All Posts By Catherine Oughtibridge

Anecdotes and advent calendars

Winter, Yorkshire, 2021

I can see why Paulo Coelho might be an author that people either rate one star or five. He is, perhaps, a bit didactic. He comes across as knowing that he knows things. That’s all very fine, you might think, for someone as ‘enlightened’ as Coelho, but what about me. He regurgitates ideas which strike one at once as both simple and complex: in that they strike one as being simple, his voice might hit as a little patronizing; in that they are complex, he is frustratingly vague about their application. His language is neither flowery nor poetic, or if it is poetic it’s a modern style made up of everyday words that reads something like a shopping list. If this leads to many harsh criticisms (and you can find many criticisms of his work online) then so be it. The world needs variety. And, when you’re on your commute or in the family living room where nobody manages to remain quiet for more than five minutes this plain accessible text is readable.

As to whether his claim to all this wise knowledge is true, a brief scan through the biographical section at the back suggests that much of it was earned first-hand through that old-fashioned form of education: suffering.

His book, Like the Flowing River, is a collection of anecdotes and thoughts, like feel-good slogans scribbled on post-it notes and stuck on the bathroom mirror but with a little more context. For me, I felt a lot of it was too short and could have been further developed. There’s a risk that if you tell things too straight the reader doesn’t pause to think and reflect but skips from one section straight to the next.

Sometimes though a section sets off a spark

In one anecdote, the author meets a happy lady and asks her the secret to her joy.

“I have a magic calendar. If you like, I can show it to you.”

The following day, I went to her house.

The woman invites the author back to her house and shows him a calendar filled with good things that happened on the same date of previous years.

“Right, today is the day they discovered a vaccine against polio,” she said. “We must celebrate that, because life is beautiful.”

Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River

Within my family, this solved the problem we had to do with our advent calendar. Our calendar is one of those with little pockets which you fill and then day-by-day open throughout advent. The problem was that we hadn’t got anything to put in the pockets. Serendipity intervened and just in time I realized that what we could do was place little notes in each pocket, making our own ‘magic calendar’.

I took the odd dates, the mother the even ones, and we went off to find feel-good facts. As we counted down advent each day, at lunchtime, we unrolled the scraps of paper and read out something splendid about the world.

Share

Small talk: as essential as salt

Salinas de Maras, Peru
Like salt, small talk is pretty essential. Salt harvesting, Salinas de Maras, pre-Incan salt-pans still in use. Peru, January 2020.

Small talk: the poor thing’s got a poor reputation despite being a vital part of our social dynamics. It gets classified along with gossip which doesn’t do it much good. After all, small talk doesn’t necessarily mean unkind whispers behind someone else’s back, nor even the more well-intentioned rather preachy words said because we care, but because we also have a sense of self-righteousness, and well… she did bring it on herself, didn’t she? If only she hadn’t…

A distinction must be made.

I’m not sure gossip adds value to our lives, but I’m pretty sure small talk is essential to them. Conversations typically begin with small talk.

If you don’t believe me, imagine this situation. You’re the language assistant in a big university, who started work a few weeks into the term. It’s your second day of work. You enter the staff room uncertain of where to sit. Nobody looks up at you because people are correcting their students’ assignments, preparing their classes or deep in conversations which you feel to listen to would be to infringe on their privacy.

Someone looks up, says hello, asks how you are

If you can’t do small talk, if you can’t navigate the social signals which are so often conveyed by these seemingly meaningless words, you don’t get as far as the more meaningful conversation that we all need to feel properly listened to.

Here’s an experiment

Think of a few different people you know and consider who among these people seem the most comfortable around strangers. Now when you meet* each of these people, note how long it takes before they ask a direct small talk question about you and your life. Do they comment on the weather or some common knowledge? Maybe it’s something simple like how are your parents/children, or what are you doing for the holidays. It’s a ‘safe’ question with no particular transactional purpose.

People who don’t find social interaction all that easy often take a long time to ask these questions and when they do ask these questions feel hellishly awkward about doing so, like they’re aware they’ve missed the beat of the conversation where the question might normally be asked and now don’t quite know how to the rescue the situation. Sometimes they suddenly become aware that they’ve been conducting a monologue for a while and then don’t know how to rebalance the conversation. These same people might love silence within their intimate relationships, but find it excruciating elsewhere. They may spend the conversation thinking about themselves either because they’re feeling a tad awkward or they’re busy answering the other person’s questions and focusing on what to say next.

Small talk, can be really hard but without it, how do we go from meeting for the first time to becoming friends?

I think that sometimes we develop idiosyncratic small talk repertoires

Being English, mine involves the weather. One student, after asking me three times a week at the beginning of each class, ‘how are you?’ commented: When I ask how you are, you always reply by telling me what the weather is. Until that point, I hadn’t realized that I use the weather as a technique for moving the conversation on.

“How are you?”

“I’m okay, how are you?”

“Fine, but it’s been raining all day and the sky is so grey.”

Some people can manage this small talk business with ease, but then get stuck in it

If I’m spending an hour on the phone to someone, I’d rather have a conversation that branches into the emotional, the ethical dilemmas, the political, scientific, historical causes and consequences. I love discussing society as a concept because I struggle to understand it. I want to understand your discomfort with your own ideologies because I’m learning to critique my own. And I want the conversation where you wrestle with your own beliefs because it forces me to wrestle with mine. And, thanks to my lifestyle and my work, I get the opportunity to have lots of such conversations.

But occasionally someone mentions to me how such a conversation can be difficult to get into. They become fed up with small talk or talking about meaningless matters because they seem to go on and on in a circle. They don’t want to offend (small talk is entirely about social bonding) but their intellects aren’t being stimulated. Then they get bored and don’t know how to take the conversation forward.

I have found this happening to me more often during lockdown because there is such monotony to the day and so little that is new. There is only so much conversation about grammar my parents can stomach.

I can feel it happen sometimes in class

If I have a new, intermediate level student then there is a pause somewhere in the second or third conversation class where we have exhausted the small talk that they are comfortable with, and rather than skim across a subject we need to switch to going deeper into a subject. It’s the point where I switch to trying to entice the student to tell me a story. Tell me more? But why? How come? Maybe a few classes later, we might hit on something that they deeply care about. A sense of emotion colours their stories. Their grammar slips, and they might physically seem to shake off the bounds of grammar because they’re determined now to make their point or tell their story. They lean forward and repeat phrases, this is the point that the student becomes the teacher. What we’re talking about is more important to them than the English. My job is to subtly prompt the correct grammar and supplement their vocabulary as is needed without upsetting their flow of thought. It’s a challenge I adore.

