Monday, 7 November 2011

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath. F Scott Fitzgerald


I have not been to the dacha for months. I have been working feverishly and  forgotten about me for a moment. I kept saying to myself that I will have to think about priorities, plan different ways of working, redesign my approach to life and work in general… and then I went away. The decision was sudden and actually stressful. I wanted to rest, needed to rest but at the same time did not want to leave everything behind, not even for a week. Nevertheless, I went..

It took me nearly a week to relax. Throughout the whole time away, I did the usual holiday things with my friends: visited interesting buildings, the beach, had delicious meals in restaurants, attended a wonderful birthday party and snorkelled.. Except for the snorkelling, everything seemed an enormous effort initially. Whereas everyone just wanted to chill and take it very slowly, I was still busily working inside my head.

What really helped me was water. Salty, soft, warm water. Water with light streaming through it.  Blue water, green water. Surrounding and supporting me effortlessly.

I have always felt safe in water. Even before I could swim my grandmother would float on her back in the river near a small town where she was brought up, with me at seven months happily cradled between her breasts. My summers were spent in the water, mostly in fresh water as I lived 500 miles from the nearest sea. In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes said Leonardo da Vinci. In that small sentence he describes the mystery of rivers to perfection. Time past, time present and time future slips though your fingers as you submerge yourself in the river. The current, which you follow down stream with your eyes, becomes someone else’s future. Then you turn and look upstream, towards your own. I did not think about this three-dimensional attribute of rivers when, as a child, I swam under water holding my breath. I was a naiad, a fish, a water sprite enjoying being wet.

The riverbanks beneath the water line team with life invidiously protected by opaque light and mysterious shadows. In my early teens I remember fishing with my uncle. We waded in, waist-deep and crouched near the bank where the crayfish hid. I looked at him with trepidation as this type of fishing involved inserting hands into the nooks and crannies below the water line, fingers splayed for the crayfish to nip. My uncle moved like lightning. The moment he felt the crayfish pincers close over his finger, his hand would come out of the water and in the perfect arc flick the incumbent onto the riverbank. Soon, there were a dozen of light brown spiny lobsters on the grass.  Unfortunately, the very thought of pushing my hands through the mud and roots of unseen, underwater vegetation immobilised me. My hands never uncurled from rigor mortis of tight fists and my uncle marvelled at my enthusiasm for fishing without ever catching a single crayfish.

But it was the river that drew me in as I waded deeper, plunging under the surface to look at the world beneath. That wonderful other world of shadow and light. I am not the creature of air alone. Somewhere, unseen but definitely there, a reminder of the primordial me, I have a set of gills. I am sure of that.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

I have not been here for a while but my thoughts have not left these pages blank. In my mind I have indulged in therapeutic ramblings, remedial rants and have written post upon post unleashing the furies of heightened emotions and agitated thoughts. Sometime, as I go through each day life seems slow and unchanging. However, a lot can happen in two months and I am not my grandmother’s granddaughter for nothing. So, life may be slow and ordinary yet full of adventure! A paradox, a delicious contradiction.

Take my grandmother. A paradoxical figure dependent on the relationship. A grandmother of mirth and escapades to my sisters and me. A figure moving in a constant cloud of cinnamon and icing sugar, leaving flour footprints on the parquet floor of her hall. A figure that cooled jelly on the windowsill in winter, pushing it overboard to make room for piping-hot stewed apples. An avid spectator and art critic of our Saturday night theatre, as well as a musical director of numerous concerts on winter evenings.

But on the other hand, a dismissive mother far more interested in her younger children. A woman overly passionate about all things culinary, forgetful and eccentric, ripening cheeses in her pantry and filling the house with a smell of things going off..

Even to me, she was a paradox. Loving and nurturing but not above stooping to emotional blackmail when faced with my rebellion. "When I'm dead and buried...”  So, who was my grandmother? And does her contradictory nature make her more or less dear to me?

My mother came to stay with me for a while two months ago.. If my grandmother is a rainbow difficult to capture, my mother is a shattered prism of searing lights and odd shadows. Brave and hardworking one moment, sliding into dogma of her strange logic and paranoid childhood memories next. Her relationship with our grandmother was a photographic negative of her daughters'. For her picnics were a chore of carrying younger siblings to the river; a house full of song an embarrassment when friends called; her mother's relaxed attitude akin to indolence.

