Wednesday, December 19, 2018

NY missive no 159 - Green Eggs and Ham and Harry Potter

A few weeks ago we were waiting outside the kids’ school for a parents’ evening, or something like that. JNH was sitting on the sidewalk buried in his latest Harry Potter. CMH was playing “CandyCrush” on C’s phone. I disapprovingly did was must be mighty annoying for brothers, a compare and contrast, and said to CMH that I hoped he would one day be curious enough to want to read books too.

That evening at bedtime, CMH, who I usually read a story to before bed, said that he wanted to read to me instead. He took “Green Eggs and Ham” off his bookshelf and proceeded to read it to me, slowly, carefully, paying attention to each word and with a gentle unspoken undercurrent of “see mami, I can read perfectly well.” Green Eggs and Ham has taken on a whole new level of significance now – I’ll never forget how completely he took ownership of the text, and carried me through the story.

"Would you, could you, on a boat?

I could not, would not, on a boat.

I will not, will not, with a goat.

I will not eat them in the rain.

I will not eat them on a train..."

JNH, for his part, has now whizzed through to the end of the Harry Potter books. I remember in my twenties when they came out, and the bookstores in London had huge lines of people through the night in advance of the next release. I snootily decided that as they were so popular I’d give them a miss. Now having read the first three to JNH, and heard updates from him as he read the last four himself, I’ve realized their magic of course. While people cautioned that the last book is intense and perhaps too grown up for an eight year old, we let him role with it (Matilda read Dickens at four I thought!!). Even though he might not have engaged with all the levels of meaning in the novel in the same way that a teenager would, he had his own unique experience of it.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

NY missive no 158 - A change of pace and the midterm elections

I’m seeing this as a third maternity leave, only without a baby.

Another big difference is that I’m creating the job at the other end of it, rather than having one to go back to. But…“I’m creating”… just writing those words is a reminder of what an opportunity this is, one to be treasured. The similarity with maternity leave is that it’s a window of time with a remarkably changed pace and sense of priorities. It’s been disorientating, these first few days. I’ve never since the start of my career not had the next step lined up before moving on. But I’m getting my bearings, while learning a lot about the value of not being crystal clear for a change, and keeping alert to possibilities. "This is living," as C put it.

I’m interspersing planning and building, with walking, as I tend to do. Today, the low sun through the fall trees in Astoria park, with East River flowing alongside, was so beautiful that it was hard to believe that it was the same planet as the one in which Trump's Republicans just won at least two new Senate seats, in which he fired his Attorney General the following day, and in which the news talk shows are an incessant vortex of reality, to the extent it feels like nothing is stable, or real, other than the fact that it all is very real.

There was a lot of cause for optimism too in the results, with a record number of women winning seats in Congress - among them the youngest ever woman, first two Muslim women, and first two native American women. (That said, women will still only be 23% of the total so there's work still to be done!).

The day before the election, I’d got the train down to Trenton and knocked on doors in Bordentown to get out the vote for Andy Kim, who was standing for Congress against the Republican incumbent MacArthur. Unlike today there was no sun coming through the trees – it was an overcast, rainy day. It being daytime, most people were out. Our knocks on the front doors of the wooden houses, their decks festooned with fall decorations, mostly went unanswered. But a few people were in, and we confirmed their plans for voting. It turns out that every door knock throughout that district really did count: the vote came down to a difference of just under a percentage point – with Kim winning.

D, who’s has lived all her life in Bordentown and who drove us both around as we canvassed, gave me a lift back to Trenton station. We talked all the way, in that rare way in which two strangers happen to find themselves alone together and manage to share significant chunks of their lives and perspectives in just a short space of time, before parting ways.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

NY missive no 157 - Rockaway Beach

The boys crash their arms and bodies into the breaking waves at Rockaway Beach. It's a grey, windy day so the beach is almost empty other than us. They keep getting bowled over and getting up again, ecstatic to be challenging the sea like it's some wild monster. I'm there, a bit fearful of their fearlessness, watching closely, wanting to be just challenging the waves too, and wondering at the strength of the sea, the fragility of this coastline, the fragility of their lives.


A voice comes down the stairs, "Mama, can I go to bed now?" and the words are perfectly formed, and I wonder at the fact that just some time ago he knew nothing of words, only noises.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

NY missive no 156: Strange Labyrinth and delightful interludes

Our Summer visit to the UK had a few what I’ll call “delightful interludes” – unpredictable moments with meaning. All were against a backdrop of a country that’s turning increasingly inwards, an island beginning to cave under the weight of stagnating Brexit talks and a Summer heatwave that its people and infrastructure are not ready for.

One of these was right in the middle of the big field in Wimbledon Park, where we started flagging with the heat on our walk home and plonked ourselves down on the parched ground to rest: C, the boys, and I. I flapped open a very faded pink and green Wimbledon Championships towel, and blades of dried-yellow grass picked up earlier in the day at the playground flew out in the hot wind. C and JNH worked on lines of a song, C typing them into his phone. I read a page or two of my book (on which more below) while CMH wandered about with his shirt off after being slathered in Sun cream. Half-reading half-day-dreaming I remembered when, aged seven, I’d been so impressed by my grandfather when he told a group of teenage boys to stop whacking conkers off one of the horse chestnut trees on the edge of the field.

