Feriae Augusti

DSC00150Yesterday morning, when I opened the windows my skin suddenly felt taut.  It was like a slap. There was a a chill in the wind.  The sky was a pale, drab grey.  My heart sank.  It’s only the middle of August.  Oh, no, not autumn already.  Not yet.

Growing up in Rome, I hated August.  The month of the deep sleep.  Everything ground to a halt.  All my school friends away.  Although the city centre was, as ever, overrun with tourists taking pictures of anything they couldn’t buy, residential areas would turn into ghost towns, with every Roman who could escaping to the beach or the mountains.  Many shops were closed for a couple of weeks, you would wait even longer than usual for a bus, no theatre, no opera, no concerts.  Hardly any cars.  You could practically walk in the middle of the road.  And, of course, the stifling heat.  My family couldn’t afford holidays away, so even though I hated school, I would look forward to September injecting some life into the late summer stupor.

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When I moved to London, I found it exhilarating to live in a place that functioned all year round, where you could go to the theatre or a concert even in August.  All right, there were two weeks (now three) of general lethargy and inefficiency excused by Christmas, but I no longer dreaded the approach of late summer.

Now that I am much older and no longer have two months off in the summer (a weekendDSC00181 off is a major event) and have spent the last thirty-five years living on an island where the climate has severe commitment issues, I increasingly miss that month when an entire country slows down.  I now see August in Italy as the equivalent of the Wu Chi stand in QiGong.  The time of nothingness that creates.  A time of rest to take stock, to gather your energies, a time of merging with the allness before becoming yourself again.

I find that I miss the month of Ferragosto.  The feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on 15th August is not marked in England.  In Italy, in France, in Greece and other parts of Catholic and Orthodox Europe, it is a bank holiday.  But like so many Christian holy days, the Church superimposed the Day of the Assumption over a pagan celebration, in this case the ancient Roman festival Feriae Augusti. 

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After thirty-five years of Protestant work ethic, it’s not the heat and the boredom of Ferragosto that come to mind.  It’s the peace and quiet, it’s having breakfast on the balcony and playing music from the flat loud enough to hear it outside without worrying about disturbing the neighbours because the entire building is empty for at least a week.  I miss a chorus of cicadas singing you to sleep in the torrid hours of the afternoon.  Lying on a sun lounger late after midnight, looking at the night sky, counting shooting stars, until you feel as though you are falling into the sky.  

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As a write this, the rain is pitter-pattering on the window panes, the cornflowers on our balcony swaying in a half-hearted wind, and the sky is a dreary grey, I recall another Ferragosto tradition in Rome – the post 15th-August thunderstorm.  I remember it as happening practically every year, right at the end of the holiday.  One of those Roman thunderstorms, with thunderclaps like loud firecrackers, rain pelting down so hard you couldn’t hear the radio or TV, rivers rushing down the streets.  The kind of rain – once the thunder and lightning have ceased – you want to stand under after two months of stifling heat, feel it soak through your clothes, hammer on your scalp, drum on your face.  Then, half an hour or so later, it all stops, the sun dispels the clouds and its rays make the wet streets glow, and a rainbow draws an arc across the now bright blue sky.  But everything feels just a little cooler.  Cool enough to mark the end of a chapter.  You know the worst of the heat is now over for this year.  You know that in the next couple of days, the shops will start reopening and your neighbours returning.  And you feel refreshed, rested, ready for the new chapter.

Scribe Doll

     

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Paris, 14 Juillet

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We were in Paris this time last year.  I was enjoying the buzz and feeling shortchanged: we don’t have national holidays in England, at least none that carry any kind of historical significance.  No religious holidays except Christmas and Easter, and even the country’s patron Saint, George, doesn’t warrant a day off.  That’s Protestant work ethic for you.  If our May and August bank holidays do have roots somewhere in history, then they have been forgotten by the common man (and woman) and appear to have been randomly tacked on at the end of three weekends, almost like a grudging concession by an employer related to Ebenezer Scrooge.  We have no dates when we celebrate freedom from oppression, change of regime, the end of a conflict or independence.  No day that unites the entire country in a civic celebration.

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Almost all the shops were closed and there was a mildly festive ripple in the summer air.  Notre Dame was crammed with tourists.  Noisy invaders with little respect or awe for this ancient church or its prayer-soaked walls.  Calling out to one another in loud voices, stomping around in large groups.  Too loud to be able to hear her voice or her heartbeat.

