WordshoreWriting in the long form
The ISS appeared again this evening. No longer smothered by the glow of city lights, I watched it from the countryside as it rose and soared, bright and clear, floating silently, constantly, almost overhead. This sight will never pale; in a world that seems relentlessly broken it’s a reminder that, occasionally, our flawed species can produce something great.
And make the International Space Station we did; centuries of science culminating in an almost impossible craft. 240 feet long, 990,000 pounds in weight, 260 miles up and orbiting our little rock every 93 minutes. A solar-powered home to six of our kind, traveling at over 17,000 miles an hour. And if you watch it quietly pass overhead, who knows; one of those six crew might, at that moment, be looking down to where you are.
If you want to see it, use a site such as “Heavens Above” to work out when. Enter your observing location (you don’t need to login); check the 10 day predictions for the ISS. The more negative the brightness figure (magnitude), the better; a number lower than -3 in particular makes for a brilliant view.
Note the times and the directions to look (usually the ISS passes west-ish to east-ish). Pick somewhere away from lights, and things that may block the view. Wait for the object that seems to be an aircraft, that gets gradually brighter but never blinks, that moves silently.
And look. Because we made that.
You remember the sunrises and the sunsets, and in between the diners, the customers, the food, the coffee refills, the waitresses, the way the cutlery was arranged, the condiments, the font and laminate of the menu, the anticipation. The person opposite you, your reflection in their glasses and in their eyes. You see yourself, and you always look different to the person you think you were.
You watch the confidence and immortality of youth, the middle life struggle of definition, the eventual acceptance of the lot, the scars accumulated by death and grief on those who witness. All of us, we all collect them. You see the comfort in small things, small gestures, small words. New meaning. Different lives. Different futures, now.
You drift, and pause, and move, from room to room. And watch people play, the act of life, and party, and connect, and love, and break themselves and each other, then leave. The talk and the laughter and the tears and the silence. And remember those times, and record in head and on paper, in prose, in image, in poetic line, explicit in fact, or implicit and buried amongst fiction.
But, recognizable. Always, recognizable.
And you eventually write all of these things and times in the long form, and save and backup and edit and tweet and blog and story and book and publish. The thoughts and memories and emotions constantly work to find the weakest point in you, of you, out of you; punch a wound and escape, spew and gush as words, snake venom sucked from a wound, toxins expelled. A day, a month, a decade later. But always, at some time later. You erupt and empty, feel weaker but feel relieved, lighter, content.
It isn’t a calling, a hobby or a lifestyle or frivolity. Dear God, no. It’s a pressure reduced, an exorcism and a confessional, a dam bursting, a burden of witness to humanity shared, a bloodletting with pens and keyboards over leeches, a trepanning of your soul.
Death, like its opposing force of love, comes in many forms and shades.
The physical, or cognitive, death of a relative, a partner, a friend or work colleague. Someone you knew; past tense, now. A pet, often as loved – if not more – than friends or relatives; a love strengthened through loyalty, no longer reciprocated.
The silence; the almost unbearable silence.
The death of a dream, an idea or a hope or a glimpsed future. Through redundancy, a relationship ending, bad news from the doctor, a permanent setback of some other kind. The death of carefree wonder, as we age and unpeel the stickers covering the truths of adult life and discover that, apart from sex and travel, the innocence of childhood was probably better after all. The death of the ability to write with clarity, or recite from memories.
The death of being able to communicate as the body fails, of being able to talk, or write, or remember.
And those small and transient micro-deaths; the vacation cancelled because of a sickness; the cake we had been saving as a treat, eaten by another; the anticipation of a TV show, killed by a social media spoiler. Death, and love, reminding us of their presence and power over us, daily.
It’s a little over five years since my mom died, in unpleasant circumstances following a long and destructive condition that is under-reported. (But, then again, us repressed English don’t really “do” death.) Bad enough. Around that time, and during the cremation, and afterwards, a few people severely, and disrespectfully (mis)behaved, solely in the pursuit of money. I wish karma on them, and at the least it’ll be something to write about in detail in some future year. In ink on paper, and text on screen, their shame will also be on those who looked the other way.
