Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Tuesday, 4 May 2021
Sunday, 25 April 2021
So I went searching to try and find out why some of my seedlings were not thriving as I might hope. They get sunshine, they get water, they get my daily encouragement. One suggestion was that they might be overcrowded. I have felt that every seed that comes up should be given a fair chance, which is why I have more tomato seedlings than I have room for, but I decided that a gentle cull could well be the answer. I went round the whole house and garden tweaking out the smaller sprouts and leaving space for the others to grow. I feel as if I am killing my babies. I have loved and nurtured them and now they are worm food. Oh well, I can see I will have to be less sentimental.
Sitting outside with Monkey this afternoon she noticed that the Choisya Aztec Pearl had come into flower:
Saturday, 24 April 2021
Thursday, 22 April 2021
Wednesday, 21 April 2021
Ocean Vuong. This was a gorgeous book; beautiful writing telling a sometimes harrowing tale. Little Dog is writing to his mother, even though he knows she cannot read. But she can tell stories, as does his grandmother Lan. His life is full of stories, some of which are true, but you are often not sure which. The story of Trevor is true, and it is a love story in the most intense and sensuous way, it is as if being loved like that allows him to love himself in the face of everything. (From the very end of the book):
"I felt this sudden surge of tenderness for him right then, a feeling so rare in me it felt like I was being displaced by it. Until Trevor pulled me back. 'Hey,' he said, half-asleep, 'what were you before you met me?' 'I think I was drowning.' A pause. 'And what are you now?' he whispered, sinking. I thought for a second. 'Water.' " (p.237-8)
Little Dog tells the story of their family history, back to his mother. He thinks of himself as a product of the Vietnam War, someone who exists because of it. His grandmother is sinking into old age dementia, but she tries to protect him from his mother's uncontrollable rages. In spite of everything the bond between them is unbreakable:
"It's true that, in Vietnamese, we rarely say I love you, and when we do, it is almost always in English. Care and love, for us, are pronounced clearest through service: plucking white hairs, pressing yourself on your son to absorb a plane's turbulence and, therefore, his fear. Or now - as Lan called to me, 'Little Dog, get over here and help me help your mother.' And we knelt on each side of you, rolling out the hardened cords of your upper arms, then down to your wrists, your fingers. For a moment almost too brief to matter, this made sense - that three people on the floor, connected to each other by touch, made something like the word family." (p.33)
Mostly the story is about them, but the comment the mother makes to him on leaving the house sums up their experience of life in America, 'don't draw attention to yourself. You're already Vietnamese.' He does not talk about overt racism, though he describes his mother being harassed and assaulted as a child for being the daughter of an American, but what he does do is describe how it felt. This passage talks about the relationship between manicurist and client:
"The most common English word spoken in the nail salon was sorry. It was the one refrain for what it meant to work in the service of beauty. Again and again, I watched as the manicurists, bowed over a hand or foot of a client, some as young as seven, say, 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry,' when they had done nothing wrong. I have seen workers, you included, apologize dozens of times throughout a forty-five-minute manicure, hoping to gain warm traction that would lead to the ultimate goal, a tip - only to say sorry anyway when none was given.
In the nail salon, sorry is a tool one uses to pander until the word itself becomes currency. It no longer merely apologises, but insists, reminds: I'm here, right here, beneath you. It is the lowering of oneself so that the client feels right, superior, and charitable. In the nail salon, one's definition of sorry is deranged into a new word entirely, one that's charged and reused as both power and defacement at once. Being sorry pays, being sorry even, or especially, when one has no fault, is worth every self-depreciating syllable the mouth allows. Because the mouth must eat." (p.91-2)
The more I flick back through the book the more I realise it is two love stories. In spite of everything his love for his mother remains overwhelming, and he wants things from her that she is too exhausted to give. She is his connection to Vietnam and that huge part of how he thinks of himself. It is a true son's love because he essentially forgives her for her failings, does not blame for her for things beyond her control. This quote, because I love it when books teach me new words, and it is a beautiful notion:
"There's a word that Trevor once told me about, one he learned from Burford, who serves in the navy in Hawaii during the Korean War: kipuka. The piece of land that's spared after a lava flow runs down the slope of a hill - an island formed from what survives the smallest apocalypse. Before the lava descended, scorching the moss along the hill, that piece of land was insignificant, just another scrap in an endless mass of green. Only by enduring does it earn its name. Lying on the mat with you, I cannot help but want us to be our own kipuka, our own aftermath, visible. But I know better." (p.171)
The whole book is intensely descriptive, often of mundane things around him, but that added together allow you to picture his world so vividly. Altogether a sublime book. I sometimes worry that I get to the end of a book and find I can't remember 'what happened' but am just left with feelings. But mostly they are the books that I am glad I discovered.
Stay safe. Be kind. Read a book.