In a class, I have the power to push for more depth because I’m the teacher, and they have the power to say no because they’re paying. In a purely social environment, it can be trickier. When you’ve landed in a different culture and don’t have a huge amount of background knowledge, it can be terrifying knowing whether you can ask a question or not. You may make assumptions which then cause you embarrassment – like making a joke about marriage to the couple you’re living with… who it turns out might have two children and religious parents, but who aren’t themselves married. Or you might not dare make any assumptions whatsoever because you’re frightened of putting your foot in it. That said, in a foreign culture, you’re also afforded a tad more forgiveness when you get it wrong.

Small talk builds the relationship

But at some point, you need to ask the question that takes things a little deeper. On this topic, a friend of mine recently defined deep as having an emotional aspect. This makes it a dangerous step. Take for example the middle-aged man who wants to criticize feminism without causing offence, or the person who wants to make the connection between social inequality and race and just as they are about to state something about skin tones realizes, they don’t know the ‘right’ words.

It’s me, every time I open my mouth on the subject of colonialism. It’s the question of the impact of scientific inquiry and tourism in the area where a total solar eclipse is visible, an area which happens to be the indigenous heartland and the indigenous peoples believe fiercely that such a wonder represents a time for deep silence.

Sometimes, the beginning of this unravelling is to show my confusion and discomfort. I want to say that I don’t understand, but I’m trying to. It’s to position myself as curious, open-minded and non-judgemental. Nobody is going to tell me anything if they don’t feel both safe and listened to.

“I can see that a three-pence rise in a metro fare is really important to people here, but I don’t get why.”

“Because it’s not about three pence, it’s about a history of aggressive social inequality…”

If you don’t dare ask the hard questions, you don’t get to see beneath the surface.


* Perhaps virtually

Share

Alejo Carpentier, surrealism and the birth of magical realism

Heading towards the jungle. Somewhere between Cusco and Ollantaytambo, Peru. January 2020

Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.

Arthur C. Clark

Alejo Carpentier is described, in The Penguin History of Latin America, as one of the originators of the literary genre magic realism, although for him, it was less of the magic and more of the marvellous. The novel of his which I’ve recently finished, The lost steps, is chock-a-block full of the marvellous. Although it doesn’t exactly have magical happenings infiltrating its reality, the perception of the characters is swayed by a sense of the magical spirit originating in indigenous culture. As the protagonist goes from the hustle and bustle of his North American city routine to the Latin American jungle, he feels like he’s travelling backwards through time. The author explores the contrast of pace, the emphasis of the moment, and plays with the history of humankind. He’s writing from experience. The dramatic but often florid descriptions of jungle fauna come straight from the author’s own journeys in the Venezuelan wilderness, up the Orinoco river.

While living in Paris, two novelists who had previously written on nativist themes, the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias and the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, came into contact with surrealism and saw how the use of primitive myths and beliefs could evoke a sense of the marvellous in fiction while also serving to represent the heterogeneous cultural reality of Latin America.

The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson (pg 542)

Magical Realism is a genre I initially associated with Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende and, at the other side of the world, Haruki Murakami. It’s not fantasy, because it keeps a tight grip on reality, but nor is it literary realism – it’s often coarse realism is softened with magic. I want to say that Gabriel García Márquez met Alejo Carpentier in Cuba, but I gained this belief through listening to Solitude and Company: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez Told with Help from His Friends, Family, Fans, Arguers, Fellow Pranksters, Drunks, and a Few Respectable Souls by Silvana Paternostro and because it’s an audiobook I can’t locate the reference.

I hadn’t considered surrealism’s impact on literature before

It’s interesting to reflect upon The lost steps from the perception of surrealism because surrealism has at its heart an exploration of the unconscious and a desire to unite the unconscious with the conscious. In a European sense, perhaps this primarily focuses on the dream world versus the world of the awake. You can imagine Picasso and Dalí at this point. It’s heavily influenced by Freud. Yet, moving to the society of the indigenous peoples of Venezuela and other similar places, where an attitude of let us measure it, analyse it and give it a label has a lesser grip, you can see the difference between conscious and unconscious might not be so black and white. The influence of earth on man (and the respect of earth by man) leaves room for everyday marvels, even with both eyes open and the mind awake. I was reminded of meeting an indigenous lady in the Atacama Desert who read the oncoming storm painted in the skies and marvelled at how we couldn’t.

I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.

André Breton, The Surrealist Manifesto

Carpentier… presented the pursuit of a unified consciousness as a problem. … His entire work, therefore, represents a search for a point of synthesis between reason and instinct, matter and spirit.

The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson (pg 545)

In the book we slip between the analytical and the instinctual, time trundles backwards, the head argues, the heart pulls, yet at the end of the novel, the protagonist who has floundered within his own uncertainty has to face that his reality is disjoint from the marvellous journey he’s experienced. He isn’t Odysseus. He is, whether he accepts it or not, of his own time and culture.

It was as though I had been hit over the head. My skin felt as though a thousand cold needles were coming through it. With an immense effort I reached for the bottle, and the touch of it seemed to burn me. I slowly filled my glass, poured the liquor into a throat that could no longer swallow, and broke into an agonizing cough. When I recovered my breath, I looked at myself in a mirror, black with fly specks, in the rear of the room, and what I saw was a body sitting at a table, looking hollow, empty. I was not sure that it would move and walk if I ordered it too. But the being that moaned within me, lacerated, flayed, its wounds filled with salt, finally dragged itself to my throat, and I began a stuttering protest. … the Greek looked at me in surprise that turned to pity.

The lost steps, Alejo Carpentier (pg 276)

The language also played the same game

I read it in English, and my gut feeling was that the translation was rather Latin focused, or perhaps merely enthusiastically literary, but that at times, a shuffle from the Latin to the Germanic might have brought some of the descriptions down from the treetops and made it easier to follow. The dense descriptions were solidly from the protagonist’s mouth, rather than some omniscient narrator, and so made him harder to empathize with. There were many words I skipped, often adjectives or specific references to some Venezuelan fauna or flora… such as lepiosiren (which is a South American lungfish – a fish with lungs). Lepiosiren perhaps sounds more fittingly Homeric; the novel plays a game of cat and mouse with the Odyssey, assuming its reader is well acquainted with the classical text.

However, I think it’s worth acknowledging the book’s translator

Illinois-born Harriet de Onís was the sort of woman who accepted, and could afford to accept, being paid in literature. They gave her books. She translated out of love, and belief in, the importance of Latin American literature. She was lucky in that she could afford to do so. We are lucky that had such a compulsion.

