September 14, 2014
The Taste of Blackberries
I packed up the bags early this morning, rescued socks that were stranded in the drying machine and sorted out passports. One last coffee; a piece of toast. We drove to the airport, chattering and laughing together as if we had the whole day ahead of us. A quick goodbye, a hug and my two daughters were gone, pulling their suitcases along and waving to us as they disappeared into the airport.
It felt strange, driving back to Southgate with my cousin and her daughter, the car much quieter now. It feels as if I am a shadow and not really here at all – as if, in fact, I had got on the airplane and was now hurtling along through the sky back to Israel. But I’m not. My plans have changed and I’m staying in London for a few more days.
I was born in London and this was my home until aged six. These are the streets I knew as a child, before my family moved to the north of England.
I went to visit my old house in the north earlier this week. I got out of the car, leaned over the black railings at the back of the garden and touched the bracken growing at the edge of the garden. I reached out to the silver birch trees that line the edge of this property my parents bought about forty years ago. One of the trees was just a sapling when we moved into the house. I don’t remember it being planted but I do remember how slender it was back then and how it used to shimmer in the moonlight. My daughter asked if I’d like a piece of bark from the tree and I said no, it belongs here. Let it be. Wild blackberries poke out between the railings. The end of summer. After school, my brother and I used to play in the little wood near our house and we would pick blackberries and pop them straight into our mouths without washing them. So I do remember.
September 7, 2014
In England we had a back garden and it had a swing in it. There was a shed at the far end and there were always robins flitting around. Now I am at my cousin’s house in London and I’m sitting outside in her back garden, and it’s early morning. The sky is gray (England, after all) and I forgot my flip-flops upstairs so I’m barefoot and the ground is cold.
Despite the years I have lived away from this country, it is still home. I was born here. Traveling on the underground yesterday to visit my sick uncle in hospital, I felt at home, observing the other people sitting opposite me as we traveled along from north to south London, as we moved up and down the escalators, swallowed up into the belly of London.
On the way to the underground, a neighbor of my cousin stopped us in the street to say hello. When she heard I was from Israel (my cousin always introduces me this way) she paused, a fixed smile on her face. “Do you like it?” she asked me. I thought for a moment. Do I? No, I do not like it a lot of the time. I do not like the lack of tolerance, I do not like the political stalemate, I do not like the harshness of the sun. But there are people there and they mean a lot to me, and there is a house with a garden and a shed to the side. There are no squirrels or robins but there are tortoises and there’s a fig tree that produced a lot of figs this year, and there’s an apple tree out the back. So, yes, I do like it.
August 31, 2014
Go stand on the edge of the wadi. Walk over slowly, your feet crunching on the dry earth.
Now stop. Listen to the silence. The wadi is blue; the earth below your feet is yellow; the air is dry and hot although it is not yet midday. Look around you. The ibex arrived here long before you. They lift their heads at your approach, shift their pale brown bodies slightly. The Nubian ibex are active during the day. Their shiny coats attract solar radiation; the sun is their greatest ally. They have been here for years and this is their home, among the majestic mountains of a desert that stretches for miles around. You are just a dot on this landscape, pinpointed under a pale sky sketched with clouds. Make your peace with the desert. Breathe it in. This is your life.
Now walk away.
Anyone who has moved to another country will know the feeling. It’s easy to lose track of loved ones, particularly the people who belong to my childhood memories, who were there when I was born and who were a big part of those first years of my life, my other life.
So I’m going to England soon. My uncle is sick and I want to spend some time with him. There are other relations belonging to the older generation who are also unwell. It’s time, I think, to focus on my family. Not everyone, especially older people, are familiar with Skype or even email. My aunt, for example, in Manchester, does not have a computer and so we speak on the phone quite regularly. Months go by without seeing each other and for me this is the main hurdle to living far away.
Going back to England always unnerves me, takes me out of my comfort zone, reminds me of the life I could be living had I not been taken away to another country. After all these years, I still feel an immense sense of belonging to London, where I was born and where I lived until age 6, and to the north of England, where I lived until I was sent to live in Israel. I did not want to come here, had no sense of identity at the time and I did not understand the mentality of the people who became my neighbors, my friends and my colleagues. This feeling intensifies as my departure date draws near.
I always travel up to the north of England, to Yorkshire, where my brother, Andrew, is buried. I know he is not there. If he’s anywhere, he is in my heart, in the pocket of my soul that I carry around with me wherever I go. I hate to think of his grave, mostly unvisited. It is as if he were not loved deeply by my parents, by me, by my aunts and uncles, our cousins and his friends. He was loved and still is. When I go back, I feel my brother beside me wherever I go. Here we went to school; here we played hide and seek in the forest near our house.
There was a time when I very much wanted to bring Andrew’s remains back here to Israel. I am over that, for now. Andrew never visited Israel. Like me, he had no particular religious identity. He was happy in England because that was what he knew. I was happy, too.
Life goes on. I love my family here in Israel and I love my family in England. I’ve always said that it’s less important where you live and more important who you live with. I still believe in this but I will always be torn between the two.
August 17, 2014
Through the Trees
What has been happening in the Middle East has shaken me out of my safe little hole. This morning I opened the newspaper and saw a photograph of myself, my partner and my son at the demonstration held in Tel Aviv last night: Changing Direction: Toward Peace, Away from War. If I ever needed a wakeup call, here it is. This is me, my partner on one side, my son on the other, my head tilted to one side, looking at the thousands of people who had gathered because now is the time to stand up and be counted.
I stepped away from poetry these past weeks. I still see the trees that have so influenced my writing but they have become background to my intense focus on what is happening right now, not just here but all over the world. Just six weeks ago I was in Berlin, pedaling around on a bike, enjoying the sudden bursts of rain, watching the World Cup in beer gardens and generally settling in to a slow summer.
All that ended abruptly when the war broke out here. It began unfolding while I was away. I remember I didn’t want to come back, I wanted to cling to the handles of the bike I had rented and just keep on pedaling to new places. But I came back and, in retrospect, it was the right move. I have morphed into prose, writing and publishing not only on the dire situation here but also about myself and where I stand. This, I think, is a first for me. When I worked in journalism, I had the privilege of standing on the sidelines, looking on. I no longer have that cover.
I have been jolted into awareness of where I figure in this whole puzzle: my British roots, my Jewish roots, my Israeli connection, my Palestinian connection. And for the first time, I have written about the death of my brother, the intricacies of my family, the illness of my son. I’m not saying that everything else is trivial or not worth writing about, just that I’m using this opportunity to take a long look at myself and who I am, through the trees.
August 10, 2014
Writing for Change
People who don’t know me personally think I’m Chinese. I get a lot of readers here from China for that reason. Chen – that’s a Chinese name, right? Well no, not in my case. It’s simply the surname I took when I got married. At the time, I liked the sound of it. The fact that people think I’m Chinese is a tiny example of how programmed we are and how easily we jump to conclusions. I mention this because it seems to me that lately people jump to conclusions about a lot of things that are happening globally right now. How can we stop this?
Writing can bring about change. The ability to write and to read, I think, is a gift we all have within us. When terrible things happen in the world, all over the world, writing to others gives us the ability to reach out. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has been in the headlines for the past month is one of a number of human tragedies in the world today. The outbreak of Elboa in Liberia, the ongoing conflict in Iraq, the war in Eastern Congo, for example. It’s easy to write in a purely political context, to talk about the folly of leaders or enter into religious squabbles over who is right and who is wrong. Facebook and other forms of social media have become a feeding ground for this. But there are people behind these headlines who have become lost or forgotten. They are the voices we should be listening to. Let’s listen to them. Perhaps we can’t always help in a practical way, because we’re far away or we have our own everyday problems to attend to. I’m naïve in this sense but glad to be so because I believe that a dose of naivety can go a long way, it can lead us towards a healthier, more caring future for ourselves and our children.
August 3, 2014
I found time to go to Beit Jamal this week, the Catholic convent up on the hill near my home. When I got there, the convent was locked and bolted. A sign stuck to the black gate read: “We are sorry. Beit Jamal is not open to visitors today.” I stood there in the sun, feeling very alone. I wanted to go in.
Suddenly, there was a beep of the electronic gate and the two doors opened slowly, creaking on their hinges. A cheery nun in a white habit walked out to me. “Do you want to see the ceramics?” she asked. They have a small store there selling hand-painted ceramics and local honey. “No,” I said. She gave me a hard stare. “Do you want to pray?” she continued. A pause while I considered this. “Yes,” I said. “I think I do.” She nodded, told me to wait and disappeared back into the church grounds. I was left standing there under the shade of the bougainvillea, faintly sweating in the heat. I stood against the cool stone wall and rummaged in my bag for the bottle of water. A few minutes later, another nun in a white habit and a floury apron walked towards me. I know her; I have been visiting Beit Jamal for years. We kissed on both cheeks and then we embraced. She smelt of freshly baked bread. I already felt comforted.
She told me the church has been closed almost every day since the latest conflict in Gaza began. “We don’t want any trouble,” she said sadly. There have been many troubles for these women in the not so distant past from extremists who resent the presence of the nuns. A firebomb was thrown into the grounds, threats were made. It is better, I suppose, these days, to be safe than sorry.
We talked for a few minutes. I told her that sometimes I wish I were a million miles from here. I asked her what she thinks I should do. “You should be here,” she said without hesitation. “Right here, where you are now.”
So here I am. I will keep writing, keep focusing. And I didn’t even mention God.
July 27, 2014
Yesterday there was a ceasefire. It was Saturday. The night before, the booms did not stop. At 3am the house fairly rocked and the walls shook. At 8am as the ceasefire began, silence fell upon my house. I sat outside with a second cup of coffee. The cat kept close, curling herself around my bare feet. I listened to the silence as if I was listening to it for the first time. There are nuances in silence, there are degrees and shades to silence. This was a heavy silence and it lay upon the air the whole day and did not move.
I have been silenced many times by what has happened over the last three weeks. I do not want to take part in arguments or discussions over who is right and who is wrong any more. I have friends on both sides and I will not take sides. But I will take a conscientious stand for the right of everyone to live a decent life, raise a family and not live with the threat of losing a loved one, burying a child, mourning a family member. Every time someone dies in this war a new generation of fear and hatred rises.
Perhaps because of this silence, I’m thinking in pictures this week and I want to share them with you. Pictures of people. These are all people I saw in the past couple of days. A baby girl, born last month, with a rosebud mouth and a shock of black hair. I bent down to kiss her, I inhaled her beautiful clear skin and baby breath at a ceremony held for her on Friday. Despite the tense situation, her family decided not to postpone the event. I agree. Birth should be celebrated, not hidden away for the right time because the right time is now.
There were a lot of people there. Standing to the side at the baby blessing was a tall man hunched over, unshaven, wearing a blue shirt and jeans. Someone whispered in my ear that he is the father of an Israeli soldier killed last week in Gaza. I looked at him, noticed his moist eyes and the way he looked across the room, beyond the people who were milling about, to some spot that only he could see. I felt ashamed to be staring at him yet I couldn’t take my eyes off him. My brother died many years ago and I will never forget the shock, the way my world turned upside down, the way it felt like the end. This is what I was looking at. It wasn’t about politics, it wasn’t about who is right or wrong, it was pure grief.
