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Archive for March, 2009

Thought in Motion

I’m starting to think that I’m like one of those kinetic powered watches. Fueled by movement. When I was very small, my favorite thing to do at home was to think. For many people, thinking may be an active process only in the mind, but for me, it was (and, I’m increasingly aware, still is) a physically active process as well. At eight I traced a path around a pile of rocks outside my Grandparents’ house. It was a small circuit and it might have made anyone dizzy, but maybe that was the point: in my dizziness I created stories for hours. Sometimes I bounced a ball against the side of the house–one of those red rubber balls, the ones we played four-square with in the playground at school. I was a good four-square player and bouncing the ball against the wall gave me practice as well as time to crawl inside my own self. I climbed the rocks behind the house, too. Some people might have said I was a little feral, even. I sniffed my books and sometimes, when I was out walking in circles around the pile of rocks, I took a bookmark with me to simulate the feel of words, which were so tied already to the act of reading.

Later I took longer walks in the hills. Being stationary made my mind cave in, my thoughts turn idle, as if my brain was made of syrup. I made stories up in my head and if I was feeling particularly excited about one I had to go out, I couldn’t sit still, not even in a rainstorm. If I sat still the thoughts festered, but if I walked, they came easy and in great numbers. I think my breath was tied to my ideas somehow.

It became less literal over the years, as, it seems, many things do. When we’re children, things manifest in concrete ways, but by the time we’ve reached adulthood we’ve found ways to complicate even something as simple as the process of thought, so that metaphor is all we have left to describe ourselves. Now what happens is that journey–going somewhere, travel–stimulates thought. Not even necessarily about the place itself, but, as with the watch, the movement of self sets something else in motion.

I’m a travel writer, in the way that travel can be taken to mean the trip from one end of the garden path to the other.

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Like Being a Kid Again

We made a few sausages today. We’re making more tomorrow. All I’ll say for now is, PIG INTESTINES FEEL SO WEIRD. I stood there unraveling them (they’re puzzles), rinsing their insides with water so that we could fill them with minced pork, and all I could think was, this is way, way better than play-dough.

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Fés, Summer, 2007

From the bruised-sky countenance of an English summer (three hot days and a thunderstorm) we fly south; we are young.

At Bab Boujaloud, the blue-green gate, we look up, eyes hot, sweating diamonds onto a street paved with dust. Hey, Bob Dylan! Ali Baba! Nice girl! (I like being your nice girl, while you, today, are all shaggy brown hair, beard, sunglasses).

I like it when you speak French, when you say shokran, when you sit for hours, beneath a lamp, sketching its lace form, each precise indent, measuring with your eyes. You are intimate with it; I want to ask how these things are done, but the silence is all that keeps us cool.

Kif? We watch the owner of the café, carefully rolling, with stained and heavy hands, a joint. Kif? He says. Then I lose track; we swim home through Fauvist paint (even you look made of blue and green now). We follow sex with a nap, wake with eyes ringed red to dancing music. Listen to that, you say. (Perfect bliss).

In sudden palaces, children play, women scrub the smell of decay, the rot of orange blossoms from the floor. The tiles arranged with surgical symmetry (mathematics by color). We spend our days walking imperfect circles around the riads, the minarets, the medersas. We spend our nights too hot to touch.

Mornings made of honey and a single cube of sugar dissolved in the ocean of your coffee. I prefer mint, hot, sweet, so you teach me to tie a paper napkin round the glass because it was something you learned, once. I read the guidebook to you: It seems to exist suspended in time.

Even the shadows are still.

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The Circus at Night

Through an open window I can see that the circus has come to town, planted itself on the top of a grassy knoll, where I stood a week ago in awe of the city spires, drenched in dusk-light. Walking past it now, in the chill of early spring, I don’t see the city spires, but hear the music. Whimsical; accordions and whistles. The big-domed tents and the splashes of red-and-yellow and the grass, eerily bright at this time of night. The twinkle of lights. I can’t see any people; are they inside the tents? Are they ghosts? How has this series of structures, this thing which is to me more an idea than a reality, come to be so suddenly on this grassy knoll? I hear the familiar squeak of my bicycle wheels; I fail to understand the apparition.

And what, anyway, do I actually know about circuses? Nothing really. Once I read a book in which a girl and her brother, wounded in combat, limping, dour, soured by years in the trenches, visit the circus. Once I knew a girl who objected to circuses because of the animals. She didn’t say why and I didn’t ask. Once my parents went to see the Circ du Soleil, the circus in the sun, the circus made of human bodies, with some friends. They’re things I know only from the outside, circuses.

