Quotes are not always inspirational…

For every inspirational quote, there is another that yanks us down to the bottom of the murky river bed. For every kind thought from a stranger, there is an sharp thrust of unkindness from a near one, all for your very own good, of course.

Vintage housewife, from blog4yourlife.com
Vintage housewife, from blog4yourlife.com

The way to hell is paved, crenellated, wallpapered and sandblasted with good intentions couched in cruel terminology. There is often no subtlety involved (‘obese’, ‘bags of fat on two legs’, ‘heart attack waiting to happen’), while at other times a theatrical sigh will underline that another poison arrow is striving to reach its mark: ‘I’ll only stop praying for you when you finally have found a decent job.’

Good old Dobbin, you work horse, you clothes horse. Keep on plodding and don’t take your nose out of your snuffle-bag or wardrobe until you find the right job, that makes them proud rather than you happy, the perfect dress that covers your stumps, denies your belly, turns your liabilities into assets and doesn’t cost a fortune either, into the bargain (bin)!

Then there are all of those black-and-white world views, all tinged with horrific fatality. All children of divorced parents end up drug addicts or lunatics or worse. All men cheat, all women suffer. Women punish by cutting off their noses to spite their faces. They imprison the man into vengeful marriage, piercing snide remarks, alimony payments, guilt, guilt, guilt. No matter how much men might pressure you into having babies, you will end up with the precious bundles and all their messes – they will only take the glory and successes. A boast at the office and nothing too tangly to weigh yourself down.

Meantime, princess, you’re too old, your pink too soiled, far too busy doing the things you should be doing, to waste time on creative nonsense. Life is to be endured, not to be enjoyed. We have no right to expect happiness. To be selfish. To scratch meaningless little words in short lines and call them poetry. Exchange your heels for flip-flops and wait out the ice-cube tinkling cocktail hour. Jump in and drown in the pool of your perfectly content disapproval.

We have every right to expect happiness. We were the apple, the peach, the light of our mother’s eyes. She did all she could to make us happy and was expecting you, quite frankly, to do more of the same. We cannot be happy with someone who is unhappy. What on earth do you think we should do when that happens — we’re not equipped, not trained, not interested… We twiddle our thumbs defensively. We look down, shuffle our feet, speed out the door, no longer want to be seen with this person in public. We do not want to rock the boat… unless it’s us doing the rocking. We’re worth it, but she isn’t because she wants too much, she wants the impossible. Because she is illogical, irrational, all emoting gushingness – so like a woman!

Pipe down, you shrew, your ranting is giving us all headaches! Who wants or needs feminism now anyway, when it’s proven women can have everything they want, but they don’t know how to choose wisely?

Why should we help when she ends up doing it alone anyway? How else can we prove our independence, our maturity, our love for our father, or that she is needed? These moments pass so fast, we grow up so quickly, she’ll cry later, when we leave home. She already feels the loneliness whenever we leave the house for a day, for a week, for a lifetime. She talks too much, she repeats incessantly and what she has to say we have long since stopped believing. What would each member of our family be if we were animals? A koala, a panda, a giraffe – the cuddliest and tallest all sorted. Mother? A bookworm.

Does the worm ever turn?

Virginie Despentes from www.grazia.fr. Her second volume of Vernon Subutex came out this week in France.
Virginie Despentes from http://www.grazia.fr. Her second volume of Vernon Subutex came out this week in France.

This piece of prose above has its origin in some family history, the great voices of feminism and the quote below from French writer Virginie Despentes.

Parce que l’idéal de la femme blanche, séduisante mais pas pute, bien mariée mais pas effacée, travaillant mais sans trop réussir, pour ne pas écraser son homme, mince mais pas névrosée par la nourriture, restant indéfiniment jeune sans se faire défigurer par les chirurgiens de l’esthétique, maman épanouie mais pas accaparée par les couches et les devoirs d’école, bonne maîtresse de maison mais pas bonniche traditionnelle, cultivée mais moins qu’un homme, cette femme blanche heureuse qu’on nous brandit tout le temps sous le nez, celle à laquelle on devrait faire l’effort de ressembler, à part qu’elle a l’air de beaucoup s’emmerder pour pas grand-chose, de toutes façons je ne l’ai jamais croisée, nulle part. Je crois bien qu’elle n’existe pas. (Virginie Despentes)

[The ideal of the white woman, seductive but not a slut, well married but not faded, working but without being too successful so as not to crush her husband, slender without becoming obsessed about food, forever young without having to resort to cosmetic surgery, a mother in bloom without being too overcome by nappies and homework, good housekeeper without becoming a traditional housewife, well-read but not quite as much as a man, this happy white woman that they keep brandishing under our noses, that we’re supposed to try and resemble (except when she goes ape-shit about insignificant things), well, I’ve never met her anywhere. I do believe she doesn’t exist.] (my translation, with apologies to the original)

Lilac Passing

It was the first summer she was allowed to go to the seaside by herself. She was working as a guide, so there were still rules and timetables to conform to, supervision and rebukes to endure. But the clothes were uncensored, the lipstick was hers to wield. She could laugh loudly and often, she could dance as if no one was looking. Her light no longer concealed by the well-meaning protective shade of her parents’ bushel.