And I’m thinking of Salim Tabib from Ramallah, who stood facing a few thousand people last night at a demonstration in Tel Aviv and expressed his desire for reconciliation in a clear and steady voice. It can’t have been easy for him, living where he does, to take such a stand. It took guts to do that. He belongs to Combatants for Peace. He spent years in Israeli jails, where, he said wryly, he learnt to speak such good Hebrew. Together with him was a former Israeli soldier who fought in a combat unit. They hugged as they left the stage. Not a show. For real. At that same demonstration, Ben Kfir from Ashkelon also spoke, a heavy, bearded man who read from a page so that he would not forget anything because right now words are all we have. His daughter was killed in a suicide bombing carried out by the Hamas in 2003. He belongs to the Parents Circle Family Forum for parents of children on both sides killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With him was a Jamil Qassas, a Palestinian who lost three family members in the first Intifada. He spoke with passion and love. You do not have to agree with them but you must admire them for attempting, against all odds, to find peace in the country that they share. These days, it’s so easy to hate.
There is the toddler, deeply shocked, rubbing eyes full of dust, who was pulled out of the rubble by family members in Gaza last week. A miracle among the many dead and I am thankful for photographers like Heidi Levine who are documenting this for the world.
I will not succumb to hatred and fear. I will let my conscience guide me. I will keep looking at these people with open eyes and I will search for good.
I have one more picture for you before I go: The face of a little girl who visited my home yesterday with her parents. I took her into the garden and I showed her the lemon tree, and the grapes growing on the vine. Her face lit up with pleasure, pure pleasure, when I held her in my arms and she reached out to pick a grape and popped it in her mouth. She stroked our cat with a hesitant hand, afraid to get scratched and then laughed as the cat snuggled up to her. She told me my garden has magic in it. Perhaps it does, or perhaps the magic comes from her.
July 20, 2014
A Woman Like Me
We sit in our home. We are lucky, I know, even for this. Occasionally, we look up at each other from a book, or the wires or TV, and we shake our heads. No, the news is not good. It is only getting worse. A friend of mine said the gates of hell will soon open if this conflict does not stop but I tell you they have already opened.
The whole day there have been booms, a siren, more booms, and planes flying overhead, scraping the sky and our nerves. I long since stopped worrying about my own little world. There are so many others to worry about in this horrible conflict: There is Hassan and Ashraf, from my Newsweek days in Gaza, whose houses I visited and who shared food with me; there is the 8-year old who lives up the road and who blurted out to me just one word when I asked her how she was enjoying the summer: Frightened, she said; there is my beautiful friend who lives on the southern border and who thinks she heard weeping at the window in the middle of the night but when she went to the window the weeping stopped and I’m thinking that the weeping she heard was her own; there is my brave photographer friend, Heidi, who has been in Gaza from the beginning and I know she will not leave until she has finished her work; there is Nuha, my dear friend from Ramallah who I spoke with today and who I know will always be my friend; there are my neighbors who do not know where exactly their sons are and whether they are alive; there are girlfriends with young children who are weary of the endless sirens, the lack of stability, the fear.
These people are all my friends. They come from different backgrounds and they have different life experiences and different opinions. I do not want to question these friendships ever. I know there will be no immediate end to this conflict but there will, eventually be an end, and then we will all have to start picking up the fragments of our lives.
And there are other people that I do not know and can only imagine. It’s easiest, of course, to imagine someone like me – a woman with children, a woman who likes reading books, a woman who likes forests, poetry and fresh-baked bread with labaneh, a woman who wants to explore the world and, most of all, to understand what happened to it.
July 13, 2014
So many of us, Palestinians and Israelis, all want the same thing at the end of the day: to sit down with our families at the dinner table and to break bread together. We want to hear how school was, what work was like, to look at our children’s beautiful faces and to feel how lucky we are. There is nothing lovelier than tucking up your children at night and knowing they are safe. Is this so much to ask?
What is happening here is devastating. Over the past week, 30 children in Gaza have been killed and many more injured. Thousands of children on both sides have been traumatized. And it’s not over because the leaders on both sides say it’s not over.
Everyone is afraid, wherever they are. Fear, we all know, leads to hatred and hatred widens the gap between the two sides even more. While rockets and missiles fly overhead, it is hatred that has filled the social media channels over the past week. Facebook, Twitter, even phoney SMSs sent to my cell phone. Everything is justifiable; no one is accountable.
There are drops of humanity through all this: My poet friend Sivan Butler-Rotholz who writes: “I’m certainly not taking sides — when people are dying on both sides then both sides are losing'; my poet and translator friend Sabine Hunyh, who writes of her daughter’s day care center with compassion and humiiity: “When the siren blares, the children are ushered into the back room and are read stories. I love that, this idea that children’s books protect my daughter, the way talismans do. They have read a lot of books lately.”
And there are voices calling for an end to all this, including my own. But a real end, one in which both sides sit down and talk, make concessions, recognize the rights of each other, may not agree on everything, but are willing to break bread together before further damage is done. For all those killed and injured, and for their families, it is too late, but there is still time to prevent further bloodshed and suffering. There are no winners here.
So I left the country for one week and crisscrossed over Berlin several times on a bicycle, spent many hours with good friends and discovered the delights of bubbly water. I am very good at switching off and relaxing, I use my time well. But this time it was harder. What has happened in Israel over the past week is horrifying; what lies ahead horrifies me even more.
I have always said that it’s less important where you live and more important who you live with, and this is still true for me. But the hatred in the air and the dread of where all this will lead, the incredible hardships for individual families, Palestinian and Israeli, the way certain groups on both sides use other people’s tragedies to further their own aims and the dead-end political atmosphere is not something I am able to put to one side.
Even while riding a bicycle, the wheels whirring steadily, the wind in my face and the sun shining down on me I cannot leave it behind. Nor should I. I love my family and friends, I love my house and the garden with its fruit trees, but I do not love what is happening. It feels like this country is once again careening full speed down a hill towards disaster.
June 29, 2014
By the time you read this (and this is the first line of a poem I’m posting below) I will either be en route to Berlin, or already there. The last time I visited was a short time after my mother died, almost three years ago. I remember, as the plane took off, that a tremendous load lifted off my shoulders. I was literally leaving the scenes of sorrow, problem-solving and forced effort behind. That journey marked the end of a terrible year: my mother’s slow death, termination of my job at Newsweek and an awful lot of numbing of the soul. I did not know which way to turn, had no idea how to keep moving, was unsure whether it was still me in there somewhere.
So I went to Berlin and it was there that I began to move again. I spent three days wandering along the streets, visiting art galleries, museums, cafes. I had wanted to rent a bicycle but the weather was too cold, so I walked, and somehow the freezing temperatures, the anonymity of being in a big, bustling city, knowing hardly anyone, not understanding the language, did the trick. I began to thaw out, warm up. I relaxed, stopped looking to see what time it was, left my cell phone in the hotel room and quit worrying that everyone was OK. Everyone was OK. Amazingly, I realized, so was I.
This time, I leave for Berlin in a very different frame of mind. Life isn’t perfect but there is so much to look forward to, so much reading to do, so much writing I want to complete. Back then, I didn’t know what I wanted and I think that was the most difficult part, the not wanting anything. And I want to be with you in Berlin, and come back with you.
By The Time You Read This
By the time you read this
it will be late
and I will be far away,
moving through corridors
that make up my life.
you will be far away
and I will be here,
with my dog,
my cups of coffee,
You and I will both
be here, with our
lives and our loves,
far away, and
you will peer over my
shoulder as you pass.
June 22, 2014
Sisters of Zion, Unite
Give yourself over to the tranquility of the garden: olive trees, rosemary and mint, sunflowers lifting their heads in the late afternoon sun, quiet paths to walk in and an exceptional view of the valley below. This is the Sisters of Zion convent where I spent less than 24 hours with a group of writers last week. What a wonderful place to unwind in, devoting time to a shared love of writing. Who cares that the cemetery there is closed for renovations? Who cares that I showered without soap because I could not find any (I did find it, later, mysteriously nestling between the covers of my little bed). There is room for everyone to roam around in, there is space to think and recharge in.
I almost didn’t go. There are so many great excuses: too much work, commitments, fatigue. But I did go and I am so happy for it. I am reminded of the poet Gregory Orr’s gentle insistence on adhering, always, to the beloved: “Without any sense [of] the beloved, it seems to me the world goes dead, or the world goes just to self, which is even worse.”.
There is so much of the beloved to be found within these stone walls. For me, the beloved is a single stone step in the gardens there. It has likely been there for years. It does not lead up, nor does it lead down. What it does is to invite you to contemplate all that is beloved in your life. You know, sometimes I lose sight of the beloved, of who or what is really important. I rediscovered it at the writing retreat: listening to these wonderful writers and friends reading from their own work, sharing food and ideas together, what a treat. How beloved.
What do I do when I am under pressure and have too much work for one Joanna to do and everything feels like too much? Time out. Last week, I spent two precious hours in Batnadiv Weinberg’s studio in Jerusalem. We sat opposite each other, she with her back to the window, me facing the window. Batnadiv drew me, while I experimented with water colors.
Many years ago, while wandering through Petticoat Lane in London, I came across a clairvoyant sitting at a little card table next to a stand selling brass lanterns. I have no idea why I lingered there. I don’t believe in that kind of thing. But I did stop. I let her read my palm and I could feel the tears welling up inside me before she had even spoken. She read me well, the terrible sadness I carry around inside me but also my love of life. She told me I should paint in watercolors because that would release my creativity. She added wryly that I should paint with my left hand for maximum effect. This made me laugh, since I have no artistic talent at all, even when drawing with my right hand. My artistic capabilities begin and end with my ability to produce a decent smiley, a fluffy tree and something that looks like a contented fetus.
After one half-hearted attempt some time after that, I gave up but never forgot what she had said. And last week, sitting in the studio, I felt safe enough to lift up a thin brush, dip it into paint, into water and then onto a page balanced on my knee. The result was not impressive, at least not on the page. Lots of splodges and leaking of colors one into the other. But something was released there and I want to go back and do it again.
There are so many similarities between poetry and painting. Both are creative forms that follow certain structures. If you choose to write a poem as a sonnet, you are already setting the tone; in the same way, if you choose to draw in charcoal, you are also setting a certain tone. And within that structure, there is so much room for maneuver. How much water do you leave on the brush? How concentrated is the color? How long are the lines, how much alliteration is there? Will the title bleed into the words that follow, as colors do?
Two hours, and the trees swayed gently in the sun outside the window of the studio. I may never make it as an artist but being good at something is not everything in life. Lots of light for us all.
June 6, 2014
When I began writing here just over a year ago, it was an exercise for myself, a promise that I would write once a week, whether I felt like it or not. It was about self-discipline, about not letting myself slide down the writing slope. I was also curious to see if I could get some writing down that was not pure poetry. Sundays would leap up upon me unawares. Nowadays, I wait for Sundays. I write what I want, as long as it’s something that really happened to me, something that is a good honest bite out of my life that other people can taste. So I wrote last week about going for a mammogram. The idea was not to garner sympathy or slip into the land of boo and hoo but to write about something with eyes wide open, to say it like it is. This is what happened. Not a story. So something quite different this week, for your reading delight.
I got stopped by the police last week. Quite a scene. Midnight, in a sleazy street on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Two policemen wave me down with torches and a flashing light. Oh God, I think, stopping by the side of the road as gracefully as possible. I am guilty. I plead guilty. But of what?
I roll down my window. I am wearing bunny-print pyjama bottoms and an over-sized t-shirt. I have a hyperventilating dog in the back of the car. Way past her bedtime and every time I stop the car she tries to get out. I smile hopefully up at the policeman. Hi, I say. Madam, have you been drinking? he asks me, very business-like. Me? I say. No, I’m wearing pyjamas, I say and lean back a little so he can see for himself. A little pause from the officer while he takes in this interesting fact and tries to follow my logic. OK, thank you, he says. Have a great evening.
No test to see if I have been drinking, no request for car documents or I.D. Just bunny pyjamas.
