Thursday, 29 May 2008


What my photos haven't been recently,
although in London they're nearly always there, of course, just out of shot.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Stony path

Times are hard (though, God knows, others' lives are so much harder than mine and I hardly know how I have the cheek to say it). So hard and so weary that I push myself to say something, because self-expression, finding the words or the pictures for it, always helps and opens things up. It's particularly since I started doing the Mindfulness course. It seems - surprise, surprise! - to be making me mindful… and most of what it’s making me mindful of is not pleasant. There’s so much more weariness, so much more pain than I was previously aware of. I think this is true of most of us, not particular to me. If most people weren’t devoted to looking away, to numbing themselves, Western societies could not possibly run the way they do, based on relentless activity, endless bombardments of information. Being more aware, more mindful, more alive: this must be a good thing, surely? But what a scary thing. It’s so far from the norm. I’ve always been pretty far from the norm, and suffered for it. So where the hell is this taking me? I suppose I must look on it as an adventure, a mountain to climb, with an unknown view from the summit. Puff. Gasp. Where’s my Kendal Mint Cake?

Ah, here’s my Kendal Mint Cake, my emergency fuel: a quote from Charlotte Joko Beck (via psychologist and mindfulness teacher Delany Dean, whose blog mind.expressions is a great new discovery).

“When we begin to practice [mindfulness]... we see through our pursuit of outward things, the false gods of pleasure and security. We have to stop gobbling this and pursuing that in our shortsighted way, and simply relax into the cocoon, into the darkness of the pain that is our life… When we’re perfectly willing to be there—when we’re willing for life to be as it is, embracing both life and death, pleasure and pain, good and bad, comfortable in being both—then the cocoon begins to dissolve.

I cannot but question, though, whether this way, right into the heart of the pain and through it, is the right one. Is it just masochism? Can choosing to be more self-aware, even more raw and unprotected, be a good thing for people who are already by temperament highly sensitive or exceptionally neurotic (choose your definition – which one I choose depends on my mood, though Elaine Aron’s work on the trait of high-sensitivity has certainly had a big impact on my thinking)? We should always question. The thing is, I haven’t found another way. Suppression, pretending I’m not here, certainly hasn’t worked. But will I ever be ‘perfectly willing to be there’?

I must admit, I thought I had asked and answered these questions long ago. I’ve been meditating for about ten years. I’ve read and been moved by the teachings of Joko Beck and many others, and met in person many Buddhist teachers with the same message. But I’ve never faced the ‘darkness of the pain’ in the ways that the MBSR course is requiring me to. I’ve sat with myself for long hours, some of them soothing and some difficult, and always felt better for it. And those long hours have slowly helped me to be present to more of life. But this looking directly at the difficult, the unbearable, feelings, this ‘bring to mind something difficult, look at it, feel it, be with it’… I haven’t done this before. It’s a leap into the fire – and I mean that almost literally: when I turn towards instead of away from difficult feelings, my body and my mind burn and flinch and burn, the heat and intensity take my breath away. I could compare it with the ancient Buddhist practice of meditating in the graveyard or the charnel house. It’s a practice of looking at the very worst, in order to know that the looking itself won't kill us. Sounds dramatic. Except that it turns out the very worst is mostly nothing dramatic, it’s the everyday stuff, those old unbearable feelings of pressure and fear and defeat that we turn away from every day.

And so the question recurs, with renewed force, even after all these years of meditation: will I ever be ‘perfectly willing to be there’? And I don’t know the answer, can’t yet see the view.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008


Dreamy froth of leaves

where bare trees patterned the sky:
Spring came by itself.

Friday, 23 May 2008


Trying to post larger photos from Flickr, since the maximum size in Blogger is so small. Tsk, I can't work out how to do more than one photo per post - apologies to users of feed readers! And I don't like these heavy frames. Sigh. Frame successfully removed - thanks, rr !!!

Thursday, 22 May 2008

"The book begins to inhabit me"

" When you’re faced with a novel, how do you actually do it? I call the translation process 'finding a voice'—there’s a point in the translation where I suddenly feel very confident and I know what the mood should be, I know what the characters should say and I know what the register of language should be. It can take quite a while to reach that point. I usually flounder until well over half way through. And then something clicks, the book begins to inhabit me, everything gels and I know what feels right.

" This is the way I work: first of all I read the book and try to absorb it and get an overall sense of what kind of language I’m going to be dealing with, what kind of problems I’m going to need to think about. These concerns lurk at the back of my mind. I mull them over constantly, when I swim my forty lengths at the pool, or when I’m cooking dinner. Once I start work, I need to get the first draft out of the way as quickly as I can. I tend to work fast, I don’t worry about the problems. I don’t make decisive choices at this point. When I hit a tricky patch I type in the French and then put three, four, five alternatives, or a note to remind myself that I’ve got to do some further research. But I crash on. I set myself a daily target, and I need that structure. Once I’ve done my first draft, I print out the translation and revise it. At that point I still have the French close to me, and I double check everything and make sure that the text is all there, and that it actually says what the French says. And for unresolved problems I go back to the French to see if there are clues that I’ve missed, and usually there are. I amend the file, often making further improvements as I type, and print it out again.