Coming down the hill that I cycled up hours earlier, my fingers turn to ten fat icicles, it feels. I no longer know when I’m squeezing my brakes. I arrive home and it hurts just to turn the lock in the door. The city is indecisive; is she playful, or cold and somber? Is she warm or is she still rapt in the throes of winter? Does she–and do we, by extension–miss her students, in this time of their absence, or is she reveling without them, a feather set free upon an April wind?

Impossible to tell, tonight.

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This week has probably not been one of the finest of my entire existence. I promise this won’t be one of those whiny “everything’s gone to shit” posts, but I fell down the stairs at work yesterday. FELL DOWN THE STAIRS. Just saying.

I was reading the paper. I should have known not to do this, as once, when I was about six, I was reading a book whilst walking down the street with my Dad, when all the sudden a parking meter sprung from the earth and hit me in the face and I fell down, but it’s not an excuse anyway. I tripped over my own feet with about three stairs to go, and stopped my fall by hitting my head on the wall in front of me. I was so surprised by this that I couldn’t decide if I should cry or laugh or what, so I just gathered myself up and pressed a palm to the painful part of my head. After a little while it occurred to me that I was just standing on the landing with one hand clapped to my head, looking loony, and that maybe I should move, so I took my hand away from the bump and saw blood. Well, head wounds do that, I thought calmly, and I went upstairs to the staff toilet and splashed water on my face.

All well and good, but by the time I had got back down to the office again, it was bleeding again. I should mention that it wasn’t bleeding profusely, not by any means. More just…seeping. So when a co-worker asked idly if I’d hit my head, I said, yeah, I fell down the stairs, and giggled, and she said Oh my gosh, you mean right now? Because your head is bleeding.

Well, that was it. I could no longer pretend that my clumsiness was casual. Instead, I had to go across the road and get ice from the kitchen. Only they had no ice, so the chef brought me a plastic bag full of frozen corn. My boss wanted to bandage it to my head so that my arm wouldn’t get sore holding it there, but I drew the line at being an English patient lookalike. After a half hour of idleness I put a plaster over the cut and threw myself (metaphorically, not literally) back at my work.

I felt fine, and I wasn’t prepared to linger for long on the incident, especially not as it highlighted an example of stupendous ineptitude. But after ten thousand questions, expressions of sympathy, Natasha Richardson comparisons, and suggestions that I drink a little less at work (I don’t drink at all at work, in case you’re tempted to take that literally), I began to fret. It doesn’t take much to make me fret (I suffer, after all, from varying degrees of generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and hypochondria, which is a common but very unfortunate combination of ailments), and the internet, let me tell you, is the jackpot of fret-fuel.

So if you ever wanted to know what could possibly happen to you if you hit your head, causing your brain to strike your skull and begin bleeding, look it up online and then PANIC. By the time I got home to the Man, I was a proper wreck. “I don’t want to die because I fell down the stairs,” I sobbed at him, in his arms. He (and everyone else) had already asked me if I felt dizzy, nauseous, if I’d blacked out, if I had any symptoms whatsoever of a series injury, and the answer was no, I don’t think so, but the problem was of course that by that time I’d worked myself up so much that I did feel a bit dizzy just from the worry.

“Don’t worry,” he said to me, after I’d convinced him to help me look up head injuries online, after we’d ruled out together the possibility of concussion, “You’re going to be fine.” I decided to start blaming everyone else for my panic. “I wasn’t worried until everyone else started saying things,” I said, which was true, to an extent.

Having dramatized the event as much as possible, I decided it was finally time to settle down, take some Paracetemol, have some dinner, relax, and practice how I was going to tell this story to people in the days to come. I decided to acknowledge the fact that actually, I hadn’t hit my head that hard; that by now, the only sore part of me (besides my ego) was the bit of broken skin at my temple. I decided all this was easier, in fact, than working myself up into an epic panic.

My relaxation was aided by a solid hour spent reading passages from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, which sounds dull until you realize that they’re riddled with gems like this one: “‘That queer-looking man seems to like Dick,’ said Anne.”

***

And then I awoke the next day and in spite of a distinct tenderness near the wound, felt good, until my spirits were dampened by the din of the bills in the study, clamoring to be paid. I would pay you, I told them sternly as I tried to find an unoccupied slice of desk on which to put my tea and branflakes, if I could pay you, but you insist on being so large as to be unmanageable. In response, they just moaned some more, and huffed, and one or two even did a little angry jig atop my computer.

