Thursday, 16 March 2023

Walking on Icebergs

'Otherlands' by Thomas Halliday has been a most educational read. In his acknowledgements he thanks his editors without whom  "this would have been a drearier, more saltatory, and more technical read", so I would like to thank them too because, despite some parts being scientific beyond my understanding, I found it incredibly accessible and absolutely fascinating (though I did just have to look up 'saltatory'). It is the kind of book that it would be good to read in digital form, so that you could look up random unfamiliar vocabulary, and I also kept wishing there were more illustrations of the strange and fabulous creatures from the far distant past. What astounds me the most is the mere fact that human beings have poured such huge energy and resources into knowing so much about our planet. And because of the current crisis that we find ourselves in you feel that this knowledge about the millions of years of change and adaptation have much to teach us. 
The book is a geological and evolutionary history of the planet, going backwards, starting 20,000 years ago and proceeding by leaps and bounds to 550 million years ago. Each chapter focusses on a particular location on the planet, mostly it seems because of the richness of the fossil record for that particular era. His style is something of a nature documentary, describing the environment you might have encountered, the sights and smells, the climate and the flora and fauna. All the time he links it forward to our own 'land', finding similarities or pointing out significant changes. 

Very quickly (in book terms, not in years) you are back in pre-history, and the animals are outlandish. This is a Tully Monster, Tullimonstrum, described thusly in the book: "They have a segmented torpedo of a body, and at the rear, two rippling fins that look a little like the wings of a squid. At the front, a long, thin feature, something like the hose of a vacuum cleaner, wiggles, with a  tiny tooth-filled grabbing claw at its end. Adding further confusion, there is a solid bar running from side to side across the top of the creature, horizontal stalks on which are set bulbous organs of some kind, which are generally assumed to be its eyes. All in all, it is unlike anything else that is known in over half a billion years of animal evolution." (p.195) But sometimes it seems as if everything he describes is unlike anything else. I don't know very much about evolution but I think the book helps get across the timescales that are involved. The process of a species adapting and being successful takes millions of years, and yet, confusingly, it can be observed in action in fruit flies. Again, he links forward constantly, telling you which modern creatures are related to the ones he describes. Incorporated into the history and the palaeobiology there is plenty of other stuff to learn. Here, when discussing Prototaxites, he diverts into a description of how fungi operate:
"Fungi are the great collaborators of life, forming close associations with species so distantly related to them that we place them in distinct kingdoms. The most intimate association they form is with a photosynthesising organism, whether a plant or a cyanobacterium, to form a lichen. Excellent at breaking down organic matter, the fungal partner in a lichen can extract huge amounts of mineral nutrient from even the barest surface, sharing it with a photosynthesising partner (known as a photobiont) and protecting it with a tough tissue sheath. In return, with access to light, the photobiont can make energy that will feed the fungus. This powerful combination means that, wherever there is a surface exposed to light and water, a lichen can grow." (p.208-9)

Here he teaches me about ancient mollusc, this one being most curious. It was thought to be extinct for several hundred million years, then a living specimen was pulled from the deep ocean by a fishing vessel in the 1950s. It is fascinating how some creatures are transformed over time and some find their niche and just stay there, barely altering.
"Monoplacoophorans are an extremely ancient type of mollusc, the oldest known from the fossil record. With a single, central, rippling foot, they shuffle around in the sediment. Wherever they go, they leave behind the scratchings of their rasping radulae, filing at the rocks to prise off their microscopic food. Monoplacophorans still survive in the present day, but where most fossil monoplacophorans live close to the shore, today they only exist in the deep ocean. The earliest of that group to venture into the deep, though, is Thermoconus at Yaman-Kasy. Perhaps, although the fossil record is to sparse to prove it, the monoplacophorans at Yaman-Kasy represent the beginnings of a retreat into the world where no others could survive, an evolutionary hiding place in an inaccessible niche-space, free of competition." (p.229-30)

As well as the flora and fauna each chapter tracks the transformation of the planet itself. It is easy to look at a map and assume that the world has always looked like this. I remember as a child learning how South America would fit against the coast of Africa and how the land used to be one huge continent. What I find from this book is that, as well as the massive changes in sea level, the land masses have had a long slow migration to their current positions that has taken them through many different configurations. He talks about how the crust of the earth is so thin, floating on a sea of magma: "The Himalayas have the thickest crust in the modern day, about 70 kilometres thick, but Mount Everest reaches only 9 kilometres above sea level. Mountains are tall because they have deep roots bobbing in the denser mantle. So much of our buoyant land is hidden below the surface. We, too, are walking on icebergs." (p.247) This (presumably artist's impression with some interpretation of data) shows the Devonian world (407 million years ago):

