Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Earth and Sky




The Moon appeared on the right-hand side of the bus, the side I was sitting on, the window next to me, there it was, all perfectly round and silvery white, a bright shiny button surrounded by all of the night sky, an immensity, an ongoing, almost endless blackness – or near blackness – that could only be imagined in the bus, where night was neatly framed by the window, giving an illusion of safety and security, of warmth and protection, the way human life does in this part of the world anyway, neatly severing you from ‘the outside’, the natural world, with its chilly inconstancies its limitless power to chasten, to batter and sometimes – to defeat. We are lulled into a complacent – and irrational – sense of containment and shelter, pressing our faces against the glass houses of protective habit and assurance; except for those who have stepped out – both metaphorically and literally – and are unprotected. And this, we have allowed to happen, as we trail from one brightly-lit shop to the next, performing our Christmas rituals because we’ve opted in to custom, window-pane screens, brick walls and warmth at the touch of a button.


The streets are empty, says one shopkeeper, bus-stops are empty, no-one is out buying, last month was deserted at the end of the student semester.
Austerity, we agree, has put paid to people’s spending. And fearful uncertainty for the future.
I remember, I say, that other time of austerity, growing up in the 50s, when there was so little, none of the imports we’re accustomed to now – peppers and avocados, Italian coffee, French cheeses –
We’re spoiled, she agrees. And tells me how, when she was small, she was sent to someone who had an allotment, to buy potatoes from him. And the pail was so heavy, the potatoes were covered in earth and mud, I could only carry it a few feet then had to rest and put it down; and then when I got home, they had to be washed and peeled – and there were cabbages too and turnips, but that was about all. Yes, we’ve become used to so many things since then – we’ve been spoiled.

 
And the question hanging in the air that we turn over endlessly in our minds and our fingers – what will happen in the future, and I think, once I’ve bought two boxes of incense and said goodbye, that maybe this is part of what has to happen, an erasure of taking for granted – the selection of food and the heating of houses and the clothes that we buy and that hang in our wardrobes while, all those decades ago, winter coats had to last, winter boots too and winter meant deep snow and ice formed on the inside of windows.

It’s true that the streets are not crowded, but there are plenty of illuminations – in parks, in shop windows and house windows and there’s little sign that the world of commerce will close up shop, that the carousel will slow down and its gears will grow rusty and disappear in the long grass, like the branches I collected in winter, and got covered over in summer growth. I found them just the other day, when I peeled off the damp and withered foliage, its lank tendrils rotting on the branches of pine. I pulled out the branches – one day, I’ll saw them into logs for the fire.

But it could be that the signs are there, and the shopkeepers notice, whereas I live in the country, dig potatoes out of the ground, cut up logs for the fire, pile on layers of clothes to keep warm, dig a path to the gate when it snows. Which it hasn’t, this winter, not yet.

Misty morning Moon

On the walk home from the bus stop there’s nothing between me and the night sky and I stop to watch the round Moon, screened by a filter of cloud, then it’s as if it melts it with its brilliance and all round the Moon there’s a sheen of pink, a gauzy light and there’s one star above it, far up in the sky and I remember this morning, watching a plane flying through misty cloud, in a straight line, and thinking how planes are things of such grace, so seeming-assured yet so vulnerable, and in my mind, I hold it up in the sky, in its trajectory feathered by cloud, to its safe landing, its airport, its gentle descent to the earth.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Pushcart Prize Nomination


Edward Lear drawing: Gjirokaster

 
I was just back from the USA after a journey even longer than usual because of cancelled and re-routed flights. It felt appropriate that I was still on East Coast time when I heard that my travel writing about Albania, Passages, had been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. This came totally out of the blue but I could not be more delighted. Many thanks to Julian Torres Lopez, editor at the Nasiona Magazine for this nomination. 



It turns out I’m in good company too –  the award winning Canadian writer Douglas Glover (founder and editor of Numéro Cinq), has also been nominated, by the Brooklyn Rail  where an excerpt from his forthcoming novel was published.


View of Gjirokaster today

Friday, 7 December 2018

Fragments of Tulsa Time




The food – wonderful & plentiful, food in stores, food at home and food in restaurants. The USA’s birthday is July 4, the sign of Cancer the crab – food and nourishment, the family, the home. 


 

Photo credit: @FJSobriquet



There’s family, of course, part of your own heart beat. There’s extended family, who may not be genetically related to you, yet they are. Then there are fascinating branches of the extensions, such as H who says he’s sure his dog is a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, he’s looked it up on the internet – and he shows me an image on his phone. They look similar, I agree. He’s got arthritis says H and he’s only 5 years old, that’s young – 

His son interrupts – that dog’s got ill, he says – because you spend so much time worrying about him and his health, he had to produce something real, some real symptoms. You remember that time I walked past him without saying hallo and you said I hurt his feelings because I didn’t say hallo to him?  – all your worrying about him has manifested this, now you’ve got something real to worry about.