" And then I read the translation through as an English text, knowing it’s all there, that it’s 'faithful' in terms of saying as closely as possible what the French says. This is the point that I call 'finding a voice'—the translation has to stand on its own as an English text, it has to work, it has to be coherent and cohesive. At this stage I make quite radical, bold changes, because by now I’m much more confident, I 'own' the text. Then I print it out again and give it another read through, to make sure the voice is consistent. Then the manuscript goes off for copy-editing and there are suggestions to be incorporated. At proof stage I very often make some minor changes as well, a last-minute solution suddenly occurs for something that had been bothering me.

" My overall strategy is governed by the view that as a translator you are first and foremost a reader, and you can only convey your reading of that book. There is no right, objective or single translation; you’re a reader, you are different from any other reader, and your translation is your reading of that author. I think that’s something that translators have to come to terms with. Your choices are inevitably going to be subjective, your vocabulary is a personal vocabulary, you dredge it up from all sorts of hidden depths. It is different from anybody else’s vocabulary. And you do the best job you can, you try to be as sensitive as possible to the author’s idiom, choices, moods, etc., but ultimately it’s one reading of the book. And it’s not necessarily the only one, or the best one, it’s just your reading."
From Translators in Conversation: literary translator from French to English Ros Schwartz in dialogue with Nicolas de Lange, English translator of novels from Hebrew, including those of Amos Oz. Via Wood s Lot and Context, a journal of the Dalkey Archive. I've attended a couple of translation workshops in London with Ros. Her translations include many novels from francophone North Africa and, jointly with Amanda Hopkinson, a terrific series of French crime novels by Dominique Manotti. She has the gift of writing and talking lucidly and inspiringly about her work.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Wooden people

A couple of totem poles were on display in the covered great court of the British Museum. Denuded of their bright paint, austere and monumental, they stretched right up to the glass roof which normally hangs far above any exhibit, its diamond panes like a strange inner sky, patterning and diffusing the light. They were grand and compelling, though bizarrely out of place among the classical pillars and the crowds of visitors who were milling, chattering, busy buying food and souvenirs or clapped out on the floor. They made me smile, as always (their extremeness and their solid themness). I snatched a few photos before my camera batteries went dead, and later, as so often happens, found their accompanying text - posted by Miriam at Escrituraleatoria. The vision is a harsh one, as I suspect mine would be harsher if their native land was mine.

We went to the park
where they kept the wooden people:
static, multiple
uprooted and trans-

Their faces were restored,
In front of them
the other wooden people
posed for each other´s cameras
and nearby a new booth
sold replicas and souvenirs.

One of the people was real.
It lay on its back, smashed
by a toppling fall or just
the enduring of minor winters.
Only one of the heads had
survived intact, and it was
also beginning to decay
but there was a
life in the progressing
of old wood back to
the earth, obliteration

that the clear-hewn
standing figures lacked.

As for us, perennial watchers,
tourists of another kind
there is nothing for us to worship;
no pictures of ourselves, no blue-
sky summer fetishes, no postcards
we can either buy, or

There are few totems that remain
living for us.
Though in passing,
through glass we notice

dead trees in the seared meadows
dead roots bleaching in the swamps.

Margaret Atwood

Monday, 19 May 2008

Rainy day at the British Museum

The lines and colours of the centuries-old Chinese paintings of trees, flowers, birds and insects remain pure, delicate and strong, their appeal all the greater, more subtle, perhaps, through the gentle fog of great age.
Outside, I find the same muted palate, the Chinese garden just as fogged and subtle in Saturday's light but relentless rain.

through the veil of rain
and the mist of centuries
the same leafy shapes

Fascination with Nature and China Landscape at the British Museum. An exquisite 14th century painted silk scroll by Xie Chufang, the title of which is sometimes translated as 'Fascination of Nature' inspired the exhibition: photos and information here, and an interesting article.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Sun, shade

A lot of shade. Working most of the time and not very happy about it. Acutely aware, because of the Mindfulness stuff, of how tired I often feel - and so soon after the long break!

