Who are these people?

Just a week ago I crossed the length of the country without meeting a single  Leave voter. But on June 23rd vote Leavers turned out to be the majority and dragged the rest of us with them, out of the European Union. How was this possible?

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One conspiracy theory is abduction. The Brexiteer came riding on his white horse…

My lack of contact with the Brexit brigade will be less surprising when I describe my route: I travelled from my Remain stronghold in a leafy part of Camden to King’s Cross, where I took a train up to Darlington and swiftly hopped on another bus to Barnard Castle. Thanks to rapid transit, my feet barely touched down in Leave hotbeds. None of the studenty types or business folk I saw on the train seemed to be rallying the Leave war-cry and the immaculate Brief Encounter* generation I shared my bus ride from Darlington with, went about their business demurely, seeming little concerned with politics.  For the next three days I stayed with one of my best friends and pretty much forgot about the referendum. We celebrated midsummer and apart from exchanging a few pleasantries with locals, talked mainly to each other.  I felt like I had gone from the Remain campaign’s headquarters to a countryside that was silent on the matter. I then returned to the Labour Borough of Camden in time to vote. When I entered the  community centre around 4 that rainy afternoon,  I marked my paper with a giant X by ‘Remain ‘ in full view of the smiling poll clerks,  who I’m pretty certain shared my views.

I bounded out of the room feeling sunny and virtuous,  happy that everyone around me seemed to be voting the same way.  On Facebook and Twitter, individuals,  businesses and even their pets were pledging Remain. While I glimpsed the Leave campaign out of the corner of my eye (Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson  shouting on  TV;  The Sun and The Daily Mail’s inflammatory front pages on a news-stand)  I had no tangible evidence of its existence, or of public support for it. Over and over again, I heard people saying that they didn’t know a single Leave voter, apart from in a few cases, that one weird relative, who doesn’t count. (Well, actually, as we’ve seen, they do).  What’s clear is that I and so many others who fall into the privileged metropolitan category like me, have only had sustained  contact with people like ourselves.

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Clap your hands if you believe in Europe! The last remaining corner to sing the Marseillaise or drink Merlot before the price goes through the roof…

We wake up bemused and bewildered after elections,  wondering who on earth these conservative hordes are. The phrase ‘Shy Tory’ was coined in the aftermath of the May 2015 general election- the idea being that many voters (with a secret drawer of light blue underwear, monogrammed with a spreading oak tree, I imagine)  are domestic sheep in liberal wolves’ clothing.  Last week’s Referendum revealed the phantom of those immigration-phobic Eurosceptics we view through screens, to be a terrible reality.  When I started writing this post, I thought I didn’t know any of them personally and then, just yesterday, I found that I did – an oddball very close relative, who has benefited from the advantages of globalisation, but thinks that Europe is finished and voted out.

Leaving this exception aside, though I’m sure there are a handful of others like him, who bridged the decisive 4% gap, my picture of the generic Leave voter is collaged from hearsay and headlines. Are they posh and patriotic? Do they sing the national anthem even when there’s no football match,  observe pheasant shooting season and Michaelmas, dream of a new British Empire?  Are they sad old nostalgics who look back to a time of close-knit communities when there were less foreigners and English was the only language spoken in the streets?  Are the majority simply poor,  immobilised by austerity measures and inequality  with nowhere to rise in their local communities?  Do they like tea, wildflower meadows and a bargain like me? I imagine because I don’t exactly know. I’ve had so few opportunities to meet these people, so I’m out of touch with them. Again,  who are they?

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The model British household post-Brexit?

There have been calls to make Remain strongholds independent. The opinions of some Leave voters are xenophobic, racist and inimical to modern liberal values, so why not treat them like embarrassing relatives, give them short shrift and  function without them?  Who wants to have their national identity dictated by people who are driven by fear and sensationalist headlines? But to do so would perpetuate the exclusion from wealth, education and open-mindedness that the under-priveliged have endured, especially over the past ten years. We shouldn’t imitate or take on their values, but rather channel the curiosity and tolerance born of education and relative comfort, to at least get to know them and familiarise ourselves with their situation. This won’t be easy because it will mean coming properly face to face with the gaping divide in our society; but in unsettling times like these we have to lean into to the weirdness. We should be flexible, open doors so they get to know us, share in our advantages. Maybe then, they will see things more like we do.

*A beautiful British film from 1945, directed by David Lean. If we have to go back in time, can it please look like this?

Teaching boys to write

Savage Fighter has no spare time. Or hobbies. He instinctively sidelines anyone you introduce him to. He has a mouthful of yellow incisors and never misses an opportunity to beat up his enemies. Savage Fighter might sound a bit like the worst boyfriend you’ve ever had, but he’s actually a character in a story by my nine-year-old tutee Joseph.*  Savage Fighter was born a child of Sparta for two reasons: 1) When I met him,  Joseph didn’t like to write very much ( SF’s lack of characteristics meant he could written up faster) 2) When Joseph did write, it was always about warrior heroes- bloody conflicts, earthly or celestial, fascinated him and redeemed the process of writing.  You might be surprised to learn that Joseph is also a kindhearted cat-lover, who recently wrote about a lego utopia, where no one ever dies.

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A lot of people attribute the resistance  boys like Joseph have to writing, to their maleness. ‘Like all boys he can’t be bothered… Boys aren’t very creative…’ are things I’ve heard from parents and friends alike. With a growing roster of male tutees, all of whom had difficulties in writing, I might have believed it. But I couldn’t quite square it with four years study of mainly male authors during my English Literature degree; or with how books by male authors are still taken more seriously, to the extent that in 1996 Bailey’s took a break from perfecting the churn of fermented Irish cream, to introduce a prize for women’s fiction. Does all this mean that there are two types of man: the kind who can write, the literary genius entitled to immortality and earthly perks (a  writer friend  thought he did better on Tinder because he could deliver more than ‘wow ur fit, fancy a drnk?’ ) and the strong, silent man of action/ mathematical formulae?

I also couldn’t square these stereotypes with my experiences as a tutor. Each boy, at this age of 9 or 10, when they can be lumped together in one conglomerate category,  is different. Some write riotously fast with an ear for comic detail. They just want to communicate their ideas and aren’t too fussed about what Flaubert termed le mot juste.  Others deliberate over everything they write and are as eager for new words and sentence structures as a Michelen-starred chef is for nuances to their method. The overriding similarity is a preference for adventure stories with almost nonsensically complicated plots and varying degrees of bloodshed. When a boy is overly obsessed with shoot-outs, with describing the exact dance of bullets though a torso,  we negotiate a sort of Arms Treatise, whereby we agree that only a small proportion of stories can feature brains being blown out by AK47s. Though it’s not my main role, I feel like I have some responsibility, as an accomplice to these boys’ visions of life in writing, to show them that gun-crime isn’t a joke and that narratives can be just as exciting when they’re not littered with corpses.

