Reflection on Self at a time of change

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I’m 60. Stating my age has never made the impact upon my mind as it seems it does on other people. Age has become both more and less relevant now. People are healthier for longer (if we are lucky) yet the ‘cult of youth’ has never been more extreme. We have more leisure and more activities to entertain us in that leisure time, but we are exhorted to worry about ourselves  more and more – if you understand that all those self-help articles which say live! Are actually saying ‘you’re  going to die soon – so make the most of it’, preferably by buying some rejuvenating product/service.

It seems to be true for many people that they do begin to worry more, about smaller and smaller things. Maybe they need to, but probably not. It may be because they have fewer distractions – work, sport, status, children. Of course there are a few big things it is reasonable to worry about. Our own sickness, which tends to emerge and  sink its teeth in us as age encroaches, whether we will or not. Our past bad habits may engender pointless regret. Pain, whether serious or trivial, is very hard to transcend.  We may have still more aged parents, who don’t seem as sensible as we are, or who may feel that they are owed our duty. After all, that is how it used to be. And our children in their majority do all kinds of adult things which we don’t like and we feel will end badly. The deepest worry of all, in my case, is that the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, economically (maybe I don’t worry so much about this aspect) socially and environmentally.

Erik Erikson saw life as a series of existential crises, his favourite being the adolescent crisis (identity vs role confusion –  how to choose what I will become?). Opinion used to be that this was because his own adolescence was traumatic owing to his conflict with his father. So many people who head for the hills of psychological practice seem to be emerging from their own youthful swamps. But I think the crisis of ageing, which he expressed as ego integrity vs despair,  is real. Can the person on the brink of old age and even death resolve their life in some way satisfactory to themselves? Can there be more – learning, experience, companionship, defined selfhood , enjoyment and peace or will there be only less – forgetting,  fearfulness and a closing horizon, isolation , dullness and anxiety?

As friends of my own age began to suffer and die in various ways, I certainly absorb some of their own anxieties. I don’t want to, I would rather be a cheerful and practical support. Maybe I manage to seem like that, but the tentacles of doubt begin to curl around the sturdy boughs of the tree I liked to imagine myself to be. I have recognised my own permeable boundaries for a long time. Last year, for the first time I experienced  feelings of dread and nausea, I trembled and sweated, my heart raced, all on the behalf of another, or out of my own fear of what was happening to them. I wasn’t proud of this, nor did I take it as a sign of my sensitivity or empathy.  I began to feel rather like the feeble person I have tried to escape all my life. But it’s not even that serious. My thinking self understands that these are common human feelings, which most of us have in one way or another at some times in life. Our organisms are essentially the same, after all. We are all more the same than different.

I resorted to some talking therapy, but the effects were more volatile than usual. It’s a given that with a compatible person one can sit and talk and feel some relief even if no answers are expected. (I’ve found this kind of talk, while possible with a few kindred spirits is often not possible at all with family or one’s more judgmental friends. Even the proverbial woman on the train, or someone one has only ‘met’ on the internet, can be more supportive of this maybe imaginary true self.) I know that I want more of the approaching last phase of my life than I am contemplating at this moment with a feeling of stuck-ness.  I don’t want a guide or a protector. Now, through my circumstances of birth and experiences of life “ [I] have become vision. [My] Eye is fitted to what is to be seen.”

Of course there will still be a person who is recognisable. I cannot be other than myself. But  I have to consider how far I want to be ‘selfish’ I’m finding ‘consolation in philosophy’ as well as in observation, reflection, I want the best of my former life to re-emerge , the essentials of day to day existence, the core personality which some folk identify as ‘soul’. I want my own capacity to learn to be freed from convention and the constraints and energy drain of paid work or domestic labour. I want the limited frame of my former life to expand.  I want to find the ‘still point’, and fully appreciate the turning world for the last few years of my life. I know this won’t all happen at once but I could better foster this expansion by using the greater availability of time well and  choosing my activities more freely and wisely.   It is valuable and worthwhile to pause in order that this process may be planned and appreciated. I want to be able to sift the sands for my own nuggets of gold: in observation, study, creation. As there is no ‘retirement’ except in convention, this process can continue as long as I wish. I’d like to get there in the end, whatever that means. But I really do want to ‘get’ it’ – the Point of it All. Not that there is One, but there might be Mine.