Another was in the Foyles bookstore at Waterloo Station. C wanted to get himself a new book to read. We all went in and spent a while browsing and choosing a book each – that familiar yet now so rare experience of wandering among shelves stacked with untouched pages, overwhelmed by choice, not sure of what exactly the “right” find will be but knowing we’ll recognize it when we see it, and open to possibilities.

I landed on Will Ashon’s “Strange Labyrinth.” I had gravitated to a shelf of books about London and decided I was searching for something psychogeography-ish based there: I’m always drawn to walker-writer books albeit finding it frustrating they are invariably written by men. The subtitle is “Outlaws, poets, mystics, murderers and a coward in London’s Great Forest.” The coward refers to Ashon as he wanders Epping Forest, on the boundary of East London and Essex. There was an appealing symmetry in the fact that the second chapter was called “Bomb Crater Pond, Walthamstow Marshes” while the following day I planned to take the kids to a new wetlands center by those very marshes.

The wetlands turned out to be a string of Thames Water reservoirs recently opened to the public after being inaccessible for many years. Our wildlife sightings - unlike the promising list on a blackboard by the entrance - were limited to geese, cormorants and hundreds of large spiders with impressive webs across some iron railings. Apparently peregrine falcons had their nests on nearby electricity pylons but we didn’t spot them. Like wandering a bookstore though, the pleasure was in not knowing what the exploration would yield.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

NY missive no 155: Daniel Libeskind's "Breaking Ground"

For my birthday C gave me “Never Built New York”, on grand architectural projects that for one reason or another never saw the light of day. It has an introduction by Daniel Libeskind, the architect who designed the winning plans for the World Trade Center site – some, but not all of which came into being as he had envisioned, given that money-politics inevitably intervened (it’s a long story).

By coincidence, the day after reading that intro, I spotted Libeskind’s autobiography “Breaking Ground” among the books stacked up in boxes outside the second hand store on Astoria’s Broadway between 40th and 41st streets. I was on my way to spend some treasured birthday weekend hours alone at Museum of the City of New York and Central Park, so bought it for a couple of dollars and started reading on the subway. He intersperses stories of his life, as the son of Polish survivors of the Gulags, who found success late in his life as an architect, with those of the buildings he designed.

They include the Jewish Museum in Berlin (a hell of a process getting that one done), and the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester. The budget of the latter was cut drastically part way through. The team had to make changes to the materials and way the museum was built, but it was still a great success. "The moral of this story," Libeskind writes, "is that reduced budgets can sometimes be the impetus to greater creativity."

It’s one of those books that’s arrived in my life at a serendipitous time, delivering an outsized dose of meaning because of the time when I’m reading it. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about buildings, who builds them, and how those decisions and people define the lives of the rest of us. “A great building – like great literature – or poetry or music – can tell the story of the human soul,” Libeskind writes.

I carried on reading for a while after the museum (exhibit of photos of MLK in NYC), on some of those ancient schist rocks that crop up throughout Central Park. I mean really ancient – Manhattan’s bedrock ranges from 1.1 billion to 190 million years old - and they seem it, emitting age and stability while the people who walk across them come and go, and come and go. It’s a reminder of how fleetingly we are here, yet how each of us also is just a continuation of those who have come before us. Mum and I had walked across those same rocks when she visited for a fall weekend when I had just become pregnant with JNH.

Libeskind writes about the material that architects use. “Painters have their colors, musicians their sounds, writers their words – thousands of them. Although we can design buildings in our heads or on paper, the tools of architects are less easy to assemble.

“These are my tools: stone, steel, concrete, wood, glass. And the challenge before me is to design expressive buildings – buildings that tell human stories – with these mute substances. Like a dancer, I am acutely conscious of gravity, and I find it remarkable that these materials come from the earth. What is concrete? It’s the earth. Architecture, I realize, is about assembling various components from the earth into visibility.”

I walked back down through the park to 59th Street, around the Jackie Onassis reservoir which glistened with sun bouncing off the ice that had just started to melt in patches. The reservoir was dotted with thousands of sea-birds who rose and fell, creating patterns. I first discovered the reservoir soon after moving to NYC, walking up through the park as dusk was falling and feeling like I was racing nightfall.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

New York Missive no 154 - The spaces in-between

Many years ago I wrote a very bad poem, about the raw materials of a city separating into their constituent parts and being sucked up into a swirling mass of metals, sand, woodchips and water drops above the land, before falling back down into place again exactly as they were before. Exactly as they were – walls, windows, buildings, streets – yet changed from the experience: is this the same city as before, or a new one? I wonder where that image came from? The idea was more powerful in my mind than I could convey it in words. We are also particles in that swirling mass and that’s where our energy comes from, yet all the beauty and meaning in our existence comes from the ways in which the particles are placed in relation to each other. Shapes, boundaries, beginnings and endings, arrivals and departures that create meaning and narrative from nothing, like language.