Here is a Promissum, a most ordinary creature, and here is the description of how it becomes fossilised (I borrowed this book without expectation and was continually fascinated by detailed information about the most random subjects):
"The rain of silt and algae that falls in the Soom summer also give the sea floor an unusual chemistry for fossil formation. If a Promissum dies in winter, it will sink to the bottom and become coated in and buried by that persistent subglacial black dirt. The body will decay, the teeth disappear, and nothing will be preserved. But in the summer, when the loess falls too, not all of it can be processed by the zooplankton and organic-eating bacteria, and it settles as a paler layer of rich sediment, enhanced by the organic input from dying plankton, a striped annual deposition called the varve. The preservation of this double-layering at Soom is an almanac, a yearly account of conditions some 440 million years ago, proportionally equivalent to having a daily diary for the earliest humans in western Europe, 1.2 million years before the present.
In the acidic conditions, the cartilaginous skeleton of Promissum will still decay, but other elemental forces will take hold. As the proteins in its muscles begin to disassemble, they release a chemical effusion of ammonia and potassium. Reacting with iron minerals, and dissolved within the spaces between individual sand grains, they turn into a rich illite clay. The shape of the muscle fibres determines the ultimate shape of the clay, and muscle is sculpted in mineral, replaced by its own facsimile. The conversion of soft muscle to clay at Soom is unique, and utterly beautiful, a vision of life in a sea that is advancing - as geologists defensively put it, transgressing - on the land, chasing the melting glaciers retreat." (p. 245-6)

The 'Big Five' extinction events also provide part of the structure of the book as they mark significant turning points for the balance of species, killing some and allowing others to become dominant. Another example of how well the book is written, explaining things without dumbing down (sometimes he assumed too much prior knowledge but not often). Apparently there is still debate about the cause of the Ordovician event, Thomas goes with the global cooling explanation:
"The algal blooms that still occur around Soon were ubiquitous, happening wherever these outwashes occurred, with bigger populations of bigger individuals. This glut increased the marine snowfall to the ocean floor from an occasional flurry to a continuous blizzard. As the algae's carbon-rich bodies settled and were buried, they drew with them carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. At the same time, a coincidental increase in volcanic eruptions as the Caledonides were raised produced a lot more silicate rock. As we have seen, the weathering of silicates causes reactions with carbon dioxide in the air. These fresh silicates helped to reduce the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, too. In the resultant rapid climate change, a full 85% of the species on Earth, almost all marine, went extinct. The glaciation did not last long, but it was long -lived enough to cause devastation. It was the first of the so-called 'Big Five' extinctions, and the only mass-extinction event directly caused by global cooling." (p.241)

Evolution is a weird thing. I find it annoying that much ordinary writing about it makes it seem as if it were intentional, moving forward to some kind of 'ideal' lifeform, rather than a pure chance. A creature cannot 'decide' to evolve, or try and make itself suit a new situation. Then he gives me this lovely explanation of why it seems that evolution is something that happened in the past, but not so much any more:
"Perhaps, in the Cambrian and earlier, the development from fertilised egg to embryo to animal was less defined. If so, fundamental changes to tissues and their arrangements would be, on average, less damaging. Once fixed in place, though, fundamentals become very difficult to change. As with the functioning of a computer, fiddling with the code of a single application is relatively simple, and unlikely to damage the overall function of the machine, but editing a line from the operating system is likely to cause problems. Natural selection, then, ends up being a tinkering mechanism, unable - or at least extremely unlikely - to take a sledgehammer to the basic internal structure. In this view, a new phylum cannot arise in modern day because the anatomy of living beings is simply too complex compared with that of their Cambrian and Precambrian forebears. Evolution today can only be played out within the constraints set by the past." (p257-8)

And then we find ourselves back at the very beginning, and life, life is a chance chemical reaction in the depths of the ocean, which just makes it all the more amazing. My only criticism of the book would be that I found going backwards sometimes confusing, in that you were seeing the opposite of 'progress' with fewer simpler organism. The book became for me a little like looking at the stars and realising how small you are; looking at the length of time over which the planet has been transformed makes you appreciate how brief the human race's presence is in the grand scale of millions of years. Though it is not a polemical book in any sense his epilogue is a demand that the world pay attention to the past in order the understand the future.