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Once again, I longingly tried to imagine what it would be like to stand in an almost DSC00275deserted Notre Dame, listening to Mediaeval voices rising to the Rose Window, singing Léonin or Pérotin, music composed for a perfect marriage with Gothic architecture.  I went to smile at the stone Virgin and Child, one of my favourite Madonnas.  I like her delicate features, her gentle, youthful smile.  A few years ago, I translated a crime novel by French novelist Alexis Ragougneau, The Madonna of Notre Dame, and it brought this beautiful statue to my attention.

When we approached the cathedral exit, the noise of the crowd was suddenly drowned out by a loud roar.  A row of fighter planes tore across the sky, a trail of blue, white and red in their wake.  I find the sound of fighter planes eerie and something in my chest always seizes up when I hear them slicing through the air above Norwich, where I live, but there, in Paris, as part of the Quatorze Juillet parade, I stared and marvelled with the other tourists.  I felt strange, standing inside a church, a building symbolising peace and compassion, while above me, there were these war machines, designed for war.

DSC00280We strolled to Île Saint-Louis and stopped in a café for a late breakfast of crêpes and coffee.  There was a television broadcasting the parade on the Champs Elysées (Elysian Fields – nowhere would be called this in England).  We were the only customers and the manageress started chatting to us.  “Macron’s been lucky with the weather both years since he’s been elected,” she said. “It’s been lovely and sunny on 14th July.”

“Oh, is that unusual for this time of year?” I asked, surprised.

“Under François Hollande it always seemed to rain or something would go wrong whenever there was some kind of event.  That’s why he was nicknamed  le chat noir.”

The black cat.  How funny.

We ended up staying in the café, following the live coverage of the parade, President Macron and guests watching as what looked like the country’s entire human fighting force and arsenal processed before him.  Tanks, military vehicles, men and women in uniform, weapons of every kind, the Garde républicaine on horseback, helmets and swords gleaming in the sunlight.

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As always when watching a national parade – in any country – I felt a sense of wrongness, or at least of incompletion.  I always look at all that military personnel, at all those tanks, fighter jets, weapons, and all those politicians, and I want to ask out loud, Where are the country’s writers? Where are the scientists and the scholars? Where are the all the medics? Where are the actors? Where are the farmers? Where are all the other people who contribute to the country? Have they not also played their part in forging history?

Is the nation not proud of them, too?

Scribe Doll

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Reconnecting

The fountain pen feels heavy in my hand.  I haven’t written for a long time.  I mean written – not typed.  That I do every day, all day.  Click, click.  Irregular, hollow.  I tap the plastic keys, one letter at a time, and words appear on my computer screen.  Words someone else has written, thought, felt.  Words I mutate into another language.  Making myself think them, feel them.  Click, click.  

No words flow out.  My nib is like a dried-up fountain.  The pathway between my brain and my hand is overgrown with brambles, and my thoughts are caught up somewhere in that darkness.

I suddenly realise that even writing these few lines has been stressful and tiring.  An effort.

I pause.  Shall I put the pen down? What if I can’t pick it up again? A flush of anxiety  rushes into my face.  Cold.  I begin to write again.  Slowly, gingerly.  Piano piano.

I think of a cartoon in The New Yorker that hangs framed in my study, my bottega.  A little boy watches as a cute little girl is scribbling on the sidewalk. I try to write a little every day, the caption says.

Baby steps.  One foot, then another.  The black ink briefly glistens on the paper before turning matt.  I take my time to form the letters, join them, taking care to place the dots above the is and not let them float randomly.  Making sure I round my letters so my as and es are legible.

My rosewood and chrome Faber Castell seems like a close friend you haven’t seen for a long time.  You used to talk over each other and now you can’t think of anything to say.  The intimacy’s gone.  You look at each other with trepidation and fear of disappointment, hoping to detect the gold thread that connected you in the past, so you can pick it up again.  You search for the bridge that used to join you.  You know it can’t have crumbled – nothing that can’t be repaired with a few stones and a little mortar – you just can’t remember the way to it.  Any minute now you’re going to turn a corner and see it right in front of you.

And so I keep writing, slowly, gingerly, trusting in the brilliant black ink flowing steadily through the nib, taking root on the cream page.  Forming every letter carefully, lengthening the stems, evening out the loops, connecting them into words.  Almost any words.

Trusting that my thoughts will start to light up the overgrown pathway and seep into my nib.  Soon.

One word at a time.  Slowly.  Piano piano.

