Thursday, 26 February 2009

Life is so unexpected

Why would you name your house "Hailstone?"

There is a tendency, in most of us, to romanticize our home and all that it represents. Even if our "nest" is a grotty hovel, it is still a shelter. Perhaps this partly explains why the English have a penchant for naming their little plot and pile of bricks. Even if you don't own a Manderley or a Brideshead, you might lay claim to a Lark Rise or a Pear Tree Cottage. Pity the postman and the pizza delivery boy, but one of the charming idiosyncracies of English life is the tendency to give one's home a name. Although many names are simply descriptive or functional -- ie, The Cottage or The Old Bakery -- others are whimsical, fanciful and downright strange. Because I have a habit of traipsing up and down my road, I often contemplate the nature of house names. What, for instance, could Hen Cloud possibly mean? What romantic (or bloodthirsty) person decided that Hunter's Moon was a fitting name for a bungalow?

The name which most perplexes me, though, is "Hailstone." What were these people thinking? Did their house survive a battering of ice pellets? Does it still carry the scars? Do they take an odd sort of pride in enduring misfortune?

Or is this negative name a sort of talisman, meant to ward off bad luck? If you always expect the worst, does it keep bad luck from trailing you?

Even though we all know that life is unexpected, and that we never know what is going to be around that next bend, why does an assertion of this fact always surprise me so?

A couple of days ago, one of my friends sat in my kitchen crying. Life in general had gotten on top of her; but specifically, she was just completely fed up with the house construction project that had frazzled her nerves. If you believe that your house is one part sanctuary and one part cozy nest -- and I do -- then the mess, noise and lack of privacy associated with the home improvement process will often make it difficult to appreciate the end-goal. (Ironically, it was especially easy to "feel her pain" as we could hardly hear each other for the assault of the electric buzz saw and drill. All week long, my old windows have been wrenched from their frames.)However, by yesterday afternoon, my friend was feeling a bit more positive. The downstairs bathroom and some other pesky problem areas were finally finished, and a happy conclusion to home renovation was in her sights. Last night, as they enjoyed their new woodburning stove, she and her husband thought that the smoky smell was a little too smoky. Sadly, it turned out that their bedroom was on fire.

Getting an unexpected phone call late at night, when you have already gone to bed, rarely proves pleasurable. Like a telegram, there is something about the late-night phone call that just makes the heart beat faster. Please come get us, said my friend.

What followed was a long and surreal night involving fire trucks, the Red Cross, an emergency room visit, too much whisky, broken glass and broken sleep. I couldn't have imagined it; it was one of those experiences that you assume will never happen to you or anyone you know.

Today is the one-year anniversary of my adventure in blogging, and I had planned a very different sort of post. But blogging, like life, is fluid -- and subject to all sorts of changes. In real life, unexpected things are negative perhaps more often than not. We have had a variety of hailstones -- some too private to mention -- in our life this week. Even so, it is a mental relief to share some of what goes on in my mind and life in this space.

Unlike real life, blogging brings the unexpected into my life on an almost daily basis -- and I can honestly say that it has always been a pleasure.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Jet Lag: Disease, or Disconnect?

White: Saturday in New York

Last night, at approximately 2 a.m., I awoke to a sudden and sharp state of alertness. This morning, at approximately 10 a.m., I shuddered from the waves of a deep and nauseating state of exhaustion. Diagnosis: Jet lag.

Some people travel a lot for work. I travel a lot because my life -- and loved ones -- straddle two continents. Thus, I frequently suffer from the physical and cultural effects of lurching too quickly from one state of mind and being to another.

Last night, as I was lying relentlessly awake, I remembered a line from a Laurie Colwin short story called "Passion and Affect." Jet lag is the true disease of the late twentieth century. There are the physical manifestations of the screwed-up body clock, of course, but then there is also the strange emotional disconnect brought on by traveling too quickly through time and space.

