Monday, 4 August 2014

Love and Darkness

The war between Hamas and Israel is ongoing at the moment, with the poor Palestinians stuck in the middle and Israel and the Jews blamed for all their pain. Anti-Semitism re-emerges from hidden places, a smile on its ugly face.

Amos Oz is a good companion in these times, because he writes about the pain and the worry of loving. I have re-read his A Tale of Love and Darkness slowly, during these terrible days.

I must get hold of the book in Hebrew. Time and again I found myself time and again translating the English words into Hebrew, recognising a Biblical lilt or a Zionist tune. Nicholas de Lange is an excellent translator, but still.

Amos Oz repeats himself. Some repeating feels true, as when he hears the bird singing the first five notes of
 Beethoven's Fuer Elise; at other times the recurrence seems laboured. Has the book been written according to a cyclical structure, where the same things the same people and similar situations keep returning, as in real life, faster and faster as we grow older, and we are given (by whom?) a chance to consider them from slightly different angles each time?

Much to do with language, its roots and the directions they take, a family obsession.

One section I loved: on p. 24, as a child of six he is taught 'the facts of life' by his father - how to arrange books on a bookcase - their backs to the world and facing the wall (the way Zen practitioners meditate).
He arranged them according to size, to his father's dismay. His father listed many different ways in which books might be arranged: those were the facts of life - diversity!

I found that portion thrilling. As a child, Amos Oz did not yearn to become a writer, but to become a book, which may never be completely destroyed, but a copy of which will survive in a bookshop somewhere; I think of the antiquarian bookshop Quilter's, here in Wellington, which is the kind of bookshop where his books might be found.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Watching Sister Wendy

Sister Wendy was on TV again, in a documentary on the Arts channel. The interviewer described her as ‘all glasses and teeth’ – (she has teeth like a rabbit). Her physical appearance did not prevent her from becoming a household name all over the world, as the presenter of programmes on the history of art. What she looks like is as nothing to the power of her presentation.

The focus of this documentary was on her life rather than on art works only. She's no ordinary person. For one thing, she’s very clever: a First from Oxford - one of the best results ever, in English Lit, studying under Tolkien. Her religious Order forbade her to mingle or talk to the other students and she sat and studied every night. Socialising was never her forte.

She taught English and Latin at a school for 20 years, and has been the Mother Superior of a convent. Now that she is over 80 years old, she lives in complete seclusion as a hermit and a ‘Consecrated Virigin’ (whatever that means), in a Carmelite convent in England, separated from the other nuns,  at first in a caravan ‘bought for 60 pounds’,  and parked in a thicket in a remote part of the grounds, and later, when the caravan ‘fell to pieces’,  in a little prefab, about which she says ‘A bath! And an inside toilet!’  (Things must have been pretty rough in the caravan - she also mentions a skylight which leaked). She attends mass daily, still keeping herself apart: she sits in the belfry.

She wanted to be a nun since the age of four, when she had a powerful  experience of God’s presence. It just happened the once, but it was ‘enough to last a life-time”, she says. About her virginity, she says directly to the camera that she lacks any sexual urge, “It was always a mystery to me.”  She regrets that giving up sex was so easy: she would have liked the opportunity to sacrifice more for God.

At times she said things which resonated so directly with me that I experienced a pang in my chest (my heart?) and tears came to my eyes. I was moved, I can’t say why. I am hoping I‘ll understand better what that was about by writing about it. 

The first was when she said about the paintings she chose, that here we have  "...a great genius illustrating something that Christ experienced or suffered, and trying to make Christ's experience visible" - she sees the paintings as a gateway to spiritual experience. 

Piero Della Francesca painted Christ's baptism by St John - Christ is very pale-skinned and blond, and holds his hands prayerfully , but there is a vertical gap between the hands, which are not placed quite symmetrically. And over his head, over St. John's bowl of water and the hand of St John pouring it, there floats a white dove, its wings spread out horizontally, like the purest blessing.  I wondered at the space between the hands, what it meant. It is at the centre of the painting, where Christ's heart might be. And then I realised that the space between the hands, the pouring water and the wings above them form the beginning of a cross which is completed by the dove's tail at the very top. The dove appears quite still, though there is a lot happening elsewhere in the painting, with angels on one side and various religious people in the background. It may be that none of them can see the dove. None of them are looking at it. Jesus himself is looking straight ahead, out of the canvas and is unaware of it. 

In the film, when this painting was introduced, the dove was initially kept out of the frame. The picture looked complete as it was, Christ's baptism. And after Sister Wendy had commented for a while about other aspects of the work, they showed the dove on her own, filling the screen. We hadn't been aware that she was there beforehand. It gave her added emphasis. I shall not forget the experience.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Not work

It is midday and I got up at 6:30 this morning. I have done yesterday's washing-up, watched the news (no newspaper on Sundays in this house) showered and cleaned the bathroom. Drank several cups of coffee. Talked to my husband who was also up early for once.

(Displacement, displacement.)

I know that writing this is an avoidance of the real work. I shall keep it short: I borrowed a book of poems from Wellington's Central Library, the only book which contained something by Cesar Vallejo (see my previous post with his poem).