The novel is furthermore weighed down by musical jargon

Carpentier’s protagonist is a pianist, like Carpentier himself, and left me with no doubt that if the writing life didn’t quite work out for him, Carpentier could have busied himself teaching music theory. He clearly knew it. With its reference to music theory jargon, the text reminded me of Jan Morris’ Spain, which I had struggled with due to the heavy littering of architectural terms. I normally mark vocabulary that I don’t know, but in this case, there was no point underlining the words I didn’t know, because, like the construction of catholic churches, music theory makes no sense to me. I don’t understand the dictionary definitions.

That said, if you are a lover of music theory, this might be a good book for you. There must be something interesting about all those chapters dedicated to writing about music which I was much too ignorant to appreciate. If I were taking a stab at it, I’d say that I think Carpentier contrasts modern attitudes to technical composition with the indigenous connection to nature through sound, and mocks the naïve way in which modern society, in labelling indigenous customs, fails to comprehend them.

Moving onto Carpentier’s ‘lost’ protagonist

Lost is an adjective which fits. He is, undoubtedly, male character number one: the self-centred soul who falls into a deep infatuation with a woman he doesn’t know how to have an honest conversation with, generally spends most of his time being rude to the people around him, and who could have saved himself a lot of bother by at any point in the novel thinking of anyone but himself. He’s deeply intellectual, has a unique creative gift and yet is (or feels himself to be) deeply misunderstood. Likewise, he’s the same character as Julio Cortázar’s jazz-loving Horacio Olivera in Hopscotch (Rayuela) or, if my memory serves me correctly, William Stoner in John Williams’ Stoner. Women fall for him because he is aloof and mysterious; he makes a terrible partner and won’t wash the dishes because he is too busy having an existential crisis.

I don’t dislike this type of character on principle, but I do feel that he ought to occasionally feel embarrassed or nervous and that sometimes the writer would convey a more believable character by being willing to step closer to some of those tricky to write emotions. In this case though, I did dislike the actual protagonist in the novel because he is the exemplar of that insidious machismo attitude that is so grating to the modern woman.

Overall, it’s a book I’m glad to have read

It was worth the slow start and occasionally confusing language. Despite its extensive descriptions, it managed to maintain a pace which made it quite a quick read, and although I’m not going to be immediately hunting out another book by the author, I’m not averse to reading one. It did however prompt me to reflect on the impossibility of letting go of your own time and culture and how interactions between cultures always have to be a compromise. In my own life, acknowledging this is essential.


Reading list:

The lost steps, Alejo Carpentier (1953)

The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson, revised edition (2009)

The Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton (1924)

A biographical article on Harriet de Onís by Victoria Livingstone

Share

Resilience and holding out

Inka walls, Peru, January 2020
Inka walls, near Cusco, Peru, January 2020

I heard the kettle begin to boil and as I battered my way into consciousness tried to recall where I was, somewhere south of Santiago I thought, but the letters of the name of the town were shuffling around in my mind and I couldn’t focus on the word. I heard the Mother, I knew it was the Mother, and I tried to connect the dots… I struggled, the name of the town seemed important somehow and my mum was there.

What was the Mother doing there?

Surprised, I realized that I was in my parents’ house, which is not south of Santiago in Chile, but in Yorkshire in England. I remembered it was winter. How had I forgotten? Maybe the sun was shining in my dreams. It’s not unusual for me to wake up and not immediately know which city I’m in. But now? Here? I am not just passing through; I’ve been here since May. The kettle finished its boil and I fell back asleep, dreaming now of cheese and pickle sandwiches.

This time last year it was hot

I wandered the streets of Santiago hiding in the shade during the midday heat and always carrying my flask filled with cold water. Last year was a year of two summers, the first was wondrous, the second a constant downpour. Bless England, it knows how to do wet. This year, if I’m lucky, will be a year of two winters, or perhaps I will winter it out here and move into the land of eternal spring. It’s now out of my control.

Some years ago, I read Victor Frankl’s book on surviving the holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning, and it’s been that book which has frequently popped into my mind as lockdowns are announced, reduced, increased, reduced again. There is good news and bad news, and both hope and fear, but attaching ourselves too strongly to any date or announcement doesn’t serve us well. A new quarantine is announced but we mustn’t despair. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl, who was a psychologist observed that the people who started out positively with the belief that things would be over, and they’d be freed within a matter of months, before Christmas, invariably were less likely to survive. Once Christmas had come and gone, their resilience crumbled.

We just have to hold out until…

The people who, however, had something or someone external to themselves to live for were much more resilient. I have to go back to Chile because I’ve left my coffee pot there. I have to go back to Chile because I owe a friend a hug. I have to go back to Chile because I’m owed a drink. It seems it’s easier to be resilient for a purpose beyond yourself, and when monotony takes hold, where we might not be sure of what day of the week we’re on, having that external purpose matters even more.

For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as a by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.

Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl

You have to let it happen, but you can’t just expect it to happen

When I was in Germany in the autumn, my dear friend, the Glass-blower, suggested that each day we ought to do something for our future selves. This could be something as simple as saving a little money for a rainy day* or it could be an act of studying or learning something that would better equip us to take advantage of future opportunities. A lot of my motivation for doing yoga comes from my desire to have a physically capable body at the point in the future when I can make use of it. Maybe I’m going nowhere today, but on some tomorrow I want to go hiking in some hills and smell the nature all around me.

Today, therefore, I roll out my yoga mat and put the time in

A lot of resilience I think comes from switching the mind from thinking about the ‘done’ to thinking about the ‘doing’. What am I doing today to look after myself? What am I doing to protect myself? What am I doing to grow? It’s not a counting game. There can be no comparison with either yourself or another individual. Measurement is irrelevant because it’s all about how you think and how you perceive your situation. Are you doing what you need to be doing?

The sun may be shining in my dreams, and elsewhere it may be summer, but here it’s winter and time to get up and have breakfast. The Mother’s making porridge.


* In a country where almost every day is rainy, isn’t this a stupid idiom?

Share

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement

Don’t ever pray for love and health, Mother said. Or money. If G-d hears what you really want he will not give it to you. Guaranteed. When my father left my mother said, get down on your knees and pray for spoons.

Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement

Say a prayer for spoons…

This is a book about young girls being stolen from their families by drug cartels and then sold on to the highest bidder. It’s not a true story, in the individual sense, but it’s based on true stories. These girls, like Paula in the book, really do exist. They are systematically kidnapped, but they never come back. They are voiceless.

