This Little Island

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March 30, 2017

Today is the day Britain leaves Europe.

Two vivid memories spring to mind, both from the early 1990s.

The first incident occurred a few weeks after I arrived in London from Canada. My days were spent job-hunting and sightseeing. I had come to London with a few hundred pounds and had found a room for 20 quid a week. My landlady, the impossibly named Lady Drew leant me her typewriter so I could write query letters to publishing houses. The ‘l’, the ‘j’ and the ‘t’ were wonky but this was before computers so you were allowed to send letters to publishers with sentences that looked more like rivers than train tracks.

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Between job interviews I would take advantage of the free museums and galleries. One day in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Field where you could get a cheap cup of tea, I found myself at a long table next to a woman reading the Times. When she came to the end of a section, she folded it and tucked it next to her dirty plate. It was clear to me her newspaper, when she was all finished with it, was headed for the bin. So, I reached over and picked up the section lying under the rim of her plate.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked.

“Um, I thought your were finished,” I said, guiltily putting it back down.

“Doesn’t mean you can have it,” she snapped.

There it was: her newspaper was not for sharing. My dirty paws were to stay off it. She had made it clear. And there was a subtext here: I could tell that my accent hadn’t helped me in my newspaper borrowing. I had been called a ‘pushy American’ by so many cab drivers, newsagents and publishers by now. I knew I wasn’t considered ‘one of them’, and probably never would be.

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Cut to a few years later. I have a great job, I’ve been saving a little, paying taxes, and managed to buy a small flat. In short, I had become the perfect little immigrant. I am in love with London, in love with my work, I have an incredible, diverse and bohemian bunch of friends. Life is good. One Sunday as I walk home through the Portobello Market just as it is closing up, I notice a stall-holder packing up her things. She’s tossing stuff into an old cardboard box in the gutter. It is clear that the items being thrown in the box are unwanted: they’re broken or chipped. In other words, they’re the items she doesn’t think are worth her while packing into her truck to sell at the next market she is headed to.

A small ceramic vase not much taller than a Penguin Classic catches my eye. It is not especially pretty, and might even be cracked, but it is turquoise—my favourite colour. I stop and pick it up. There is that question again: “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Um, I thought you were throwing it away,” I say sounding sort of strangled.

“I am,” she replies.

“So, um, well, I thought maybe I could have it then,” I say.

The woman lunges at me, grabs the vase and smashes it to the ground. I stand for a second stunned by her violence. Then I turn and walk with a lump lodged somewhere between my throat and my heart. I have spent the past 25 years trying to understand this act.

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I’ve never written about these small events. Mainly out of respect for my adopted home. It’s not a good look choosing to live in a foreign country and then moaning about it. “If it’s so crap, then why don’t you leave,” is an annoying refrain, but one that is true nonetheless. So I tend to only mention the positives about life in Britain—or my life in Britain. And the positives do outweigh the negatives.

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But with Brexit (a term I despise for its jaunty, punny elision of ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’ as if it were the punchline to a racist joke) the genie is out of the bottle. The mean-spirited side of the islanders I live among is out for all to see. The small-minded lack of generosity, the ‘Little England’ mindset of the conservatives who yearn for some lost Eden that never existed is now at the forefront. The horror of it all has been made public. My narrative of coming to this place and being welcomed and finding a home here now has to be rewritten.

The bean counters and bureaucrats have won. I wonder what it would be like to move here now. I got my fair share of “Come here to steal our jobs, then?” from cab drivers the minute they heard my accent. I hate to think of what I would get now. I had one employer way back who threatened to sack me because according to her, I “looked too happy.” She was a young woman but already withered from bitterness. She was allergic to stimulants which meant coffee and tea were banned from the office. One day I brought in some peppermint tea. When she walked into the kitchen and spotted it, she shrieked and called her boyfriend to come and take the contraband stimulant off the premises. I remember her shaking with fury and shouting at me, although I can’t remember now what she said exactly.

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But all this was the forgettable hum in the background of life in one of the greatest cities on earth. When things got too mean or lacklustre or grey or snobby or ironic, there was always Brixton Market, Ridley Road, Chinatown, the Portuguese cafes in Stockwell, the Lisboa on Golborne Road, the Spanish bar on Hanway Street, the Italian Church and its shop on Clerkenwell Road. You get the picture.