Monday, 19 April 2021
|Etienne Leopold Trouvelot|
Kiss of the sun by Mary Ruefle
If, as they say, poetry is a sign of something
among people, then let this be prearranged now,
between us, while we are still peoples: that
at the end of time, which is also the end of poetry
(and wheat and evil and insects and love),
when the entire human race gathers in the flesh,
reconstituted down to the infant’s tiniest fold
and littlest nail, I will be standing at the edge
of that fathomless crowd with an orange for you,
reconstituted down to its innermost seed protected
by white thread, in case you are thirsty, which
does not at this time seem like such a wild guess,
and though there will be no poetry between us then,
at the end of time, the geese all gone with the seas,
I hope you will take it, and remember on earth
I did not know how to touch it it was all so raw,
and if by chance there is no edge to the crowd
or anything else so that I am of it,
I will take the orange and toss it as high as I can.
In return I share this, since it is what is giving my life so much meaning, purpose and joy (foxglove seedlings):
Sunday, 18 April 2021
Tuesday, 13 April 2021
Monday, 12 April 2021
The sun was shining after my post-lockdown trip to the gym so I took my tea into the garden ... and look, plum blossom.
Saturday, 10 April 2021
"The woman in the dress was not a particularly fast reader. Despite it being the only thing she did, she would finish a book about once every two days. Kazu would go to the library once a week and borrow a selection of novels. These books weren't presents, exactly, but for Kazu, supplying them was more than just a 'task'.
Until a couple of years ago, the woman in the dress read a novel entitled Lovers, over and over again. One day, Miki remarked, 'doesn't she get bored reading the same novel?' and presented her own picture book to the woman in the dress. Kazu thought, What if I could please her with a novel I chose? ... and that's what led her to start providing novels in this way.
As always, however, without a care for Kazu's thoughtfulness, the woman in the dress simply reached out, took the book silently and dropped her eyes to the first page. The expectation disappeared from Kazu's expression like sand falling in an hourglass." (p.76)
As I said earlier, I like all kind of poetry. 'The Air Year' by Caroline Bird is another bedside book that I have meandered back and forth through over the last weeks. I went back and read some of the longer prose poem pieces. I particularly liked one entitled Small Children, much to relate to there, all the bad stuff: "They sit in plastic umpire chairs at the dinner table/ shouting out unintelligible scores" and "They're hypocrites./ They spy on you in the toilet. Parents aren't permitted/ even the smallest private perversion yet a child/ can secretly urinate in a drawer for three weeks/ until the smell warrants investigation" and "Little children are like/ the tsarist autocracy of pre-revolutionary Russia" but it ends beautifully "We kneel to tie the laces of their unfeasible tiny shoes." The one called 'Nancy and the Torpedo' is particularly surreal, as is 'Surrealism for Beginners'. They are incidents and accidents. Not funny or political. Lets have this one:
Monday, 5 April 2021
Julie lent me 'The Mermaid of Black Conch' by Monique Roffey and I wolfed it down. It is the story of David Baptiste, and of Aycayia, and of the island of Black Conch and its checkered history. It is told from a variety of perspectives, in different voices, then also third person, observing, more dispassionate. Some American tourists arrive on the island and hire a boat to take them fishing. After a struggle that lasts the day they land their catch, and it is a mermaid. Leaving her strung up they go off and get drunk, and David takes her home, intending to put her back in the sea. Almost immediately she begins a slow transformation back into a woman. He tries to hide her from the curious neighbours, and finds himself helped by Miss Rain and her deaf son Reggie, who befriend Aycayia and teach her to talk.
