Windows and Reflections

Sunset Reflected in Church Window

When we first moved to Manchester, we took a bus back to the airport one freezing  afternoon after sunset to borrow our last dollars from the automatic teller machine in order to change them into pence and quid.  We stepped off the bus into a dimly lit hall and made our way through a long deserted glass portal of moving sidewalks and neon blue lights to enter the terminal of international arrivals where we hoped to find the solitary machine with American bills.  When we finally retraced our steps back toward the local bus terminal, the famous Manchester rain had frozen into huge white flakes.  The distinct feeling came over me, in that glass tube of moving sidewalks, that I had entered the reverse snow globe, where I was the tiny creature imprisoned inside the glassy globe and the whole world outside was the snow.  Being uncertain of what the year ahead may hold, I could not foresee the way in which that singular moment would be a perfect representation of my entire first year in the kingdom.

This year has evolved into my fleeing from the public sphere, exhausted from languages, ambitions, ambassadors, seascapes, cancers, and all the other tales and tragedies of human life. Everything is outside my windows now.  The year of windows and reflection. For the past eleven months, I am behind glass or within it.

The little round airplane window that shuts out the mirror of the Atlantic, who I try to peak at occasionally through the black veil of night to imagine the menagerie of creatures that swim and slither a whole sky’s height and ocean’s depth below me.
The small window at the hotel where we stayed when we arrived, overlooking the English rooftops which look reminiscent of those that Mary Poppins and her chimney sweep beau danced upon.
The ten foot tall windows of our first apartment in the converted Victorian mansion which were so elegant and sky-high that we fell in love with that drafty and musty old home.  These were the ones from which I watched the Sikhs’ neon orange pilgrimage to festival, a motorcycle parade one holiday, the Polish Catholics come and go for worship, a cat’s life stolen by two uncontrollable pit bulls, an endless stream of neighbors’ laundry curtaining the view of the mollusk-covered wall, the waiters at the bus stop,  the round-eyed children pecking at my cat from outside, the neighborhood boys playing football in the garden, police blue lights, the tapping and the bloodstains.
The snow spotted rental car windows as we raced all through the night to escape the rare but encroaching snowstorm, all the way to the south of England to a little town at the coast called Folkestone.  We arrived to the hotel just as dawn was breaking and fell asleep in a dilapidated resort hotel with the curtains open on the window over the southern coast lit with the most glorious pink and purple sunrise speckled with screeching gulls and tiny sailboats adrift in the tide.
The car windows as we drove through the north of France, through the sorrows of Normandy and near where Monet lived his romance all the way to the enchanted coast of Brittany and the forests that Merlin haunts and the fields where Gauguin lived his first primitive life, all seen through the unforgettable windows of that forgettable borrowed car.
The windows of those incredible French Gothic cathedrals, whose colored glass overtook me with rainbow.

The windows with raindrops gathered against the glass and speckled with the occasional snail.
The beloved sunlight crashing through windows where sometimes I rest beside the sleeping cat to share that treasured warmth.
Little display windows where the worlds of antiquity live, spinning statuettes from ancient Egypt that awake in the evening to play when the museums close.
The brightly colored windows to the small shops that sell intricately beaded Indian dresses and jewel-encrusted golden necklaces resembling those imagined in the times of Cleopatra or fairytales.
The sweets shop windows decorated with towers of confection.
The train window traveling to the sheep-spotted countryside where my view is impaired by the forehead prints of a previous passenger.
The windows of the Italian-style coffee shop where we go nearly once per week to share a two-handled mocha, outside of which pass the stylish youths in their platform boots and bomber jackets, boys with well-cut hair and ladies in black tights, little children in puffy coats and matching pink boots, bicyclists fighting through traffic, strollers and wanderers and city streets.
The windows of my second apartment which overlook the stained-glass windows of a cathedral, lit from the inside some evenings and reflecting sunsets.
The windows of the Gloucester Cathedral with achingly long hallways surrounding a courtyard where I wandered away and got lost in the colors and fire-winged angels.
The skylight window in my little kitchen through which on Sunday mornings I have witnessed men in work boots waltzing on the roof above my head.
The window to my little world that I can see my beloved cat sitting in as I approach while he waits for me to return home from my walk.
The two little windows that surround my husband’s eyes.
The studio window with its daily view of a sleepy street.
The window that is the screen through which I communicate with my friends and loved ones in those left-behind places.
The windows to look within.

The window of memory open to more windows.
The window that overlooks where we had picnics in the grass eating white mulberries where wild dogs slept in the snow.
The window in the palace that overlooked the expansive lawn in my evening at the home of the ambassador.
The window in the basement back door of the tiny apartment from my childhood where I saw the shadow of a man, although I cannot know now if he was real or spectral.
The window in my mother’s house which overlooks the most spectacular landscape of Appalachia which was blanketed in snow when I last saw it a year ago.
The window in the pink upstairs bathroom at my grandmother’s that overlooked the garden beside which there was a drawer with my mother’s glasses from childhood.
The window at Oneitta’s creaky farmhouse blocked by a tank of monstrous goldfishes.
The windows in the first painting studio in summertime, open and loud with crickets.
The windows in the second painting studio covered in cobwebs and footsteps.
The window in the third painting studio with a hawk paralyzed by snowfall and a rooftop garden.
The window of my first car, chipped by a stone.
The little window behind which rests the pressed flowers from the garden.

The windows to the inner worlds open to more windows still.
The windows of reflection, contemplating the maintenance of empathy through age.
The stillness of being within the globe of glass as the whole world drifts like snow outside of it.
A stranger in the window and a stranger world outside.
The sweet solitary moment reflected in the glass beyond which the world keeps turning.
Four seasons passing outside the window as I stand still.

The world moves entirely outside my glassy globe,
The whole year did pass through windows and reflection.

Watch Your Step — I’m Drenched by Adrian Mitchell

Found this lovely poem, especially for this rainy autumn, that so beautifully describes the city:

Watch Your Step – I’m Drenched
Adrian Mitchell

In Manchester there are a thousand puddles.
Bus-queue puddles poised on slanting paving stones,
Railway puddles slouching outside stations,
Cinema puddles in ambush at the exits,
Zebra-crossing puddles in dips of the dark stripes –
They lurk in the murk
Of the north-western evening
For the sake of their notorious joke,
Their only joke – to soak
The tights or trousers of the citizens.
Each splash and consequent curse is echoed by
One thousand dark Mancunian puddle chuckles.