Not only is there a glorious diversity in this city, but it was something I always had the sense was wanted, was welcome. Now I am not so sure. The messages out there that my antennae are receiving are coming from the newspaper hoarders and vase smashers: Let’s make Britain so crap that no one will ever want to come here. … Let’s keep everything to ourselves, even the things we don’t really want. … Just because we don’t want it, doesn’t mean anyone else should have it. …

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The future of this tiny island in the North Atlantic will be one of tip-toeing through the shards of broken vases knowing deep in our hearts that we can at least have our own damn newspaper that we bloody well paid for—written in the Queen’s English, full of tits and asses and headlines made up of stupid puns, and no one can ever take that away from us, not even the immigrants.

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Note: for my friends and acquaintances who voted to leave Europe, this is in no way a diatribe against you. It is the misguided campaign, the cynicism and the lies peddled by the politicians that I find inexcusable. The whole project to leave Europe was based on falsities and dishonesty and a small-mindedness.

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Are We Ruining Our Children with Too Much Praise?

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 When my daughter came home from her third-grade sports day with a plastic gold medal, I asked her what she had won it for.

“We all got a medal,” she beamed.

I looked at my husband, who had been at her school all day cheering her on.

“They got a medal just for showing up?” I asked.

He didn’t seem to think there was a problem with this, but it niggled at me for weeks. I couldn’t help wondering about the kids who are genuinely gifted in the 30-yard dash or at jumping over hurdles. How would they feel being awarded the same medal as the ones who have zero interest in running and jumping or are just not that good at it? Have we reached the point where we can’t be honest about our children’s skills and limitations?

Educators and psychologists have debated the subject of praising children just for showing up for decades. You often hear comments like, “We are in a new age of narcissism” or, “We are entering a new me generation.” Is there, in fact, a connection between entitlement and how much praise we give our children? If so, what can we, as parents, caregivers, and educators do about it?

Studies show that feedback is a necessary component in a child’s sense of self-worth. But they don’t seem to need praise in order to thrive.

Although the debate is far from over, well-accepted studies in this area come to the conclusion that, yes, in many ways our well-intentioned tendency to lavish our offspring with praise is fueling a generation of narcissists. I am still not happy with the “gold medal for all” approach to sports day, but I have to grapple with the fact that many of us live in a society that values praise over engagement and end goals over process.

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In the 1960s and 70s, the cultural pendulum had swung a great distance from the Victorian idea that sparing the rod would spoil the child. We had, thankfully, moved from seeing children as little adults who could be sent down the mines, to viewing them more or less as equals. Child-led learning was gaining ground; parents told their kids to call them Carol and Bob, not Mom and Dad. The issue of praise has swung alongside the pendulum: Gone is the Dickensian approach of “building character” through coldness and disinterest, but parents and teachers are now beginning to question the “everything is great” mode. We have shifted toward a middle ground, one where we understand that feedback is good, but praise does not always bring about the outcome we hope it will.

The educational psychologist Jere Brophy, writing in the Elementary School Journal, provides an example of a well-meaning statement we can all relate to:

“Tom, how much is eight times seven? … Right. Jane, nine times six? … Okay. Bill, do you know how much is two times two? … Good, Bill! That’s exactly right! Nancy, how much is nine times eight? … Right.”

At its core, this example evinces the desire to boost a pupil’s confidence by using praise. But Brophy notes that this method of praising will probably “backfire, causing the recipients pain or embarrassment rather than making them feel good.” This is because praise on its own is not enough. The quality, context, and intention behind the praise matter, too. Bill correctly works out a very easy problem and is given extra accolades; meanwhile, his classmates have managed much more difficult ones but are shown less approval. This undermines the child’s trust in the person praising their efforts, thus devaluing the praise.

Studies show that feedback is a necessary component in the building of a child’s sense of self-worth. But, interestingly, students do not seem to need praise in order to thrive. Feedback is distinct from praise in that it engages with a child’s efforts rather than simply passing a value judgment on them.

In more recent studies, another danger emerges: Approval itself can become the “extrinsic reward,” the end goal. A child who is praised often will begin to crave the satisfaction he or she gets from pleasing their parent, teacher, or caregiver. Instead of doing something for the pure joy of it, the child will begin to do it simply for the praise. This is not a healthy cycle, and it can turn children into approval addicts. Their worth comes from the recognition they get rather than an inner sense of achievement or fulfilment.

In addition, there is some research showing that intrinsic motivating factors, such as wanting to learn the meaning of a difficult word or getting lost in the act of painting simply for the pleasure it brings, are incompatible with extrinsic factors. Writing in the Educational Psychology Review, Martin V. Covington and Kimberly J. Müeller take this idea further, positing that “when teachers attempt to encourage intrinsic behavior directly—for example, by acknowledging students for pursuing already established interests such as poetry writing—then ironically, these activities may be discouraged….Such discouragement is believed to occur because the offering of additional rewards devalues an already self-justifiable activity, which from the student’s perspective translates as, ‘If someone has to pay me for doing this, it must not be worth doing for its own sake.’”