To ease my guilt and shut them up, I paid my half of the rent and my portion of the gas bill, which made me feel momentarily better, until I realized that I’m just about at the end of my coping-tether. The catalyst for this realization was the knowledge that I’d been wrongly charged £20 by a broken cashpoint in Fulham. For an instant I blamed Fulham (maybe the big smoke, knowing I’ve rejected it as a place to live, is somehow out to get me), but I couldn’t hide for long from the fact that I’m a postgraduate student living in a graduate’s world. I’m ignoring the credit crunch, the recession, the big scary black monster in the corner, whatever you want to call it, because my problems are deeper than that.

Here’s how it is: I reached a point today where I no longer understood how I could go on like this. It baffled me, this realization. I actually sat down on the couch and pondered it. Because I’ve never been happier, emotionally, fundamentally. I have someone to love, and who loves me, and we live in a beautiful city and do beautiful (if not very lucrative) things, and our life is both exciting to me and soothing, gentle. But here I was on a glorious March morning wondering how we were going to pay those loud bills in the study after all, how, indeed, I was going to pay for groceries and to have the heel stuck back onto my boot and to get my coat, now impossibly soiled, dry-cleaned, how I was going to buy laundry detergent, do all of the little things that require money.

It’s not that I don’t work, it’s that I don’t work enough–but I can’t work more, without sacrificing my masters degree (and, also, the legality of my visa–not to mention my sanity). In that bleak moment I couldn’t stop myself from wondering if my fall down the stairs was not symbolic in some way, if perhaps I am not only falling but also hitting a wall in my work, my career (my career? What career?), my financial well-being.

But then, this evening at university, a successful and well-respected novelist began his chat with us by recounting how just yesterday, he’d been walking down his street, head turned, distracted by the for-sale signs on a pair of houses, when suddenly he smacked into the side of a metal pole, and look at the mark on the side of my head, he said.

So real writers have those moments too. And anyway, the really annoying thing about not having any money isn’t not being able to pay the bills; it’s not being able to buy the Man a really super birthday present.

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Didn’t start very encouragingly. Boxed red wine in the station (“it’s like being with a rugby team,” the Man kept saying). An impromptu train switch at Reading. The night already folding in on us. I’d been at work, then caught in a downpour, then at home, then late, then not late (a kindly friend had lied about the train time so I wouldn’t miss it). It was suddenly cold again; what happened to the almost-summer of last week? Another world. I needed gloves. And maybe socks. On the tube a toddler bounced between his mother and his father, every shift on the tracks a new hazard. Many stops later (or maybe not so many; I forgot to keep track), a part of London unidentifiable to me. We walked against the wind. Fulham. You hear so much about Fulham, but until last night it was just another London name.

Past a nursing home. Everything looked suburban. Not expensive but empty, tired, devoid of spirit. Around a corner, a sudden pub. We ate round a long table. Potted shrimp, scotch eggs, salmon, terrine, soft bread. Mashed potatoes, curly kale, slabs of bleeding beef. The Man looked especially happy. “Are you happy?” I said, looking over the top of my red wine glass. “Meat,” he grinned, reminding me of my dad’s 50th birthday (picture: a barbecue pit by the beach, some friends, and nothing to eat but pounds and pounds of tri-tip, which my mother had bought thinking it was the manly food to get). I even got past my fear of meat that hasn’t been cooked so well it looks black and enjoyed the tenderness (a little).

We sat on couches after. Shared an espresso, the Man and I, with a sugar cube. Back on the tube. We all shared no-hot-food-on-the-bus-back-to-Oxford horror stories (there are many). We were on the bus back before midnight. All so civilized. At St. Clements we alighted. As always I felt cold. I had to pee. I’d fallen asleep on the coach and my neck felt bent the wrong way. At home, relief, the sighs after a long night, but also a bewildered and delighted sense that neither of us had once considered screaming in frustration, this time.

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Cheesy But So What

I’m taking this as a good sign: after I had a minor meltdown in All Bar One this evening I came home to sulk in bed and read my news feeds, and what should I see but this little piece of advice:

“Do you have a dream? Do you really want to get published? Then quit with the excuses, get off your butt, and make the dream happen.”

Inelegantly phrased, perhaps, and a little on the wrong side of cheesy, but like I said: so what. We all need a little of that every once in awhile, especially after recovering from some semi-public tear-shedding (is that embarrassment I sense?).

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