But, this is the first year since my mom’s death that I have not dreaded, nor quietly resented, Mother’s Day. I’m guessing this is good; acceptance, progress, a duller sharpness than before. The environment is noticeably varied in bright and deep color, not the greys and blacks of before. Notching down the reading of social media helped, this year. As does time. That’s the truism about death:
Things do, eventually, get better – though they’re never the same again.
Introspectively and perhaps selfishly, I don’t fear my own death. Used to, but not now, and I regret the time spent, wasted, dawdling on it. Regrets are, in themselves, an annoying kind of meta-death, where we kill time we cannot replace by wishing things that cannot be repeated had not happened. If that makes sense. But having brushes with mortality on a few occasions over the last decade, from the serious to the ridiculous (getting hit by buses for two years in a row) and watching relatives, friends, school friends especially (those of the same age), pets and others die with a regular or increasing frequency over the last half decade, it becomes a strange, ever-present, background thing, with rites and rituals, and patterns of behavior amongst those left alive. Or left behind. Whichever you prefer.
But I do fear the death, or mortality, of a loved one, or being in permanent pain, or the cruelness of a degenerative cognitive condition corroding the memory or means to communicate; deaths of different kinds. These are sharp fears, the kind that lie in your pillow at 3am and whisper to you when you just want to sleep.
And I do fear, or at the least am aware and wary of, the death of useful but unfulfilled days. The quietest, and perhaps the most insidious, death of all. Through fears, or circumstance, or the mind being in the wrong place, not reaching the potential of a day, week or month. A time where less was achieved than could, or should, have been. A time that is, has, gone. Dead time, now.
Perhaps that’s too morbid. Like many people, I still have the cliched “lot of living” to do. A heck of a lot to write; it feels like this is just starting, middle-aged though I am. An awesome partner to love and support, as she has loved and supported me. A close group of great friends to have good times with. Northern lights to see, fireflies to hold, cats to stroke and cheeses (in moderation) to sample, both raw and deep fried (seriously in moderation).
I am the product and the legacy of my parents, Jill and William. They lived, and loved, and died. Too early, and with unfulfilled potential. So fulfilling my own potential, whatever the heck that is, seems as good a nod of acknowledgement to them as can be done.
Better get on it, then. And if – or when – the Grim Reaper unexpectedly appears one night for myself; that’s okay. Just, not for a long time yet, thanks.
It’s early February.
I wake up in a different place, these days. South Birmingham, as opposed to the tiny part of Balsall Heath that became a base for a gradually lengthening period of time, as months collapsed into seasons, gave way to years.
It’s quiet here. My room looks out onto the bowling alley shaped back garden attached to terraced houses such as these. From the wobbly window there are views of many other gardens; trees; no roads; houses of differing interest; sheds; the occasional distant sounds of gleeful rabbit enthusiasts; an upper working class suburbia that the English made, tinker with, and continue to cling to.
This house itself is … unconventional. There are trapdoors, hidden cupboards, windows in peculiar places, and an unusually large bathroom that can only have been designed by a retired, sex-addicted pirate. It’s somewhat different, floating in a bathtub and surrounded by pebbles and candles and dimmed lighting, with eyes wandering across paintings of Naiads in various stages of undress and amorous desire. This is not Birmingham. Not staid suburban stereotypical Birmingham, or minimalist, cheap and functional Ikea-England, but something else. You suspect, or hope, that this bathroom has previously been enjoyed for salacious purposes involving many people at the same time, and if you found out it wasn’t, then you’d be disappointed.
That long and narrow garden invites exploration. It’s not eternally, horseback ridingly long, but just lengthy enough to get a small fragment of a sense of wilderness, albeit only three miles from the centre of England’s second city. Three cats patrol this hidden country; none live in the house. There are trees, a variety of trees, blossom starting to push outwards on one, but maddeningly no fruit trees. I stare with some envy, and more than a little disgust, at the splendid apple tree in the neighbour’s garden, where a full crop of hundreds of apples lies on the ground; unused, uncollected, uncherished, uneaten, rotting, a banquet for crows and squirrels but not for the ignorant people who shout and slam their way in and out of their house. I look back, to here, this place, follow the converging parallel lines to the end fence. A shed, a gate under an arch of ivy, a pathway, seats and benches, stepping places fashioned from tree stumps and placed in a pool of mud, a second garden with a second shed, a secluded area with signs of previous things created, things burnt, memories forged.