L P Hartley's "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" aptly describes our inability to grasp the differences of individual memories of the same person or the same time dimension. As an abstract, I understand the differences in the perception of the past underpinned by memories and stories re-told countless number of times. And I know my mother understands the same but I can see her struggling with my enthusiasm for summers past, recollection of baking aromas, preserving autumnal bounty in hot kitchen and singing into the night to the sound of a mandolin. I can see her shying away from images of sugar dust on rose jam pastries, exciting railways journeys and the comfortably frayed furniture. Her experience of the same woman is as foreign to me as mine is to her so that our reminiscence takes on a fascination of watching a bird of prey swooping in for the kill. Disturbing in its intensity but not quite comprehended.

In "The Language of Paradox," C Brooks talks about mutability of words as their meaning shifts when placed in relation to one another. Paradox is used as a method of extracting such meaning and it is critical in reading of poetry as it is its very contradiction that illuminates our comprehension. It is as crucial in understanding of our past and present where an existing contradiction does not necessarily lead to hypocrisy and all is not just as I, an individual, see it. It is far richer, more complex, less ordinary. The woman my mother knew is the same woman I knew. And yet, she isn’t. She is the wondrous anomaly observed  both from the earth and from its perihelion. Whether I am the earth and my mother is the sun, that’s immaterial. 

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Babushka

The road runs by the side of a stream too big to be called a stream in spring time, when the snows from the mountains run in fat ribbons downhill. At the height of summer large stones are clearly visible and the stream is just a stream and easy to ford.

The boy walks slowly listening to the night. In the bushes by the road side away from the water hundreds of eyes are watching his every step, retreating and advancing but never leaving the safety of the dark. The moon has disappeared beyond the hills which surround this narrow valley. He walks on enjoying the spectacle of fireflies. 'Lampyridae, lampyridae' he chants. He is very young and not afraid of the night.

Usually the stream tinkles and sings through the shallows but last night's thunderstorm changed its tone to something deeper, more mysterious. The line of willows ends suddenly, and there is the ford. In the undark darkness the boy can see the stepping stones and the figure. Someone is standing by the stream waiting. Waiting for him.

An old woman. A stranger facing him. He can't discern her features but can make out that she is a small, round babushka in a peasant skirt and scarf. Few more steps and he is close enough to smell her. Milk? Yes, she smells of warm milk of the cowshed. But there is also something else, elusive and slightly bitter, hanging in the air between them. Yarrow or unripe gooseberries perhaps?

His greeting is short but friendly and she responds likewise. But her next sentence stops him as he mounts the first stone. 'Take me across' she whispers. He looks at her round, bland face and considers refusing. 'Take me across on your back'. And he does not refuse, but is almost bent double under the weight of the round peasant who is hanging onto his back. Slipping and sliding over the stones he reaches the bank and sinks into the grass breathing heavily. She touches his head and moves away without a word. Slowly he stands up. His shoulders hurt where her fingers dug into him. He turns to wish her a sarcastic goodnight and thanks for nothing but she is gone. There is just the road born again out of the stream and winding its way towards the lights of the first house on the hill, his home...

The old man opens his eyes wide as pain rakes through his ribcage. In the undark darkness he can see someone standing by the bedroom window. She is a small, round babushka in a peasant skirt and scarf. He smiles knowingly as the smell of warm milk and gooseberries fill his nostrils. 'Take me across' he sighs.

My Grandmother told us this story when we were staying in a small village during a summer holiday. The house was on top of a hill which fell steeply into the valley below, where a small stream meandered by the roadside. The night was stormy and wild and we were deliciously scared. The electricity cables were down and the candles flickered in the hot air. We could hear thunder rumbling in valley and we hoped that the lightning will not strike the chimney. Few days afterwards we went to the village shop and came back in the dark. And there were the fireflies, and the moon was gone and we run all the way back and did not look at the ford as we passed it...

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Tiger's Wife and bicycles

I have been reading the Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. I have not finished it yet but enjoy the Eastern European sentiment in a story of love between grandfather and his granddaughter. 