After reading the book, I read in an interview a line where Jennifer Clement states, “I know if cars were being stolen there would be greater outrage.” She points out how single dramatic events hit the news, but the everyday silent plight of these women fails to gain attention. These girls come from poor, vulnerable communities with limited educational resources and may only speak their indigenous language, not Spanish. Clement has decided to speak on their behalf, through a young Mexican girl with the unlikely name of Ladydi (Lady Di).

Say a prayer for ladders…

I bought the book because I’m making an effort to read more by Latin American women, but then I left it on the bookshelf for a while as its content seemed rather frightening. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a novel, even a 222-page short novel, about systematic sex-abuse. It seemed unlikely to be a comfortable read and I doubted that it would make me laugh. On the laughter part, I was wrong.

Say a prayer for punctuation…

The book is the work of Jennifer Clement whose life has been split over the two sides of that troublesome border of Mexico’s north. Her book is set entirely in Mexico where she lives, but was written in English with an English sense of style. This is noticeable as the paragraphs and sentences are super short. It stands in contrast to the other books I’ve been reading by Latin American authors. Paragraphing is out of fashion in Latin America.

However, like many Latin American authors, Clement doesn’t use quotation marks to frame speech. Previously, if you’d asked me if quotation marks were important, I’d have said yes. However, since reading a few books without them, I’ve come to think of them as a stylistic choice. Your pedants might complain, but it doesn’t interrupt the flow. You seem to know when someone is speaking.

Based on my wider reading and a conversation with a fellow book lover, it seems that these punctuational deviations stem from the pen of James Joyce. Read a little around the topic of Latin American literature and you’ll stumble over Ulysses.

Say a prayer for mockingbirds…

Prayers for the Stolen reminded me of reading To Kill A Mockingbird in school. Ladydi reminded me of Scout and I found myself reflecting on the choice of a child protagonist. How do you persuade the reader that the narrator is a child, without the writing itself being simplistic? Clement does this particularly well. Her sentences are often simply structured, and you can read a few paragraphs without coming to a comma, not because she’s missing out commas, but because her structures don’t require them. She’s generous with the simple words like ‘and’ and ‘but’ and so creates an easy flowing text, but with surprising quirks that keep you alert. Ladydi’s voice is naive and uneducated, but never boring: child-like, but never childish.

The very next morning Julio, the gardener, walked through the front door and I fell in love.

He walked right into my body.

He climbed up my ribs and into me. I thought to myself, Say a prayer for ladders.

I wanted to smell his neck and place my mouth on his mouth and taste him and hold him. I wanted to smell the smell of garden and grass and palm tree, smell of rose and leaf and lemon flower. I fell in love with the gardener and his name was Julio.

Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement

Say a prayer for shelves…

You know instinctively that Clement reads and writes poetry. This childlike voice of Ladydi reminded me of The God of Small Things and how Arundhati Roy also creates the innocence of childhood linguistics with playful rewriting of the dictionary and a throwaway tumbling of images, metaphors crammed into adjectives.

Though you couldn’t see the river from the house anymore, like a seashell always has a sea-sense, the Ayemenem house still had a river-sense.

A rushing, rolling, fishswimming sense.

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

Because I loved Julio, the cars and trucks outside on the street sounded like rivers. … Cement walls became mirrors. My small ugly hands turned into starfish.

Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement

And it’s this innocence, this flavour of pictures, this childlike perspective which makes the book so readable. In an interview, Clement said:

Even in doing the research for Prayers for the Stolen, I was also always looking for the poetic experience and how the divine coexists with the profane or beauty with ugliness. I also wanted the novel to have enchantment.

And she succeeded.

Say a prayer for magazines

Before writing the book, Clement spent a decade researching. She interviewed women in hiding: the wives, daughters and girlfriends of drugs traffickers. And she interviewed women from Mexico City’s Santa Martha Acatitla Prison during art therapy sessions. The inmates used collage as a way of giving voice to their own stories – a scene enacted towards the end of the novel.

So, although I picked it off my shelf, out of curiosity – I’d been thinking about punctuation – I must have forgotten my intention… I sat down on the bed below my shelf and kept reading until I was halfway through. It was the style that kept me there, the rhythm of Ladydi’s tale flowed and despite the context, I didn’t find myself recoiling and turning away (as I had in Laura Restrepo’s Delirium a few weeks earlier).

Pray for the stolen…

I loved how Jennifer Clement reaches out her gentle hands in a gesture of humanity to sections of society typically treated so inhumanely. Her characters weren’t playing at being likeable, some were drug traffickers or murders, some were painfully naive and others criminally deluded, and yet… although they’d all broken the law, you couldn’t help but find your heart aching for them.

It’s a true skill, I think, to maintain such tenderness.


Further reading and listening:

Open Book – Jennifer Clement – BBC Sounds

Pitt Chronicle interview

Deutshe Welle interview

The Guardian also has a review, however it’s inaccurate, thus I’d avoid reading it.

Share

Is dreaming of grammar making me crazy?

I wonder if anyone else dreams about object pronouns and possessive determiners? I guess such nightly tussles are one of the hazards of what I do, all the writing and teaching muddles my brain with an excess of prancing words.

Sometimes this quarantine feels like being buried in grammar books

I began my sojourn in England studying for the CELTA. Since my return, I have been teaching students from the total beginner whose English consisted of a few song lyrics to the advanced student whose speaking skills surpass some non-native teachers I’ve worked with. I don’t, therefore, start with a list of grammatical concepts that I will teach week-by-week; I respond to the grammatical problems my students face in that moment. This means that having recognized a student has a problem and that this is a persistent problem I go from class to grammar book and back again.

Sometimes students say things that simply don’t sound right, but I have no idea why. I record their phrasing and then try to break their structures apart, refer to the grammar books, conduct a search of the Internet, compare American and British forms and see what I can do about creating some form of exercise for the student to practise with. In the midst of this, I dream.

Everyone seems to have their own idea of what’s right

A lot of my challenges come from the way many grammarians have historically discussed the English language. Everyone has their own take. Consulting my books I discover there are several perspectives on the gerund: Scott Thornbury suggests, for example, that we don’t use the word gerund, but use the phrase ‘ing form’; John Seely’s account of the gerund is ‘see verbal noun’; those oft-quoted Americans, Strunk and White, are sticklers who (in their rule 10) state that a gerund requires a possessive pronoun whereas a verbal participle requires an objective pronoun; Seeley says that 90 per cent of the time people use an object pronoun before a verbal noun… Don’t fret, it is irrelevant whether, or not, you understand that last sentence. All I wish to convey is that the books disagree.