Beautiful world

You may well tell me that I think too much. Maybe I do, but it is quite a part of who I am, and I like that part of myself. I also happen to believe that if more people spent more time thinking, the world might be a saner place. When speaking, I often have that mental hiccup before I use the word ‘believe’ since I also happen to believe (!) that those who favour belief over thought need some lessons in rationality.   In an increasingly complex and nuanced world we need more than ever ways to distinguish truth from falsehood. And if this is not possible, a way to decide what to do, or not to do. The future of the planet, no less, may depend on it. What was I thinking about? This …

tangle of plants
tangled beauty

After reading ‘The Moth Snowstorm’, a plea for the survival of life on earth, I found myself wondering for the nth time why we humans find the world beautiful? And what are the fundamentals components of beauty? Not least, what reasons might there be for deliberately choosing the un-beautiful, as we often do? And lastly, is the Natural always beautiful, or the inverse question, is the unnatural also ugly? You can imagine the mental (if commonly experienced) tangles resulting from this reflection!

I’m not well versed in philosophy, and indeed aspects of the topic seem convoluted and unhelpful to me, but it is hard to avoid the name of Plato as one of the earliest recorded philosophical voices. Since his time, so much philosophy has been talked and written, it is impossible for the non-expert to map the paths taken. And here, with Plato, the earliest (and semantic) confusions creep in. Is beauty kallos? Or hōraios (timely)? What are we to make of the relationship of beauty with mathematics, or virtue? Can a landscape be beautiful or only a person? In his Theory of Forms, non-physical forms (or ideas) represent the most accurate reality. Clearly the ancients did not think in quite the way that I do. With the revival of platonic ideas by Plotinus and other early Christians, the “One”(divinity from which all else comes) was identified with the concept of ‘Good’ and the principle of ‘Beauty’.  Plotinus asserted the ultimately divine nature of material creation, since it ultimately derives from the One, through the mediums of nous and the world soul. It is by the Good or through beauty that we recognize the One, in material things and then in the Forms. A further corruption and confusion of ideas set in with the Florentine Marsilio Ficino who presented his philosophy as an authentic and accurate representation of Plato’s (it wasn’t). I try to respect these early thinkers while remembering the state of culture and society when they lived. We’ve come far since those days. And with that I set them aside and move to more contemporary hypotheses of beauty.

Maybe Stendahl was closer to us in thinking that beauty is ‘la promesse de bonheur’the promise of happiness. It would clearly be in line with modern thinking on the subject of evolution to agree that. If something makes us happy, be it a hopeful vision of the future, a view of a peaceful landscape or a productive garden, the face of the partner to whom we are bonded, it might well look beautiful. But there is also the problem of addiction: the reward centres of our brain might well tell us that a illegal or harmful substance was as beautiful as other stimulants which I am going to contend are the constituent parts of beauty. And the rewards of beauty might bend our all too great susceptibilities.

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Evanescence, timelessness: the rewards and costs of beauty

Of what does beauty then consist? Symmetry, intensity, purity, harmony, perfection, health and youth. This is human perception. All these attributes could induce the brain to resonate powerfully, memorably and with pleasure. And here we have my explanation for the attraction of music, art, a photographic model, a beloved child, and a summer sky. Stimuli act upon the senses to generate  a good feeling. But we are complicated creatures, and sensory perception is not all. Taste or preference may not be about absolutes of attraction, but more to do with association. Partners who look like our parents, sweet scents we remember from wonderful experiences, the colour of a childhood dress. Thus, the human mind can bend to admire the wrinkles of age, fierce body-modifications, death, decay and other maybe perverted objects. This is different altogether to finding bed bugs, slugs and flies beautiful, since these we can learn to find beautiful because of their perfection of construction and form, and the well-adapted way they go about their lives. We can look and learn, and overcome disgust through knowledge  – such intact and operational life is utterly beautiful, even if we find the associated effects on human aspiration distasteful.