Scribe Doll  

Reconnecting

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A Few Thoughts About Lent

As the Dean traced the ash cross on my forehead and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ” and the Cathedral choir sang Allegri’s Miserere, what flashed through my mind, once again, was the image of a phoenix.  Ashes as the necessary stage of burning the old, so that the new might be reborn.  Ashes as catharsis.

When I was a child growing up in Rome, Lent was a gloomy forty days, with a Holy Week of wailing and gnashing of teeth, expressed through sober, serious television programmes like Passion plays, religious contemplations and funereal classical music.  I have a vague memory of my grandmother chiding me for dancing around the room one Good Friday.  Lent had be heavily sad.  Lent as repentance, as stating our unworthiness.  Lent that felt like a punishment after the joy of Carnival.  Lent as fasting or at least giving up on something you found pleasurable.

But what if Lent was originally intended not as six weeks of gloom and doom but as an opportunity for renewal? After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that the wisdom and practicality of Christian teachings was changed, mistranslated or misinterpreted through centuries of organised religion.  

I disagree with Lent as moral self-flagellation the same way as I find deeply disturbing the presence, in prime position, of the crucifix in churches.  Why focus on the image of intense pain, injustice and death when what is actually at the heart of Christian doctrine is the Resurrection, i.e. the triumph of Life over death? I have no doubt that theologians and ministers will provide a valid reason for that, but my instinctive feeling is that you get further by focusing on joy and Light than on sadness and darkness.

“‘Church’ has become a dirty word,” a priest once told me.  It certainly has in the UK, where backs all too often stiffen and looks become embarrassed and vacant as soon as I mention the fact that I occasionally go to church.  Given the laissez-faire attitude of the Church of England, where you can opt for High, Evangelical or Traditional or an assortment thereof, I find this backlash something of a disproportionate response.  Still, whose fault is it, really, if “church” has become “a dirty word”?

Everything that happens on this planet has a rational explanation, whether we have come up with it by now or not.  The universe is governed by physics and the laws of nature.  As a child and teenager, I used to think of the world as a perfect circle, with no loose ends.  So whenever I could not understand something, I felt as though this was because all I could see was a segment of the circle, just a line that wasn’t connected to anything, thereby not making any sense. And yet the Church still puts an emphasis on almost blind faith.  The magic and supernatural elements that make Christianity so wonderful to some are also a strong deterrent to others.  Isn’t it time the Church began to explain its philosophy – I choose this term rather than doctrine deliberately – in a more 21st-century-friendly context of society, psychology and physics? Increasingly, the Church is trying to become more “accessible” by dropping – much to my sadness – the poetry from the language of prayers.  By doing that I feel it brings the Divine down to the limited dimension of humanity and not its unlimited side.  Replacing “thou” with “you” and “trespasses” with “sins” is not enough if you maintain the party line that miracles have an element of the supernatural that cannot – and almost must not – be understood with our brains but accepted through faith.  Faith, like love, cannot be supplied on demand.  Besides, as I once remarked to a priest after Sunday service, humanity can no longer be treated as a child who accepts whatever his or her parents say as though it were unquestionable truth.  “We are teenagers now,” I said, “we have doubts about everything, so we need plausible answers.”  Why not appeal to the human side that resides in the totality of possibilities? The side capable of absolute wonders?

Again, when I was about ten or eleven, and I heard a minister say that we, children, should be “as good as the Child Jesus”, I replied, “But Jesus’s father was God, while mine was a man, so he had a clear advantage over me – what’s the point in my even trying?”  Yet another of many contradictions and inconsistencies in Church teachings.

Heavily sad Lent.  Lent as repentance, as stating our unworthiness.  Lent as fasting or at least giving up on something you found pleasurable – and which you fully intend to resume come Easter Sunday.  What if it were Lent as taking stock, as a time for introspection, as cleansing, as shedding old habits and creating new ones? Lent as rewiring our brains? In other words, Lent as a wonderful opportunity for a physical and mental detox – a re-set button?

A field that fascinates me is that of neuroplasticity and the possibility of redirecting our neural pathways.  Obviously, the Ancients probably did not have  “neuroplasticity” in their vocabulary but, on some other level, they were clearly aware of its existence in practice, or there would have been no yoga, no Qi Gong, and no Lent. 

Why forty days? I don’t know. There is a school of thought that says it takes twenty days to break a habit and twenty to form a new one. Forty is a number that recurs in the Old and New Testament, in other religions, in yoga practices, in some fairy tales and in popular beliefs.  When, age six, I had the measles, my family kept me indoors and in the warmth for full forty days, to make sure I had fully recovered (there is an interesting Huff Post article on the forty-day topic by Rebecca Grainger).

