An occasional blog on being seventy, sometimes about getting older but most of the time about my ruminations on things that interest me; creative ageing, writing, reading, books, feminism, making a quilt, gardening, films, Paris.
Wednesday, 23 October 2013
Autumn in the city....
I found so much beauty while on a brief walk in the city today. Sunshine and colour.
sculpture/installation This Girl Bends
is one of the most evocative pieces of art that I have encountered. I saw the
piece a few years ago and still carry an image in my mind of This Girl Bends along with my reactions
to the piece.
These are some lines from an
unfinished poem/work in progress in response to This Girl Bends begun at the time of viewing:
Recently, there was an image I came across online that
intrigued me, that of a small house situated in a woods somewhere, not too far
from civilization. I searched for the copyright owner of the photograph and the
book on which the photograph originally appeared came up.
I bought and read the
book although it was not my usual kind of read. It was fascinating.
Pollan, author of A Place of My Own
describes the book as a “biography of a building.” Pollan felt he needed a dedicated
place within which to daydream his writing, saying “Without its daydreams, the
self is apt to shrink down to the size and shape of the estimation of others.”
Solitude is needed for this pursuit and according to Gaston Bachelard, “true
reverie needs a physical shelter”. For Virginia Woolf “A lock on the door” meant
“the power to think for oneself.” A place of one’s own carries a multitude of
meanings and importance for many people, especially for anyone who needs to
The need for our own space is I think innate in almost everyone.
The need for solitude is part of that reaching for our own space. We can
perhaps be more completely and safely our own self in a ‘place of our own’ without
the need to interact, be sociable or consider anyone else for a space of time. The
need for a place that is only entered by oneself is rarely met within the
family home or the shared home. A garden
hut fascinates me, those writers who write within a hut at the bottom of the
garden are subject to my envious gaze. That is why Michael Pollan’s book
captured my imagination.
Virginia Woolf's writing hut
My mind returns to an earlier post about Susan McCord who
created beautifully complex quilts. That must have been for her a space of her
own within that farm chore laden world of the 1860’s. It may not have been a
physical space but it must have been a mental space wherein she thought about
how to build her quilts even while doing other work. That would certainly have
given her a sense of her individual self. After all, it was she alone who thought
about the design, she who chose the shapes, the colours and the patterns. I
think she may have had help in stitching some of the quilts together but the
design choices were surely hers alone. This was truly a ‘space’ in life that
belonged to her alone.
As children we know the attraction of creating a house, a
‘space’ for ourselves as we play. Cushions, blankets, quilts, chairs, tables all
come together to build that place, often within a place already designated as
home. This space is a private imaginative sphere, away from everyone else and
everyday activities. This space is secure, exclusive, hidden. The inhabitant of
the space decides what happens and when, if only for the brief period that the
temporary edifice is allowed to stay in place. The memory, the awareness of
that time and place lives in the imagination. The filtered light, the fun of
being in the same room as grownups but unseen. The soft environment of draped
blankets or covers is comfortingly familiar, yet strange and unknown in this
Something of that same creative play is there in Pollan’s
story. Pollan takes the reader through the many stages of designing, positioning,
and building a small house in the woods behind his home in Connecticut, USA. There
are the pleasures of selecting the right site for the hut and of selecting the
‘fabric’ of the building. He must decide which kinds of timber would best match
the needs of the geography, the weather and create a structure that would shut
out the everyday world creating a snug, dry space. He speaks of learning about the
history of construction methods, in particular the ‘inflexible, boxy…post-and-beam
frame’ system and the easier balloon frame system. He must decide on the
placement of windows to allow most light into the building, afford privacy and
yet provide a viewpoint that might lift the spirit, such as water or trees. The
sense of separateness and imaginative independence to be enjoyed within the hut
once it is completed is at all times the subtext to this research and decision
making. What joy it must be to construct such a personally expressive enclosure,
then to go inside and shut the door on your own private space.
I went for a walk in Paris. I had nowhere special to go, I
was “…wandering aimlessly with the intent of missing nothing.” or flânerie. It was springtime and the air
On the first evening I went for a walk over the river to Île
de la Cité to the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. I stood for a moment looking up
at the grey stone gargoyles, shivering a little at their distant leering watch
over the queuing tourists on the square below. Walking through the gardens
beside the cathedral I reached the Pont de L’Achevêché and crossed over that
old bridge to wander through the small streets between Quai de Montebello and
Boulevard St Germaine. Crossing over Boulevard St Germaine I carried on up Rue des Carmes. As I climbed the hill, I was surprised by the dome of The Pantheon
seemingly floating above the buildings that lined the street, I promised myself
I would visit the residents of that hall of remains on another day. Turning right
towards Boulevard St Michel down Rue des Écoles I came upon Brasserie Balzar, a
beautiful old restaurant with sidewalk tables that now sit inside a glass
enclosure. It is not as romantic as the traditional outside tables, but those
sitting there will not now breathe in so much lead from the passing car exhaust
fumes. I planned to join some companions inside there for a meal the next day.
Across from the restaurant the lilacs were blooming in Square Paul Painlevé. Children
pushed around the giant chess pieces on the outsize chessboard in the courtyard
of the nearby the Musée national du Moyen Âge - Thermes et hôtel de Cluny where
the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries live.
