Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Fragments of an idea

Sometimes you know what you have to do. I'm not sure what speaks to you. A series of signals become clear and fit together in such an elaborate and harmonious way that it seems almost churlish not to follow the trail of breadcrumbs.

A connection with place has always been important to me. My obsessive love of maps, my desire to walk every inch of a place before I can fully call it mine, observing the lacy patterns of footpaths connecting with each other. I immerse myself in the woods. Immerse yourself, I say. This is what soothes. Today it rains. And so the already glowingly verdant foliage is luminous. Fronds of beech and evolving oak leaves in that just born stage, acid green, feathery, bowing under the weight of the water. You bathe in it, this stuff. The sounds of the birds, the wind through the papery leaves, the patter of rain, it all washes over you, allows you to feel renewal.  

You have to be patient. You have to believe that things will happen for you, in a way that is kind to you. You have to know that the Universe is there to help you, to cleanse you, to put you on the path you're supposed to be on. You have to accept that when you find yourself in Wing, or Mentmore, or Soulbury, or in a small village just below the ridge of the Beacon, surrounded by black-faced two day old lambs, that you're supposed to be there. As odd and strange and Merlin-like as it sounds, you wait for the call. Everything feels wrong and then, one day, in magnificent confluence of events, it's right and it's where you're meant to be.

When I'm nervous, I clean. I make myself busy with sweeping floors and doing laundry and hanging a load of navy blue tshirts and black underpants on our clothes line, where they are now soaked. I think of cleaning as penance, as the waiting time, for the idea to come. And then it does, and then you know what you have to do.

Today I walked into a house that I can't buy in a village I didn't know existed, other than as a child, when I remembered the pub there had a great pudding trolley. (Do you remember the bliss of the pudding trolley, piled high with trifles and jellies and Black Forest Gateau, and iced buns, and chocolate eclairs and pink meringues?) And as my mother and I walked in we were greeted with pale grey wallpaper decorated in hand-stamped bumble bees. I have the same paper on my laptop as background. I believe it's made by Timorous Beasties. And a claw-footed tub in a bathroom with painted wooden floors and palest lilac walls. And a picture window, the type you'd want to put a plush bench in, and masses of brightly colored cushions. And, best of all, a summer house, a writing hut, lined with shelves. "Just ready for someone to write a bestseller," said the charismatically challenged yet kind estate agent (realtor). "In the winter, when the trees lose their leaves," she said, "you can see through to the big house; this used to be where the butler lived." The 'big house' is a local stately home, most famously used as the setting for Roxy Music's Avalon music video, and Kubrick's much-debated "Eyes Wide Shut." It's a lovely house in a beautiful village designed by Hannah de Rothschild's architect. And I know I'm only there because I veered off course yesterday while picking up some horse supplies in Leighton Buzzard.

But on the green, there are two beautiful little cottages, with ornamental box hedges, purple wisteria, big, proper windows, elegant doors. There is a little red post box outside one of them, a green and a children's play area next door, and across the road a huge, wide, picture book view of the Vale of Aylesbury, spread out on this green and misty morning like a mythical land, all low clouds and hedgerows.

You can't go back to the place you grew up. Or you can, but you won't find it. it won't be the same as you remember. But there are other strands and fragments beginning to come together. As a child you remember roads or paths, places, special trees but you don't have a map in your head of how they all connect. I have been down this road, for example, only as far as this farm, I have no idea where it goes to past the farm. The joy of coming back home as an adult is the ability to put the pieces together, build the puzzle out of the fragments. The feeling of being in the trees, smelling the dirt, the sound of a blackbird becomes more specific, tied to something particular. The nostalgia is making room for something more tangible, more solid, more sustainable. That's the fun. 


Friday, April 28, 2017

blowing the mind

Whenever I hear of people who have died too young (the great Jonathan Demme, 73) it brings me back to my own mortality, to our mortality and the thing that we always, somehow, forget: that we are here on this planet for a finite time, and then we turn to dust. I'm sure we're programmed to believe that this isn't the case for if we believed, every day, that it could be our last, our behaviour would be wildly different. At a friend's birthday lunch on Sunday, in the wilds of the Cotswolds, I was speaking to a very jolly and fit man who had been in hospital for two months in a coma, with sepsis. He was sent from the local hospital to a London teaching hospital, and when he recovered -- and the recovery, he told me, was indeed miraculous -- many doctors from all over the country gathered at his bedside to marvel. Not the best at cocktail party small talk, I ventured "you must feel very different about your life now." "Don't waste a moment" he replied, and winked at me, because we both knew we were spouting cliches. But underneath, that is exactly what he meant, and exactly what I took from it.

