a taste of winter

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My stranger on the bus was right; we had perhaps 10 days of true winter here, no snow on the hills that I saw (too dry, we are in the drought again, one good rain since autumn began and no more), but freezing temperatures night after night, and in the morning my breath hung in the air, and the water left outside froze as it was meant to, cracking into patterns when touched. Opening the door to my bedroom in the early morning I look across the small space of hall and stairwell to the window, out across the neighbour’s roofs; during those two weeks they were covered in frost, just a thin sheet but so beautiful. Of course to be too cold in the body is unpleasant, and this house is not made for it, it happens so rarely, but I did not mind just for the ten days, with my hot tea or hotter coffee to comfort me, and long fleece pants and warm sweaters and a blanket over my lap in the meanwhile. And as this is where it is, by afternoon the sun made it warm again; the frost could not last an hour after dawn. But still, a touch of winter, and I delighted in it.

My dear friend lives where the winter comes hard and stays long, ice to make the streets glass and tree branches collapse, snow for days or weeks on end. I do not envy him the inconvenience of it, or the real danger there is some times, power going out, the need to know where the food and fresh water are, to have the plan in case one has no heat for a long while. But I hear his stories, look at the pictures, and think for myself — someday, I will be somewhere else, a place in which water does not vanish three years of every four, a place with the seasons that are still in my bones despite my nearly two decades of absence from them. Another city, another country, perhaps somewhere I must struggle with the language. In one of my favourite books (one I dare not reread; it may not be palatable now and the loss of it would be a tragedy) the man says, “I want to see a different light,” and chooses a year of travel and death from illness at the end rather than to stay in his home forever safe and secure and long-lived. A young person’s story, you might say, but when I was young I thought him foolish not to remain with the sure thing, and now, now I am waiting my own time to go. Once again, glory over length of days, but this time not my own — and who knows? There is no reason I might not have both.

the man on the bus

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I flew across the continent, north and east, to see my dear friend and also go learn some new things — in that order, although ostensibly perhaps the reverse.  My flight came in very late, flying against the sun, so earlier in my body than in the city where I landed, and when I finally found the bus I needed to take me to my hotel it was quite night, and I was tired and hungry and elated with the newness of it all and knowing I would see my friend the next day.  So on the bus, rather than sitting quietly once a seat came open and reading or daydreaming, I stood and listened to conversation, two men, one older, exuberant, telling everyone who would listen his story, the other younger, Francophile by his accent, rather bemused to be on the receiving end of this attention but I think also pleased.  The younger had come from a vacation somewhere south, an island, and was going back to his small town three hours away from where we had all arrived, to his work driving a taxi.  The older was an electrician with a travelling show, just come from Moscow, and he told stories of the places he’d been — no, not even the places, the weather.  Stories of the weather he had seen, the cold he had just left behind in Moscow, the heat of Arizona where the walk-in freezer where the food was kept became a favourite place for him to take naps, the wind in a third place (Texas?) that made his work difficult, his love of the ocean near his home where he would sail and his friends would tease him for wearing too little or too much clothing depending on where he had most recently been for his work.

I stood, listening, watching their faces, the younger man engaging, answering questions, the older telling his stories, enjoying the audience, and I made the little noises now and again, that I was listening, and once or twice asked a question, and then suddenly he turned and asked me where I lived, and I told him — not too far from his ocean home.  He said something about the weather here, and I admitted that I missed true autumn, true winter, and that in my travel I was hoping to have a little taste of cold before going back home to the dry sun.  And suddenly serious, he said to me, that it would be a true winter back at home, as true as it might be, cold enough that there is snow on the hills once or twice, and that he was not certain how he knew it, but he did know, he felt it, it would be a cold winter.  Then laughing again, he said, but not as cold as Moscow!  And he picked his thread back up and began the stories once more.

Now, of course, he might be right, and he might not be right, and either way the winter will be what it is, unchanged by his guesses or knowledge.  But now that I have that to carry with me, if I choose, I may look forward with some amusement to see if he guessed correctly — and regardless of what comes it is sealed into my memory now, standing on that bus going through the dark strange city, from the brilliance of the airport to the spaces between and then the new lights of downtown, strange buildings and signs, listening to him predict my winter.

autumn in the west

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My faithful reader asked me what is blooming in my garden right now; an excellent question, although I fear rather a dull one, for while the calendar insists upon autumn, and my body the same, the weather here where I live is still heat and sun and no rain, and my garden is all roses and sunflowers and citrus trees. Not that these ever fade, but the sunflowers will eventually go to seed, and the roses slow for the winter, even stop blooming entirely for a few months, while the citrus continues stubbornly to provide me with lovely and delicious fruit which I would (do) enjoy if only I was not so hungry for cold, wet, ice, snow, all the things this place rarely if ever provides. November, perhaps, the cold and wet, but never the ice and snow, not here. Someday I will move somewhere that my body and the seasons may be in sync again, and then I will complain about defrosting cars and shovelling walks and yearn for the first sight of spring rather than throwing my hands up in despair when February brings daffodils.