June 1, 2014
Invasion of the Breast
So there is a lump and it belongs to me. And now it has a little titanium clip to keep it company inside my left breast. I turned up for my mammogram this week, laptop in hand, thinking I would do some work but hoping I would be out quickly. I had been putting it off for too long. A stern female voice told me last week I should expect to be there for up to three hours. What would I do there for three whole hours? Are my breasts that fascinating? I examined them in the mirror that morning, after taking a shower. No, they are not.
When I arrived, I was again told I may have a long wait. OK. I took out my laptop, began reading some more poetry submissions for the journal I am guest editing. Underneath my t-shirt, my breasts waited patiently for their grand appearance Then, the mammogram, in which my breasts were lifted into the air and then flattened between two Perspex platters and then flattened again so that they looked like omelettes, or fried eggs, but not breasts. Then, I got dressed and read a few more poems. Then an ultrasound. I undressed again, folding my clothes carefully so I would not look like a slob.
I waited behind a curtain, covered by a pink towel the size of a pea, while the doctor spoke on the phone to another doctor. Comfortable? He asked when he came back in to the room? Oh, yes. So he examines my mortified breasts, and I think about happier places: the way home and what’s for lunch, and did I turn the rice off. He returns, covers me with some more gunk and continues the ultrasound. A long pause while he stares at the screen. I twist my head up to see what he’s looking at. Is there a baby there? Is it a crater removed from the moon? No, it’s a lump. He leaves the room, comes back with backup troops and a big needle. Do you understand what we’re doing? a new face asks me. I haven’t a clue, I say. A biopsy, right there and then. I’m glad. Go for it. And then, a titanium clip is shot into my breast to mark the spot. Welcome to my left breast, I think.
I am not worried, just relieved I did go and annoyed that I waited even a little but of time. No excuses.
May 25, 2014
A Meteoric Rise
We rolled out of bed in our pyjamas, made green tea and crept out with a sleepy dog into the pre-dawn. A spectacular meteorite shower had been promised all over the world. Earth would be passing through the tail of a comet venturing out of the clouds. The estimate was two hundred meteors an hour. Surely some would be coming our way. Driving in the car, my daughter and I worked out that meant more than three a minute. We were in for a treat.
The comet is known as the May Camelopardalids. The word apparently means giraffe, which is confusing. Is it a camel or a giraffe? Neither, apparently.
We checked very carefully and timed our arrival according to the learned forecasts of NASA. The spot we chose was pitch-black, far away from street lights. Living on the edge of a forest has its advantages although even the trees were surprised to see us up so early.
A blanket was spread out on the ground. Green tea was poured out and allowed to cool a little in the chilly air. We lay down on the blanket, and looked up at the magnificent sky. There were stars, plenty of them, but they were not going anywhere. They were staying put. At first we kidded ourselves that we could see occasional stars darting along. “Over there!” I shouted encouragingly. “Wasn’t that something?” No, it wasn’t. Because there was no meteorite shower that night.
But I must tell you that there was something else: our own laughter and friendship, the sound of birds beginning to sing their dawn arias, a perfect crescent of a moon in a black sky, and a wonderful sunrise that spread slowly out across the forest, kissing the trees, and us, good morning.
May 18, 2014
The Horizontal Line Where Earth Meets Sky
People move in and out of my life at such a rapid pace. I suppose this is the result of our ever-growing world. I can think of a lot of people now, scattered over the globe, who mean a lot to me. Someone I am very fond of, although we meet rarely, is about to leave for the US permanently, she says. What does that mean? What remains permanent in my life? I’m not sure any more.
Friendships, real friendships, do endure the test of time and space. I know that from my last visit abroad, when I met up with friends who I have not seen for a long time. With a few of them, the connection between us was as strong as ever, unbound by physically shared activities or shared communities. What holds us together is not the fact that we live in the same street or our children are of similar age. It’s interests we are passionate about, it’s that click you feel when the other person articulates exactly what you are thinking. It’s also the electricity of inspiration in the air triggered by someone else’s thoughts. Yes! The ideas that ping-pong between you and that lead to more ideas.
When I leave you, an invisible string unravels between us, covering those physical miles that separate us. Sometimes, it gets pulled tightly and snaps, and severs. Sometimes it holds tight. No need to tie a knot.
The painter Albert Pinkham Ryder was fascinated by the horizontal line where earth meets sky. I am fascinated by it, too. Perhaps this is where we will meet, next time.
May 11, 2014
I took the weekend off. Take the weekend off, Joanna, I muttered under my breath as I made up the bed for my guest, coming that morning. I had mopped the floor the night before, baked pumpkin cake and fairly begged my son to sweep the leaves outside that have been gathering for the past two weeks on the front porch. I think I have never seen so many dead leaves in my life. It’s practically summer, right? Why are the leaves dying and why does the tree look so very green, so lush, if there are so many leaves scattered all over the place? When I look up into the tree that towers over my house I see only dark green, so when do they change color and when is the exact moment that they fall? When do they change color? So I stop what I am doing, I lean against the mop and I wait and I watch. They fall, twirling down in delicate, pale spirals onto the garden path. One by one, not together but separate. They are done growing. They are done with life.
Yet I know this is renewal. For every leaf that falls there are others that are growing on the tree. And my guest arrives, and I do not know her but we have a wonderful three days together. And I go places with her, all close to where I live, and we sit in the garden, and the leaves fall and they grow all around, and I finally sit back and relax and life is good and it rumbles along and I can hear the tree growing, the branches thickening and strengthening. In with the new.
We walked to one of the oldest olive trees in the area, Two thousand years old, with dense, gnarled roots that curl around each other. It’s comfortable and safe here. If you lean against the tree, if you allow yourself to let go for just five minutes, if you let the tree cradle you and hold you, you can feel the old and the new coming together, meeting right here in this small space of light and love. This tree is a generous, accepting one.
And you know you are not the only one, that others have walked this upward path before you. My friend says the spirit of those who have walked here over the years remains with the tree. Leaning my back against the roots, I feel it, too.
May 4, 2014
The way back was uneventful. The plane was overbooked, I was offered $300 to take a later flight. I accepted with alacrity. The offer never materialized. No one stopped me at the gate. No reprieve. Years ago, I was bumped off a plane in London, taken in a taxi to a hotel in the middle of nowhere, given a hotel room overlooking a field with rabbits. It was in the country. There were horses and a paddock facing the restaurant and I spent hours watching indolent horses trotting around in circles, refusing to jump low bars placed across the paddock, more interested in the cubes of sugar they were offered. It looked good to me.
So when the miracle did not happen at Dulles and I was not asked to give up my seat, I stepped on to the plane, bracing myself for a vile trip back squashed up against another passenger. My seat, predictability, was in the middle of the middle row, close to the toilets. Nothing worse than that. The plane slowly filled up. I waited to see who would be my partner for the 9 hour flight. No one came. The doors closed. I held my breath. Was this really happening? Was God giving me a break here? Yes! The seat next to her remained vacant and I stretched out, relived and thankful, ignored the food, the duty free, the movies, and slept.
But I was not alone. A virus attached itself to me, probably taking advantage of those nine uninterrupted hours to dig in deep. I stepped off the plane, me and the virus, and spent the next week and a half in bed, feeling terrible, sweating in most unladylike fashion, wishing I was dead more or less, wishing it would all just end. So dear virus, please go away, never come back, never sit down next to me uninvited. Take a long walk off a short plank and never come back.
April 27, 2014
Dislocation. Like they say, the plane may have arrived but it takes another week for the person aboard the plane to actually land. My physical self here, my emotional self somewhere else altogether. So I have enjoyed eating cream cheese and carrot sticks at 3am, I’ve lain in bed wide awake half the night, I’ve locked the car but left the windows wide open, and I’ve shampooed my hair with bubble bath. Dear brain, please re-join my body as soon as possible before something terrible happens. I promise not to ask you any difficult questions.
Unable to sleep, I googled the definition of jet lag and how to overcome it. Ten Easy Steps to Beating Jet Lag! Here are just two examples: 1. Go to sleep earlier. Ah, right. 2. Wear dark sunglasses at all times for at least a week. Perhaps not a brilliant idea as you stumble into the kitchen at 3am.
Or what about this helpful comment? “Overcoming jet lag is fundamentally a math problem and we’ve calculated the optimal way of doing it,” says a professor of math at a college in Michigan. Good for him. But I was never very good at math, especially when befuddled, bleary-eyed and just plain exhausted.
So this math professor recommends blocking the light with orange-tinted glasses to approximate darkness, or using a 10,000 lux lamp inside to simulate full daylight. Oops, sorry, I don’t happen to have orange-tinted glasses and where can you buy a lux lamp?
I knew I should have stayed in Washington.
April 20, 2014
Freewheel down through Capitol Hill early morning on a rented bike, turn left at the Lincoln Memorial, cross over Arlington Memorial Bridge and under, until you reach the bicycle trail that skirts the airport, follows the Potomac River to Alexandria and then climbs up through a magical forest to Mount Vernon. The cold bites at your face and your fingers. You wrap the scarf tighter around your neck and you pedal.
The scenery changes rapidly and so do the people: from professionals in business suits talking on street corners to preppy couples clutching Starbucks coffee on the Hill. The human landscape shifts to lone runners in luminous Nike outfits, to families with dripping ice creams and runny noses strolling along the waterfront at Alexandria. At the Cajun restaurant where bow-tied waiters serve you jambalaya, gumbo and bread and butter pudding, you think you have had enough.
You leave them all behind as you climb up to Mount Vernon. The weather becomes warmer, squirrels cross your path, the leaves from the trees rustle in the wind.
At the end, after more than 20 miles, you give up, you stop struggling with the gears on the bike and the pain in your shoulders. You get off the bike and you push it up the incline. You walk slowly, you stop to take photos of the trees because you want to remember this, the golden afternoon that is yours for this space of time, all yours.
I wake up early here in the city. Ironically, it’s not the noise of cars going by that wakes me up but the birds chirping outside my window. They have their own city language. Sassier, bolder than where I come from. Who would think there would be so many birds in the city? Sitting on the second floor of a café on Capitol Hill earlier this week, I watched a bird building a nest. And there are squirrels. And fat bees with shiny bodies, buzzing around. I’m supposed to be working, some of the time. Others around me do more.
And this morning, Sunday, we walked quickly down to the tidal basin at 7:30am, hoping to beat the crowds of people coming to see the cherry blossoms that DC is so famous for. Last week, I stopped to ask people whether, perhaps, this was a cherry tree. Or this? Today, I did not have to ask. As we walked down a narrow alleyway towards the tidal basin, a cloud of pink blossom floated up above the water. Soft, airy clusters of cherry blossom stretching out before us, pale petals swirling around in the breeze.
Although it was already filling up with tourists, there was no sense of rush to get to the best spot. There was no pushing at all. A sense of relaxation as people walked around the tidal basin slowly, enjoying the blossoms, savoring the weather, exchanging smiles. A lovely day.
April 6, 2014
People are worried about me. I have been in DC for over a week and it’s cherry blossom season. And no cherry blossoms.
I walk around a lot outside, I watch out for pink blossoms. I must not let my friends down. I see some big, fleshy blossoms, and ask a passerby brightly: Is this it? No, that’s something else. And there are daffodils and crocuses and clumpy bluebells. There are hyacinths in pink and purple. The sky is a wonderfully clear blue and I have found a French café where they serve café au lait in deep bowls and the froth remains on the top right through to the end. But no cherry blossoms.
And then early evening, just as dusk was falling, on our way to a funky Latino jazz show on H St., bundled up in a scarf and gloves against the sudden chill, I finally saw the blossoms: wonderful streaks of deep pink searing through the sky above Capitol Hill.