One of the consequences of having so many perspectives on a core feature of the English language is that each of my students comes to me with a different set of terminology. In English, a gerund is a noun. However, the word gerundio in Spanish refers to a participle which functions as a verb (or sometimes an adverb) but never as a noun. If my students should start trying to solve this terminology problem by themselves, they will run into confusion.

It’s provided me with a headache

Another conflict occurs between my English and the English that my students are trying to learn, and which, ideally, I am trying to teach. Sometimes I hesitate in the middle of a sentence having realized that I’ve switched a was for a were, an I for a me, or a progressive participle for a past participle as in ‘I was sat’… which is dialectically not incorrect, but nor is it helpful for the student. I stop, explain and correct my mistake. What I would love, is if someone could give me a glossary of terms I use in weird ways, so that I knew where I was leading my students astray.

As I have no such guide, I find myself in an investigation into how I personally speak

The process of trying to understand my idiolect can make me sound quite idiotic. I’m not talking to myself like a human, I’m parroting phrases back to myself. I repeat myself with slight changes in emphasis and phoneme, attempting to pronounce what I say naturally, whilst aware of what I’m doing makes me change how I speak and, hence, sabotages the experiment. As a result, I replicate my uncertainties, going over and over the same combinations of words, and not getting very far at all. Modelling the language is nigh impossible if you’re overthinking it. Especially if you’re not the most confident in your pronunciation in the first place. I fear confusing my students. This fear, it seems, leads to weird dreams.

If you felt like this text lacked examples:

  • Building houses is hard work: a gerund and a noun.
  • A house is a building: a non-gerund noun.
  • I am building a house: a verb as a present participle in the present continuous.
  • I was building a house: a past continuous form of the verb which (and this makes total sense) uses a present participle.

And as for the title… if you got that ‘dreaming of grammar’ is a gerund phrase (or should we call that a verbal-noun phrase) but ‘making’ is a verb then you’re doing well.

Share

An investigation into women in the history of Latin American fiction

Llamas near Cusco, Peru. January 2020.

When reading about literature I’m sensitive to the author’s gender, particularly because I’m aware of how my reading is disproportionately written by men… men with degrees from either Britain or the USA. Writing isn’t the easiest vocation because it requires a certain amount of self-imposed solitude, therefore I’m impressed by anyone who gets their bum on the seat long enough to create – it’s hard work even if you’re born with a whole silver dinner service in your mouth – yet the disparity on my bookshelf makes me wonder if I need to make some sort of effort to tackle the systematic bias.

Most of the women mentioned here I had never heard of before reading The Penguin History of Latin America. At which point I began to investigate. My ignorance stems from how the English language canon dominates the reading of my British born friends who, for much of my life, have been my dominant source of book recommendations. In reading Hispanic literature, I’m also limited by my Spanish comprehension, although this is improving.

I’m focusing on the twentieth century, and mostly the latter half

If we look back to the older stuff, it was predominantly written by men, only some lucky men had the education and freedom to sit and write. The first woman mentioned in the history text was not a novelist – well-to-do Victoria Ocampo owned a literary magazine in Argentina in the 1930s. But writing at a similar time was a Brazilian novelist called Raquel or Rachel de Quieros. Unfortunately, I haven’t found anything by her translated into English and I don’t have any knowledge of Portuguese.

The next female novelist mentioned – Clarice Lispector – was also Brazilian

However, it isn’t until we reach the section on the decline of the patriarchy in the 1980s that we get into more detail about her. Even here, in the section on literature tackling the Latin American patriarchy, we begin with the men: Mario Vargas Llosa, Augusto Roa Bastos, Mario Benedetti, David Viñas, Eduardo Galeno and seven more until we reach…

Our first Hispanic female novelist, Marta Traba

Marta Traba and Luisa Valenzuela both wrote about the consequences of Peron and those who followed his ‘Peronist’ political movement. This was part of a trend for Argentinian writers to make fiction focused on reality with a documentary character. I admit, when I read that these writers moved away from writing in a complex James Joyce influenced style to ‘novels with an accessible story’ I was relieved.

Another common theme in Latin American literature is magic or marvellous realism. Valenzuela incorporates the magical into the real in her book The Lizard’s Tail. Sorcery and witchcraft appear in the novel set during Isabel Peron’s leadership of Argentina.

Both Traba and Valenzuela stepped onto my to-read list. And maybe reading them will give this British lass a version of Peron and his legacy that differs from his character in the film Evita.

Moving on to Mexico and Elena Poniatowska

She’s a journalist and novelist, who also wrote with a desire to document something real: massacres and earthquakes, inequality and poverty.

From a literary perspective, it seems that her choice to write against the patriarchy wasn’t surprising; many male authors of the 70s and 80s were also embracing an anti-patriarchal stance. What’s surprising is that as a French-born Mexican journalist of royal Polish descent she embraced a socialist outlook and has spent her life fighting inequality. Looks like I’m going to have to read her work, although it may be uncomfortable.

Now for two books which I have read

Isabelle Allende is in the history text, for The House of The Spirits, and Lispector’s The Hour of the Star is mentioned. I’ve read both.

The Hour of the Star is an interesting read not only because of the quirks of Lispector’s style, but because it’s modern. She makes me think that I ought to learn to read Portuguese. The theme of loneliness in the face of a competitive, consumerist society is no less relevant now than when the book was first published in 1977.

Lispector’s style was considered revolutionary

She plays with philosophy and writes a story within a story. There’s a link here to Borges, but this is not the moment to explore that. Lispector breaks rules and yet I find her readable. Her novel is depressing but delightful – a tricky combination to pull off. The history text declares The Hour of the Star ‘explored the reactions of a poor country girl from the north-east to the consumer society of São Paulo’. This is true, but misses the point. This isn’t simply a woman writing about a woman’s experience, if you read the book you might be surprised to find that the narrator is a misogynous fellow called Rodrigo.

Here he is talking about the poor country girl whose story he is trying to tell.

…nobody would miss her. Moreover — I realize now — nobody would miss me either. And even what I’m writing somebody else could write. A male writer, that is, because a woman would make it all weepy and maudlin.

The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector, translated by Benjamin Moser.

So what we have is Lispector playing with perspectives, male and female, with Rodrigo in his attempt to write a story exploring the reactions of a poor country girl from the north-east. The same part of north-east Brazil that Lispector’s family originally emigrated to from what is today part of Ukraine.

Nélida Piñón is another Brazilian author tackling the fickle topic of identity

The only one of her works translated into English is The Republic of Dreams which is from the point of view of two characters, grandfather and granddaughter, and through the generations tells the tale of a Galician immigrant family like her own. Another one for the to-read list.