In spite of all of that, or perhaps because of it, I love autumn passionately. And this new house I moved into last year, only twenty miles south of the previous, is just enough more inland from the ocean that the weather is a little colder in the autumn and winter, so there is more excuse to drink hot tea (and chocolate, and buttered rum in the evenings) and wear slippers and wish I had a fireplace. So in spite of my continual frustration there are things to look forward to.  And if the man I spoke to on the bus is right (a story for another time, dear reader, you will like it), the winter will be unusually cold and sharp here — though why he should have been right I do not know, except that I would enjoy the weather.

betwixt and between

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A busy time; I have many things to say and no space in which to say them, as the year turns towards pencils, chalkboards, books, or in this modern day I suppose laptops and ipads and so forth.  But I have hopes for this weekend, and next week.  A post saying there is no time to speak may seem a tautology, but I imagine that my one or two readers might like to know the reason of my silence.  There are, after all, so many kinds.

a sudden and unexpected recession of waters

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My waters have gone, much more quickly than they came, and I am left in the time after, finding my ground again.  This happens every year, but usually much more slowly; a long period with nothing but water, then a slow, slow ebbing, and all the while holding my little square of frozen earth until at last there is the landscape again, mine but transformed by the water, and myself transformed as well, and I must begin again to learn it all, step by step until the next comes.

Except this year, not. This year is new, however much I may cling to the familiarity of my old calendar (being unwilling so far to take the path of the revolutionary French), and so I should not be surprised that the climate changes as well. The past came, and I did not drown, and it has gone again, and my landscape is changed, but only just, and myself — well, I am changed and changing with this constant motion of growth, but no sudden shock this time, no distillation, just myself a little damp and tired and confused and happy.

Now as I look around, seeing the puddles still left, the mud, the places where the bark came from the trees and the places where, somehow, the flowers remain in full bloom, I think of Margaret Atwood’s “After the Flood We” — especially this stanza:

fish must be swimming
down in the forest beneath us,
like birds, from tree to tree
and a mile away
the city, wide and silent,
is lying lost, far undersea.

That is from her first book of poetry, The Circle Game, from 1966 — about which I have many mixed feelings, although it is quite good poetry. But that, I think, is another post.

today the sea

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There are days the past comes like a flood, and one may see it coming, take off one’s shoes, roll up the legs of the jeans (if one wears jeans, I don’t enjoy them, but they are sensible for the garden, where a skirt would catch on the thorns of my roses), and either avoid the water entirely or — more likely and in some ways perhaps more sensibly — get wet anyway, but know, still, that there is dry ground and a warm towel and perhaps even a hot drink waiting, after.

But sometimes the water rises without warning, no rain or wind, just suddenly everything is waste, barren, nowhere to stand that is not the gray, cold sea.

Little indeed can he credit, whose town-life
Pleasantly passes in feasting and joy,
Sheltered from peril, what weary pain
Often I’ve suffered in foreign seas.
Night shades darkened with driving snow
From the freezing north, and the bonds of frost
Firm-locked the land, while falling hail,
Coldest of kernels, encrusted earth.
Yet still, even now, my spirit within me
Drives me seaward to sail the deep,
To ride the long swell of the salt sea-wave.
Never a day but my heart’s desire
Would launch me forth on the long sea-path,
Fain of far harbors and foreign shores.

That is Charles Kennedy’s translation of “The Seafarer,” an Old English (or does one say Anglo Saxon nowadays?) poem.  I doubt it is the best translation, but it is the one I am most familiar with and so fondest of, and the one that comes as soon as I begin to write about my own waste-water.

That ‘coldest of kernels’ is actually ‘corna caldast‘ which fits very nicely with the Cunningham, does it not?  Hail as frozen corn.  I had not thought that before, very nice.  I do not read this language, not yet, so much of this resonance might simply be within my mind, but then, what else is this space for?

Sometimes the barbarians.  Sometimes the fertile land between.  But right now, the sea.

august

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August Hail

In late summer the wild geese
In the white draws are flying.
The grain beards in the blue peace.
The weeds are drying.

The hushed sky breeds hail.
Who shall avenge unreason?
Wheat headless in the white flail
Denies the season.

J.V. Cunningham, from The Exclusions of a Rhyme

Unreason avenges itself, I find.  Would I were a better poet, or did not swallow my words before my mouth opened, but for now, Cunningham says it as well as I might, and considerably better.

idle weeds and sustaining corn

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I have never counted properly, but I own a very great many books.  At least 3,000, I should say, and perhaps a great many more.  (My brother suggests that since counting them all would be time-consuming and perhaps impossible in a house with this many people, we should estimate the number by sampling how many books are on an average shelf, and then multiplying that by the average number of shelves and that by the number of bookcases.  I cannot precisely claim that I am not dignifying his suggestion with an answer, since I am immortalising it here, but that is more to demonstrate how long-suffering I am rather than because I think it is a good or feasible use of time.)