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Violent or otherwise, their fictional worlds are resolutely male, with a protagonist who they identify with, and the male sidekicks, superiors and enemies he interacts with. Mothers appear fleetingly, as did one obese neighbour called Sally. Girls aren’t that interesting yet, (and you wouldn’t want to force them into someone’s latency period), but do they have to be banished entirely from the fictional worlds of adventure? Should I intervene?  This is fiction, after all; in reality, they treat me and every other woman they speak of with respect. And yet, I don’t think it will harm them to imagine more inclusive scenarios…

As I teach, I find that I’m also thinking more about the process of writing and the problems that crop up, whatever your level. Here are three simple observations:

  1. Environmental factors creep in and shift things around. ‘I think I made it rain because it started outside,’ one boy explained.
  2. Everyday actions get in the way of/make a good story. Together we debate when to reel out the detail and when to cut to the next scene. It’s a question of tone and pacing. We really don’t need to know that your characters brushed their teeth before bed every night; but if you don’t make unlocking the treasure chest last for at least two sentences,  the discovery will be anticlimactic.
  3. It’s pretty difficult to write about someone’s eyes in an unromantic way. I kept this observation to myself while my tutee, Oliver, churned out 5 variations of his story’s opening line. The story began with a dream of President Obama letting him know with one look that he was about to be entrusted with a special task. Oliver’s variations included: ‘President Obama gazed at me with his cloudy brown eyes’/ ‘looked at me with his warm brown eyes’/ ‘stared at me with his intense brown eyes’ and so on.  Although Oliver had been encouraged to write as descriptively as possible at school, using ‘strong adjectives’ and ‘powerful verbs,’ I was half concerned that when his mother saw the sentences she’d think I was engaging him in a  Mills & Boon assignment for my own satisfaction. Then I thought that unless you’re giving a deliberately unflattering account, your writing on eyes automatically gains an erotic charge, because it shows that you’ve been looking enough to notice their colour, size, shape and expression and you’ve carried this memory through time. This may or may not have been your original intention.

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Over time, I feel my own taste for language changing.  As I encourage my tutees to use more sophisticated language, I’m learning to appreciate simpler, more spontaneous turns of phrase. Those staples of arts academia, long latinate words like problematise (which should be banned because it sounds ugly), destabilise, amanuensis , deconstruct and fashioning, make me grimace whenever I hear them. Spoken within too close a range of each other, or too often, they feel pompous and long-winded. They can take you so far from what you actually mean; you can lose yourself in them. My tutees would simply say that you’re trying to sound ‘clever and posh’ by using long words.  It’s not that I want to go back to being ten, unlearn everything, but I do want to write in a way that’s more authentic, less studied. The irony is, I’m studying anyway, filling whole notebook margins with passing snippets of so-called common parlance.

*names have been changed

 

 

Anywhere, Massachusetts

If you were deported, or less harshly, voluntarily expatriated,  what would you need to feel at home in your new place?  Would you embrace the differences or create the same kind of home anywhere?

These questions entered my head as I travelled through several homes in the past month and a half with my blue wheelie suitcase in hand: my childhood home; an AirBnB just outside Cambridge Massachusetts; a room in a family home in more rural MA; an air-mattress in a Lower East Side apartment and let’s not forget the night at the Blue Moon. Each location was different, and yet all came to resemble one another through my habits and chosen town haunts.

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Could be anywhere… could be Massachusetts

When I arrived at my AirBnB in Cambridge in the middle of a rainy afternoon, jet-lagged and with zero phone charge, it felt completely unfamiliar. The red velvet cushions, bronze ornaments, turquoise printed wallpaper and delicate tulip-patterned crockery, made me feel like I had just stepped out of the book I was reading, Ohran Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. As though like Columbus, I had travelled in the wrong direction and ended up finding… the East. The neon signs on the local convenience store assured me I was in America; though the only appetising thing they sold was tabouleh…

The next day, before I found my workplace for the month, or even the internet, I found  Karma Yoga Studio. I stepped in, thinking it would be nice to keep up my old hobby, and instantly made a habit of attending Karma’s (yes a Karma within a Karma) flow and restore classes on Monday and Wednesday evenings. The poses were slightly different, as were the names. Dragons, monkeys and dolphins expanded the menagerie beyond the domestic dog  kennel. I could breathe more deeply and was more flexible, but had less balance. Still, I felt some continuity in the movement, something like home. They say home is where the heart is, and as I move, my heart is above my feet.

I wonder if it’s an option to not be at home in the place you travel to. To be like Odysseyus,  stay as a tourist, taking in strange sights and cuisines, while having a firm idea of your origin as home. But if you’re elsewhere for a month, could you in your heart of hearts stay faithful to your home as you remember it? If you like drinking guinness in Irish pubs, wouldn’t you find a new local?  Irish pub landlords all over the world rely upon your infidelity to home, and paradoxically, also upon your innate sense of home. I’m a fan of Irish pubs because they’re a friend to the small-bladdered as well as to those who like getting bladdered. Wherever you find an Irish pub, they’ll let you pee for free.

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1369 degrees of welcome

If you move somewhere for any length of time, I’d say over  a week or so, you’ll start to have favourites and orient your life around these points. While I was in Cambridge, I accumulated the following:

A FAVOURITE CAFE: 1369 on Massachusetts Avenue.  Favourite Seat: The high table with the pineapple lamp. I once heard that in the days of expeditions, returning sailors would place a pineapple in their doorway to let the townsfolk know they had returned. I’ve been drawn to them ever since.

A LITTLE JAPAN: Theolonious Monkfish also on Mass Ave. Japan is the most enchanting place I have ever visited and I look for reminders of it everywhere I go. Here they play live jazz and serve sushi as they do in Murakami novels and Japan proper. The sushi rolls, called Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Rumpelstitskin though, are strictly Disney.

A LITTLE PARIS: I found Paris twice through the Landmark cinema’s weekly emissions. In Paris almost every cinema will show pictures of the city; in London too, there is always a choice of French films; but at the Landmark, there was only one at a time, so the views stretched before me in celluloid, felt like love-letters from the old world to the new.