In Manchester there lives the King of Puddles,
Master of Miniature Muck Lakes,
The Shah of Slosh, Splendifero of Splash,
Prince, Pasha and Pope of Puddledom.
Where? Somewhere. The rain-headed ruler
Lies doggo, incognito,
Disguised as an average, accidental mini-pool.
He is as scared as any other emperor,
For one night, all his soiled and soggy victims
Might storm his streets, assassination in their minds,
A thousand rolls of blotting paper in their hands,
And drink his shadowed, one-joke life away.

Watch Your Step — I’m Drenched by Adrian Mitchell from The Rattle Bag anthology edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Huges.

Summertime

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Summertime has an inescapable heaviness.

Our bodies are meticulous clockmakers, programmed to know the exact length of a second, of a minute, of a season.  I learned time in the Appalachians, just the exact distance from the equator and altitude above the sea to form an environment of perfectly balanced seasons.  Each year for the first twenty-one years of my life I knew winter, spring, summer, and autumn to each last for ninety-one and one-fourth days (one-half on leap years), each season giving way quite gracefully at the end of its term.  Winter was December through February, complete with both heavy and light snows, alternating between the wet and dry types.  March through May was the season of rainshowers, honeybees, and the first daffodils followed by a momentary yet ceaseless chorus of spring. Heralded in by the familiar buzzing of junebugs, summer lasted from June through August, celebrated by no school, dozens of watermelons, and those evening thunderstorms, which after a long day of sunlight relit the sky in thrilling increments.  And September through November was the time of autumn, during which a symphony of colors from sunny yellow to bright orange to deep red were all accented against an endless and saturated sky of blue.  Once I thought this was as normal, as ordinary, as the increment between the clicks of the secondhand on the clock that I am listening to now, as regular as a heartbeat.

I suppose that is why I long to move about, to know that in some places the heartbeat quickens, slows, ceases. To learn that the seasons are not the secondhand of a regular clock, that clocks and secondhands were only regulated so that trains could depart on schedule but that in the world every place moves at its own peculiar pace.  How can I understand that the clocks cannot describe time without moving about, departing from the regular, winding the dial backward, forward.  In the flatlands of Georgia, the summer is far too long, and in Anatolian Turkey the winter comes too quickly and lingers.  Manchester seems to have one season, which shifts a bit to and fro on the thermometer but stays a rather steady gray with a heavy moisture hanging in the air even when it does not rain. The neverending season of inexplicable gray makes the grass the green of neon lights outside a hometown bowling alley.  Weed jungles sprout quickly in forgotten back gardens and walls are conquered by moss.    Some days I stare out, waiting for the secondhand to hearken a new season.  I am often taken aback by the forceful chill the wind brings, even on a warm day.

I feel myself disoriented.  I long for the familiar sun and the warmth to take my breath and chase me indoors, for the buzzing of junebugs and the sight of red-fleshed watermelons too heavy to carry to make me remember that this is June, the month of thunderstorms, lemonade, and my father’s birthday. When the sun makes a rare appearance here, I am flooded with memories in which I do not necessarily remember the sun, but only the familiar warmth of skin, the rhythm of breath, that comes with that experience of summertime.  My memories do not carry me to places that I logically might expect but to subtle places lodged so deep in my thoughts that the images do not even become wholly clear at their maximum intensity.  I can remember, ever so vaguely, a faint trace of a time spent with an old friend who has long since proceeded.  The dense scent of the air while wandering in a deep Tennessee forest with beads of sweat covering exposed skin.  The faint sizzling of fireworks in the distance.  The undaunted voices of school children whose freedom has been restored. The mood of a long day well spent as the sun finally falls below the horizon. The familiar ache in the muscles at the end of the day as the sun gives way to a cobalt twilight.  The forest in evening, alive with crickets and flickering fireflies, resembling silence more appropriately than any lack of sound ever could.  A night sky littered with stars, visible galaxies, so numerous that mathematics invented a symbol for infinity just to count them.  Watching the moon rise in the twilight as the temperature drops to perfect.

I have burned my skin twice on those rare sunny days here, trying somehow to capture the mood of the familiar summertime in my self.  But seasons reach much deeper than the surface of the skin and its ability to register temperature, to emit sweat or to fill with goosebumps.  Seasons, and time, are rhythms linked to place, inextricable from landscape, and perhaps they cannot be captured or reenacted so readily.  I feel strangely disconnected from summertime, and all the places that contain it, even though the advertisements are trying to convince me it is the season for sandals, ice cream, sunscreen.  Perhaps they were not so wrong to want to think the world is flat.  That clocks are realistic.  That time is measurable.

I think often of what a lifetime is for, and what value there is in those things which spend our days.  I think of these things that are always passing, this time and this life, the seasons and their world, all the people, all the living things, and the nonliving things, all friction and calamity, one thing weathering the next, one life replacing the next and the next.  Perhaps it feels worthwhile to be suspended in a season, caught for a moment off-guard by the wind, suddenly knowing the value of sunlight, faint traces of a familiar smell gone now for years and hundreds of miles away, the handwriting of an old friend on an envelope outside the door, noticing the way the rain interacts with the sidewalk, our vision and our reality always crashing into one another, the heartbeat slowing, quickening, ceasing.  Suspended in the inescapable heaviness.

Summertime.

Windows

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My favorite thing about my apartment used to be its windows.  The huge converted mansion’s windows stretch from a half a foot off the floor to the top of the cathedral ceiling.

I was busy last night and, since I would be getting home after dark (which is quite late here as the northern England sky is still bearing that brilliant shade of twilight after eleven, today being the summer solstice) and our part of town is not known as the absolute safest, I requested that my husband walk to meet me so I would not come through our busy streets after dark alone.  When we arrived home, the main entrance to our apartment was propped open with a cinderblock.  The neighbors must have forgotten to close it after propping it to let their children move freely in and out of the hallway during the sunny part of the day.  I could hear their carefree voice in the hall and outside the window in the front lawn as I had prepared to leave earlier that evening and do so enjoy the nearby presence of children as they seem to keep life in perspective.  It being after even the twilight had faded to black, I shut the door and spent a couple hours with my husband watching comedy, recalling the evening, and eating pears.  I was exhausted by two o’clock, having spent an evening at a social gathering, as my social skills have perhaps stooped to an all-time low, resembling summers I spent in my early teens in the backwoods of the Appalachians.  I went to bed with a heavy sleep hanging over me and my cat followed suit and fell quickly to sleep on my shoulder with his head on my pillow and his face buried into my hair.