A few days later on the first day of May I walked up Rue St
André des Arts. A woman passed carrying a box of cakes flat in the palm of her
left hand and a small bouquet of lilies of the valley held lightly in the
fingers of her right hand. King Charles IX initiated the tradition of giving a
gift of lilies of the valley on May 1, 1561 when he decided to offer the flower,
a symbol of springtime, each year to the court ladies as a lucky charm. People greeted
one another with hugs, lilies of the valley and sometimes a bunch of lilacs.
Musicians played their instruments on the pavements in front of bars and cafés.
In front of St Germaine des Pres Church a jazzy trio with bass, saxophone and
singer entertained people as they passed by.
I continued on past the church down Rue Bonaparte heading in
the direction of the Seine. Most of the small shops were shut because it was a
public holiday, the small streets leading away from the Boulevard were nearly
empty. I turned left onto Rue Jacob and walking only a few steps came upon the Hôtel
In a room inside the hotel Benjamin Franklin helped write a
treaty between the new American government and the British in the late 1700’s. I gazed for a while at the lovely old arched
entrance imagining the history that had been made inside. Retracing my steps I
walked a bit farther up Rue Bonaparte and through to the Rue de Seine. I had
nowhere to be and walked only to see and feel Paris around me.
I went on my way along Rue de Seine towards the river,
turning right at the top before the street led out onto the river. A small park, Square Gabriel Pierné, nestled there on the curve between Rue de Seine and Rue
Mazarine, behind the Institut de France. It was quiet, a small statue
stood alone within, the cherry trees circling the edge of the square were shedding
pink petals onto the pavement outside.
I shuffled through the soft pink
detritus and as I did, the clock bells from the chapel of the College of the
Four Nations within the Institut de France tolled once, it was 1 o’clock. There was no one else there to hear
the bells or disturb the petals. It seemed I was alone in the middle of Paris.
I savored the waves of sound, the silently drifting petals but did not stop. I walked
through a dreamlike moment and continued on my walk.
“I used to feel for years and years and years that I was
very remiss not to have written a novel and I would question people who wrote
novels and try to find out how they did it and how they had got past page 30.
Then, with the approach of old age, I began to just think: “Well, lucky I can
do anything at all.”
I have been silent for a while here. There is a need
to just be quiet for a while. Some online blog listings insist on rules being
adhered to before a blog can be included in their list. One of those rules is
that the owner of the blog must post weekly. As for me, it is sometimes
necessary to be quiet. I cannot guarantee to adhere to someone else’s schedule
for postings. Ah well.
My silence has been mostly due to being busy with other
things, other writing and all the other bits of life that tend to take
precedence over something as ephemeral as writing. After a lifetime of being a
mother and wife or partner and centering my sense of self on family, with the occasional
wild leap out of the home in an effort to find ‘something more’, it is
difficult to reprogram priorities. The amount of energy left available in my
being to make huge commitments seems to be limited. Tillie Olsen writes of the
silence of those writers and would be writers who fail to find inspiration or
time or an environment or permission or encouragement to write down the words
that play through their heads. I whimper and whine with excuses and reasons. I
now have the time and the encouragement and the environment within which to
pursue this writing lark if I desire. There remains the necessity to act, to put pen to paper.
I attended an appearance by the insightful and funny author A.L. Kennedy at the Aye Write Book Festival last week. Kennedy read from and discussed her latest book, On Writing. On page 353 of that book she describes what writing feels like for her:
“What is it like;
working with words? Well it’s a little bit like taking an infinitely large box
containing an infinitely large number of small, possibly furry animals – a bit
like hamsters – and then trying to set them out, in order – stay still – one after another – don’t do that – and hoping that you can
compel them to say their names in order – stop
it – in such a way that anyone other than yourself will understand, without
your having to hit them with a hammer.”
It is hard at times to maintain faith in the ability to
write, to be able to make sense; to believe it is possible to touch people or to draw a response with words.
And then people say care-less things. “I guess anybody could make
their life sound interesting if they wanted to.” Or on hearing a friend quote a writer’s comment “I
couldn’t imagine not writing” you respond with “I don’t know how to do it” or something
equally pathetic and unself-believing and your friend says, “Well…you’re not a writer then.” That’s when…
“...a little bit of you falls off, turns to dust and blows
away.” A.L. Kennedy, On Writing, p.
I keep on returning to the page because that is where I am
happiest, most myself. It doesn’t really matter if it’s any good or not…well it
is better if the words and their combinations are good of course, that all the
words stand up and say their names properly. I must in any case continue to do
this writing thing. So…away to write some words of my own.
A film that is difficult to watch at times. A film that
depicts moments of courage, love, caring, despair, beauty and heart breaking
reality. Michael Haneke’s film presents the viewer with many of the moral,
personal and societal conundrums surrounding ageing and dying in today’s world.
How can we offer dignity and choice to someone we love, especially if their
choices challenge the ways that society feels safe to approve?
Why shouldn’t there be safe, dignified, comfortable rituals
established that honour the right of the person who is approaching death to
make choices, to achieve this last great life transition in their own way? Instead we seem to give greatest power to the institutions of medicine who are most
intent on preserving life at all costs and their own protection against
liability. Western society today does not seem able to face the reality of
death. If we could get back to a place where we as humans acknowledged the fact
that we are all going to die, might we not be able to begin to make that
process less degrading and powerless for the dying person? Some people find a way to accept death through religion or perhaps a philosophy, however those paths do
not work for all of us. It must be possible for us to continue to search for
ways to prolong life, to increase healthy living, to want to hold onto the
beauty of life for as long as possible without having to deny the reality of