I wish I could think something useful

I have had a moderately thought-free day today, Praise Be. I have been sat sitting – I was sat sitting there – a colloquial, northern British expression though why I’m suddenly using it I don’t know. I don’t know much today. I probably know even less than Missy (above) who is possibly the world’s least intelligent cat.

So, what have I been doing today? Well, mostly cutting out hexagons for patchwork. This is my kind of work, I have discovered. Stuff that you can do – industriously, obsessively, even – that leaves your brain absolutely free to think of what it wants to think of. Or to listen to the umpteenth repetition of Pink’s Beautiful Trauma on Heart. I’m not averse to a smidgeon of Pink but you can have too much of a good thing. As that male hairdresser said – the one who cut my hair very short and then donked me most painfully on the head four times with his extra-long phallic black hairdryer – Oh, Pink – she’s got a belting voice – and I could tell he actually couldn’t stand her, belting or not.


Or perhaps he was just wishing he could be working on her hair rather than mine. More scope for his creativity.

(Sigh! This is one of those post you just keep writing in the hope it will eventually make sense…)

(So far it hasn’t.)

I was thinking about Stephen Hawking, who died recently. I was thinking several things, the oddest of which was that our one and only Guardian Angel just got up walked out the door – at the very moment when we could do with more than one Guardian Angel. His Guardian Angelness did not occur to me while he was alive. Three cheers for Stephen Hawking, who finally escaped his bone-bound island and is now floating free in the universe he imagined better than anyone else since Einstein.

Beyond this island bound
By a thin sea of flesh
And a bone coast,
The land lies out of sound
And the hills out of mind.
No birds or flying fish
Disturbs this island’s rest.

Dylan Thomas: Ears In The Turrets Hear

The other thing I was thinking about Stephen Hawking is this: that he had the best job in the world. One hour or so a day teaching, and the rest of the day being allowed to Think. In Peace! He had the sort of brain that made Thinking worthwhile, of course. He could concentrate on the nature of the universe for hours – for days, maybe – whereas my concentration span, even when it comes to laboriously cutting out paper hexagons (tongue clamped between teeth) and tacking tiny hexagonal bits of cloth to them, is a microsecond or two.

I was thinking how odd it was that it has taken me all this time to realise that the only sort of work I am capable of engaging in happily is precisely this sort – the sort I once despised. I remember once telling a tutor that I wanted to be a writer, and him kind of snorting (politely) and saying in that case I would be better advised to give up the worthless Sociology ‘A’ Level, the worthless Commercial French ‘A’ Level and his own worthless English Language & Literature ‘A’ Level, and go and get a job in a factory. And he was right. But I was a snob. I was an intellectual, right? It was one of those road-not-taken moments. One of many.

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms…

Stephen Spender: I Think Continually

More Siesta Than Fiesta

I’ve often gazed aghast at Tracey Emin’s conceptual artwork (I believe that’s what it’s called) Unmade Bed. I gather it is a recreation of her actual bed, that she actually slept in. How could anyone? I mean how could anyone …? And if she did, how could she actually admit to people that she actually spent her nights, and possibly her days, in such appalling squalor? But I suppose that’s the point. She’s saying that most people live squalid little lives and put on a face, most of the time, try to convince other people that they’ve got it all together, that they know what they’re doing. When they haven’t. And they don’t.

Do you think? I mean, if that was her aim, she succeeded, didn’t she? I would never have had the courage to admit to those care-home furry slippers let alone some of the other disgusting objects. But then I don’t live like that – yet – though tending in that direction, sadly.

What made me think of this was moving mattresses around today. I must admit, the older and wearier I get, and the more cats decide to share their little lives with me, the harder it seems to keep up with the housework. All winter the cats have been increasing but the hoovering… hasn’t. And it’s got disorganised. It does that at intervals. Usually I move house – that sorts it out. Throw all sorts of stuff away, pack the rest in boxes. Start again somewhere else. But now I don’t have that option. I’m fixed.

I’ve been trying to clear some space in the spare room, for sewing things in the hope of selling the things I sewed… somewhere or other. Etsy, or jumble sales or something. You can tell I don’t exactly have a business brain. There just wasn’t enough room for cutting out patterns and storing stuff and all the other things you have to do, to be efficient.

So, I decided to move the two single mattresses out of the spare room, where they had been propped up against the wall – until one of them toppled over and landed squarely on a row of cat dirt-boxes in the middle of the night. I decided I didn’t have the energy to manhandle two mattresses along the landing, round a corner, down the stairs, round another corner, through the kitchen and out to the garage. Also, it was raining, and they would get wet. Not that it would have mattered very much, having landed in the dirt boxes.

So I made a cunning plan. I would spend a morning removing all the stuff from my bedroom, hoovering it (first find the hoover), spraying all round the edges with an expensive substance called Indorex, which is meant to kill fleas, then piling up in some or other fashion two single mattresses and two double mattresses.

I did actually experiment with the piling up last night. I tried it with the two double mattresses (what remains of the double bed is in the garage – don’t ask) on the bottom and the two single mattresses one on top of the other on top of that. Ideal, I thought. Save all that hauling myself up first thing in the morning, and it will be interesting to sleep so much closer to the ceiling. Change of perspective.

Unfortunately it was also quite dangerous. Unused to a single bed, I several times awoke teetering perilously near one edge or the other. Visions of tumbling, humpty-dumpty-like, onto the floor beneath and shattering some part of myself then kept me awake. I was afraid to sleep.

Also, the cats, used to a whole double bed and a somnolent human to potter about on all night, were confused. And annoyed. Four at a time, they attempted to balance on top of me, on top of the four teetering mattresses, which had now taken on a kind of jelly-like motion. This must be what a water bed feels like, I mused. Water beds were quite popular at some time in my past. Maybe the seventies. Or the eighties. Can anyone remember?

Anyway, that didn’t really work. I awoke irritable and sneezing and all the cats fell off. So this morning I set to again, with the rolled-up sleeves and the open window and the Indorex spray. You are really supposed to clear the whole house and all livestock before spraying Indorex, I think. No chance that was ever going to happen. Opened the window.

The result is weird, inelegant, but safe, and now I have room to breathe in my new ‘workroom’. I even have a whole wallpaper table for cutting patterns on. Have had to prop it up underneath the hinged bit in the middle as the three-legged one keeps landing, heavily on it, and all the force goes down through that one front leg. He is very painful, when he lands on you. A few more of those landings and my precious, but flimsy table would start sagging.

And I now have a half-empty, flea-free bedroom. Only another four rooms to go. I’m tackling them one a day. Apart from the days when I’m doing something else and can’t. Like tomorrow.

The Bridge

Still snowed in and woefully unvisited, but now freezing rain on top. Still one-finger typing as desktop banjaxed. Sigh! It does tend to turn one philosophical.

So here goes. Small amount of dense New Age stuff coming up. Won’t take offence if you tune out and opt for daytime TV instead.

Do you believe in Other Lives? I believe I do, as far as it is possible to believe anything when you have no way of knowing. I’ve never been big on Faith but I suppose I do rely on instinct -that internal tuning.

Somewhat suss, of course, that believing seems to become more urgent the older I get. As a teenager at the Methodist I couldn’t help noticing that two thirds of our congregation were elderly ladies, their quavery descants far outweighing those few bass voices. Someone remarked then that people tend to return to religion when they start to get scared of what is or might be to come.

The most  acceptable explanation of Life, Death, the Universe and all that, that I have found so far, is The Michael Teachings. These are [claimed to be] channeled through receptive humans from a collective of advanced souls known, at its own suggestion, as Michael. There are other such entities – Seth, for one.

The Teachings say that human essences (souls) are tiny sparks of consciousness cast out by the Tao/God, in its immense and restless creativity. We/It are here, temporarily, on this lowest plane – the physical – to learn through lives we selected and partly designed in advance, to suit our spiritual purposes. The most relevant of the lessons we learn are recorded, by our essence, which survives beyond the death of the body and this life’s chosen personality.

The idea is that this all enriches God, or that the Tao/God becomes conscious of itself/experiences itself through us – those little sparks. Without us there would be no It, and without It no us. We strive, through many lifetimes of struggle, to reunite ourselves with God, or if you like to remember what we are, and have always been.

There’s no way of knowing, of course, you just have to follow your inner compass.

I must say, at this point, that there is a whole lot of human-originating ‘tosh’ piggy-backing on the Michael Teachings – or so it ‘feels’ to me. Stuff about planetary influences, soul ages, precise numbers of lives and a hierarchy of spiritual planes, body types and personality ‘overleaves’ of which I am deeply suspicious. It’s a bit like a game of Chinese Whispers, with every channel adding his or her own little human obsession and peculiarity to it – or that’s what it ‘feels’.

You may notice this if you read The Michael Handbook (Stevens and Warwick-Smith), which is a good introduction, though it gets too specific for my liking as it goes on. This is the problem I have with it -it reminds me of the husband of a friend, who spent his whole life designing train timetables for British Rail and was one of the dullest chaps I ever met.

I can’t believe that God would get bogged down in so much tedious detail, or would bother to catalogue and label things like some Victorian biologist. God ‘feels’ fluid to me, like something boiling and churning with joy, or delight, or creativity – yes, something playing.

So, other lives. My feeling, along with Michael, is that all lives are happening at once, but also enternally – this is not difficult to conceive of  once you ditch the idea of time as anything but a convenient illusion – and that some part of us has remained behind – or exists in parallel – and is observing all of these lives. What happens in one life may influence what happens in another, or many others. We may be able to move between lives at will, or choose to live some ‘future’ lives in what seems, from here, to be the past.

And maybe this cycle goes on and on for ever, though you could choose not to reincarnate once your work was done. For when would God/ the Tao ever cease to create?

Increasingly, as I get older, I have an unsettling sense that my this-life memories are being rifled through, and not by ‘me’ -scanned, but so fast I can only get a vague sense of it. And at the same time – and the same unfollowable speed – I begin to ‘remember’ tiny flashes of lives that are not this life – faces, flying as if with wings, landscapes, battles, feelings. Lost knowledge being retrieved, fresh knowledge being recorded or ordered in some way.

To me this feels like the beginnings of a bridging process. Maybe lives are not suddenly cut off or suddenly created but blend seamlessly into one another, with sometimes a rest or transition period in between. So, at the end of our lives there begins a gentle preparation – by some inaccessible part of us – for the Change. What we have learned is retrieved and re-ordered; what we ‘forgot’when we arrived here begins to return, in minute glimpses.

And at the beginning of the next life, in babyhood, the reverse process -a gentle forgetting of our origins and purpose; a clearing of the decks and a restructuring so that a new life’s learning can begin.

Phew! Cup of tea and sandwich definitely required at this point!

In the Belly of the Beast

Suddenly a dramatic-sounding title for a post pops into your head but you have no idea where it popped from.

Apparently it was a book written by American prisoner John Henry Abbot about the awfulness of the prison system. Published in 1981 it was a great success and he got parole. But almost immediately he killed a waiter in a restaurant row and was re-arrested. Committed suicide in 2002. Why are we all so bent on destroying ourselves and everything around us, I wonder?

Well the Beast in this context is a Siberian storm dubbed by weathermen (and ladies) The Beast From The East. Normally our UK weather comes from the west and is wet. We get all America’s half-spent hurricanes but, despite our romantic belief in the many White Christmases of yore, being able to skate on the frozen River Thames etc., rarely snow. And it’s March, the first day of meteorological spring!

So I am stuck at home with a bad back and nineteen cats as the snow whirls and swirls around. The back step is thick with ice but I can’t get to the garage to get the shovel to clear it because the back step is thick with ice…

Cat food tins are stacked against the living room wall. I ordered extra for them but forgot about me so am snacking on weird combinations of salted peanuts and porridge, and toasting that stale bread. There is that tin of Complan…

I have given up putting food out for Mystery Dog and the assorted stray cats, since three mornings running it’s been untouched, frozen solid in the bowls. No sign of furry footprints. I wonder where, and how, they all are and how many will come back to me after the snow melts.

Luckily still have electricity. Unluckily that leprechaun in the form of a massive, undeliverable Windows update has finally succeeded in killing my desktop computer. Had been fending it off for a year but it snuck itself in in the background regardless and is now cycling endlessly: restoring your old version of Windows SQEAK oops not restoring SQEAK oops…

The ruinously expensive computer chap has had to be rescheduled for Monday, fingers crossed. He can’t get here. No buses. Our railway station was of course one of the unimportant few selected for closure. Our roads are thick with rutted snow. Dustmen didn’t arrive yesterday so the snow is littered with overflowing green bins. No sign of the postlady for days. Valiant Amazon driver did get through on Monday night (poss he would have been court martialled or something if he hadn’t) but now I noticed they are scheduling even Prime deliveries for next week sometime. Will have to ration the cat biscuits.

So, at the moment I am/we are An Island Intire Of Ourselves, and I am typing this with one fat finger on a mobile phone.

Altogether Beastly, but no doubt we will survive!

Photo: Three-Legged Cat (aka Nicholas aka Hoppity) plus unidentifiable sleeping black cat.

The Sewing Machine Mouse

Now, machines are notoriously grumpy. This is why the refrigerator elects to break down just before somebody’s birthday party. This is why the washing machine floods the kitchen floor on the very day you return from your holidays bearing suitcase after suitcase of unwashed smalls and sandy bathing costumes. Machines lead a boring life, on the whole, and they blame humans for this.

And this is why household appliances do not tell us that they can grant wishes. At least, selected wishes. An electric oven, for example, has the power to make it a nice sunny day for a picnic. If it chooses. It can cause a woolly blanket to wrap itself around the shoulders of an old lady who has fallen asleep on the sofa in Midwinter. If it chooses. But it will not choose very often.

A television can, if it chooses, happen to be showing your favourite soppy romantic film of all time when you are feeling particularly down and your boyfriend has just left you for some blonde floosie he happened to bump into in a supermarket car park, just by accident.

Except of course that it might not have been an accident. Cars can grant wishes, if they choose. Why, even supermarket trolleys have been known to grant wishes to passing strangers – if they happen to have woken up feeling full of beans that day. So your faithless boyfriend may just have happened to wish for a blonde floosie of some sort as he locked his Ford Fiesta with that funny little key thing that hardly ever works, or as he passed a trolley bay…

A fridge – ah, a refrigerator can only really do things to do with cold, or at any rate cooler. In a heatwave, say, it might cause a cool breeze to flutter across the heated brow of the plumber, quietly cursing under your sink to fix that awkward bit of piping. It might send a cold shiver up your spine to remind you that you have forgotten Auntie Gertie’s birthday yet again, and better get a card in the post right now.

And what can a sewing machine do? Well, sewing machines are a bit different. They do indeed grant wishes, but only to animals. Sewing machines prefer animals to human beings, you see, and I can’t say I blame them.

So when a funny little cloth mouse appeared on my sewing machine this afternoon, all crooked button eyes and wiggly stitching, with a piece of cord for a tail and ears that looked as if they might have been sewn on backwards, I knew… George, innocently asleep now in a basket of paper patterns for, of all things, aprons… George had just been dreaming of a mouse of his very own.

sewing mouse


The Chain Gang

I remember reading at some point in my “Buddhist” phase that before he became The Buddha, Buddha was married and had a son, and he named that son Rahula, which means a Shackle, or Impediment. What he actually said was A rahu is born, a fetter has arisen, and what he meant was that this child could tie him to his wife, thus impeding his quest for enlightenment. At the time I remember thinking Gosh, that’s very… honest. Brutal, in fact.

Because of course we are nearly all well-and-truly shackled to/impeded by a whole host of other living beings, whether or not we admit as much to ourselves, or verbalise it. I had no children, but no doubt would have felt as shackled to them as the Buddha was to his Rahula. And now I am shackled to my poor elderly mother, who scarcely recognises me, and to nineteen cats, most of which are ungrateful and one of which bit me and ruined my Christmas.

I was thinking just now, what would I actually like to do with the rest of my life, were I to be given a choice. I found it quite difficult even to imagine what I would like to do, given that I have never had much of a choice up to now.

I closed my eyes. I could sort of imagine myself travelling. Maybe buy a camper van and go all over Britain, like a (comfortable) lady tramp or gypsy. And I could imagine myself being able to draw – how, I’m not sure, but this is fantasy, right? – and setting off on my travels equipped with sketchbook and drawing pencils. Oh, lots of pencils, beautifully sharpened, of all different grades… And maybe a tin of watercolours…

I could imagine writing a bit of a book about my travels – all the odd people I encountered and maybe discussed the Meaning of Life with along the way. I am some sort of honeypot to oddbods, so that would be no problem!

I wishfully imagined never having to see the inside of this house again – the thin, inherited carpet – ancient when I arrived – the ruined, cat-ripped furniture; the chipped plates, the unwashed windows; the damp forming morning pools on the window-sills in winter; the impossibility of ever keeping anything really clean; looking out at gone-to-seed garden; those thorny rose-stalks towering high as trees above the garage. And I think what a relief it would be to leave it all behind. To just abandon it all.

For I am a person who was meant to change, and change, and change. I am one of those skin-shedders, those metamorphosers, those shape-shifters. But now I am fixed, absolutely fixed, in this dull place, inside this dull, imperfect body and in these dire circumstances.

And now – last straw, really – I seem to be feeding a dog. As if nineteen cats was not enough, now my garden is being haunted by some large, brown creature who turns up, usually in the rain – as just now – soaking wet and ravenous. Luckily I had some dog food. He ate whole a tin of that plus six sachets of Felix, and continued to lurk around the back door for some time with an air of vague disappointment and underfedness about him. He leaps back if I get anywhere near him, so must be as frightened of me as I am of him. I don’t think I will try patting him on the head. One septic hand is quite enough.

I have no idea what sort of dog he might be. He is about as high as a supermarket trolley, and a sort of brindled brown. He is vaguely greyhound shaped but much bigger and shaggier. Narrow… He has ears like a spaniel, but smaller, and instead of drooping down they stick out kind of sideway, in tufts. I wonder if I can find a picture…


Yeah, he looks a bit like a very large, quite a bit darker and very wet version of this, which according to the internet is a lurcher. So perhaps a gypsies’ dog. It seems almost as if this dog is living out my fantasy existence on my behalf, except he’s not having much fun doing it because he’s hungry and wet and it’s February, which is the darkest, dampest, chilliest, most horrible month of the year.

But what am I to do? I mean, about any of the above? I can’t see any possible scenario – apart from a heap of gold coins and priceless diamond descending upon me from the sky – where I could buy that camper van, abandon the grim and peeling décor of the inside of my house and abandon nineteen beloved cats to the whims of fate. Frankly, even if I had the money to buy the camper van I’d probably not have the courage to drive it, or to set off in it, on my own.

I suppose I could take arts and crafts classes. I did have a bit of a scroll down Adult Education. Can’t say I’m inspired by flower arranging or clay medallion making, and all the art classes seem to be a long way away, And full. There are waiting lists.

And the dog. If I report him to the RSPCA, what will they do with him? I don’t want to be responsible for him being carted off, shut in a concrete-floored cage for months, then unsentimentally euthanased because nobody wants him. Anyway, he eats, he vanishes. Unlike cats he keeps to no predictable routine. Am I to have an RSPCA man lurking in my garden, day in, day out, just in case?

So I expect for the time being I will just do nothing. Have dog food ready. Not take art lessons, not buy a camper van. Generally, go on exactly as before.

Send In The Clowns

Well, now they have given my mother wheels. I don’t know why they didn’t think of it sooner – or why I didn’t think of it. All those months of visiting and she’s stuck in that heavy chair in front of the TV, and she’s still managing to move it around. She can’t walk, but she heaves it, by instalments, this way and that. Sometimes she’s facing the brown plastic linen basket (an object that seems to worry her greatly), sometimes she’s half way out of the door, and setting off that under-the-carpet alarm thing so the carers have to come running and heave her back. Now – light bulb moment – they’ve removed the alarms, turned off the TV, taken away the heavy chair and put her in a lightweight wheelchair she’s off – like a road runner.

