Sunday, September 13, 2020

NY missive no 171 - Breath

The East River waves / break / on its shore / and fall back / with my breath / come in / out, long, / in, and the sound of / sea glass / tinkling under water / the glass is in / my throat / comfort and pain / at once.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

NY missive no 170 - Moving

A lot of people are moving. Each weekend the streets of Queens are dotted with U Hauls. I imagine it’s even more the case in Manhattan (which we’ve only been to a few times these past few months – it seems like another World although it’s just across the river). Around 31st Avenue there are often guys from the “Piece of Cake” moving company with their purple t-shirts, I guess their base is there. 

And just now as I was writing, a big spider packed up her web. I had no idea they did that. I thought she was spinning it at first, a large web stretching from a pole to the wall of the next door house, but realized she was gathering the threads up with her front legs - they disappeared as she moved until the web was no more.

NY missive no 169 - Listening

Recently I’ve been mourning language. Or more like lamenting its loss, cleaving to words used with care and creation, or neither of those but with authenticity, and feeling deadened by the torrents of words detached from souls.

Much of language seems like a superhighway, charging through space on a predetermined route to get us, anyone, from point a to point b without paying much attention to what’s around us, provided we reach that destination of the message and if we are not careful we will be lulled like on highways at night when the street lamps flash by, one, two, three, four five, six, seven, one, two, whoosh, whoosh. (Of course there will be some crashes along the way). What I miss is language that comes from the gut. Person to person. Unfiltered, unedited, vernacular, surprising, agenda-free, that’s when you want to listen.

Which makes me realize that this is a question of choice, of attention. Of choosing to not to be barraged and instead create the space to read and to hear the wonderful words of mystery and love and power that are out there yet so easily passed by.

(Speaking of which - read the "landless acknowledgement" at the start of Nate Marshall's new book of poems, Finna. Then the poems too!)

When Arundhati Roy talked about moving “lightly” through this portal that’s the pandemic, the lightly can be read in many ways. Yes, lighter as in freer from the polluting, divisive baggage of the path we were on before (wouldn’t that be good?!) and lighter to imagine and fight for another World. Also, lighter so that we have more capacity for attention.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

NY missive no 168 - Flowerpots

On a recent Sunday I washed the flower pots. I held each one underneath the tap outside, and watched the mud splash off them. It took me right back to when P and I were kids, and once a year we cleaned and organized the flower pots underneath my grandmother’s greenhouse (she called it a conservatory). The greenhouse was elevated, and there was just enough height underneath to store flowerpots in rows on their sides (in size and color order) and for a child to move around, stooped double. We wore shower caps to keep the cobwebs off our hair. It was always uncomfortable, but always satisfying when done.

Then we would use a jet hose to clean her patio and steps. Clusters of mud would gather in the corner of each step, so we’d have to shoot the jet spray into those corners until the mud flowed down to the step below, and so and so on down to the bottom.

I shared a photo of my clean flower pots with P afterwards, and said how it reminded me of cleaning Granny’s. She remembered it vividly as well. She complimented three of the pots in the photo. Unlike most of them - the regular plastic rust-red or black ones – these were pretty pale green ceramic pots with elephants and frogs round the edges. They had been left here by H, the woman who lived here before us with her husband Z and their grandson.

There came another memory...the house closing out in Long Island somewhere, and H in tears as we signed the papers that transferred ownership from them to us. Z had re-done everything in the house, from the heating and lighting, to the bathrooms and kitchen, to the shelves in what’s now JNH’s room. I got the impression it had been a very stressful time, but they were so proud of it. And H had loved and looked after the garden. Now, when I do my occasional and amateurish gardening (weeding, tying back the leaning peach tree, attempts at growing lettuce and tomatoes, and the hopeful planting of bulbs), I often think of H being out there carefully tending to the plants, and I think of the woman two doors down, who waters her garden on Summer evenings, her bright sari catching the Sun, and I think of an unspoken connection between us.

Someone I know a bit from previous work has been collecting people’s short recorded reflections of their time under Corona lock-down. In one of these, a man in Bogota mentions the way that the slowing of time has created space for memories to surface. And his recognition – reinforced by reading of Stefan Zweig’s memoirs - that the “only thing that you have is your memories and what you lived, and the things you saw, and the books you read, and the conversations you had...That has made me put into perspective a lot of things we strive for and obsess over, a lot of material things we think we have to have in order to live fulfilling lives.” In this quarantine time, he adds, “We can still hold on to what we have in our heads, our ideas, our memories, and dreams...”

Saturday, April 11, 2020

NY missive no 167 - Voice

Three things yesterday made me think of “voice”. As in, written voice.