I was awakened from my sleep by tapping tapping tapping on the bedroom window.  The cat woke and sat on my chest, staring at the crack in the curtain that he is guilty of always making when he pushes his head between the two curtains to peak out on the moving world after it has been closed from us at nightfall.   The crack makes a clearly visible peeping hole into my bedroom, but I knew myself to not be visible to the road from my position in the bed, so I stayed still and waited for the tapping to cease.  I called for my husband with no reply.  The knocking on the window ended as I heard a siren pass; perhaps the person outside had realized the way their action would look to a passing policeman or perhaps they had just exhausted their rapping.  I could not know his motive.  My heart was pounding, almost inexplicably, and I crawled out of bed wrapped in a heavy comforter and went to find my husband, who was in the living room.  He told me the doorbell had also rang softly several times but he had dismissed it assuming it was the inconsiderate man who lives upstairs who, some weeks ago, had taken a habit of ringing our doorbell or tapping on the bedroom window for us to let him into the common hallway.  Because it happened previously during a holiday weekend, we assumed he had lost his key and could not get a replacement until the office reopened on Tuesday.  On Tuesday morning, he rang our bell again, at 7am, and my husband let him in (the same man, always with a coy grin).  On Tuesday evening, he rang once more at midnight, and then tapped on the bedroom window where I was until my husband went to let him in, this time giving him a threatening warning that we will not open the door for him again and that he should replace his key immediately.  He mumbled something about talking to the other person he lives with, and we assumed he and his partner would have cleared up the confusion as we did not have another unannounced ring until after three o’clock last night.

That is why last night the ringing bell and the tapping tapping tapping were thought to be that man, again having lost his key, and perhaps trying not to anger his partner by waking her by ringing their own bell.  I sat in the living room for a bit describing to my husband the tapping, almost frantic, and somehow much more terrifying than that of the man upstairs previously.  However, I eventually dismissed it all as having been him and the terror having come only from the fact that I was jolted awake, perhaps firstly by the ringing doorbell, but only became fully conscious upon the tapping.  Perhaps five, perhaps ten minutes passed before we heard the heavy muffled voices of men in the hall and feet walking up the carpeted stairs.  I felt surely someone had finally let him in, either his own partner or perhaps the Indonesian father who lives across the hall and whom I had met before on our first attempt to unknowingly let the man upstairs into the hall.  He had rung both of our bells and ran past us with a playful laugh saying he lives upstairs.  That is how I met him, and knew him, and was the only explanation he had given me for his ongoing odd behavior.

My husband walked me back to bed, checked the window to ensure no strangers were outside, and tied the cat’s crack between the curtains tightly closed with one of my hair bands and I crawled back into bed, still shaking from the events and the unnerving awakening.  He went back to the living room but several minutes later I heard the loud voices of men, again outside the bedroom window.  I yelled once more for my husband, but this time I could see through the top cracks between the curtains and through the slightly transparent, stained-glass effect of the fabric, that the voices of men were carried about in an atmosphere of flashing blue lights.  I peaked out to see a long band of police tape in front of my window and the nearby busy traffic intersection completely barricaded by police and ambulances.  There was a police officer standing outside my window, guarding it.  I pulled the curtain wide open and stared at him only later realizing it would be better to sit unnoticed.  I could hear their muffled voices through the single panes of glass on my enormous bedroom window.  As I sat near the window listening to the muffled voices of the officers an gigantic spider with long jagged legs walked right before my eyes across the curtain, silhouetted by the filtered light. There was talk of dropping a foreigner’s body, of trails of blood, of the traffic movement in the driveway that runs in front of my window with only one entrance or exit, and of the wall that stops cars and foot traffic from easily accessing my window from the main street in front of the apartment.  I sent my husband out to speak to them of the things we had heard that night, the often dismissed goings-on in the city, voices passing, yelling, car doors, ringing doorbells.  The officer kept my husband from stepping onto the stoop outside the main hall and told him that he himself was the one ringing doorbells, so my husband later assured me that the police had rung the bell, and that they must have tapped on my window having seen the light from my lamp which sits by the window through the cat-cracked curtain.   I lay awake all night, listening to the shifting voices of men outside my bedroom window, noticing bright flashes of white, a camera flash, repeatedly lighting the crevices of my curtains.  I wondered what it was that was drawing them to my bedroom window, as I had heard no sound of struggle, no car doors, no noises of distress, nothing at all save the tapping tapping tapping. Finally the blue flashing lights transformed into a steady blue dawn and the driveway outside my window fell silent once more.

I slept furiously, finally waking up in the stillness of late morning.  I went to my window, still curious of the camera flashes, the white tape, the police guard. I searched, looking for pools of blood, or white chalk outlines, discarded baggies with traces of white powder, or bullet shells scattered about, but saw nothing.  Then I noticed the driveway had a yellow chalk arrow drawn on it, and further down, another and another, leading out toward the road.  Suddenly I realized there were pinkish grey stamps near the first yellow arrow, shaped like flabby horseshoes, the first one appearing just outside my bedroom window.  I traced them with my eyes to find they were following the yellow arrows.  I looked at the stairs and the stoop beside my window which is the entrance to our main hall, where the button for our doorbell is.  I saw more of the same reddish grey stamps, and then some drips on the steps of the same fluid color.  That is when I noticed that the stamps begin at the edge of the stoop and first move toward my window in one direction, stop suddenly just outside the central part of the bay window, and then turn around and move away toward the exit, following the yellow chalk arrows.

It was only when the night passed, when sunlight and the summer solstice illuminated the world, and when I saw the imprint of the moment outside my window, that I could understand more clearly the terrifying reality of the night before.  Because, while I slept, I feel surely now that it was not the police who tapped tapped tapped on my bedroom window, despite the fact that they took credit for the ringing doorbell that directly proceeded the rapping when they spoke with my stoic husband.   Even in the haze of my fear and exhaustion last night, I found it odd that a policeman might have been tapping on my bedroom window, but tried to imagine it could be another curious cultural difference, since it was not the first time my bedroom window had been tapped upon following a ringing doorbell.  But now, seeing his footsteps just outside my window, traces of his path on the stoop toward the ringer for the doorbell, the yellow arrows that follow the movement of his steps from my window toward the road where last night there was an ambulance parked, I imagine it must have been him rapping, blood soaked.