A LIBRARY LIVING SPACE: Lamont Library, Harvard University. I like places where books are abundant and un-sacred. Where you can enjoy them with a tea, a box of paints or from a high vista wearing sunglasses. This is such a place, as are the Central Saint Martins and Senate House Libraries in London and the Bryant Park, Open-Air Library in New York City.

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From the old world to the new, The Cloisters, 1978

I arrived in Cambridge, knowing no-one, and everyone I met, whether friends of friends or random encounters, had washed up there through the job or spouse lottery, some more happily than others. They all spoke of the town as a place they hadn’t chosen for themselves; it fitted like an odd shoe. Too provincial or too Yanky; too cold but a lucky escape from Trump heartland… The place had a charm though, they admitted, once they’d found their favourite spots and began living through them.

One Friday, it was unofficially Expats night at Cafe 1369 – a refuge for the friendly friendless, amorous opportunists or anyone who wanted to be alone together. I sat by my favourite pineapple lamp and took out a book of Emerson’s essays, trying to read, trying not to listen to the Beach Boys.  Soon, I found myself talking to two MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) scientists: one from Iran, the other from more prosaic Guildford, a town near where I grew up. These guys had essentially followed their research to wherever opportunities presented themselves; however far from home. If Princeton gives you a PhD scholarship, there you’ll go: though you might miss your parents and brother, not see them for whole stretches of time;  though you don’t actually  go to New York that often and spend most of the time out to pasture with your equations in a nice deer park; though you meet so few girls that you ask whether ‘Are you allergic to rabbits?’ is a viable chat-up line.  Then, when the post-doc comes up at MIT, you can’t refuse: it’s not like there are that many jobs in this trade (wave-modelling) anyway. Waves, I found out, can be modelled directly from your laptop. But if you want to model them exquisitely, you kinda need to be in one of a handful of specialist labs, which could be anywhere and you have to be prepared to transfer between them if you’re going to be funded for your next project.

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While Cambridge is lovely,  it’s where these guys have chosen for their career and not for their whole selves. So it only stays half a home to them: another part of them misses where they came from; another still wonders about somewhere else entirely. When my work there is done, I too leave Cambridge half the way to creating a home. And then I get swept back into my real life in London. Some weeks later, it’s oddly vivid and unreal, like a distant experiment in living…

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The island of utopia, a rabbit’s tail, a minimalist sneeze in a foreign museum …

 

 

 

 

 

Ghosts, Terrorists and Paris the Beautiful

Writers’ retreats are as wanky as they come, but necessary when you’re writing a book. They furnish inspiration at the beginning and filter out everyday distractions when you’re trying to finish.  There are the formal ones that take you to the countryside haunts of Writers Of The Past for quite a fee. It is always the countryside, because the retreat-goers want some level of escapism, and a bucolic manor does this better for most people than a post-industrial wasteland. I’ve only gotten to the ‘scanning the brochure’ stage of these retreats, so really can’t comment on what goes on there…

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Not the official writers’ retreat brochure, but equally picturesque, no?

Here are some nice alternative retreats I’ve heard of. No.1: THE CHILDHOOD FAMILY HOME. A friend who lives somewhere so remote and picturesque that I’m surprised that she hasn’t figured out that she can set up her own Writers’ Retreat and charge £700+ per week, goes back to stay with her family in a slightly less picturesque place when she wants to make serious progress with her book, because they are the funniest human beings alive. They feed directly into the book’s dialogue and amp up its mood.  I imagine that another perk of this retreat, is that it provides free food and shelter…

No.2: THE EXOTIC. Another friend has quit her job and is moving to Bali for three months to finish the novel she’s had on her heart for six years. Bali! There will be chilled sunbathing, yoga and cafes by day, and furious writing by night. She’s been there before and says the energy is supportive for writing. Board and food are not free, but they are  a lot cheaper than London. So, if you can get enough money for the plane ticket…

And mine? Let’s call it MY MOVEABLE FEAST. Yes,  like so many other writers I went to Paris. I went there because it was easy to get to and I have somewhere free to stay, but also because I wanted to feel like I was writing the width of my book as well as the length of its plot. The clichés are right, Paris is one of the best places to observe life and jump into it. Apart from its beauty, the city’s social dynamic catches my eye straight away. People notice each other. They look, feel and register each others’ presence far more openly than in London. I remember this man’s shudder in the Metro when two women strode past him in clippety cloppety heels.  It was as though he felt them walk right through him. Then there is how the waiter just knows to duplicate someone’s order when their companion arrives; the huddling of fur coats in the sudden giboulées de mars (a kind of snow-sleet, which returns to Paris every March)

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How could something not happen here?

I also went to do some location research for my novel. Some places left me dry, but in others I experienced this strange kind of synchronicity, where I felt like the novel was unfolding around me.  Before coming to Paris, I had envisaged a scene where a character gets the fright of her life in a graveyard. This idea was on probation- I could discard it at any moment for being too predictable and unconvincing. Anyway, I figured out that I had had half an hour before meeting a friend for brunch, so I would go and visit the nearby  Montmartre cemetery to test the water.

Passing by the tawdry wide front of the Moulin Rouge, the black and red sex shops and the funerary outfitters selling wax flowers, grecian urns and statues, I approached the cemetery casually, like it was another thing to look at. And then I saw that some of the graves had been moved beyond the cemetery gates, underneath an overpass, where vehicles thunder past constantly and there is a thick smell of gasoline. In case you’re interested, the graves were moved to this damned spot to fulfil Haussman’s stringent city plan in the late nineteenth century. These people’s families had built them elaborate marble fortresses to give them protection and standing in death, and now here they were,  like vagrants under a bridge. I didn’t know what was worse, that these bodies had been moved, or that the families had put so much energy into trying to immortalise their dead, as though to deny the inevitable.

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Imagine crossing a cemetery and a grand bourgeois street under a bridge…

Inside the cemetery,  I felt even more unnerved, seeing that the headstones faced in all directions, and some of the death fortresses’ glass vitrines had fist-shaped cracks in them. A crow in a tree behind me made a choking sound; a wasp buzzed right past my ear, causing it to ring for a good five minutes, and giant cobblestones threatened to trip me up at any time. The place had so unhinged me that when a young girl in spectacles whizzed down the middle bannister of the stairs separating the higher and lower parts of the cemetery, I briefly entertained the idea that I  had seen a witch of the storybook variety.  I had gone into this place to pull the cheap parlour trick of a character who gets the fright of her life, and in a rare post-modern moment, I  had gotten the fright of mine.