On Saturday, I was trudging through snow and eating cajun chicken wings in a sports bar inhabited by hockey-mad New Yorkers. By the next day, I was inhaling the unmistakable whiff of damp English spring and roasting chicken and the only sound was the faint chirr-churping of birds. I'm sure that I would have been happy to be home -- if only I hadn't felt quite so ill.

In the days before the miracle of airplanes, when would-be travelers made their slow and stately progression across the Atlantic by ship, there was no such disease as jet lag. I assume that the long watery passage became the link -- the substantial segue -- between two disparate modes of being. The traveler was thus prepared by the long delivery and the gradually changing sky.

Modern travel is both too quick and too slow. No matter where I go, it seems to take about 19 hours from English door to American door. The flight time is somewhat irrelevant to the transit time as a whole as delays, queues and dead bits of time are an unavoidable part of the process. For instance, the 45 minutes spent on the Toronto runway, waiting for the plane's wings to be de-iced while we choked inside in the suffocatingly hot air, seemed interminable. Skin cells die on double-time in that oxygen-deprived shuttle. But on the other hand, what is 24 hours when it can catapult you suddenly from winter to spring? Or summer, for that matter. (Most of the Canadian planes seemed to be heading south to Mexico.)

If jet lag is the disease, then water is the only cure I've found. You have to drink it, scrub up with it, and perform the kind of ceremonial cleansings made possible with a washing machine. I don't know why, but I can never successfully transition until every stitch of clothing has been washed, dried, ironed and put away. I perform these chores and wait for my emotions (always a little slow on the uptake) to catch up.

My skin is still looking a bit gray, but at least I can feast my eyes on this green deliciousness. It is/will be good to be home.

Green: Tuesday in England

Friday, 13 February 2009

February Movies: Revolutionary Road

Frank and April Wheeler, drinking again

Or, Marital Angst in Suburbia

Or, the Worst Date Movie of all time

Or, I see the depressing movies so you don't have to . . .

The other night, Sigmund and I were at a Parent/Teacher Conference and - having exhausted the topic of my daughter's progress in Greek - we moved on to an appraisal of this film. "I could have just stayed home and fought with my wife," was the verdict of the Classics teacher.

If you have been to the movies recently, you will have seen the preview of this film. You will know that there will be lots of scenes of Kate (April) and Leo (Frank) shouting at each other; all of this marital strife set against the lugubrious voice of Nina Simone singing "Wild is the Wind", although in the movie Simone's voice is replaced by a rather ominous and frequently repeated motif from Thomas Newman. I actually find the music really beautiful; if you don't, that should tell you all you need to know.

I wouldn't recommend the novel of Revolutionary Road for your summer holiday reading; I wouldn't recommend a viewing of this film if your own marriage feels shaky and life seems meaningless. However, if you are feeling fairly solid, I think it is an interesting portrait of the sort of melancholia that can only affect people who don't have to worry about real problems: war, starvation, sleeping on the streets. For at its heart, the emotional crisis that the young Wheeler couple are suffering from is nothing more than the piercing fear that they aren't really special at all. Indeed, like the suburban neighbors and co-workers that they secretly despise, they are really quite ordinary. They know it, and they want to run away from it.

When I was a child, my parents had an 8-track tape featuring a Peggy Lee song called Is That All There Is? It has to be one of the most depressing songs of all time, and I listened to it countless times. (I'm sure that partially accounts for my high tolerance for the melancholic.) I think that this dirge may have served as an inoculation, though, because I'm not really not that depressive of a person. Although I've had my midlife crisis moments, I do believe there is something meaningful to that most prosaic and yet profound dream: having a home and a family in it.

April and Frank Wheeler are young, healthy and beautiful and they have two children with the same blessings. They live in a lovely house in a nice neighborhood and Frank has a steady, albeit boring, job. At the very beginning of the movie, they get into an argument about whose life is the bigger trap: April's, with her house and children, or Frank's, with his train commute and New York City job. A person is either sympathetic to this sort of problem or thinks it is a bunch of self-indulgent twaddle. (I did wonder if some viewers would be envious of the kind of job security and Connecticut neighborhood that a fairly junior executive could buy with his 1950s dollars.)