"Every morning, the mermaid, Aycayia, half-slept and listened to the rain, and remembered more and more of what it was to be a woman. She enjoyed the sound of the rain's soft heaviness. it reminded her of her old self, of long ago, when she had lived in a village on the island shaped like a lizard, when she was the daughter of one of the wives of a brave casike, when she has six sisters. She tried to remember the name and then the face of every man who who'd visited her, and watched her dance; then she tried to forget them all. Her loneliness echoed in her bones, the centuries of swimming in the sea, half-fish. She wondered what had happened to the old crone she'd arrived with - Guanoyoa. After the huracan, Guanoyoa, a wise old woman who told uncomfortable truths, had been cursed too, changed into a leatherback turtle, and that was how she'd ended up so far away from the coastline she knew. She had followed Guanoyoa's instincts of migration. As she lay under the thin sheets of David's bed she wondered how and why she'd transformed back into a woman. She wriggled her old toes, which were now her new toes. She curled herself into a C and listened to the musical sound of rain on galvanised and felt comforted because she knew that parts of the world hadn't changed. There was still rain. This meant there were still clouds, sky, birds - a world she could read." (p.59)
"David Baptiste's journal, June, 2015
Early, early, before dawn, I took my pirogue out to sea, to the same rocks off Murder Bay. The water quiet, and a small bit of rain coming down. Is like my place to go and pray. I drop anchor and sit for a while. I ent really go out to fish. The sea dark and the sky still dark too. There ent no feeling quite like being alone in a boat in the night. Land in sight, oui. Out there ghosts visit on the breeze, they visit from centuries past, from a time before all of we get mix up and lost. Though I always know who I was in Black Conch, family history don't go back far. That memory was rubbed out because of the badness of slavery. Baptiste is plantation owner name, French man name from way back. Yuh think I happy with that? I figure my real name would never be known to me, a mystery. I felt myself fill up with pain, with ol'time loss from those days. It does come from nowhere now and then. the feeling come like a message on the wind, or that is how it ketch me. Now and then. Mostly, when I was out alone in my boat. That is where I met my soul friend, the mermaid woman from so long ago she cyan remember sheself either. We were both lost people. I felt all twist-up in my chest, sitting there in my boat. Was that feeling for she or for us both?" (p.94)
But the rumours about her begin to circulate. The nosy neighbour Priscilla concocts a plan with a local policeman to capture her and the American men are lured back. Miss Rain's quiet existence is disrupted by the return of Life, Reggie's father. The deeper David and Aycayia fall together the more fate seems to conspire to tear them apart. Add in a huge storm threatening and a dramatic climax is in the offing for everyone.
This was a wonderful book, intense and atmospheric; you feel the ongoing impact of the history of the Caribbean, how people's lives continue to be shaped by it. But it is mostly about a mermaid, learning to be a woman again, about trust, about love and loss, and eating mangoes in the bath.
Stay safe. Be kind. Stay human.
Sunday, 4 April 2021
Saturday, 3 April 2021
Thursday, 1 April 2021
I am having a restful three day week (I mean four days, having worked Sunday, but it feels like three days) and just loafing at Dunk's (or should I say crumpetting since he is doing some experimental baking for lunch). Browsing the news this morning I went back to The Great British Art Tour feature in the Guardian, and happened across this fascinating video about The Paston Treasure, which caught my attention because it would make a great puzzle.
Tuesday, 30 March 2021
'Mrs Death Misses Death' by Selena Godden is another book that is hard to pin down, but then Death is quite hard to pin down. Wolf meets Mrs Death in the traumatic moment when his mother is killed in a fire, and then again years later he buys an old desk, that turns out to be a link to her. Through their connection Mrs Death shares her life and her experiences. So the book is a hotchpotch of narratives, conversations, poems and dreams. It is quite emotionally intense at times, the whole style reminded me very much of her performance we went to at the literature festival some years ago.
"Last breaths and last moments smash into my brain, death traffic colliding second by second. Death comes, she is seeping through into my mind. Random deaths and sudden deaths, deliberate deaths and violent deaths, images of the end of life and life endings. These dreadful scenes and horrific feeling crawl like ivy through The Desk and through my fingertips, into my veins, my emotions and into my thoughts. Cannot breathe. I cannot breathe. My father is walking into the sea. He cannot breathe. My mother is trapped in a burning building. She cannot breathe. Oh no. I cannot breathe. I have stopped breathing. Breathe, breathe, damn it, breathe. I jolt and I am back in the room. A million coloured spots before my eyes. I'm exhausted. I am weeping. I am gasping for air. Breathe slowly, slower, slow down. I hold myself steady and place my face flat against the cool wood. I slow down my breathing and stroke the desk top. My heart is slowing down again. Breathe. Just breathe. I have been somewhere else, everywhere else, but I am here again. Oh, I have been travelling. I time travel. I am a death tourist. I am witness. I am permitted. I can see every end. I go everywhere that Mrs Death goes and the places only Mrs Death can go when I am here and when I listen to The Desk." (p.73)
It is however just as much a book about the human condition, about life. It's not a story, but it is many stories. It is the story of Wolf, but only partly. His history keeps recurring, and there is a link through history between the stories that Mrs Death tells him.
"Her grandchild Wolf grows impatient and yanks on Rose's apron and Wolf asks again: What are the three most important things in life? Grandmother Rose shakes her head slowly, noticing her hands are cold and numb in the dirty potato water. One raindrop spits onto the kitchen window, followed by five more, spit spit spit says the old rain, spit spit. The washing will get wet unless Rose is quick, the sky is a dark violet colour.
Hey, Wolf tries, one more time, what are the three most important things in life? The potatoes are peeled and bald in a bowl of salt water. Rose wipes her hands and darts out of the kitchen door to gather the washing from the line. The rain falls sudden, in sloops, rainwater runs and slurps from the gutter; the clean sheets are soaked through.