So why are some people so powerfully drawn to the broken, damaged, diseased, unnatural and even the ugly? Maybe because of the imagination – we can imagine how the thing might have been when pristine, and know that it is only time and existence which has tarnished it. An understanding of the processes of  organic and inorganic decay might make dust and moth more appealing. The Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi sabi envisages beauty accruing to an object as it continues in existence. This idea derives from Buddhist acceptance of intransience and imperfection, clearly a different tradition to the western platonic, since true platonic beauty is removed from the world of existence altogether and raised to an ethereal and non-existent realm.

dead sunflowers
The serene and melancholy acceptance of wabi-sabi: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect

三法印

無常

 We can also have compassion and pity for the deformed, damaged and aged, and thus do things we have loved for a long time become beautiful. Perhaps less honestly, and I have heard this one myself, a man might find a girl with a squint or a limp attractive because of the possibly unconscious belief that she is more powerless, and likely to be more grateful. I could have no sympathy for this kind of thing, but I can reluctantly accept that to feel powerful oneself, while debatably unworthy, must be rather pleasant. I confess that this is a kind of bonheur I have rarely experienced. Power and the sense of self should not depend on the vulnerability of the other.

I am unlikely to be the exception in finding (only some) manmade materials and objects  distasteful. Although metal, wood and ceramics may be beautiful, and also mendable, surely there is nothing less so than a piece of faded and unmendable plastic. Thus art made with such materials can be dubiously beautiful, though a naturally talented practitioner could doubtless redeem the most despicable modern rejects of the material world, whatever the starting point.

There is clearly a role for the leaders of culture (the educated, the wealthy and the ‘powerful’) to form or even dictate what is considered beautiful. But somewhere along the line, it seems to me that our ideas of beauty as a culture have gone wrong. Much contemporary Art is un-aesthetic, individualistic and intellectually barren: not even well executed (the craft of it). It’s worth looking more closely into the ideas beneath such manifestations of contemporary culture, but nobody could want to live with such objects, even if the deformation of the Market had not rendered them un-affordable. It may be naïve or primitive, but for myself I shall continue to seek out and appreciate those human and natural creations which most satisfy my own sense of the beautiful and valuable, while simply gazing unaffected on the rest – ‘not to my taste’.

Not a diary …

This is definitively not a diary. I’m not going to be telling you what I’m doing all the time. That doesn’t mean to say that the things I do don’t have the greatest possible influence on what I write here. And what I have been doing lately feels as though it is rather important to my future. To my understanding that it’s not over until it’s over. We all know that getting out and about, learning new things, meeting people is important to even an introverted person. The trouble is, when things have been dull for a number of years, somehow it is hard to generate the necessary enthusiasm to make such opportunities.

Now, it seems to me, is an important time for me to look within and around, and see what I can salvage of my heartfelt values and make into something new, which may change my little world for the time that remains to me. Maybe I have been collecting and collating experiences, but I have not been making much of them, due to lack of time, commitment, skills. I also feel more evangelical than I have for a long time. The world needs saving! And what am I going to contribute to that effort? I am also more aware of my own capacities so I think I will not set my sights so high. So if not the world, my corner of it. And if word should get out, so much the better.

This process starts here, with a book, as so often. I have been reading Michael McCarthy’s ‘The Moth Snowstorm’ and I have found it inspirational. He starts by studying the variously failed models of  conservation, concluding with a measured despair that the most recent flourishes of sustainability  (Rio) and the market (in the form of, for example, eco-tourism and use value of habitats or species) are as unlikely to succeed as earlier gestures to protect the environment from rapacious greed and exploitation. We don’t have a long-term plan, and seem unable even to consider the well-being of our children. McCarthy speaks of an almost spiritual value which he sees as the slenderest of hopes, but the one remaining to us. He believes (I don’t happen to believe this, but I’ll go along with it) that humans feel a special connection to Nature, by virtue of place within it and our past evolution of exquisite attunement for survival’s sake, which is manifest in our joy and wonder at the huge, the tiny, the rare and the prolific, the colourful and the strange. To this list of the marvellous, I would add, from my own experience, the ordinary, since all life (and indeed, non-life) on the planet and off it is marvellous to me. I am filled with joy and wonder every day.

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butterfly in our meadow

Following rapidly on the heels of my discovery of this book have been serendipitous events: finding a secondhand copy of Ronald Blythe’s ‘Divine Landscapes’; meeting a German woman imbued with the essential values of the emergent Green politics of the 1970s and 80s, sadly now rather in eclipse; encountering a wonderful dress designer and maker in Glastonbury while in search of something special to wear at my son’s coming wedding;  meeting a friend in search of an ancient yew tree; and  talking with another friend about her studies in the art or craft of kintsugi. From this last discussion, which turned on issues of ‘right-livelihood’ and the need for authenticity and coherence, ideas of self and occupation emerged – a firming of the resolution to explore what all this means to the essential ‘me’. The word which comes to mind may sound pretentious, but what do I care now about that? It is ‘integrity’. I will make my future with integrity, or I will make nothing.