One of the elements of the movie that you don't get in the George and Martha screaming at each other preview is the character of John Givings - the brilliant, but completely mad, son of the Wheelers' realtor. In the tradition of the Shakespearean Fool, John is a truth-teller: But does he see clearly, or is his vision warped? When he first meets the Wheelers, they have decided to up-sticks and move to Paris -- with no other concrete plan than April will get a job and Frank will find himself or express himself or similar. John applauds their suburban dream-denying goals, and in a moment of three-way solidarity, he confides almost chummily in them: Hopeless emptiness. Now you've said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness. During this conversation, the three of them are walking in the woods . . . and I would just note the fairy tale symbolism of this location. Frank and April are smugly thrilled to have the approbation of this insane person; perhaps they should have considered the source?

One of the reasons that Frank and April are not particularly likeable is that their emotions seem to be stuck somewhere in an adolescent register. When they first meet, at a boozy, vaguely Bohemian party, Frank's come-on line is of the dreamily intense variety: I want to feel things. Really feel them. At this moment, April invests all of her hopes and aspirations in this rather shaky foundation. Frank and April are both convinced that he (and by extension, she) are meant to be "wonderful in this world," but they never figure out the how or what. As Roger Ebert points out, they have "yearnings," but actually lack fantasies, never mind the talents to turn fantasies into reality. Although this is probably a massive overstatement, there is something Lady Macbeth-ish about April Wheeler. You get the feeling that Frank would be willing to exist more or less peacefully with his mediocrity -- occasionally relieving the tedium with an office fling or by drinking too much -- but April tries to push him outside of his comfort zone. She's a former, would-be actress -- and the only outlet for her dramatic tendencies is her life.

I think that my tone is getting a bit flippant here; rest assured, the film takes the Wheelers very seriously indeed. And truly, feeling that your life is empty and hopeless is no laughing matter. We have some close friends -- three kids, large house, private school fees -- who are undergoing a similar marital crisis, and those feelings bring down a world of pain. When the wife told me that she felt that life was meaningless, and that she just wanted to feel passion again, I thought Uh-Oh.

There is something in most (all?) human beings that cannot stand the monotony of a comfortable life. We cannot resist lighting matches, and then we are surprised, frightened and inexplicably hurt when the fire burns us.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Light and Dark

On a bitterly cold day in January, I was hurriedly cutting through the Tavistock Square Garden when I found myself face to bowed head with this arresting statue. Ghandhi, pared down to absolute simplicity: the distinctive bald head, the sinewy body, the simple dhoti. Gandhi, the great 20th century leader: associated with peace, non-violence and the independence of India.

Perhaps because of the cold, the park was completely empty. For several minutes, as I stood before this statue, there was an utter quiet -- all of London's millions muted by space and trees and a bulwark of enduring Victorian brick. The serenity of the scene was reinforced by the muted winter palette: iron gray, soft pale green, the pearly white of frost and breathy vapor.

Tavistock Square Garden is known as "the peace park," and Gandhi's statue is not the only tribute (or reparation made) to those who have tried to alleviate human suffering in this violent world. On the day that I was there, it was difficult to imagine it being anything other than what it was: quiet, still, contemplative. And yet: ironically, or perhaps intentionally, a bus was blown up just outside the park on July 7, 2005 and 13 lives were lost. Although I felt a deep peace emanating from that place, the world is constantly stirred up with anger, fear and all of the dire competitive aspects of staking a place and carving out the spoils.

Is peace the starting point, or only what is hard-earned after struggle?

Although Gandhi is only briefly alluded to in Slumdog Millionaire -- the film that swept the BAFTA Awards on Sunday night, and that I saw recently -- I keep thinking of him as I attempt to process the visceral experience of being immersed in the intense world of Mumbai. India: a rich stew of color, sound, smells and living things everywhere. Are there any quiet, muted corners in that great teeming city?