I wish I could have known who was at the window.  Surely, though, I have grown quite terrified of any someone outside my window, especially at a moment in the night when everyone should be asleep.  And I thought, again, it must be the strange man upstairs, who quite truly unnerves me and who promised to never ring again or to rap at my window at midnight or later.  But I worried more it might be someone other than the man upstairs, in a city known for burglary, where the author of “A Clockwork Orange” grew up, impoverished by its legacy as the first industrial city.  When the Ikea deliveryman brought me my bookshelf during my first week living here, he told me to watch out in this part of town, that his “old lady” had her cellphone stolen nearby.  Of course, though, I know this is always the case when living inside a city, and I thought it quite fortunate that she had been burglarized without any real physical damage, without any terrifying gun-wielding or the rest that is so common where I am from.  Of course, I do not walk alone at night, and never act distracted on the streets, and always lock my doors even during the day, but I do this everywhere, as I have come to know even the smallest towns are not safe from the psychopathy of humankind.  And I quickly learned that most of the reputation of my area of the city comes from the infamous race riots of the nineteen eighties, which actually make me feel proud of living here, followed by a series of rather unpleasant instances of gang-related gun violence, which has nearly been eradicated since the last gun-related fatality in the region was nearly a decade ago.  I dismissed much of the reputation of the area as being racism and xenophobia mixed with the legacy of the place.  All these things were in my mind as I heard the rapping, but I wish I could have known who was at the window.

I know the man was a foreigner, like me, left alone in a strange world.   I went outside this evening and followed his footsteps, followed the yellow chalk arrows out to the main road and across the intersection, where I suppose someone saw him and called for help.  I looked at his steps outside my window, up onto our stoop, even traces of where his hand must have reached inside our mail slot.   It’s strange to follow a ghost of a moment like that, feeling so near to him.  I never would have imagined that it might have been an aching human who was outside my bedroom window rapping and tapping on the glass, only would have thought it was something terrible trying to be let in.  I did not hear his screams, did not hear the car doors of his aggressors, or even the faint murmur of “Help”, and I never saw him, so I could not know it was him at my bedroom window.

Windows are strange devices, meant to let the world in without letting in its ghosts.  A good window keeps out the cold in the winter and drives out the heat during the summer. It protects us from rain and burglary, from gusts of wind, animals and insects that might bite or sting.  But it lets the sunlight drench us, feed our plants, warm our homes.  A good window is thick and heavy, unbreakable, yet escapable.  The windows in my apartment used to by my favorite thing.  They let the world in.  There are cracks between the frame and the single panes of glass so gusts of wind can fill our rooms and the precipitation during winter enters and settles in a solid fog on the glass.  On sunny days, the light streams in and the cat sleeps on the floor drenched in the sun.  I sit by the window for many hours a day, painting, writing, petting my cat, and sharing meals with my husband,  as people come and go, drying laundry, taking out the trash, going about the motions of life.   Through my windows the world enters and the house fills with Sunday mornings or Sikh festivals, children walking home from school on Friday afternoons in their navy blazers and white collared shirts.  It fills with the children playing in the back garden, cats stalking each other along the walkway, women pushing strollers, young men driving cars with the windows down blasting Bollywood soundtracks. Now my windows are full of rapping and tapping as the world has been let in, but I only wish I would have known it was him.

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Retreat Into The Green World

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I have fallen for this city with its pink cherry blossoms and weeping willow trees in the park near my creeky old Victorian mansion makeshift apartment that has the stench of Art Deco wallpaper under a hundred layers of thick ivory paint.  Its funny, when we played MASH as children, I never really believed that landing on the M would actually determine my destiny of living in a mansion, but I do.  I live in a mansion with some 30 other assorted individuals, mostly immigrants like myself.  We live sandwiched between a Malaysian family with two beautiful children that play in the back lot as the sun hangs low in the sky and a rock and roll band with the habit of smoking on the back stoop.  I have dreamed it up that the rockers have a circus performer girlfriend as I have seen the same figure, coming and going, twirling and skipping down the sidewalk past the window, focused, counting.  Cricket has taken to watching the neighbors smoking, listening to the thuds of their loud music muffled by thick walls, then moving his gaze to the magpies carrying enormous sticks to their nests, then the young girl, nearly four years old, holding dandelions against the glass.  The neighborhood kids sneak into the garden for soccer matches, rhythmically divided by periods of wrestling and general boyhood social conditioning.  The man who lives above us has developed a habit of ringing our doorbell at all hours to be let in to the community hallway.  The whole place has budded like the spring and a damp frozen winter has given way to the motions of life in a green world.

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Two weeks ago, I used my husband’s pocketknife to pry the front window open, carefully, eagerly, peeling away years of ivory to make a fracture toward the world.  On Cinco de Mayo I stood by that window and marveled at the Vaisakhi Festival in the back lot of the Sikh temple.  I watched countless neon orange turbans passing, bejeweled scarfs, people with this place to be, a neon orange flood.  I listen for the Polish church bells nearly every Sunday morning, glancing out to see the elderly ladies in their well-tailored skirts and the curious children reaching for rocks, grasping for little bits of hidden treasure in the grass.  I take long walks, often alone, weaving my way through the park blanketed in a sea of friends and families picnicking on the grass, reading, playing soccer, laughing, letting the sun warm the skin, then past the University with its carved stone facades bragging a belief in learning, and deeper into the city, where the buildings start to tighten their grasp on one another, moving from pubs and convenience stores toward glorious late Victorian monuments of culture, and finally to the heart of commerce and another lovely park where African dancers and Inca musicians are surrounded by small crowds of curious passersbys.  On the backstreets there are the alternative monuments, small shops with neon spandex and ugly sweaters, all colors of hair dye and buttons to confirm one’s scene of metal or punk or the rest.