And things burnt inside the house. A fireplace that functions; metal, tile, grate, a clear chimney. Joy, and the recall and reminder of years and lives past, of peat fires in a Hebridean cottage for half of one decade, and coal fires in a rural Worcestershire cottage for two. A few memories amongst the many that this place, and the time it occupies, stirs. This fireplace has become my domain (perhaps a good thing, as the kitchen bemuses and baffles me); experimentation with wood and log and smokeless coal (hot, but aesthetically dull) and other inflammable materials. The flames and the colors and the glows and the embers to stare at, in late evenings, and remember some things and forget other things.
There are other aspects of this house and quirks within. The set-up for working is the best I’ve had since Hebridean years; an antique writing desk that perfectly suits the MacBook. There’s a downstairs toilet with a transparent glass door. The built-in bookcase occupies a corridor. Paintings of a paganistic and fantastical nature jostle with candlestick holders. So many different wooden surfaces, furniture, with grain and color and texture to distract and follow, and tactile hardwood floorboards that invite barefoot walking when the fire is lit. A quiet place, illuminated sometimes by just the light and crackle of fire flame and candle flame. And in the daytime, the sunlight. The way it creeps and peeps through the gaps between the wooden slats over my window. The red and the green and the blue beamed through the stained glass windows. The dust and soot and particles caught, embarrassed, when clouds scatter and that sunlight pours through the kitchen windows.
And this house is quiet because of the people within. My housemate, her wont to never stray too far from the jar of tea bags, is one of the loveliest people you could ever meet. She busies with her work while I frown at mine, interrupting myself occasionally to poke at an unburnt log or lump of glowing eco-coal while I listen for the inevitable sound of a kettle. She counters the aesthetic background of Boards of Canada by cheerfully humming Rolling Stones tracks from a different time, in a different room. This works, and this place works.
But in three weeks, I have had a grand total of zero visitors. That suits me fine, having quietly “unfollowed” 72 out of the 81 Birmingham residents I’d ended up connected to on “social media”, ignored all local social events, and stopped answering emails and messages from many of those people. Transition through shades of isolation. Though, having said that, it seems almost comically ridiculous and shallow, when looking into the flames of the fire that has warmed my (and your) species for millennia, to give gravitas to the oft-fleeting nature of “online connections”. Whatever the heck they are.
And while not a complete hermit – I’m back up to following 11 Brummies, albeit four (and soon five) of them related – the slightly-trimmed beard and the long, occasionally ponytailed and greying hair are perhaps appropriate for the demeanor of a person who both wants and needs this silent time to finish considering what else and who else to leave behind; and to sorting out his head, his possessions, his gradually repairing body and the next “stage of life”, whatever the heck that is, as best he can.
It’s early February, 2014. It’s spring time. This, for a short while, is a quiet place and it is my place.
No longer a Moselele virgin, tonight was my first time, this evening just past, at one of their concerts. This is an informal collective of ukelele players, most of whom live in South Birmingham and are well-connected – it often seems that everyone who lives in the Brummie Hipster Arc (Balsall Heath, through Moseley, Kings Heath and finally Stirchley) knows a Moselele member or two.
So tonight we had most of the members, around thirty Christmas songs, and several hundred people jammed inside a marquee at the Prince of Wales pub. With the rain lashing down outside, much singing did occur. These aren’t the greatest visual quality – especially the video clips – but they may give some indication of the atmosphere. Here’s the full set of pictures on Flickr. And consider going to a future Moselele event; I’m now hoping to fit a few more in before the next adventure…
(Low on time: just skip to the final, finale, clip in this post)
And the finale…