Lent is also about fasting.  I fast for twenty-four hours once a week.  I find it invigorating and refreshing.  There is evidence to suggest that fasting responsibly can have many health benefits.  It acts as a re-set function.  It can reduce inflammation (remember the old saying “Starve the fever and feed the cold”?), is cleansing and allows the body to focus on spring cleaning and healing while not busy digesting.

I love Lent.  Not the Lent of repentance but of taking stock, of trying to reroute neural pathways, shedding old habits and forming new, more creative ones.  Lent as a wonderful opportunity to reinvent oneself.

Scribe Doll

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The Hour of the Book

The day is drawing in and I’m rushing to finish translating a page.  I need to look up a word and that slows me down.  I don’t like to stop mid-page but if I don’t leave now I’ll be late.  Do I really want to go there tonight with all the work I have to do? And it’s so cold out there.  I dither out loud.

“Go,” H. says. “You know you always enjoy it once you’re there.”

I quickly tap cmd + s to save my work, pull on my boots, grab coat, scarf, gloves.  Where did I put my notepad? H. is standing by the door, waiting to lock it behind me.

bookhive-6As usual, I’m cutting it fine, but after a brisk walk I push open the glass door and walk into the bookshop.  The Book Hive is a local institution.  “Eclectic, thoughtful, and tempting – a must for book lovers visiting Norwich”, Margaret Atwood said.  A quirky-looking, three-storey building on a street corner that holds a wide range of hand-picked, quality titles on just about every topic you can imagine, many translated from other languages. A setting with so much personality, it’s crying out to feature in a short story or a play, with its three levels, getting narrower the higher you go.  A place I sometimes walk into just for the pleasure of a chat with Joe, Megan, Henry, or whoever happens to be behind the counter that day, although it’s hard to then walk back out without succumbing to the temptation of a book you never knew existed but then decide you simply have to have.

But I am not going to buy a book this evening, or chat with the bookseller.  This evening, just like all the other people there, I am going to spend an hour being quiet.

It’s the weekly Page Against the Machine hour, when you can bring your book and round up the day by just sitting and reading.  Behind the counter, Joe has already lined up the glasses and offers you red wine.  He’s put on some music, just loud enough to create a confidently relaxed atmosphere, and soft enough not to butt in between you and your page.  Often piano music, always wordless.

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There are already people scattered on all three floors of the shop, sitting wherever they’ve found a seat, sipping wine, absorbed in their book.  This time, I head for the wicker armchair in the corner by the small sash window.  There is a stuffed duck on the sill.  I call it the nature corner.  The low table and shelves carry books about seasons, the elements, birds, animals, trees, travel logs, landscapes.  I pull out my notepad.  I have an hour to do nothing but write.  Write.  Not translate other people’s writing but actually scribble my own.  Luxury.  When I first discovered the Wednesday Page Against the Machine, I asked Joe if he’d mind my coming to write instead of read.  “Absolutely,” he said.  “I can even clear you some space at one of the tables, if you like.”  I don’t go as often as I would like to; more often that not, work takes the upper hand.  But on those Wednesdays when I do manage to slam the laptop lid down on it in time to get to The Book Hive by 5.30 p.m., that hour feels like a capsule of therapeutic release.  A whole hour when I am free to write my own stuff, uninterrupted.  Luxury.

I lean down to pick up my glass of water on the low table and catch sight of a small bookhive-19hardback.  Snow, by Marcus Sedgwick. Gosh, somebody thought of writing a book about snow.  What does he say about it? Does he talk about its softness as it muffles the city sounds or describe the unique, geometrical pattern of its flakes? I reach out to pick it up but resist the temptation.  No, I’m here to write. My eyes drift back to the black ink curls and swirls in my lined notebook, like untidy notes forming a daisy chain on a stave.  I turn my head to the side to stretch my stiff shoulder muscle and see How to Read Water in plain capital letters down a lilac-white spine.  I take off my long-sight glasses to focus on the author’s name.  Tristan Gooley.  What an intriguing title.  How do you read water? What kind of water? River water? Tap water? The water content of our bodies? 

Enough with distraction.  I uncross my legs and cross them the other way, and take the chrome cap off my fountain pen again.  I manage to scribble two more sides of A4 without looking up.  More swirls and curls that make words.  I am writing a story about languages, about when two or three or even four words mean the same thing – and yet not quite.  About when two or three or even four individuals have the same concept in their language, but not the same feeling.