Sometimes I want to take a giant wooden spoon and stir the world.  That is almost what a long walk is, wandering for miles, inhaling the scenery, letting the images mingle, overlap, merge into an illogical yet lovely combine.  Sometimes I imagine myself free of form, my anonymity granting me an unbiased eye to see all the motions of the city.  In many ways I find comfort in the anonymity, and this momentary lapse in scene, but still unceasing scenery.

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My life is a pause.  A pause in which to take in the way the gentle breeze sweeps the cherry blossoms into the street; wilting bouquets of roses tied to an iron gate near a bus stop; a child’s pink shoe carelessly abandoned in the grass; the curious mood of the sun passing behind a cloud and reemerging; the mesmerizing way in which the wind holds and releases the branches of the weeping willow tree in perfect unison, lifted then released to rest in neon green splendor.  I find myself pausing, or paused, to be taken by that same wind.

The past three months have slipped by the way a deep slumber passes.  I can hardly believe so many days could have passed while my life orbited so slowly.  I suppose a life’s moment of hibernation, however, might be as helpful as a deep sleep for the impenetrable equation.  I must be searching for some insight in soil and seedlings, in watching the tea leaves seep the deep reddish-brown slowly into the clear water, and in the quiet and pensive passings of hours, and days, and weeks, and now months.   I feel these months have been a retreat, twofold, from a life so carefully planned and executed, twofold.  The retreat is the frantic fleeing but it is also the silent sanctuary, suspended like a pendulum.

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When first arriving in Manchester, I had an intense and aching experience of the compression of memory.  My memory became a vacuum, a black hole, a whirlpool, the inside of which was a narrow hall.  I once fancied my imagination, and all the experiences which shaped it, as a deep and echo-filled palace full of exquisitely decorated ballrooms and gardens in which to classify and contain memories.  The palace days were the time when I could place nameplates on all the tables so the memories were cheerful and delightful, sharing pastel confections with one another, chunks of memories passing little silver plates of candied almonds to other agreeable and common chunks of memories.  But when my mind compressed, suddenly, under the combined weight of foreignness, recent events, and thawing, I found myself in a state of disillusion.  Everyone I have ever met was compressed into a dimly lit hall, tightly jumbled, with no name tags or date of graduation from my life.  I desired to meet no one new, even avoided speaking to shopkeepers, for fear of adding more jumbled faces to the hall.  I was not sure how many years may have passed but everyone was acquainted. The timeline was cut and folded.  Memory was folding space, compressing time.  The inner space was enough to look upon.  The inner space was the retreat.

The past two weeks have been characterized by emergence, and reemergence.  The bluebells and tulips, the cherry blossoms and daffodils, have all opened to the green world.  The fields surrounding Manchester are vibrant with life.  If you could see the little lambs frolicking in the fields, you could fathom the ceaseless joy of what it is to be newly born into a green world.    I finally started meeting people beyond the four people in Manchester, all who work at my favorite coffee shop, who have known me intimately enough in the past three months to learn that I am a lactose-intolerant, American artist with a taste for mochas and a habit of being over-exuberant while answering surveys.  A roving artist with a Polaroid camera, a filmmaker who works in a dress shop, a relationship counselor with a fondness for art therapy, a German language virtuoso, a woman emerged from captivity, a Brit or two, a nanotechnologist, a friend of a dear friend, a humanist refugee for decades, two cheerful architects, a West Virginian a long way from home, a bakers dozen giant snails on the garden wall, two moths in the paisley curtains, and a hundred sheep along the hillsides of the Peaks district have all entered a palace of imagination.  Retreat into the green world.

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Life is Full Up With Enchantment

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Two Novembers ago, we were living out the coldest winter in twenty years in an Anatolian city in Turkey.  The newscasts were riddled with people freezing to death on the streets of various European cities.  Snow fell in January and stayed on the ground for three months, regularly replenished by the most beautiful snowflakes I have ever seen, huge icy white dreamflakes.  It was in the beginning of this long winter that we came upon a tiny frail kitten, quite greasy, rather unattractive, and definitely not equipped to withstand the long winter.  I had never even seen a kitten in our city.  He was on our favorite street named Lover’s Lane, alone, and we were walking home late after a long evening of sipping tea from tulip-shaped glasses at a pastry shop.  He approached us fearlessly, frantically, curiously, showing himself in his purest character. I remember during the long walk back to the apartment thinking that I wasn’t sure why I had just picked up this ugly little kitten at such an inconvenient time in my life but I would never put him back down.   He was my immediate companion, replacing his lost mother with my long locks and the nape of my neck.  My father named him Cricket, a name to which he answers and which fits his nature exactly.

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We three lived there together quietly for the next seven months, with Cricket remaining in some secret, as I fearfully learned that many people in our city disapproved of indoor cats and the alleged negative affect of the inhalation of cat hair on female fertility.  During the summer, he traveled with us throughout Turkey, from Cappadocia to Istanbul, staying at modern hotels by the Mediterranean and centuries-old cave cathedrals.  On the fourth of July, he woke in America, suddenly transported to a house full with another (rather timid) cat, an eager pit bull, a giggling baby, a galloping toddler, and a host of excited family members gathered for the reunion.  He saw his first goldfish, ate his first salmon, traveled with us for six months as we drove countless hours back and forth between two states where we were living.  Adaptable yet cautious, he was living the American dream…and then we moved to England.  Sadly, complications with travel, customs, and time frame meant Cricket was left shipwrecked, stranded, SOS in the USA.

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We left just shy of midnight on the twenty-first of March, two months after arriving in Manchester, racing to beat the blizzard scheduled to hit Northwestern England starting in the wee hours of morning. I suppose I have daydreamed in childhood once or twice what it might be like to visit Paris, stroll along with other couples by the Seine donning a beret and red lipstick like in the days before the war, but I surely never could have quite imagined the circumstances that would lead me to ole’ Paree.

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We drove south in our red rental car with the American postman steering wheel for five hours and checked in at a harbor-side hotel just as the sun was rising.  We left the curtains open so we could watch the sun rising over the harbor in our dreams and listened to the calling of the gulls as we slumbered.  That afternoon, we caught the train under the English Channel to Calais and set off for the land of colored glass and carousels, sailors and teardrops, chocolates and fairies.  We slept in Rouen, then Saint Malo, and finally Vannes, venturing deeper and deeper into the land of Breton. Our westernmost destination was Locmariaquer, the borderland between the Gulf of Morhiban and the Atlantic Ocean.  A strange feeling comes over one to see the other side of a familiar ocean, to be looking from the distant land out across the expanse of ocean that leads to home.  We stood at the coast studying a decaying and primitive stone map of the world from a port that launched countless fleets of ships back in the days of world discovery; we gazed at the waves of the sea toward America, at the place where our air meets the sea of the ancestors.

