What we miss

Another project completed and sent off to the printer. Onto the next writing assignment, beginning research, filling notebooks, making sketchy plans for the outline, what goes in, what stays out. Tidying my big yellowwood desk — that lovely mellow patina of surface — and  then heaping it again with a  new collection of books and notebooks. Pens and pencils. The laptop, the android.


I don’t miss the corporate office, not ever. I do miss being with others to celebrate the end of a project, the hugs and laughter. Freelancing is lonely work sometimes. But all writing is essentially about sitting staring at words on a page or screen in solitude. Each and every day.


On not knowing. I sit reading political manifestos, philosophies, arguments and the uncertainty of reading the present moment except through the selective lens of the past. The troubling erosion of public and private, the questions of legality and legitimacy, the lack of consensus on who we are and what kind of society we have co-created…


Sherry Turkle in her new book Reclaiming Conversation on what we’ve lost with the  new virtual communication, ubiquitous social media:


She presents a powerful case that a new communication revolution is degrading the quality of human relationships—with family and friends, as well as colleagues and romantic partners. The picture she paints is both familiar and heartbreaking: parents who are constantly distracted on the playground and at the dinner table; children who are frustrated that they can’t get their parents’ undivided attention; gatherings where friends who are present vie for attention with virtual friends; classrooms where professors gaze out at a sea of semi-engaged multitaskers; and a dating culture in which infinite choice undermines the ability to make emotional commitments.



Lawrence Osborne, expat writer in Thailand.

There is always the presumption with western journalists that they understand societies that they are essentially tourists in; it’s an institutional arrogance which I’ve learned to undo in myself. If you don’t speak a language fluently, no, you don’t understand anything. Period. I thought I knew quite a lot about Southeast Asia before – I didn’t. Societies are not a compendium of causes, social problems, crimes, corruptions, “attitudes,” etc. etc. This is how the white middle class looks at the world, essentially in a missionary way. As a kind of reform project. Imagine if it was done to us by people who couldn’t speak a word of English! That would make a good satire.


The innocent age of tourism is past, that belief you travelled for hedonistic pleasure and generously tipped those who served and waited on you, that you could take photos of them as if they were exotic pieces of landscape, that you could go into their homes and marvel at their poor but simple lives, that your voyeurism did no harm, that you were absorbing something useful or interesting as you sat on the beach in Mexico, Cuba, Mauritius, Jamaica, Tunisia, that you ate their affordable labour-intensive food and enjoyed luxury they couldn’t afford and that somehow all of this was OK. That you could speak a little Spanish or Portuguese or phrases in Swahili or Thai and this showed your lazy well-meaning goodwill.


And suddenly, it is dangerous to travel, you may be seen as an ideological enemy, your friendliness and intrusiveness resented or despised, that you are part of the oppressive machinery  exploiting people in the global south, that you have never been welcome, never understood your romantic destinations as they understand themselves, you would do better to stay in Fortress America, that panopticon of a threatened and isolated society. Or in a troubled and ideologically divided Britain or Europe, sitting out the rainy winters and  heavy snow. Escape routes closed.


A world we scarcely recognise even as we miss the old familiar world passing away, that unconscious privilege and safety. From a review of the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben:


For about our current state of emergency, and the need to reconceive the global situation in which we find ourselves, there is permitted no doubt. In Stasis, another recently published volume in the series, Agamben describes our present state as one of “global civil war.” Lest this remain suspended in mid-air, a precision is offered: “The form taken by civil war at this point in world history is terrorism.” And to be still more precise, he adds, “global terrorism is the form civil war assumes when life as such becomes what politics treats.”


So I sit and look out through my window and look again at the bright garden, unshadowed. The military helicopters overhead — why? — the malachite sunbirds flying back and forth, the world that will go on after us whatever we do or fail to do. A flash of emerald in the darkness of  thought.

Waking on Sunday morning

Fast asleep and dreaming of a breakfast table where friends sat around in pastel green and blue nightgowns and pyjamas, the table laid with slices of fruit and loaves of bread. A smiling grey-eyed crone of  a woman was showing me her flowing skirt patterned with mauve irises on silk … when I was abruptly woken by my small foxy dog scratching at my hand, rain falling outside in the garden, no sunny places for a dog to lie. Why shouldn’t this dozy human companion stop the rain and bring back her sunbeams?

Went out into the damp garden barefoot and picked handfuls of juicy spearmint for a friend wanting fresh mint for a non-alcoholic punch. I keep mint in tubs and planters to stop it taking over the garden. Spearmint, apple mint, peppermint, Moroccan mint. Followed by disgruntled small dogs with wet paws. Fennel silvered over with raindrops, the yellow pollen ready to be harvested.