H smiles, looks a little quizzical, looks at me, I look at him, and I laugh, as much at C’s precise, pin-point diagnosis, as H’s look of bemused innocence, shrugging off the verdict, in the late autumn sunshine, sprinkled with broad leaf shadow like black pepper on the table.

*
One day is really hot and we have a morning yoga session, then M & I stroll down Cherry Street before meeting up with the others at Roosevelt’s restaurant where the sun is so bright and hot we have to ask for the awning to cover the table and give us some shade.



Later we all go to the Gathering Place, leaving the car in the overflow car park, all dust blown, as if we’re in the centre of a desert though it’s a densely populated desert. The creation of the park itself was the idea of a monied philanthropist, who gifted it to the people of Tulsa. The park has many paths, trails, climbing areas, a Boathouse – with cafe – mirror areas, sound areas with metal or wooden xylophones – bridges, open areas and lots we didn’t see. There will be canoes to go out on the lake which will be joined to the river.



On the skyline as the sun goes down, an industrial complex with chimneys & cranes, mechanical herons with long necks and metal probing beaks, showing up black against red sky. 



The next day it’s turned cold and the wind’s so strong, the wide and crackly curled up at the edges leaves have piled up in the entrance-way between house wall and garage so you come in wading through a tunnel of leaves.

And in the park near the house the leaves have climbed up the wire fence enclosing the tennis court, because the wind pushed them into a drift, like snow, then pasted them up the fence. They look like some flag-strewn artistic faux-natural design. Awards are won for less. This is the real thing, gains no award. It is itself, the bestower of awards.

The park this morning is mono-coloured, creamy pale brown with a hint of russet, the grass and leaves more faded than coloured, like an old shirt bleached by the sun.  If wind has any colour, it’s this one today, woody, bark-scented, dry and crackling.

*
I wait outside the bookstore. The temperature has changed again and though the air is still cold, the wind has dropped and the sun, high up in the sky, is warm on my face.

The square of shops is vast. In fact there’s probably a word for it, other than square. The shops are huge, the sign Barnes & Noble is written above the entrance in enormous letters. Signs above the other stores are almost as big – Trader Joe’s, Surplus Stores, Ross’s, where you can ‘Dress for Less’ and where I’d just bought a pair of jeans (VIP – Must Have).

As I wait, I watch a few cars pull up near Barnes & Noble, people get out and walk towards the store. They walk slowly. No-one ever hurries. The pace is languid.


I stand in the vast square of buildings, set back from the road, so there’s no traffic noise here in this other world, quiet and peaceful, sun warm on my face.

Brookside




Great coffee at Shades of Brown

and the best Lip Balm ever at Ida Red Gift Store on S Peoria




We leave the next day, at sunrise

Photo credit: M McBroom

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Sand Script



Today never reached full daylight, it was always dimmed, what light there was, filtered through some unimaginably tinted screen pinned to the sky.

I studied the sky on the bus north. The nearer, narrow clouds, bulging slightly in the middle, then tapering a little at both ends, like reluctant-to-grow cucumbers, were stubbornly deep-grey. Higher clouds thinned out and flattened, were silver-leaf but any light they reflected was absorbed by the rotund cucumbers, dark and immobile.

The beach at St. Andrews, on the east coast of Scotland, was busy. Commemorative silhouettes were drawn in the sand. Names were written alongside some of them. Also a sand-drawn image of Elsie Inglis. 





There used to be a hospital in Edinburgh named after her. One of my extended family was born there. It was closed down, decades ago – or transformed into something else. At any rate, the name of that pioneering woman should never have been erased. But it was.
(
You can see more images on beaches here) 
I walk along the beach. Briefly, the sky shows patches of pale and lustrous blue. The waves are small and faraway. A stretch of wet sand reflects light.




Walking back, it begins to rain, at first just a little, then gets heavier. Thick rain, but I feel lighter. The sky gets darker and I get wetter and I walk through the town, buy a coffee; its taste has only a tenuous relationship with that of coffee. (But my standards are very exacting.)

And the long bus ride home. Tree colours are bright yellow, like ripe lemons, near-neon. Now the sky on the horizon has splashes of blue and silver.

It isn’t daylight though, not real sun-suffused light. It never has been all this grey-long, rain-spattered day.