I’ve been talking about writing, but I know that it is ‘good for a person’ to make things with her hands as well. I do make things, but not in a particularly sustained or practiced way. No 10,000 hours for me. The production of a material object seems valid if it is of use or beauty, but as for imposing my own creations on others, or making a living from them, well, that has always seemed unlikely, out of reach somehow. Too much of a contribution to the mass of stuff burdening the earth. I always knew that my other physical contribution to the world, gardening, was more of a process, considerably reliant on a sensitive working with nature. A garden for me is a cooperative effort. I know what Nature is capable of, and after minimal slashing, burning and digging, a garden will make itself. I’m not much of one for pergolas and decking, walls and paving, so I have never been inclined to supply my clients with what you might call ‘television’ or ‘Chelsea’ gardens. But my gardens look good and are full of life, and most importantly do no harm. They are peaceful places to be.

I am, at least today, full of hope that something true will emerge from this bud of intention, and that what I have sometimes felt lost may be found, or at least re-created. In this hope I am much consoled that this very piece of writing, which I thought had fallen through the cracks of carelessness and new technology, has been found in the archive. Hurrah.

The edges of my world

It’s quite fashionable to talk about the edge. If you’re in an academic world, you probably refer to it as ‘the liminal’. I seem to remember the word from my long ago degree – or was that ‘littoral’? I’d be rather self-conscious writing about ‘the littoral and the liminal’ as American Bonnie McCay has done, though both ideas are enthralling and well worth exploring. Sometimes I think I might drop my sensitivity around apparently pretentious language and just use it. The threshold-ness of the idea also brings the word ‘portal’ to mind, another one I much overused in the recent past, and now feel is due for a revival, just because it can be so apt.

Edges are rich in life and meaning. Elements meet and mix – warm and cold water, darkness and light, rock and air, sea and land. Around the margins of medieval manuscripts mythical beasts roam; between the known and the unknown, mysteries drift and half-form. On the edge of sleep, we dream. Twilight forms and hides the limit of conventional belief. In the penumbra are an infinitude of degrees of greyness. Where do the boundaries of the seven named colours of the rainbow lie? Why seven?

You might think that a person who claims to have a low threshold of risk would shun marginal experience, but this one is rather drawn to it. My awareness of the beauty of the edge has fostered a fascination with beaches, ponds and rivers, horizons, clouds, hedges (two edges there!). Maybe the most significant edge of all, where rock and air meet in the erosive band of the soil has been of prime importance to me as I delve in my garden, and pull vegetables seemingly out of nowhere. My garden is a small world of soil compared with the stripped rainforest where it has taken millenia for a film of life to accumulate, only to be washed away to the sea in a few short years of exploitative logging and soybean cultivation or beef grazing. My garden is of small importance compared with the rice terraces of Ifugao or the parched farms of the Eastern Nile watershed in Sudan and Ethiopia, but it makes the message. It takes so little for this fragile and essential resource to be poisoned or swept away. In short, earth, air and water meet differently in every place and time, and in every different kind of weather.

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the soil and its denizens

Maybe my comfortable feeling at the edge comes from my suburban childhood, between city and countryside. A child believes that nothing will ever change in their miniature landscape. But not only does the point of perspective rise as the child grows, and understanding of the processes of change develop with both education and observation, but the focus on detail weakens and now admits how small and grubby a scene could be which had once encompassed such adventures. Certainly the suburbs have seen changes in time, an ebb and flow of people and substance as rapid as in the countryside proper. They are at risk as places to raise children, encounter nature, notice the spaces in between, become oneself. The walls which medieval city dwellers built to keep out the wild and the incursions of the Other are now needed to prevent the reverse encroachment of the urban on the rural. Dismay at the failure by nibbling attrition of green belt planning policy is my generation’s equivalent to the sad regret of John Clare or Richard Jefferies for Enclosure and the intensification of agriculture. There is a thinning of life, and not just a narrowing of the edge between us and the Wasteland.

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city edge

The mind has edges too, imposing limits on the narrow-minded, encouraging curiosity in the broad-minded, and demanding acceptance, tolerance, patience and compassion towards both children and those whose minds are otherwise to our own, through culture and belief or even mental aberrations. How many times have I almost not seen something important at the edge of vision? Catching such a glimpse, cannot humankind turn aside from its headlong rush over the edge to the Fall?

They say that change is inevitable, and one cannot avoid edges either. There is a frontier to life and experience as one ages. Most of us have an edge to our acceptance. Even the largest desert or ocean has a place where sand accumulates or dwindles as erosion or deposition takes place. it may be an infinitely sharp line or an imperceptible merging, but the Edge will always be somewhere, and on the other side, things will be different.

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horizon

Various kinds of light

“My aim … is to create pulsating, luminous, and open surfaces that emanate a mystic light, in accordance with my deepest insight into the experience of life and nature.”

Hans Hofmann

That’s a high aspiration for a blog! and I share Hoffmann’s objective. If I don’t deliver light to anyone else, then maybe for myself.

There are two artist Hof(f)manns who interest me. The one with one f spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, born in Bavaria and at first engaged with science and mathematics, later emigrating to America and developing another side of himself, training in art and strongly influenced by the ideas of Matisse in the production of his abstract expressionist works. His paintings are pretty bright! The other, with  two fs, specialised in highly detailed and delicate studies of  nature in watercolour and gouache, and was appointed court painter to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in 1585, helping his employer to build his extraordinary art collection, which contains many works by Albrecht Durer.

Their works are very different, but seem to me to characterise aspects of my own nature. I trained as a scientist, yet I believe that art can convey meanings, or more precisely feelings which are over and above the facts. And this brings me to the subject of light. How many aspects are there, scientific and symbolic, to that simple little word?

In a recent programme on the BBC (source of much enlightenment to me) Professor Jim Al-Khalili managed to finally get through to my fuddled brain an inkling of an explanation of where the light in the universe might have come from. Oftentimes, I can follow such cosmic meaning only so far – I watch and watch, or read and read a book about, say, Paul Dirac, only to realise that I’ve suddenly lost the thread. I’ll try to paraphrase. Shortly after the Big Bang, in darkness swimming with the weirdly materialised particles of the first matter, the coalescence of those particles from the ‘quark-gluon plasma’ resulted in hydrogen and then helium nuclei, which then captured electrons with the release of photons. And there was light. (well, I did say it was a paraphrase. Sorry about that!)

Since that earliest of times, photons have been bouncing around the universe, to the delight of Newton and many since. Light zooms through and round, it splits and recombines, it magnifies and illuminates, catalyses many of the most significant reactions of life and not least importantly relates to matter in the famous equation. I can only understand a fraction of what it can really do. I was a dunce at physics, and a little better at chemistry and biology, but I can fully appreciate light as almost miraculous. Here, I recall a few of the wonders.

Remembering Isaac Newton:

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Or more naturally:

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Stained glass:

stained glass light

Or plain glass:

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Sunlight and lamplight:

two lights

Dappled things:

dappled light

Light-fish:

lightfish

A fountain of light:

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It’s possible that I have spent more time engaged in trying to capture images of light, and thinking about more metaphorical kinds of light, than in any other activity. I want to understand, but maybe I never will. Enlightenment will be left to the Buddha.

 

 

 

 

So, how’s it going?

I’ve written a few entries now. Definitely ups and downs. Here’s what I’m thinking in the very early days of this venture. It’s difficult. Being in the right mood, finding the right words, making the time. I’m enjoying myself, but feeling that I’m going to need to improve my game. Having a wordpress blog, I’m receiving messages all the time that other bloggers have found what I’ve written ‘totally awesome’ or similar. I’m wise to this now. In the early days of flickr (my first venture into the world of social media) we were all very starry-eyed. I joined the photo-sharing site in 2004, when it had only 10,000 members. If someone liked my most recently uploaded  image, I felt I had made a real connection. We were friends and shared our deepest feelings. It was real and lovely, wasn’t it? I still know some of those people; they walked into my real world.

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early days: channelling the internet in 2004

Then a funny thing happened, which I might have been prepared for, knowing all about the Dunbar number, and what happens to country folk when they become city folk (their overall tendency to trust and help strangers declines). People began to play games. Online, I began to notice that some individuals’ ‘number of friends’ began to bloat. People ‘knew’ thousands of others, made contacts randomly rather than because of shared interests, and commented merely ‘wow’ rather than engaging on a more worthwhile (to me) level. Groups were inundated with unrelated images. Trolls trolled. Porn sprouted. The site became a shambles, a wreckage of something which had been rather sweet. Ipernity now looks like flickr then, but without the genuine community. At least, I haven’t found it, and I’m not trying. Finding community online has become all but impossible, unless one has endless time, and an axe to grind. I’m not so much of a ‘game-player’ and I lost the will to join in. I didn’t even want to be that kind of person; did I sense a certain inauthenticity? I’m not expecting to see any community emerge here for me unaided, though it would be nice if that happened. One could spend days hopping from blog to blog, gleaning material, making contact. But the returns seem paltry and diminishing. Effort in does not equal value out. Somewhere in the airways energy is dissipated, and I don’t have energy to spare. Writing here has to be for me alone – no distracting friends, no chasing views, just a convenient platform. Friends are in the real world again. That’s ok (but you can read me here if you like).

My own writing has changed. I said earlier that I was a good writer, but now I’m not so sure. There is a lot of good writing about. People are telling interesting stories. Lots of those people are young. They are quick and trendy. They read one another. Some are generating material which others actually read, to the point of e-publishing and even paper books. Already I have a feeling that I’m not operating on that level. Who could possibly want to read what I write? Talk about early discouragement! But, yes, I know, that’s not what this is supposed to be about. I am not ‘in the market’. I am just dipping a toe.

Certainly I have not been practicing enough. I write maybe three times a week at best. Typing is not quite like handwriting, it’s boring and tiring in a different way. Organising  and proofreading is bothersome. My concentration is shot, whether from age or gaily surfing the internet for 10 years without concern for my brain structures. My research and synthesis skills are rusty; thank heavens I never had to submit an academic essay with ‘Turnitin’ (anti-plagiarism software used by British universities). I’ve lost focus in writing, just as my eyesight has become a touch misty. In my mind I am as sharp as ever. I hear neat phrases forming as I take my constitutional – ‘what a brilliant piece that could be!’ – only to find that it’s pretty clunky when I come to write it down. This is nothing like I imagined it would be!

I have a wooden box, it used to be a seed box, which happens to fit exactly some index cards bought for another purpose.  This box has a supply of ideas for expansion which is growing more rapidly than my capacity to write them out. I find I always like the notes better than I like the finished piece. Polishing is a process I like less and less (though I don’t mind it so much in the case of poetry). I have a huge supply of pictures, some of which are fit to illustrate my pieces. Maybe this is saying that ideas have been revolving in my mind for over ten years. Now the words and images are blending. Just as well to shovel them out, perfectly formed or not.

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seeds …

How will I ever  manage my material in the way of my favourite authors? Between 1951 and 1975, Anthony Powell wrote twelve books documenting the life of his unsung hero, Nick Jenkins. Throughout the series the thread of the story spools out, loose ends are connected up, characters develop yet remain consistent, national and personal history unrolls. Each time I read a volume, I find some new but coherent detail which I had missed before, but which perfectly fits and elucidates. He uses long but perfectly formed sentences, full of allusion and erudition. The scenes convince, the characters fill one with compassion or horror, or both. How could he possibly have planned such a perfect pattern, truly a dance to the music of time, echoing his favourite Poussin painting? How controlled the flow over 25 years? I love it because it calls up so perfectly the world my father inhabited – a Welsh childhood, the Territorial army, a long office career, encounters with famous figures who revealed their feet of clay. I love those details of people’s lives, and in enjoyment of fiction maybe I can escape the accusation of an over curious mind. I feel I shall revisit those pages until I die. I know those people like no others, even though they don’t exist.

There’s a particular problem I’m having, with repetition. Close reading here will doubtless show that I am often forgetting what I have said, and saying it again. It’s like a conversation I’m having during which I become embarrassingly aware that I’ve said it all before, and to the very same patient audience. Perhaps each cycle of repetition subtly changes the phraseology, the emphasis and even my own understanding of the meaning. Maybe it’s due to a focus on the self, rather than the other in conversation. Only this is not a conversation, it is, thus far, entirely one-sided.  If only I could remember that even I prefer to hear about the other rather than talk about myself. And yet … I still have the hope that if I write it, the urge to repeat will gradually abate and I will regain my innocent mind.

I’m also wondering whether my themes have become over-complicated with the accretion of material over the years. There is knowing things, and arranging them in a comprehensible way. I’m finding it hard to state things categorically, since I have come to see events and people in so much more nuanced terms. This complexity is hard to write out. Somehow I can grasp an entirety in my mind, with a kind of Keatsian negative capability, but any attempt to convey in concrete terms seems to fail. It strikes me that I am attempting more of an ‘artistic’ or impressionistic approach than my former inclination to pin something down with scientific or philosophical certainty.  I even find that I don’t have opinions any more. Or if I have them I certainly don’t defend them. Maybe this is why poetry can seem to appeal more as one gets older. Things don’t have to be certain any more. Science is still valid in some areas, but not others. And any attempt I might make to justify psychology as a science would certainly now be vain.

negative capability
Things get complicated …

There has been some discussion of how a dead person’s internet effects might be disposed. Their blog, photo-collection, even documents in the cloud. The question is akin to those previously well explored by curators and historians; which artists’ work enters the ‘canon’? Is all their work ‘worthy’? Is history being written by the victors? And then there’s the vexed question of ‘legacy’; why do humans often seem to feel that without a trace on the collective memory, a life has been futile .  Why do people want to be remembered by a wider society than their immediate family and friends? What partial truth about me could possibly emerge from this blog? I’ve become even more acutely aware of the volume of material here in Cyberspace, that Universe possibly even larger that the physical universe, and I wonder what is my own digital trace? I think, if I can, I shall ensure that this evaporates into the ether as I do. Sit mihi terra laevis.

feather
feather light

They do furnish a room

Books have been my life’s companion, alongside plants. Maybe my laptop runs them a close race now, although I don’t have an e-reader. But am I a writer? I do write, and I have been said to be a good writer, though you may judge. Even the remote possibility that I may be a writer of Something (academic essays, poetry, blog-posts) does not make me a writer of anything which might be published, nor especially the writer of a novel. I’ve had the idea in mind for years, always procrastinated. There are so many disincentives – the idea, the sustained effort required, a fear of failing to produce anything I would be satisfied with, and now, most of all ‘the market’. So much dross emerges from so many aspirant writers, there’s something in me which now deters me from even trying: a weak position. Has everything been said? Not by me … Yet now I have the time, I have few other claims on my attention. Surely at this point the will to do it has not ebbed away?

It’s a cliché that everyone has a book in them. I think I have a book in me too. My life has contained both the usual and the unusual experience, permitting me to think I could write something both accessible and novel. In my travels I have encountered many people, both ‘types’ and individuals more or less recognisable. My interest in psychologies and social dynamics brings me to ask the questions whose answers might be the stuff of a novel. Yet a dilemma has long plagued me – how to disguise the experience or the person? And in my awareness of the human tendency to stereotype I question my own ability to avoid cardboard cut-out characters, and repetition. Even here, over short entries and a few days I have the feeling that I’ve said it before, and to the same listener – how dull!  We repeat and repeat until we learn a lesson, then the urge to voice the thing evaporates. Maybe I would rather not bring forth this book in me, but continue to cherish the idea of the book. I’m aware as time passes that the will to bring anything into the world, to be a burden to me or others, is weakening. Maybe to have the idea , turn it in the light of the mind and see it sparkle, then let it slip away, is enough. Now, rather than making more things, it’s more a de-cluttering phase of life. I’m shedding the accumulation of six decades. But, humanly, it seems one must have ‘occupation’. Could writing be part of that occupation?

As a reader, what do I read?  Even before reading, I do like a good picture book. Sometimes the words are too much effort! One can look at a beautiful book for hours. There are long journeys in picture books, and the thoughts they provoke can be an enthralling as words written.

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Le Vertige des Reserves: Bibliotheques et Musees de Geneve

“Reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them” (X. Trapnel in ‘Temporary Kings’ by Anthony Powell). I read novels, even of the lighter sort, and I would never assert that science fiction, fantasy, or comedy are empty of worthwhile content. But I do also like a challenge or something more experimental as well as the purely narrative (Will Self). I gravitate to certain themes; psychology, the quirks of religion, gender, art, madness of various kinds; and tend to avoid the environmental as too close to the bone, not really the stuff of fiction. But I do wonder whether too much novel-reading engenders over-stereotyping. If each author has a tendency to write their own stereotypes, may those not reinforce my own?