And the jazz was amazing. We danced all night and staggered home after midnight through the empty streets. In bed, just before I drifted off, I remembered that cherry sky and I knew that tomorrow was going to be another beautiful day.
Here you are. You have stood outside in the cold, waited in a line that snakes around the block and inches slowly along. You have entered the building. Your coat has been hung carefully in the cloakroom. You have been given a green card with a number on it and you have placed it carefully in the inner pocket of your bag until you leave.
You will be hung in a gallery by your neck.
The clink of silver cutlery, the mirrored walls, the wood panelling. The yellow cabs speeding down the avenue. You have earned your glass of Chardonnay and your plate of apple strudel. You ooh at the strudel, taste it in little bites. You do not finish it all. You leave some on the plate. You are happy and well fed. Degenerate.
You think about your coat, dark and heavy, awaiting your return.
You have seen the degenerate art. You have put your hand delicately to your mouth, watched others standing by a Klee or a Kakoshka, making little tsk tsk sounds, collar and tie attached to neck. You think about men and women in hats with fur collars back in 1937 standing by a Klee or a Kakoshka, making little tsk tsk sounds, collar and tie attached.
You will be hung in a gallery by your neck.
At 3 AM I succumb to the whirr of the fan, the snuffles of the dog at the end of the bed, ideas circling around the space that has opened out. I go downstairs and outside, wrapped in a blanket that swishes along the ground as I make my way to the swing, the blanket gathering leaves, and listen to the silence filling the air. Even the birds are sleeping now.
I listen to my breathing, listen to the soft wave of a lone car passing by in my street, the purring of my cat, the catch in her throat. The catch in mine. The trap I have set for myself here in the dark that is not dark at all, it is gray dappled with green and yellow, it is tones of feeling that hover, flecks of light that shimmer.
I drank too much tonight, I laughed too hard, I made jokes so others would laugh with me. Then I got into the car and I drove home. My day was empty. A procession of meetings with people I met. Nothing moved. The car sprung to life, traveled along the highway, people on the street walked from one end to the other, my hand reached for the phone, my mouth opened. There were words but I cannot remember them. There is more movement here at 3am in the stillness of this garden than any of that.
The trees are breathing, the earth settles into the darkness. There is a shift. A flock of birds rises in the sky from an unknown point. I hear the beating of their wings before I see them, rising up the way I want to rise up, lifting into the air with purpose, on track.
A calendar of events, a diary, a schedule, signifies I am on track but I am not. I beat my wings without knowing where I am going, I migrate to places with names, I tell myself I am rising up but I am merely beating my wings and the air around waits to be moved.
My head is full of translation and my mouth is full of cornflakes. I have spent the past few days cloistered away, translating one poem after another at what is, for me, an alarming rate. There is a deadline, there is a goal. I can see it. I want it. So I plod through it, getting up early, going out running, even in the pouring rain, with a dog who is puzzled by my behaviour. and wants to remain curled up at the foot of the bed where it’s warm .
I began running last month. The reason was simple: I was walking quickly (to keep up with the leash-less dog) and I suddenly realised I may as well break into a run, or at least a plod, or a jog. Nothing serious, perhaps a trot. For years I’ve said I am too old to run, that my knees won’t stand for it, that I’ll pee in my pants, or twist the ankle I twisted years ago hanging out the washing. I will never forget the drive to the ER, holding a packet of frozen peas on my throbbing ankle. Never again. I am a coward. Low pain threshold.
But I’m doing it. I’m running. And as I run, the poems jog up and down in my head like separate little people with separate little lives. They breathe in the air of the forest as we leave the road behind, they slow down. The words begin arranging themselves in neat rows on the page in my head. They are ready to go. Poetry that breaks free and runs.
International Blah Blah Day
As far as I can tell, International Women’s Day is all about other people making money. I received an incredible amount of promotional material in my mail this year, inviting me to buy cosmetics and lingerie. Well, I’ve got news for you. Last time I looked, I was a woman, with or without makeup or sexy lingerie. No need to define me in this way.
The local beauty spa sent me a text message suggesting I become “even more feminine” by removing all my hair at a special discount in honor of international women’s day. Umm, no thanks. I suffer enough pain without actually having to pay for it.
I also received notifications about special days for women only in various locations through the month of March, where I can discuss issues that only women know about. And they know my name. They know me! “Dear Joanna, loveliest of women, discover the key to your inner self.” What might they be? Lectures on improving myself (too late for that, I think, tossing the printed invitation in the trash), lectures on being a good wife (ditto) and how to tap into my creative side. I’m tapping away, don’t worry about that one.
And then there are discounts on coffee and cake for myself and my girlfriends. Guess why. Because I am a woman and I deserve it. Do I? Like many of my friends, women and men, I really do not have time for that, deserving or not. I work hard, and if I’m sitting in a café it is usually on my own, working.
So no, I will not be attending the closed evening for women tomorrow evening. I won’t be rushing off with my coupon to claim a croissant and small cappuccino. I’ll be here, getting on with my life as best I can. You don’t need to be a woman to do that, just a decent human being.
Oranges and Lemons
I have been picking lemons from the tree today, careful not to knock off or disturb the waxy blossoms of other lemons coming through. This tree has been growing for at least sixteen years, and I have watched it every single season. I know this tree.
I felt lonely this week. Left out. It’s not that terrible, let’s face it. I know that sometime soon I will long for a bit of time to myself. Here it is, dearie. Use it.
The smell of fresh-picked fruit is a happy one, that burst of citrus coming through as each lemon is detached from the tree with a soft snap. I’m always torn between letting them stay on the tree, where they have grown so patiently, and taking them into the kitchen, to slice through them with a knife. Well, the knives in my kitchen are not that sharp.
Part of me, a big part of me, wants them to remain on that tree. My friend, Marcela, told me I must harvest them or they will become over-ripe. Same for the oranges. So I pick them, gently, I hold them in my arms, invite the neighbors, or friends (you) to share.
The thing is, I love the sight of them on the trees, the flash of yellow, or orange, through the leaves at night or early morning, the mist lifting slowly from the boughs. Did you ever see fruit smile?
To live your life is not as simple as to cross a field, says Boris Pasternak in Dr Zhivago. Actually, crossing a field can be pretty tricky, too. About 15 years ago, on a walking tour of southern England,, my family and I climbed over a stile and began crossing an extremely muddy field. It was a cold, sunny day and we were all pretty tired. Halfway across the field, bogged down by mud and cow shit, I came face to face with a herd of cows. The herd was massive, the cows themselves were massive, too, and muscley.
I decided they had it in for me. Everyone else ran across the field, laughing. I remained where I was, not exactly rooted to the spot because the mud was slippery, but transfixed and terrified, unable to move. The cows had singled me out, I was sure, and I would never survive. They’re looking at me weirdly! I shouted out. Help! Everyone laughed at me, already safely atop a fence the other side of the field. One of the cows lifted a front hoof, chewed thoughtfully on some grass, opened big eyes at me. Oh God, I thought, I’m sorry for anything bad I ever did, please let me live and I will never call anyone a silly cow again. The cow snorted, twitched at a fly that had settled on its eyelid.
And then it winked at me, slowly, without taking its eyes off me. I began to sob and thought about my nice safe hotel room with the chintz curtains and the duvet. Finally, I broke into a clumsy run, my shoes caked in cow shit. The cows did not even look behind them as I stumbled by.
I guess Boris Pasternak’s fields are calmer than mine.
Conversation with a Chameleon
Chameleons don’t talk. They do a lot of other stuff, but they don’t talk. They hiss fiercely when they’re under attack or feel threatened. It’s a rushing kind of noise that begins nowhere and catapults out of their bodies. But they cannot talk. They will stare at you, though, if you get up close, they’ll wiggle their stereoscopic eyes around, perhaps lift one leg in the air as a mark of je ne sais quoi. This is what one of the chameleons in my garden did last week. he lifted one of his front legs and kept it there, not dangling but suspended, as if he were about to ask a question or point something out to me. Something like Rodin’s The Thinker.
And his eyes kept moving around in his head, he blinked slowly. Did not move. Said nothing.
I shouldn’t be wasting my time on chameleons, I know. I have work to do and procrastinating with a chameleon will not help me along my way. But I was already in the garden, laptop abandoned, because my cat was mercilessly chasing the chameleon and I cannot bear it. I know all about survival of the fittest, I know I shouldn’t interfere with the law of the jungle, but I cannot bear to watch the cat flicking up a chameleon with her paw and then flipping it over. And the cat knows by now that I will not have it, that she will be scolded and locked indoors until the chameleon has recovered his composure and moved off.
They move slowly but surely. They move incredibly gracefully. Have you ever wondered what makes a body harmonious? Check out a chameleon moving. It flows, it’s fluid, the legs move in a pattern, the chameleon knows where it’s going. Out in the open, it’s unprotected by color, but on a branch of a tree covered in green leaves, the human eye will have a problem detecting it.
The eyes of the chameleon are its greatest asset in the struggle to survive. The upper and lower eyelids are joined so that they only have a tny pinhole to observe the world. It’s more than enough. Each eye can rotate separately, which means that they can focus on two objects at any one time. They can see tiny insects (dinner!) up to 210 meters away.
The name, chameleon derives from the Latin and Greek meaning “on the ground” and “lion”. When it hisses, I can imagine it has the tempremant of a lion, because it is so fierce and so incredibly scar. It looks like a dinosaur in miniature. I wonder how much it has changed over the years, and whether it had to make any adaptions from when it first came into existence, around about the middle Paleocene, in China. My chameleon has never been to China. It was born in my garden and, if the cat has her way, will probably die there. If I have my way,it will stay along with its chameleon brothers and sisters, something to distract me and to make me think of my own mortality and how I cannot make friends with every single creature I meet.
The Translation of Time.
A minute moves like a day. A day passes like a year. Six months can seem like a lifetime away. How do you measure time? There is a clock (yes, they still exist), a calendar, a cell phone that beeps or bleats when the time is up and the moment has arrived. To stop, to start.
And there is the heart that has its own particular timeless zone, that wants something or something and cannot wait for the beep, cannot wait for the right moment to arrive.
Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong era. As a child growing up in the north of England, I felt I belonged to the Bronte age, where life was often unbearably orderly and arranged, where emotion was swept up and hidden in an attic. But it always got out, on the page, at least in the case of the Brontes.
Consider T S Eliot’s rose garden, an image that is particularly strong for me.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
Perhaps I am too old, or too young. There are people I never got to meet and people I long to see again but cannot. There are plenty of people I wish I had never met.
And then there is the question of constancy. The dictionary defines this as “the quality of being faithful and dependable”. There are people in my life who are just this. The element of time is irrelevant here because I feel I have known them forever yet still discover things about them I do not know. This is my rose garden and I hope I will always have the motivation to open the door that leads to it. As Gregory Orr wrote, “I know now the beloved/ Has no fixed abode, /That each body/ She inhabits Is only a temporary home.” I believe that Orr is also alluding to the notion of time here in that there is no fixed abode either in time or space, that all is temporal. And yet, he says, he knows the beloved. He always knows the beloved, always recognizes her. Thank you, my friends, for reading.
I am not very good at yoga but yoga is very good to me. Yoga keeps me more or less sane, keeps me from putting my head on the tracks when I get up in the morning and everything goes wrong. Some days I will feel more like leaping out of bed to meet yoga, some days less, the days when I can feel my joints creaking and complaining.
Yoga smiles at me reassuringly, is indulgent when I can’t hold the pose, tells me it’s OK, that I am doing my best and that is enough. Yoga tells me that less is more, that it is better to do one thing to the best of my abilities than three things in a half-arsed way. And yoga enables me to take some time out, to breathe and to literally let my mind go blank.