I feel lighter though, as if I’m now moving downhill, as if I’ve drunk the water and supplies I brought with me and my load is lighter. The trees we pass, if not golden yellow, are pulsating orange. Heading south is definitely to go downhill. Everything now – air, sky, objects – is suffused with that ochre yellow glow you sometimes get late afternoon in winter, on days that never truly get light, there are not enough hours when the sun is showing, for them to fulfil their light-potential. But sometimes when the sun rests on the horizon it shoots light through the clouds and air and breathes a fiery glow onto everything. It isn’t daylight and it never has been. Not today. It’s been like a smoky grainy reflection seen in an old mirror. But the colours! – rust-red, eggshell-blue, sunflower yellow. Clouds lit from within like nascent candles – opaque bodies each guarding and reflecting an inner flame.





I feel lighter as we roll downhill, heading south to that blue on the horizon.



Saturday, 10 November 2018

Centenary

Colincamps Cemetery near Albert, Picardie, France. Spring 2018

"A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer lives are based on the labors of other people, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure that I have received and am still receiving."
—Albert Einstein: "What I Believe"








In Memoriam Will Smith 1882 - 1916


A flower shop. A young woman
pushes the door open, calls out -
I thought that you were closed!
And I think of the flower shop
near the train station
in Albert. Where I chose
a pot of red roses.

The smiling shopkeeper,
the politesse and conversation -
winter morning, bright with sunshine.
I had just arrived in Paris,
took an early morning train,
changed at Amiens, for Albert.

The florist wrapped the roses
in shiny cellophane, red ribbon.
How could I stop him?
I’d hardly slept, I’d travelled overnight,
I’d only just arrived.
I could not be sure I’d find the place
that I was looking for.
Surprised by sunlight,
for the train passed through a landscape
wrapped in cloud
as if it was a bouquet,
offered as a gift.

Arriving in this small town,
walking from the gare SNCF
the sun burst out of its confining cowl of cloud
and flung open the sky.

My fingers ripped the cellophane,
tore apart the careful curls of ribbon,
in the high wind, in the cemetery.
I pushed the roses deep into the earth,
beside the headstone,
placed there almost a century ago.

In a little English town, months later,
I pass a flower shop
just before the clouds swamp
the streets with rain.
And remember
Picardie, red roses
and the fierce light
lashed to the horizon,
tilting, like a boat at sea.

Morelle Smith

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Chronos, Kairos and the River




This photograph of Belgrade from the air is the last taken in October’s recent travels. The Sava and the Danube rivers meet here at Belgrade and it’s the Sava that the ‘river’ part of this blog is named after (the train is the one I took from Bled through Ljubljana

Dragons guard Ljubljana's bridges

The Ljubljanica flows through central Ljubljana

 and on eastwards across Slovenia, some years ago and I liked so much the way the train-track curved and wound along to follow the river’s course, to stay close to it).

Painting by Anton Karinger – Dolina Save (Bled iz Radovljice) The Sava River Valley (Bled from Radovljica) in Slovenia National Gallery, Ljubljana

Starting with the end as it were, of recent journeys makes me think of chronology and the time zone shifts I’ve been through recently (four, including the last, ‘clock-change’ as UK reverts to GMT); I’ve resisted this one, getting up as the darkness fades, determined to get as much light as possible and so not to grumble about ‘losing an hour of daylight’, a fiction of course, yet is felt, if one follows the dictatorship of the clock. Yes, I’m aware of the ‘real’ time (the one the world around me goes by) but I’m lucky enough to set my own hours for work and I can cope with a kind of parallel existence in two different times.

Today is All Saints’ Day and last night was marked by charmingly dressed and made-up children calling at the door, singing songs and reciting jokes, in return for sweets and oranges. But before the Christian era, this day marked one of the Quarter Days, an annual cycle based on seasonal rhythms and changes. But I’m happy enough for it to be named after the Saints, those semi-mythical figures who inhabit the liminal regions between earth life and post-corporeal life, who assist and intercede (it is said) for fully mortal beings like ourselves, from their greater vantage point, reached after we pass through the portal where we shed our physical bodies.

For some reason Hallowe’en focuses on the disturbing denizens of a spectral world, the ghoulish, restless, haunting possibly malefic otherworld beings. But I prefer to think of those ones who inspire and encourage us to relinquish fears of what comes after that particular portal, as well as emphasising the light (in the dark time of the year, some say, the inner non-material light shines all the brighter).