This reminds me of a story I remember from childhood. After he retired, my Great Uncle Arthur taught reading and writing to kids who needed extra help with it. There was one child who just didn’t seem to get it. He struggled and struggled over the words and never retained how to read them. Finally, Uncle Arthur realized what the problem was. The child was looking at the spaces between the words, instead of focusing on the black lines on the page. Along with that memory comes, of course, the place where he told me that story: their quiet dining room in their flat in Connaught Square where Arthur would add slabs of butter to his toast, and where they usually served sweetcorn with the salad for lunch.

We can look at the substance of things and people but there’s also meaning to be explored and discovered (however difficult!) in the spaces in-between.

Italo Calvino talks about spaces in-between, in Invisible Cities:

“I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past: the height of a lamppost and the distance from the ground of a hanged usurper’s swaying feet; the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the course of the queen’s nuptial procession; the height of that railing and the leap of the adulterer who climbed over it at dawn; the tilt of a guttering and a cat’s progress along it as he slips into the same window….”

Saturday, January 6, 2018

NY missive no 153 - Thoughts on open toes at a funeral

I’ve started reading Edwidge Dandicat’s “The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story”. Dandicat says she wishes that she had talked to her mother about what she wanted said at her funeral. “I suppose she might have mentioned something on her cassette if had been that important to her,” she writes, referring to a cassette her mother recorded soon before she died. “After all, she told me what kind of shoes I should wear to her wake. (No open toes).”

Aaghh! No open toes! That set off a whole spiral of thoughts on my subway commute. I wore open toes to Mum’s funeral! I remember on the day considering if that was ok. Not least because I have terrible toes (from Dad), and because bare toes meant bare legs too, and Mum would often comment when she saw us on Skype in Summer in sleeveless tops or a sleeveless dress – her in London and us in sweltering NYC - “it must be very hot there today”, with a hint of disapproval at the display of flesh, or was that disapproval only in my mind, drawing on memories of body-conscious-teenagerhood? But! She would have loved the orange nail polish I had on. The New York daughter standing up there at the funeral, with the New York-painted toe nails. No, just, daughter. The black shoes I had would look weird with tights underneath, and it was a hot day, and she would, we knew, have wanted colors whenever the time came, certainly not everyone in black.

Monday, January 1, 2018

NY missive no 152 - The desk

I’m writing this at a very solid wooden desk that my great grandfather had built for my grandfather when he went off to Cambridge University. After my grandfather died, Mum used it as her desk in her little study overlooking their garden – the garden where my sister P and I had played from the ages of 6 and 4, where the enormous oak next door had crashed down unexpectedly one day, and where she loved seeing JNH and CMH playing on our visits to the UK, stocking up on paddling pools and bat-and-ball games in advance.

Mum was organized about what was in each of the desk’s eight drawers. It was there, after retirement, that she’d do her work as chair of the governors for a school, receive and respond to emails from P and I from our various corners of the globe, and keep people connected in the neighborhood and among our family in lovely and specific ways.

I included the desk in a message to her cousins after she died, “distributing” family furniture among relatives. Her cousin C replied that she didn’t want to take the desk, but she had happy memories of it. She remembered it in my grandparent’s house, in a room that was part study and part “cosy space for scrambled egg Saturday night suppers.” When her daughter was born, she stayed in their house for a few weeks and would use the knee-hole space between the drawers as a convenient place to pop the baby in her carry cot when lots of visitors came round.

I pondered the desk on my subway commutes. On one commute I decided that it was ridiculous not to bring it here to New York, for me to use, and for JNH to write at when I’m gone, whenever that may be. (If this year’s taught me anything, it’s that that could be anytime).

So here it is, with me sitting at it.


P helped Dad pack up their house for his move, and so she was there when the guys came to pick up the desk. In the knee-hole space she included a box full of other things – some paintings, and folders of my “stuff” that Mum had kept.

Among them was a baby book and a list, written in her familiar blue ink writing, of my “general progress” from birth. Five weeks saw “first smile,” and “discovered feet”. 20 weeks saw “positive attempts to crawl.” 8 ½ weeks said “Broke leg” (I’d rolled off a changing table), but luckily it seemed to cause only a minor pause in progress, as 9 months 1 week said: “Back to where we were before leg broke.”

One of the paintings I shipped is an old Punch cartoon of four sloths. Three are hanging comfortably upside down from the branches, and one is on top of a branch clinging on with an intense expression. “For heaven’s sake Roger, relax” reads the caption. Roger was my grandfather’s name. I’ve hung it up near the desk as a reminder.


Nothing has felt quite right this Christmas. A “Charlie Brown” local children’s play was pretty rubbish. The “ginger kick” cocktail I introduced Dad to in one of our local bars “The Shady Lady” was way too spicy even for him (laced with jalapenos), so he had to order a different one. CMH decided to have a couple of wild tantrums. Mum wasn’t with us.

She wasn’t, yet in all kinds of ways she was, and that’s what I need to hold on to.