In England, one can absorb a sense of peace from the external landscape; but in India, I suspect that spiritual practices are so ancient and advanced precisely because they have to be enacted from an internal landscape.

The Slumdog Millionaire movie has been inaccurately billed as "feel good" by some media soundbites -- and I know of one person who had to leave the theater, quite unprepared for the assault on the senses and the emotional battering that the film delivers. Although the credits of the movie are certainly "feel good," it is a grueling journey to get there. I felt quite wrung out.

There is a happy ending of sorts, but as in the darkest fairy tales, it has to be earned through many trials. For Westerners, so intent on protecting on children from any small harm, it is shocking to witness what the central characters - who are young children, orphaned before the viewer's eyes - have to endure. Although the children show great resilience, humor, playfulness and loyalty, they are all scarred in various ways. Of course.

This morning, I was reading an article about an up-and-coming political leader in the United States and a phrase that he used - "prisoner of hope" - stuck in my mind. That phrase is further defined as "the existential armour to hold off despair and doubt." I think that Gandhi must have cloaked himself in a similar sort of armour. How else could he have believed that non-violence could liberate so many people? Although he knew that violence and hate would win many skirmishes, he had a deep belief that non-violence and love would eventually overcome.

There has been some criticism that Slumdog Millionaire portrays India in an overly negative light. Braja, who writes Lost and Found in India, addresses this notion in a post called "The truth about India." If the film is understood as a fairy tale or modern parable, I think that it makes sense to reveal the world as a dark place. I don't know if darkness is the yin or the yang, but it is the counterpart to light -- and those forces are everywhere, perhaps just a bit more obvious in a place like Mumbai.

Despite everything he experiences -- and these experiences are revealed ingeniously through the plotting of the film -- Jamal, the slumdog of the title, has a deep belief in love. That belief sustains him and gives his life focus. Whether you think of it as a guiding principle, or a "prison of hope," it keeps his spirit intact. He does overcome, in the Martin Luther King sense, although that is more of a process than an ending.

Life (as ever?) seems like a toxic brew these days. It always seems that we are slipping down, that the situation is worsening, that we are on the edge of disaster. (Same as it ever was, history might tell us.) The fiery landscape of Australia is just as present as the frozen playground of England.

Even so, it seems worthwhile to fix one's mind on peace, love and hope. It isn't an easy thing to watch - certainly not happiness at a bargain price -- but I would argue that Slumdog Millionaire is worth the effort.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Some wintery whimsy

The world is white

The day had a dream-like quality to it.

A week of snow has interrupted all of our usual rhythms and routines, and food and play have been uppermost in our minds. I keep trudging down to the little shop to buy more milk, because hot chocolate and rice pudding require so much of what is usually just dribbled out for cups of tea. (Building igloos and snowmen is hungry work.) Tonight we will have an apple and walnut crumble, and thus we must have custard. This afternoon, the shop was packed with people who would usually be at work or school. Hats obscured faces and heavy jackets steamed as the snow melted in the sudden warmth. Everyone bundled up -- all of us preparing for a siege, apparently. It doesn't take much to bring out the hoarding instinct.

Sigmund says that in Surrey, only an hour's drive away, the snow has turned to rain. It is hard to believe that; hard to believe that it is actually warm in other places. The snow has obscured every other reality.

I have been lost in a fictional world, too. Last night I began Elizabeth's A Fortunate Child, and utterly absorbed, I read late into the night. Much of the story takes place in World War II, and it follows two women -- one English and one German, one waiting for the war to end and one displaced by it. Most of the story is told in first-person, and the voices seem so authentic and true -- they get right into your head. Sigmund was up in London for the evening, and I felt obliged to stay conscious in order to will him home safely. He did eventually arrive, but by that time it was 2 am and I had drifted off . . . dreaming of Gisella's hard scramble to stay alive in the harsh German winter of 1945. I had just fallen into a deep sleep when he woke me up again, talking of strange things: visiting Churchill's Cabinet War Rooms, down in the basement of the Foreign Office. It was rather surreal, actually. Did I dream this conversation, or did my involvement with a story swamp the present-tense of my life?

