Thursday 27 January 2011

Let's friend!

I have travelled and moved around the world some, and it always strikes me the value of the friends you can make on the road, or when you are both flung together far, far away from the homeland.

At first, these friendships might seem like the gadgets you buy for those trips: necessary, useful and used in the right place at the right time. And some of them truly are like that. And rather like the stuff, and friends, you don't take with you and leave behind: some sit there waiting for you to pick up where you left off. Others go and find new owners.

Others are more than that.

Last night I spent 5 hours during the middle of the night on a video call to one those friends. Oceans, languages, time zones and (seriously) climate apart mattered not and the instant reconnection of sitting in her living room, and her sitting in mine, while we drank our respective bottles of wine was comforting, fun, trusting and, well, just like it always was and always will be.

Friendship is balance, reflection and discussion. A good friend lets you walk as close to the edge of the cliff as his humanly possible and will then drag you back the moment you topple the wrong way. A good friend never hides the bad stuff. A good friend looks up in embarrassing moments, not down. A good friend feels as happy as you do when the successes of life are reached.

Talking, laughing, joking, crying, watching, hugging, writing: all those things we do with our friends are verbs. Friend should be a verb: it's the action of some of the most precious moments of our lives. Today, they friended at her wedding. Last night we friended the whole night. Where are you going? To friend with Bob.

So for all the friends in the world, not just mine, thanks for friending. You can tell the people that don't have anyone friending them: the news is solely theirs, there is little to share.

So let's extend our friending nature to those who aren't our friends. It may not be the golden friendship we have found with others, but when those others are far away, it might just bring us some of those moments we miss.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Rome is missing its greens

I spent five days over the new year in Rome. Rome: that foundation of civilisation with its wondrous churches, beautiful squares, ornate fountains, spectacular architecture, jaw-dropping ruins and enough white carbs to make Mr. Atkins, of the diet phenomenon, turn in his grave.

Rome has that special something; this is undeniable. The neighbourhood of Trastervere with its quiet flapping of washing between colourful window shutters; the Palentino museum with its vast design of luxurious houses, baths and gardens; the mighty Roman forum which reeks of power and history; the spine-tingling Colosseum with its stories still visualised from centuries ago; the impressive pantheon, the Vatican and the awe-inspiring Sistine Chapel... I could go on. All these sites serve the visitor visually, culturally, historically, socially and religiously. Rome opens your eyes to the past. Just mind the modern buses and trams as they zoom by while you stop and stare, imaging what it must have been like.

Then, to rest, you enter trattorias and old cafes: jugs of Chianti, chilled Peroni beer, greying waiters with an impressive array of moustaches and Einstein hair styles shouting at who-knows-who. You feel you've stepped into an old family get-together/riot, which hasn't changed course for centuries. It's not any old city: it's Rome.

But Rome isn't the perfect city. It isn't the most beautiful. If it was, no one would go to Venice (so I've heard). Let me tell you why I think why. It's missing its greens. The boulevards of Paris are lined with trees; the avenidas of Buenos Aires are lined with trees. London is full of green parks, made even brighter for all the rain it gets. Rome is bricks; old, beautiful bricks perhaps, but bricks nonetheless.

And back in the eateries, there is a serious lack of greenery as well. Pasta, pizza, gelato: after five days you are screaming for something vegetable which is not related to the tomato. The first night back after our trip, I cooked a stir fry of chard, green beans, green peppers, broccoli - I needed to see green on my plate, taste it in my mouth. My body loved it.

I am not saying there are no trees whatsoever in Rome, or you can't find a salad on the menu. On the last day, we did visit a park, which had trees of course, but lacked grass. Those Romans found any open space as an excuse for a fight/gathering/market and didn't need grass under their well-made shoes. And if I am sitting in 'the best pizza place in the neighbourhood' should I order a Cesar salad just because he died just down the road? After all, when in Rome...

So, if Rome had more trees and more chard on the menu, would it then be the perfect city?

I'll tell you after my trip to Venice.

Monday 10 January 2011

It's time

It always fascinates me how people judge time so differently.

There's a man who lives in one of the buildings just round the corner from us. He is sometimes there as I go past on a run; or as I scurry along to the shop; as we walk to the pub; or on the way back from yoga. He sits on the bench on the pavement outside his building and simply sits and looks around.

I don't think he's clinically crazy or murderously deranged and these are the only times his fierce mother lets him out of the house (he must be in his fifties): quite the opposite. I think he's perfectly sane and wondrously in charge of his world.

Sometimes he's having a cigarette. Can you imagine the thought that must accompany this? I think I'll have a cigarette or Time for another cigarette I think, before I go in. I am not in favor of smoking, but what a way to charge your time. Instead, here are some thoughts which occurred to me today:

If I get my wallet out now I won't be more than the 3.6 seconds required to go through the tube station.