I take another sip of water.  My attention is drawn to a highly atmospheric picture of a tree, its wind-chiselled branches reaching out to a lead-grey sky charged with thunder.  Hawthorn, by Bill Vaughan.  I think of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Of reading The Scarlet Letter in my teens, The House of the Seven Gables many years later.  The old film adaptation with Vincent Price playing a goodie.  I look again at the picture of the tree.  At its branches, gnarled and twisted by the wind, and yet still standing in defiance of the elements.  It’s just after 6.  I can probably fill a couple more sides of A4.  I am writing about a family that has been equally wrought by the gales that make up human life on earth.  I wonder if anyone will ever want to read it.  If one day, it will be bound into a hardback book, with a quote from another writer on the front cover.  What would the illustration on the dust jacket be? If it’s the picture of a tree, then I hope it’s an oak.  Tall, sturdy and wise.  An oak with centuries of stories to tell.

“It’s 6.30,” Joe says softly. patm_poster_A4 (1)

The shop stirs, as people lazily close their books, drink the last sip of wine from their glasses and slowly leave their seats.  It’s time to leave the oasis.  Time, which paused for an hour, has resumed its course.

I put my empty glass on the counter on my way out.  “I hope I can come again next week,” I say, the temporarily suspended awareness of my overwhelming workload rushing back into my relaxed brain.

I hope I can come again next week, I think as I pull open the glass door and step out into the street.   I wonder if I can organise my work so I can come every week.  Luxury.

Scribe Doll

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Tea Ceremony

A gentle hum that grows louder, then turns into a hiss that becomes a gurgle  The water is boiling, bubbling, impatient.  The teacher removes the electric kettle from its base, and pours its contents into a clear glass pitcher.  This hot waterfall emits steam, like gossamer climbing up the inside walls of the container, then spreading in the room, invisible, yet present.  

Patience is about waiting and being open to wonder.

A few seconds later, the teacher pours the water into all the double-bottomed glass cups arranged on a slatted bamboo tray.  The winter sun filtering through the window gives the small, clear glass a glow.  Another kettleful of water is put to boil.

It is by watching that you discover magical secrets.

He sits on the small black cushion on the floor, while we, his students, form a horseshoe around the small, beechwood tea table.  Some sit on chairs, others on the floor.  Nobody speaks.  He takes the earthenware bowl with the tea, and passes it around.  In turn, each of us gently fingers the black leaves, feeling the texture, smelling the slightly tart scent.

There are a thousand worthy words concealed in silence.

One by one, the teacher empties the cups into the slatted tray.  When the bowl of tea is returned to him, he tips the contents into a new glass pitcher.  The black leaves fall down the transparent shaft, with a soft rustling sound.  Once again, he transfers the freshly-boiled water into a glass pitcher, waits a few seconds, then pours it on the tea leaves, and puts the lid on.  Slowly.  Tea leaves, swelling with water, rise through a wavy sea of deepening amber, swirling, gathering on the surface where they linger for a minute or so.  We watch as the first tea leaf detaches itself from the other and gently sways down, landing lightly on the bottom of the pitcher.  Other leaves follow, and soon they are all quitting the surface, drifting to the bottom.  The infusion is now a rich golden amber.  

Who would have thought that there is so much beauty is watching tea draw?

The teacher pours the tea into every cup.  We all take ours but nobody drinks yet.  Each cradles the cup in the palms of his or her hand, admiring the colour, inhaling the steam, slowly, eventually bringing the tea up to our faces, feeling the warm condensation on our noses, guiding it through our nostrils until we can define its fragrance, delicate, slightly smokey, and send it down our throats and into our lungs.  

True pleasure is in sensing every detail, every stage, every minute impression.

We take our first sip, hold the hot liquid in our mouths, inhale through our noses, filling our lungs.  The terrain for a full experience of the flavour has been prepared.  After expelling the air, we swallow the tea.  A velvety, smokey, subtle tartness fills our mouths, then trickles down to our stomachs, like warm gold.

If you honour the food and drink, it will honour your body.

Red Robe Oolong.  Reserved for honoured guests.  It grows on the mountains of the Fujian Province, in China.  They say the mother of an emperor of the Ming Dynasty was cured of a serious illness by drinking this tea.  The grateful emperor sent swathes of Imperial red cloth to dress the bushes from which this tea had been picked.  Others say this tea saved the life of a much-respected scholar at the Emperor’s court.

A small, shrivelled leaf that bursts with magic.