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The Gulf of Morbihan is told to be made of the tears of fairies shed when they were banished from their forest home of Brocéliande.  Their floral crowns fell from their heads and floated out to sea to form the islands there.  I collected tiny sparkling shells looking as much like the taxidermy eyes of hawks as they do shells.  We followed a trail of mistletoe back toward the ancient forest of Brocéliande, the enchantment grasping us.  We knew the moment when we entered the forest.  The trees were a fortress, stretching so tall toward the grey sky that they smothered the Earth.  Each tree followed its own idiosyncrasy, one covered with brilliant green moss, another with ghost white ivy wrapping it like veins, and another still with bark like skin thick and hardened from the sun. I was overcome with the sublimity of what surrounded me.  I wondered if the car would stop, the engine filling with moss, the trees taking us up up up into some unseen land.  We moved through forests and into small villages, each seeming as ghostly as the brown and smothered forest floor.  All inventions of mankind were taken by nature, the careful stonework swallowed in that irrepressible green.

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We stumbled across a small town that nearly made my heart stop.  As we rounded a corner, lost and enchanted, we came upon a rusted Christ on a cross as tall as those Brocéliandian evergreens.  He was crucified outside a stone chapel alongside a stone carving of a solider from the first World War and an unnerving living sculpture, mangled trees being woven together to form an archway leading to the chapel door.  I stood outside it, in the pebble yard, overtaken by the uncanny mood blanketing the place.  Terror and awe filled my being and I fell motionless, suspended in a peerless moment.  We descended back into the forest, moving in and out between the shaded regions and the open farmlands bordered in mangled trees, stopping near a hawk, overcome when a mythical long-haired billy goat appeared before us and then disappeared back into the devouring forest.  We were lost in it for hours, we might have been for days, or years, or centuries had it not been for the obligations weighing on our minds.  We moved out into the farmlands where the forest had been conquered by the famous Bretons, most romantically remembered in those twentieth century paintings having visions of Jacob wrestling the angels, picnicking in the meadow, or toiling in the fields.

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As we entered Chartres late in the night, we realized we were one hour late and lost, still under some enchanted spell, fairy dust in our eyes calling us toward slumber.  Another hour passed as we searched for the elusive Saint Yves.  We finally discovered (by some miracle) a faintly marked cobblestone sidewalk named Yves and followed it a quarter mile up a steep slope.  We spotted the sky-high walls of the abbey where we were to sleep.  Two hours late now and far past midnight, we circled it, searching desperately for a door in the centuries-old gate.  We rang a bell, unsure even if it would reach an ear.  About to give up, we were finally answered by a man’s voice so soft that we could barely comprehend.  He awoke and opened the heavy door of the gate to let us in to the courtyard of the abbey.  He knew not a word of English, and my husband (renowned by all those who know him by his dexterity and knowledge of language) was under such a spell he could barely speak or comprehend.  We moved to symbols, and I was able to understand the kind man’s gestures and directions.  He gave us the key and as I fell asleep I felt the ghosts of the building waking, wandering the stone spaces.

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When the morning released us from the bewilderment of the past evening, we learned the kind man’s name is Francis and I understood how he communicated with such patience, thinking of his namesake, the friar of old kneeling amongst the wild animals of the forest, understanding without words.  Fully aware of the stupor of slumber in which we had encountered him, he asked the polished (and English-speaking) receptionist if we remembered him.  I could not muster the words that I would never forget him, but I only asked for her to tell him we were lost, the explanation which I had so longed to use the night before, as we had summoned him from his sleep for help.  He surely already knew that, though, Saint Francis smiling.

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We left the abbey and visited the blue Virgin, the golden-gated palace of former glory, the river Seine, and the 1889 entrance arch to the World’s Fair.  We spend nearly an hour lost in the underbelly of Paris and slept that evening in the outskirts, awaiting the fulfillment of the trip, the arrival of the catalyst for our long drive from Manchester through London to the white cliffs of Dover, under the English Channel and westward deep into the forests of enchanted Breton, to the other side of the Atlantic, and finally to Paris.

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In the morning, we arrived at Charles de Gaulle for Cricket, brought by my husband’s sister, who volunteered to carry our cat from America to France for us.  The four of us drove north together across Normandy, where my husband, lacking absolutely the storytelling spirit which knows to exclude certain facts for the sake of the audience,  explained to the border guard that our sister was here for the absolute purpose of smuggling (legally, but in a slanted way) our cat to us, and therefore avoiding the exorbitant fees for bureaucratic UK pet importation in exchange for the exorbitant, but much more worthwhile, fee of international tourism and a road trip through worlds of enchantment.  The border guard did not seem particularly enchanted by our odd behavior but he let us pass, deep under the Channel and back to our chilly city in the north,  Manchester, who breathes with steam engines and thinks with artificial intelligence.

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By air, by land, by sea, the little greasy street kitten back to me.  Sitting in the sunny window beneath the mint plant in the drafty converted Victorian mansion, Cricket is as taken by the fat wood pigeons in the back garden as I am.  I suppose he cannot know what distances he has traveled nor how strange his life is always in the process of becoming.  All he must know is that we never put him back down.

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All of life is full up with that enchantment, with love propelling us to unknown places, with distances traveled, with the sustained voices of loved ones, with the friendly ghosts wandering down stone-lined hallways, with gulfs formed by fairy tears, with histories passing like a breeze, with the familiar warmth and sweet smell of a beloved cat’s fur after a long slumber in a sun-drenched Victorian windowsill.