Meantime, in odd moments, pursuing, losing and returning to a stream of thought that might turn out to be a blogpost much less narrowly self-absorbed. And thinking that, despite it all, even on bad days, the time I spend at work in the company of intellectuals and at leisure browsing the Internet both bring gifts. For a long time what I most looked for on line was emotion, creativity, community - and I still seek these, and continue to encounter and hugely value them. Lately, though, I find myself gravitating to slightly broader and more intellectual resources, looking, just tentatively, at psychology, philosophy, excited by the connections that pop up, the light shed on my own experience by what I hear and read. Heartening, really, that my mind in it's 54th year still seems sporadically inclined to venture shyly into new territory, or new approaches, at least, to long-term preoccupations.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Peach tea

Sit, gather yourself, glug down a cold drink: a few days ago, on the way from work to an evening meeting. Because I took a photo, the syrupy cold of the iced peach tea and the amber glint of evening sunshine on the glass and the dregs and the melting ice-cubes outlive the moment.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Learning to be here - II

The second session of the MBSR course was this week. We did another Body Scan, some sitting meditation and discussed our experiences of practicing over the previous week. I did not, as in the first session, confront physical pain. I did, though, continue to feel challenged by a crowded and demanding social situation whose essential purpose and content mean that my habitual coping strategies of 'shutting down' or coasting through with minimal participation will not do - and this at the end of a working day, when my resources are depleted.

Mmm. This is harder than I thought it would be. Harder, for me at any rate, to be here in this context than to attend my lovely, silent, austere Buddhist meditation retreats - though those are challenging in their own way. I suspect it will therefore be all the more useful, if I can stick with it, but comfortable it's not. Being mindful of one's wretched, messy, suffering self, whilst hard up against a lot of other people's similarly, but differently, wretched, messy... ouch!

How hard it is came home to me again the following day, when I met rr for lunch and knitting. Creator of a whole family of socks, as well as of many other gorgeous things, she'd come to show me how to turn the heel on my first sock. Attempting to be mindful and to watch one's negative habits whilst knitting one's first sock is not quite earth-shattering on the scale of things, but one's first anything at my advanced age is not easy. Well, actually, it's not so much my age (I reflect, as I knit... 6, 7, 2 together... ach, I've lost count, how many stitches did you say?). I've always found learning anything new and even slightly challenging excruciatingly difficult, so painful and frustrating, so demanding of a willingness to be present and patient that I do not have.

I'm ashamed to think of all the things I've given up on learning, or avoided even starting to learn. It's a sorry tale, highlighting over and over, in contexts small and large, the place where I am broken. And giving attention to the place where I am broken is painful. Fifty years down the line from the day I got broken, turned and faced away from life because I 'couldn't bear' to put my toys away, is it too late to mend, even a little bit? Such portentous thoughts while knitting a sock would be sad if they weren't hilarious, and quite impossible to prolong without the sock going horribly wrong...

Blossom in the graveyard

Dulwich Old Cemetery: “Buried here in unmarked graves are 35 victims of the plague, who died in 1665. Also, Old Bridget, Queen of the Norwood Gypsies, who died in 1768; Samuel Matthews, the hermit murdered in his cave in Dulwich Wood in 1802…”

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Learning to be here

I am lying on my back on a rather prickly carpet in a large, light meeting room with tall windows overlooking a garden, chairs shuffled back against the walls and a haphazard floor-covering of recumbent bodies laid out like the crazy spokes of a wheel. It is 7.30 on a week-day evening after a long and tiring day at work. Lying here, my body HURTS. As the group leader talks us through a forty-minute Body Scan exercise, I become more and more aware of the pain and discomfort in my belly, in my head. As tension and resistance ebb away, I realise I feel just... WRECKED, vibrating with tender, aching pain. I've probably felt like this all day, I think, and been pushing it down with a mixture of rigidity, will-power and pain-killers. Self-pity washes over me, emotions aching fiercely along with the body. Forty minutes is a long time to lie still and feel like this, and retain the intention to listen and move my attention around my body. I scream inwardly with the need to sit up, rock and hug myself, but I don't do it. Amazingly, by the time we finish the Body Scan, get up and return to our chairs, I feel much better. The soaring, shrieking ache has largely abated. This is Session One of an eight-week course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.

My very first memories, of when I was about three years old, are of pretending: I’m not here. Surrounded by toys I didn’t want to put away and faced by a raging parent, screaming in painful, impotent frustration and unable to calm myself, never learning how to tackle the task, but instead shutting down, going inside myself. Refusing reality: not here, not this, in my head, someone else entirely. Always in my head, my favourite pastime curling up with a book to read and a sweet to suck, soothing the senses, allowing the mind to escape, leaving this place, this body. The furious teacher who bawled me out in front of the whole class of eight-year-olds for ignoring her in the street – but I wasn’t there, I was miles away!