It may be expected that after this experience I wasn’t able to eat a bite at brunch- but no, I was starving and went at it like a Brit who’s paid and is getting her money’s worth. That night in bed though, I couldn’t get the cemetery out of my mind. Images from the day kept flashing back. I panicked about the unhappy ghosts wreaking their revenge because I was exploiting them for creative profit; pondered upon a friend’s comment that girls like me were the most susceptible to being spirited away in graveyards, and feared that I would develop post-traumatic stress disorder and never be able to erase the images from my mind.

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Imagine this, circled by crows, grown fat with God Knows What, and you have it…

When trying to force myself calm didn’t work, I tried a counter-scare tactic. I should be more frightened of terrorists than ghosts, I told myself. A Londoner who hasn’t had a major terrorist attack in her city in the past two years, might think that terrorists are more of a real threat in Paris. Terrorists can’t walk through walls though, my subconscious answered back.  They can’t just linger, like ghosts can.

This wasn’t to say that I wasn’t conscious of the possibility of an attack. It was unlikely, but you just had to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have to admit, I did try to second-guess the terrorists a little: judging by their previous record BD (comic-book) shops and anywhere hipster could be more risky, while the exhibition of gowns worn by Proust’s muse at the Musée Galliera in the chi-chi 16th district, was probably too obscurely girly to be on their radar.

I also instinctively searched for signs of terror in people’s faces and in the streets. Place de la République near where the attacks had happened was alive with breakdancers,  lion statues daubed in bright graffiti and colourful poems, candles and bouquets for the terror victims; but Canal Saint Martin seemed a little deserted and sad for a Saturday. This may have been  have been more due to the ferocity of the  giboulées than the terrorists, though. A Parisian friend told me that the first weeks after the attacks, everyone was looking at each other suspiciously on the metro. By now, things were getting back to normal. Life goes on.

I realise that I’ve become distracted from the retreat theme in the process of writing. But maybe that’s what retreats are meant to be; a place where ideas can magically sweep together like pins to a magnet, but also somewhere where new yarns begin. Another  labyrinth for Ariadne…

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A Montmartre cinema disappearing into a cloudy sky…

Presence in Goodbyes

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I’ve had a golden book under my wing for the past week, Amy Cuddy’s Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Life’s Biggest Challenges. It’s golden in at least three ways: in colour; in its sunny, empowering message, and in drawing attention to its reader. Whenever I’ve been with the book in public, I’ve been approached by strangers who want to talk about presence: what it means in this age of constant distractions; can we ever achieve it totally?; and is it even desirable?

Cuddy defines presence as authenticity manifested through the body. When you’re present your intention, vocal range and body language are all synchronised and you are the most powerful and compelling version of yourself for that moment in time.  Presence isn’t a permanent or inevitable state, but one you can key yourself into through certain physical cues. It’s about taking up your fair share of space rather than shrinking, and also, interestingly, about taking up your fair share of time when you’re speaking or making decisions. Cuddy observes that a lack of confidence doesn’t just make us hunch and avoid eye contact, but we might rush our words or hurry an important decision for fear of taking too much of others’ time.

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I definitely experience presence as mutable. It’s both connected to my mood and a tool-kit of tricks that I can mobilise for an instant dash of courage. On good days I instinctively stand tall, intuiting my yoga teacher’s advice to keep the back of my neck long and expand my vision. I love this posture because it means I can actually see more, gain perspective and connect better with what’s around me. Then, there is Wonder Woman pose- hands on hips, feet apart – which is a life-saver before difficult conversations or walking past a band of leery dudes on Regents Canal. There’s something about this simple pose that makes me feel solid and puts me in touch with what power I have.

Where I really struggle to be present, though, is in goodbyes. Even in everyday partings from people I see habitually, I find it difficult to maintain eye contact and keep my voice from dropping into my shoes as I turn away. I wonder sometimes, if part of me doesn’t quite believe I’ll ever see them again and that I’m somehow protecting myself by not being fully present at the moment of goodbye. Sometimes, I’m so absent when I say goodbye, that the moment etherealises and barely sticks in my memory.

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What goodbye feels like/ every sad good-bye in one picture

Oddly enough, I find it easier to be present in emphatic partings- like the end of a relationship or a job, where it’s mutually obvious that it became terrible and you won’t see each other again. These situations  replay concretely in your memory for months, in all their awful glory, but they are also in a way simple, because when you said goodbye you meant it; you felt it.

No, it’s hardest to know where to place yourself, mind, body and soul in the goodbyes where there isn’t too much ill-feeling, but you’re leaving one situation for another. These are often slow goodbyes, and should be painless, but drag out torturously. I’m so tempted to create a drama, close the old situation with a bang, and rub salt into old wounds. See, there was a reason to leave! Or, I’ll go for a fade-out, and drift through the goodbye, so I don’t have to feel as much. Because the truth is, any kind of parting, even if it’s from a situation that suits me less, to one that suits me more, is a loss. I leave someone behind, I leave part of myself behind, and that hurts.

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Right now, I’m in the process of moving house. I’m leaving the certainty of the home I’ve lived in for nearly three years, for something riskier and more exciting. I’ve been entertaining this decision for a while now, and am confident that it’s the right one for me. I’ve been lucky with where I live, as it’s hardly a hole and my flatmates aren’t the textbook definition of sociopathic. But leave I will, and this past week I’ve obsessively marketed my room via any means possible, and thrown actual tantrums when my flatmates insisted that they wouldn’t settle for a marriage of convenience with Mr Perfectly-Nice He’ll Do from Spare Room and instead wanted to be wooed and taken to the ball by several High Recommendations (you know what kind of high). I point out that if their Dream Princes (sorry Recommendations) don’t materialise, I will be the one crying. Slams door.