One dazzling older man painted her portrait. He sprinkled praise as liberally as his colours.

‘You’re not quite ripe yet. Not yet at the peak of your beauty. Give it another two or three years and you will be truly unforgettable.’

So she waited for her irresistibility to commence. All year she lived in preparation for that delicious delirium, like the lilac bush in her parents’ garden at home. The green leaves so bland to casual onlookers, but she knew it was expectant, ready to burst one day into intoxicating flower.


By the end of the summer, she’d met the sensible young man with a future ahead of him, the kind of man her parents had always craved. By the following summer she’d persuaded herself that this was her dream too. They got married, setting up a tiny home in a capital city that was much too expensive for them. She worked three jobs at once and still their money ran out mid-month, while he pursued studies which would carve out that promising, tantalising future. In her rush from night-time proofreading to early morning classes, from private lessons to the vegetable stalls at the marketplace, from cooking to cleaning to washing to bill paying and housewife-playing, she forgot to check for her bloom in the mirror.

She made a modest name for herself, a tiny bud in a scholastic tree of excellence. Invited to study abroad, she worked even harder: to fit in, to catch up, to keep up, to maintain the respect of those who funded her. There was no more room for housewifely contortions. Her marriage withered on the stalk. She sought refuge in the life of the intellect. She scraped, she scrabbled, scoured and swept, till she rebuilt a small nest fo herself in that new country, new language, new group of friends.

Then, one day, she looked up. She paused just long enough to catch a glimpse of the person in the mirror. The lilac bush had grown blowsy, the flowers curled up with frayed brown edges. The scent was now tinged with the onset of rot.

She’d blinked and the flowering was over.

This was written as an exercise at the Geneva Writers’ Group on Saturday morning. We were discussing metaphors taken from the natural world. Did I tell you what a wonderful bookish Saturday I had? Literary workshop in the morning, going to the theatre with my younger son in the afternoon and then a poetry reading in the evening. Days don’t get much more inspirational than that.

Art, Creativity, Poetry (and Prose)

Two quick reviews today of poetry and poetic prose, by two very different but equally gifted young writers. One born in England but living in Ireland. The other is Swiss, but writes (in this book) about China.

seaofink_0_220_330Richard Weihe: Sea of Ink (transl. by Jamie Bulloch)

The author is clearly attracted by exotic (i.e. Eastern) art – he has also written about the Indian woman painter Amrita Sher-Gil. This slim book is also about a real historical figure, the Chinese painter Bada Shanren, descendant of the Ming dynasty. Little is known about his life, however, although his work has been very influential, hugely admired and extensively analysed. So Weihe is free to weave the meagre details of his life into a slow-burning meditation into the meaning of art, where creativity fits into politics and everyday life, and how to capture the essence of nature and reality. The biographical details are perhaps the least interesting elements of the story, although they provide a certain structure upon which the author hangs his narrative: finding refuge in a temple, feigning madness (or perhaps being really mad for a period) to avoid confrontation with the new political rulers, reluctantly achieving fame. His artistic progress is marked through little vignettes describing his thoughts, emotions and brushstrokes as he creates ten of his most famous paintings. It’s like looking over the artist’s shoulder, watching his attempts to capture the spirit of nature, render it on paper and make it look effortless.

A beautiful, hypnotic book, full of the apparent contradictions of Taoist philosophy (exhaustively researched by the author). A book to reread for inspiration, and not just for painters, full of very quotable pages:

When you paint, you do not speak. But when you have painted, your brush should have said everything.

When you dip your paintbrush into the ink, you are dipping it into your soul. And when you guide your paintbrush, it is your spirit guiding it.

When you paint, do not think about painting, but let your wrist dance.

Originality? I am as I am, I paint as I paint. I have no method… I am just me.

You cannot hang onto the beards of the ancients. You must try to be your own life and not the death of another.

How can it be that, from a dismal sky, this bitter world can suddenly show us that we love it, in spite of everything, and that in spite of everything it will be hard to take our leave of it?

He had set himself one final goal. He wanted to paint flowing water.


silentmusicAdam Wyeth: Silent Music

A fine blend between English realism and Irish romanticism, Wyeth’s poetry starts with a small observation of daily life, which is then suddenly subverted and lets you take a deeper dive into something far more profound. Gathering and cooking globe artichokes becomes a moment of intimacy and exploration, a cinema trip with his mother becomes a heartbreaking revelation of a boy’s helplessness when face with the end of his parents’ marriage, a lost umbrella becomes the metaphor for bad memories of which we try to rid ourselves. Divorce, love, lost friendships, a father’s tumour, trips abroad, childhood pranks, child labour, pigs: there is no subject too big or too small for poetry, but there is no bathos here. Just clear-eyed and very precise recollection and wording.

