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Solstice in three parts

Astrantia Roma | edge of evening

A couple of weekends ago I went to Bath with friends. We were there to celebrate A-M’s 50th birthday. I remember, so clearly, trying to leave the house for her 40th birthday party, at a community centre five minutes up the road from our Colliers Wood flat. T was a little under two weeks old. I was sitting on the bed feeding her and each time I thought that she was finished & I would be able to slip out, a blush of pink would rise on her face, clouding to red & a curl of displeasure would appear around her mouth, before she again began to cry & I again began to feed her.

Late, sometime after nine, I did slip out and felt all the strange vulnerability one feels out in the world postpartum, without an obvious pregnancy or a tiny baby to signal to people that they shouldn’t knock into you, should treat you with an exaggerated care and concern. I must’ve stayed less than half an hour.

A decade later and a two hour train journey alone — alone! — still feels like the most delicious possible treat. I had four or five books with me because who can be expected to choose on such an occasion? But the one I turned to first was one I started a few years ago and now can’t imagine why I ever set aside — Eavan Boland’s Object Lessons, a beautiful meditation on being a woman and a poet.

These paragraphs have been haunting me, made all the more tender by the fact that Boland herself is now in her early 70s:

It is an evening in summer. The suburb is almost quiet. The Dublin hills are the last color they will be in the succession of colors they have been all day: a sort of charcoal violet. […] A bicycle lies sideways on the ground. A child’s plastic mug, with an orange beak on the lid of it, is thrown at the bottom of a step. Everywhere you look there is evidence that this is a landscape of rapid change and ordinary survivals.

I am talking to a woman in the last light. I have just finished cutting the grass at the front, and we are outside between her house and mine. We make that temporary shape that conversing neighbors often assume: not exactly settled into a discussion yet not ready to leave it either. She lives across the road from me. her children are teenagers. Mine are still infants, asleep behind the drawn curtains in the rooms upstairs.

As we talk, I feel the shadow of some other meaning across our conversation, which is otherwise entirely about surface things. That it is high summer in my life, not in hers. That hers is the life mine will become, while mine is the life she has lost. And then the conversation ends. I turn to go in. I lift the bicycle and the mug.from ‘ Making the Difference’ in Object Lessons by Eavan Boland

*

I couldn’t sleep last night. We’re in the middle of a heatwave: the fifth day of temperatures in the low 30s. I showered after the little ones had gone to bed, but I was already sweating again before I got to the relative cool of downstairs. Slowly the evening came and the heat mellowed. I read and B played the guitar. Moths and mosquitos came in through the open doors and window. A little after ten, Tilly came in from the garden and lay spread on the floor boards, twitching with fleas picked up from the garden.

We went to bed late & I lay thinking about Samantha Hunt’s stunning ‘A Love Story’ which I read & listened to last week. It’s such a miraculous piece because its fragments and digressions are utterly gripping in themselves, but then resolve into something unexpected — beautiful & strange, and impossible to access in a more direct way.

There are so many lines that I could quote to you from this story — lines I maybe did quote to you — but the ones that kept coming back to me last night were these:

The bedcovers look gray in the dim light of chargers, laptops, and phones scattered around our bedroom. In this ghost light I am alone. The night asks again, Who are you? Who will you be when everyone is gone? My children are growing, and when they are done I’ll have to become a human again instead of a mother, like spirit becoming stone, like a butterfly turning back into a caterpillar. I’m not looking forward to that.

Who are you? Who will you be when everyone is gone? It’s not such an abstract question for me as it might be. In September, the Pip-Pop (who we actually still do call Popsy) will start primary school; T will be in her final year; for one year, and one year only, all of our children will be at the same school. For many years, we’ve joked that this will be the glory year, the pinnacle of life as a young family. And now, here it is, just around the corner — and though that’s not the same as ‘everyone gone’ it’s still an ending, a moving on, a symbolic threshold in our life as a family.

I lay, cradled by the heat, legs free from the sheet, the windows open and cooler air washing through the room, on the cusp of sleep. In that strange half-dream from which it’s possible to trip and stumble, to jerk awake again and again as you fall. I thought of waiting for Pops to come out of the reception classroom — how I will have to wait alone, without the comfort of a small hand in mine, without the alibi of scanning the playground for a younger child. I’m too shy to wait alone, I thought. And, who am I? Who am I? Who am I?

*

This morning, summer solstice, I ran early but not as early as I’d meant to. The sun was already high; the air heating up again. I listened to another New Yorker podcast, Anne Enright reading her story Solstice’, which started with a man driving home to his family on the shortest day of the year:

He wants to tell her how he sat in the car, outside his own house, thinking, Whatever happens when I walk in the door, that’s the thing. When I walk in the door, I will find it. The answer or the question, one or the other. It will be there.

And what did he find? These people. This.

‘Nothing ever seems as scary as it did in the middle of the night,’ Hunt says about her story. The sky is blue. The air is warm. The children are sleeping in their beds and here I run. When I get home, when I walk through the door, there they’ll be, eating breakfast. The answer and the question both.

Gone camping

cow parsley | edge of eveningcow parsley | edge of evening

It sometimes seems to me an enormous act of hubris, the planning we do for the coming year in those short December days after Christmas. But plan we do. Sitting on either end of the sofa, sipping coffee. Alone with a notebook. We talk of holidays and milestones; dreams and desires; the simple things that we would like more or less of in the months to come. They’re not usually grand plans. Some new meals in the rotation; early nights in January; a plan to spend more evenings reading or playing the guitar. Yet, still, I wonder if the Gods are watching. The small but persistant thought: just let us all still be here this time next year. That is the baseline, the everything, the true extent of my ambition.

This year, we did make bigger plans. Shifts in the balance of our days; a move towards a more equal share in the work of home and the work of the world. And then we backed away from those plans, postponing but not abandoning, in favour of a big trip in the summer, a steady-state solution to the question of earning and caring.

But now, life has once again slipped free of our plans. Things have changed, and B is, for at least the next few months, free from commuting, free from work. And I, in turn, am free from being the only parent at home between a little after 6 in the morning and a little before 8 at night.

It’s reassuring to see how the little ones just take it all in their stride. Okay, daddy’s in charge this morning. No real questions asked. T, now 10, can remember a time when her days were shared between us, but neither of the boys can. For them it’s amusing to find out that someone doesn’t know exactly what we take with us to swimming, or the route to band, or who has what in their lunchtime wraps (this the most complicated by a mile!).

For us, there’s a strange exhaustion, like we’ve been climbing higher and higher up some invisible mountain and can only now see how just how far from the ground we are. We don’t live near family, and so even the relief of knowing that if I’m ill there’s someone else here is huge. Late night pick-ups don’t require me to drag the boys along. I can leave the house alone, or stay in it without thinking of school pick-up. Heady stuff.

This morning it was raining too much to run so I went to the pool at the end of our road and swam lengths for twenty minutes, returning home before 8 to the sight of breakfast already being eaten. So simply, but a freedom beyond imagining a couple of weeks ago.

elderflower blossom | edge of eveningcamping | edge of evening

Last week, for half term, we took our new found freedom and our pre-kids tiny tent on the road to the green hills of Gloucestershire. Our pitch was in an elderflower orchard, the scent of the blossom deep and spicy. At night we cooked on a fire, then as the light faded (10 — so late!) we lay down, head to toe, and waited for the giggles to subside, and for whoever was complaining of their neighbour’s elbow or knee in their back to get over it, & let sleep take us until we were woken by an owl or the dawn. (This was our campsite — highly recommended.)

During the days, we visited Newark House and Chedworth Roman Villa, Stroud and Cirencester. On our last day we drove to my mum’s, stopping at Hidcote to picnic in the light rain. And now there are seven weeks until the end of term. Seven last weeks of pre-school. Concerts & sports days. Residential trips & ballet shows. All with the advantage of two parents to share the watching & the waiting; the joys & the tears.

******

This is from Tuesday. Since then, many election/life related sleepless nights. Maybe we should have stayed in our blissful orchard.

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Of Woman Born

Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich | edge of evening

I don’t know why I thought I could get away without reading Of Woman Born. Its canonical status felt off-putting; its age (it was first published in 1976) surely meant it would be dated, unnecessary. But still, it was always there. It was reading, and loving, Rachel Zucker’s Mothers, itself interspersed with quotes from Rich’s classic, that finally pushed me to read it.

And, of course, I was wrong. Reading Of Woman Born, during long February evenings on the sofa as B played acoustic guitar beside me, I felt it cracking open the very ground I find myself standing on. As Rich writes in her 1986 introduction,

“Some ideas are not really new but keep having to be affirmed from the ground up, over and over. One of these is the apparently simple idea that women are as intrinsically human as men, that neither women nor men are merely the enlargement of a contact sheet of genetic encoding, biological givens. Experience shapes us, randomness shapes us, the stars and weather, our own accommodations and rebellions, above all, the social order around us.”Ten Years Later: A New Introduction, Of Woman Born, Rich (1986)

Rich works to separate mothering as experience (open in theory to both women and men, whether biological parents or not) from motherhood as patriarchial institution. In a beautiful short essay on Of Woman Born, Miranda Field writes,

Of Woman Born intends to liberate. To make us see how much of what goes unquestioned outside of feminist thinking—considered “part of our nature,” “our natural position”—is actually engineered. Rich wants us to know that there’s a long, continuous umbilical connection between the societies we live in, our personal lives and our art. It might strangle or anchor. It’s wise to be aware of its phenomenal tensile strength, or at the very least, of the slippery fact of its existence.Going for Motherlode: On Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, Miranda Field

It’s the way in which Rich approaches this work — her “odd-fangled” approach (her term in the 1986 introduction) — mixing personal history with research, and developing a theory from both, that I loved. I had expected something drier, a more academic approach (a masculine approach?), but instead I found a real life, messy and personal, riddled with contradiction; unique and yet transcendent. Rich writes,

I believe increasingly that only the willingness to share private and sometimes painful experience can enable women to create a collective description of the world which will be truly ours. Of Woman Born (1986), p15

Yes. The conversations in the playground, or here on the internet. The spaces on social media where I watch people affirm one another’s experience of mothering. Where I see, and felt seen. And this integration of the personal brings, what for me, were some of the book’s most vivid, beautiful and lyrical moments, suggesting other ways, different paths, a life being lived. Remembering a summer when her husband was abroad and she and her three boys, then nine, seven and five years old, were living alone in a friend’s house in Vermont, Rich writes,

I watched their slender little-boys’ bodies grow brown, we washed in water warm from the garden hose lying in the sun, we lived like castaways on some island of mothers and children. At night they fell asleep without murmur and I stayed up reading and writing as I had when a student, till the early morning hours. I remember thinking: This is what living with children could be — without school hours, fixed routines, naps, the conflict of being both mother and wife with no room for being simply, myself. Driving home once, after midnight, from a late drive-in movie, through the foxfire and stillness of a winding Vermont road, with three sleeping children in the back of the car, I felt wide awake, elated; we had broken together all the rules of bedtime, the night rules, rules I myself thought I had to observe in the city or become a “bad mother.” We were conspirators, outlaws from the institution of motherhood; I felt enormously in charge of my life. Of Woman Born (1986), p194

(Rachael Nevins, taking her cue from this passage, writes wonderfully about what it might mean to self-identify as an ‘outlaw’ mother, rather than a ‘bad’ one.)

There is something else of the 1986 edition that appealed to me beyond measure: where Rich disagrees with her decade-younger-self, she doesn’t amend her original text, but instead, in a footnote, disagrees with or questions her earlier thinking. The grace of changing one’s mind, knowing that knowledge is evolving not fixed, and having the courage to leave one’s tracks as a path for others.

Rich’s chapter on mothers and daughters takes up the idea of matriphobia — “the fear not of one’s mother or of motherhood but of becoming one’s mother” — which took me back to thinking about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (truthfully, I’m never that far from thinking of Ferrante) and Lenù’s troubled relationship with her mother. Rich writes,

Matrophobia can be seen as a womanly splitting of the self, in the desire to become purged once and for all of our mothers’ bondage, to become individuated and free. The mother stands for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr. Our personalities seem dangerously to blur and overlap with our mothers; and, in a desperate attempt to know where mother ends and daughter begins we perform radical surgery. Of Woman Born (1986), p236

I’m still thinking about this, but following this thread is yet another reason I want to return to the Neapolitan quartet.

Reading Of Woman Born — reading the actual text, rather than reading about it — felt such an important rite of passage, and one that I should have tackled far sooner. (Though it seems almost no coincidence that I got to it as I emerged from a decade of mothering small people — my oldest child nearly ten and my youngest, at four, finally leaving those years of sleeplessness and constant demand. Which is to say that, for me at least, mothering very small people has been incompatible with reading the classics of feminist mothering.) I felt enormous despair that a forty year old book should be so relevant; but I also felt the distance that has been travelled, and a deep, deep gratitude that it was written.

Mostly my thoughts were urgent, personal. Rich seemed to be speaking directly to me. I’ll leave you with the passage that broke me, standing here at the cross-roads of oh, this is what I’ve ‘chosen’ and now what? The underlining is mine.

The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities. For a mother […] [i]t means that the mother herself is trying to expand the limits of her life. To refuse to be a victim: and then to go on from there.

Only when we can wish imaginatively and courageously for ourselves can we wish unfetteredly for our daughters. […]

As daughters we need mothers who want their own freedom and ours. We need not to be the vessels of another woman’s self-denial and frustration. The quality of the mother’s life — however embattled and unprotected — is her primary bequest to her daughter, because a woman who can believe in herself, who is a fighter, and who continues to struggle to create livable space around her, is demonstrating to her daughter that these possibilities exist.Of Woman Born (1986), p246-247

Postcard from last week: the weeks/the years

I think that the weeks are rolling by. Then I start to think that the months are rolling by.

The weather is cold, mostly grey, and it’s hard to reconcile with the fact that it’s May. There are still flowers on the magnolia, hiding behind the soft flush of new leaves. The wisteria, which we planted last spring, unfurled leaves of copper-tinted green which were all frazzled in the heavy frost last week. The budding leaves of the hibiscus too are curled with frost damage. The lawn, each year narrower than the year before, has been bolstered by new turf along one edge. The other side is patiently waiting its turn. The new grass is growing thick and lush, several shades darker than the rest of the lawn.

We went to France for Easter. Early one morning, I climbed out of the bedroom window & down the stone steps to the garden to go for a run. As I left the thick walls of the house my emails came through and I found myself looking at the Pip-Pop’s school acceptance. In September we will have three children at school. And, for a year, they will all be at the same school. A time of endings; a time of new possibilities. I exist–wave/particle–in an unresolvable combination of sadness & possibility.

(Both times I ran when we were in France I saw a hare at the same turn in the road.)

WordPress congratulates me on ten years of blogging. Though this isn’t strictly true (there’s a five year gap between one post and the next), I still remember setting up my blog in the days of maternity leave just before T was born. I remember thinking that a year’s maternity leave would be an ideal time to write (to which I now, of course, think, ha!).

Because she was eleven days late, I spend a long time each year thinking of those days just before she was born, just before we became parents. I think now of how very young we were. Of how the more days that went by, the less likely it seemed that we were having a baby at all. I remember B sanding the floor of the room that would one day be her’s (–though we didn’t set up a nursery because, in a two bedroom flat, it was a room that we wanted to be ours for as long as possible). There’s a photo of me from those days of waiting. Sitting alone on the sofa, huge, smiling, knitting on my lap. The blanket I was knitting is still on the needles ten years later.

draft folder

magnolia stellata | edge of eveningmagnolia stellata | edge of eveningmagnolia stellata | edge of evening

September 2016

The idea is that by right living I might come to right feeling. Therefore: run three times a week even in the freezing cold, go to sleep by 10PM, write 500 words of prose a day six days a week, eat well, listen when the children are speaking, have sex with husband, etc.Mothers by Rachel Zucker

November 2016

Hi. I feel shy. I just forgot my wordpress password, moments after my fingers hesitated over typing edgeofevening. I do think of you. Often actually, especially when I’m cooking & so writing anything down is especially inconvenient. I compose whole blog posts in my head. An alternative way of looking at this is that often, when I’m cooking, I talk to myself in blog posts. Anyway. Here we are: Thursday night & it’s already getting late & everything I wanted to say has vanished.

This morning there was a frost & the rose leaves were edged in white, the last buds still closed. Today, Pops & I have written the invitations to his fourth birthday party. Big(ger) children have worked hard on decorating strips of paper which will one day be fashioned into paper chains for Christmas (!!). We had our Thursday evening ‘family meal’. I thought of Kerry as I always do when I make Anna Jones’s lentil ragù, heeding Kerry’s hard-won advice that an oven glove is necessary for the successful pouring of half an empty tomato tin of boiling water.

*

I’ve been having a problem with narrative. A few weeks ago, I picked up Lauren Groff’s acclaimed novel Fates and Furies at the library. I enjoyed the first couple of chapters, but then I just couldn’t go on. The narrative had moved back to the childhood of one of the main characters & my interest was waning. I reread Kerry’s review. I read James Wood’s damning (and plot revealing) review. Then I spent half an hour skipping around, missing whole chunks of the hefty book, finding the pieces that I wanted to read. The end still moved me, but the idea of spending a week or two of my reading life within its pages wasn’t appealing.

The novels I’ve enjoyed the most this year have either dispensed with plot — Ben Lerner’s 10.04, Renata Adler’s Speedboat — or skipped through time, like In Certain Circles, or, like Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Child, been restricted to a time frame of a few days. I’ve become annoyed with books that are long seemingly just for the sake of being long.

March 2017

Like Zucker, I hope to come to right-feeling by right-living. February was lived right: a routine that I stuck to, time that I zealously guarded as my own, pages of handwritten notes that quickly filled notebooks. I find February easy. It’s short, the year is still young. Everything is still possible. This is never how I feel about March.

But here it is anyway, waving daffodils and fat waxy magnolia buds at me. When the sun shines it’s hard not to be seduced. A friend is picking Popsy up from pre-school today. When I got back from drop-off at 10.10, I had a whole five hours to myself. I discovered cat shit on the kitchen floor, changed the litter, took the bins round from the back to the front for tomorrow’s collection, made coffee. Still four & a half hours. I wrote, I ran, I showered, I ate lunch. I visited you, dear old blog. And look, still half an hour to go. The smell of spring in the air. Fingers moving lightly over the keys.

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The Pumpkin Eater

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer | edge of evening

A womb isn’t all that important. It’s only the seat of life, something that drags the moon down from the sky like a kite and draws the sea in and out, in and out, the world’s breathing. At school the word ‘womb’ used to make them snigger. Women aren’t important.The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

I‘ve been doing a lot of rereading these past few weeks. Looking back at books I’ve loved & trying to  see them afresh, wondering always how they cast their magic. But one new-to-me book I have read is Penelope Mortimer’s slim 1962 novel, The Pumpkin Eater, now reissued as both a NYRB Classic and a Penguin Classic.

It’s the semi-autobiographical story of a woman married to her fourth husband, an up and coming screenwriter (based on the author’s husband, John Mortimer) and the consequences of his infidelities and her focus on their home and many, many children. The writing is so fresh — funny and moving by turns — with wonderful dialogue and a great deal of space between what is said and what is left for the reader to infer. She’s also wonderful at getting children onto the page in all their living, breathing, infuriatingness (Penelope Mortimer herself was a mother of six), reminding me of the brilliance of Penelope Fitzgerald’s young characters.

Mortimer mangages her brilliant and visceral autopsy of a modern marriage in a little under 160 pages, and it made me incredibly sad to think how little remembered she is compared to her former husband. I’ll definitely be seeking out her other novels, but I think they’ll have a hard job to displace this one from my heart.

You can read more about Penelope Mortimer and her novels here.

******

And with thanks to Kerry, who sent me in PM’s direction.

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Do you change it? Do you leave it the same?

swans, 22 December | edge of eveningjuvenile swan, 21 January | edge of evening

Top photo: December 22, 2016; Bottom photo: January 21, 2017

 

                      Do you change it? Do you

Leave it the same?

from ‘Mind Core’ by Juan Felipe Herrera

 

I went running last Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t go in the morning, as I have been recently, because of an ill child and because we needed to eat lunch at 11.30 to get another child to her extra ballet practice. It was because of the ill child and the ballet child that I didn’t march, a trip to London being just too awkward to fit in. I thought that I was okay with that, but as the day progressed — coughing child, breakfast, supermarket, lunch, hour-long wait in the car for ballet child — I felt less and less okay about it, until I felt very un-okay in a frustrated and angry kind of way. Which is where the run came into things.

Chunks of thick broken ice on the boardwalk. Silvered grasses. Pied wagtail. Robin fluttering just ahead of me. 

I listened to Michael Silverblatt interviewing Ottessa Moshfegh as I ran (recommended) and then started Rachel Zucker’s interview with Bernadette Mayer before realising that I was so cold that it was time to head home. This week I’ve started reading Mayer’s book length poem, Midwinter Day which fits into the gaps in my day, as I wait for a kettle to boil, or a child to get ready. “I want poetry that contains everything,” I wrote on Instagram & this book is certainly one answer to that desire. My recent morning reading, Solmaz Sharif’s lucid, beautiful, mindfucking, heartbreaking Lookand Kaveh Akbar’s miraculous Portrait of the Alcoholic  are other answers, other consolations, other reminders of what wouldn’t be if one man’s vision of America is allowed to prevail.

Last Saturday, as I rounded the top of the nature reserve, I saw the juvenile swan I’ve been watching all summer alone for the first time. His parents, usually fiercely protective, seem to have decided it’s time. There was something both moving & comforting in even this. Now, as the news seems worse and worse each day, it’s hard to believe that all this was only a week ago.

Is reading poetry, writing poetry any kind of defence? The lines from US poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera I quote at the top have stayed with me all week, though my real questions are how do you change it? how can you leave it the same? This brief interview with Herrera, from 2015, consoles me and commits me to reading more poetry that changes me, cracks me open, reveals me to myself as I gain an brief insight into someone else’s truth. To see and be seen, I keep thinking. That would be a start.

“Poetry is one of the largest, most beautiful, most intimate and most effective ways of participating” in public life, he said.

This political potential of poetry isn’t something that’s obvious to everyone, but it is to Herrera himself. “Poetry, as odd as it is, and as hard to figure out as it is, many times, it’s almost something that we’re used to,” Herrera said. “It’s kind of like a dream language that we had centuries ago, so that when we speak poetically, or write a poem about what’s going on, a real difficult issue that’s facing our communities, people listen.” It carries a power that pamphlets and reports cannot, he says.

It’s not that he expects a poem to transform all of society in one sweeping movement. But, “the justice and change probably [comes] in those five seconds where the person gained an insight.”interview with Juan Felipe Herrera, The Guardian, June 2015

The female body: Eileen & Hot Milk

Hot Milk & Eileen | edge of evening

It’s up to you to break the old circuits.Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, epigraph to ‘Hot Milk’ by Deborah Levy

So often with reading, it’s all about the connections. The secret conversations between one book and the next. And, blue covers & Booker shortlist connection aside, the two books I ended last year with had a lot to talk to one another about. Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen and Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk could stay up all night talking about mothers (alive and dead), fathers (alcoholic and abandoning), alienation, boldness, sexuality, and the female body. They’re also both compulsively readable novels.

I came to Ottessa Moshfegh through her short stories which are fearless and physical and altogether unlike anything else. I highly recommend ‘Bettering Myself’ in the Paris Review (subscription or free trial needed to read the whole story). Eileen is set over a few days before Christmas in 1964 and narrated by a much older Eileen looking back on her twenty-four year old self and what turned out to be her last few days in X-ville, the town where she grew up and lives with her alcoholic father.

So here we are. My name was Eileen Dunlop. Now you know me. I was twenty-four years old then, and had a job that paid fifty-seven dollars a week as a kind of secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. I think of it now as what it really was for all intents and purposes — a prison for boys. I will call it Moorehead. Delvin Moorehead was a terrible landlord I had years later, and so to use his name for such a place feels appropriate. In a week, I would run away from home and never go back.

This is the story of how I disappeared. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

So much of the book’s appeal lies in its atmosphere — Moshfegh’s ability to pull you fast & deep into Eileen’s constricted and squalid world. Eileen’s hatred of her own body and fear of her sexuality runs right through the novel. It’s interesting to see the book reviewed as a thriller in various places, which ties in with Moshfegh’s stated intention to write something that would get the attention of mainstream publishing houses (“it started out as a fuck-you joke, also I’m broke, also I want to be famous. It was that kind of a gesture.“). Read as a thriller, I can see its flaws, but read as a novel about escape and becoming and selfhood, it’s thrilling.

I also read some of Deborah Levy’s short stories last year, enjoyed her previous novel, Swimming Home, and have written before about my love of her essay Things I Don’t Want to Know. Hot Milk is dreamlike, mythic, unsettling. Levy’s novel dispenses with many of the niceties that make fiction seem ‘realistic’. Things happen in a way that reminds me of reading Iris Murdoch: veracity is achieved without too much concern for believability.

Twenty-five year old Sofia has accompanied her mother, Rose, to the Spanish coast to consult Dr Gómez, their last hope in understanding why Rose can sometimes walk and sometimes not. Rose’s incapacity has trapped Sofia on the brink of adulthood & the journey brings with it questions of sexuality, illness and the extent to which we are bound to the body of the mother. It’s a coming-of-age novel with a difference, as Sofia realises the extent to which she is stuck and, following the advice of Gomez, attempts to become bolder.

Yes, some things are getting bigger, other things are getting smaller. Love is getting bigger and more dangerous. Technology is getting smaller, the human body is getting bigger, my low-rise jeans are cutting into my hips which are round and brown and toned from a month of swimming every day but I am still spilling over the waistband of these jeans not made for hips. I am overflowing like coffee leaking from a paper cup. I wonder, shall I make myself smaller? Do I have enough space on Earth to make myself less?

I was flesh thirst desire dust blood lips cracking feet blistered knees skinned hips bruised, but I was so happy not to be napping on a sofa under a blanket with an older man by my side and a baby on my lap. 

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Lisa Appignanesi invokes a comparison with Elena Ferrante which I think is fitting: “Only Elena Ferrante writes of the seepages of illness and woman’s identity in the family with equal insight. But Levy’s prose is gleeful and punctuated by a scabrous wit.” I loved Hot Milk — its inscrutability, its mysteries, its refusal to allow anything to settle into simple understanding.

And reading an interview with Levy, I’m so excited about what she’s working on next:

Levy is now working on a sequel to Things I Don’t Want to Know, called The Cost of Living. “I’m going to talk about the making of home,” she says. “Women put so much of their energy into creating a home: it’s something I respect deeply; I’ve made a few myself. But there comes a stage, it seems to me, where women don’t feel at home in their home; the very place they’ve created is the place they want to leave. That interests me.” Identity, exile and dislocation again: in a literary sense, at least, Levy has found her home, and leaving doesn’t appear to be an option.interview with Deborah Levy

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There’s something off in my timing. Things here now lag several weeks (months?) behind my actual reading. I confuse myself about what I’ve said here & what I’ve said on Instagram. My digital lives seem to run in a time independent of me. Anyway, Shari kindly asked me what my favourite reads of last year were & in fiction I came up with these two plus Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, Han Kang’s Human Acts & The Iceberg by Marion Coutts for a top five, feeling very bad about leaving out Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce. How about you?

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Begin again

Begin Again | edge of evening

light on beads | edge of eveninglight on beads | edge of evening

And so, again we start at the beginning. Maybe we even start a little way back, looking for the point where we lost ourselves in the pre-Christmas rush. Trying to pick up the threads of what we were thinking, what we were doing, where we were heading. Each time I resolve to hold tighter to that thread, but I think now that losing it — or at least setting it aside for a time — is all part of these years with young children. The trick might be to put it somewhere you will remember it; to pick it up again as soon as you can.

So here’s what I’m doing:

Waking early again to read in the still-dark house. (Solmaz Sharif’s stunning collection , Look, is making it so that I practically leap out of bed.)

Noticing. Linda Gregg’s essay The Art of Finding is the thing I always come back to when I feel I’ve stopped seeing & so I’m doing my six things religiously. (“I have my students keep a journal in which they must write, very briefly, six things they have seen each day—not beautiful or remarkable things, just things. This seemingly simple task usually is hard for them.”)

Reading more, reading less. I want to find the time to read more non-fiction this year, which means reading earlier than bedtime if I want to remember what I’ve read the next day. We’ve juggled things around so that our two ‘study’ nights a week are now supplemented by two reading (me)/guitar playing (B) nights a week. They’re companiable & calming as we each sit at our own end of the sofa under a shared blanket. I’ve started with Of Woman Born, underlining frantically and wondering why I’d left it so long. I’d expected something drier, more academic, but Rich disrupts the text with her own raw experience of trying to hold onto that thread.

I admit it, I’m a lover of January. The year is open, everything possible. The house, stripped of its Christmas clutter & many of its small inhabitants, is spare and simple. The winter light slants through the windows, pink in the morning, golden in the hour before dusk. But I’m not a lover of February and certainly not of March. I know that I need to find my way again quickly, before the crisp newness of the year wears off. Then I guess it’s just a matter of not stopping.

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Over on Instagram, I’m continuing to read a short story a day for January. Endings are so hard! (A friend asked me if there are enough short stories to read one a day for a year — just as I was thinking that a year of reading had only touched the surface.) I’m also going to try harder to share some of the best here.

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Four

Wildeve in frost | edge of evening
I sometimes find myself thinking the strangest things. One of these thoughts, which occurs somewhere towards the end of every school term is, it’s always some time of the year. It sounds like a complaint, and in some ways it is, but I take comfort from it. It’s true, if it’s not nearly the summer holidays, then it’s Harvest Festival, or Easter, or someone’s birthday, or it’s Christmas. And though each of these things means that cakes have to be baked or presents wrapped or costumes acquired or fashioned, they’re also the rhythm to our year, the seasonal beat to our children’s childhoods.

I just looked back at this time last year. Once again, it’s the school Christmas Fair tomorrow. We celebrated the Pip-Pop turning four last weekend. Earlier in the week one of his pre-school teachers heard me calling him Mops (Popsy/Pops/Mops — all still in use) & laughed. And I thought, oh, yes, he’s C to you. He sat down at the table earlier in the week and declared that he was going to write his Christmas cards now, and he did. Since nobody’s taught him to write, there were no finger spaces, and there was lots of, what letter next? but it was pretty impressive. Having had a child with no interest in drawing or writing between T and the Pip-Pop, it’s really funny to again have one who just naturally assumes that he can do this stuff.

His party was the absolute best. Three friends, all the games, pizza for lunch with a fairy cake for dessert & a slice of the birthday cake (the honey cake from Tessa Kiros’s  Apples for Jam) and a balloon to take home. T had wrapped the pass-the-parcel. B led the games. So all I had to do was sit & drink coffee with my friends & watch. Somehow, in less than a decade of parenting, this was our 19th little one birthday celebration, and I think the experience showed.

The Moose had his nativity earlier in the week & made a very convincing line dancer (!!). Heart-breakingly sweet. T has her Christmas service next week. After the indignity of being donkey number 3 last year, she’s again the younger year in the service & so relegated to just singing and dancing. A show in which she doesn’t have a chance to speak goes against everything she holds dear, so I’m hoping that next year’s part (her final year of primary school!) will satisfy her. She was much happier with the wind band concert last week, in which ‘Frosty the Snowman’ was the crowning glory.

We’ll be spending Christmas at home & then going up to my mum’s for a few days on Boxing Day, partly to see my beautiful new niece & her parents, who’ve had a pretty rough first couple of weeks together. I can’t wait to be with them. B has plenty of time off work, we’re stocked up on Christmas movies, the shopping is so very almost done, and I’m really looking forward to the holidays. Before then, I’ll pop back with a final few book recommendations of the year! Hope the holidaying where you are is going well.

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