When I step back and reflect, I realise that I’ve been unconsciously trying to make leaving this place as Guillotine swift and unpleasant as possible. It’s a way of hiding my feelings about going (which are more mixed and chaotic than I’d like to admit) under a shock parting.  It’s a mask of false confidence, saying: I’ve definitely made the right decision, now watch me go! Of course the grown-up option, of standing by my decision to leave, but dealing with all the inevitable fall-out of parting, will be much more difficult. I’ll have to be awake to the conflicting feelings of excitement, fear, loss and nostalgia. There will be some moments when I’m raring to go, others when I’m much more reluctant. Indeed, when the first Mr Perfectly Nice He’ll Do from Spare Room came for the viewing I’d so carefully arranged, I felt something between butterflies and nausea, and was grateful that I had an excuse to leave the flat while he was there. To mis-quote Shakespeare, ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow…’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Repetition-lore

‘As soon as they say “that’s interesting,” you’ve lost them.’ These were the words of cosmic navigator, Gahl Sasson at what ostensibly turned out to be a group therapy session about life and death narratives. When I saw a flyer for a storytelling workshop at my yoga studio, amidst others that promised to open up your hips or shoulders, I was instantly intrigued… I wondered whether it would help me with the tedium of telling my least favourite kind of story: the explanation on-demand. You know the one that’s in response to a question about your whereabouts, your choice of a situation or person. It might be the one you have to tell most often… It’s the kind that could prove genuinely, that word: ‘interesting’, but you’ve had to tell it too many times, and now, you, yourself are the most bored, the most lost in the conversation.

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StoryBOREDing

In the end, the workshop didn’t really address my practical need. How should I express myself in the narrow parameters of questions like: where are you from? why did you choose that PhD topic? what are you doing now? These questions are usually asked with the benign intention of establishing concrete facts and getting to know me. But, I actually feel that in answering them, I go to some faraway place ruled by memory and rhetorical conventions: it’s not so much my voice I hear, as mellifluous, well-trodden bullshit. Where I’m from is an accident of birth; the PhD topic was chosen 5 years ago, and do you really want me to breathlessly run through my current freelancer’s routine?  When you demand that I repeat these old stories, don’t be surprised if I stare at my feet, shudder as I recall an imminent deadline, or in my friend Whitney’s fabulous phrase, ‘check out of the conversation.’

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As I’m re-explaining, I notice how my stories evolve over time – perhaps as a means of keeping me, as I am now, awake and in the conversation. The PhD explanation was originally an idealistic narrative that I now can’t quite recall; though in some portion of spacetime it’s 100% true.  These days it’s more a collage of Oliver Twist and Girls. I see it spread out before me in Dorothy Lange Depression-era stills: I’m this opportunistic urchin, who tracked down a topic, funding and respectability, so that I could put off my fear – the mundane reality of an adult 9-5 – a little longer. Of course, even this is a romanticised diversion from a truth I’m unsure of… ‘It was right for me at the time!’ I protest finally, echoing my mother, when asked to explain her marriage. This expression is often met with raised eyebrows –  to most people it justifies a first marriage better than a PhD. You’re meant to sound more smugly intellectual, less Oprah when explaining a PhD. But I think its timeliness- like a rescuer on a white horse- is a point of pride.

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Farm girl, Washington, Yakima Valley near Wapato. Dorothea Lange, 1939.

Sometimes, telling the stories that people want to know about your past from the perspective of the present, pays off. You can laugh together, establish a foundation for intimacy and trust, and move on to what’s juicy and contemporary. But, if I’m honest, I  still find questions that corner me into explaining myself persecuting. I literally feel like I’m up for trial and will be judged on answers that  don’t represent me as I am now. The real me, the part that can connect with others, is getting lost in defensive explanations.

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They’re in here somewhere… the ‘authentic’ explanations they demand.

I know I’m not alone in inwardly shrinking when being asked to explain myself. I have some friends who say that being asked where they’re from, feels like an extension of the bureaucratic visa process that allows them to stay in the country, and others who get anxious when asked about their career or relationship trajectory. And do you know, this interview-style Q&A format hinders the moving, funny and personal stories we all have to tell when we let our guard down. Ultimately there is no shortcut to getting to know someone, whether for the first time, or as they are now. Maybe it’s time to stop asking the most obvious questions on autopilot. Instead, why not engage fully in the situation, listen  (and not just with your ears) and enjoy the slow process of someone revealing who they are? There, in the story of making arrabbiata sauce at 8am, or in someone’s primary encounter with yoga or death, you have a lead to the essence of a person. Then, go ahead and ask sensitively, always heeding Monty Python’s warning: ‘Remember, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’

francisco_de_goya_-_escena_de_inquisicic3b3n_-_google_art_project
Some exceptions to the rule. Goya, The Inquisition Tribunal, 1812

 

 

 

 

A Fox, A Fountain and The Shard

On the rainy night before New Year’s Eve, at around 5pm, a friend and I  were hurrying to the station, past Victoria Park, when we glimpsed a weirdly poetic arrangement: just past the brim of my umbrella, a fox with a singularly lush pointed tail; in the middle distance, a silvery fountain streaming  opulently, and furthest away, the Shard winked at us in its elvish festive get-up. There are no photos of this fleeting composition. Would the fox have stayed for anything in the pissing rain? Would we? Would any Instagram filter have made up for the failing light? But you’ll  just have to take my word for it, it was magical in its own way.

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Could have looked something like this: Hiroshige, New Year’s Eve Fox Fires At The Changing Tree, Oji, 1857

So close to the end of the year, I couldn’t help but see this trio as a kind of vision: the fox, the fountain and the Shard- all different and yet complementary- seemed like 3 wishes for the New Year.

The Fox

My friend, a Californian, told me that when she first moved to London and saw a fox, she initially thought she’d that seen a kind of cat with an odd-shaped tail. I laughed, but her comment made me see the fox with fresh eyes- it wasn’t just a mangy, flea-ridden dustbin hunter, but a tiger-coloured creature with a sly walk and an unearthly cry. Resourceful,  shabbily elegant and a survivor until something eventually kills it, the fox is a paradox. Its very purpose is survival in uncertain, precarious circumstances. It will go on the hunt in all weathers and eat anything given the opportunity. By night it will scream and bark to assert its investment in territory or a mate.  And yet it maintains that sleek, nonchalant boldness coveted by students of style…

The fox is a relevant symbol for the day-to-day aspects of 2016: earning enough to live, working towards a dream, having antennae for opportunities and putting yourself in the right place at the right time. The fox’s imagination is an earthly one; it sniffs out the way to the prize in the current situation, rather than dreaming up a realm of alternative possibilities. If the fox cared to counsel you, it would say ‘the answer is there… in that old contact/ that box under your bed/ the hobby you’ve been meaning to try for ages…but have you bothered looking?’