I both read and write poetry. Nobody knows. Or they do, because I tell them. But there is, maybe, a kind of reluctance to publicise something as fraught with misunderstanding.

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poetry …

Biography also feeds into the willingness to think one knows a person by what they write. Whether a bad person can produce good art (of whatever kind) is a vexed question into which I might delve elsewhere. Thomas Hardy, Henry James, T.S.Eliot. Is it my imagination, or do I like female biographers of male subjects? Must be some inaccuracies of interpretation there!

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bio …

Recent non-fiction has considerably improved my understanding of surprising facets of the world . ‘Oxygen: the molecule that made the world’ by Nick Lane brings together some extraordinary insights into how life on earth emerged, and how a substance can have very contradictory aspects. Mark Lynas’s ‘The God Species: How the planet can survive in the age of humans’ challenged some of my environmental positions, although as a person with a low threshold for risk, I would not concede all his points.  ‘Sapiens: a brief history of humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari will be my next reading venture. It has to be admitted that I have a bedside stack several high.

Finally no list would be complete without the ‘how-to’ manuals, which feed my (easily-sated) hunger for the new, or otherwise my search for the One activity which will absorb my creative powers until they ebb away completely – weaving, gilding, calligraphy, bookbinding, tassels and cords … part of the book-burden which I shall maybe soon shed. My short attention-span has threatened the structural integrity of my bookshelves –  I am weighed down with diversity. A startling aside here is that what goes around comes around. A book recently borrowed from a friend, Sheila Hicks on her small weavings, looks remarkably like the craft offering from the Women’s Institute which I so nearly acquired from the Haslemere Transition bookstall at the last Farmers’ Market. A discussion on where art becomes craft must wait a future entry, except just to note here that the physical book is a beautiful and satisfying thing, which will not, in my view, be replaced by technology. A book is a material possession, baggage in all senses.

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Sheila Hicks, Weaver: a beautiful Book

But all this lovely reflection on past enjoyment of books gets me no further with my own contradictory urge towards writing; stifled, thwarted, frustrated though it may be, certainly unproductive to the present time and still hesitating. My hidden intention here is to develop the habit of writing, form a body of work however superficial, inspect my themes and enthusiasms and maybe tentatively approach some stories, and ‘have something’ to show for all my talk. Procrastination is said to be best addressed by answering the question “What can I do Now?”Well, this is what I can do. What I do Next may involve the Story itself, retreating, mentoring, an agent … but is all rather nebulous so far. Let it emerge.

If I could write a book, or series of books, it would be somewhere between ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ by Anthony Powell, and Harry Potter. I want my book first and foremost to be massively enjoyable for the reader. I would like a wide readership and of course I want to win a prize or make a lot of money. Maybe I only want to satisfy myself that I have written something which seems good to me, even if I have not been read. Maybe I only want to Write something, not even good, not even have it published. The bar both raises itself and lowers itself all the time.

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shelf-burden/consolation/aspiration

There would be psychology, a group of misguided individuals following a misguided guru, and their respective motivations. There would be representation of the interior life, and examination of what behaviour emerges from it. “What did not happen in public had no reality for G.””With G., everything was within himself.” (Anthony Powell)  There would be a morphing of what I know of people into something unrecognisable; changes of situation, motivation, gender. The compound characters would bring the reader recognition but no paranoia. There would be ‘what I know’ – the mysteries of art and plants, the particularity of growing up in the suburbs, of family life in small towns. There would probably be little conversation, maybe I would resort to being the omniscient narrator in some way: after all, we all like to believe ourselves omniscient, do we not? There would be poetic expression – no too demanding experimental discord. There would be excellent grammar (I might need some help with this). There would be a pseudonym. Sometimes this is as far as I get. Who am I? It would be a material book, maybe even with illustrations – no e-publishing, I think. Aah … dreaming again. Most likely there would be, in another decade, some bonfire of my authorial vanities.

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write …

At least, writing occupies less space than both reading and making. And thinking occupies no space at all.