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On Foreignness, or The Robin’s Egg Blue Dresser

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Relocating house and home to a foreign country is quite different from being a tourist. While many family and friends hope to hear exciting stories detailing numerous adventures during the early weeks of relocation, the reality presented to the ‘adventurer’ is often quite the contrary. The fact is, a new country gives the opportunity and the requirement to start anew, to gain a new identity that is linked to the place, and with this comes a large stack of paperwork and a seemingly unending list of odd tasks that never need to be completed in unison in the home country. You are faced with the moment in which you are thirsty, but have no cup. You begin eating the candied ginger that you brought with you for airplane snacks and considering different ways of wearing your hair to conceal its need for a nice washing due to your bathtub with no towels and no shampoo. Yes, you can buy these things…once you find them, and find a way to change your paper, plastic, and scrap metal which is worth so much in your homeland into something that can operate as currency in the new place. All of this makes you behave strangely, in a way that probably too greatly influences our perception of foreigners. I suppose it calls for the inventiveness, fearlessness, and slowness to embarrass that is so cherished in children but which we try to eliminate the need for in our adult years in favor of comfort, convenience, and, in a way, dignity. This requirement for spontaneity and thinking on one’s feet is exactly what lends the invigorating mood to such a severe relocation despite the tribulations. Nevertheless, sheer luck and good fortune is likely not enough to carry you through the early weeks but rather a hearty mood of perseverance and an overthrowing of previous conceptions, of both self and environment, is necessary.

Which brings me to Ikea, a land both familiar and wild, a place I snubbed due to its mass-production and lack of ‘charm’ in favor of gritty vintage or second-hand with potential while in America. But the “new me”, the expatriate version, the me that is here now and not there decided that candy colors of spray paint and the borrowed tools I used to find in the basements of family were not as easily accessed and those problems do not begin to explain the difficulty of not having a car, of the infamous bad mood of bus drivers, or of the sheer difficulty that gathering random awesome used furniture would have posed in a huge, foreign city. So, I bribed my husband with the promise of Swedish muffins and coffee (since one of the items on our list of which we had thus far been deprived was that American delightful hot beverage–you know, the one we got hooked on after we dumped all the British tea into the Boston Harbor) in the Ikea cafe. It is not that he is not helpful, but he is the one with a job, with scheduled studies, and had thus been roped in to a Saturday outting which would not have been of his choosing in the least. I asked him to keep a happy face and to bear through it with me because I needed to finish unpacking and organizing our flat before really being able to let myself enter the mental space to begin my work, to open my studio in our apartment with cathedral ceiling which was luxurious two centuries ago and had since been divided up into apartments in the immigrant section of town and was inhabited by a solid blend of expatriates, mostly from countries east of here, and doctors or nurses who are paid significantly less than Americans in the medical profession and thus have the fortune of sharing mansions with immigrants, like ourselves.

Our list for Ikea was simple but long and detailed included a host of organizational materials, most importantly a storage unit for my husband’s clothing (since I had already claimed and put into full use the small wardrobe that came in the furnished apartment) and a case for his language books which had overtaken the table that I had put by the window overlooking the garden, the precise table that was to be my studio drawing table with a secondary function of a table at which to eat our meals. I had researched the Ikea here in Manchester and had learned most happily that they would deliver to our address anything we buy that is less than £250 for a nice price of £15 for the lot. Our shopping trip thus went from what we could carry–on the forty-minute bus ride then through the large outdoor bus terminal to another twenty-minute crowded bus, then finally on foot down Moss Lane for a few blocks to our mansion–to what we could find, afford, and ship. Perhaps the knowledge of the generous delivery made our shopping overzealous, or perhaps we were just in need and this seems the case judging from the fact that we have not failed to happily use everything we bought just a few days ago at İkea (save the much-needed lamp for which we have been unsuccessfully searching for a bulb). Nevertheless, we filled a cart…and a trolley… and thought perhaps we would return on the bus emptyhanded and a few days later everything we choose would be magically delivered to our door. We kept our spending light, despite filling the cart, by choosing the cheapest of everything and even shopped in the bargain corner for the most-desired storage unit for my husband’s clothing. And there İ found my favorite İkea minimalistic modern piece of furniture ever–for 40% off–a robin’s egg blue dresser, the same color İ might have chosen to paint a refurbished second-hand dresser in my earlier days.

We questioned the man at the help desk and he said they might deliver it to us since it was not very large but that there was the possibility that they might make us disassemble it in order to ship it. İ suppose we heard that they would likely deliver it as-is (not to mention, the color was just so pretty and it was a nice bargain) so we decided to risk it and buy it. After the purchase, we headed to the home delivery and customer service desks to have our three big blue İkea bags and our heavy boxes of furniture and other household trifles shipped. İt was only after the purchase and the four hour shopping extravaganza that we learned there were no boxes, no packaging materials, no tissue paper, no bubble wrap and no little styrofoam peanuts involved in this transaction. İnstead, everything loose, or smaller than our big blue plastic bags which were so gigantic that even İ could probably fit inside one, could only be shipped with no guarantee, no packaging, and no insurance simply tumbling around inside the big blue bag…and that the robin’s egg blue dresser needed to be disassembled. We had no choice but to agree, with no car and no friends as of yet, so İ gave them our iPhone and they gave me a simple tool set consisting of a small hammer, a wrench, pliers, and a screwdriver with interchangeable tips.

We managed just fine at first and rather diligently removed the tracks from the bottom of the drawers, hammered the back off the dresser and, with some advice from the nice man at the help desk who happened to magically appear at the beginning of my mood of desperation, even took the sides apart from the top and bottom, which required a bizarre turning and loosening of some plastic knobs which even the sharpest woodworker might not have understood with no instruction manual on the technology of mass furniture construction. Nearly an hour had passed during the difficult deconstruction by this time, turning the clock to our fifth hour in İkea and well over six since leaving our flat to journey there. All the while, İ was filling my wallet carelessly with small nails and screws. We had finally moved to the drawers and İkea had become a bustling madhouse of home decorators. There was a solid crowd waiting in the home delivery line, which crept like molasses from the bottom of a deep jar, and İ suppose their only entertainment must have been to watch us try to disassemble our robin’s egg blue mess of particle board which was never meant to be taken apart.