If praise becomes the focus for preschoolers, and then shifts into wanting those gold stars at elementary school, it can then segue into craving the top grades in high school. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but all we are doing is training our children to attain goals rather than to pursue learning for its own sake. In fact, a study of college students found that they rated “achieving the highest grade possible” as their main reason for learning. Things like “increasing one’s knowledge” or “undertaking work as a matter of personal challenge” rated much lower in their priorities.

How do we foster in our children a desire to learn, rather than a desire to please us?

Although in some educational situations, some amount of praise can lead to short-term results, “these gains are countered by lower levels of motivation for continued learning.” There is evidence that “the more children are induced to do something for a reward, whether the reward is tangible or verbal, the more they show a diminished interest the next time they do it.”

So how do we foster in our children a desire to learn, rather than a desire to please us? One simple way is to praise the effort over the outcome. Not only does this encourage them to keep doing whatever it is, it takes the focus away from “good” and “bad,” placing it on the idea that working toward something can be its own reward. In other words, instead of thinking about praising our children, we should be concentrating on encouraging them. Some psychologists are keen to emphasize that we need to provide specific feedback rather than overall generalizations. We should also work toward creating an atmosphere where children feel safe making mistakes. Failure is part of the process of learning and is something we often overlook.

Psychologists suggest using “sincere, direct comments” in a “natural voice.” In other words, try not to say you think something’s great if you don’t, and don’t overdo the enthusiasm. It can be tricky: When I am confronted at the school gates with a robot made out of All-Bran boxes, my first thought is, “Oh dear, just one more thing to clutter up the house.” The object may not display any sort of skill or be particularly nice to look at, but my daughter might be quite proud of her creation. Asking her about it is a better tactic rather than wading in with disingenuous positive comments. Encouraging her to tell me about her process saves me from making insincere remarks.

Although most parents and educators agree that some praise, or, more precisely, “positive encouragement,” is critical to developing children’s self-esteem, the keys are to limit it, to keep it focused, and to be honest with it. If we applaud everything our children do simply because they have done it, then we are teaching them that mere existence is enough. This leads to entitlement and narcissism, not self-assurance and confidence. We underestimate how much children can see through dishonesty. They so often know what we really think, and it’s important for them to trust us.

In our fast-paced technological age, we are witnessing an upsurge in what some see as the normalization of narcissism—not garden-variety self-regard, but pathological self-absorption. And I can’t help but make the connection between a generation of approval-needy children and one of parents whose heads are buried in their smartphones. Perhaps, while we are simply too busy to notice, we are using praise as a sort of shorthand: the “like” button on Facebook, the thumbs-up emoticon in a text message. If all a child needs to do to get that endorphin-y hit of approval is grab two seconds of our time, then this will become the norm, the model for proper engagement.

It is up to us to see that the children in our midst are presented with the mess of reality, with their failures as well as successes, with joy as much as disappointment. We owe them more than plastic gold medals for participation: We owe them the ability to confront complexity. It is our honesty—and not our distracted “wows”—that will provide our children with the skills needed to live in the real world, the one that lies beyond the bubble of constant praise.


JSTOR CITATIONS
On Praising Effectively
BY: JERE BROPHY
The Elementary School Journal, Vol. 81, No. 5 (May, 1981), pp. 268-278
The University of Chicago Press
Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Motivation: An Approach/Avoidance Reformulation
BY: MARTIN V. COVINGTON AND KIMBERLY J. MÜELLER
Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2001), pp. 157-176
Springer
Nurturing Mastery Motivation: No Need for Rewards
BY: JUNE REINEKE, KATHLEEN SONSTENG AND DAN GARTRELL
YC Young Children, Vol. 63, No. 6 (November 2008), pp. 89, 93-97
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
PRAISE OR ENCOURAGEMENT? New Insights Into Praise: Implications for Early Childhood Teachers
BY: RANDY HITZ AND AMY DRISCOLL
Young Children, Vol. 43, No. 5 (JULY 1988), pp. 6-13
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)

 

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Alchemy is Magic

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Philip Corner performing his Paper Piece in honour of Ben Patterson, September 2016