One very literally so. I was scrolling through those “recommended for you” titles that pop up in Kindle. There was Elizabeth Strout’s new short story collection, no doubt because a friend had WhatsApped me about it, and in that freaky Amazon-knows-absolutely-everything-or-at-least-thinks-it-does way, Kindle thought that I might like to buy it. There were a bunch of books with “Platform” in the title, probably because I had recently bought a book on platform economics. And then there was “The Art of Voice - Poetic Principles and Practice”. This one – with a photo of a squawking seagull on the cover and that phrase coming out of its mouth - drew my attention immediately. Then the fact that it had drawn my attention, drew my attention further. I read the sample, then bought the full thing. It’s by poet Tony Hoagland, with chapters like “Showing the Mind in Motion”, “Whose Voice is It?”, and “Voices Borrowed from the Environment”. Right up my street.

Another instance was earlier in the day, as JNH worked on his "book". These stay-at-home days while the Covid-19 pandemic ravages NYC (in so many ways) have had unnerving moments, like when C was in bed with a fever and cough for a while. They have also had unexpected beautiful moments, which emerge from the fact we’re spending so much time together at home. JNH said he wanted to start work on a book. He wanted to do it on the computer (screens have become all-the-more central in their lives because of online learning), but as he's slow at typing, I said I’d help: JNH dictating and me typing. Called “Knights in Fantasy”, so far there is a great deal of scene-setting, with detailed descriptions of the various monsters and knights that will appear in the tale - characters who are inspired by his toys. I flash-backed to the “novel” SeeWich that I wrote (in blue ink) when I was around his age, two-thirds of which involved the exciting journey up the golden steps to the magical land of SeeWich, leaving not a lot of room for the SeeWich adventure itself. Still, JNH's character descriptions are vivid and entertaining. And, most important, there’s a unique voice that comes through, the voice of a ten-year-old enjoying being authorial while not thinking too hard about it.

“Creativity gives you power,” he says in the opening paragraph. “And you must find ways to channel that power. My preferred way is making my ideas out of the toys I own.” And, regarding the Livivan Tree: “I am not writing about this tree because it is the tallest in the Mystic Universe (because it’s not). It is because these trees are ‘alive’. ‘Alive’ meaning moving and groaning. They have a spirit.”

It’s hard to put into words what the voice is like. As Hoagland says at the opening of his book, "One of the most difficult to define elements in poetry is voice, the distinctive linguistic presentation of an individual speaker." Hard to describe and mighty powerful.

The third instance was in the evening when I dived back into the novel I’m reading at the moment, “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernadine Evaristo. K sent it as a birthday present back in January: little did we know at the time that it would be part of my lock-down entertainment. At that time, just the first part of the outbreak was breaking out, in Wuhan. Each chapter is about a different person - most of them women, most black, and all, so far, conveyed in third person. Each has an utterly distinctive and immersive voice, so that you are within the character's experience. It's something that only a mighty skilled writer can make seem effortless on the page - even though "voice" surrounds us every day. No wonder that Evaristo was one of the winners of last year's Booker (the prize was split between her and Margaret Atwood).

As I write this, I can hear three sounds: the boys kicking a ball around, birds singing, and sirens.


Particularly worried about our elderly next door neighbors G and J, though so far G says that they are ok. The boys climb over the fence into their garden to fetch their soccer ball when it goes over (often). Their garden's wild and overgrown, with the odd hyacinth and daffodil poking through. One time - no idea if it was last week or the one before as my sense of time is out of whack - CMH came back carrying the most wonderful branch. He gave it to me as a present, making my day. So many comparisons came to mind - a stag's antlers, the spindly arms and fingers of Roald Dahl's Witches (more strictly speaking Quentin Blake's), and sinister scenes from the Blair Witch Project. I've kept the branch propped up against a wall outside, and it brings a smile to my face each time I see it.

Friday, March 13, 2020

NY missive no 166 - Another first decade

Would it be possible to live this decade, from 43 to 53, with the same sense of newness as the decade from 0-10?

Of course not but it's worth a try.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

NY missive no 165 - Deep and up

In so many contexts I've been in, there's a tension between those who want to go up and big, and those who want to go deep. Both are important. Creating strong connections between the two is a real art form, and so often a missed opportunity.

Windows and doors

On Tuesdays last year I had a routine during JNH's guitar class, of drinking a glass of wine in Omonia cafe on Broadway. The guitar school was right above Omonia. It became a habit to the extent that the waitress would say "your usual?", and "it's been so long!" when I missed a few weeks. A precious window of time during which I'd sit by the window, with a book to read or a notepad to write in, and look up out of that window to the street from time to time.

On one of those occasions, I realized that windows and doors could illustrate my philosophy of life and work, if I ever got around to having one.

Windows for the way that they put a frame around a part of the world and prompt you to reflect on what that frame contains. Looking through a different window provides a different perspective, a different take, and your life takes it in and becomes richer.

There's a wonderful New Yorker profile of Jorn Utzon who designed the Sidney Opera House. At one of the homes he designed in Majorca, Can Lis, he included slit-like niches alongside each other overlooking the ocean, instead of a single window, so that a ship sailing by would appear, disappear, reappear, disappear, reappear. How simple and beautiful.

And doors for the way that we don't know what to expect before we open them. Doing so reveals the unexpected. The more new windows and doors we find to look and walk through, the better.