The mundane world and a more fantastic version - at times, the line between them is so wispy-thin.

Beyond the left border of our house, and just up the hill a bit, is a small farm. From our garden, we can just make out the large Georgian brick house, with its two substantial chimneys, and the collection of barns and outbuildings. I have been to this farm, and like most others it is slightly shabby, with hay on the ground and odd abandoned tools of the trade and the pervasive smell of animals. Yet from a distance, and shrouded in snow, it looks like a fairy-tale farm . . . from a child's picture book or an oil painting. I know it is fanciful of me, but in the glow of winter's pale setting sun, it seems less real to me than the book that I have just devoured.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

"M" is for:

I am MAD for words.
(Maybe that's true of most bloggers.)

When Elizabeth of About New York suggested an alphabet game, I signed right up.
M said the word oracle.

M is for Mittens

Little daughter showing off her raggedy red mittens. Skating in London just before Christmas. Some ice is nice.

M is for Marmalade

The Seville orange season is fleeting.

I meant to make marmalade, but my method wasn't mathematical enough. The mixture wouldn't set; my, what a mess!

M is for Mother and child
M is for "(The) Manicure"
M is for Mary Cassatt

Sigmund bought me this Cassatt etching when I was pregnant with little daughter. The child featured in the picture looks very like oldest daughter did at that stage.

M is for Men

Two of my favorite men: my father and my brother.
I snapped them on the beach in the Bahamas.
The similarity of their stance amuses me.

M is for Minstrel

Our mischievous cat. Supposedly masculine, but he acts like a princess. Not mad-keen on cold weather . . .

M is not up to much when it comes to garden words. I could only think of marigolds and mallow - and neither is in bloom at the moment, nor in our garden at all, come to think of it.

M is marvellous for negative, unpleasant words. There seem to be a million of them. Perhaps that is because "mal" means "bad" in French, derived from the Latin "malus."

morbid, miserable, morose, monstrous, manacle, mendacity, melancholy, marauder, macabre, malfeasance, maladroit, massacre, maniacal, malformed, maggot, manipulative, menace, mediocre, malodorous, malicious, malformity, malevolent, mawkish, meager, moribund, mean and the absolute worst: malignant

To counteract these words, we have magic, miracles, merriment, magnanimity and May.

Some M words are context-dependent. For instance: meander, mesmerize, masterful, malleable, medicine and marriage.

M words can be silly, too. I like mollycoddle, malarkey, mambo, moola and mammal.

If you want to play the alphabet game, just let me know.

Elizabeth has A.

Willow has E.

Bon Bon has Y.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Book Review Club (February)

Please visit Barrie Summy
for a full listing of other book reviews.

Somewhere Towards the End
by Diana Athill

Ivana Kobilca, Coffee drinker, 1888

All through my sixties I felt I was still within hailing distance of middle age, not safe on its shores, perhaps, but navigating its coastal waters. Being 'over seventy' is being old: suddenly I was aground on that fact and saw that the time had come to size it up. (Athill, p. 14)

Diana Athill's recent autobiography is neither guidebook or How-To book, but it does provide detailed insight into one woman's thoughts about growing older and dying.

At what age do most people become concerned (or obsessed, even) with this so-often suppressed subject? Sure, there are many articles about plastic surgery and the like, but how often do we really stare the fact of our physical decline in the face?

For me, it was the approach of 40. Definitely.

(Is this an early, late or fairly average age to start fretting about getting older? I wonder about these things and it slightly bothers me . . . just like it bothers me that I cannot help but look at other women near my age and wonder how old they are. Of course, it's not the speculation that matters; it's the implication of the comparison that is bothersome. Do I look older or younger than I am? Who will arbitrate?)

When I became 40, I felt almost exactly like Athill felt at 70: I was middle-aged now, and it was time to take stock. There is the surprise that the first 40 years have gone so quickly, particularly since I still feel the same as ever, and then there is the disturbing idea that one is half-way through life already . . . or maybe even more. When John Updike recently died, my first thought was, "Oh no, he was too young to die." (76 seems to be getting younger all the time.)