I believe in alchemy. These four words keep surfacing from somewhere just as I am falling asleep or on the verge of waking up or when I am walking down Bethnal Green road to buy vegetables. They first surfaced while I was watching Philip Corner, the 83-year-old artist and musician a couple of weeks ago perform at Café Oto. As he and his diminutive wife, collaborator and muse, Phoebe Neville enacted his ‘Piano Movement’ by literally moving a piano, it happened. I realised that a piano is not merely an instrument, it is an object, a sculpture, a piece of work in and of itself. It not only makes music, but takes up space. Corner did eventually sit and play the piano, but throughout the evening, the instrument became so many things. By the end of the night, it sat shrouded in paper and covered in flowers and torn fragments of paper. By this point it had become a monument to Philip’s friend and fellow Fluxus artist, Ben Patterson, who died this past July. Patterson was known for his ‘Paper Piece’ in which he asked audience members to make sounds using paper. Corner enacted his own version, while he and Neville wrapped the piano in thick, brown sheets. They crumpled and ripped the paper and stabbed at the keys. The noise was incredible. And angry. In those sounds and in their movements I sensed the grief at losing a friend.

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Cascade Mountains from the air.

So, a piano becomes a memento mori. An object that can be silenced and repurposed with grief and mourning.

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Divided land from the air.

Since witnessing Corner and Neville’s performance, I keep thinking about this alchemy. Today during a Yoga class, I stared at a poster on the wall of the studio in an attempt to keep my balance in a one-legged pose. The poster was one of those small laminated things telling you that you can’t use the door because it is alarmed, or something. I couldn’t actually read it. But the key point was that it had two blocks of colour on it. In my mind the poster became a Rothko. It didn’t look like a Rothko at all, but my brain morphed it into one of his red and brown canvases.

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Mountains and the Great Salt Lake in Utah from the air.

And this has been happening to me frequently. Objects are morphing from one thing to another, from one use to another, from one state to another. And I think I know why. I, myself, am morphing from one state to another. The change. The half-century mark. I am there. The child-bearing years are coming to an end, the days of being able to be called ‘young’ are coming to an end. My body is being replaced by another one. I am feeling it physically, but it is manifesting itself in me psychologically in more profound ways.

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The Great Salt Lake, Utah, from the air.

It is odd that no one talks about perimenopause (the period leading up to menopause). It is a sort of bizarre edgeland in one’s life. It goes unmarked and yet, as I am experiencing its effects, I feel it should be marked with something like a wrapped piano or something equally magic. Our bodies at this point are losing their ‘use’ value and becoming something else: a shrouded vessel. There is mourning needed for the loss of what we once were and also some celebrating in order to welcome the new person we are becoming.

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Buffalo hide being scraped in preparation for tanning, Montana, January 2016.

Why are there no rituals around this time in a woman’s life? Women are reluctant to talk about it even amongst themselves. There is a reticence and a shyness around menopause. Is it because so much of our value is measured in our ability to procreate, attract a mate, look ‘hot’, be ‘sexy’, satisfied that we are the subject of locker room banter? I am finding the transition difficult, there is no doubt, but the struggle lies more in the challenge of convincing myself of my value as a woman who is heading past her shelf life.

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Buffalo hide being scraped in preparation for tanning, Montana, January 2016

We have seen in this farcical competition between Hillary and Trump how the disregard for women has become so normalised as to barely register. If there is one thing to come out of the disaster that is the Donald, it is that men are coming out and saying, “Wow, I had no idea you women were treated like this. I didn’t know you had it so bad!” We are often treated like this and we do have it so bad. We are badly paid, we are beaten up by our husbands and family members, allowed to die in childbirth, set on fire, forced to marry people six times our age, sometimes when we are eight years old, sold into prostitution and slavery, forbidden from using contraceptives, we have our clitorises sliced and we have acid thrown in our faces. We are not listened to and we are ridiculed for aging. Our cellulite is circled in tabloid newspapers and our stomachs mocked for being saggy after childbirth. We are not allowed to get wrinkles and god forbid our hair should go grey. But it doesn’t end here. We are expected to be nice. And we are the ones who take the day off work when our kid is sick. We also do seventy percent of the household chores and the cooking — even if we are the main breadwinners*. When our parents or even our partner’s parents get old, we are the ones who do the caring. We buy the birthday presents and make the soup for sick friends. Of course there are exceptions—many exceptions and many incredible men who love and care and do the lion’s share. There are men out there fighting the fight on our behalf. But they are rare and we love them.

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Floor of Powell’s Bookstore, Portland, Oregon.