"As far as extinction is concerned, the absolute climate is not to blame, nor is the direction of change. It is the rapidity of change that is important. Communities of organisms need time to adapt - if too much change is thrust upon them at once, devastation and loss in the common response." (p.241)

"Unlike past occasions when a single species or group of species had fundamentally altered the biosphere - the oxygenation of the oceans, the laying down of the coal swamps - our species is in an unusual position of control over the outcome. We know that change is occurring, we know we are responsible, we know what will happen if it continues, we know we can stop it and we know how. The question is whether we will try." (p.286)

He talks about how close the planet has come, more than once, to the destruction of all life, but I was left feeling that, actually, life is pretty damn persistent, even in the face of a pitiless and inhospitable environment it just wouldn't give up.

Stay safe. Be kind. Don't give up.
(Weird creature images from Wikicommons.)

Wednesday, 8 March 2023

International Women's Day

The move towards decent representation of women in our government is painfully slow. The Electoral Reform Society currently has a petition running to demand proper reform of the upper chamber. Perhaps if more women are making policy the impact of decisions on women will be better reflected. 
At the other end of the situation I read an interesting interview with Laura Bates yesterday talking about the daily experience of girls and young women and how internet misogyny is having a huge impact on their lives. The whole school uniform debate seems so small in relation to the problems that women around the world face but it become a microcosm of the way society views women's responsibility for their mere presence in the world.
Stay safe. Be kind. Take a stand or donate on International Women's Day
(maybe Women for Women International which supports women recovering from conflict.)

Tuesday, 7 March 2023


It was a beautiful clear blue morning, cold and crisp, reminding us that it is still a little bit winter. The trees are bare but all sorts of stuff is bursting into life and bringing joy.
This shrub on the way home from the gym (I cropped the rubbish on the grass out of the photo):
And after pancakes and tea and chat and birthday cards I pottered around outside.
Crocuses out under the plum tree:
Primroses in the side bed:
New growth on the dog rose:
New growth on the physocarpus:
New growth on the kale:
A whole tray of viola seedlings that have survived the winter under the bench:
And the forsythia, that is still a tiny bush (maybe it needs some space to grow) and who blooms early and briefly, just beginning to do it's thing:
Stay safe. Be kind. Relish the joys of spring.

Sunday, 19 February 2023

How the other half live

So I went down to this little back alley in central London to find out more about the role of Trustee of the pension fund. It was interesting and the tea was decent. Kim greeted me by name, and it was only afterwards I realised she knew who I was because I was the only woman there. Six other people also put themselves forward, so there will be a ballot. I had to tell myself that spending nearly £100 on the train was ok as 'reasonable expenses' rather than taking the overnight Megabus. We were taken into the meeting room to find this lovely arrangement on the table for each person:
and it made me realise how ordinary this kind of 'luxury' is for some people (that's Harrogate water and some very fancy tissues). I am not used to having my every possible need catered for, it was weird. So I took a photo, or course, in case I never see it again. As I pointed out to the girls, even if all the women members vote for me (I always opt to vote for any women in such a situation, but maybe others don't think like that) that's still probably only 10% of the vote so my chances of being picked are slim. It has been a step outside my comfort zone and we will wait and see what happens.

Stay safe. Be kind. Step outside your comfort zone.

Tuesday, 14 February 2023

Brain work and brain relaxation

This time last year a letter arrived concerning a vacancy for a Member Nominated Trustee for the pension fund. When I reread the letter some time later I realised it was already too late to nominate myself. It almost felt like they gave such a brief window on purpose. This year another letter arrived, so I wrote off straight away for a nomination form. It arrived while I was in Devon. When I got back and read it I realised it had to be submitted by 30th January and I had two days to think about what to write about myself and to send it in. Whatever I wrote was utter rubbish but now I have to go to London to attend a 'familiarisation seminar'. I did manage to get through last year's Trustee Report without too much trouble. Despite what it said in the initial information I have been assured that I don't actually have to have read and understand all 345 pages of the Trust Deed and Rules. I am around 80 pages in.

