Failing and Flying
when i sing she doesn't care; when i whistle she looks at me expectantly
To say that this week has been a blur is an understatement. Due to my malady, I've been sucked into Emily in Paris, at my mother's and everyone else's recommendation, and have gone so far down the rabbit hole that I've started to look up Chateaux in Champagne, and I'm thiiis close to ordering these frames that Camille wore in an episode of Season Three, featuring Sofia the confessional artist from Greece. I want most of Sylvie's wardrobe and half of Camille's and I'm even considering moving my office to Paris. Oy.
I felt odd on Tuesday, odd enough to whine about it to Charlie, odd enough to say "I don't want to go to New York tomorrow," but somehow managed to get my packing done to the point of not fearing death the way I usually do pre-trip, with shirts and sweaters and trousers and cute shoes in neat piles (outfit coordination worthy of Emily) on the bench in the bedroom, ready to go. With a cute navy dress, some pearls, thick tights and a big furry scarf we headed up the M4 London-bound for a friend's birthday screening, and C, who is incredibly amenable, listened to Thomas Keating with me, because he knows I love him, and because it was miraculously tuned in to this podcast on my phone. The essence of what we'd been listening to is this "Let Go & Let God (Act)" which is, I suppose, the idea that if you clear your mind enough and create some quiet space, and trust, then God will help you out. OR Show up and the Universe will meet you half way. It's part of the twelve step too. It was a beautiful drive - bright, cold sunlight and pink and pale blue skies. But I still didn't feel like myself. At all. Even though I'd be looking forward to going to New York for weeks, to see my client's new film, get a breath of the city, and of course my lovely friend Jack who runs his antique/design business out of Sag Harbor.
Then a ping from a client who was also supposed to be travelling to NYC to see the same film "Can you give me a quick ring?" And thus, the dominoes started to smack the table in a satisfying procession; his girlfriend had Covid close to him and wasn't sure he could fly as it was probably a matter of time, so what did I think? We could go but it was risky because he didn't want to be down for the count in New York for two weeks, and then the possibility of giving it to everyone else, but then when could we make the trip and was it worth my doing it without him? etcetera etcetera. Trip gets cancelled quickly. Somehow, my tickets are refunded and my hotel cancelled under the wire. Jack texts to say he can't in fact have dinner because he has to drive to Maine for a client. So in one half hour everything is cancelled and tied up in pretty bows. No New York trip. No disappointed client (more time to focus on the edit), no disappointed friend, and no travelling with a stuffy nose (me).
By Wednesday morning I was feeling distinctly flu-ish but generally bright and even managed a zoom with a client. On a whim, I PCR tested myself and wham, two thick red lines. C banished me to bed in a thick cashmere cardigan and beanie, with Christmas socks, a small schnarfing Frenchie, and steaming cups of tea, and I've been alternately dozing and watching Emily ever since, completely in another world. C brings me supper and sits on the other side of the room in a mask. He brings me grapes and crudités and easy peelers and Dairy Milk with hot cross buns, and he comes in and checks on me while I am sleeping ("I can hear you breathing" I say). I am thoroughly spoiled. Thick slices of fresh sourdough from the local pub, slathered in Lurpak and chocolate caramel wafer biscuits for tea. I managed a shower today, and I walked to the garden gate and back to get some air, because you feel quite strange after almost three days in bed. I've also flung open the bathroom window to let the oxygen circulate.
The pink geraniums who felt neglected on the kitchen sink counter have been in front of the bedroom window for a couple of weeks and are blooming, an astoundingly jolly fuchsia. I've been staring at them intently, and their petit Amazon arrangement to the right of them, and beyond that, the birds nibbling the fatballs in the cherry tree, endlessly, so that we're referring to it as the Garden of Tits. Thousands of tits. Tits are arriving from all over the world to be in our garden, it appears. The word is out. Birds are flying in with their suitcases, whole tit families.
I'm in a fog. A complete odd and blurry state, senses blunted (my taste is not entirely gone, but enough to not notice the flavours or whether there is dressing on the salad), occasional bouts of ocular migraine (kaleidoscopic vision which mildly absorbing if it weren't so annoying), brain thick and stodgy. But I have given in to it. God, I'm spoiled and lucky to be looked after so well. I wonder if this is a cleansing of sorts; a reset? Is it a kind of clearing out to make room for other things? Or perhaps that what we should use if for. A reminder of clarity, of the need for making space for clarity. Does that make any sense? Or is it the Covid talking?