At the moment as I approach this physical and psychological change, and experience the alchemy inside me, the image I have in my mind is one of running between carriages on a moving train while someone is offering me lunch. No thanks, I can’t stop to eat, I have to get into the next carriage. I’m moving fast and I have no time to sit and chat. There is life all around me and I feel it pulsing inside. It isn’t a child I am about to bring into the world, it is something else. Equally valuable, equally demanding and important. Equally beautiful. We just have to watch and see what it becomes. I think we might all be very surprised. Alchemy is magic.

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Philip Corner’s piano after his Paper Piece in Memoriam of Ben Patterson, September, 2016

*In Britain women still do 70 per cent of the housework. Analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found that eight out of 10 married women do more household chores than their husbands, with only one in 10 married men doing an equal amount of cleaning as his wife.

Joanna Pocock Meet Joanna Pocock

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A not very good photo of East London taken by coincidence a few days ago on the same street where the ‘Other’ Joanna Pocock works.

I have always thought my name was a bit weird. Those three soft, round vowels in ‘Joanna’. Then the harsher plosive ‘P’ in Pocock with its spiky ending. I was mercilessly teased as a child for my surname: Poke-a-cock being a favourite playground taunt.

When I arrived back in London after my two years away in Montana, I was sent via Facebook a message from a woman I got to know while I worked in a video shop in East London. She was a regular, and we would talk about film, politics, and the likes. Over the years we have sporadically kept in touch and ‘Liked’ some of each other’s postings on Facebook.

This is the message she sent me:

Hello Joanna Pococks!

SO! Last weekend I met a Lovely lady called Jopo and when I asked how she got this handle our friend said “‘cos she’s Joanna Pocock”. The little cogs started whirring and I said, “but I know a Joanna Pocock!”

“You KNOW Joanna Pocock!?” Squealed Jopo.

“Um, yeah!”

And Jopo proceeded to tell me that she’d signed up for a writing class at Central Saint Martins some time ago but on arrival saw that the teacher was Joanna Pocock so she retreated fearing that “Miss” would consider her some scary doppelgangerstalker. Also a few years ago “Miss” Pocock’s father wrote her on Facebook curious to find out about this other Joanna Pocock and the two proceeded to correspond.

Anyway I wanted to introduce you guys and if you chose to meet please lemme know how it goes or indeed invite me. Welcome home “Big”? “Old?” Jo (snark!) and hope you’re having a blast at Boomtown “Lil'” “Young” Jo (ahem..)

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So, it turns out there is another writer living in East London who shares my name, who corresponded with my father, and almost enrolled in my creative writing class at Central Saint Martins. I wonder what I would have thought if she had walked through the door and sat down. Maybe that she was doing some kind of art project whereby she pretended to have the same name as her tutor?

So, Joanna Pocock (the Younger) and I are planning to meet up somewhere in our neighbourhood and as she says in a message to me, “Haha this is amazing… We should go for a coffee and talk about what it’s like to be called Joanna Pocock and turn it into art.”

This is exactly the kind of thing I would write.

Is there a story or documentary in this? I don’t know why I find it so strange, but it may have something to do with the fact that Joanna Pocock is a fairly weird name.

I will keep you posted.

Joanna Pocock (the Older)

Six Suitcases

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Around the corner from my house, a cri de coeur

We left Missoula exactly a month ago and are still living out of our suitcases. We have another week before we move into our house, thanks to some fairly strong bullying from the estate agents who told us we couldn’t impose an 11-month lease on our tenant. So the couch-surfing continues.

“Mum, where are my swimming goggles?”

“Joanna, where is that brown checked shirt? The one with the cigarette burn on the pocket?”

“Where is my bicycle lock key?” And so on….

I have become the keeper of the suitcases, as if by some kind of magic I can see everything inside them.

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The need for novelty hits Brick Lane where you can buy the best bagels outside of Montreal and Manhattan

London continues to overwhelm. I went to Morning Lane in Hackney which used to be where illegal raves thrashed through the night in burnt out buildings when I first moved to East London. It is now the site of a Gieves and Hawkes, a Nike superstore, a Burberry outlet and one for Aquascutum. I lost all sense of where I was. This was my first feeling since leaving Montana of urban vertigo, of losing the London I know. It made me feel old. I can hear myself saying to E as we walk through Hackney, “Oh, this is where I went to a book launch where a guy dressed like an ape and almost jumped off the roof,” or “Your dad and I used to DJ at parties in this building,” etc… I have told myself I need to stop with this narration. But every bit of land, every bit of space is monetised, owned, profits are being turned over at an enormous rate. There is very little space just for the sake of space. It is dizzying. I hadn’t noticed it in my little patch because, well, it became twee and ‘gentrified’ a while ago. And there are blessedly few chain stores on my high street apart from a Tesco’s, a Boots, a MacDonald’s, and a very grim Nando’s. You can still buy cans of paint, toilet scrubbers, spools of thread, sewing needles, stationary, old lady slippers, bowls of fruit and veg from a cart, Tupperware, and stuff that you actually need. But delve further into Hackney and there are fewer and fewer of these shops selling the necessities of life — well, the necessities of my life.