Image from the old Orthodox church (of the Holy Ghost) in Podgorica, Montenegro

And there’s another Time too, one that is different from the measurement of Chronos, the chronological ordering of events – there’s Kairos, the Time of significance, when you feel things fit into place, a kind of high point (we have to use metaphors of place and space to describe time!) of energy, that draws events towards it, because this is the place/time where things come together, giving a deeper sense of significance and meaning. It is also known as the Appointed Time and our perceptions of this have nothing to do with clocks, zones or mathematical measurements but rather, are ones of expansion. These experiences can come at any time in our lives, personal to us, they’ll provide areas of nexus or cohesion, nodal points around which our lives gather, forming an individual and unique pattern. Singular and unrepeatable. Our personal story, our individual looping labyrinth, which is both path – travelled in time and place – and one all-encompassing whole.



The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral: Photo credit: atlasobscura.com


So today I feel accompanied by Kairos and perhaps there’s even a residual uplifting gleam from the saints. The cherry tree in the garden has lost almost all of its leaves, but the bright sunlight gleams on its silver and copper-red bark.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Dieppe - its beaches churches and artists

Dieppe harbour in evening, with seagulls

 A longer version of this post (without photographs) can be found at the Scottish Review


The British artist Walter Sickert spent a lot of time in Dieppe, living in le quartier Pollet, the old town. One of his most well-known paintings is of Dieppe’s l’église Saint Jacques. A small information board in front of the church tells you that you are standing in the exact spot he stood in, when doing this painting – the reproduction of it is in tasteful terracotta shades with splashes of yellow, which also fits with this day of hot sun and cloudless skies.
 

Other well-known painters who fell under the spell of this small seaport town include Delacroix, Renoir, Monet and Camille Pissarro. The latter was particularly taken with Dieppe, spending the summers of 1901 and 1902 there. He called the town ‘an admirable place for a painter who enjoys life, movement and colour’. Like Sickert he too painted l’église Saint Jacques though from a different angle. He also painted a series of eighteen views of the port.

Clearly Dieppe’s charm has not diminished in the past century. Its steep cliffs with their dark shadows falling on the beach, the pale greenish sea with changing moods, that combination of water and land, with its constant relationship, its rustle and whisper, and the hazy horizon with its visible slight thickening at the edge – at least on this clear and sunny day – which might be England.



The beach at Dieppe is pebbles, not easy to walk on even with thick-soled sandals. The stones don’t stay still, they shift under the presence of your feet, so that they are constantly rearranging themselves, as if seized with inner dissatisfaction longing for some ideal pattern that can never quite be achieved. So that each step instead of receiving a push upwards from the ground as usually happens, a reassuring collaboration between finicky and fragile lightweight human being, and the dense and powerful earth that supports us all – instead of this the earth surface retracts and moves sideways. The usual reassurance is replaced with a counterfeit, like a temporary crossing for pedestrians during road works, one that takes you out of your way while claiming to be helpful or – doing the best they can in difficult circumstances and thanking you for your patience and consideration.


 
This semi-sinking into the stones requires attention – to curvature and time, as each step is marked by a crunching sound and a need to pay undue and unaccustomed attention to equilibrium as if you have become twice as heavy as you were before. Though the recompense, once you reach the solid road, is to feel you have suddenly grown wings.

Inside the church Saint Jacques I discover that it is one of the starting points of the Chemin de Saint Jacques, the pilgrimage routes to Compostella. This particular route is called la voie des anglais and continues to Rouen and Chartres. To the left of  Le Mur du Tresor there’s a pillar entwined by a twisting spiral, similar to the Apprentice Pillar in Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel, though a much more slender version. Above the doorway and to the right, higher up, there are several coquilles de Saint Jacques, the pilgrim shells associated with the saint, which mark the travellers’ route.






La Chapelle Notre Dame de Bon Secours is situated on a cliff top with a view over the town.



Inside there’s an exhibition of paintings. I speak to the artist, Pascal Voisin, who has thick white hair and a deeply tanned face. He tells me he used to be a fisherman, he has crossed La Manche many times, visited English ports, and has been to Dublin too. He paints streets, houses, boats, seascapes, waterfronts. His paintings are firm and compact as if he has caught his subjects, grasped them and placed them firmly on the canvas. As you might expect from a fisherman, he is not going to let them get away. They are dense with life, with lines, colours, edges and definitions. One or two are black and white, reminiscent of old photos, with the same near-nostalgic charm. Energy bounces off Monsieur Voisin and this energy is visible in his paintings too, with their thick colours, heavy skies and restless seas. 


Pascal Voisin and some of his paintings

So Dieppe continues to inspire painters. Of course I’m seeing it at its best in this glorious summer weather. I wonder what it’s like in winter. Perhaps it will be like Pascal Voisin’s paintings, with their dark and threatening skies and deserted sea front. When the long shadows cast by the sheer chalk cliffs will devour the beaches and extend thin dark fingers into the sea.