The Fountain

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Anita Ekberg in Rome’s Trevi fountain, living, well, what else… La Dolce Vita, 1960

The fountain is life, abundance and the flowing of emotions. I hate that so many New Year’s resolutions are concerned with regimentation and meanness towards oneself or others. We strive to weigh less on the scales, restrict our social contact and give less to those who need it the most. We eat dull food, banish the booze and swap the glitter for grey. This is as close to being dead, while still alive, as it gets. I say that we should go the other way… Not that we should necessarily dissolve our livers in Scotch or buy the sequinned jumpsuit that bankrupts us, but just that we should be generous with our time, energy and resources. Keep giving to charity, go out dancing, share a beautiful meal, a household green initiative or a smutty joke. Above all, recognise that we live in a world of abundant possibilities and that generosity of spirit is rewarded in transparent and mysterious ways.

The Shard

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The Shard in its fizzy Christmas spangles. Photo by Marco Uccelini on Flickr

To me, the Shard represents worldly ambition and achievement. Up close it’s a bombastic structure with lucrative views, but at night from a distance, it’s a mystical witness, with one eye to your dreams and heartbreak. I’ve noticed that when it comes to worldly ambition people tend to fall into two camps; those who build their lives around establishing structures and flaunting them, and those who think a life based on worldly acquisition is too bourgeois, restricting or impossible for them. The former risk having a life that’s overly Shard-like, all structure and gloss, but somehow devoid of heartfelt qualities; while the latter, whose lives are effectively written on water, risk depriving themselves from having anything at all.  I think it’s okay to have years where you focus more or less on ‘establishing’ goals. 2015 felt like a year when I experienced everything and built nothing.  Its overly liquid quality made it one of the best and most frustrating years of my life. This year, however, I’m looking to redress the balance – I’m not going to build another Shard, just plant a few landmarks in my water-garden…

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Monet in 1919, knew that the only landmarks worth having were living ones

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mistress America: A Modern Type

‘You know the Bowery Hotel?… if you walk about a block South there is a laser hair removal centre that’s very hip. I did the waiting room,’ quips Greta Gerwig’s Brook to Lola Kirke’s Tracey in the film Mistress America (2015). Five months after its release, Mistress America has stayed in my mind for its zany account of someone who restlessly chases after new beginnings. Brook, the central character of Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s modern screwball comedy, is a 30-year-old multitasking dynamo with fingers in many pies. She’s a freelance interior decorator, specialising in the City’s ancillary spaces; a maths tutor and a spin-class leader.  When Brook meets 18-year-old Tracey, an insecure college student and her future stepsister, she’s about to launch Mom’s, her most ambitious project yet. Mom’s will function as an eatery, hair salon and sanctuary for frazzled Manhattanites. But when investment from Brook’s absent rich boyfriend Stavros falls through, and she is sent on an unlikely hunt for funds via a fortune-teller, her arch-enemy and an ex-boyfriend, Tracey suspects that Brook maybe headed for ruin. Whilst remaining on sisterly terms with Brook in person, Tracey, an aspiring writer, turns this to her advantage, by penning ‘Mistress America,’ a story where the central character Meadow is a scarcely-camouflaged Brook. With the  inexperienced sagacity of an eighteen-year-old, Tracey pathologises Brook for her combination of hare-brained schemes and lack of ‘follow-through.’

'Tracey, Welcome to the Great... White... Way!'
‘Tracey, Welcome to the Great… White… Way!’

Brook might fall into martial arts trainer George Leonard’s definition of a ‘Dabbler.’* According to Leonard, ‘The Dabbler approaches each sport, career opportunity or relationship with enormous enthusiasm. He loves the rituals involved of getting started, the spiffy equipment, the shine of newness… The Dabbler might think of himself as an adventurer, a connoisseur of novelty, but he’s probably closer to being what Carl Jung calls the puer aeternus, the eternal kid.’ The Dabbler, Leonard considers, will never achieve mastery in his career or relationships because he finds the inevitable plateau that follows the initial spurt of excitement, unbearable. He is unable to plough on with his work when he’s not making obvious progress and gets bored and frustrated easily.  Dabbler characteristics are anathema in martial arts and anything else where progress is slow and  achieved with persistent hard work. But isn’t Brook required to be a Dabbler of sorts to thrive in the modern metropolis? Isn’t it her ability to abandon failing projects and find new ones that enables her to get by?

Jack of trades
The Dabbler by another name…

If we strip back the screwball glamour of Brook’s eccentricities,  her character and lifestyle are hardly unique. She is essentially a young woman with abundant ideas and energy, who has been trying to not only survive in New York City, but contribute to its status as a hub of urban innovation. She has thrown herself into numerous projects, which have flash-in-the-pan satisfaction and limited currency.  By the time she haphazardly conceives the idea for Mom’s, she is ready for a more substantial commitment, which will liberate her from having to expend her energy on finite enterprises. Living in London, a city, which like New York, is a shiny jewel for magpies with artistic skills, education and ideas, I have met many variations on the Brook theme. As someone with myriad eclectically-financed projects on the go, I’m a version of Brook. Her trajectory through niche commissions, part-time jobs and wild-goose-chases for funds, feels both hilarious and authentic.

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New York Dabblers and Artists: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Photo by Mapplethorpe

Post-recession, I would even argue that those who have forgone the cover of a  corporate graduate scheme or other equivalent stability, have had to show Brook’s level of versatility (and charm), in order to earn enough to survive, or to ensure that they collate the diverse portfolio of skills needed for an ever-changing job market. When short-term contracts and one-off commissions are the norm, even if you do want to stay in one role and achieve what Leonard terms ‘mastery,’ you have to move on. Or maybe your dream-job, that you’ve trained all these years for, is about as hard to come by as snow in June, (or December for that matter), so you’re taking baby-bird steps to get there, via serial loosely-related fringe roles.  Maybe you’re doing your dream job anyway, and don’t earn a living wage, so you have to scavenge for something that pays. Maybe mastery in one thing isn’t that important to you and you genuinely enjoy trying different types of work –  is that a valid reason for self-flagellation?  Whatever, the causes, ‘Mistress America’,  with more hats than the Mad Hatter and more wiles than Katharine Hepburn’s Susan in Bringing Up Baby (1938), is no mythic unicorn, but a real modern type. Interestingly, the original 1930s screwball comedies with their untoward plots, physical humour and scrappy heroes who were capable of improvising their way into and out of trouble, were made in an era of mass unemployment following the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Gerwig and Baumbach should re-invent a version of the genre for our own age of precarious employment and economic uncertainty.