What I should like to do before I die is to find way to move seamlessly from my earthly preoccupation with the minutiae: the anxiety, the domestic chores, money woes, petty squabbles, and rise up to a place where you see everything in perspective; that place where it suddenly becomes clear why you are here, what is important, and what you need to do. I reach this place of elevated conscience infrequently, but I'm here to say that sweating on the yoga mat, doing the cat/cow while listening to soothing mantras is one method. My lovely teacher and guru (though she would not want to be called that, for her it's about the practice) Tej, who runs Nine Treasures (Kundalini) Yoga in LA has one mission in life and that is to lift people up to be the leaders, to be the enlightened ones. "If you can't see God in everything, you can't see God at all" is a favorite saying of Yogi Bhajan.

Here is my currently favorite mantra. It is the mantra for clearing the subconscious, Gobinday Mukunday. Put it on in your house or car and just let it play:

Similarly, I find myself in tears whenever I step inside a church. Probably, in my case, this comes from nostalgia, from having spent a lot of time inside churches as a child. There is something very nice about a quiet, sacred space, where all one is required to do is to sit and think or pray. The Church of St Martin in the Fields yesterday was filled with middle-aged, middle class white women, the kind you only find in England, who were sipping coffees and doing brass rubbings. I wanted to take pictures of them but thought better of it. As I walked up the glass staircase from the crypt to the street, there they were, heads bowed, rubbing away with their crayons. Awfully, awfully sweet (and I say that without judgement).

Before Easter, on Good Friday, Charlie and I went to St. Albans Cathedral to look around. Neither of us are particularly formal about our faith, both of us brought up CofE, both of us nostalgic for it, both of us particularly fond of a nice bit of Evensong (who isn't? That beautiful choral music!) but neither of us that interested. But, oh my goodness! What an amazing experience to spend a few minutes inside one of the most beautiful cathedrals (and with the longest nave) in the country when the most beautiful liturgy, the saddest one in the Christian faith, is being sung. I found myself staring up at those beautiful ceilings with the tears running down my face.

And then there is the other cathedral. This one:

This is where you must go. This is where you discover the great release of the knowledge that you are merely the tiniest part of the whole, that you are just a fragment and there is an enormous, infinite, intricate, beautiful fabric that makes up the universe, of which you are an intrinsic, albeit miniscule part. I think that realization is the truly mind-blowing one.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Tales from a Sloping Bed

There are three dogs in our house tonight, all of them thrust hunkamunka into the little bedroom with the wonky floors. Only after spending the night on London and sleeping like a lamb all night long do I fully understand quite how disruptive it is to slip diagonally from top right to bottom during the sleep cycle. I insist on sleeping the windows cracked open, and the curtains drawn, to hear the birds and witness the sunrise, but this too may have just been a romantic affect. The dogs are still wary of each other. Two on my side, the other, a small and cautious little rescue terrier who is recovering from a large operation, on his. Mine follow me down to the loo in the middle of the night and wait by my side as I fill a glass of water; she barks gently as we come up the rickety stairs. I suspect it will take them a couple of days to get used to each other. I hope she will come to enjoy her sojourn in the country. I hate to say this, but on nights like this I miss Shoreditch with its hermetically sealed windows, its heavy winter weight duvet, the solid, tall bed. 

We have just said goodbye to my daughter who has been here for five days, with her lovely young man on his first visit to the UK. London became a tourist destination and with sturdy shoes and maps and bottles of water we cross-crossed the city, from the Tate Modern to St Paul's to Borough Market, from Spittlefields to Buckingham Palace to Richmond Hill. London is the place you fall in love with in the morning when it is still cold but the sun is new and people are scurrying to work filled with hope. I rather enjoyed seeing the same young man in his suit, with his coffee, in Hoxton Square each morning before work, listening to music and smiling at my dogs. I admire people who have the patience and the forethought to wait for a few minutes; it's a way of capturing time, holding it in a little glass bottle, actually experiencing the world going by instead of rushing with it. How elusive is time, how much do I wish I could slow it? My daughter is twenty two years old and she sat on my knee on the underground and it was if she were four again. What do we do with our days? What do we have to show for all the hours we have been here? How do we elicit meaning from each precious moment? Or don't we? Is that the point? That all of it feels meaningful only in retrospect?

Tomorrow night I intend to sleep on the flat earth under the stars. And dream. 



Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Milvus milvus

Witness everything. Say yes to everything. Live fully. 

I just took a bad picture of the pink moon just because it was shining in fiercely through the office window and it's nearly 5 and the birds haven't started yet. Nightingales too now, I am reliably informed by the village email chain. When I say office, it's the tiny bedroom next to my bedroom with the higgledy piggledy floors and the cupboard suitable for a hobbit. There are bookshelves full of my favorite cookery books, poetry books and a shelf of postcards collected from museums. In the day time I can see the fields and the translucent green of young beech leaves. 