Hurray for a blank mind, drained of everything, literally. Is this what they mean when they say “meditation”? I never understood it back in yoga class. Everyone else would be sitting in lotus position, eyes closed, doing the breathing thing, and I would be wondering how my stomach ought to fill out when I breathe out – or is it when I breathe in? Invariably, the session would end with the teacher putting a gentle hand on my back and whispering in my ear: “Joanna, let it go, breathe.”
The last few months, practicing yoga at home on the carpet (the dog ate my yoga mat), using a YouTube channel, my relationship with Yoga has deepened. I feel love. I think about Yoga and I let my mind go blank, completely blank.
When the blank goes away, the focus returns. I am Joanna, I am lying on the floor, the floor is not moving, it will be here tomorrow.
Get Off My Back
Let me make one thing clear: I will never ever send you a chain letter. I will not ruin your day by threatening you with doom and gloom if you do not forward my letter to six or ten or twenty other people. I will not promise you incredible good luck, wondrous wealth and guaranteed good health if you do send it.
Lately, I’ve been receiving these letters by email and WhatsApp. They tell me to chill out, that it’s fun, that I’m raining on everyone else’s parade by not playing the game. That I will not sleep well at night. Don’t worry about that one, I really don’t sleep well at night.
And one more thing: This is a two-way street. In other words, quit sending to me!!! I couldn’t care less what you have to say if you expect me to forward it to others. It blocks up my mailbox, my time, my brain cells. Leave me alone.
And then there are the phone calls I receive from lunatic organisations. The number on my dial is usually a foreign one, often with country code 44 from the UK (which always freaks me out because it might be from my family there) or from some other European destination. Of course I’m going to answer, just in case. What do I get? Hassidic music inviting me to pray at some holy grave if I want to get pregnant (no, thank you) or requesting money if I want to live through the next week. Yes, I do. Without you.
Interrogation of the Vagina
I will say this up front: There is nothing nice about visiting the gynaecologist. It’s humiliating, uncomfortable. It’s painful. The only bright side is the sense of overpowering freedom and relief that I feel when it’s over.
This time, the office was on the 5th floor of a dark, tall building. I am mortally afraid of elevators and so spent some minutes trudging up the stairs (already late for the appointment), reaching the 5th floor and then discovering, inexplicably, that the door to that floor is locked and bolted. I walked back down, then back up again, to find a small sign with a tiny arrow: “This Way Women”. I am a woman. I need to go up another flight of steps.
I arrive at the office huffing and puffing, sweating in very unwomanly fashion. I am faced with a long line of mournful looking women clutching their bags. Above them are posters of other women with puffy hair and big smiles, holding babies and bunches of flowers, running down what looks like the “Do Re Me” set from the Sound of Music.
There is no eye contact outside the gynaecologist’s office. Each to herself as we grit our teeth and wait for the worst. Finally, my turn. The gynaecologist does not lift her head as I walk in when my name is finally called. I am a vagina on legs and my face is of no interest to her. Plus, I am old, I am not pregnant, I will not be pregnant. No. Was I ever pregnant? Yes, four times. How were the births (taking a bite of what smells like a tuna sandwich)? Natural births? What the hell is natural, I wonder? Giving birth in the middle of a forest, or just running down a field and having the baby drop softly into the clover?
And then the dreaded words: “Remove your clothes,” (I can keep my socks on, they are purple and clean and I know they do not smell because I took a shower six seconds before getting into the car) “and put your legs up.” I am a horse, my legs are in stirrups. I am a chicken, I am about to be stuffed. I am anything but Joanna. I am on the moon, I am far away. I am not here. “This will not hurt,” says the gynaecologist, opening drawers and pulling out a clamp big enough for a whale. A bright light is trained between my legs She looks me in the eyes for the first time since I entered the room. “Relax, lie back, wriggle yourself further down for me.” For me, she says. As if I can help her while she interrogates my quaking vagina. I would blush down there if I only knew how.
A poke, a swab, while I clutch a sheet of what looks like kitchen paper draped over my stomach, designed to stop me from seeing what’s going on down there. Please let me go.
And then it is over. Gloves off, the doctor’s back to me. Me, scrambling for my clothes. A piece of paper instructing me to schedule a mammogram, where my breasts will be flattened into fried eggs and I will not recognize them.
And then me, descending the dark steps two at a time. Escape at last, until next time.
Spot the Parrots
Back to the forest on a particularly grey weekend. 9am, later than I usually head for the world of trees. I like to get there early, before other people have trampled through it, before the morning dew has had a chance to dry. Early morning, you can see spider webs twinkling from branches, you can hear the flap of bird wings before you actually see the birds flying overhead. There is a certain smell to the forest of post-dawn, fresh and raw. You have to search for it a little, in the same way that you have to listen intently in order to hear the silence that surrounds.
So, I arrived late in the forest. My bed had seemed particularly welcoming that morning; the house had hugged me to itself a little longer. Once in the forest, I regretted what felt like lost time. We walked the usual path that cuts straight through the middle of the forest, and up a steep slope. Once you get to the top, you are awarded with a stunning view of the forest and fields for miles around. It still reminds me of Yorkshire when I breathe it in.
And then, at the end of the walk, as we began to exit the forest, the real reason to be late this one time: five bright green parrots flew over us, calling loudly, and perched in one of my favourite trees. Then I whistled, and they replied. Enlarge the photo above, and you will see them, too. Magic. And if you can’t, go take a hike.
The Delicate Art of Translation
Translation can be a lonely occupation. It’s often hours of wracking your brains thinking for the right word, not finding it and then, hours later, when you are in the middle of something else (like walking the dog, frying eggs, or sitting in a traffic jam, late) the word will come to you. Happiness! Then you just have to remember it. I have written about this before, about how literary translation is a delicate and exacting art. There is no “right” absolute translation, perhaps. It is up to you, the translator, to use your talent and go with your instincts and your knowledge of language, moving beyond the linguistic barriers and into the cultural and historical territory of each word and phrase.
I recently joined ELTNA, an online group that brings together translators from all over the world to exchange ideas and provide support. ELTNA stands for Emerging Literary Translators Network. It’s a gem, and it’s going places. Already in the works is an invaluable resource center for anything and everything to do with translation. Share tips on publishing, ask advice, and generally enjoy the company of other translators in a myriad of languages.
Virtual literary salons are planned for the future, as well as online webinars. If you have are a translator and have not yet joined, I urge you to do so right away. You’ll meet me and a lot of other people from all over the world. If you live in the UK, you may be better off joining the ETN, but this is a serious and expanding group and I would not miss out on what it has to offer. You are so welcome to join!
And on the same subject, if you are around on January 13 in Tel Aviv, please join us for a wonderful bilingual evening of poetry at Sipur Pashut in Tel Aviv, featuring Agi Mishol, Marcela Sulak, Orit Gidali and Gili Haimowich. Poets and languages unite!
The Space Between the Wall and the Bed
This was the year of The Arctic Monkeys, of Helene Grimaud, the year of translation, of poetry and of a return to journalism that was less painful than I had anticipated. It was a year of reading, in particular Gregory Orr, Marie Howe, and Marguerite Duras. It was a year of forest, of beautiful trees that rise into the sky but are always my height. A year of great friendship and overpowering solitude. As the year comes to an end, I look forward to what next year may hold. More wonderful literary encounters, more love.
As a kid, I used to write new year resolutions for myself. They were usually about going on a diet (never lasted) or making money quickly (yeah, right) or winning a competition and becoming extremely famous (I never articulated what kind of competition). I would write a list, usually in a variety of colors with lots of underlining, and put it under my pillow. I hoped the resolutions would simply absorb themselves into me as I slept. By morning the list would be on its way to that thin space between the bed and the wall. Every few months, my mother would force me to move the bed and pick up the jumble of clothes and papers underneath the bed, which is when I would rediscover that list. So what is between that thin space today? More writing.
Marie Howe was the poet who made me realize that it is possible to write about highly personal and difficult experiences without sounding boohoo (one of my favorite phrases, as some of you know) or horribly over-sentimental. Her book, What the Living Do, astounded me. I read it one go, from beginning to end. And then I read it again. I stress the order because there is a tendency, when reading poetry, to skip about, to pick and choose poems, to treat yourself to page 62 or section 3, or whatever.
But Marie Howe’s poems want and need to be read in order. She is telling her life: a troubled childhood, her brother’s illness and consequent death from AIDS, the breakup of a relationship. Nothing easy going on there. Of course, I tune in most to the death of her brother and the straight to the point, killer way she writes about it. How can you not be moved?
So a friend sent me a link to a reading Howe gave last November at the Buddhist Contemplative Care Symposium, and what a reading it was. It’s one thing to read poems like The Gate or For Three Days; it’s something else altogether when Marie Howe is reading and you are listening, and she pauses between words, looks up, faces the audience, barely needs the page set before her on the podium. Does not flinch. I love Marie Howe. She makes me believe I can do it. Roll on 2014.
While everyone else was running about in the deep snow that fell over so many parts of the country this weekend, I took to my beautiful forest. Look how green and clean and bright everything is in the rain. I’m feeling more and more attached to the forest, almost as if within the forest lies the center of my heart. In an interview in The Paris Review earlier this year, Poet Laureate Billy Collins talked about the benefits of walking in the countryside:
Well, I walk every morning for a couple of miles with the dog. That’s as much for me as it is for her; it’s head clearing. Wordsworth apparently composed while he was walking. The meter of the walk gave the poem its meter. For me it’s more gazing around with an open mind or an empty head. What’s important to me is having a time of the day when I’m in a receptive mode, when I’m ready for any incoming mail.
So there is a double effect here that, to my mind, is almost contradictory: You both clear your head utterly and, at the same time, allow it to fill up with line, meter, the flow of poetry. Isn’t that lovely? And not just poetry, I must add. My writing seems to be morphing into prosy, long sentences that open out like a beautiful clearing in the forest when the rain clears.
I have divided up my time over the past few months between the Ella Valley, where I live, and the urban madness of Tel Aviv, which I love and which also happens to be the home of many good friends, and my two beautiful daughters. I adore the quiet landscape of the countryside, the rolling hills, the forest. I love the fact that there are no cafes around here; in fact there is very little of anything, not even good bus routes out of here. Without a car, it’s a long walk.
And then there is Tel Aviv: noisy, dirty, vibrant — a sharp contrast to the valley that has become home to me. I often stand on the balcony of my daughter’s apartment, high above one of the main arteries into Tel Aviv. You can hear the cars going by all the time, including the middle of the night. Ambulances, police cars with sirens are part of the background buzz. I enjoy sitting in cafes to work (Lechem Erez is one of my favorite spots) and biking from place to place, or walking, which is a great way of getting to know the city. I adore walking along the Yarkon River because it brings back memories of boating with my father-in-law many years ago, long before the river became contaminated. We used to take out one of those rickety rowing boats on Saturdays and we would row slowly up and down the river and my father-in-law would sing Russian lullabies to us. On those days, the world would seem to me to be a better place.
Much as I love the tranquility of the Ella Valley, there is a side of me that craves the city. Perhaps this is because I never lived in the city, except very briefly some years ago. That chapter in my life ended abruptly when the ground floor apartment I was living in became infested with rats during a municipal strike. Never again! I thought back then. Perhaps times are a-changin’.