I've been thinking a lot about not reacting. I've been thinking a lot about accepting bad news and weird turns of events and seeking equanimity; by not reacting, the event itself becomes minimized, as alarming as it may be when first encountered. No matter what happens, everything is there as some kind of lesson, some kind of learning moment (as they like to say in elementary schools in Los Angeles). To leap from the overwhelming sense that one is exactly where one is meant to be, and so finely tuned and aligned with the world to be on the precipice of manifestation (this sounds so woo woo but I don't know another term for this - it's the feeling of being so at one with the universe that things aren't surprising when they're lovely or perfect or beautiful or joyful; a similar thing happens on a horse, when you and the horse are so in sync, when the horse is so on the end of your hand that the mouth of the horse and your hand are in complete harmony, so that it doesn't matter what you ask for, it will happen. When you are in this state of balance and mind-melding it doesn't matter what is asked of you because it will happen) to the dissonant feeling that things are creaky and weird and misunderstood and not in any way in sync, is very odd. Two things happened simultaneously: Oscar nominations with an overwhelming show of love for a client's German film and on the very same day (and not, I'm aware, by mistake) another client deciding that our relationship is over ("I respect you so much...it's not personal...I am looking at everything from a different perspective.." etc). A perfectly lovely Dear John letter which makes perfect sense and should not feel personal, and yet it does, and it colors everything, makes one doubt everything. It's my monkey brain I say to myself. This is just chatter. Breathe. I one hundred percent know that in this case I did everything I could and more and that I tried to remain true to my values and what I believe to be right and still hold a place for the client's desires, even if I didn't believe them to be clearly thought out, or for his own good in the world. But here's the thing: I am not his mother. I am not hired to be his mother or his moral compass. How strange it is though how the universe lists from side to side in that way from one extreme to another.
I was bruised, it's true. Embarrassed even. I worked very hard and I know I gave it my best. But now, after my 25th night of Dry January, after an evening of reading and contemplation, after a cold ride on a fresh horse this morning, through the woods, watching the jackdaws and the magpies, and breathing, just breathing in and out (I count one in/one out and try to make it to ten without my mind wondering. Try it. It's so hard!) I feel like it's right. I am okay with it. It was jagged and irksome and difficult and I'm not here on this planet to bend myself into a pretzel for someone else especially if they don't notice the effort...what is that? Instead, I tried to make myself one with my horse. I sat on her cold back and paid attention to the way she fidgeted at the beginning, on the lookout for tigers and bears and scary things. I made her walk past Jane's pigs with her neck bent right, like a shoulder fore, so that they wouldn't freak her out and make her snort. I made her trot more than she wanted to, pushing her into my hand. And finally when we walked, I put my bum properly down in the middle of the saddle so that she could feel I was resting and centered, and I felt the way her body was warming against my lower leg. We continued like that, stepping over the icy bits, swinging along, her tail out just slightly as it is when she's happy, ears pressing forward, alert. If my hands move in exact sync with her body, and I breathe like she is breathing, and I shift my weigh just a little deeper into the center of my pelvis, then perhaps she will think we are one, perhaps I will think we are one, not two, just one ball of breathing, walking energy. I was matching her. It was our special kind of equine kenosis. It calmed her and it calmed her.
In my job, I know how to get things. I know how to think about a goal and focus every effort into attaining that goal. I know how to not give up. I know how to push beyond obstacles. I know how to be not so polite. I know how to make things happen. I didn't realize I had this quality until my friend Marta told me that I have a can do spirit. Ha ha. I'll take it. This doesn't always apply to things outside of work however. It's so much easier to advise other people or make things happen for other people, or to see other people's problems so much clearer than one's own. Do you know what I mean? Everyone's else's trajectories seem so illuminated somehow, like the lights on the floor of the plane in case of emergency. I wish I knew how to do this for myself.
So, not reacting.
I believe that we're trained to process minor trauma by reacting to it, that is, to tell our friends, to turn it into a drama, to talk about what a horrible person the other is, to demonize and catastrophize. At least, this is what I have learned. But in fact, the alternative, which is to notice it, and to catch oneself before we've made it bigger than what it is. For example, it's very possible that nothing is ever about you. And yet, this is what we tend to do, we understand things as happening to us, when instead - and this is supremely hard to do, but it's worth the effort - we could imagine that actually everyone is so self-involved and carrying their own set of worries and desires and fragility that it's not EVER about us/you. Isn't it better then to think about things happening for you? Here's a simple example: You are in a rush and you are at a red light that seems incessant. You have two choices. You can yell and scream, and curse at the cars in front of you. Or you can breathe in and out slowly and use it as an opportunity for a mini meditation.
An apache helicopter just flew over my garden. And the sky is going very dark. I suspect rain.
One option leaves you with palpable anxious, frustrated energy in the middle of your chest. The other allows you to bring new loving energy into your lungs and allows you to pause for long enough to see that it just doesn't matter. There is an idea that the space between the in and out breath is in fact an opportunity to glimpse heaven. (Heady stuff when stuck at a red light, no?)