The Tiger's Wife takes me back east. To my own childhood, my family, and if you have read any of my blogs, invariably takes me to my grandmother. She is the wise grandfather in the book, the silent Tiger's Wife, the young girl full of amazing ideas and her funny friend..

My grandmother was a great story teller. And the greatest stories of all,  the ones we three sisters would ask her to tell us over and over again, were her own. She was funny, full of ideas and completely undaunted by the unknown. Every visit to my widowed grandmother proceeded along well-established guidelines. We arrived late on Saturday afternoon, had an early dinner, performed a short play for her and her friend Stefa, which we might have been rehearsing all week (or just ad libbed on the night), and then went to bed with a slice of brioche and warm, honeyed milk. 'Tell us about your first bicycle lesson' we'd chorus. And the story would begin.

'Long time ago, before WWII, I was at girls' college studying for 'A' Levels. The subjects were not very taxing, the school being little more than a finishing college for girls. We had a lot of time on our hands and were encouraged to take up extra music, sport, and languages.. Your great-grandfather was a station master and my two siblings were also studying, so my funds were rather limited. However, I had a very good friend Stefa, who came from a wealthy family and insisted I shared most of her extra-curriculum activities with her. So, we learned to play the piano well, tennis badly and spoke German very badly.

And then we decided to try cycling. You might find it amazing that at the age of 17 we could not cycle. But, we couldn't. Near the school, there was a brand new cycle hire shop. We passed it every day on the way to lunch at a cafe nearby. The cycles were new, sleek, elegant. With beautiful red bells and dark tires, like juicy black puddings. For days we watched young people hiring the bikes at lunchtime and cycling effortlessly down the broad avenue leading out of town. We didn't want to cycle through town as Stefa's mother categorically forbade her to cycle. One of her distant relatives died in a collision with a cow or a horse while on cycling holiday in Bavaria.

Cycling looked easy and one balmy summer day we were ready to try. We hired two bikes and stood looking sheepishly at the man who was fussing around us. 'Would you like a leg up girls?' And with his help we were away. It felt wonderful. The avenue sloped gently and we glided down with a natural balance of athletes. It was so easy! Very soon I realised that I could not turn as every time I tried, the handlebars wobbled precariously. Stefa laughingly announced the same as she sailed past me. So, we just carried on cycling in a straight line. Soon we left the town behind and entered the country. The air smelled sweet. The sun was strong overhead but the poplars flanking the road offered us shade. "We are going to be late for our afternoon lessons" Stefa said cheerfully. "Do you want to stop?" I replied. "I don't know how to" she responded. And neither did I. So we cycled on for a while longer until a slight incline slowed down us to a crawl and then we stopped. Turning bikes around we hopped on with all the enthusiasm of seasoned cyclists. Not so easy without the fussy little man to help us. After giving Stefa a 'leg up' I tried to get on my bike but kept falling over....'

Here my grandmother's voice would become faint and we'd realise she was close to sleep. So we'd kiss her and finish the story for her.  'Tell us how you placed the bicycle under the tree, climbed on, kept upright by leaning against its trunk, then pushed off pedalling furiously after Stefa who was whooping with delight all the way back to town. Tell us again how you jumped off the tree onto your bicycle grandmother.'

And she always did...

Friday, 24 June 2011

Midsummer Day

Last night I went to the forest. It was midsummer's eve and magic was afoot.. Why did I go, you might ask? It was because I read http://anhrefn.blogspot.com/ post which brought back so many memories...


Midsummer Eve of my childhood.... 
When I was small my Grandmother told me a story of a magical night when green ferns flower at midnight. On that night, if you went to the forest, you might be lucky to find this single flower, which blooms only once in a thousand years. Once found, it must be given to the one you love. It will bring them happiness and joy. I wanted to find it and give it to my Grandmother but was not allowed to stay up late for many years to come.. 


But last night I went into the forest looking for the fern bloom.. The night was warm, humid. I walked towards the river, stroking unfurled ferns gently, my hands as well as eyes seeking the mythical flower. There was faint music in the air and I could hear soft voices whispering on the gentle breeze..

And there it was.... The one not to be kept to one self but given away to the one you love. When it is looked after it does not wilt, tarnish or wither. It continues to be special, beautiful, fresh and powerful.