At the Yafa Bookstore and Café in Jaffa, you will hear mostly Arabic but also Hebrew. You will receive a pot of mint tea that can be immediately poured into the tiny glass cup that accompanies it out of the kitchen and onto the table where you are working. The folding white doors of the café are open and the sound of church bells chiming Sunday prayers floats into the quiet café. Earlier, as I walked up the winding street with my writer friend, Sivan Butler-Rotholz, we heard the muezzin calling to prayer. Down in the flea market, stores selling furniture and bric-a-brac are beginning to close their doors and the hip retro cafes are beginning to fill up with people, all Hebrew speakers as far as I can tell, who are looking for a beer and some dinner in a laid-back atmosphere.
Jaffa has had its share of political unrest and social turmoil. Do not be lulled into thinking that all is hunky-dory here and that Jews and Arabs are sitting hand in hand together down by the Jaffa Port. Jaffa has undergone an often painful process of gentrification over the past few years. The flea market has become hip and hot, dilapidated buildings have been painstakingly renovated and sold (or rented out) for huge sums of money; Jewish settlers have moved into Jaffa with the idea of “resettling” Jaffa. Look behind the fine buildings, the busy bakeries and the designer clothes stores and you will see the rundown neighborhoods that receive precious little municipal support and that serve to harbor unrest and hatred. Did you ever see the movie Ajami, named after the infamous neighborhood in Jaffa? All the actors were local residents, they had never acted before but they didn’t need to: this was the movie of their lives, against a backdrop of violence, drugs and simmering resentment.
And then there is this gorgeous little café, Yafa, which, to my mind, is a little island of sanity and adorable, yes adorable, coexistence. It was founded a decade ago by an Arab and a Jew. The café is also a bookstore, selling books in Hebrew and Arabic and a sprinkling of English. You can find Majmoud Darwish here (including a wonderful book of poetry, If I Were Another by Darwish translated by the amazing Fady Joudah) and also Ilan Pappe’s Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, a leftie historian and social activist. But there are also books here in Arabic and Hebrew that have nothing to do with the conflict. It’s about literature, pure and simple, which is what I love about it. The people who visit Yafa know they will find something good to read here.
I also love the old Formica tables and the cream walls. I feel as if I am visiting my auntie. I like lifting up my head to see a poster in Arabic and another one (advertising something different) in Hebrew. I like hearing snippets of conversation in both languages. I like the tacky Father Christmas and the hamsa hanging on the wall. This is not the unbearably light “like” of Facebook. I like it, it pleases me, I feel affection for it. This is a little corner of clarity and friendship. I am sure there are many people who would not dream of entering this little bookstore and café. To my mind, it’s their loss.
So Sivan and I are sitting next to each other, tapping away on our laptops. The only other people in the café are two women who are talking politics. One is an Australian tourist and the other is an Israeli woman who is trying to explain to her the Israeli side of the conflict over the course of an hour. It is mostly the Israeli woman speaking; the Australian, who manages at one stage to splutter out that she is vegetarian, is stunned into silence by the vigorous Israeli and her politics. “It’s not that simple,” she says, leaning across the table earnestly, tea in hand. “You don’t live here, you need to live here to know.” Well I do live here and I must tell you this: Here in the Yafa Bookstore, it really does seem that simple.
Sweet Majeda R.I.P.
Five years ago, the Nemaline Myopathy website was contacted by a desperate father. Writing in broken English, he explained that his daughter had been born with Nemaline Myopathy, and that she was suffering from respiratory problems and needed help that was just not available. They live in Tul Karem, in the West Bank. I had worked there many times as a journalist and I immediately understood what he was talking about: no adequate medical facilities, no rehabilitation centers (save one in Ramallah) and no way of transferring her to Israel for prolonged treatment. Along with my amazing NM family, we raised over $8000 to buy her a respiratory machine and other essentials. Help also came from my friend Nuha Musleh, a wise and wonderful woman who lives in Ramallah, who was touched by this beautiful little girl with the enchanting smile.
This was not about being Arab or Jewish, Israeli or Palestinian, it was about joining up to make a difference in someone’s life. I like to think we did that, for a while.
It was not easy. I had never been in a position to ask people for money. It felt strange calling friends and cajoling them into donating money – any money at all. Someone from Australia who I had never met heard about Majeda and gave a substantial amount. We emailed, we made phone calls, we counted up the money every night and ran to the bank to deposit checks that had arrived in the post. After two months, we had enough money to buy Majeda what she needed.
Nuha and I, driven for free by Mustapha Nabulsi, who worked with me at Newsweek, visited Majeda in hospital in Tul Karem. We met with her parents, her doctors, and with Majeda. It was impossible not to love this tiny little girl, confined to a room in a hospital because the family were unable to care for her at home. Despite the language difficulties, a bond was formed between us. I understood the mother; she understood me. We visited again, impressed by the dedication of the staff, transfixed by the way Majeda’s face lit up when Nuha gave her a colourful toy to hang up above the bed.
Last week, Majeda died in the hospital that became her home. I cannot tell you how crushed I felt when Nuha called me, in tears, from the hospital entrance. She had dropped in to say hello. Perhaps we had both hoped we were saving Majeda back then when we raised the money. I don’t know. What I am sure of is the fact that, back then, I believed that we were together changing things for the better.
I have always shied away from the idea that people who die become angels, but if anyone deserved to be an angel, it is sweet Majeda. I will never forget her.
I keep the toothpaste companies in business. I brush my teeth with something bordering on passion, I floss regularly, I gargle and gurgle until my gums burn. Before I have taken a final gulp of coffee I am already unwrapping a piece of gum that will eradicate those joyous little monsters who love to celebrate on people’s teeth. Super clean. I am Colgate’s finest customer.
It’s not because I have some kind of a fetish for cleanliness. No, I love my dirt as much as the next person. The reason is simple: I hate dentists, am terrified of them, am convinced they are all sadists who love the sound of a drill and who are about to murder me to the sound of Abba singing “Mama Mia”.
As a kid, I went to a particularly unpleasant dentist who, as I remember, had a huge black chair at the end of a long, dark corridor, and who clearly hated children. He had bad breath. I used to wonder if he ever brushed his own teeth.
So why, oh why, am I having root canal treatment? When did those nasty little bacteria buddies come creeping into my mouth? I like the word root, it makes me think of words, lots of them. And I like the word canal, instantly pulling up memories of the Norfolk Broads, or Holland, or Venice. But never put the two together, because as a couple they conjure up only one picture: humiliating pain.
I completed my fourth miserable visit to the dentist today. The first appointment was with a robotic dentist (think The Terminator), who chipped, drilled and burned into my brain for an hour and a half. The only time he paused was to tell me laconically to “move my hair to the other side because it was getting wet from tears.” As I staggered out, he told me this may not work and the tooth will have to be removed. Thank you for sharing. But please, be my guest, the only emotional attachment I feel right now is to my bed.
The other appointments have been with a most gentle, loving dentist who murmurs soft words into my ear, who smiles as she waves the drill in my face and who tells me afterwards that I only “danced” a little today.
There is a good side to this: it’s a sure-fire way of dieting (who can eat after swallowing a mouthful of metal?) and I am developing a wonderful half-smile with the right-hand side of my mouth, which I think gives me a kind of mysterious, je-ne-sais-quoi air. Root canal, go away.
Last week was packed full of meetings with poets, prose writers and journalists. Some of these were long sessions on translations I’m working on right now, intense meetings for two in which single words or phrases are discussed and often wrangled over in depth; the rest were meetings with other writers because I love writing and I believe networking with others is essential to my development as a writer. It’s not just the collective groan about how difficult it is to write consistently and it’s not just the opportunity to talk about something I’m writing, or to read something I’m currently working on – it’s mostly about listening to others and understanding what makes them tick, what they are working on and who are they reading.
Without this kind of social stimulation, I run the risk of becoming trapped in my own little intellectual bubble. Writing here every week and receiving feedback is important to me. Facebook and Twitter can make you feel as if you’re reaching out, and you are reaching out and making contact, but there’s no replacement for the real thing: meeting people, shaking hands, kissing, looking at them when you talk, drinking wine with them, spending time together, watching those precious words rising up into the air around you, and linking.
The Cruellest Month
November is a difficult month for me, the month before my brother died and, for the past two years, the month my mother died. It’s the waiting for December that always seems the hardest. Come December, I’m on the ball, composed and accepting.
It always creeps up on me unawares. I may be driving in the car and a song on the radio upsets me, or I’ll be sitting with friends and suddenly realise I have no idea what they’re talking about. Or perhaps it’s the weather, the sudden chill in the morning air or the darkness that settles over my house by 5pm and there are no lights on inside. It’s also the swarm of bees that descends every year on the Ella tree in my garden, buzzing furiously and scattering pollen everywhere for two weeks and then mysteriously disappearing, as if it had never existed.
Perhaps I should write it down in my Google calendar, or ask someone to remind me: November is the cruellest month. But I don’t and so I am confronted every year with the same numbing feeling of sadness, without being fully conscious of it.
This year, I was heading home from Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon. The sky gradually turned from clear white to gray, and thick clouds lowered themselves into the land. As I approached the junction near my house, a strange mist hovered over the fields. The forest, it seemed, had been swept off the side of the hills and into the road. A freak hailstorm had hit the valley an hour before and the ground was covered
in a layer of white ice. November came early this year, I thought, and continued driving slowly home. Now, I remember.
The Great Escape
I sat for almost ten hours in a café in Tel Aviv on Friday, working but also watching the people around me. I had a great spot to sit in: a socket for my laptop, back to the wall, a breeze from the open café front. The pleasant, comforting buzz of conversation around me, waiters with patient smiles and my cell phone on silent. OK, I texted a little but mostly I managed to control my urge to communicate with the world outside the screen of my laptop. I don’t exactly listen in to what is being said at the other tables but I do observe body language: eyes that roam around the room, resting for a split second on the exit, fingers fidgeting with packets of sugar, a hand reaching across the table. I should have invited you to come sit with me.
My Other Family
I do not make a habit of mentioning my son here. Today, I’m making an exception.
Seven years ago, we received the results of a muscle biopsy that determined he has a rare muscle disease.(Please note: he has a mild form.) I did not know who to turn to or where to go. Help came when I came across the Nemaline Myopathy Support Group founded by David McDougall that provides information on the disease but also provides essential emotional support through an online forum. It was critical back then to be able to ask questions, receive feedback and, most importantly, encouragement from the isolation I experienced.
You say what you really think on the NM forum. It’s a safe place. And when you read people’s posts for months or years, when you give and receive trust, you get to know them, really. These people are more than friends. They are family. You can dismiss online communication as virtual, but in this case the opposite is true. We have come together from all over the world and we stick together.
This past week two members of the NM family died. First Tosh Edgell, a wonderful young woman I met at the NM conference in 2006, in Scotland. What a joy and a relief it was to be among people who understood. Among people from all over the world was Tosh, with her beautiful nails, perfectly straight hair, cracking sense of humor and a whole lot of guts. We stayed in touch on Facebook, I regularly followed her posts as she went in and out of hospital, looked after Beulah and Tarot, her dogs, sent out immaculate Christmas cards all over the world and made the very most of life. She died suddenly last week and will be missed by all of us for her incredible bravery. She could teach all of us a thing or two about not complaining.
Here’s an excerpt from one of her Facebook entries, back in July. Listen to her feistiness and her biting humor: “I’m still being pulled from pillar to post with some idiot District Nurses telling my Parents that I’m at ‘Death’s Door’ and worrying them to hell…if I’m at ‘Death’s Door’ how come I went to B&Q this evening then?”
And then Drew Potenti, aged 6, the daughter of April and Will. What a little darling. I did not meet her but many of us did at the last NM conference in Canada over the summer. Her grandmother, Chris, and parents were active on the forum and I followed Drew’s progress until she died last week.
My heart goes out to my family.