We take another sip.  It never tastes like the first.  The surprise is replaced with a closer acquaintance with the taste of the drink, a closer awareness of its effect on our bodies.  The third sip is pleasure, pure, rewarding pleasure.

Awareness flings open the gates to a universe of unlimited possibilities.

It’s not just about drinking tea, it’s about getting to know it like a friend, getting to know yourself, getting to know the world.  It’s about learning, and learning leading to loving.

Happy Chinese New Year to all!

Scribe Doll

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A Shapeshifter at Play

All the windows are locked.  Curtains closed.  Blinds pulled down all the way to the sills.  Even so, its chilly breath hisses through the tiny gaps and reaches my knees.  There is an occasional tremor in the candle flames on the coffee table.  The nervous awareness of the force outside.  The normally vocal pigeons on our roof are silent.  The shapeshifting dragon is letting rip, giving a spectacle of its histrionic power.  Now it soars into the skies, its tail lashing the dark clouds, sending crackling rain to slam against the window panes.  Now it’s a tiger roaring in the night, sending a rumble rippling through the air.  Now a witch slaloming between chimneys on her broomstick, her impish giggle tickling the stars.  Then a gigantic owl, screeching in the roof, its wings whooshing in the air.  Then it swells into a tempestuous sea, foaming lips gnawing at the cliffs, then ebbing away before gathering into waves rising tall, fearless, tossing ships like juggling balls.  All of a sudden it retreats, quietens down, vanishes, like a memory you doubt.  Odd phrases of a tune that haunts you but which you cannot quite remember.  But, just two minutes later, it’s a dragon again, spewing flames like a Venetian glassmaker’s furnace, the bewitching fire of an Andalusian gypsy – spinning, swirling, lunging, turning raindrops into needles of ice, the supersonic speed of its flight making the windows quiver.  I am king, the dragon says. I am emperor.  And you’ve seen nothing yet. 

“It sounds like everything’s about to come crashing down,” H. says, looking up at the high ceiling of our living room.

I feel electrified, a thrill stroking my skin, like fingertips running up and down my spine, a sense of excitement and joy swelling inside me.  That and the unwavering sense that the power outside is choosing to keep me safe.

“I love – I’ve always loved the wind,” I say.

Scribe Doll

 

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Telephone Nostalgia

It suddenly occurs to me that it’s been months since anybody called our landline.  Except for my mother, of course.  Day after day, when I check the phone after coming back home, the display is always the same.  0 Calls.  0 Messages.  Come to think of it, hardly anybody ever phones at all.  I do get the occasional call on my mobile but even then, they have become an increasingly rare event in my life.  So much so that when the landline or the mobile ring, I jump, wary, assuming it’s either a wrong number or someone demanding that I do something.  I no longer consider the possibility of  hearing  “Hi, Katia.  How are you? I just wanted to hear your voice and catch up”.   

I often call a dear friend who lives in London – so we don’t get to meet very often –  and a precious friend who resides at the opposite end of the country, and I haven’t seen for over ten years.  But I call them.  Although when they pick up the phone, they sound pleased to hear my voice (either that or it’s wishful thinking on my part), the fact that I am always the one to initiate telephone contact makes me wonder if they simply put up with my quirk because they’re fond of me, but that among the rest of Western humanity, it’s a custom that has gone the way of letter writing and non-digital cameras.  

One London friend sometimes calls me on my mobile, and there’s my American aunt who sometimes rings me on the landline.  Other than that, it’s text messages and e-mails.  Maybe it’s the kind of friends and acquaintances I keep.  I can’t remember the last time anybody called and actually spoke to me when inviting us over for lunch, dinner or to suggest coffee in town.  It’s either a text message or an e-mail.  No tone of voice suggesting the person’s mood or state of health, no opportunity for a brief moment of warmth with words exchanged a viva voce.  Just emoticons.  I, too, used to include emoticons in my messages, but I do so less and less now.  I actually dislike emoticons.  Intensely.  Centuries of languages, poetry, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Sturm und Drang, millennia of words in all shapes, colours, sounds and subtle nuances and I get a lazy, bland 😀🤣👍👏🏻or 😘.  A fellow blogger I’ve become friendly with, recently removed the Like option from his blog.  As I understand it, his point is that if we enjoyed what he’s written, then he would like us to express it in our own words.  And not resort to a lazy “Like”.  I must admit, I often find the lengthy process of leaving a fully-worded comment a little trying but then, once I have made the effort, I feel like saying, “Thank you, my friend, for forcing me to use my imagination and my brain.”  

