in different directions. But while I always mean to carry a notebook, my restless jigging about of bags means too often I forget to transfer it. So the stack of notebooks and pens that I stockpiled for various trips have now been scattered around every conceivable pocket and bag. It's the only way.




It's odd how things come together. Yesterday, to make space for a new piano, I had to find a place for everything that currently lives in a large and accommodating chest of drawers. And in a small house, that means sorting and throwing and finding new containers for things that fit perfectly well in their current home but seem utterly wrong anywhere else. 

I wasn't full of joy about my task. And the sun was shining so warmly that it seemed ungrateful to be indoors, so I made a strong espresso and told myself briskly that after a short break I'd get back to the job with no more excuses. Grabbing a well-thumbed copy of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women from the pile of books that no longer had a home, I settled on a bench outside. 

It was a full two hours later when I rushed back in, full of guilty zeal, to fling books and boxes into at least an approximate order before making a dash to collect Joel from school. I'd been charmed again by the voice of Mildred. Regarding herself with that particularly English form of self-deprecation and reluctant self-knowledge, and others with an eye that vacillates between dutiful generosity and sharp accuity, she's a perfect guide through a small slice of post-war English life.   

And then, while hastily sorting a drawer stuffed with cards and notebooks I came across an old postcard that I picked up years ago. I'd bought it solely because I was amused by the text. Who was the rather imperious, leggy Cynthia and why need Joan buy her stockings? But coming straight after my reading of Pym's book, it was as if the characters had come to life. I immediately imagined that Joan was a sort of Mildred; living alone in a relatively smart address, but perhaps in a small series of rooms, with washing drying on a rack and simple suppers that she resented eating. And Cynthia her glamorous friend, too busy with her romantic dramas to buy something so banal as stockings.

The synchronicity pleased me and made me feel that my distraction had a higher purpose. Rather a satisfactory day after all. 



fare forward

I'm in a bit of a bind. With this new year hurtling by so fast it's taking my breath away and this song going round in my mind, I need to decide what I'm going to commit to over this next year, and beyond, to make myself happy. The kind of intrinsic happiness that comes from doing something that you love and that leaves you with the sense of a day well lived. Something beyond the daily contentment of family: something entirely personal. These last years have been so full of parenting that this kind of decision was, more or less, redundant. Now, before another birthday comes, I feel I need to make that choice and get going. But making the choice between different options is where I come unstuck.

There are many things I love and that fire me up. Some of those things - art, making, photography - are more simple pleasures. They don't cause me too many problems. But the writing that I know is what I really need to commit to is where the fear lives. It's words that have always held me and exercised me and filled my secret corners. The trouble is, I'm not at my happiest whilst lost in words. It's too deep a descent into the world of the hidden, and the excavation of words and meaning is hard. I'm distracted - preoccupied - often lost. It's like being back in the forest and choosing the path that looks the most impenetrable. It may be that I have to exchange the comfort of a gentle, immediate form of happiness for the sort that comes when something hard has been achieved. When fears are faced down and seen off.

There's a small circle of blue breaking through the dense clouds that have suddenly taken away the promise of spring. Enough to make a sailor a pair of trousers my grandmother would say with satisfaction; knowing it was likely that the day would turn out well after all. I have most of this day in front of me and I won't make it better by indulging in yet more circular thought. I think I know what I've got to do. 



dreams of flying



I have set up house in the hollow trunk of a giant redwood.

My bed is a mat of pine needles. Cones drop their spirals


on my face as I sleep. I have the usual flying dreams.

But all I know when I wake is that this bark is my vessel


as I hurtle through space. Once, I was rocked in a cradle

carved from a coast redwood, its lullabies were my coracle.


I searched for that singing grove and became its guardian.

There are days when the wind plays each tree


like a new instrument in the forest-orchestra.

On wild nights mine is a flute. After years of solitude


I have started to hear its song. I lie staring at the stars

until the growth rings enclose me in hoops - 


choirs of concentric colours, as if my tree is remembering

the music of the spheres. And I almost remember speaking


my first word, how it flew out of my mouth like a dove.

I have forgotten how another of my kind sounds. 