Last Friday, I enjoyed a late breakfast in the forest with friends who live in my village. Over coffee, homemade bread and salads, we got talking about what brought us to live here in the Ella Valley. Some people came with friends, looking for a place that was affordable and out of the city. When we first moved here, there was nothing but forest for miles. No stores, no cafes, very few social services. Little has changed since then.
It got me thinking about why I came here and I remembered that moment, getting out of the car and standing in what felt like the middle of nowhere, the sun beating down on us. A friend, who came with us, and who was also looking for a new place to live for her growing family, put her hands on her hips, turned to me and said: Definitely not for me. Who could live here? I smiled, looked up at the trees, down at the road that wasn’t even a road: This is it. This is where I want to live.
Recreating that moment of instinct, I think that somehow these rolling hills, back roads and quietude somehow remind me of where I grew up in North Yorkshire. There is nothing similar, at first glance. There is no heather here, no blackberries growing by the side of the road, no corner store where they sell liquorice and lemon bonbons. The tones and colors of the landscape are softer here. The ground is harder.
It’s more about the atmosphere of space and light, more about the fact that there is room to grow here, there is time to develop, time to pause. Is it perfect? No, not at all. Nor is the country that I live in today. But it has felt like home from that very first moment when I stepped out of the car. Here, this is where I live.
This was the week of W. G. Sebald. I finished reading Austerlitz, and can only wonder at Sebald’s incredible abilities as a writer. In ravishingly long, eloquent sentences, the book unfolds as both a descriptive masterpiece of landscape and a stunning glimpse into a displaced person grappling with the past.
It’s about memories and how we grasp them; or, alternatively, how they constantly evade us. And it’s self-reflexive in that it’s about texts and how we use them to comprehend the past. How beautifully Sebald writes about the dead:
….It suddenly seemed to me, with the greatest clarity, that they had never been taken away after all, but were still living crammed into those buildings and basements and attics, as if they were incessantly going up and down the stairs, looking out of the windows, moving in vast numbers through the streets and alleys, and even, a silent assembly, filling the entire space occupied by the air, hatched with grey as it was by the fine rain.
It was not an easy read for me, nor was The Emigrants the kind of book you can rush through. Austerlitz demands a slow reading, it demands you hover over the sentences and reread them. Gradually, the story of Austerlitz emerges, how he was raised in a small Welsh town by foster parents from the age of four. Where was he before then? This book is the search of a person living in exile, yearning for his roots.
Finishing the book, I thought to myself that Sebald ought to have written poetry, since his writing has such a lyrical quality to it. One quick Wiki later I discovered that he did write poetry. But here’s the thing: most of his poems are divided up into stanzas with incredibly short lines of sometimes just three or four words. Taking into account the long, seemingly rambling sentences in prose that slowly opens out, this came as a surprise. Take this short, untitled poem:
For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish.
There is such economy here in so few words. This is the opening poem in and how fitting the title is since Sebald’s writing is like a tree that searches for its roots, branches out, joins up with other poems in subject and context, and blossoms out.
I read last night at a gathering of “100,000 Poets for Change” in Jerusalem. It felt good to stand up there and read while thousands of other poets were reading at the same time in other parts of the world. It was a good evening, arranged by Michael Dickel and the idea is that next year there will be more poets with more languages. I was sorry there were no readings in Arabic since I think that if we are dealing with any kind of change in this country – political, collective, personal – we ought to do it in the two leading languages. But it was a good start.
A few poets read their offerings from memory, incredibly long poems that take on another element when read “by heart”, when you are looking at the audience and not at the page, when the words seem to flow so naturally. It reminded me of Robert Pinksy, who I met a few months ago, who also read his poems by heart and who explained the intrinsic value of doing so. The poem takes on a rhythm of its own, unfettered by a page. I never thought I could do this but am now determined to try it. OK, I will start in the privacy of my home with something short. All the poets who read like this offered largely rhyming poetry, something I rarely write, although I guess this might make it a bit easier to memorize. So on with the show…
Rain After Crash
It rained this weekend, the first rain of the year, causing the trees in my garden to dance and twinkle with happiness, probably my happiness.
The rain came at the end of a bad week. A neighbour of mine was killed in a car crash on the road below my village. If you stand on her terrace, as I did the day after she died, you can see the road snaking along, curving in and out. I wonder how many times she travelled that road, took that curve, on her way home. I wonder how many times I have travelled it.
My daughter and I spent the last few days cooking for the family. That is what you do when you do not know what to do: An immaculate quiche, warm from the oven; chocolate chip cookies with real vanilla; nutritious lentils and rice; the best grapes we could find. I wonder who really benefits from these offerings: the family who must eat or my daughter and I, who must do something.
And then the rain, washing everything clean, including the road and the terrace and the cars on the street. The first rain after a crash.
Poets of Babel
Tomorrow evening I’m going to be at a gathering of Poets of Babel where poets read in all different languages. I’m so happy to be a part of this. Poetry crosses borders, not just in the meanings it offers up but in rhythm, sound, cadence. Robert Pinsky taught me the importance of both listening to poetry, but also the importance of articulating poetry, of reading it out loud, whatever the language. Poetry, I believe, begs to be read out loud, it takes on a whole new perspective in this way. After all, long before Kindle, or printed books, or journals, or the Internet, this is how poetry made its way into people’s hearts, by being read out loud.
A talented poet, translator and friend of mine, Sabine Huynh, read a poem in French a few months back at a small gathering. How beautiful it was to sit back and listen. My understanding of French is rudimentary. Perhaps this helped me hear better the actual sounds of the words, made me more attentive to the lilt in Sabine’s voice as she read. This is what I’m talking about.
Walk Like A Chameleon
While my daughter Jasmine was getting married, the world certainly kept turning. Syria is on fire and no one seems able to make a sane decision, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is no nearer or further to resolution, bad news all around. It’s so easy to block this out and sometimes you need to work hard just to remain sane in a world that is insane. But I do feel happy in my own space, ready to move on with good friends and family members who still know the meaning of love and who know how to show it, too.
Fly Like an Eagle
I went for a walk in the forest today with a friend and for the second day in a row, I saw a huge eagle flying above us as we walked along. It was circling above us but so low I could see its pale feathers lifting and lowering as it hovered above. So fierce yet incredibly elegant, so strong and heavy yet appearing effortless in flight. I wonder if the eagle will be there tomorrow and if so, will it recall the two figures walking along together and gazing up into the sky?
There is my writing life and there is my personal life. They live side by side, not always harmoniously. In order to write, I need creative space. There is not much of this at home right now. Writing is not a sociable activity, to put it mildly. Even if I choose to work in a café, I’m still on my own little island. Lately, I long for that little island.
Read My Lips
A wonderful three days with a good friend on the coast. We wrote, read, drank delicious Port and cold Chardonnay, and slept a lot. A wonderful time to consider the writing I am creating. Lots of energy has entered into me. And love!
While I was away, I read The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Phillip Sendker. Here is a lovely passage from the book, a letter written by WIn Tin, the main character, to the woman he has loved all his live and from whom he has been separated for years:
How flat and empty the most beautiful words can sound. How dull and dreary life must be for those who need words, who need to touch, see, or hear one another in order to be close. Who need to prove their love, or even just to confirm it in order to be sure of it. I sense that these lines, too, will never find their way to you. You have long since understood anything I might write, and so these letters are in truth directed to myself, meager attempts to still my desire.
Does this mean that we don’t trust love enough? That we need constant proof of it in this fragile world of ours? I hereby state: I love you. Believe it.
Early Morning Love
I am working on my manuscript. It happens in the early morning hours, while the rest of the house is asleep. Just me and the birds outside in the garden, and the cat, Lucy, blinking at me through the semi-dark from her little bed by the door. She has gotten used to this early wake-up call over the past couple of weeks. She stretches, walks around, explores the new day. So do I.
This is my own quiet time, my creative space, where I allow myself to turn the pages of poetry I have written in the past couple of years, pages that flip-flop between a hard-nosed look at journalism and a highly personal account of my mother’s illness. The connection is temporal, since I was working on stories while my mother was ill. But there is more to it than this and what I am trying to do now is to understand what this connection really is. I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s about my ability to distance myself so brilliantly and perfectly from things happening around me.
You disengage from reality at times as a survival instinct, as a way of getting through all kinds of situations and predicaments. You develop defense mechanisms that become a part of you, until you are no longer aware of their existence. This, I must say, is not necessarily a bad thing.
Some of the poems have already been published or are about to be published; others are still in my head, waiting to be written. There are gaps in my writing, I know, and I will fill them.
Every time I write something, I sit back and ask myself: Is this what I wanted to say? More and more, the answer is YES.
I’m reading Michael Hastings’ first book, I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story. I’m reading it because he was killed in a car crash recently and because I knew him. His girlfriend, Andi, died in a car bomb in Baghdad, the subject of his book. I got to know him just before he returned to Baghdad with Andi. I want to hear his voice again and maybe I will be able to.
A lot has been written about Mike. Everyone agrees he was a great journalist. He was fearless, probing, relentless. He’s also been described as ruthless and calculating. He was criticized him for exposing email exchanges and text messages that flew between him and Andi while she was still in the US and he was in Baghdad. All I can tell you is this: he really loved Andi and I could tell that when I saw them together. I could tell that by the way his eyes shone when he talked about her.
Mike was nothing but kind to me. This was back in the days when I was working for Newsweek and he stopped by our Jerusalem bureau en route to Iraq. We met, we talked, we stayed in touch long after Andi was killed. A couple of weeks before he died, Mike emailed me. He was a lovely guy. I can’t get over the fact that his car crashed into a tree so hard that the engine was flung clean out of the car. In his book, he writes about being in a helicopter and being sure it was about to crash. It didn’t crash. Did he think the same thing about the car?
Sitting at a café yesterday on a balmy Saturday afternoon, sipping lemon San Pellegrino and feeling very laid back, firstly because I just completed a huge piece of work but mostly because I was sitting with good friends from Australia who are visiting. How lovely to sit with them, as if we have all the time in the world, as if we didn’t live so far apart, laughing and chatting together. Watching people stroll by, as if they have all the time in the world, too.
So, I was not far from home, but it felt as if I were a million miles away. Ah, the Chardonnay also helped.
My heart hurts when I see people being pushed in wheel chairs. I see them everywhere, because they are everywhere. I’m thinking of my mother, that last horrible year, her face set in a grip of resignation as we pushed her from department to department in hospital, from the convalescent home to the café, the clothes store, from the house to the supermarket, from the house to the park. From the bedroom to the lounge. We did everything we could to make her comfortable in that chair. “I’m not comfortable,” she would say, as we switched pillows and angles. When she went silent, we understood what she was saying.
From nowhere to nowhere.
Just a Coffee and a Slice of Life for Me, Please
I’ve taken to sitting in a certain café in Tel Aviv. Care for a cup of coffee and a slice of life? In the early morning you get the young professionals grabbing a quick coffee, young women pushing tiny babies in strollers, and elderly people out with their nurses for a cup of tea and some apple strudel. Later in the day, fashionably late for breakfast and early for lunch, the local celebs arrive, kitted out in flip-flops and designer sunglasses.
Of course, there are also lost souls like me who can’t be trusted to work when alone in the house. Yep, at home I spend my time gyrating between the kitchen, the washing room (either putting on washing or checking on the washing) and the lounge. Oh, and the bedroom because I get tired of all that moving around.
So I chain myself to a café and work the day away, surrounded by people I do not know. Perfect. Now I can write about them.
My father and I. What a joy to have this sweet person in my life. He’s 83 years old and going strong. This is not to be taken lightly. I do not take it lightly. I am full of awe for the way he moves graciously through life, a gentleman indeed.