I'll get home from the committee meeting and start on those emails instead of tomorrow. It will mean leaving Martín to cook by himself, but we can have a conversation another day.

The sun has come out, but I'll eat at my desk because that way I might not miss something that pops up. I'm not here on Wednesday so I can't waste my time.


Time is a fragile, extinct bird that only flies out at you in moments of exhilaration or despair (You want it to never end! You think it will never end!) Seconds are bricks you build around yourself each day. As the wall gets higher, your job is only to knock it down and start again. The process starts slowly, building up its intensity to that final, manic, time-induced panic which is getting the train/meeting the deadline/firing back a reply before they thought you were dead. For something that is extinct, it sure doesn't want to be forgotten. Time is as needy and greedy as the worst of boyfriends and bosses, flying you to places you don't want to go, never waiting. Time is brilliant at moving, though, ironically, never waiting.

Unless you're the man round the corner. He's not even afraid of the cold. Winter time? He doesn't get it. He just like to sit on that bench and watch the world go by, being dragged in all kinds of directions. I bet he loves mulling over where people might be going, what they might be doing. Or perhaps not. The fact they have passed is important, not where to or why. His time is truly his time, charged by himself.

So, it's time to take charge of my time. Walk at the pace I want to walk. Or just go out and walk if I want to. Hold a blink to help me think. It's my time, after all. There's a long way to go in 2011.

And enough time take it.

Saturday 8 January 2011

Fast forward thinking

New year is a time for reflection. And, if there's not much from the past year to reflect on, it's to think about what the following one might bring. THIS year, I'll lose weight. This year I'll find my dream job. T.H.i.S. year I will meet the man of my dreams/get a half-decent proposal/see the pyramids/finish War and Peace/win the lottery so I can afford a house deposit/long weekend away to escape the royal wedding/my yearly commuter ticket.

We are constantly thinking of what we are going to do. I must ask the team at work more about what they are going to do that night/tomorrow/at the weekend than what they are actually working on right now. The question is more often 'when?' not 'what?'

This has come to my mind, as for the first time in a long time, I find myself with a day off to do nothing. I have planned it this way. Last week I did all the shopping, all my work, the cleaning. Last night I ran so I wouldn't have to again until tomorrow. My alarm was set to wake me up to do nothing which had to be done except potter. Pottering, I think it should be said, is under-rated, and this is not just a women's thing. To potter is to put yourself back in your own life and environment and pleasurably pass an hour/afternoon/day/week (OK, some people are professional potterers!) doing those little mindless things such as counting out and bagging your copper jar, or reading back copies of that magazine subscription you hadn't had time for; or making cakes and soups.

Why is pottering perfect to my point today? Pottering is present. It requires no to-do lists, nor a plan. Pottering flows from one thing to another, keeping thoughts and actions in the present. To potter is to be, with pleasure.

Why is it, then, that we need to push ourselves into our unknown futures so often? One good reason, which I discussed with a glum friend this week, is that we need things to look forward to. This is valid and a valued part of forward planning. "I need something to work towards. I need to arrange something to look forward to, or life is dull." In times of deadlines and chores piled high, that weekend meal with friends, or the massage at the end of the month when the paycheck arrives, is a welcome relief and something to get us through the times at the grindstone.

But what if our now, wherever it may be (home, office, school) held promise and value? After a frustrating morning at work this week, I looked down at my keyboard, fingers frozen as outside thoughts took over concentration. I wanted to let out a little scream, but instead, I noticed my finger nails, which, after finally giving up biting them, had been growing. And still are. I smiled. That little moment rooted me back in a present which wasn't just about the misery of depending on others or the list of things to do.

There are probably a million self help books about positive thinking in the present, and they probably have expert advice about all this. I am not trying to out-do them here. I am sure they make sense. It's not easy to stay in the present. That's something social media such as Twitter and Facebook do try to do, though. The 'what are you doing/thinking/playing/working on now?' does show an effort to stay in the present moment, albeit to then spread it about the world. John Smith is in the supermarket queue: some people's now is obviously not as interesting as what they might be doing later, however!

So, this year, I have no idea where my life will be taking me, on any front. Will Martín and I move house? I don't know. Will I get a permanent contract at work? I don't know. Will we go to Argentina for Christmas? I don't know. Will I beat my last marathon time? I don't know. Will I finish my book? I don't know. (Are Arsenal going to beat Leeds today, from losing 1-0 right now? I don't know!) There's no need to. My forward thinking is consumed by let's see rather than plan to see.

May you be having a happy new year, then. And that any forward thinking comes from the now you have, rather than the one you want to have. Living in the present can be the perfect gift to yourself.