Which links us back to Chilean lass Isabel Allende

Allende’s book, The House of The Spirits, also a cross-generational novel, started as a letter to her grandfather when she was living in exile. I think Allende sometimes gets unfairly criticised for writing readable work. She’s mainstream and you can find her work in your local bookshop, but she’s also compelling and can hit you hard.

Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay on The Argentine Writer and Tradition (originally a lecture), wrote that compared to English or French literature, Spanish literature requires a ‘special apprenticeship’. He doesn’t explain why, much to my frustration, but the line did get me wondering if cross-culture reading benefits from an apprenticeship read – something that will ease you in. Allende perhaps fulfils such a role for Latin American literature which often seems to have grown out of James Joyce’s shadow. Allende’s writing, for example, accepts conventions like paragraphs and speech marks.

When I have proposed to my friends the reading of Spanish works, I have evidenced that it was difficult for them to find pleasure in these books without special apprenticeship; for that reason, I believe the fact that certain Argentines write like Spaniards is less the testimony of an inherited capacity than it is proof of Argentine versatility.

 ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’ in Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby

Anyway, Allende is already on the to-read list. She’s been there ever since I did my initial search into Chilean literature. She was the first Chilean author whom I read. The non-fiction My Invented Country was my first book and my first introduction to Chile. On my bookshelf you can find La Casa de los Espiritus ready for when I’ve finished my current Spanish-language read. I shall read more.

Here my investigation gets a little confused

The history book suggests that, like Allende, the Uruguayan Cristina Peri Rossi wrote ‘illuminating political issues with fantasy’ in the magic realist genre. The thing is, I can’t find any mention of magic in the descriptions of her novels. Certainly, she appears to have been experimental and creative in her tales, but no mention of magic realism. Peri Rossi has quite a few books translated into English and an accessible tiny fiction titled Rumours. What the history book doesn’t mention is that her novels dominant theme is to question masculinity and sexuality, which may be worth knowing.

We then backtrack. The success of 1980s women to publish made people wonder what had come before.

Such as the Argentinian Ocampo sisters

Victoria Ocampo was a literary critic and writer, but not it seems of fiction. You can read her collections of letters, such as those between herself and Virginia Woolf, which I can only assume would be intriguing to read (what language were they written in, French?), and her magazine, Sur, gave other writers a platform to share their work. She does, however, also have a short autobiography in English. Her sister Silvina wrote short stories which are described as ‘disturbing’ and ‘cruel’. I am less drawn to the sound of them.

And, finally, Rosario Castellanos

A Mexican writer, publishing in the late 50s to early 70s. She wrote of the failure for different ethnic groups to communicate with one another, particularly bringing attention to indigenous peoples. This inability for people to communicate with each other, and particularly listen and understand one another, hasn’t gone away. Conflicts between indigenous groups and those in power remain. She’s added to the to-read list.

Here I conclude this foray into women in the history of Latin American fiction

What do you notice from the list? Brazil and Mexico, the most populous countries are represented, as is Argentina. But in total, including Chile and Uruguay, the list only represents five different Latin American countries. Therefore as all good research does, I hereby propose a further investigation to expand upon the original…

However, as I now have quite a few new books to buy, I’m calling this initial research a success.


What I’ve read and mentioned:

The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson 2009

The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector 1977 (translated by Benjamin Moser 2011)

The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende 1985 (translated by Magda Bogin)

My Invented Country, Isabel Allende 2003 (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)

Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges 1962, translated by James E. Irby

Rumours, Cristina Peri Rossi, https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/rumors/

Share

Why I read

What’s beyond? Moon Valley, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, 2020. 

This lockdown is proving tedious.

I’m not used to winter and what with having the kitchen light on to see my boiled egg in the morning and then the sun setting halfway through the afternoon, I’m despairing from the lack of sunshine. I’m like a bird in a cage having an angry rant at its reflection in its plastic mirror. If I’m not careful, I’ll fracture my beak.

Luckily though, dear Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and I’m one of the fortunate people in this world with an ample supply of books.

Reading is my coping strategy for most problems

Everyone has coping strategies, otherwise we wouldn’t survive, and reading is quite an acceptable one as far as things go. It doesn’t poison your lungs, damage your liver or play havoc with your cholesterol. If anything being well-read is applauded. As a reader, you learn, you build awareness of the world and tend not to upset people in the process.

Still, being that it is a coping strategy, it’s worth thinking about. People have been known to comment upon my nomadic lifestyle as ‘running away’, but escaping into a book, even if you haven’t moved, is just another form of escape. Escape is sometimes necessary. Sometimes you have to pull yourself away from a situation and hide as a form of self-protection. If I’m angry and upset, I sometimes don’t trust myself to be the kind and loving person I would like myself to be. I crawl into my chrysalis and, a novel later, re-emerge as a much nicer human being. Yet you can’t live in a chrysalis and the emergence after an initial escape is essential if the ‘coping’ isn’t going to leave a trail of additional damage.

Reading might, by itself be a good, wholesome activity, so I believe is eating chocolate. No need to point out that there is a limit of how much chocolate I should consume. Sooner or later, if I eat too much, I’ll be sick. Or over a prolonged period I might notice an increase in my waistline. Hence, I don’t gorge on chocolate, I choose a chocolate or two, take care of my choices, limit my intake and focus on quality over quantity. Reading doesn’t make you fat, you might argue. However, an hour reading is a choice to separate yourself from society. You live the lives of other people, fictional or real, or perhaps get advice from world experts who you otherwise wouldn’t be able to learn from, but still, it’s a solitary activity and going to a book for your answers means you aren’t going to the friends and family around you, the real people in your life who might be able to help you in a very real way. They at least have ears to listen with.

Emotional struggles aren’t the only reason I read

My struggle to consolidate the complex emotions that the gods have given me isn’t my only motivation to turn to a book. When I was twenty years old I learnt that there had been this thing called the British Empire. It happened within a few days during an eventful summer: a Ugandan chap, an Egyptian fellow and a guy from Hong Kong provided me with new information which illuminated the depths of my ignorance.

Sometimes you realize that you aren’t equipped to deal with what life throws at you. Some people move in a straight line, fulfilling their plans and hitting their goals, driven by ‘what next’. You follow the map, textbooks, management books, leadership, knowledge, wisdom. If, however, you lurch around in a nomadic fashion, crashing into different cultures as you go, you might find that the question ‘what next’ is never answered because you never get beyond the initial ‘why’.

Or to put it another way, one minute I think I’ve got my life organized, the next, soldiers line the streets and to understand why I dive into books. My lack of understanding of my environment hangs awkwardly in my line of sight. I dent my forehead anew on its shiny surface each time I step off a plane.

