findingtimetowrite

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Archive for the tag “life”

Life-Changing Moments

Last weekend I went back for the first time in a decade to Cambridge for an alumni event. When I first got off the coach, I was bewildered by all the new buildings and shops, and promptly got lost.  Later on, I found my department and slowly succumbed to the enchantment of the beautiful architecture and the splendour of the autumnal gardens.  Cambridge was only a brief experience for me: just one year. But its aftermath is still hammering through me, still shaking my being. Many believe that their university experience changed their life.  In my case, it really did change my life forever: opened my mind, changed my career, broke down a marriage, seduced me into love and heartbreak.

My Cambridge was not the one of medieval courts and toga parties, nor of rowing at dawn and wild student pranks.  Not even sustained intellectual debate and lifelong friendships.  Although I encountered all this and more, Cambridge meant much more to me than that.

You have to remember where I came from.  For a while, I had attended an old-fashioned English school abroad, a school where grammar and spelling were revered, where I was taught to speak much like the Queen in her plummier moments, where Cambridge and Oxford were regarded as the pinnacles of human achievement.  A good deal of that washed over my head.  As a grandchild of peasants and the niece of factory-workers, I never quite understood the class system and snobbery implicit in the Oxbridge privilege.  Instead, I asociated it with intellectual achievement (and included Harvard, Yale, Sorbonne and a few others in that list).  I came from a culture that was fiercely proud and in awe of its intelligentsia, even as it spied on them and locked them up for insubordination.  It was to this closed and fearful culture that I returned as a teenager.  And I found it hard.

Brains mattered, I was told.  Yet what I saw, day after day, was that what was really required was monkey-like cleverness, ability to memorise, repeat, be quick and juggle numbers.  Intelligence did not mean curiosity, imagination, asking questions or using simple sentences.  I was being forced back into the mould. So I retreated into my dream world.  Somewhere, there was a magic place where brains are allowed to develop and soar, where they are admired fully in all their colourful variety and glory.

In 1989 walls came tumbling down across Europe and we gradually had the opportunity to see Cambridge for ourselves.  And this is what I saw: that there were fantastic and mediocre brains there, as everywhere else.  That the world of rich ideas and interdisciplinary connections is so powerful in its beauty, so endlessly inspiring, that I wanted to wrap myself up in its cocoon forever.

I began to realise that the well-maintained borders and lawns of the Cambridge colleges, the noble architecture, the self-sufficient simplicity of college rooms, the take-as-much-as-you-need social interaction in dining halls are all designed to protect and nurture the life of the spirit.  You can clearly see the monastic origin of these great universities.  And it’s not hard to understand the urge to devote yourself to that path of single focus.  I have so often yearned for this ideal, but messy life got in the way.

Twenty years on, I have finally understood and accepted that I will never have the peaceful don’s life for which my passion and my gifts might have been best suited.  Sometimes you just cannot follow your passion in life, but Cambridge did clarify for me what my passion was.  Above all, it gave me oxygen to feed my life.

All I need to do, as I rummage through the imperfect, often overwhelming, shapeless lump of mud and gemstones which is my life, is to find that Cambridge state of mind, that inner peace, that source of oxygen which brings forth my best ideas and my most honest self.

 

The Road Taken

There were no great forks in the path in the woods:

just hundreds of small threads, tentative, half-explored,

where we did or did not venture.

So, tread by tread, we found ourselves

so far from where we wished to go, so lost alone and afeard,

that finding the way back seemed hopeless

yet forging ahead impossible.

 

Next life, when we embark on forest challenges,

we’d like well-worn routes, please, and clear signs at forks in the road,

stating loudly the consequences of chasing one path over the other

So that loss does not creep up on us,

unaware

yet deathly efficient.

 

 

 

The Washing Machine Chronicles

As a child I enjoyed spending time in the bathroom.

Not that I was vain, you understand.  I scraped my knees along with the boys, cut my own fringe and let my mother buy clothes for me, usually two sizes too big so that I could grow into them.  I did occasionally long to have red hair and freckles, in the belief that might make me as strong as Pippi Longstocking, but I didn’t lose too much sleep over it.  I seldom looked in the mirror and even resorted to the age-old trick of wetting the soap to simulate handwashing rituals I had no intention of observing.

So, no, it wasn’t vanity driving me into the bathroom.  The reason I disappeared ever more frequently in there was that this was where the washing machine was busy at work.  And at some point during the tenth or eleventh year of my life, I discovered the pleasure of sitting on the washing machine during its spin cycle.  Its rumbling vibrations brought unexpected pleasures.  I would cling on for dear life, unsure of the exact position to adopt, simply trying to avoid the sharp corners.

I must have felt there was something slightly reprehensible about this sudden passion for doing the laundry, as I used to lock the door.  I could almost slice through my mother’s rising dough of disapproval.  We were a family used to seeing each other naked.  No shame culture in our house!  But I instinctively knew that these pleasing thrills were best kept to myself. And the bathroom door was the only one with a lock in our house.

It took me a few more months – or maybe years (I was not a precocious child in this respect)- to realise that these delicious sensations could be replicated without the baritone growl of the washing-machine, or a cramp-inducing climb.  I made sure I made up for any lost opportunities.  Seasons came, seasons went, and so did family, friends and lovers.  For a while, I went astray and betrayed the washing-machine with a succession of dry-cleaners.

The next washing-machine, the one in my marital home, was no longer all sharp, masculine corners.  The modern forms were softened, rounded, pure femininity, a collusion in my oppression.  Its location now moved to the kitchen, where there never was any privacy, it now became subject to tantrums and food-throwing, and witness to my staggering up and down the stairs with overfilled laundry baskets, in search of the perennially lost sock.

I had no tender feelings for the washing machine.  Its noisy yammering reminded me too much of a petulant toddler.  Its mouth too wide and hungry, never quite satiated, never quite done.

I wish I could talk of redemption, of how the washing machine, in whichever of its incarnations, inspired me to or reconciled me with or taught me about something.  But that would be untruthful.  Real life does not offer neat, circular solutions. Instead we stagger off into endless linear distances, petering out in our own boredom.

So the truth is this: despite my best care and Calgon, the washing machine developed clogged arteries and flooded messily at random intervals.  I couldn’t really use it much, so it became a repository for magnets and a jar of change.  Postcards from places with names that still had the power to provoke the dreaming: Samarkand, Seychelles, Salvador de Bahia.

Now that I seldom use it, I miss it.  Its virile force, its clueless humming, the daily bustle.  I watch it in its idleness and I wonder where it all went wrong.

Surfeit of Boxes

I am still in the throes of moving and do not have Internet or phone or TV connection, nor even a desk on which to put my laptop.  So this is written in less than ideal environment while having a coffee at a place with free Wifi.  I just didn’t want be silent for so long.  Needless to say, my current thoughts are very much taken up with packing, unpacking and cartons.

All packed up.

Not neat,

Just jumbled

Out of sight

In forgettable cartons

With reductionist labels.

At first it seemed the avalanche of boxes would be

Unable to contain a life half-lived, a life half-envied,

Detritus of consumption, dresses never worn.

Then, when the flat was laid to waste,

Bereft of colour, longing, personality,

Pale in its nothingness, reduced to so little –

The rich canvas of life together now squeezed

In his and her boxes,

His and her children,

Safely contained

In their separate storage,

To be manipulated,

Torn bleeding apart,

But bled dry.

Those leaking boxes that overflow

And mess up the new spaces

Wherever you put them down.

Not knowing where

To locate

The heart.

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