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My neighbourhood which still has lovely nooks and crannies despite the gentrification

I am not sure how to grapple with the changes around me. Apart from the fact they make me feel old, they also make me feel there is a huge gap between what I hold dear and what others hold dear, how I function and how a whole swathe of the population seem to function. I get the feeling that people now live in their tiny flats with everything digitised and at their fingertips. No more books or messy CDs. It’s all streamed. No more sewing up holes in your jumpers, you just throw them out and order a new one online. No more cooking because you can buy a takeaway in a styrofoam container for the same price. I sense that there are lives being lived that are one big stream. Every click on that online purchase sparks a whole trail of algorithms telling the shopper that if they bought that, they might like this. It is endless and infinite and alienates the shit out of me. And of course it isn’t endless or infinite. The resources are coming to an end. Living simply now means throwing out your junk and living online. The space you save! Living simply has been turned into a desirable lifestyle with books like Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”. Kondo famously used to rip the pages out of books in order to save only the words she liked while simultaneously saving space. We listen to someone who molested her books? According to Kondo, one should only own 30 books at a time, or fewer. If you have more than that, you simply throw away (she loves sending things to landfill) the ones you no longer need. The ones we are instructed to keep are the ones containing “necessary information”. So there we have it. It is all about data. Despite the fact that the hard, cold facts of  “War and Peace” would be useless to most of us, I am still upset that my old copy which had long ago fallen apart to the point where I called it “War in Pieces” was lost during one of my moves.

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A Londoner looks out onto the morning rush hour from her flat on Hackney Road

The monetisation of land, the digitisation of art, the value of things being measured in their usefulness, the quantifying of our taste through algorithms: it all feels connected. The necessity factor has crept into how we assess art and the less useful objects around us like old books, bits of clay clumped together by our three-year-old, hats rarely worn but given to us by a dead relative we once adored. While simultaneously across London upscale cafés are replacing shops selling shoe laces and door handles. We seem to be devaluing the things with no monetary value (like art and the texture of our lives) while putting a huge value on the things that don’t give meaning to our life (like cups of bespoke coffee).

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Old-School graffiti in Shoreditch

I am happy to be back. Whether London is really home or not is something for another day. But I am not happy about what I see going on around me. I remind myself that there are enough people writing books, making films, working in hospitals, singing in bars, designing costumes and generally making life vibrant and interesting in my sphere. But for how much longer. More studios are being knocked down and more ‘curated’ spaces are popping up. I tell myself to go with the flow. Life may feel like it is slipping away and becoming a performance I am not good enough to participate in. But I have always been a good spectator. I’ll stick to that for now.

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Chess 4 Fun FREE in London Fields

Back, But Not Completely

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Heading south in Idaho.

It’s been exactly a week since we were sitting in our pink adobe house in Missoula, Montana watching the clouds gather over Mount Sentinel. The packing and garage sale-ing and clearing out of our house was intense. As were the goodbyes. But the clincher was when I discovered the night before we were scheduled to do the eight-hour drive to Seattle to catch our flight back to London, that I had packed E’s passport in a box that had just been collected by a grumpy FedEx guy. While I tried to sleep, my daughter’s passport was winging its way to London.

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Gentlemen’s Club in Weiser, Idaho

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Entrance to an art deco cinema in Weiser, Idaho

The following morning we learned that there is no VISA office in Seattle, but we could get E’s travel documents in San Francisco. Our leisurely eight-hour drive quickly morphed into a 17-hour drive to Northern California. Then there was the issue of changing our outbound flights from Seattle to San Francisco, and the dozens of mind-numbing and yet mind-filling details that needed seeing to.

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Defunct church in Weiser, Idaho

We drove through Idaho, and stayed a night in Grangeville, where the waitress in Crema Café and I felt a connection. We have since become friends on Facebook. This kind of thing happens in the West. The following night, we drove into Nevada. “It’s already so different,” I said as we stopped outside a rock shop run by Joe White Buffalo. It turns out he is a shaman and knows everything about rocks. He sees them as story-tellers. We toured his place, handling stones millions of years old, while he told us about his life, his time in Vietnam, the 27 ghosts living in the empty hotel where he sometimes sleeps. His house is on the border of Oregon and Nevada: “We eat in Oregon but we go to the bathroom in Nevada,” he told us. Joe showered E with beautiful rocks and shells, telling her she was a “child of the sea”. Her job, according to him was to watch over the animals in the oceans around the world.