When I turned 40, one friend had died of cancer that year and another was seriously ill with it. Many of my friends had parents who were ill, or dying, or dead. It is an inescapable fact that the older one gets, the more one's life - just as a matter of proportion - will be taken up by paying the piper. A lot fewer babies, a lot more funerals. We've danced all night, and now we have sore, aching feet. (Athill complains about the deterioration of her feet.)

Athill speaks candidly on a number of discomfiting, if not downright taboo, subjects: sex, atheism, dead bodies, the burdensome chore of care-giving, worn-out body parts. The startling thing, I think, is that she deals with all of these subjects in such a no-nonsense way. Her tone is intelligent and sensible, and even when she reveals information of a most personal nature, she manages to sound rather dry and matter-of-fact about the subject. One realizes that the "taboo" bit, then, is largely down to her age. Athill was 89 as she wrote this book. Not only does her age give her a different perspective, but it is inescapably a perspective more personal than theoretical.

Diana Athill was born in 1917, and thus her life has spanned most of the last century -- not to mention a decent glimpse into the current one. She is particular sort of English person - a recognizable "type," which still exists but is probably not made anymore. Athill describes her character as a mixture of bone-deep security -- derived from growing up with the knowledge that one was English and upper middle-class and therefore one of the "best kind of people" -- mingled with an almost total lack of self-absorption or regard. She describes this as a Do Not Think Yourself Important teaching that was drummed into pretty much everyone of her generation. This healthy ego, combined with a lack of modern "ego" (in the sense of needing to sell oneself), enables Athill to be remarkably frank on the subjects of money, success and the meaning of life. I found her voice completely compelling -- and often thought-provoking.

Athill doesn't try to give advice or "tips" on making the most of old age, but she does describe the things that have helped her or people she knows. There is one anecdote, in particular, which stayed with me. When speaking of a painter, who had endured many difficulties but still retained an interest in life, Athill made this observation:

She was an object lesson on the essential luck,

whatever hardships may come their way,

of those able to make things.

I didn't find this a depressing read, not at all; in fact, it was rather bracing. I did think, though, that I better get cracking!

Monday, 2 February 2009

Annual Bloggers (Silent) Poetry Reading

An early clump of daffodils
caught by the surprise snow! (Feb. 2, 2009)

Poem for the Day

As children we were convinced
by a picture-book ideal
and a prescribed order to things
that all Christmases should be white
and that icicles should hang
from frosted roofs and frozen wires
Even though prairie grass was yellow straw
and purple pansies bloomed in baskets
and shorts were worn throughout the year.

On this small island grass stays green
because rain is the one reliable thing
and May might be as cold and wet as March
Only the predictable procession of flowers
springing from earth-buried bulbs
signals the unfolding of the seasons
But February is a chink in the wall
of a hundred days of darkness
and shadows are not as important as light.

No matter what the groundhog says
Winter will continue
its advance and retreats
not by any measured pace
but as if conducted by a general
hampered by conflicting orders
and his own uncertain temperament
Give the daffodils their marching orders.
Send enough snow to cancel school.

Even at my fairly advanced age, I'm still childishly delighted by snow!

I've never really had enough of it to become inured to its charms. Although winter is supposed to be snowy, few of my winters have been graced by this magical white stuff.

Because anything more than a dusting of snow brings temperate climates to a standstill, we huddled by the radio this morning to get the vital news: Would my children be released from the obligation of attending school? The happy answer was yes . . . and hot chocolate, pancakes and a long walk in the snow followed.

(Why is it that all children know to make snow angels, and snow balls, and sledge down hills?)

While I was lying in bed, wondering whether I should get up or not, I started sketching out this poem in my mind. I haven't written a poem in many years, and I'm not even sure if this qualifies, but I was inspired by the Fourth Annual Bloggers Poetry Reading.

Find other participants here: