Dear July, twenty four to twenty seven: here and up and down and there

Tuesday, 28 July 2015


Dear July,

I don't particularly like hospitals. They're tight-packed spaces with low ceilings and beeping machines. They have square yellow lights that squint down from grey tiles; they give you a headache after a while, if you didn’t have one before you arrived. Hospitals are lined with alarming signs. (Germs! Germs! Now go wash your hands!) They have windowless corridors. They smell of things you can’t place. Hospitals are places you don’t know what to say. Do you chat about ordinary things (last night’s dinner, the TV last week)? Or keep conversations limited to clinical matters (symptoms, and fluids, and test results, and bruises)? How can you be sure what you’re saying is helpful? How can you make sure your words aren't lost?


We visited my Grandpa in hospital this weekend and when the hour was up, after we’d said goodbye – squeezing his hand, waving to him through the window as we left the ward – we went down to the café on the ground floor to get a cup of tea before driving home through the rain. Looking round at the other café-goers – all sipping paper cups or sharing crisps and ham sandwiches out of paper triangles – it struck me how we were all there for the same reason. To visit. We were there on a ‘have to be’ rather than ‘want to be’ basis.

‘I mean – you wouldn’t just come in here because the coffee’s good,’ I said to my parents, fiddling with the Twix wrapper on the table. ‘No one really wants to be here. Everyone here’s only in this space because they need to be...’


Somewhere in the midst of the troubled air, though, hospitals hold potential for great kindnesses to happen. They’re where people feel at their worst, and where others have to step up and become the best version of themselves to be a support. Growing up with a mother and sister who are both nurses, there has always been much talk in our house around ideas like ‘caring for the whole person’, around 'being with’, and 'intentional presence’, and good communication skills, and how listening is so much more than just 'hearing'.

I wish I’d seen more of that while we were at the hospital this weekend. What I saw was not unkindness. No one was unkind. It wasn’t quite that. Just – there was a definite absence. Of communication. Of warmth. Opportunities were missed. 


I found myself wanting to say: listen, I know it’s busy and late at night and the guy two beds along just swore at you when all you were trying to do was check his blood pressure. I know you’re completely shattered because this is your fourth nightshift in a row and you didn’t manage to get any sleep before you came to work because the flashing clock by your bed kept reminding you how little time you had left till the alarm went off and the kids were crying and then the neighbour decided it would be a good idea to strim the hedge outside your bedroom window and you couldn’t block it out. I get that. I’m not judging. But it would it be too difficult to say hello to the 'patient' you’ve just come up to with your clipboard? Would it take more than a minute just to tell him your name and what you’re doing before you start poking and prodding and plugging him into that machine on the wall? Could you maybe take two seconds to look him in the eye and actually see him? Because he’s not having a very good day either. He doesn’t want to be here either, lying in the middle of this high-up hospital bed feeling very exposed and frightened, though he might not say that out loud. He likes to joke. But if you looked at him, you’d see it. Could you at least, please, could you at least say your name?



I didn’t say that, obviously. But I came away thinking this: the small things we do are not insignificant. Saying hello. Touching hands. They’re not insignificant. So we mustn’t forget to do them. And this:

Lord God, let me never become so busy or distracted, or so rooted in routine, or harassed, that I forget to acknowledge the ‘personhood’ of another. That I make them feel less than human. Let me always be attentive. Being present is a choice. Help me to choose it. Help me to remember it. And to do no harm when I forget.

‘It is important that awake people be awake,’ writes Stafford in the poem I posted a few weeks ago. ‘The darkness around us is deep.’



Notes: 

Post-script: I hope this doesn’t come across as judgmental. Thank-goodness for hospitals, and thank goodness for the staff that work there, and the people – like my sister and my mum – who intentionally practice good care. I know they’re in the majority. They work hard. And it’s a thankless job at times. I don't know - the staff at other points in the day may have been very attentive. But when you see someone you care about being talked over, and looked past – it can be quite unsettling. (And makes you quite determined to never get sick yourself.) 

(Today’s poem: ‘Little Summer Poem Touching on the Subject of Faith’ by Mary Oliver. Today’s title: from Norman MacCaig’s 'Visiting Hour'

Pictures by: the quite lovely Julianna Swaney. You should look her up.)

Dear July, twenty one to three: linking.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Dear July,

I’m trying to finish up a chapter of the novel today. I always feel slightly self-conscious calling it that. ‘The novel’. It feels a bit presumptuous on my part. ‘Whadda you think you’re doing, bozo? You think you can just “write a novel”? Get real. Go do something your own size.’ (Because apparently my inner-critic sounds like Danny DeVito.) But: that is what I’m writing, I guess. A novel. So I should call it what it is.


Anyway – I mention this because today (and yesterday and the day before) I've been focused on writing the chapter. Thus the quietness on here. I don't have a thought-filled letter today. But in the absence of that, I will direct you to three things I’ve been enjoying the past three days:

[One.] The light-filled photographs in the 'My Month of Sundays' project on Netherleigh’s blog: hereBit of context: two bloggers (with very beautiful Instagram feeds here and here) have started up a hashtag for people to capture and share Sunday moments. I kind of came upon it by accident (as I do most things on the internet...) and the pictures made me quite happy, so I might try and take part in the project, should any of my Sundays in the coming weeks be spent doing things other than typing away at my laptop.


[Two.] This article by Hallie Cantor in the New Yorker: ‘Everything I’m Afraid Might Happen If I Ask New Acquaintances to Get Coffee’. It made me laugh. (The trials of being an over-thinker.)

[Three.] This song by The Oh Hello's, found over the weekend. I’m always looking for new music, so if you have any recommendations, send ‘em my way.

Enjoy.




(Oh, and also two poems from recently: 'Mirrors at 4am' by Charles Simic and Mrs Midas by Carol Ann Duffy.

The pictures: from recently. The view from my train window, a feather on the street, blogging about the sun on the train in the rain.)

Dear July, seventeen to twenty: Budapest heat.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Dear July,

Today, a rather dark rainy heat-up-some-chicken-soup-to-make-yourself-feel-better kind of Monday, I’ve been thinking about Hungary.


The year I turned twelve, my family spent the summer in Budapest. My Dad was working over there for a few months, so we went to be with him. It was hot. The hottest it had been in years, apparently. We watched a lot of BBC World in our little apartment (the only TV channel in English and we grew thirsty for words we recognised) and there were continual cries of ‘Heat wave! Heat wave!’ on the news. On the days we went into the city – our feet clapping in flip flops, collecting dust from the streets – we’d practically sprint from one café to the next, buying bottles of cold water or Lipton’s lemon iced tea to gulp down. We spent all of our days in shorts or swimming costumes, jumping and splashing into the blue pool outside, diving for coins with goggles sucked onto to our faces. We had to sleep with the fan on full and windows cracked open – the sound of crickets and dogs barking and the opera singer next door practicing scales echoing long into the night.


We wiped watermelon juice from our chins, and licked peach juice off our wrists. We ate lemon sorbet ice-cream every other day. We put ketchup on pizza like the locals. We ate the best thing I've ever eaten - a big deep-fried fritter-type thing topped with sour cream and grated cheese called 'Lángos' - and have never found again since. Almost every time we went out for dinner, we’d order 'cucumber salad' as a side: cucumbers soaked in a vinaigrette dressing. One time we ordered ‘Grandma’s special cucumber salad’ because the name made us laugh, but when it arrived, it was just a plate of fat dill pickles (which forevermore made us suspicious of food described as ‘special’). They had bizarre translations for things on the menus. ‘Diced curd with graves’ was one option on the desert menu (literally no idea). ‘Chicken throat shaped pasta’ was another.


We went to the circus while we were there – silver clad trapeze artists, cats jumping from great heights onto red cushions. We visited a park full of old communist statues. We went to Lake Balaton and felt the mud squelching between our toes. We went into supermarkets so big the staff had to roller-skate from one end to the next. We bought vegetables that came straight from the fields, meaning they hadn’t been prettified, meaning the closer you got to the produce stalls, the stronger the smell got, meaning sometimes you’d pick up a nectarine and it would look deliciously juicy face up, but when you turned it over the reverse side would be crawling with flies



Living in a country where we were constantly faced with things we didn’t know – food, words, buildings, customs – could have been a small disaster. The three of us – my brother, my sister, me – were still quite young so were prone to whining, as children sometimes are (‘Whatsthat?’ ‘Idontlikeit.’ ‘Idontwantit’ ‘Whatsthat?’). But that summer knocked it out of us, I think. We had so much fun, and my Mum taught us to think of everything as "an experience".

‘We might not like it,’ she said. ‘But it’s all an experience, so we’ll just give it a go.’

‘It’s an experience,’ has now became short-hand for: ‘That was weird, but strangely wonderful’. By the end of the summer, we’d all grown a few inches; our hair had turned a few shades lighter, our skin had turned a few shades darker, and we’d stopped complaining as much. We spent the last few weeks laughing our heads off at things that no one seemed to find as funny as us when we got back home – ‘Well, you just had to be there, I guess.’ – but that was okay. We didn’t mind (#heatstroke).



I came across Anya Silver’s poem 'Doing Laundry in Budapest' today, which set me off on this path of reminiscing. (Forgive me. I hope this post isn't too long or self-indulgently nostalgic to read.) We have no photographs of it – they all got lost – but it’s a summer I remember in warm bursts of colour. Orange and browns and reds.

Silver (the poet I was reading today) writes about pickles, and covering her shoulders to get into churches, and the begging ladies on the street who sold half-dead flowers to passers-by and I recognised the images in her words: I’ve been there, I thought. I’ve seen those things. I’ve eaten those pickles. I bought those flowers. 



(Pictures - letters of the Hungarian alphabet - by: Anna Kövecses. 

Also: this song by reminds me so much of being there - it was 2003, after all. My sister and I listened to Delta Goodrem's album on repeat the first night we were there. We'd somehow managed to convince ourselves that there were terrorists running about outside our hotel so were trying to distract ourselves. Like I said, we were pretty young and had poor geographical knowledge so we had no idea where in the world Hungary actually was. Ha.)

Dear July, fourteen, fifteen & sixteen: entangled with mysteries.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Dear July,

I'll say goodnight to you with a song, a picture, and some words. The song: Promise by Ben Howard. I've been playing it a lot since the Spring, and it still makes me pause. It sounds like a number of things to me: the dipping sun, and the hush of morning before the day's routine has taken over yet. Like the softness and ache and uncertainty that comes with loving people, like the stillness of the mountains, like that space between happiness and wanting to cry, like rain starting to fall. Evan, my good-taste-in-all-things brother, found it first. He told me to listen to it, with my earphones in, first thing before getting out of bed, to wake myself up. I'd recommend you do the same (or just before falling asleep). 



The picture: taken at home last night during the golden hour. I was heading down the stairs when this patch of gold yawned onto the wall. I had to run to get my phone so I could catch a sun portrait. 

The words: a paragraph that struck me from Starbook by Ben Okri. I've only just started it, but so far is quite lyrically lovely. (Bit of context: 'he' is a prince that is running away from overly watchful eyes...)
'If they hadn't worried over him so much, and made him seek escape, what happened would never have happened; and, mysteriously, the world would have been smaller for it. Destiny conceals strange illuminations in the suffering life visits on us. The tale of fate is entangled with mysteries. Dare one say such and such shouldn't have happened? History is replete with monstrosities that shouldn't have happened. But they did. And we are what we are because they did. And history's bizarre seeding has not yet yielded all of its harvest. Who knows what events will mean in the fullness of time?'

Yesterday's poem: Ode to my Socks by Pablo Neruda (probably one of my favourite ones so far). Today passed without a poem... so I'll need to read two tomorrow.

Dear July, twelve & thirteen: one paragraph at a time.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015


Dear July,

Some days it can feel like I’m writing this novel with a pen inked with molasses. Words and ideas come out slow and sticky and I have to drag the pen across the page to get anything half-decent down. Yesterday was one of those days. Everything came out as: cliché, or ‘too introspective’, or ‘telling too much’, or ‘too many adjectives’ or sentences kept getting cluttered with excessive use of the word ‘I’ (one of the pitfalls of a first-person narrator).


For the chapter I'm working on, I was trying to write about the feeling of waking up after falling asleep, exhausted, in the middle of the day. That foggy space – between sleeping and being properly awake – when you open your eyes, lying completely still, vaguely aware that something has happened, something is wrong, something big – but you’re not quite conscious enough yet to remember what that is. All you have is the physical feeling - a heaviness behind your eyes, a dryness in your throat - of a half-remembered sadness


I was trying to capture that feeling without being heavy-handed (because the feeling itself is subtle. Like the intake of breath before a plate smashes...). I don't think I quite managed it though (and that description up there doesn't really capture it either). I wrote all day – about this, and other things – and at the end of the day, out of all the words, all there was one good paragraph.

The thing about writing a novel – and writing a novel for your job (and I think I can call it my job just now, can’t I? I’m doing it as part of my PhD, full-time. I’m getting a scholarship to do it. I even have a kind of office space that I work in) – the thing about it is you can’t just sit about waiting to be inspired if you’re going to get anywhere. And you can’t just pack it in when the ideas aren’t coming easily. You need to keep sitting down and ‘keep showing up’. Good days and bad days. Some days lots of words come. Other days: molasses.


But one good paragraph. Even if the rest goes in the bin, I wrote one good paragraph. (Remember that. ‘It is enough’.) I can build on that today.


Notes

Sunday's poem: 'What the Dog Perhaps Hears' by Lisel Mueller

Monday's poem: three poems about walking on the moon by Clarissa Pinkola Estes that I can't find online (but they're in the talks: 'Theatre of the Imagination')

Pictures by: Marc Johns (because it's been a while).

Dear July, ten & eleven: again.

Saturday, 11 July 2015


Dear July,

Last night was a lovely long much overdue soak-it-up kind of catch up with some good friends. We went out for dinner and ate too much Greek food, and the night ended with us standing chatting under a tree in Kelvingrove Park for about an hour because all the places that might sell tea on Friday night in Glasgow were shut (and tea was what we felt like), but we weren’t quite finished talking yet.

Today, I don’t have too many words. The rain is back again after a week or two of sunshine and, although this shouldn’t be surprising (this is Scotland, after all, and I’ve lived here all my life), it’s sometimes hard not to take it personally (‘What did we do, sun? Did we love you too much?’). Outside the café where I’m sitting doing a bit of work, people bundle past, linking arms under umbrellas. Rain sticks like little glass beads to the empty silver chairs and tables on the street. I do talk about the weather too much. And my mood too often matches the colour of the clouds. This year, I would like to learn to let it bounce off me. But, nevertheless. There it is: today it is raining, and I wish it wasn’t.



Noticed thing from last night: Kelvingrove Park – pretty though it may be – is kind of bossy. It’s full of signs telling you not to do things. ‘No hot ashes in this bin!’ ‘Alcohol is strictly prohibited!’ ‘Give up on your dreams!’ ‘Don’t skate on the ice!’ ‘No dog fouling!’ ‘Children should be seen and not heard!’ ‘Don’t get ideas above your station!’ ‘Don't litter!’

Some more positive signage might be a nice idea to balance things out.

‘Thanks for walking your dog here!’ ‘Keep being you!’ ‘Well, somebody’s looking awesome today.’ ‘Isn’t this a great view!’ ‘You should totally propose to her on this bridge, man.’ ‘Have you guys seen how pretty these flowers are?

I’ll write to the council. TBC.


Notes. 

Yesterday’s poem: Ovid in Tears by Jack Gilbert. Today’s poem: The Faces of Deer by Mary Oliver (‘Unless you/ believe that heaven is very near, how will you/ find it?’)

Pictures by: Saul Steinberg (they just made me smile).

Dear July, nine: immersion.

Friday, 10 July 2015


Yesterday, I started the day writing in a coffee shop. While I was working, a table of three sat beside me – a grandmother, a mother and a daughter – and started a conversation amongst themselves about ‘what it would be like to swim in a swimming-pool of hot chocolate’. The grandmother was miming – doing the breaststroke mid-air – saying how she would swim with her mouth open, swimming and swallowing and swimming and swallowing, drinking it all up. ‘Just imagine,’ she said. ‘Imagine swimming in a pool of chocolate...’

Later in the day, after my friend (also a writer) came to meet me, we relocated to the library to work and ended up sitting at a table upstairs that hangs over the librarians’ desk on the ground floor. After an hour or two of ‘pulling teeth’ ideas-wise, I decided to listen to a bit of music to make myself focus and finally (finally) managed to get into a flow with the chapter I was working on. Ideas and words started coming relatively quickly. And then I heard a man’s voice below saying: ‘a lentil soup bath’. I stopped typing and took one earphone out. ‘Would it be lentil? Or tomato and basil?’ The librarians downstairs – three of them – seemed to be involved in one of those bizarre ‘it’s quiet and we’re really bored’ kind of conversations that only seem to happen at work. They were laughing and talking about what it might be like to take a bath in a bowl of soup. ‘Just imagine it...'

Weird.

I don’t know the significance of this. Might be the weather (last week’s no-tights-needed heat has been replaced by probably-a-good-idea-to-wear-tights-and-a-few-vests-and-some-jumpers drizzle. Right now, the idea of swimming in a pool of hot chocolate doesn’t sound like such a bad idea).

Notes.

The music I was listening to included: this and: this. (Current chapter isn't a particularly happy one, thus the wistfulness...)

Today’s poem: Love after Love by Derek Walcott 

Picture by: Hazuki Koike (I found it: here. The artist's website is in Japanese, so I'm not sure whether to link to it because I don't know what it says!)

Dear July, seven & eight: yes or no, or maybe

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Dear July,

Another poem for you. Tuesday’s poem was William Stafford’s ‘A Ritual to Read to Each Another’ (see below). All the poems I’ve been reading so far have been by women, so I thought I’d try and balance things out a little by reading a male poet.


There are so many lines in this poem that echo... even if I feel like I need to sit with it for a while longer to fully ‘get it’ – if that’s even something worth trying to do. I’m reminded of John Keats words on understanding poetry:
‘A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.’
(I think this exact quote actually comes from the film Bright Star – really beautiful, albeit devastating film, if you can get over the silly hats. But it sounds like something – or the whisper of something – Keats would have said somewhere in his letters.)

So: luxuriate in this poem (sidenote: sometimes when other people post poems, I skip them out because they take too much effort to read. But really: don't do that. Read this ones a few times. Carry it about in your pocket. It's worth it). What stands out to you?


A Ritual to Read to Each Another
William Stafford

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give --yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.



Pictures from yesterday: the light in our kitchen, sun on a walk around the village, light in the lounge (reflecting twinkle lights around the windows and illuminating a slither of the bookcase in my brother's room). It wasn’t #hottestdayoftheyear kind of heat – like last Wednesday – but it was warm enough to hang my bed-sheets outside and have the window open most of the day (promptly shut, of course, when a bee tried to get in. I'm imagining bugs will be mentioned a number of times this month. It’s an issue, July. You’re a nice month, but if you could do something about all the bugs that come with you that’d be great.)

(p.s. By the by... I’ve made a writer’s page on Facebook. If you’d like to like it I’d like that. You can find it: here.)

Dear July, five & six: on turning 24.

Monday, 6 July 2015


A note: so, this post is a little introspective. The beginning of July always feels like a second New Year to me because of my birthday - meaning: a time for looking again and refocusing. (I shall widen my gaze tomorrow). But the ‘something I noticed’ comes in the form of these pictures. Yesterday my Mum and I left the house without realising we’d dressed up as opposites of each other. We often match unintentionally. Whether in clothes, ideas or our reactions to things my Dad says. Poor man. (‘What do you think of that car?’ ‘Hideous. It looks like a wasp.’ ‘Mm. That’s what your Mum said.’) 