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Joe White Buffalo’s sign for his rock shop on the Oregon-Nevada border.

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The White Horse Hotel where Joe sometimes lives with his 27 ghosts. Below: J in the doorway of the White Horse; closed business next door; and Joe’s shop where he is giving E some rocks and shells.

 

We stopped for the night in Winnemucca, which I found sad and surprisingly bland. Our motel was the ‘vintage’ (read: run down) Scott Shady Court Motel. I assumed the owner was called Scott Shady, which would have suited the place perfectly. But I soon realised from the coloured neon sign that the motel had been owned by someone with the surname of Scott who was proud of the fact his ‘court’ was ‘shady’. What a difference a name makes. My version was closer to reality as the shady court was in reality a concrete parking lot next to a highway and dotted with a few spindly trees.

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The Scott Shady Court Motel, Winnemucca, Nevada.

The next night found us in Reno, Nevada. It’s on a more human scale than Vegas, and although it has its fair share of gambling addicts and homeless folk walking with huge duffel bags (to where? a hostel? a soup kitchen?) under a beating sun, it wasn’t as surreal or ghostly or alien as Vegas. And the typography is a lot more beautiful. Our casino-hotel had two conferences on while we were there: the Mini Miss American pageant and a therapy dog gathering. We shared elevators with 6-year olds dressed like American Girl dolls, all perfectly coiffed and zipped into pristine dresses, along with Dachshunds in knitted coats saying, “I am a therapy dog, please respect me”. Our bell hop who helped us carry our loaded suitcases to our room warned us of the Mini Miss America Pageant: “These kids are all from the south. It’s all big hair. Reminds me of Cormac McCarthy or Faulkner. It’s like something from ‘The Sound the Fury’.” He paused. “If you go to the pool, bring extra sunscreen, there’s a huge hole in the ozone layer from all their hairspray.” He then told E she was a million times cooler in her leggings, t-shirt, and cowboy hat. We loved our Faulkner-reading bell-hop.

The next day we got to San Francisco just in time for our appointment at the Consulate. True to their word, they got E a VISA in about forty minutes. It was my first time in the city and I didn’t warm to it. The streets were claustrophobic and the gap between the haves and the have nots was screamingly apparent to me. I couldn’t help but think about that open letter which went viral a few months ago written by the San Francisco tech entrepreneur Justin Keller. In his letter addressed to the city’s mayor, Keller complained that homeless “riff raff” were turning the city into an “unsafe” and filthy “shanty town”. His Presidents Day weekend had been ruined by homeless people he said, whose “pain, struggle, and despair” were things he felt he should not have to see to and from work every day. I could feel the presence of his wealthy Tech bros all over town and I found it kind of gross.

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The El Dorado Casino Hotel, Reno, Nevada.

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An early start in Reno, Nevada.

City Lights bookstore is great. The museum is great. But I was happy to get out of town. I don’t know whether it was from two years in Montana, or the result of my knowledge of Keller’s letter, but the city just didn’t do it for me. San Francisco doesn’t feel like it is in the West, or that it even wants to be in the West. It seems to be leaning towards New York, while looking firmly out over the Pacific Ocean. It is schizophrenic. Los Angeles, on the other hand, seems happy in its skin, happy to not be New York or Europe. It is firmly itself, a self that is always changing and surfing between utter pointless superficiality and profound ideas about life on the outer reaches of America. It is a city that retains its place in the firmament of the West, the impossibility of it all, the dreams that may or may not come true that are key to life there. For me San Francisco lacks something of this spirit. But I was only there for a day, so I am sure my friends who live there and love the place will have some strong words for me.

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The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California. No one actually looks at the bridge.

Point Reyes National Park beckoned. It’s a spit of sand that juts into the Pacific and is home to elephant seals, elk (not exactly a draw for us after Montana), pelicans, herons and  a variety of marine birds and animals. So we drove out along a narrow road dotted with posh cafés and headed towards the ocean so we could look out onto infinity. The diminutive scale, the shingle houses, the tourists, it all reminded me of Cape Cod. After two years in Montana, we were used to having the wilderness to ourselves. We’ve become greedy for space. But we did get to see and hear elephant seals, who are aptly naked for their strange, antediluvian trunks and the noise they make like the trumpeting of an elephant. It was a cold and windy day, but we stood on Limantour beach watching the thunderous ocean breakers crashing against rocky headlands, running after them, letting them freeze our toes. The fog gave the day an aptly sad tone as it was our last day of our two years in America.

