Category Archives: Passing thoughts

POSSIBILITY

POSSIBILITY

Kierkegaard wrote that ‘Life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards.’ This is a warning to all those tempted to write an early memoir. Although given how very many early memoirs are produced these days – dull, superficial, even soporific accounts of lives that do not warrant remembering much less sharing – no one is taking much notice of Kierkegaard. In 1977, Tom Wolfe published an essay called the ‘Me Decade’ in which he drew attention to the cult of the self. How much more intense and widespread has the focus on self become. Ours is the ME ME ME ERA. Sharing is a hallmark of contemporary life, and an early memoir allows for the possibility of several more volumes before one is confined to the grave.

But it is not memoir nor the dominance of the self that has prompted this note, rather what interests me is the increased understanding that comes with advancing years to which Kierkegaard alludes. For those excited by understanding, this is one of the rewards of ageing. For myself, it’s a great relief to know that so much is behind me: mistakes never to be repeated, misbegotten lovers, misspent moments that might stretch into months, the weight problems, the money problems, the job problems. It’s satisfying to have sufficient understanding to forgive my parents their mistakes. I understand the madness of past relationships, the blind longings for love, I understand now, long after the fact, the roads I should have taken. I am much wiser now I am no longer young.

I’m not nostalgic, I don’t long for my youth – I didn’t care for it much while it was happening – and besides, with so much left to do I simply don’t have time for a rerun. I like my increased understanding. I like the fact that so many issues that caused me stress and sleepless nights simply do not matter any more. But I do have one major regret: the shrinking of possibility that accompanies the passing years.

At 40 I could still study medicine if I wanted, I could still expect to get around to the lesser plays of Shakespeare and the second half of Ulysses, I could delay returning to my piano studies. If I’d been without a partner – I wasn’t – there was still the likelihood I would meet someone who would become my beloved and journey with me through the years. I had time, and with time came the possibility of things happening now or later, some planned, others unexpected. At 50, possibility was still strongly evident. But a mere ten years later and possibility, ‘amazing possibility’ is dwindling.

Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, argued that what kept people from suicide was their hope that conditions of life would improve. Hope has always nudged precariously close to delusion, I’ve always thought, but possibility – well, that’s something else.

If you consider life to be an adventure, if you are alert to unforeseen possibility you are constantly surprised and often full of wonder. You’ll see the moon at its fullest, you’ll see it as a mere sliver of finger-nail and both will invigorate; you’ll see the red-rump parrots scratching in the grass; you’ll relish the conversation with a stranger on the train; you’ll count your blessings at having found an extraordinary Neruda poem, at hearing Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards. This is not wide-eyed Pollyanna stuff, it is, simply, LIFE writ large. Every day brings the possibility of revelations, of alive-ness, of wonder. Given life won’t last forever, allowing for possibility seems a sensible way of going.

But now it seems I have reached the age of diminishing possibilities. At 40 I would tell myself that when I had finished my current novel I would spend a few months at the piano. At fifty I promised myself that when the current novel was over I would, again, tackle Ulysses. At 60, I doubt I will ever return to my study of the piano or finish Ulysses. I’d prefer to reread Proust than Joyce (and at this stage it is an either/or situation). And I’d prefer to reread the major plays of Shakespeare rather than plod through the lesser ones. I’ll manage with my trips and stumbles over the keyboard, and I’ve adjusted to there not being a beloved. And while I know this state of mind reveals a certain wisdom, I long, not for youth, but for the huge unchartered terrain of possibility that was a life still to be lived.

PORTABLE PLEASURES

 

Recently, while sitting in a café I found myself eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table. It was a group of five, all of them bright and twentyish, all dressed in skimpy fashionable clothes, all with well-mussed, multi-coloured hair, each sporting one or more tattoos on otherwise smooth and unmarked skin. They were playing a game of ‘My favourite Things’. Their voices were resonant, they laughed a lot. First there were favourite films, followed by favourite pieces of music. Then in quick succession came favourite shop, favourite brand, favourite device, favourite sexiest person, and lastly favourite colour.

Decades ago when Malcolm Fraser was prime minister, Tammy Fraser was asked in a radio interview her favourite colour – as if there were nothing more important to ask this particular first lady. To my horror she did not sound insulted nor did she hesitate.