The Treekeeper's Tale - Pascale Petit


not talking of love

Hurtling as we are towards Valentine's day and those depressingly dutiful, standardised, expressions of love, this Fenton poem offers a comicly earthy twist on love - and sightseeing. Because, let's be honest, travelling somewhere engrossing and diverting during those early days is simply a waste of time. A room or two, some food. That's all you need. That's all I need now. Oh sigh. Now I've gone and stirred up stirrings. 

I'm going to think instead of Devon and the first time I heard this. That night when another road wasn't taken. 


In Paris With You

Don't talk to me of love. I've had an earful

 And I get tearful when I've downed a drink or two.

I'm one of your talking wounded.

I'm a hostage. I'm maroonded. 

But I'm in Paris with you. 


Yes, I'm angry at the way I've been bamboozled

And resentful at the mess I've been through.

I admit I'm on the rebound

And I don't care where are we bound.

I'm in Paris with you.


Do you mind if we do not to the Louvre

If we say sod off to sodding Notre Dame,

If we skip the Champs Elysees

And remain here in this sleazy


Old hotel room

Doing this and that

To what and to whom

Learning who you are, 

Learning what I am.


Don't talk to me of love. Let's talk of Paris,

The little bit of Paris in our view.

There's that crack across the ceiling

And the hotel walls are peeling

And I'm in Paris with you.


Don't talk to me of love. Let's talk of Paris.

I'm in Paris with the slightest thing you do.

I'm in Paris with your eyes, your mouth,

I'm in Paris with ... all points south.

Am I embarrassing you?

I'm in Paris with you.


James Fenton




Ten years ago, when she was eighteen and was not called Arrow, she borrowed her father's car and drove to the countryside to visit friends. It was a bright, clear day, and the car felt alive to her, as though the way she and the car moved together was a sort of destiny, and everything was happening exactly as it ought to. As she rounded a corner one of her favourite songs came on the radio, and sunlight filtered through the trees the way it does with lace curtains, reminding her of her grandmother, and tears began to slide down her cheeks. Not for her grandmother, who was then still very much among the living, but because she felt an enveloping happiness to be alive, a joy made stronger by the certainty that it would all come to an end. It overwhelmed her, made her pull the car to the side of the road. Afterwards she felt a little foolish, and never spoke to anyone about it.

Now, however, she knows she wasn't being foolish. She realises that for no particular reason she stumbled into the core of what it is to be human. It's a rare gift to understand that your life is wondrous, and that it won't last forever. 

Steven Galloway The Cellist of Sarajevo


tilt and shift

As a child I spent a lot of time on my back: trying to feel the motion of the earth (and I did, I swear), watching the patterns of clouds, and pretending that the ceiling was actually the floor and imagining how life would be different in that scenario. I feel like I need a little of that altered perspective this week. Life is shifting but how it is changing is as subtle as sensing the tilt and rotation of the earth through one's skin. Perhaps that explains my recent preoccupation with photos of the world upside-down and reflected; a sort of modern day reading of runes.

When I sat down to write this post this morning I had a different one in mind. That little paragraph above is where I got to before it started to go awry. As I wrote it became clear to me (and maybe that's why I write here) that looking for signs in cups and mirrors and clouds is an evasion. I had an image of myself lost in a forest, waiting for someone to come along and show me which way to go. As I pictured myself just sitting there, waiting for the all-knowing 'someone' to direct me, I realised that's how I've been acting in regard to my own life. Waiting for a sign that it's time to act; for 'someone' to show me what to do.

Chastened, I stepped away from my laptop and put on a pot of coffee (default delaying tactic). As I waited, I flicked through one of the A4 plastic-sleeved folders in which I file snippets that inspire me. I stopped at an article by American writer Anne Lamott. I attended a couple of her readings in the mid-nineties while I was living near San Francisco and enjoyed her dry humour and commitment to her writing life. So I paused to re-read it. Another blow to the heart. She wrote about making time to do what you most value. I realise I have time but I don't use it to do what I most value. It's as simple as that. I don't do enough of what I most value and I wait rather than act. When I sat down this morning I wanted a shift in perspective and I've got it; just not in the way I expected. Time to get walking.

All your life, you wait for the propitious time.

Then the propitious time

reveals itself as action taken

 (Louise Glück 'Landscape' Averno)