To give my brain a break I have been doing a lovely Van Gogh puzzle that I bought at the Marble Factory where we went out for lunch.

Stay safe. Be kind. Exercise your brain.

Saturday, 11 February 2023

New year, new secateurs

After a tough cardio session at the gym this morning I rode to town to buy my train ticket for scary grown up visit to London (blog post pending) and came back via the Hulme Community Garden Centre where I bought new secateurs and gardening gloves, but resisted seeds and a lovely tin mug with a bee design. The garden, as you might expect, is looking a bit sorry for itself, but there are a few lonely snowdrops braving the chill. (Mum sent me this the other day, which is beautiful but just reminds me how little space I have for 'displays' or any kind:
Despite the bad freezing cold snaps we have had over the last couple of months I found that both the corn salad:
and the rocket were both alive and well:
I pruned back the honeysuckle (just where it's heavy at the top), the miscanthus (right back as Monty says), the dogwood (just to keep it in check), the buddleia and my single rosebush. I am a bit worried about the jasmine, it is very bedraggled, but spring is coming so we will wait and see what else has survived. The plum tree will be joined by lots of colourful friends over the next month or two, they are just poking through:

Stay safe. Be kind. Anticipate the spring.

Saturday, 4 February 2023



So 'Capitalist Makes Profit' is not much of a headline. It's what they're meant to do. Over the years and decades the profits have got bigger. They make millions in profits ... they make hundreds of millions in profits. For the rest of us the numbers become meaningless. We are all too busy wondering why the income we have this year buys us less stuff than what we earned last year. People are outraged that Shell has announced $40 billion in profits. The 'cost of living crisis' does not seem to touch people at that end of the capitalist system. I was perturbed by the way we have moved from millions to billions and it seems to have the effect of minimising the 'number' that represents the profits. 
40 is quite a small number.
So this post is remind you to remember that the reality of Shell's profits is
(Forty Thousand Million)

Stay safe. Be kind.

Monday, 30 January 2023

Diary of a Void

'Diary of a Void' by Emi Yagi. One of Monkey's lecturers talked about this book and she decided to buy it for me for Christmas. It is the story of Shibata who, frustrated by the way her male colleagues treat her, one day randomly announces she is pregnant and thus cannot clean up the coffee cups as the smell makes her sick. She is not pregnant, but she makes a pretty good job of being, and the experience improves her life considerably; she can go home early and is excused the various jobs that were previously left to her. The simplest thing to do would be to have a pretend miscarriage, but no, she enjoys going home early and having time to cook nice dinners and take care of herself, so she just keeps up the pretence. So you spend much of the book wondering how she gets away with it, and how the situation will pan out when the baby is supposed to arrive. She starts walking because she is worried about putting on weight, then joins a pregnant lady exercise group ... and even goes to the doctor in the end. She appears quite lonely and enjoys the friendship of the other pregnant women, so enjoys sharing the experience with them that it seems to become real for her. I was not sure what to make of it but I enjoyed the book and believed with her that she was pregnant. It was well and truly surreal. I give you this quote from her first experience of the exercise class:

"Utterly dominated by the thudding music, everybody was dancing madly, but the one who was dancing the maddest was the woman in the neon-blue shirt. While everybody else looked sapped, barely managing to keep up with the instructor, she let out a roar like an animal, her breasts shaking like a pair of fruits as she sensually thrust out her belly over and over. It was like she was dancing at some harvest festival. The more she moved, the faster the beat seemed to get.
The heat of the room entered my lungs, and just when I thought my arms and legs were about to fall off, the fierce beat came to a stop and gave way to the mellow sounds of harp arpeggios. Our steps got slower and slower; the mirror ball stopped spinning. The next thing I knew, all these women with round bellies were on their backs and bathing in a soft green light as if we were suddenly in some kind of forest. Deep breaths, everybody. In and out, in and out.

Have a great evening! Get home safe! The kanpyo lady called out as we exited the gym. Up ahead, walking towards the subway, I noticed the woman in the neon-blue shirt. With every step she took, her thick braids swung from side to side.
It was getting dark. The Sunday evening air was crisp and cool. But when I closed my eyes, my eyelids felt hot. There was something warm moving inside me.
As I waited for the light to change, I pulled out my phone and opened Baby-N-Me. I plugged in today's exercise: MOMMY AEROBICS, 50 MIN." (p.109-111)

Stay safe. Be kind. That's enough baby stuff for the time being.