To possess imagination, to love to read, to be able to visit other worlds is a rich gift. But if early life feels difficult and no one guides you to ‘hold’ and calm yourself, to feel that it’s okay, escaping can take over and you grow up – as I did - unable really to be here much at all. Result: a life spent refusing to engage, unfulfilled and often isolated. This was the phenomenon that psychotherapy never touched. In several years of therapy I learned a lot about what made me who I am, why I was so fucked up, this particular kind of fucked up. I was glad to know. Understanding why was helpful. But it didn’t change anything, didn’t change the way I felt. The only thing that slowly began to change that, a long time later, long after I stopped hoping or looking for change, was meditation. So I am as huge a fan as it is possible to be. I have a hard time not nagging everyone I care for that they should, they must, they’d benefit so enormously...

I loved meditation first because I was very nervous, often very stressed out, and it made me calmer. I met those occasional states of sunny bliss that the 'beginner’s mind' may access. I remember one day on my first meditation course, a hot day and I had a dreadful cold, fever, stuffed up; I remember the clear feeling of my consciousness rising above it, breathing freely on another plane. But, though interesting, that’s not IT. IT is that meditation changed the way I felt from day to day – not who or what I was, but how I experienced that. All those patient - and sometimes impatient - breaths, one breath at a time, in daily sessions of sitting meditation were breaths on the glass that separated me from everything around. Glass – it can’t be glass, because it began, slowly, slowly, to bend and then sometimes, and more and more often, to seem thinner, more porous; sometimes even, almost, almost, it was not there at all.

I approached it completely without this expectation, but meditation changed me and continues to do so. It has changed me a tiny, tiny bit, eroded just a tiny bit the thin, invisible but inexorable barrier that was always there. Things look almost the same. But the difference between looking through a window and being outside is total.

It’s the scariest thing of all, when you’ve spent your whole life building this invisible barrier. And it’s the greatest blessing and relief. Suddenly there’s space. A whole world of space, replacing the tiny world of a three-year-old where I’d got stuck. Space changes everything. Instead of panicking, stuck in a lift, ultra-stressed by overwork and difficult relationships and pain and illness and my own inadequacies… there is space. It’s the difference, as an ancient Buddhist scripture tells, between a choking handful of salt in a cup of water and the same handful of salt in a fresh-water lake. The salt, the fear and pain and tension, is no less, but its impact is much less. It feels, I feel, every now and then, so different. Even, sometimes, when things are really shit.

So, yes, I’m a very big fan of what my Buddhist meditation teachers have taught me. It’s by far the most important stuff I’ve met in life. Not surprising, then, that when I began to hear and read about the movement to teach mindfulness meditation, on a secularised form of the Buddhist model, in the mainstream health services, to people suffering from chronic stress, depression or pain, I was very interested.

It’s thirty years now since Jon Kabat-Zinn. of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, himself then a long-time Zen practitioner, began to teach Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. It took a long time for the good results to be known and believed and the practice to spread. It’s more like fifteen years since British neuroscientists took up the work and it has really only reached the mainstream media and health service practice since the publication here of studies by Mark Williams, Zindel Segal and John Teasdale which focused on chronic depression and what they dubbed Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, and their most recent, exciting, lucid book, The Mindful Way Through Depression. I read this about a year ago and simultaneously began to take an interest in the work of the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at the University of Bangor and the Oxford University Department of Psychiatry, and to note the increasing media coverage and reports of adoption by National Health Service Trusts around the UK.

What amazing, hopeful news! But no sooner it’s here, of course, than, even as we rejoice, those of us who’ve been learning the benefits of meditation slowly, deeply, over years, in a dedicated and sometimes austere Buddhist setting, begin to wonder whether these short intensive courses on the model developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn can really, even with the most stringent practice, be enough. This might be a wonderful and decisive development in mainstream healthcare. Or it might – especially if adopted mostly on grounds of lower cost than medication or long-term psychotherapy - be too little, too late, too unsupported by the medical profession as a whole and by the rest of society.

I wonder about that. I also wonder whether I would have benefited as much from meditation if I hadn’t already done the intellectual work of self-exploration in psychotherapy. But if MBSR and MBCT are the real deal, not to be fatally diluted, then surely, in light of my own experience, I must get involved? Surely there is nothing I find more important? Cynical now about so much I once believed in, about meditation as a force for change I am not cynical at all. Here I could put my heart – and perhaps the greater part of my efforts for the rest of my life.

Momentous thoughts, but let's be concrete and modest about this. So I've started this MBSR course as a first step, motivated by all of the above, but mostly by my own undoubted ongoing need for stress reduction, of which - having begun - I am all the more aware.

Saturday, 3 May 2008


The lightest,
almost languorous touch
of a black velvet sheath
would begin it,
exploring the air,
stretching and extending sharp claws,
declaring it morning.

The briefest of velvet caresses
before the paw jostled,
the claws took hold,
and there’d be no respite
until I rose
to prepare breakfast.

Mornings begin
more peacefully now,
but who would choose
to be without
the purring,
questioning invitation,

without velvet?

Friday, 2 May 2008