There is plenty of humour and experimentation amidst more serious poems: this is the debut collection of a young, exuberant writer after all.  ‘Bubbly’ is a poem designed to be read from bottom to top, rising like the bubbles in a glass of champagne – yet it works equally well when read from top to bottom.  The poet makes of fun of fake intellectual pretensions (in the title poem ‘Silent Music’), wannabe poets who lament their lives provide them with nothing interesting to write about, naughty schoolchildren with their secret jargon, even the Danish language ‘that is why there are no famous Danish poets’.


Here’s a short poem in its entirety – the title is longer than the poem, almost, yet so much irony and ambiguity is condensed into those three lines. It’s based on the miracle observed in the summer of 1985 at Ballinspittle Grotto, when the statue of the Virgin Mary moved spontaneously, receiving much national and international publicity.

Waiting for the Miracle at Ballinspittle Grotto

Nothing moves but cars.

First one passes, then I see

a second coming.


By way of contrast, however, these romantic, inspirational lines at sunrise:

Some say to witness the break of day

is to witness the hand of God

pull back his black mantle

to touch fingers

with our ancestors

and know something of Adam

as the land was revealed fresh,

like seeing a lover undress for the first time.


Growing Up Is Hard to Do…

… especially when you are a girl. Two books I read recently reminded me very graphically of that.

At first glance, they couldn’t be more different.

Zazie‘Zazie dans le métro’ by Raymond Queneau is a zany romp through Paris, seen through the eyes of young Zazie, who has been dumped by her mother to stay there with her uncle for the weekend. The book contains zero metro journeys, but numerous taxi rides, bus journeys,  crazy characters (including a very relaxed approach to paedophiles and cross-dressers), swear words, phonetic spelling and a parrot who’s fed up with all that ‘talk, talk, talk’.

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‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Ǿrstavik (translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin) is the latest Peirene Press offering. As you probably know by now, I am a fan of Peirene’s translations of unusual and often challenging literature (novellas and short novels), and this is a much darker, more thought-provoking book than the French one. It’s about Johanne, a young girl who has been hitherto pretty much the model daughter, well-bred, studying hard, regular church goer, attentive to her rather narcissistic mother. One day, she plans to abscond with her boyfriend to the United States (just for a holiday, possibly, although a longer stay may be on the cards too), so her mother locks her in her room to give her ‘the chance to think things over’. In the course of that day, Johanne relives her ostensibly quiet home-life with all of its hidden tensions, her encounter and love affair with Ivar. She starts questioning her religious upbringing and has vivid sexual fantasies at inappropriate moments.

Queneau’s style is exuberant, experimental, over the top, while Ǿrstavik is restrained and subtle. Yet both books are far deeper than they first appear to be. It’s about the taboos society imposes upon young women and girls, what they are supposed to know or desire, how they are supposed to behave. Zazie ignores and breaks the rules with a nonchalant ‘mon cul’ at the end of every sentence, while Johanne finds it harder to not live up to her mother’s, her friends’ or her own expectations.In both books, the girls end up having a transformative experience within a short time (and space: they are both quite slim books).

The final sentences in the Zazie book sums up the situation perfectly. Zazie’s mother, knowing how eager her daughter was to see the Paris metro, asks:

– T’as vu le métro?

– Non.

– Alors, qu’est-ce que t’as fait?

– J’ai vielli.

Have you seen the metro? – No. – So what did you do? – I’ve grown up (or grown older).

My Life Isn’t Open to Revision

This essay was written a while back for an online journal written by and for mothers. I think it was probably not quite upbeat enough about combining motherhood and creativity. Suffice it to say, it was not published, so I thought I might as well make it available here. Although, in the meantime, as I am reading Andrew Solomon’s ‘Far from the Tree’ about families who have faced real challenges in raising their (deaf, autistic, schizophrenic, transgender etc.) children, I feel terrible guilt about being a whiney spoilt brat who has never encountered real hardship. And that’s why I’m not really made to write creative non-fiction or memoirs. Fiction is much more fun (and less painful).

A few years ago, through no effort of my own, I became a ‘lady of leisure’. I’d resigned my job to follow my husband abroad and when we returned to Britain 18 months later in the summer of 2008, the job market was unrecognizable. I became a ravenous hunter, with 50+ versions of my CV to fit all occasions. In-between the rejections and the fortnightly humiliation of signing on at the Job Centre, I strove to become the best possible mother to my two sons. I may not previously have had time for toddler-aided bake-offs or 100 creative uses for wrapping paper, but now was the time to build all those cherished memories. For which I lacked talent, but made up through sheer force of will. In my remaining leisure time, I would also pick up and dust down that long-neglected passion of mine: writing.

Our minds play tricks on us: allowing us to pile so much upon ourselves, yet fiddling with the knobs on our measuring capacities. So we say: ‘More, more! It is too light still, not enough!’ even as we sink into the morass of multiple roles, none of which we fully own, none of which we play to perfection.

motorwaySo full-time and full-on was my life, that I used to do the weekly shop late at night at the 24 hour supermarket, once the children were tucked in bed. I would toss things into the trolley on autopilot, load the car and speed off home. One night, instead of turning right at the motorway junction, I paused.  On the left, a sign beckoned.

‘London’, it said.

‘Freedom’, I read through tear-soaked eyes. ‘Creativity. Endless possibility.’

The urge to turn left and never look back was so great, it frightened me.  Who can resist the siren call of simplifying your life, of escaping the chaos, of devoting yourself to a single pursuit far greater than yourself?

How had my life got so messy and overwhelming? You see, at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot… In my case, this manifests itself as the deep-throated relentless chime of a grandfather clock in the darkened hall of my conscience. One lifespan is not enough for all the beings I am, for all that I could be. I want to accumulate blindly, wildly: experiences, skins, memories, loved ones. Never possessions.

Discarded snakeskin, http://www.cyprusscene.com

The problem is not the trying everything, it’s the hoarding thereafter. I can never let go. Imperfection hurts me like a blunt saw. One of my skins dropped by the wayside is a tragedy. I not only want to be, I also want to be good at it.  It overwhelms me at times, the cacophony of demands. It threatens all that is good, kind or creative in me.  So you can understand why I sat mesmerized at that junction.

I turned right. And I’ve never, ever allowed myself to question that decision.

I am far from that place now.  Physically and mentally. Yet it frightens me still. How there is always a disconnect between the life we feel we were meant to live and the one we actually have. How easy it is to err on the side of discontent. How the sinuous murmurs of temptation can slither its way into our hearts and convince us that single-minded perfection is attainable and that its costs are bearable, ‘if only’ and ‘when this is over’.

‘Twas the Day…

… after we returned from the summer holidays and all through the house… cobwebs and dust bunnies were having a party. The washing-machine was churning at full pitch, the fridge had started humming but was bare and hungry. ‘Twas the weekend before school started, so lists were pinned up, checked and found wanting. Protractors had been bought and lost, felt-tip pens had become separated from their lids and were gasping for rehydration. School clothes and pencil cases begging to be legibly marked with the child’s name. Not for the first time, I wished we had given our children shorter names. Shoes had been miraculously outgrown during the holidays. Haircut appointments needed to be made. Telephone messages listened to, some of them requiring replies. Several bills had floated into our postbox and needed rather urgent payment. Above all, we needed food. But supermarkets on a Saturday are a nightmare. I braced myself for battle with wonky trolleys, careless people chatting in front of the aisles I needed to access, the endless queues at the cashier…

FlowerssmallI drag the shopping bags inside the house to find those two bouquets waiting for me. Soundlessly. Shyly. I wonder. I approach them gingerly. I see a little note: ‘Happy anniversary, darling!’ It’s the first time since we got married that I had completely forgotten our wedding anniversary. I thought forgetting was something that men did. Or at least my man. And, just as I call out, blushing, my family rushes downstairs in an avalanche of love. One bouquet, they explain amidst giggles and gurgles, was not enough – they could not agree which one was nicer: romantic or exotic. Finally, they decided that Mama was both.

Samuel Peralta is hosting at the dVerse Poets Pub (sadly, for the last time) and he has asked us for a prose poem. Not quite sure if this qualifies – I fear it’s more prose than poetry. But one celebration I haven’t forgotten is Chinese New Year: Happy Year of the Wooden Horse, everyone!


Prosaic Monday

‘So, Mrs. Rhino, do you see my problem? I’m trying to give you some constructive feedback here, but you don’t seem to be prepared to take it on board.’


‘We’ve been in this enclosure together for quite a few years now and I have never seen you engage in any blue-sky thinking. You’ve never really pushed yourself out of your comfort zone. You are content to wander around and munch your way through the same old greenness as ever.’


‘Surely there is scope for improvement here. Have you considered doing things a little bit differently? Starting your grazing in the left-hand corner, for example? Or sitting down when digesting your food?’


‘What is the most useful coaching question I could be asking you now? They say your client has all the answers, but in your case, Mrs. Rhino, I do sometimes wonder… . I had such high hopes for you, but I am afraid our ways must part now.’

She turned her button-like eyes on him and peered past her horn.

‘And where will you go, my dear?’


Yep, I’m back on my corporate trails once more and allowing myself to be inspired by its wooden language.