Wolf stands by the door for a time, watching the rain batter the laundry, old Rose standing in the old roses growing in the garden. Wolf takes it all in: the apple tree, the long green grass, the purplish sky. Mrs Rose Willeford all white-haired. The white bedsheets, her mouth full of clothes pegs, her apron pocket bulging with more wooden clothes pegs. Wet apples, wet grass and the wet old lady. Wolf leaves the empty jam jar on the step to fill with raindrops." (p,195-6)
In the last part of the book Wolf goes to Ireland to a remote tower to write and a series of poems completes the book, I particularly liked this one:
blue sky rain
grey sky sunshine
the sea is
Stay safe. Be kind. Stay human. Enjoy the sunshine.
Monday, 29 March 2021
This books starts with the story of Sandra Bland. A young Black woman is stopped by a policeman, an altercation ensues and she is arrested. Three days later she killed herself in the police cell. This book goes beyond the endemic racism of the police to look more widely at the way human beings fail to understand each other in all sorts of important ways.
The book takes us through some historical examples, Chamberlain's 'getting to know' Hitler, and the CIA's work in East Germany, to show that human beings, despite their best efforts, fail to understand others or see the truth. There is a long section on intelligence work against Castro's Cuba and how the CIA's top Cuban advisor was a Cuban agent for decades. Then he moves on to the rapes and the child abuse cases. It makes your blood boil and I found it quite a hard read, the descriptions of how people (men) got away for decades with systematic abuse, all because of the way that people 'default to truth', assume that whoever they are talking to is truthful. He describes at length the Amanda Knox case; a young woman who didn't act the way people thought she should and ended up in prison because of it. The examples are interspersed with descriptions of psychological experiments that examined the situations being described.
"But the harder we work at getting strangers to reveal themselves, the more elusive they become. Chamberlain would have been better off never meeting Hitler at all. He should have stayed home and read Mein Kampf. The police in the Sandusky case searched high and low for his victims for two years. What did their efforts yield? Not clarity, but confusion: stories that changed; allegations that surfaced and then disappeared; victims who were bringing their own children to meet Sandusky one minute, then accusing him of terrible crimes the next.
James Mitchell was in the same position. The CIA had reason to believe that Al Qaeda was planning a second round of attacks after 9/11, possibly involving nuclear weapons. He had to get KSM to talk. But the harder he worked to get KSM to talk, the more he compromised the quality of their communication. He could deprive KSM for sleep for a week, at the end of which KSM was confessing to every crime under the sun. But did KSM really want to blow up the Panama Canal?
Whatever it is we are trying to find out about the strangers in our midst is not robust. The 'truth' about Amanda Knox or Jerry Sandusky or KSM is not some hard shiny object that can be extracted if only we dig deep enough and look hard enough. The thing we want to learn about a stranger is fragile. If we tread carelessly, it will crumple under our feet. And from that follows a secondary cautionary note: we need to accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits. We will never know the whole truth. We have to be satisfied with something short of that. The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility. How many of the crises and controversies I have described would have been prevented had we taken those lessons to heart?" (p.261)
The second part of the book looks at the Kansas City experiment, an experiment in policing style to prevent crime by visible police presence. This led to a policing practice that allowed police to stop people on the mere suspicion that they were doing something wrong, and then search the person or the vehicle for weapons. When confined to specific areas of high crime the practice appeared to have a dramatic impact, but what ended up happening was that it was taken up and applied across the board, and this brings the book back around to Sandra Bland. She was stopped precisely because of an over-enthusiastic application this policy. It was the opposite of the 'default to truth' problem in the first half of the book, a 'default to guilt', a policy that assumed everyone you might encounter was up to no good. This was a fascinating book that gives much pause for thought and reflection on how humans communicate and understand each other.
"This book is about a conundrum. We have no choice but to talk to strangers, especially in our modern, borderless world. We aren't living in villages any more. Police officers have to stop people they don't know. Intelligence officers have to deal with deception and uncertainty. Young people want to go to parties explicitly to meet strangers: that's part of the thrill of romantic discovery. Yet at this most necessary of tasks we are inept. We think we can transform the stranger, without cost or sacrifice, into the familiar and the known, and we can't." (p.342)
I know that I have a strong tendency to trust people and take them at face value, then a little incident happened a few weeks ago at work. A young man came in to collect his parcel. He had come on his bike and his P739 card had dropped from his pocket. I am usually most helpful in these circumstances (other of my colleagues are more sticklers for the rules) and I found the packet and checked his ID. Later in the day a man came in with a card, and when I asked him for ID he said he had lost it all in a house fire. I said I could send the packet back out to his house for him, but when I searched the packet I found it was the one that the young man has collected that morning. The man mumbled something and exited very promptly and as he left I realised he had probably found the card on the road and decided to try and steal it. It disrupts my sense of humans as mostly good people, and I then try and be more strict, and then will feel mean for not being helpful, and then I remind myself not to beat myself up about stuff and go back to trusting.
Stay safe. Be kind. Stay human.