I don’t particularly like social calls on my mobile.  The reception quality is often capricious, there is the background noise to contend with if I am in the street, and my ear gets hot after a while.  Moreover, I am never able to concentrate fully when on my mobile.  At home, on the landline, on the other hand, I can sit down and give him or her my undivided attention.  

I get frustrated with the ping-pong of social text messaging or WhatsApp-ing.  I wish I could just continue the exchange in good old-fashioned human speech.

Text messages are very convenient for brief messages, or if you don’t know if it’s a suitable moment to call someone.  But then what’s wrong with phoning and saying, “Is it a good time to talk now or shall I ring you back?” Text messages have their place.  But sometimes I would like to hear the person’s voice, assess their tone, detect their mood or their humour – without a standard computerised emoji sign posting it.  Also, I like to hear a friend say, at the end of a telephone conversation, “OK, big hug” or “Love you” or “Mwah” instead of the obligatory “x” at the end of a text message or e-mail.  

I prefer face to face contact to talking over the phone.  But, when meeting is not possible, a telephone call provides a personal touch a text message or e-mail simply haven’t.  And, for all its convenient brevity, I find it much quicker to call someone and get an answer straight away, than using my large, clumsy finger pads on the screen of my smartphone – and waiting for the other person to respond.  

After I have cooked a meal and entertained guests, I would far rather receive a thank you call the next day, than a text message.

Yes, I too, am guilty of overusing texts and e-mails. I guess because people don’t use the phone to make a voice call, I am often reluctant to ring them for fear of disturbing them.

As they say in Russian, when you live with wolves, you start howling like a wolf.

Well, I don’t want to howl anymore.  I want to talk to people.  I want to hear their voices, in all their nuances.

Scribe Doll

 

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New Year Resolutions?

I’ve binned my 2018 New Year’s resolutions. Unopened.  They were past their use-by date.  Somehow, they ended up being kicked under the bed or falling behind bookcases, where dust grows in tumbleweed form, buried under dictionaries on my desk, or accidentally stepped on and crushed. 

No matter.  They’ve served their purpose.  They’ve made me aware of my true intentions.  Of where my focus truly lay and of where it was lacking.  

As I threw them all into the recycling bin, I wondered if I should form new resolutions for 2019.  Where would I put them, so they wouldn’t get lost again? On top of the tower of books I hope to read, ever-growing and neglected in favour of all the books I feel I have to read for my work? This novel won a prize.  I’d better read it in case I can pitch a translation proposal to a publisher.  Next to the address book with the contact details of all the friends I’ve lost touch with? I must call or write to them.  I haven’t seen them for ages.  But first I must finish this translation.  And then I have this other book deadline.  I haven’t got time to see them right now, anyway.  I can only take one day off this month and I have to go and see my mother.  That reminds me, I promised to buy her those Italian biscuits.  Or in my writing folder? I must definitely write tomorrow.  Or possibly over the weekend.  My own stuff.  I’m too tired now.  I can’t think straight.  It’s past 9 o’clock and I’ve been translating since early morning.  But I really must write.  I know I’ve been saying this for months.  Oh, and I must remember to buy some more potatoes.  And do we have any yoghurt left? I’d better check the fridge…  When did I start writing this book…? Oh, I had no idea it’s been this long.  How about sticking a list of resolutions to the mirror?  When did I last look at myself in the mirror? I mean really look at myself? I look so haggard, so tired, so grey.  Or perhaps I can add it to my list of travel plans?  Yes, I’d love to go there but not this weekend.  This weekend I really need to work.  I’m so behind already.  Besides, can I afford to spend the money? What if publishers don’t offer me another translation project after this? 

I once saw a cartoon on Twitter.  A woman approaching an aged writer sitting at a café table.  “I’m a huge fan of your intentions,” she says, shaking hands with him.  I’ve printed it and stuck it on my wall, where I can see it.

For 2019, no New Year’s resolutions.  No more living in the future.  As Mame sings in Jerry Hermann’s fabulous musical, “It’s Today!” The time is now.  

No more planning.  But doing.  

Take a deep breath.  Focus on my intention.  Direct it… Now.

I wish all my readers a happy, healthy, prosperous, creative and fulfilling 2019!

dsc00171

Scribe Doll

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Needling

For some, it’s a massage or a facial. For me, it’s acupuncture. As soon as I’m overwhelmed by stress, run down or simply in need of TLC (not to mention if ever I have a health concern), I book in for some needling.  Many an issue has been resolved with a few well-placed needles.