If you look up equanimity it will say "it is the steady conscious realization of reality's transience. It is the ground for wisdom and freedom and the protector of compassion and love."
I suppose the other thing to look at here is the idea that one is in control of one's destiny. I'm not sure I am. And yet I don't advocate standing in the middle of a field and flailing. Our is a 50/50 relationship with the universe. If you show up and do your part, the universe will meet you half way. That has become clear to me. Maybe not when I was young, but now this is increasingly apparent, and there is something rather beautiful about it. You know, like the symmetry of a Wes Anderson movie. (OhMyGoodness, this poem so sums this up!)
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January really does suck, doesn't it. If you're not enjoying it, do take a look at the January Jeliciousness section of this blog. It was done one January when I was a bit miserable and so were my friends, and in an effort to cheer us all up, I thought "food"! And so I went to my favorite foodie people and asked them to share their very favorite recipes. I just dipped into them again and they're wonderful. Try Reza's chestnut and lentil soup or Coral's shortcut cassoulet or Suzi's Lebanese Messy Malfouf.
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(This is of course assuming that people are reading this, which I don't think they are. But just as a reminder that this is not edited, just spewed out there, so my apologies ahead of time. Thank you and take care.)
I'm back on here and it feels like the old days, back in 2004 when I started the blog, and no-one knew about it, so I had the freedom to write what I liked, in a free-flow spewing of words on the page, with no editing and no regrets. I seem to have that freedom now as no-one is aware of the blog anymore. For that I am grateful. I can slowly come back to writing without fear of mockery or derision (ha ha, people are too kind for that).
We caught the last day of the Lucian Freud exhibit at the National Gallery and I'm glad for it. I texted my friend the artist and said, Freud is good at children, dogs and flesh. The hands of Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza are very good, long, bony patrician fingers spread across his knees, and the startling beauty of Lady Caroline Blackwood, in bed in a hotel room in New York. But mostly I loved the puddles of dogs either central to or in the corner of the pictures. The English are very polite in museums. They stand back and take their turns. I love how American I have become, curious and somewhat slightly pushy. I move forward as close to the painting as I can, and read every sign, and of course apologize profusely as I do it.
Awfully cold this morning. I woke up with the intention of not looking at anything before writing, but found Hanef Kureishi's substack, which comes into my inbox every day. I love him. The world is better for his words, however tragic the circumstances are. "The HK substack is v. good" Vivien texted me yesterday. "Yes" I replied. But God it's cold; my whole body is under the covers but my face and hands are cold as I write, listening to the birds. Must remember to take fat balls out to them this morning: memo to self.
I'd forgotten that it was Chinese Lunar new year and dragged C to Dumplings Legend in Gerrard Street for xiao long bao and the extraordinary funghi salad with chili oil, garlic and cilantro. We followed the parade of children in red, holding paper dragons, mothers with strollers, babies in noise-cancelling headphones and beanies which covered their eyes, tourists of all shapes and sizes. Streets were closed all around Chinatown and the the whole world seemed to be celebrating with those little firecrackers - mostly small boys but a couple of older men who should have known better, throwing them down behind me to make me jump. In our continuing run of good fortune, we joined a queue that went well past the next restaurant and resigned ourselves to the fact that we'd be waiting for an hour. I watched a two year old play with cigarette butts in a planter and step from one glass brick to another, while his mother spoke to her friend. "You know" I said to Charlie in a effort to keep him in cheerful spirits, "there's only two of us, so our wait could be less." No more than a minute later a jolly man appeared holding his hand in a Churchillian V sign, inquisitive look on his face, "Two?" he said "Any parties of two?" and with that we were whisked to the top of the line, and inside the restaurant, festooned with red and gold decorations and paper chains and rather smug looking cats, to a table for two at the back of the restaurant. Amazed at our good fortune, we praised the great rabbit in the sky, and ordered way too much food (dumplings, chinese broccoli, smashed cucumbers, funghi salad and duck...a feast).
I'm not used to London at the weekends; it feels softer somehow.
This piece by Jacobus Clemens non Papa was the first thing we heard at evensong at Westminster Abbey. It sounds lovely here, but inside the Abbey with the voices of the Westminster choir boys (one of them can have been no older than seven) it was nothing less than heavenly. Increasingly in life one finds oneself without structured silence and sacred places seem to provide moments, even minutes of silence and quiet contemplation. I was looking at the window in front of me - Christ in brilliant red and blue in the middle and saints radiating out - and then closed my eyes and thought about teachers at school who closed their eyes to listen to music and how I was concerned that they were sad. Apparently just blissed out.
Yesterday, at breakfast, eight swans flew over the wall, just past the window as we were eating porridge. I was upstairs grabbing a book and I saw them from a different perspective. "Did you see the swans" I shouted down the stairs to Charlie.