He sleeps with his earbuds in and listens either to the cricket or the world service. It soothes him. I listen to the dogs snoring and wait for the birds. 

My brother who is so unvain that he doesn't alter the screen of the phone to catch his best angle on FaceTime calls, and who is in Scotland where it is lighter later and I can see the blue of dusk through his window as he speaks to me, says you should say yes to everything, that it will provide the best adventures. I agree. Although I am vain. And know my best angle. 

We marveled at the red kites (milvus milvus) yesterday, always circling overhead. Their wingspan stretches out impossibly far (70 inches) and like a cartoon their fingertips tip upwards, as if dancing a tarantella. Between 1989 and 1993 about 90 birds from Sweden and Wales were released in the Chilterns and now we see them everywhere. But they do not feel commonplace. 

The other very common sighting is the young cock pheasant. Not the most intelligent of birds. As far as I can see they hang out on the verge on the side of the roads and dash out into the middle of it like scared raptors the minute they see a car. 

England did its best imitation of California yesterday. We wondered around the pine forest in Wendover at the highest point of the Chilterns between families picnicking with small children in bicycles. (Thistle was *very* interested in other people's picnics.)



Sunday, April 09, 2017

Wood pigeons

5.23am and birds are singing, led of course by the blackbird. Why is it so important to witness beginnings and endings? My whole body clock is attuned to this. Up at 5 with the birds, lying in my bed, a cool breeze coming in from the window and the whole of the dawn in its glory. Last night at dusk we walked, sky shot pink and melon, the full moon behind us, a light wind in the beech trees, the rustling of the new green leaves, in awe. Just in awe. All of it washing over me, the full extent of its beauty, its intricate, complicated, magical simplicity. After thirty years away, thirty years of dawns and dusks, I have come to realize that I don't want to miss a thing. Childhood and longing and feeling safe and being part of the enormous, complex machine, love and a sense of being an infinitesimally tiny thread in a glorious golden fabric, woven with such care and precision. Everything is what is meant to be. Everything right now is as it should be. Never before have I felt so incredibly humbled by the natural world. It is what is important. Everything else is just distraction. It is a giant, soft bed where we may lay our heads when we are weary, a salve, a cure, but it fits us perfectly. We fit right in if we choose it. 

Of course I can't help but speak of my marveling. The English are circumspect. "The weather won't last" they say in unison. "Just you wait."  Californians wouldn't say this. It's all a bit more "be here now" over there. They are in the moment, loving the sun, not thinking about tomorrow. The English don't like too much of a good thing. It makes them itchy. Keeps them from being disappointed. 

Wood pigeons - if I may - add another layer to the chorus. A reminder perhaps of childhood when we all knew the song. 


Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Serious moonlight

Stumbled over dampened grass to the cricket pitch on the green at about 10.30pm to walk the dogs before bed. Half moon, some clouds, and stars, always stars. I understood the appeal of white gardens (Sissinghurst) and white dogs (Bean) because they illuminate. I still stop and look for the Big Dipper. I still marvel with gratitude. Not a soul out. Two cars ambled by. The cottage was lit up by the lamp on my side of the bed. My darling was waiting for me. 


Thursday, March 30, 2017


Our canoe idles in the idling current
Of the tree and vine and rush enclosed
Backwater of a torpid midwestern stream;
Revolves slowly, and lodges in the glutted
Waterlilies. We are tired of paddling.
All afternoon we have climbed the weak current,
Up dim meanders, through woods and pastures,
Past muddy fords where the strong smell of cattle
Lay thick across the water; singing the songs
Of perfect, habitual motion; ski songs,

Nightherding songs, songs of the capstan walk,
The levee, and the roll of the voyageurs.
Tired of motion, of the rhythms of motion,
Tired of the sweet play of our interwoven strength,
We lie in each other's arms and let the palps
Of waterlily leaf and petal hold back
All motion in the heat thickened, drowsing air.
Sing to me softly, Westron Wynde, Ah the Syghes,
Mon coeur se recommend à vous, Phoebi Claro;
Sing the wandering erotic melodies
Of men and women gone seven hundred years,
Softly, your mouth close to my cheek.
Let our thighs lie entangled on the cushions,
Let your breasts in their thin cover
Hang pendant against my naked arms and throat;
Let your odorous hair fall across our eyes;
Kiss me with those subtle, melodic lips.
As I undress you, your pupils are black, wet,
Immense, and your skin ivory and humid.
Move softly, move hardly at all, part your thighs,
Take me slowly while our gnawing lips
Fumble against the humming blood in our throats.
Move softly, do not move at all, but hold me,
Deep, still, deep within you, while time slides away,
As the river slides beyond this lily bed,
And the thieving moments fuse and disappear
In our mortal, timeless flesh.

-- Kenneth Rexroth