Thursday, 26 January 2023

Weird Norwegian Drama

I read this review in the Guardian before crimbo about Vigdis Hjorth. The library had a copy of 'Long Live the Post Horn!' which I ordered, but Claire bought 'Is Mother Dead?' for mum so I will get to read that one later this year when I acquire it. Anyway, who doesn't enjoy a nice novel about the Norwegian postal service. It's good to see that the same issues concern Norwegian posties as British posties. If anything their role as a link for remote rural communities is even more significant. I guess people in urban areas do not consider our presence significant but there are still lots of parts of the country where the postal system is a connection to and reminder of the wider world.

Our heroine Ellinor, who narrates the story, is going through something of an existential crisis, exacerbated by the sudden disappearance and then death of a work colleague. But this results in her taking over his project working for the Norwegian Post and Communications Union that is trying to raise some awareness about the ramifications of a EU postal directive. Alongside this there is her weird love affair that seems somewhat non committal, and her family, whom she seems very fond of but finds disconcerting. So her struggle for meaning is set against the backdrop of the fight against the undermining of the postal system. 

We'll start with some existential angst (Dag is the friend who died):

"I had realised the importance of everything that had been Dag just when everything that was Dag ended. With the benefit of hindsight, I grasped the magnitude of the loss. I went home to bed and wanted to dream, but never sank into the stage where dreams are shaped, and tomorrow's to-do list played on a loop behind my eyes. I could already feel the exhaustion I would feel in the morning because I had missed out on my dream sleep, it tensed my jaw. The stiffness in my back, my footsteps out of the bedroom, the cold floor, the stream into the lavatory and the water, my face in the mirror where all my ridiculous worried had embedded themselves into my forehead. Shower and shampoo in my hair, soap between my legs, under my arms, every morning, every morning. To get dressed and yet not suit myself. Wishing my wardrobe contained something else, to be surprised and then not be surprised, and yet not wear my best clothes in order not to wear them out. Save the best for later. For some day. My most expensive lingerie saved for something that would never happen, which I knew would never happen, which I didn't even hope would happen, and still I waited for the future, the future, for something which would never happen, for the world, such as it was, to change. Then it was morning and I got up to do what i had imagined, practically already lived. Thus I was able to live out the day before I actually lived it and get tired before the actual tiredness set in and not realise the significance of what was happening until afterwards, I was out of sync with myself." (p57-8)

I felt that the book became something of an ode the the postal service and she finds something of an epiphany when she comes to understand it better and care about the outcome of the vote. Here, long quote, sorry, but part of a lovely story a postman tells of his attempts to find an address for a stranded letter:

" 'A letter writer who trusted the Post Office to come to her rescue. Who took a chance and crossed her fingers. Minor details such as a lack of street name or house number didn't stop her writing, so urgent was her business, so great her faith in the Post Office. When there was no reply, she took another chance. Might it be a brave marriage proposal? Information about a child that Helge Brun didn't know he had? The more I examined them, the more I became convinced that the letters were important. Postal workers have strong intuitions, I don't need to tell you that and as it happens, I was proved right'
A buzz of excitement rippled through the room. Go on?
Rudolf Karena Hansen paused rhetorically. Rolf raised his hand, then looked at the postal workers and dropped it.
Their ears had pricked up, their eyes were shining, hanging on Rudolf Karena Hansen's every word, captivated by the tale of Helge Brun, identifying strongly with the narrator and his mysterious letters. Yesterday Rolf had told them to write down 'reliability' because the media wants something people can relate to, but what's the use of knowing what the media wants if you don't know the postal workers?
'From that moment on,' Rudolf Karena Hansen continued, 'I didn't just put letters into the right post boxes when I was out on my round. I knocked on doors and struck up conversations with any old people who were at home in the morning and children who were home alone after school and had time to chat with a trusted postman. I asked about Helge Brun and although no one could point me in his direction, it was the start of a fascinating period in my life. I heard many small stories which together made up a new and bigger story, the story of our district told from different points of view. Details and incidents I had never heard about, but which had had life-changing consequences for the individuals and the community, I gained a better understanding of how people live together and how they depend on one another. Everything made sense and though my round now took twice as long as it used to, and the postmaster wondered at times what I was doing, I did everything I was supposed to and more, and in the evening I sat in the office between piles of dead letters into which I tried to breathe life.' " (p78-9)

If I have piqued your curiosity you will have to read and find out if he ever found the recipient for the wayward letters. I loved the notion of breathing life into dead letters. We send away boxes and boxes every day. They are mostly junk mail, people gone away, but I always sort through the ones that make their way into the cage, and anything that is hand written I always check to find out where it might belong, correct the postcode or fill in a missing blank and sometimes manage to send things on their way.