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A dotty theme: 1930s screwball heroine Katharine Hepburn and her Baby

I realise that this is an odd Winter Solstice post, but it resonates with what I’ve seen, heard and felt this year. There are beginnings everywhere, but how can we tell which ones have mileage and which ones will lead us on the quest for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? And if they do send us on a leprechaun path is that such a bad thing?

A golden apple tree grows near the Arsenal stadium...
Golden apples grow at the darkest time of the year near the Arsenal stadium…

*George Leonard, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment (New York: Penguin Books, 1991).

Reading With Pleasure and Resistance: Poached Books, Vol. 3

I don’t steal other people’s books so much as ‘borrow’ them when they haven’t been officially lent to me.  A primary instance happened when I was about eleven and my best friend and I were looking for trouble in her attic and found The Joy of Sex, a 1970s sex manual. We opened it up and simply stared. Body parts swelling and merging in ways we couldn’t imagine! And the man had long hair and a beard! This was mystifying in the age of Leo and the Backstreet Boys. We heard footsteps, and quickly stuffed the book back in its place, ensuring that the loose double-pages were folded back in. At that stage, we wanted a peek at knowledge that wasn’t available to us, but weren’t really ready to come to terms with it.

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Kind of what happens inside The Joy of Sex. This is actually a clandestine copy of a Valentine in the Paris Opera archive, where I wasn’t allowed to take photographs.

This summer, I was in the makeshift office that had once been my brother’s bedroom and spotted a tomato-red, twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. I remembered my brother mentioning it before his motorcycle and bonobo monkey research trip around Africa, and was curious. On the inner leaf was a dedication from an unknown Nik to ‘Mowgli’, his explorer alter-ego:

mowgli

I wasn’t on the African adventure, but wanted to identify with the ‘true warrior’ who would receive such a dedication, so I slipped the book into my bag. I didn’t feel too bad about it because my brother freely ‘borrows’ my books and returns them in the state of shipwrecked voyagers, with curled pages and half-eroded covers. Besides, he was out of reach, so there was no way to ask him for permission. The Alchemist, a story of a shepherd boy’s trek to Egypt in search of the pyramids and a promised treasure, accompanied me on my own journeys across London for the 5 days it took to read it. In Alan Clarke’s translation, Coehlo’s prose had the spare and sparkling quality of a fairytale, with a touch more sentiment.

Proverbial phrases from the sages the boy meets on his journey, jumped out at me. They seemed relevant beyond the novel’s concise 171 pages and made me feel that its quest was my own. This was Coehlo’s intention for the book and I took the bait. Here’s an assortment of proverbs:

1. ‘A blessing ignored becomes a curse…’  How simple, and yet how true. Neglected treasures, whether people, talents or possessions have a way of skulking around, casting great guilty shadows and becoming our enemies.  A silk dress left in the closet attracts moths, a beloved who is taken for granted becomes a shrew, and creatives who sideline their practice are notorious drama queens and time-wasters.

2. ‘I know sheep can be friends… I don’t know if the desert can be a friend…’  This could be my favourite of the boy’s musings! It expresses gratitude and tenderness for the friendships he already has, and curiosity about the unknown. Sure, in many ways the arid desert seems the opposite of the shepherd’s fleecy flock; but he’s not about to dismiss it as an enemy out of hand. If more people were this open to difference, there would be less mistrust in the world and fewer wars, seriously.

3. ‘Love never keeps a man from pursuing his personal legend. If he abandons that pursuit, it’s because it wasn’t the love that speaks the language of the world…’  This comes up when the boy considers relinquishing his quest for treasure upon meeting Fatima, his heart’s desire, in an oasis. The statement advocates a world picture based on abundance and trust rather than scarcity and fear. It’s idealised, but I admire its generosity.

sirene lisant
This fish’s personal legend was clearly to jump out of the water and dive into a book…

As much as The Alchemist paved its way into my thoughts, at times its gender bias reminded me that I had stolen the book from my brother. The male nameless shepherd’s personal legend is journey towards the treasure; whereas his Intended, Fatima’s personal legend is him. Fatima is given some of the most beautiful and moving lines in the book:

‘I’m a desert woman, and I’m proud of that. I want my husband to wander as free as the wind that shapes the dunes. And, if I have to, I will accept the fact that he has become a part of the clouds, and the animals, and the water of the desert…’ 

Her words are noble because they describe love as gift to be open to, but not as an entity that can be possessed and controlled. And yet, there is something limiting (Penelope-like) about her destiny as an eternally receptive vessel with no journey of her own. Doesn’t she want to wander too, have a personal quest that can coexist with her love, not be wholly informed by it? But there I go, imagining fairytale endings for a story that’s not mine…

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Universal journey or Boys’ Own adventure?

Some borrowings require more tact and subtlety. Every Thursday I sit in my supervisor’s office for an hour, when students can come and ask questions about the course. They rarely do.  So I sit on her spinning chair and scan shelf upon shelf of books. Some are gleaming and expensive, with the aura of gifts; others are tiny, rare and cloth-bound; these, I imagine, have been carefully sourced. Intriguingly specific studies of now-forgotten designers are juxtaposed with sentimental titles like Wartime Kiss and generic volumes from grand theorists. The books have been thematically arranged and delicately handled. Apart from the odd volume placed askew, perhaps as a reference point, they appear as untouched as Snow White under rock crystal.  When I take one to pass the hour, because after all, no one said I shouldn’t, I’m careful not to touch the book too much, change its shape, or God forbid, break its spine, and replace it with the exactitude of evidence in a murder scene. In this space, bibliophilia means something different from my own cavalier love for my travelling volumes. As a thief of sorts, I must be respectful, or get caught.

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Immaculate book, crystalline pages

Poaching books is a way of crossing each other’s boundaries. We do it because we’re curious and want to be close, perhaps as a way of identifying with someone, or gaining some sort of subtle knowledge about them, or for ourselves. It could be seen as a creepy act, because no-one has given you direct permission; but, done respectfully, it can also be an empathetic gesture. Perhaps a person’s books, like their actions and body language, are indirect or surrounding manifestations of their character and dreams, beyond the words they choose to speak. To adopt Coehlo’s theme, these unspoken signals form part of ‘the language of the world.’

wartimekiss

 

Reading List

Alex Comfort, The Joy of Sex (London: Quartet Books, 1974). *

Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist: 25th Anniversary Edition, trans. Alan Clarke (New York: Harper Collins, 2014).

Alexander Nemerov, Wartime Kiss (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

*I can’t remember which edition we found in the attic, but this is the original.