Now, of these 3,000 books I own, I have not read the bulk of them. Some, yes, certainly — and some more than once — but most of them languish unread upon my shelves, despite being in my possession for years and years. Looking to my left now, at the nearest of the 15 (yes, I did count) bookcases in my home, it is a mix of things I have read many times, some I read just once (often many years ago, in high school), and any number of things that I have been meaning to read for 5 or 20 years but have not yet gotten around to.  Plus there are the library books, some thirty of them, and all of the books on my Kindle.

How, you may well ask, did I come to this sad pass?  A combination of events; too much time spent in bookstores in my early twenties, too much access to libraries now.  Oh, that ‘too much’ is ironic, yes, I would not trade any of it — but I do hope to winnow down the books I own to something more reasonable, to either read those I have ignored or decide for once and for all that I will not.  To reduce the sheer number of possibilities down to some sensible, contained few which I may say are the necessary ones, and discard the rest.  I am not comfortable with abundance, overflow, disorder.  Except even as I say that I find myself laughing, for I am the woman who will not pull the dandelions out of her yard, because they are beautiful, in flower and in seed.

So perhaps in the end this suits me, this house full of books I have not yet read, possibilities I have not yet explored.  It is good to go through and give some of them away, free them to the wild as R. would say, where they may be picked up by some other word-hungry hunter, but for all that I daydream sometimes of myself living in a small apartment with only a library card and a laptop, for right now it suits me to have hundreds of thousands of words at my fingertips without ever turning on the computer. 

the uses of space

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The more I think on what I wish to do with this space, the more I realise that I want to talk about… myself. Which feels strange but also natural. I am almost forty years old, but the years I have lived have been much less; the first nine or so were given almost wholly to survival, and then for three more after that to what I thought I wanted, something that would transcend survival, something that would make me into someone which need have no fear — which need have no need. Apotheosis, as it were. Perhaps. Sometime I will write of that, the moment I most truly decided.

After my nine years and three, ending in failure and betrayal, there were many years of waiting, watching, hiding. I remained ready for a consummation that never came, and as the years went on, and on, and on, I began to believe it never would come. At times I found signs, and read them such that I thought the time had come to begin again, but always in the end it came to nothing; a coincidence, an attempt to please or seduce, but never what I sought. And so eventually I agreed to stop waiting, stop hiding, and come back into the world, but I did so only partly. I could not see how to bring everything I knew — no, that becomes a lie. It is that I was not truly willing to give up on waiting, to cease being ready, and so I acted the part of being in the present world, ignoring the past, and sometimes truly reached towards living now, but always, always I held some of myself back. Just in case.

This last year I have begun to finally stop. A strange phrasing, that, but a true one. It is not something I can simply cease to do; it is in me, like my breath, and I find I have to untangle it labouriously, day by day. My dear friend — about whom I will write all the time if I am not careful — said once, perhaps like the craving for drugs. I think a little that, but more I think like an eating disorder, ways of thinking about being in the world, ways of measuring and controlling myself, my experience, my desires, my reactions, ways of letting only a trickle of water through the wall, a drop at a time, so that it is a steady stream but so small, so narrow. When I read of people who have anorexia and control their eating that way, and even years later find they must resist the urge to go back to that control, it rings a little true. For me it was not only eating but everything, and in — well, I will not say service, let us say pursuit. Pursuit of another goal. But I may not simply stop, full stop, and be done; I must resist the behaviours, fight against the inclination, at times relax into the new space my choices make, at other times slip and fall and give in and then get back up and begin it all again.

So — I begin to stop. And I find myself here, a few years from forty, but in life truly lived, chosen to be lived, perhaps much younger. And so with the adolescent’s desire to find herself in the mirror, I write, here, about myself. I thought perhaps a book blog, or a gardening one, or any such thing as that, and there will be all those things, because I do read, and garden, and cook, and every other part of life which I can reach with my hands and heart. I am hungry for everything. But if I write of what I am reading, it will be to tell you how I read it, not to tell you of the book, and when I speak of my roses it will be because I love them so dearly, in their growth and persistence and determination to thrive. Really, I am hungry for myself, and life, and myself in life, and that is what this space will be, if it is anything at all. The story I tell of myself living, so that I may see that I do so, and find myself in it.

domestic interlude

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I have written here much this past week, in my mind, but not at all in actuality, as anyone reading may easily see.  It is one thing to have space, another to use it, and there is always so much else clamouring for my attention — indeed, with two small children, sometimes an actual clamour, not to mention the climbing into my lap and asking endless questions (the older) or trying out new vowel-consonant combinations in order to get picked up and held (the younger).  That last was particularly effective over the weekend; my son discovered that when ‘Mamamamama’ all by itself does not work, adding ‘BABA!’ very loudly does, because everyone must turn to him and say, “Oh goodness, did you just say baby?”  Which he certainly did, as far as I am concerned, and perhaps even as far as he is, since it got him picked up off the floor and kissed repeatedly.

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