Our hands are clasped, fingers woven. We do not talk much, but more than in the past. But sometimes having him sit in my kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil for a cup of tea, seems like a lot.
Figures of Eight
So I’m holed up in my daughter’s lovely apartment in Tel Aviv for the week, writing an essay (almost done) and translating, translating, translating. I’m enjoying the creative space that has opened up to me, the wonderful peace and tranquility of hours alone. This is what I needed and I’m not going to waste it, despite the many temptations of Tel Aviv.
I’m not completely alone: I have a dog who watches me with big dark eyes. I’ve taken long walks in the park with her early morning, I’ve fed her apples and we’ve fallen asleep together very amicably.
I feel as if I’m skating smoothly on a wide lake and there is only me under a vast white sky, making figures of eight in the ice.
The Art of Baking Bread
Sunday morning. 7am. The air is so still I can hear it murmuring to me. Think, focus on what is important. There is work to do.
I work best sitting in cafes. I can’t fathom out exactly why I am able to concentrate more when there’s people and noise and movement and the clinking of plates and teaspoons and laughter and other people’s cell phones ringing. I always choose a fairly large table so I can spread my laptop, papers and notebook out and still have room for a cup of coffee far enough away not to spill over everything. I prefer it not to be in some dark corner of the café but something central, so I can see people walking in and out, moving around. It relaxes me. Life goes on, I have time, the stress dissipates, my day stretches out ahead of me like a quiet lawn. Me, I’m just a lawnmower. I can do this.
Libraries terrify me. The clock is ticking, the constant ssssh of the librarians, the swing door of the library opening and closing with a long groan, pages turning in the silence. I’ll soon be wandering the aisles, cultivating the dying art of browsing the shelves, something Kindle and Amazon and The Book Depository have rendered obsolete. Remember the pleasure of coming across a book you did not know about in the library? Pulling it off the shelf, flicking through the pages, feeling that little thrill of discovery, hugging the book to yourself.
Put me at home for a few days and tell me to work. I like to sit at the kitchen table, I’m on my own. The dog is asleep at my feet, the house is quiet. Too quiet. I put on a load of washing, make soup that can bubble away in the background. Make bread! I love making bread, knowing I have a wonderful hour to watch the dough rise pleasantly in a bowl under a damp cloth. Think what I can do in that hour! Translate another page? Watch the dough, usually.
Poetry as SurvivalI am halfway through Gregory Orr’s memoir, The Blessing. You know what? It really does feel like a blessing. At the beginning of the book, Orr describes with eloquent simplicity how, at the age of twelve, he accidentally shot his brother to death. How do you live with the enormity of that? Orr does not have a formula but, through this stunning memoir, he explains how reading and writing became his method of survival. My own brother, Andrew, was killed in a car accident. I ask myself a similar question. How do you survive? I have always written but today I write more consciously than ever before, and I write more. Poetry as survival.
The Sea, The Sea
I just returned from two wonderful days by the sea running a creative writing workshop for 24 poets. What a pleasure to devote myself to other people’s writing and to poetry for two days, to be able to read out loud the poems I love, because I chose them: T S Eliot, Carolyn Forche, Marie Howe, Miklos Radnoti and others.
And then, early morning you walk down a steep path to the sea at the bottom of the cliff, where it’s so beautiful that your mind empties of everything and all you care about is the sound of the water lapping at your toes and a seagull crying out to its mate in the sky. So much to love.
I have just finished reading A Van Jordan’s amazing book of poetry, The Cineaste, recommended to me by my good friend, E Ethelbert Miller. Thanks, E. What a pleasurable, stimulating read. I know lots of people reading this are wrinkling up their noses and thinking: I don’t read poetry! But you will love this. Think of it as a book of stories all connected together into one fascinating read.
The Cineaste has an incredibly well-tailored structure that begs to be noticed. A Van Jordan weaves in and out of movies, personas, psyches and time zones. He draws you in and then pulls you out of peoples’ lives that are movies that are peoples’ lives. I love books that make me think and feel. This is a fine example of one.
A Whole Half-Life
I read a very interesting interview with Joshua Prager in Haaretz a couple of weeks ago. He has some great insights into memory and into the human tendency to invent stories:
I see that all the time. Memory is imperfect – whether it is an individual memory or collective memory – and these narratives form, and then they become the way that they are. There are stories we tell ourselves so we can go on living.
I am wondering what stories I have told myself in order to go on living. How much of my past have I created? How do I separate actual memories and those I imagined myself, or embellished? I often say that my childhood memories with my brother were wiped away, but were they? Perhaps I am unwilling, or unable, to visit them.
Prager explains how a friend pointed out to him that, as a journalist, he had always chosen to write about people whose lives were changed in one brief moment. Finally, twenty years later, he completed his memoir.
Prager’s book is appropriately called “Half-Life”. He tells how his neck was broken in a crash, leaving him half-paralyzed. He was 19 at the time. A writer and journalist, Prager types everything with one finger. The book that I recently finished reading, was written twenty years after the crash. Prager retraces his life leading up to the crash, details his life after the crash, describes the crash itself and visits the driver who is said to have caused the crash. Compelling reading.
My friend Ruth Almon alerted me to a Ted Talk that Prager gave: “In search of the man who broke my neck”. He speaks with eloquence and sensitivity about his encounter with the truck driver apparently responsible for the accident and for the severe injury he suffered. He tells how he wondered what to take as a gift: “What to get the man who broke your fucking neck?” he says, and everyone laughs.
So what is it like to be physically challenged? Both in the Ted Talk and the book, Prager will tell you without mincing his words but without reproach, either.
Perhaps my favorite part of the book is where Prager tells how a piece of glass lay embedded in his arm for a long time and then, one day, his arm extruded the shard. He writes the following
[I] remembered that the decay of radioactive atoms is asymptotic; what forever divides by half will never disappear. There would always remain in me a piece of the past.
How beautiful and how true.
Loaves and Fishes
Translating the Language of Salamanders
Literary translation is a dialogue between two writers. It’s brainstorming in two languages, it’s a conversation that demands flexibility, creativity and understanding. It’s give and take. Sometimes, it’s a space waiting to be filled. Translation is an act of transformation yet, at the same time, it’s an act of accuracy and precision. It delves into the cultural, social and biblical layers that lie beneath words. Sometimes, the words say sssh, you’re disrupting the rhythmn and the harmony of the whole. Listen to the voices that lie beneath the words. Let them lead the way.
I spent yesterday with Agi Mishol, working together on a sunny Saturday morning by an open window in the kitchen of her home. The words fell into place. Here’s to the salamanders.
Encounters of a Different Kind
We meet so many people in our daily lives, we may gather them up briefly and then move on for all the best reasons in the world: they live far away, we’re busy, we get swept up into other relationships and events.
This week I met up with two women on two different occasions. One of them I met on an international forum for Nemaline Myopathy, the genetic disease my son has. We were friends for a while and then, you know, drifted off. Three years later, she calls me up and it’s as if we never lost touch. She is standing outside a hospital where her daughter is undergoing tests and she needs to talk. When you have a child with an illness, you can cut through the crap, you get right to the point. I am so glad to have been there for her and I know, if I should ever need it, she will be there for me.
Yesterday, I met a woman I spoke with once in my life, when my mother was first diagnosed with ALS and spent a week in hospital in the Neurology Department. This woman was looking after her own mother on the other side of the room and it was clear that her mother was not going to last long.
We talked briefly, the woman and I, outside in the corridor while the doctors made their rounds. The woman was mostly on her own with her mother, as I was with mine. I felt something about her and, indeed, it turned out that her sister had died some years earlier and she had no other siblings. My brother died, too, and I had begun, there in the hospital, to miss him intensely although I hardly even remember him and, of course, did not know him as an adult. So we talked out there in the corridor, a quiet conversation of understanding.
I strongly felt as if we were not two but four, as if the presence of her sister and my brother were also there, hovering over us, out there in that corridor.
The next day the woman and her mother were gone. I didn’t need to ask where.
Yesterday, a year and a half later, I met the woman and instantly recognized her. And, yes, she recognized me. We have much to talk about.
An Interview That Matters
When was the last time you read an interview that really touched you, really made you think? An interview that also made you wonder what you are doing with your own life? Jeffrey Bartholet, a friend of mine from my Newsweek days, has a wonderful interview in Foreign Policy with an American missionary doctor who has dedicated his life to treating people in the war-torn Nuba Mountains. The interview is both highly personal and also gives an overview of what’s happening in this area of the Sudan today. It didn’t start yesterday but how many people are aware of what’s happening there? Tom Catena treats an appallingly large amount of the sick and injured in what must seem like incredibly primitive conditions for most readers of Foreign Policy. I’m glad there are people like Tom Catena in the world and equally glad that there are sensitive writers like Jeff to tell their realities. This is not a story… This is what’s happening.
Leave Your Phone on the Kitchen Table
It must be time for me to go out with the sheep and the goats again, to tramp across the hills where the mist lies low early morning and listen to the bleating of sheep rather than people. Much more enlightening. I did this one summer, hooking up with a bemused but gracious Bedouin shepherd who tends his flocks of sheep and goats several months of the year in my neighborhood Ella Valley.
You lose track of time when you go out with the sheep. You move with them and they move with you, slowly munching their way through the hills that lie to the edge of the forest. They have their own language and their own rhythms. More sheep to follow…
Poetry for Everyone
Perhaps this should be on the poetry page but I’m writing it here on purpose so that everyone will see it. In a minute, you’ll understand.
I met the wonderful Robert Pinsky earlier this week and had the pleasure of hearing him read some of his poetry and talk about his craft. He says he doesn’t write poetry; he composes it. You might think this a bit stuffy of him, a bit nose-in-the-air. But his poems, read out loud, do have a wonderful musical quality to them. They unravel like a slinky-dinky, that coiled-up toy we would put at the top of the stairs when we were kids, and watch it folding and unfolding down to the bottom step. His poems have rhythm, soft rhymes. Every vowel and consonant has been lovingly placed there. Listen.
When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.
When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.
When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.
When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.
When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.
When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.
Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.
Pinsky began a project called Favorite Poem Project, in which people from all walks of life read poems they love. Watch it and understand why I chose to write about Robert Pinsky here. Because poetry is for everyone.
Return to the Forest
I’ve gone back to the forest that surrounds the Ella Valley. I’ve gone back to brisk and not so brisk walks into the depths of the forest, where the trees bend over you as you walk and the winter sun filters through the leaves. At this time of the year, the colors are particularly bright. It’s cyclamen season, it’s daffodil season, it’s a season of incredible beauty. What I am doing on my daily walks is what the Japanese and Koreans call a forest bath. Eliot Holt talks about this in a blog post on Poets & Writers, describing how walks in the forest can clear your head and restore balance. Does it always clear my head, restore my balance? No. Does it generate ideas for writing? Oh, yes. And there is so much more to discover in this forest of mine.
I grew up in Yorkshire, UK. Most Sundays were spent on the Yorkshire Moors with my family, heads bent against the wind, trudging along. Perhaps because my head was down so much, I most remember the heather, purple and pink clouds that dotted the landscape. I tried to grow heather in my back garden a few years ago. We dug it up and packed it away in a suitcase and brought it here. It didn’t stand a chance. Some things can’t be transplanted.
The End of the World?
Sometimes it feels like the end of the world. They tell us it’s coming on some date or other, but soon. It felt like it had already happened last week when a gunmen killed so many children. Just look at the photos of all those smiling faces and think for yourself. Best summed up in The Onion, perhaps.
If each one of us tried, just a little, to be better, to be nicer to others, and to ourselves, perhaps it might help. It’s true you only need one crazy person to upturn everything but who knows?