Stay safe. Be kind. Breathe life.

Monday, 23 January 2023

Small Things Like These

So my sister Claire handed me 'Small Things Like These' by Claire Keegan saying it was a quick read for while I was visiting. The covers are smothered in very high praise indeed and I think I will be tracking down one of her short story collections some time soon. Narrated during 1985 (but for rural Ireland read some time back in the dark ages) it tells a brief story of Furlong, a coal merchant in a small town, the town where he lives and works, and the history of his own unorthodox arrival. I have mentioned previously the catholicism that tends to permeate Irish writing; sometimes it just sits there in the background, unspoken but ever present, but here the influence of the church over people's lives is brought starkly into the light. It is such a perfect little book, capturing this moment in time, the relationships between people in the close knit community and within Furlong's family, but mostly we follow Furlong though his days, with the thoughts he has as he drives his delivery lorry. In the course of his busy pre-Christmas week he calls at the convent and on unlocking the coal shed discovers a young girl inside. As he takes her indoors she begs him to find out what has become of her baby. The incident is brushed over by the Mother Superior and the cleaned and redressed girl informs him it was a childish prank. His discomfort about the event is increased when the woman at the cafe tells him she heard of his encounter at the convent and reminds him that access to the secondary school his older daughters attend is controlled by the church: "'They belong to different orders,' she went on, ' but believe you me, they're all the one. You can't side against one without damaging your chances with the other.'" (p.95) But his own history had been playing on his mind, the fact his own mother had been unwed, and was cared for and protected by her (Protestant) employer, and he begins to question things he had previously taken for granted:

"At some point later, an upstairs curtain moved, and a child looked out. He made himself reach for the key, and started the engine. Driving back out to the road, he pushed his fresh concerns aside and thought back over the girl at the convent. What most tormented him was not so much how she'd been left in the coal shed or the stance of the Mother Superior; the worst was how the girl had been handled while he was present and how he'd allowed that and had not asked about her baby - the one thing she had asked him to do - and how he had taken the money and left her there at the table with nothing before her and the breast milk leaking under the little cardigan and staining her blouse, and how he'd gone on, like a hypocrite, to Mass." (p.87)

The novella ends with a page about the Magdalen laundries, the last of which were not closed until 1996, where many thousands of women were incarcerated for the crime of having a child out of wedlock. Many babies died and many more were adopted out. They were financed and run by the Catholic Church in concert with the Irish government. I had a child before I was married in 1988. In my hospital ward of four women three of us were unmarried. No one batted an eyelid. News in recent days reported that statistics for 2021 show more than half of all children were born outside of marriage or a civil partnership.

Stay safe. Be kind. Have a baby when and how it suits you (or not as the case may be).

Tuesday, 3 January 2023

First book post

'Must I Go' by Yiyun Li would have pretty much failed the Bechdel Test for books. In it Lilia spends the entire book talking about Roland, a man she had a couple of brief sexual liaisons with. She had a daughter by him, something of which he remained unaware, and the death of their daughter Lucy seems to have been the catalyst that reignites her obsession with him. So the book follows her reading of his published and abridged diaries. He seems a singularly uninteresting man and I kept asking myself why I was still reading it. I kept waiting for Lilia to say something more about her own life but she seemed to have so little sense of herself. So I read on until the point where it was too annoyingly close to the end to give up. I have got better at abandoning books that do not engage me so it is a sign of my listlessness that I let myself drift through it just turning the pages, towards the end only reading Lilia's thoughts and skipping the bits of Roland's diary. So, a disappointment since I must have read about it somewhere to request it. Never mind. What it is is a picture of maternal loss, one that she allowed to swallow her whole:

"Right after Lucy's death I thought of walking away permanently. Not because I didn't love my children, but other than Molly, they were old enough to be motherless, and Molly had a good father. Gilbert picked no favourite among his children. Everyone had his whole heart. I'm not like that. Love is like a savings account. You make a deposit, and use it here and there, sometimes subtracting an amount when you least expect it. You can say there is interest but that's not much to speak of. The account was more or less in the balance until Lucy died. When Lucy died everything was drained from it. Then nothing was left." (p.136)

'Dinosaurs - a novel' by Lydia Millet on the other hand, I read in one sitting on New Years Day. Sometimes you just need a book that reaffirms the decentness of human beings, and I needed this book. In it, Gil (it wasn't till the end when he is referred to as Gilbert that I realised consecutive books had the same character name) walks across America to get away from heartbreak and makes a new life for himself. He is independently wealthy (something that emerges as an issue in a variety of ways) but applies himself to contributing to society in whatever way he can, finding in his new home a local women's shelter, but it is the relationships he develops with his neighbours, Ardis, Ted, Clem and Tom, that shape the story. He befriends the lonely son Tom, just hanging out with him and eventually taking on ferrying him back and forth to activities. It's just nice, nobody has an agenda, he socialises with the family, adults and kids alike, and becomes part of it, but always without seeming to intrude. Then there are the birds that he becomes attached to, and that he finds shot in the dry riverbed behind his house, a crime that he is determined to get to the bottom of. Old friends from his previous life ask for help, and an encounter with his former love allows him some closure. New friends and acquaintances gradually attach themselves to his life until things come to a bit of a head, but not in a bad way. I have no idea why it's called Dinosaurs. Here, Gil and his money:

"Gil told her how once, when he was straight out of college, he'd decided to give up his grandparent's ill-gotten wealth. And fend for himself.
For several weeks after he had made this decision, he's felt euphoric. So excited he could barely contain it. As though he was standing on the edge of a great abyss, not dark but filled with light. Towering cliffs and a sparking river.
Like the Grand Canyon, maybe. Although he'd never seen it.
A realm of possibility - his life no longer set. His life could be anything.
Everywhere he went, everything he did during those few weeks was coloured vibrantly. He listened to inspiring music, full of extra energy every morning when he woke up. He broke into a run on sidewalks, only realising as he slowed down that he was grinning crazily.
He'd told Hadley of his revelation at a rare in-person meeting.
Saying it, though, he found he couldn't do it justice.
Couldn't explain to Haldey, in his oak-and-leather office with its fine appointments and wide views of the Manhattan skyline, how heavy the money was. A coat of shame he always had to wear.
Or how the thought of not having it anymore was like discovering how to fly.
Most people, Hadley said, felt just the opposite. For the reality was, it was money that set you free. Not the lack of it. Gil couldn't know this yet because he'd always had money. But the second he didn't, he would see." (p.142)

Stay safe. Be kind. Look into the abyss.

Sunday, 1 January 2023

Thankful for 2023

My sister was born during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a moment in time when the world was at its closest to nuclear war. Even when my son was born in 1988 the threat of nuclear annihilation felt like the most likely way the world (as we knew it) could end. In the years since the nuclear threat has receded (the current conflict notwithstanding) but a whole new level of 'end of the world' has become so much more real. The arrival of my grandchildren has brought the existential anxiety to a head, the feeling that they will grow up and I will not be there to protect them from what is happening to the planet. And then browsing on The Atlantic the other afternoon and came across this article, where the author discovered that her father had worked at Raven Rock and had to face the notion that in the event of a nuclear attack he would have had to leave his family behind. She wonders how he lived with the idea. It concludes with the following sentiment that I found quite reassuring:
"What do we do, then, if we cannot stop time or prevent every loss?
We carry on with ordinary acts of everyday caretaking. I cannot shied my beloveds forever, but I can make them lunch today. I can teach a teenager to drive. I can take someone to a doctor appointment, fix the big crack in the ceiling when it begins to leak, and tuck everyone in at night, until I can't any more. I can do small acts of nurturing that stand in for big, impossible acts of permanent protection, because the closest thing to lasting shelter we can offer to one another is love, as deep and wide and in as many forms as we can give it.
We take care of who we can and what we can."
So for 2023 I resolve not beat myself up about what I can't do and try and focus on the ordinary acts, for my family and for the planet.


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