And now, with one of those sudden swerves of pace/tone/logic/emotional atmosphere for which I am famous-or-at-least-mildly-well-known:

It occurs to me that we all have within us all the ages we have ever been – from ancient crone to grown-up woman to surly teenager to vulnerable three year old child – and can  switch – and in fact can’t help switching – backwards and forwards between these versions of ourselves, minute by minute, second by second. Today I woke up three years old, and needing my Mum. Well, Dad would probably have done, but he’s dead. At least Mum’s this side of the veil, pro tem.

On some rare days, friends are not enough: neither is logic is enough, or courage enough, or adult conversation, either in person or over the telephone. What would be enough – what you really need – no longer really exists in this world for you. But that doesn’t stop you needing it.

Well, I was going to visit Mum anyway, and so I went, hoping that maybe Old Mum was still lurking somewhere inside that wizened old shell. Hoping against hope, really, that the Fraction of her that knew me so well before I was even born, and the Whole of her that will know me again in the next world, might be tuned in, today.

And there she was, on wheels. And I do believe it was the funniest visit I have ever had with her. Well, the only funny visit. Firstly she ran over my foot, then she spent some time experimentally backwards-and-forwardsing on her new wheels, bumping her knees against mine crying wheeeee! and brrrrroooom!

We obviously weren’t going to stay in her room this visit, dolefully watching The Simpsons together. Oh no. Off we went up the corridor, with Mum branching off at intervals to enter and inspect other people’s rooms. At one point she paused behind a carer who had just gone into a store cupboard, craning her neck around in an exaggeratedly casual way to ascertain what was in there. Only sheets and stuff, nothing to interest you! came the muffled comment from inside the cupboard.

Next minute we were in the almost deserted dining room, and Mum was helping herself to a banana from the fruit bowl on the side. She looked at it for a moment. Yer ‘as to peel it for e’r came a hoarse old voice from the corner. It was a lady waiting for a haircut. Been ‘ere all morning, she grumbled. They left my toast in the microwave and it’s gone stone cold, but I’m about to eat it anyway.

I ended up following my mother around, with an increasing amount of ‘stuff’ – a cup of tea in a white mug; a glass of that anonymous pink water the carers keep giving them, and insisted on giving Mum as well as the cup of tea; a brownish and wilting banana skin; my own bag; five unwanted grapes. We skedaddled into the Day Room and watched the traffic out of the window for a minute or two, then Mum ran over my bag. I moved it. She carefully ran over it again.

You’re…. daughter, she said suddenly. Proud of you.

And I’m proud of you too, Mum.

I stayed half an hour longer than I normally would have done. After that I could see she was getting bored with me and wondering when her Friday Fish was going to get here. I too was hungry. And the cats would need feeding. In the lobby, a teenage carer was sitting with a trolley load of croissants and sweet rolls of various sorts. Can I interest you in one of these? he enquired. For a small donation? Maybe £10?


Only joking. Most people are putting in about £1.

I put in £1.50 and selected a chocolate croissant. I picked it because it was the only one wrapped in cellophane and total strangers had no doubt been fingering the others.

And on the way home I thought – that’s just what she would have done when I was three years old, and tearful. Distraction. And a memory came to me – a long-lost occasion I know she had forgotten even before she forgot everything, because I asked her about it once and she had no idea what I meant.

Mum and Canadian Sister and I are in the kitchen, eating lemon cup cakes. How old am I on this day? Eight, maybe? Twelve? And my chubby little sister says: Mum, what shall I do with the wrapper? And my mother says, How should I know? STICK IT ON THE WALL!!! And proceeds to stick her own gooey cake wrapper to the kitchen wall (tiled, luckily).

So, in a way, I found both the Old Mum and the New Mum.

(PS: I had to look up ‘rube’, the English-English equivalent of which would probably be bumpkin, or yokel. I thought Clowns was probably near enough.)

For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it. (Proverbs 8:11)