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On the road in Nevada.

I am writing this from our friend’s place in East London. We have yet to move into our house. Their guinea pig chomps away next to me, sirens blare in the distance, traffic hums along constantly. I have forgotten how much noise there is, how dirty your feet get when you wear sandals in London, how quickly people speak, and how chaotic life is here. Everyone smokes, everyone drinks, everyone talks a mile a minute. My synapses ache. My feet are black with grime. But, I am taking my time, processing our new-old life. I am very much back and yet distant to it all. The adventure hasn’t ended. It’s still going on quietly inside me. Missoula, Montana is being lived in this crazy patch of London deep inside me.

Transitions Expose the Cracks

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The last flowers given to me by a friend two days ago.

When I woke up this morning I had four words on my lips: Transitions expose the cracks. With those words, so many things became clear. I have been thinking about transitions a lot as I pack our house in Missoula, dividing our possessions into: Goodwill / Garage Sale / Ship to London / Throw Away / Give to Friends / Pack in a Suitcase. There is nothing quite like moving house to renew a sense of what matters, what should be allowed to be fleeting, what needs to be held close and what needs to be completely let go.

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My last walk up Mount Sentinel.

And in that process, any weak link, any unprocessed anger, frustration, or bad feelings become raw and exposed. And this has been my story the past few weeks. All of us in my small family have been navigating the transitions. Some days it hasn’t gone so well. Other days, when we feel in sync, the process is a cake walk. ‘Moving house. What’s the big deal?’

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My last trip to the Roxy.

Today while I was watching E at her final swimming lesson, I was reading Maggie Nelson’s ‘Argonauts’. If there were ever a book about transitions, it is this: “I told you I was sick of stories in the mainstream media told by comfortably cisgendered folks … expressing grief over the transitions of other … Where does it fit into the taxonomy of life crises when one person’s liberation is another’s loss?”

So there it is. Transition. It can be so many things simultaneously.

Apart from my musings on what these two years have meant to me, I keep coming back to the specifics. To the fact that our two years out of London involved coming to a specific town in a specific state populated by specific people. And this is when the tears come. As they did yesterday while I said goodbye to M and her daughter A on my front lawn with mount Sentinel at their backs. That was hard.

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My last trip to Idaho.

So here goes. I would like to thank all the people here who have let me into their lives, their struggles, their joys, their secrets. The friends who have ferried E across town, patiently not making me feel like an idiot for not knowing how to drive a car. To all the people who have fed us, poured us glasses of wine and bought us beers and cocktails in bars. To my friend B who now has my Yoga mat and can keep me up to date on Aladdin and his Persian carpet as he gives tips on ‘extensions’ to all the pretty girls in class. To the writers here who have read my work and allowed me to read theirs. To the editors here who are crazily generous with their time and have published my writing over these two years. To S whose ‘girlfriend dates’ with E have indelibly marked E with what friendship in the lives of girls and women can mean. To the friends who have let us ride their horses. To M whose cinema is the source of so much joy and so many hours of conversation. To G whose bookstore is beyond a doubt one of the best in the country and whose one-liners are a whole genre unto themselves. To those we have canoed with and braved tornadoes with on the Missouri River. To the friends who have sung Kinks songs for us and played guitar and enchanted us with their voices. To those who have performed in bars downtown and encouraged us to sway and dance embarrassingly as if we were 19 again. To those who have barbecued (still a mystery to me) and organised fancy dress parties and shared stories about past lives and future dreams. To the people who have been so open and curious and generous and kind. I honestly cannot imagine landing in a more beautiful place.

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My last views of Paradise Valley.

Who knew that all this and so much more could be found in this small town, high and dry in the foothills of the Rockies, eight hours from the nearest big city? Who knew? But you know who you are and we will always be grateful for what you have given us.

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The last time I will watch these two walk the dusty streets of small towns.

It is my last night in this town. E has three friends over for a sleepover. As I type this, I can see them streak past the kitchen window while the sun sets behind the mountains. They are playing some sort of hide-and-seek game involving fast running, squeals of laughter and the idea of having to get to a ‘safe house’. The goodbyes will be in the morning. We will cry. But then we will get in the car and drive away our sorrow. This is what road trips are so good for. We have several days of lakes and endless horizons and cheap motels and signage that breaks my heart with its insistence on a way of life that still clings on here. All this before we board the plane to London. Those days will be a balm. And then reality will hit and that will be a whole other story.