Anyway – it reminded me a little of this illustration by Sara Soderholm. So when we got home, we tried to recreate the picture. 


Dear July,

I turned twenty-four yesterday. It was the first of my 20-something years that I’ve been able to greet with a tip of the hat – ‘Well hello there, two four. How’d you do?’ – rather than with panic. My last evening as a nineteen year old (back in the day) was spent tucked behind cream coloured curtains on a window-sill, sort of (slightly pathetically) crying into the knees of my pyjamas because I couldn’t believe I’d let myself get to twenty without having Everything figured out yet. (Whatever that means. Still not sure.)

The person I’d like to be at twenty four is still more interesting than I am. She’s wiser. She’s written more. She isn’t so awkward. She’s less of a klutz. Her bedroom is tidier. Her hair’s not so frizzy. She doesn’t dance round the edges so much – she just says what she thinks: bam. She’s kinder. And wittier. And she probably doesn’t fall asleep at least one night a week on the sofa fully-dressed (a habit I seem to have picked up only this last year. Send help). She’s a lot less hesitant. She takes more risks.


But, hey.

I’m trying to treat these ‘could be betters’ with good grace. I might not speak fluent French. But, among other things... I did travel halfway across the world by myself this year to visit good friends. I built a website. I learned how to carve a pumpkin. I navigated the Paris Metro singlehandedly. I taught a class. I house-sat for my sister and her fiancé for a week and managed not to kill their cats. (That’s something, right?)

So welcome, twenty four. I’ll try and grow into you. May you be filled with light and love and may I write so much in the space of your 365 days that this novel I'm working on will be so close to completion that the words will sing.



Today's poem: One Art by Elizabeth Bishop. (Quite a lot of these poems seem to be about losing. Any suggestions for ones about being allowed to keep things?)

Dear July, three & four: snapshots.

Sunday, 5 July 2015


Dear July,

Yesterday was: waking up to sun, eating apples in the garden, painted toenails, driving in the heat with the air con up and the windows down justacrack (because, as I still haven’t shaken my insect phobia, I've pledged an oath to myself ‘to never – not even on the three sweltering days Scotland has in the year – open the car windows wider than a pinkie’s width while driving’ – because if a wasp flew in, I would surely die). It was sun on my shoulders, and buskers by the library, and sunglasses reflecting steeples. A conversation that wound up and down and around a hill and in and out of city streets. It was promenading Shakespeare in the park, bumping shoulders with close-packed play-watchers, laughter and ridiculous disguises and then holding-our-breath silence (the city beyond the park gates humming) as the play took a turn from the comic to tragic – ‘Worthies, away! the scene begins to cloud’.


Today was: waking up to rain smattering in the gutter outside my window and then gushing through the roof onto the floor of our sitting room, my dad running down the stairs to grab the recycling bin in lieu of a bucket to catch the water (the perils of having an old house). It was a leaf stuck to the kitchen window, and the opening lines from Don Paterson’s 'Rain' in my head:
I love all films that start with rain:
rain, braiding a windowpane
or darkening a hung-out dress
or streaming down her upturned face...


It was frying sausages, and looking through Pinterest recipes, and smashing digestive biscuits with a rolling pin to make a cheesecake crust. Taco salad, and talking with my Mum on the sofa, and folding laundry (‘Life is really just a series of washing the dishes and folding pants, isn’t it?’ ‘Mmm. Daily rituals...’). Hearing fireworks outside and thinking of my American friends dotted about the globe. Reading some literary theory and realising that, after avoiding him for years, I may need to take a look at Derrida. Listening to Bon Iver with the slow cooker bubbling in the next room.



Yesterday’s poem: Lamium by Louise Gluck. Today’s: Margaret Atwood’s The Moment.

Pictures by: Me Suk Lee.
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