The title of the book is Staying alive: Real poems for an unreal time (Bloodaxe Books, 2002) edited by Neil Astley. I discover that Neil Astley is the editor for me: I like the poems he has chosen very much. My heart quickens as I read them, all of them. He has gathered the poems up by topic; each section has its own title, a good title, a title about what matters. Each section is introduced by a short editorial which is in small print, as if he was apologising for taking a liberty.

That text takes my hand and walks me through the poems. I am usually too impatient to read much poetry. With Neil Astley's help, I can do it. I am still busy with it, one cannot read a book like this like a novel, though I almost finding myself doing so. Many hours have gone by and still I am busy with it.

(Displacement, displacement.)

Lucky that the Vallejo poem is a different one.

Two NZ poets have been included: Kapka Kassabova,  (four poems) and Fleur Adcock (five). There are also many Eastern European poets. Kapka K was born in Bulgaria.

From the Body and Soul section, here are the first two verses of Kapka Kassabova's The door: anticipation of wisdom:

One day you will see clearly:
you've been knocking on a door without a house.
You've been waiting, shivering, yelling
words of badly concealed and excessive hope.
Where you saw a house, there'll just be another side.

One day you will see clearly:
there is no one on the other side,
except - as ever - the jubilant ocean
which won't shatter
ceramically like a dream
when you and I shatter.
There are four more verses. Three of them start with the words 'But not yet.'

Now I really must go. It is after 3:00 pm.  I have had a short snooze somewhere in the middle of all this time, the better to leap forward now.

Friday, 3 January 2014


Yesterday I returned to writing my book. At long last. The chapter about the villain, to be precise. It is turning out to be so hard that I can only see myself writing a single chapter from inside his head. I am not even sure that I can do that. I am trying, No - not good enough - I shall do it.
I have printed out Renee's recommendations for my book, no I should shall cross that out, for my book, Renee's recommendations for me, in an assertive font called Elephant, (black and bold) and stuck them by the screen of my computer where they will attract my attention as soon as it wanders.
I must get the book finished this year. There is nothing to stop me, except myself.
Yesterday a friend came for lunch - no, the truth is that I myself invited her for lunch. I did that. I was writing well, I was onto something to break the back of this awful chapter which has held me up for so long. I had returned to it at long last and  I invented a way out of doing the work: one o’clock was near. I went to the kitchen and opened the fridge for some reason ( what reason?) and it seemed filthy, so I cleaned the worst of it, indignant at the distraction. I then also cleaned the toilet, scrubbed the bowl, swept the floor. I worked fast and furious, desperately. It seemed hugely important (I know now it was a displacement activity, but it felt completely urgent and necessary at the time) and instead of being angry with myself, I was furious with poor Diana, who had no idea what this was about and sat at the table and considered me with her peaceful eyes. She knew exactly what I was feeling, we are old friends, good friends, and she had no idea why I was the way I was, which was something like a not very well restrained cyclone. An inner cyclone and trying to pretend that nothing was happening. I was furious for the time I had spent cleaning. A huge anger which radiated out and contaminated everything no matter how pleasantly I spoke, how often I smiled. Everything offended me. I offended everything. I won't say that I offended Diana, because she does not offend easily. We are usually very fond of each other, but yesterday, when I had fled into my room because I couldn't stay a minute longer eating-and-chatting-when-I-should-be-writing, when I left her with P, and when he had left the room too, she quietly slipped out and tried to run away home. I caught her at the front door and forced her to come back - she is very polite - and the three of us followed the original plan, which was a good one, going for a substantial walk at 3:00 pm to the top of the hill which is near our house, through the bush and up to the top where the wind was blowing, hard. By the time we got back home it was late afternoon and we had been out for two hours. Diana left immediately, poor thing.

That evening, I went out again, with another friend I am fond of, for another walk, a short one. I was not angry at all by then (why not?). I had not seen her for a long time - which was unusual. Short walks with her used to be part of my routine, part of the way I kept sane, balanced (I hope).
I did no more writing yesterday. P and I were tired.

This urge to write is to be respected and worked on. Renee says that I don't write enough.I'll go for a thousand words a day, 6000 a week. No writing on Saturdays.

I'll finish this chapter before I leave for the Zen retreat, which is in ten days time. Is that reasonable?
I shall shut myself in my room, which is a good place, and write. If I allow any more time, the work will smear itself over too long a period, which is what has happened this last year.
I return on the 20th and then I need to work without abating, without seeing anyone, like a monk on a retreat.
Is that too extreme? I'm afraid I won't last. How to manage the keeping in touch ? Maybe not do it,  though I end up weirded out if I haven't spoken to anyone for a while.We might meet friends in a cheap restaurant rather than feed them here. Go to a movie once in two weeks. Keep up the short walks. I shall finish the writing about my grandfather by the end of February, even though we are going away.

What I have now is not good enough. It is a collection of short stories, rather than a single story I can tell all in one go in a flow.Telling that story is what is to be done, by me.

Writing this is a displacement activity. Bah!
Get on with it, girl!