My learning style suits books. Typically, I’m not an auditory learner, I am terrible at remembering song lyrics for example, but I’m a quick reader and can assimilate the words on the page of a book into concepts to bury into my brain with ease. I might not recall dates or names, but conflict, tension and story I do.

There is a lot I would like to learn.

I cannot explain why I write, but I do know reading is necessary for it

Orwell in his essay ‘Why I Write’ fails at the same question. He’s eloquent in describing what he writes, and he describes the motivations that drive writers to their choices: the ego, aesthetics, historical documentation or political statement. Yet he fails to clarify why the medium has to be the written word. Why journalism and novels rather than paint and brushes? He acknowledges that storytelling exists as something innate inside him… the words revolving around the lonely child’s head twisted and turned until they sprawled out on the page. But why?

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

George Orwell, Why I Write

I can say that writing, regardless of publication or money, matters to me more than almost anything else; I can’t say why. Furthermore, I have that awkward desire that I not only write, but that I write well. I don’t expect perfection from myself, but I do expect something crafted with care and thought through.

And it should be obvious to anyone who has ever contemplated improving their writing that to write well it’s necessary to read well.

Of course, my obsession has a downside

It would be fair to say that there are more socially beneficial ways for me to spend my life, there are definitely more economically productive endeavours. Especially when one considers that the majority of my writing revolves around me. Indeed, if we head back to Orwell’s suggestions of what motivates writers to write what they write, I’m steered by my ego’s emotional frustrations with our world.

You could claim that I could be doing something less solitary and more involved with other people if I wasn’t so insistent on writing, but all I can think is that if I didn’t write I wouldn’t know how to process anything and all that evil which builds up inside would erupt. Some people talk about the heart as the place of feeling; I’m convinced that for me it’s the fingertips. My hand curls around the pen or my fingers slam down on the plastic keys. Here are my emotions.

For me, life becomes real when I write it. What I don’t write is erased by the winds of oblivion. I forget a lot, my mind betrays me. I can’t recall places, names, dates, or faces, but I never forget a good story or a significant dream. Writing is a silent introspection, a journey to the dark caverns of memory and the soul. Fiction, like memory, moves from revelation to revelation.

Isabel Allende, Why I Write

But during this challenging winter, I’m grateful to have so many books to hand

Sometimes I need to escape, sometimes my family needs me to escape so that I’m bearable company, and sometimes I need a sense that I’m learning something, that things are progressing, and that I will come out of this experience with something to show for it.

Hopefully, reading will also help me learn to write better, that ethereal dream.

Share

In which Lina Meruane asks why I read

Explain that to me! Cows? I sighed buying time to think. Cows or oxen or donkeys or idiot peasants or whatever you call those damned animals that almost killed us! They didn’t have lights and they were going very, very slowly through an impossible fog. And wait, joder, I can’t believe it, there ahead of us is a truck right across the road, trying to make a U-turn! Are all Chileans crazy?

Lina Merunae, Seeing Red (Where blind Lina and her non-Chilean boyfriend are driving in the dark heading towards Santiago.)

Sometimes I struggle to articulate what I like or dislike about a book or writing style. I love the act of reading itself, the following of the words on the page, one leading gently to the next in a never-ending stream. Sometimes simply reading is the enjoyment – and consideration of the writer, the style or the story comes secondary to the soothing pleasure of seeing a word and holding its meaning, falling into the next and being swept along.

Reading is safe and reassuring. It’s controlled. When reading, I dictate the velocity of the words flowing into my mind and can vary it just as I choose. I can pause mid-sentence and ponder over a single word, or I can skip whole paragraphs if they get too gruesome or tedious. If I stop liking what I am reading, I close the book.

Inevitably, being addicted to both writing and reading, I end up writing about books

Have you ever noticed how many books are about readers and writers? The less literary inclined are probably underrepresented in literature – but is that a surprise?

Yet, as much as I love to write and love to read, I lack a critical tendency when faced with the final page of a book. On closing the cover, I want to give it (whatever the book is) five-golden-stars.

By the time I’ve reached my computer and started to write, I’m more likely to settle at four, not because my heart doesn’t want to give five, but because you can’t give everything five. Six months later, scanning through the list of books I’ve been reading, I may drop the same book down to three stars, figuring that if I have forgotten it so easily, it can’t have been that memorable. The five-star intoxication tends to belong solely to the reading experience. The critical part of my brain demands a certain writerly wonder to give a book five-stars.

If it’s fiction I need to be mesmerized by the poetic skill or the cleverness of the sentences. Should it be non-fiction, I want to be taught something useful (quotable, inaccurate statistics don’t count). But to give the reading experience five-stars, I simply need to be enthralled.

The opposite happened recently with Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

Unsurprisingly the protagonist of the book is a writer. The author in fact started the novel by writing out scenes from her real life and the Protagonist shares her name. I enjoyed the beginning but hated the second half, or perhaps just the last quarter.

I felt betrayed by the protagonist, revolted by the ending and like I’d been caught out being naïve. Yet, it had been a compelling read, so despite its blatant unlikability, I couldn’t totally dismiss it. But the reading experience was at points painful. It made me uncomfortable, so much so that I occasionally skimmed past a paragraph about her eyes… the Spanish title translates most directly as ‘blood in the eye’.

However, I had to admit that I did like the writing

I just wished that the same writer had written a different story (or maybe she had and if so, why couldn’t that have been the translated one). Because I had been hooked. I was pleased to have read it and I loved the way the translator threw in Spanish phrases rather than converting everything to English. (It’s the third book I’ve read by the same translator, Megan McDowell, the other two books both being originally written by the Chilean author Alejandro Zambra.) Yet why didn’t I like it?

Time passed, and the book, which stared down at me from the shelf, began to grow on me. My eyes would flick up to its spine and I would feel guilty for hating it. Perhaps, I thought, I hadn’t been just. Maybe the book was truly an excellent book and the problem was me.

As a child, I had a problem with The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Not the Victor Hugo version but a tiny hardback children’s Disney version. The book terrified me. Having since grown up, I now have no idea why this one book scared me so much, but I was so perturbed by it that I hid it beneath the floorboards of my parents’ loft.

Obviously, being an adult and full of good sense, I know that books are just books and that they do not sit on shelves watching you. The disquiet within me was not due to the book, it was triggered by the book. The truth was that the book hadn’t been what I’d expected it to be.

The more I read literature by Latin American women, the more I wonder if there isn’t something remarkable that they’re doing with their writing. It feels fearless. Seeing Red is most totally fearless. There was no please-like-me timidity in the book, much like there isn’t in my current read, cheerfully entitled Delirium, and as there wasn’t in Like Water For Chocolate – all notably different styles of story. And Isabelle Allende’s The House of The Spirits isn’t tame either.