 

 

Reading with Pleasure and Resistance: Assigned Text, Vol. 2

For about 5 years now, a close friend has been advising me to read The Power of Now, a life manual by spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. She told me it had changed her life and would change mine. Nevertheless,  for 5 years I resisted: the overly assonant title (2 ‘ows’, count them) put me off, and I was suspicious of the aura of salvation surrounding the book. I’ve never liked the idea that ONE book can save your life because it seems too doctrinal; instead I prefer to believe that many shape your life.

Anyway, I knew my friend meant business when The Power of Now arrived as a pdf into my Facebook inbox. Despite my earlier prejudices, I couldn’t help but be touched by this gesture, and so I settled down to read about twenty minutes a day. It was unlike anything I’d ever read; part self-help book, part-mantra, with the same elliptical conclusion at the end of each section: all that matters and even exists, is the present moment. The past and the future are psychological constructs, which take us away from the present by distracting us with anticipation, worry, nostalgia and regret. Tolle advises that you should only look forward or back to deal with the practical aspects of your life; learn from past errors or plan for future goals. Rather liberatingly, he conceives that a past identity will only haunt you if your presence, on the most literal level, isn’t strong enough. Reading this, I can now understand why people devote so much time and energy into meditation and mindfulness – so that they can learn to give each particular moment its due, rather than being enslaved by psychological time.

A new interpretation of Achilles' heel; a goddess with back to front feet... Andre Marty, 1920
A new interpretation of Achilles’ heel; a goddess with back to front feet… Andre Marty, 1920

And yet, artists of all types find psychological time incredibly useful. The past (typically, childhood and formative experiences) is a rich resource for many, while notions of future utopias inform a lot of pioneering design. Family bonds are often formed on the basis of mutual memories and plans for the future. In my family, this temporal telescoping happens too much. Some senior members, see me as the little girl I was, or the ‘complete’ woman I will one day be. The restless, intractable young woman I am in the present disappears through the cracks, because unlike some neat mental construct from the past or future, she’s real,  and difficult to pin down. I’m not exceptional in this respect, as these family members view others in exactly the same way.  When people relate to one another on this projective, non-present basis, though, any possibility of real intimacy is voided, and you are left with the mere promise of love meant for an alternative version of you.

Past phases have a trippy glamour...
Past phases imbue a trippy glamour…

Tolle’s view of happiness, both in life and love is less based on pleasure, which he is convinced, soon turns to its opposite pain, and more on general contentment and feeling at one with the universe. Relationships are there for consciousness instead of fulfilment. So you go in there to learn, rather than feel impassioned, complete etc.When you meet the right one, they will reflect your soul just a bit more than any other part of creation visible from yonder window. Oddly enough, this isn’t so far removed from how love is described in a book Tolle would almost certainly denounce, Wuthering Heights; there Kathy describes her love for Heathcliff as resembling ‘the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary… He’s always in my mind…as my own being.’ This unexpected, intertextual connection made me smile- as much as someone tries to categorise love, separate it out into good and bad, nourishing and destructive, truth and infatuation, it speaks another language, one that doesn’t care too much for our constructs.

And whether you are coupled up, single or in an ‘it’s complicated’ situation, to  be happy, he says, accept what is, however challenging, dull or confusing. Unhappiness is caused by resistance to the present moment. When the present moment is unbearable, you have a choice to leave the situation, take direct action or just accept it as part of life. Many people unnecessarily torture themselves by mulling over their difficulties, and escalating their drama. He calls the accumulation of grievances and hurt in a person’s psyche ‘the pain body’. This  parasite attacks who we are in the present by making a persona of Our Wronged  Selves. Some people are wedded to  their Victim/ Tortured Genius identity because it gives them a dash of spice in a vanilla crowd. Perhaps they are afraid to let go of their past wrongs because they fear that they will become insignificant in the present. Significantly, Tolle’s universalist theory makes no distinction between the Basil Fawltys amongst us (always going on about our War wound, the shrapnel in our knee) and those who have been wronged in a major way, for example, targets of terror, ethnic cleansing or rape. While it’s true that nurturing a Victim identity is disempowering for everyone, Tolle’s  one-size-fits-all theory feels too simplistic for the complex world we live in.

Tortured geniuses are often found in sculpture gardens amidst an entourage of feathered furies...
Tormented geniuses are often found in sculpture gardens amidst an entourage of feathered furies…

In a recent article, Simon Kuper argued that our’s was the age of specialists in small things.* Unlike the big-picture ‘greats’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Einstein, Freud, Marx) the scientists, psychologists and political theorists of today, claim to be experts in a choice area of study; they can potentially improve the world in one tiny aspect. Tolle seems distinctly of the previous century, in the sense that he does posit a universal theory. This works fine, for the essential, eponymous premise of his book, but his ideas on gender and sexual orientation in particular seem trite and oversimplified, especially given his position of hegemonic privilege ( Straight White Male). Men are more likely to be divorced from being through mind-dominance (over-thinking), while women are more subject to the pain body, and especially before and during their periods. He regards menstruation as an opportunity to shed not only one’s womb lining, but one’s pain body and thereby one’s resentments. In an unintentionally amusing section, he describes how a ‘supportive male partner’ can remind women that they are suffering from the pain-body during PMT, and bring them back onto the course of acceptance. I can see a cuddle and a whiskey going down better, but what do I know, being a woman and not a spiritual leader?… His view that gays have greater potential to rise above the polarised,  acerbic dynamics of the heterosexual world, so long as they don’t make an identity out of their homosexuality, equally reads as naive and dismissive of the long struggle that gay people have had to openly be themselves.

Overall, in spite of its glaring oversimplifications and humourless prose (there’s maybe one  intentional joke in there about cats as masters of Zen), I’m glad I read The Power of Now. It’s lessons on living in the present moment, feel especially alive now, in the latest wave of global terrorist attacks. A friend in Paris understandably expressed that she was afraid because she didn’t know when the next attack would be. It’s so easy to feel powerless in this state of uncertainty, especially if you’re not someone who makes policy; but perhaps there’s all the more reason to prioritise what’s important in life, and not take the present for granted. Il faut vivre sa vie!

Love and beauty now
Love and beauty now

Reading List

Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, http://www.orgone.ro/doc/The-Power-of-Now.pdf

Simon Kuper, ‘Small Ideas are Better than Big Ones,’ Financial Times Weekend Magazine, October 23, 2015 *