Listening to Bach’s Cantata for Quinquagesima Sunday in all its violet vestments and sad anticipation of Lenten fasting, the old name for what is now the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time. That rich tapestry of symbolism underlying my ordinary daily life, the absurdity and beauty and  long-forgotten mystery of how humans once lived in cycles and phases of the symbolic, the moon waxing and waning, the harvest coming in, the Passion of the Christ, death and resurrection, the Fisher King singing on the wall, the princess in the tower, the boats with black sails crossing the water, the Buddha seated  beneath his tree in the unknowable forest.


A paragraph from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves — how her writing becomes younger, fresher, more exciting as I grow older and  understand her better:


They want a plot, do they? They want a reason? It is not enough for them, this ordinary scene. It is not enough to wait for the thing to be said as if it were written; to see the sentence lay its dab of clay precisely on the right place, making character; to perceive, suddenly, some group in outline against the sky. Yet if they want violence, I have seen death and murder and suicide all in one room. One comes in, one goes out. There are sobs on the staircase. I have heard threads broken and knots tied and the quiet stitching of white cambric going on and on on the knees of a woman. Why ask, like Louis, for a reason, or fly like Rhoda to some far grove and part the leaves of the laurels and look for statues? They say that one must beat one’s wings against the storm in the belief that beyond this welter the sun shines; the sun falls sheer into pools that are fledged with willows. (Here it is November; the poor hold out matchboxes in wind-bitten fingers.) They say truth is to be found there entire, and virtue, that shuffles along here, down blind alleys, is to be had there perfect. Rhoda flies with her neck outstretched and blind fanatic eyes, past us. Louis, now so opulent, goes to his attic window among the blistered roofs and gazes where she has vanished, but must sit down in his office among the typewriters and the telephone and work it all out for our instruction, for our regeneration, and the reform of an unborn world.






World-foraging mind

Woke to news of an earthquake in Taiwan, fearful for a friend who lives there, relieved to find she is safe. Thinking of those suffering or having to rebuild.


Weekend here, at last. Sports day on the school playing fields across the road, athletics matches in the heat. Parents and teachers applauding as children tear back and forth, competing, winning, losing. My Great Dane peers at the players through the living room window like an elderly voyeur behind a lace curtain. He is a very curious dog and a little short-sighted.


From Jane Hirshfield on how we look with poetry’s eyes:


Poems appear, as often as not, to arise in looking outward: the writer turns toward the things of the world, sees its kingfishers and falcons, hears the bells of churches and sheep, and these outer phenomena seem to give off meaning almost as if a radiant heat. But the heat is in us, of course, not in things. During writing, in the moment an idea arrives, the eyes of ordinary seeing close down and the poem rushes forward into the world on some mysterious inner impulsion that underlies seeing, underlies hearing, underlies words as they exist in ordinary usage. The condition is almost sexual, procreative in its hunger for what can be known no other way. All writers recognize this surge of striking; in its energies the objects of the world are made new, alchemized by their passage through the imaginal, musical, world-foraging and word-forging mind.


A week of thinking about how we see art, what baffles, what is technically skilled, what is unexpected. The materials listed: charcoal, acrylics, wax crayon, oil paints, pencil. I think about taking my easel out into the garden at twilight, when the garden cools, painting foliage or a cloudy sky. Looking at the familiar differently  as I try to repeat or copy nature. I drew leaves as a child, oak leaves, maple, viburnum, msasa, imbuia; leaves ribbed, furred, veined, crinkled and losing green. Both sides of a leaf: the side showing structure, the side floating colour. Thinking about the capillary action, the rising sap, the fluttering in a breeze. Silver-backed leaves, juicy dark greens, purple and black leaves. Some days  all I could see were leaves on the grass, leaves jumping out from branches and  twigs, leaves I had to paint there and then. Leaf light, the way the sun shines through a leaf and makes its inner workings transparent and suffused with gold.


When I was at school we ran races, relays, played tennis, played rounders, played netball, swam in  annual galas. I was placed in Livingstone House and cheered when runners for our  House beat those in Moffat House. Named after the colonial missionaries David Livingstone and Robert Moffat. The competition didn’t bother me because winning or losing seemed such a small thing. I won prizes for essays and elocution and disregarded them because  what teachers liked or admired was often not very good, too tame and neatly written. But there was pleasure in running barefoot in the sunshine, overtaking others, breasting the  tape at the end. It didn’t happen often but I liked the effort and cameraderie. Shiny cups and certificates were more for the excitable teachers than us. Even parents knew that and tended to doze off in deck chairs  under trees at the edge of the field, clap loudly for the wrong child, fanning away flies and swatting at bees. Spending time outdoors in a hot climate wasn’t always wise but we grew up on sunshine and fresh air. Black swimsuits and white caps for swimming galas, ironed white dresses for tennis. Straw bashers, ironed cotton shirts and  pleated knee-length skirts in summer, ties, sweaters or cardigans and socks or stockings in winter. Hair tied back in a pony tail or two plaits, fringes pinned back off our freckled, sunburned faces. Faces and hands scrubbed, short finger nails, no cosmetics. No swearing, no smoking, no slouching. It was the world of Empire, Little England on the Veld.


Umtali 1960s