As for the Clarice Lispector book I read recently, that book fought against language itself, bending it to its will. No pretence at imitating some stodgy style, nope, dear Clarice had me jaw-dropped before I’d got to the end of the introduction.

Seeing Red haunted me…

…whispering in my ear in a dangerous voice, taunting me with the possibility that what was wrong with the book wasn’t at all a reflection of the book, it was a reflection of me. I started doubting myself and my judgement. I started looking for information on Meruane. Who was the woman behind the book?

I’d set off with an intention to read more Latin American women, but did I really accept what that entailed? Perhaps, I began to realize, reading Latin American women might not be like reading British women with a bit of exotic food and a few different cultural references. It might actually be quite uncomfortable.

Annoyingly, I like to think myself beyond these stereotypes and presumptions, but Meruane elegantly pointed out that I wasn’t. Chile, as always, finds a way to shake out a little more of my ego.

Did I just want to be a literary tourist?

Which is how I found myself leafing through the book again. It’s not that Seeing Red leaps headlong at the scary topics like the dictatorship and the horrors of history that I so often associate with Chilean authors, or that I’m avoiding such topics – Zambra, Skármeta, Bolaño and Lemebel – the men I’ve read who’ve written about that period and its consequences didn’t upset me in the same way (a question here to ponder in its own right). Then again, the women in their stories were often being observed rather than lived through. Lemebel’s beautifully written ‘Queen’ in My Tender Matador was perhaps the real exception and unique.

Seeing Red starts at a party in New York and begins by feeling quite harmless

Which is why I almost didn’t buy the book. I wasn’t looking for another book that talked about the lucky elite going off to study in the United States, I wanted a book that was written about Chile. But finding books written by Chilean women and which have been translated into English is hard work. When my Spanish reading is smoother going, I’ll read in Spanish, but, for now, if I’m going to devour these books it will have to be done in English.

Meruane took on middle-class, educated women (like me) and then threw in the darkness

Seeing Red did not meet with my expectations, but is that not the point of trying to read something different? Has anything so far in my Chilean experience met with my expectations? Are my poor assumptions not continually being bulldozed down? I’d like to think of myself as being quite open-minded, but it’s the walls which keeps giving me a headache.

I became addicted to reading because it was safe and reassuring, a sanctuary to which I could escape. Now that escape clashes with my curiosity. I want to understand a reality that’s not so safe and reassuring. I go looking for a story about Chile, or about Latin America, to get a glimpse into what might be different about those ‘other’ people over there and in the process, I find myself learning who I am.

Lina Meruane has a new book coming out next year, one that is again translated by Megan McDowell… I feel this battle between me and her is incomplete, and so I’m compelled to read it, even if I hate it. Just as I’m compelled to return to Chile, even if that’s hard.

I did, finally, give Seeing Red all those gold stars, feeling that anyone who can so gently tease my ego apart deserves them.

Share

Retreating mindfully

Yoga retreat, North Yorkshire, August 2018

The mother bounces into the living room and declares that Jon Kabat-Zinn thinks we should consider this whole lockdown experience as a ‘mindfulness retreat’.

She says it very sweetly

Parents may often be right, but they’re not always easy to listen to. Historically, my instinctual response might have been to resist such a suggestion. It is easier to reject advice when said in retort, but alas, the mother smiles serenely, speaks softly and then heads off to meditate, leaving me pondering.

Of course, like many people this year – although others may express it differently – I’m feeling a bit like the gods are having a party, got drunk and have lost the plot. They’ve decided to play a game and humanity is losing. I’m stuck with their throws of the dice, hiding against a virus, fighting against myself over the loss of my independence and freedom.

This attitude isn’t going to get me anywhere

If I’m being honest, living here is not a bad deal, especially in the circumstances.

In fact, mid global pandemic, I can’t think of a better place to be. Yet still I feel trapped. Monday looks like Friday looks like Sunday looks like Tuesday and there’s no clear end in sight. I hadn’t planned on being in this continent, and yet, here I am. I’ve no flights booked; no plans made. My calendar is an abyss of empty dates, falling one after another. I don’t like it.

At the beginning of all this I was angry

Now the anger comes and goes, then comes again. A dulled down anger – hot embers. It hurt to have my plans ripped away from me. The loss of my independence has forced me to realize how much my poor ego depends on freedom. This cage of rules gets smaller, then loosens, then tightens and in the middle of it I tell myself: breathe. The mother is right, there is only today. This is a bruise not an amputation. Be positive.

Each day I awake to the same goals

It rains. I go between my bed and my desk carrying my hot water bottle with me. My hands are cold. I type and scribble and eat through books. I curl up in front of the fire and wonder if my mind is coming to an interesting insight or is just blank. There’s time to reflect, to slow down, to reset. If we so choose. Perhaps something in the depths of my brain is churning away.

Luckily, I have that guide in the Mother

With her gentle nudges about awareness, she reminds me that anything other than a good effort from all of us to be mindful of each other is going to land us flat on our faces. So, I go for a walk, do some sun salutations, sit on the bed, legs crossed and meditate. I read Shakespeare and Herman Hesse and Virginia Woolf. I write and edit and write more, there’s a constant productive rhythm to my work, something I’ve been missing for a long time.

Maybe there is something good to come from all this

When, a long time ago I went on a silent mediation retreat, it was at first bewildering, then excruciating, then peaceful. My brain slowed down and old pains started to dissipate. I took the time not to give the depths of my brain the chance to recover.

As I’m stuck here I’m forced to listen to the impulse driving me away

I sometimes take this loss of freedom personally, even knowing that it’s not just me who’s had their wings clipped. Self-pity is the first spiralling step down a pattern of self-obsessive thought. Staying mentally alert, being mindful about how I’m thinking, not feeding the inevitable anxiety or exaggerating the fear is hard work. Hard work worth doing.

I’m left facing myself and the question of how I measure my value

If I do so through numbers, I’ll inevitably fall short. If I compare myself to the original idea of my future that I had back when I left school, I’ve fallen off the page. I have to let go of such measurements, which may be easier for me now, given the disruption my life went through, as I’ve already been forced to disconnect my self-worth from material wealth and other particular assumptions about how I ought to be living.

But perhaps my self-worth shouldn’t be based on my independence either. Maybe the freedom I seek has to be freedom in the mind, not stamps in a passport.

Life won’t begin again after the pandemic has passed; it’s going on right now. The Earth keeps spinning. We keep getting older, day by day. This is the moment to live.

Share