Yellow, she replied, my favourite colour is yellow.

At the time Fraser, and all associated with him, were not favoured by the left. Even forgetting the limited merits of yellow, the fact that Tammy took colours so seriously – and favourites always help to define oneself – condemned her to remain where we on the left had unquestioningly put her.

Life was a much more simple affair back then.

And yet I have always had favourites.

In Bunuel’s Tristana, one of the characters looks for and finds the best green pea on the plate. I watched that scene and I recognised myself. I make a point, a private point of finding my favourite pea, my favourite potato chip, my favourite cherry. I have favourite flowers and trees, not botanical favourites, but a particular flower on a particular plant. My favourite elm stands near the Yarra River where Alexander Parade turns into Punt Road. My favourite oak, planted in the 1880s and recently cut down due to age and disease, was an Algerian Oak on the edge of the oak garden in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. I have an ever-expanding list of favourite books, I have favourite passages and verses from books (copied into the latest of several quote notebooks). I have favourite buildings and streets, favourite towns and cities, favourite paintings and sculptures, favourite musicians and musical compositions.

 

Quote book

Quote book

And I have a favourite letter.

A few years before Tammy’s interview I began keeping a personal dictionary. Frustrated at having to consult my Oxford dictionary for the same words over and over again – the meaning of certain words simply would not stick – I purchased a sturdy notebook, cut an index along the right-hand side for the letters of the alphabet and every time I looked up a word in Oxford’s dictionary I copied it into my own. I also decided to include in my dictionary interesting words whose meaning I knew, but in the haste and habits of everyday life I would forget I knew, words like ‘canker’ and ‘conceit’ and ‘clotted’ which when put with other words – clotted memories, family conceits, cankerous yearnings – spiced up this whole lovely business of words.

Years passed before I realised that the words of one letter ran to several more pages than any other in my personal dictionary. That letter was ‘p’. And now, along with parrots, the music of J.S. Bach and Bleu de Basque cheese, I rank ‘p’ words high on the scale of my favourite things.

Personal Dictionary

Personal Dictionary

Take ‘patina’ and ‘palimpsest’ and ‘pentimento’. For a person such as myself burdened with secrets these words supplied some gorgeous and relief-giving metaphors. And as an eighteen-year-old desperate to get away, peripatetic peregrinations encapsulated the freedom I longed for wrapped in the lyricism of travel. My sins became the far more acceptable peccadilloes, my pessimism was readily placated by propitious signs, my lack of perspicacity was less of a failure than purblindness. My sense of being at odds with the world, the perfidious world, run by pettifoggers who lacked prescience, found an effective panacea in ‘p’ words.

The appeal of ‘p’ certainly does not reside in its sound. That voiceless puff could never, for example, compete with the sonorous ‘m’ or the tricky ‘r’. The attraction is in the phantasmagoria of ‘p’ words. ‘P’ is the verbal imagination’s favourite child. Once I wrote a letter almost entirely with ‘p’ words – it was a perfect letter.

And if not for ‘p’ I would never have produced my one and only public work of art.

To describe my artistic ability as parsimonious would be to give it airs, so when I agreed to decorate a platter for a fund-raising auction conducted by the Jewish Museum I was understandably challenged. The platter arrived; it was 43 centimetres in diameter and very blank. I was rightly perturbed. I considered a pastiche of portraits cut from various papers but that would have publicised my lack of talent. I considered a range of lies to get me out of the whole thing, but pride stopped me. As the deadline approached and I was still procrastinating, my fears were palpable and my pride was heading for a fall.

And then it occurred to me: I would make a P-Plate.

In different sized fonts I typed out ‘p’ words. Perplexed, pungent, promise, painting, propinquity, piano, politics, people, philology, pertinacious, prose, poetry, 232 words in all. I cut out the words and glued them to my platter. And then I varnished the whole thing. I produced a high-gloss p-plate. And a person purchased it, a person of impeccable taste, and for quite a pretty price too.

Many things are not portable, but all favourite things are. It is the imagination which confers their status and bestows on them their delights. And it is in the imagination they remain special. The material world is so cluttered and cumbersome, but this world of favourite things is a paradise.

 

STITCHING TIME

Jenny Diski, in a recent LRB blog, writes about her discovery of the pleasures of knitting. She’s a novice knitter, and there are holes – three – in the striped rug she is making for her soon-to-arrive grandson. But she doesn’t care, she’s far too wrapped up in the joys of knitting – and of hearing too, but that’s another blog.

(It suddenly occurs to me that JD and I have much in common. We are of similar age, Jewish, both of us are writers, have been to Antarctica, we each have a hearing loss modified by judicious use of very expensive hearing aids, and we both like knitting.)

Unlike Diski, I’ve been knitting most of my life. Knitting is one of the few constructive occupations that allows you, simultaneously, to do something else equally constructive. Last winter for example, I knitted a poncho-cloak affair (in a beautiful maroon wool that felt like cashmere) while working my way through a few of the several thousand requiems that have been written in the past four hundred years. A vest for a friend took me through much of Schubert’s piano music. I caught up on a couple of years of podcasts from the CBC’s Big Ideas programme while knitting a perfect little jacket for the two-year-old daughter of Dot’s nephew. I have knitted through classic movies that I don’t want ever to forget, and TV series like Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad – both of which I dumped after the first couple of series: too much blood and too little character for me. Dexter, incidentally, did not produce the same reaction. I knitted through the five seasons of Madmen – very useful given my next novel will be set in the 1950s and sixties, all of West Wing (it was the best way of surviving the Howard years), and more recently Aaron Sorkin’s latest, Newsroom, which, at a time when I increasingly avoid newspapers and TV news and current affairs, reminded me how truly valuable good media can be.

And I have knitted to make life more bearable. When times are tough you just want to get through the hours. Like Margaret Drabble (see her recent book The Pattern in the Carpet) I have turned to jigsaws during bleak periods. But as well, Hollywood romantic schlock like Pretty Woman, Sleepless in Seattle and The Way We Were have proved extremely useful; two or three of these movies and I can cross off another evening and head for bed. But there’s a self-esteem issue with this sort of entertainment: how to justify such a terrible waste of time when there are books to be read and articles to be written?

Knitting has saved me from self-castigation. I watch the romantic drivel and I knit. There’s a completed sleeve to show for the hours during which Richard Gere and Julia Roberts do their Pygmalion, rags-to-riches thing, and if I take into account all the old Meg Ryan movies I’ve watched there’s probably a whole jumper to show for them. Time which might otherwise be crazed with anxiety passes while I knit in front of the screen. And in the process friends and family receive regular gifts of woollies. (One of these friends, when I presented her with a sleeveless cardigan many years ago, said that wearing a hand-knitted gift shows that someone cares about you.)

The Memory Trap will be published in May. Bound proofs are already circulating in the world. The first review – in Bookseller and Publisher and fortunately a good one – has appeared. Instead of squirming in pre-publication anxiety I am knitting a very fetching rug. It’s a log cabin pattern, visually startling and very easy. The squares grow in number, the nights pass, by the time the book comes out I will have a finished rug. I should also be quite sane.

log cabin rug

POSTSCRIPT:

The rug is finished, and perfect timing too. Autumn is here bringing cool, rug-suitable nights. And The Memory Trap will be in the shops next week.

photo

BELATED EMPATHY

BELATED EMPATHY.

There’s nothing new in what follows, nothing mysterious or intriguing. It’s that old old stab in the heart of wisdom that comes too late.

I’m reading Irving Howe’s magisterial THE WORLD OF OUR FATHERS. In this book bursting with detail, Howe documents the immigration of Eastern European Jews to the US – to the Lower East side of NYC in particular – from the 1880’s to the 1920s. He writes about long hours in factories, appalling housing, illness, loneliness, dislocation. He writes about hopes and dreams, the night classes and lectures, the workers’ groups. And he writes about the children of these Yiddish speaking parents, children who became Americanised, who, like so many children of immigrants, born out of the hardship of their parents go through a stage of resentment of those parents, even shame. It is not that they don’t love their parents, or are not grateful. But the parents are tethered to a past that simply has no relevance to these children impatient to plunge into the new world.

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