Apparently it was a sign of what was to come. After a forty five minute car journey, we stepped into a magic forest near Lambourn. Charlie has a slim volume of walks in Berkshire, an old-fashioned tome, with lovely hand-drawn maps of different walks. Today's was Ashdown House (where I swear Cecil Beaton used to live - as usual, I was wrong) and Wayland's Smithy (he was, I kid you not, the Saxon God of Metal) - an ancient barrow on the Ridgeway near Uffington. Slightly crankily, with cold fingers and sore toes from the previous day's walk, we meandered through the wood going away from the house, and our chatty compadres in the National Trust Car Park ("too much coffee" I snarked) and the light pierced through the mist and all we could hear was the sound of birds. Looking up, there were hundreds and hundreds of small birds, perched in the highest branches of the old, bare oak trees, singing. But I could not identify them. We were cold and I knew we had to keep walking to warm up, but it was hard to not stop and listen in reverence to the sounds. As we got close to each tree the birds would chatter on to the next, and so on, as if they were leading our way through the forest in an alternated version of Hansel and Gretal. It was our very best luck that a group of birdwatchers appeared a few minutes later, binoculars and cameras in hand, "they're field fare and redwings" said one of the men, when I asked, "they're non-native, just winter visitors." From where they were standing, the birds were against the sun and harder to see. "You must go further in," I suggested, "the sun lights them up." I don't know if it was David Sedaris, or who it was who said that for most of your life you ignore birds and then at a certain age, you become interested, in fact, obsessed with birds and notice them everywhere. I'm now officially in the twitching phase of my life. (However, walking with my friend Marta in Nantucket, I do remember the excitement with which she pointed out the nesting ospreys. These tiny thrushes, the smallest in the world, but their song is immense.
Further on, we took a path along the edge of the wood, with a low mossy stone wall on one side, and misty old trees on the left, a small hedge to the right. "This is ancient woodland" said Charlie, and it felt ancient, not in a scientific way, although it was that, but as though it were full of ghosts; the lacework of palest blue sky above and the gentle breath of those who had come this way before.
The joy of walking is that even if you don't feel like doing it, even if it's cold and your mind is worry-filled, the simple act of putting one foot in front of another (and the necessity of doing this fast in order to keep warm) allows you to slowly melt back with the earth, walking upon it and yet as part of it, and it quiets the mind, slows the breath, expands the heart, so that what feels hard and irksome to begin with becomes effortless and easy and natural. One foot in front of another, that is all it takes, with the sun on your back and the knowledge that there is a sandwich and an orange in your backpack.
Wayland's Smithy (an atmospheric neolithic chambered longbarrow) was a place I'd visited many years ago when my children were still small, with my friend Dom, who lives nearby. He's very good on ancient roads and earthworks. It was in the summer, on one of those long, long days just before supper time. I was wearing a t-shirt and a skirt and probably a pair of Chucks. The sun was warm, and the grass was high, and I remember being very happy. I grew up near the Ridgeway and this was also the Ridgeway even though miles from home, so it felt familiar, well-worn, comforting. Yesterday was very cold, and colder because of the low cloud that was floating on top of the hill, but the light was extraordinary, filtering through the trees in clear shafts, the kind of rays you see in Munch's paintings). A family was clambering over the stones as we stepped up to the top of the barrow and surveyed the view, regiments of trees surrounding it, the filtered sunlight, a man on a fallen log drinking tea out of a flask, a child that wanted to go inside again, a man with a dog called Dapper (I know this because I asked; Dapper had a marvelously cartoonish curled lip). Maybe it was the day, maybe we were lucky, but the energy was powerful, right through the middle of my chest. I took a picture of a woman with a dog and then texted it to her.
The last part crossed an enormous stubble field, the path went diagonally across it, past a half way marker that served as a resting place for ravens, to a gate at the top of Weathervane hill, which leads you through a field of Belted Galloway cattle. The sun was setting and there was an orange light penetrating the cloud with floated -just so- in the valley below. Do you remember that film set in Tuscany, Above the Clouds? Is that the name? Where the light is so beautiful that you can't believe it's real? It was the kind of terracotta golden light that you only see on winter's days in California. We stood at the top of the hill and looked out at it and didn't really know what to say. A large dose of awe packed right in the middle of the breastbone. What do you say, really, except thank you?
I've spent so much of my life scooting through, too fast, doing too much, leaping from one challenge or crisis to another, being fueled by the adrenaline of fear, and not spending enough time being present, and by that I mean being there in the moment, smelling the roses, talking to the calves, bending down to scratch the dogs' ears, stopping to listen to the birdsong. I think that is how those moments are created where you feel you are between two worlds; that's where the light comes in, that's when your choices become manifold, when the moment becomes infinite and abundant and filled with pure love.