The drawers were put together with some white plastic corks which absolutely could not be turned or pried out of the board. İ tried a variety of methods: push, pull, pry, turn, turn the opposite direction, all the while changing tools, alternating the different heads for the screwdriver, looking hopelessly at the bored girls working in customer service who seemed to be servicing no customers, then looking hopelessly at the lone small girl with the huge line of feet pushing trollies of mattresses and wardrobe boxes working in the home delivery line. İ began having fantasies about dropping the dresser in the Boston Harbor and was considering other options. İ could carry the drawers on the bus with me. No. We already had two big body-sized blue bags of breakables cushioned between blankets to try to maneuver on the bus for fear of their uninsured breakability. My husband suggested that we just flee the scene and leave the poor shattered dresser on the floor to be swept up by the sighing night janitor. But İ just could not leave it. İ absolutely could not quit having gotten so far. Just exactly at the moment when my eyes began to glaze over and the thought ran through my mind that if İ stabbed myself with a tool they might take pity on me and deliver the drawers intact, the screwdriver İ was aimlessly prying at the white knob with slipped and cut a deep hole into the thumb on my less-important hand. İ looked around to see if anyone noticed. Unfortunately, no. İt was bleeding and there was a big disgusting flap of skin covering the wound but İ was not in the mood to pass out, although at least that might have gotten me a soda.

At this point, my husband became an enraged maniac, the way he used to do when we were living in Turkey when strange men working at stores would mistreat me or tell me my cat was not allowed on the bus. He had only become so aggressive once that İ could remember when we lived in America and that was when we were walking together to school and a SUV driven by a well-groomed soccer mom hit me as İ was walking in the crosswalk. He laid his fist down on the hood of the car so hard that the woman looked more offended by the dent in her car hood than by the bruise on my left leg. İ think part of my husband’s foreigner role is to be an aggressive maniac whenever anything harms–or even threatens to harm–me. So, enraged foreigner maniac husband began yelling (in his soft but sturdy voice) that his wife is bleeding and that the drawers cannot be disassembled. The first British man was quite rude and said he does not even work for İkea but he was able to convince the girl to get first aid for me. İ thought this was fine enough because İ prefer not to have tetanus or some bizarre infection that comes from stabbing oneself with a public screwdriver. But, as she began calling for first aid İ felt it coming, the foreigner last straw, the inevitable breakdown that must occur just at the cusp of breaking in to the new place.

Just as the lady arrived with the non-alcoholic alcohol swab and the bandaid, the tears started gushing like a broken levy and the tiny (but deep) cut became the symbol of all the trials of the first two weeks, of thirst with no cup, numb toes from miles of walking in freezing rain, not understanding my own language, confusion, stares, mean bus drivers, not being able to contact our families, and the lovely rest. She began making classic British jokes (maybe she even mumbled something about ‘only a flesh wound’), telling me it will hurt more later and that my husband should let me order take-out and that İ definitely should be free of house chores for several days. Another two men arrived to collect insurance information and seemed as bewildered by my reaction as the lady but also as gentle and as willing to react with humor. İ must say that this was the absolute first moment İ had ever understood, truly understood, what we call in America “British humor”–that sort of vague delight in rainy days, in the negative, the unhappy and the unfortunate that helps them make it through the trials of life, like bleeding thumbs on the less-important hand. İ imagine now what they must have thought as the sobs kept me from being able to tell them my address or my occupation, which the man marked as homemaker. İt was a tiny cut that had rendered me utterly incapable. İ muttered through the tears that it was not the cut that hurt but the situation but the man looked at me like he might not have understood my accent which only deepened my sobbing. İ was imagining the entertainment that the molasses home delivery line must be having to make the time pass more quickly. By the end of the fiasco the İkea people had agreed to deliver the drawers without making us complete the impossible task of disassembling them and İ had finally grasped British humor. We put the destroyed parts of our once lovely robin’s egg blue dresser on a trolley, threw any loose screws or nails in my wallet, and waited in the molasses line to complete our delivery information and to return the bloody screwdriver.

We spent a long time at the counter trying to sort out the rest of our delivery, which was as unsorted and scattered as our lives had been for the past couple of weeks. İ am sure that the rest of the people behind us found it quite odd the assortment of things we were trying to ship, as İ think most of them must have had a car to drive home, or did not need all things at once the way we did even to accomplish a simple task like a drink of water or a warm shower. Perhaps they might think we should have known better, but as a foreigner it is not that you do not know better, it is just that you know different. İ think in America there would have been tissue paper, or boxes, or a rule against home delivery for pre-built robin’s egg blue dressers. But, those things go unsaid.

We had breakfast in İkea and it was well after dark when we arrived back with empty bellies to Rusholme where we live. We skipped the Curry Mile and ate at our neighborhood Subway decorated with a faint map of Manhattan instead, trying to feel a little bit closer to normal. They delivered the dilapidated dresser along with the rest of our lot the next day before noon on a truck my husband claims was surprisingly empty. The delivery men were nice and İ wondered if they had been prepped for my delicate emotional condition. Since they all seemed thoroughly British, İ could not hope for any of them to understand the situation of being a foreigner nor will İ ever explain to them that İ nearly never cry in America, especially not for an injury so small, nor do İ expect them to understand. İt is almost only through being a foreigner that one grows to understand the bittersweet complexity of foreigness.

Putting the robin’s egg blue dresser back together on Sunday afternoon, İ dumped the assortment of screws and nails from my wallet onto our carpet and began rehashing in my mind the steps we had followed to bring it to its dilapidated situation. İ retraced our steps, putting the nails back into the same positions in the particle board and turning the mysterious plastic corks that let me hammer the parts back into place. İ thought the disorder and discomfort of the previous day would have left parts missing and İ imagined one or two crucial screws on the cement floor of İkea with a little drop of blood next to them. But, alas, the storm blew over and all parts were accounted for so the robin’s egg blue dresser was returned (with just a couple of small bings) to its original bargain corner of İkea blue glory.

I have never fancied myself a bawling homemaker but sometimes being a foreigner requires flexibility, a bending of our ideals, and a compromising of our self-determined identities. İ imagine the onlookers and workers at İkea last Saturday telling their families over dinner of the odd events of the day, of the crying foreigner with the cut finger and the broken dresser. But our lives are taking form now and with each trial, a new lesson, which is just as important as a new adventure.

Yesterday İ finally went back to being an artist, who might be starving were it not for my bubble filled out on a few pieces of bureaucratic paperwork and on the İkea insurance claim form for a cut finger that call me homemaker, for the lack of a better word. Like most women who find themself penciling in the “homemaker” bubble, surely I will do more than vacuum, drink tea, and have dinner on the table by 5 o’clock sharp. When the husband leaves in the morning, there is a nice table by the window overlooking the garden and a small but sufficient box of sparkling paints with which to tell a thousand stories. So begins a new story.

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