This is another effort from the write-a-thon. The prompt was 'It's time' and as I wrote the poem, the nature of the story changed to one of a total and evil injustice. Having the brother as the murderous traitor adds to the injustice and sadness of a family, and community, torn apart by the prison warden's lies.

The Execution

Under ashes of lust, the chains lie limp at his side
All that’s left is the dust of the man too weak to hide.
Watchers’ fears smoulder, tears tumble, rage cries
As years swam by, broken lives lived under those lies.

The man standing by, watch in his hand
Dreamt of this day, now just as he’d planned.
Though brothers in life, they were species apart
Simplicity versus violence, a mother’s ruined heart.

Under the sack, crisped, choked, skin burnt black
Eyes popped of the lives he tried to save, way back
When no one listened or cared and they all lived in fear
Of him and his bottle, his badge coming near.

Fingers on the pulse, the crooked hour announced
Shuffles and shouts, years later, to be denounced.
The brother clasps his hands, smiles thin, face unkind,
Whispers; “What they believed, brother! Now is my time.”

Memories of moving

This is a story I wrote in November for the Children in Need write-a-thon. It's one of my favourites from the 19 days. The prompt was 'For a stranger'.

White Bear

All I could hear were the bangs and knocks of my life heading down the stairs and into that massive white lorry. Actually, it wasn’t white, but it was supposed to be because it had those sayings written on the side: also in white and clean me so you could tell. Dad was complaining that my stuff was taking up too much space, but I had carefully packed it all into neat boxes and it didn’t seem more to me than David’s bulky toys and games all shoved willy nilly on the front lawn. Mum kept shouting up the stairs; random, pointless things she didn’t really need help with, but I knew it was her way of trying to get me down there, to be with them in this chaotic, bad... no, terrible decision.
            I stood at my bay window. Its cushions which had been made by Grandma through my childhood were already downstairs, so I didn’t want to sit on the wide sill where I had spent hours of my life. I had read so many stories there, and dreamt a few up myself. I had watched the rains come and go, I had eaten ice cream, I had spent hours on the phone. I had also sat in silence, contemplating, watching the birds, or David and his friends in the garden, or my parents late at night sharing a bottle of wine on the terrace. I had written poems and tales and let the papers fall to the floor as my hand couldn’t keep up with my imagination. I had sat and stroked Bambi and learnt what good listeners animals can be as you are growing up. I had shared this special space with Carla, Rachel and Frannie and we had sat and painted each others’ toe nails, pulling the stereo over to the corner late into the night so we could still have our music and not wake my parents. Then Michael had come and sat with me and we had kissed and talked. And all the while, outside my special window, the leaves had turned different colours, disappeared and sprouted bright green again, year after year after year...
            “Darling, the men are nearly there, so Dad’s going over the directions with them and we’ll be off. David’s playing up so I need you to be your usual wonderful self with him, OK? It’s not easy for him. Well, us too, but we understand a bit more, don’t we?”
            Mum had stayed at the frontier to my world, the cusp of my own private universe. I loved that she didn’t barge in, or expect me to turn around. She knew I was listening.
            I heard her step away and spend some time going through the empty rooms, saying goodbye to her own special places. She bounced on the wonky floorboard that had always been in front of their wardrobe and had driven Dad crazy. He had always avoided it, but I think Mum got comfort from it somehow, like you do when you know your space inside out. I heard her heave a long sigh. It was wrong of me to think this was easier for them I guess, though I would never admit that to them out loud.
            I looked out the window again and brought what was I was holding up in front of me. It was White Bear, a teddy my great aunt Harriet had sent me from Australia when I had been born. He had always been called White Bear and Mum had always done her best to keep him white, craftily washing him while I was sleeping, or over at friends’ houses so that he would always be where he always was, guarding my room from the bay window sill. His green eyes looked back at me now and I tried to imagine him in a new place; a new room, a new view, new colours on the walls. My heart thumped in my chest, which was tightening with the desire for tears. No, I had decided it last night; it was the right thing to do.
            I placed White Bear back in his corner, where during the winter he would be kept company by birds resting on the bare branches outside the glass. During summer, the light would hit his fur and warm him as it cast golden beams across my, no... the room. Now, it was autumn and a gentle breeze rolled leaves outside. He would be OK.
            I stepped back from the bay window and turned towards the door. At the border, I looked back and smiled. I knew it would be another girl who would have this room and I knew she would love White Bear and keep him white and let him guard her and her world; keep her safe and sane as she grew up. Then the empty space caught up with me and a tear trickled out. I swallowed the rest back down. I heard doors slamming outside and the car beeped its horn.
            I blew a kiss across the door and into my wonderful past. I gently closed the door and walked down stairs. Outside was the car, taking me to my future.