My favourite thing about acupuncture is that it thinks outside the box and joins unthinkably distant dots.  When one part of your body sounds an alarm bell or even just starts whimpering, the acupuncturist will consult all your other organs and functions – like a kind of body world summit – to find out who’s really responsible. 

A few years ago, a strange-looking discoloured patch appeared on my body.  I went to the doctor.  She poked me, squeezed me and kneaded me.  “It’s probably nothing,” she declared sapiently.  “It’ll probably go away.”

I don’t care for the word probably where my health is concerned.  The discoloured patch grew in size.  I went to see an acupuncturist.  She said the patch was located along my liver meridian (who said the body doesn’t give you signs?).  She examined my tongue.  Liver issues.  Let’s treat your liver and see.  

The discolouration disappeared within a couple of weeks.

It never ceases to fascinate me how my tongue seems to be the spokesperson for the rest of my body, how a Traditional Chinese Medicine-trained practitioner is able to diagnose a condition by studying a person’s tongue.  I have vague memories of Western doctors telling me to “say ‘Aaah'” when I was a small child.  Did they also use the same method of overview? Is it another skill the West has lost?

Chinese diagnosis, of course, uses a way of thinking that can feel very alien to a Western mind, at least at first.  It’s just a matter of switching your brain to a different narrative.  You might be told that you have yin or yang deficiency, excessive damp, too much fire, for example.  As I gradually learn to get my head around these concepts, I find that they are extremely accurate as far as I am concerned.  And extremely wise.  Moreover, they convey a panoramic view of health and the body that allows one to see how everything is actually connected.  A method which Western medicine, in its increasingly localised specialisation, would certainly benefit from, in my opinion.

I first discovered acupuncture about twenty years ago.  I lifted something heavy awkwardly and my back froze, in excruciating pain.  I couldn’t move.  The doctor was called (it was back in the golden days when it was easy to get a GP to visit you at home).  “It’s a slipped disc,” she said, prescribing pain killers – to be taken at four-hour intervals – and telling me to rest my back.

Within fifteen minutes of swallowing the tablets, the pain would plummet at supersonic speed, only to soar back up like a rocket during the fifteen minutes that followed, which left me in pain for the ensuing three and a half hours while I waited to be allowed another dose.  My life degenerated into a yo-yo of pain, mood swings, tears and depression.  “My life is going down the toilet!” I sobbed, a week later, when a friend rang to ask if I was better.  

She recommended a Traditional Chinese doctor.  The thought of needles pushed into my skin horrified me, but I was ready to try anything to get my life back.  I somehow made it to the front door and into a taxi.  I cried out at every speed bump.  By the time I reached the doctor, I was a wreck of tears, curses and despair.  The pain wouldn’t even allow me to sit down.  The Chinese doctor examined me.  “It’s not a slipped disc, it’s a muscular spasm,” she said.  

This was my introduction to the unsuspected connection acupuncture makes between seemingly unrelated dots.  It wasn’t into my back the doctor put the needles, as I had expected – it was between my eyebrows.  “Sit down,” she said calmly.

“I can’t – it hurts… Oh? How did this happen?” 

I moved my hips gingerly, sat down, wriggled some more.  

No more pain.  No pain!

A few minutes later, I took the rush-hour, crowded bus home, stopped on the way to buy food from the supermarket and cooked my first proper meal in a week.

I look forward to my regular acupuncture sessions.  The practitioner examines my tongue, takes my pulses (yes, in Traditional Chinese Medicine this is a plural) and listens to my concerns or needs.  I lie down.  I generally don’t feel any pain when the needles are pushed in.  Sometimes, I can’t even feel them.  And then, more often than not, something wonderful and extraordinary happens to me.  I feel as though whirlwinds start to form around the points where the needles are inserted, and spread throughout my body like a warm, invigorating wave.  On occasions, I’ll feel a pain or a twinge which will travel across my body, as though flying through a channel, then it disappears.  It feels as though my body becomes a hub of conversations, questions and answers and negotiations.  More often than not, I fall into a deep sleep.  I wake up feeling reborn.  Feeling taller.   Feeling truly, truly wonderful. 

I guess there’s something to be said for a form of medicine that has been practised and perfected for a couple of thousand years longer than our Western medicine. Old is not always passé.

Scribe Doll

With huge thanks to, among others, Rebecca Geanty (https://www.treatnorwich.co.uk)

15 November is World Acupuncture Day

 

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