When the world gets smaller

When I came in, her eyes did not light up as usual.

She tried to fake it, a little, but her smile was all wrong.

I wasn’t in good form either. I was cranky from spending too much time indoors wedding-planning, while the sun shone tauntingly outside.

As so often happens, small frustrations had given birth to a greater sadness.

Earlier that week, Frau B’s telephone had stopped working. The man who came to fix it asked her to dial a number she knew by heart. The only one that came to mind was that of an acquaintance she’d lost touch with. She got through to the answering machine and didn’t know what to say.

It was humiliating.

She couldn’t call me. My mobile number is too long for her to remember, let alone to dial.

We’ve tried before.

Frau B keys in the digits too slowly and gets cut off mid-way through by a dial tone.

We’ve resigned ourselves to this fact, and she knows she can rely on me to get in touch instead.

But there aren’t many others she can call.

“Everyone I knew is dead,” Frau B said, as if she had to justify it.  “If I didn’t have you….”

She trailed off.

We both needed escapism, I decided, and reached to the shelf for a book.

It’s another one full of stories about early twentieth century Berlin.

Usually, the descriptions of the streets, cafes and institutions that defined the era prompt delighted interruptions from Frau B.

“My father would take me to that funfair!” she will say. Or, “Oh yes, that café! Full of artists! We’d only ever pass by and look through the window.”

Today though, I got through several pages uninterrupted.

A bad sign.

She was listening though, so I continued.

Finally, I got to a passage about death masks.

Totenmasken!” she said suddenly.  “I remember seeing some in Vienna!”

“You did?” I asked, a little startled. “When were you there?”

A long time ago. But she remembers everything. The city’s main museum is home to the death masks of Beethoven, Mahler and Klimt.

Frau B can still see them all. And as she began to speak, a cloud began to lift.

She has a cartographic mind, with a remarkable ability to mentally navigate the places she used to know.

One of the best presents I ever got her was a laminated map of the world.

She looks at it through her magnifying glass, while I hover over her.

“That’s Ireland,” I’ll say. “It’s shaped like a teddy bear.” Then, drawing my finger all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, I’ll land somewhere in America and say: “And that’s where my sister lives.”

Frau B’s  life now takes place within a room of 20 square meters. Day-to-day, her greatest sojourn is down the corridor to the dining hall. Sometimes, if she is feeling energised, she will wheel herself all the way to the terrace.

She is meticulous in her use of space. Order, for her, has become synonymous with control.

In the last year or two, she has begun hiding things.

She squeezes bars of chocolate into the bottom of her sock drawer and tucks brooches into a box that slides behind the books lining her shelf. She slips banknotes beneath the insoles of her shoes.

She says she is scared of things being stolen.

They never are. Sometimes I think her fear is more about losing herself.

Institutionalised and immobile, the world is ever closing in.

But deep inside her, preserved with care: a rich tapestry woven from the people she once knew and loved, the places she explored, the personal tragedies she endured and the triumphs she savours.

A wealth of memories a death mask can bring back to life.

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Failure: the greatest story of all

For an aspiring writer, there are few sweeter, more reassuring things than learning about how the authors you admire have struggled.

When I discovered that the Indian-American writer Akhil Sharma spent twelve agonising years writing his exquisite novel Family Life, I was delighted.

And even though I’ve never read her, I was perversely pleased to hear that it took Booker prizewinner Arundhati Roy 20 years to write her latest book.

On the other hand, when Caitlin Moran told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs that she published her first novel at 16 and doesn’t ever run out of things to say, I was furious.

My novel is 16,043 words long so far. It’s rubbish.

I spent about 10 weeks writing the opening page.

I’ll probably scrap it for something I write in a 10-minute burst of inspiration.

notebook

Failed word-count goals recorded in my little green notebook

In January I set myself monthly word-count goals, all of which I failed to meet.

I wrote a plot outline. It didn’t work.

In March, I had a few unexpected days off work. I wrote a couple of thousand words. All of them are thanks to Lisa Cron, who wrote a very helpful book called Story Geniuswhich I stumbled upon online.

Her approach uses neuroscience to describe what a story is and how to lure readers inside your characters’ minds.

It was exhilarating to re-evaluate what stories actually do. I was filled with a fresh sense of purpose.

The wave of enthusiasm did not last long. I worked a lot in April. A mixture of early and late shifts, along with a host of out-of-work commitments, meant I didn’t even have the time to try – and fail – to write.

It made me feel restless and discontented.

I finally managed to get back to it this past weekend. I scraped together a few hundred words.

I’m not allowing myself to re-read them until I write some more.

For whatever reason, writing a novel is a desire that eats away at me and punishes me when I fail to submit to it.

I am under no illusion as to how painfully slim the odds are but perhaps, someday someone else will come across this post and smile with resolve as they return to their own blank page.

6342 words

All of them terrible of course, when I’m in a certain mood. Their only function to form fraudulent sentences. Most of it a garbled version of my life. All of it an unimaginative reassembly of reality.

I’m writing a novel. There I’ve said it. If I never say it, there’s even less chance I’ll do it.

It’s set in a nursing home and heavily inspired by Frau B. But the story is not hers. It’s made up.

The fictional aspect is especially important. Frau B’s already gifting me with inspiration.  It would taint our meetings to ask for biographical details.. for permission to print old photographs.. for a linear summary of her life. We dip in and out of each other’s lives every week. It would seem wrong to go excavating instead.

I began it as part of NaNoWriMo, a worldwide online challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.

An impossible task for me, I knew. Not that I would have otherwise, but I was working full-time and had plenty of other activities going on. Still, it was a little kick and I was receptive to it. Plus, they sent you motivational e-mails and had a function allowing you to update your word-count, which I did obsessively, almost sentence by sentence.

It’s hard to articulate the kind of self-doubt that comes with writing. For me, it never gets easier. I’m painfully slow. I am not full of ideas. It rarely flows.

I compare myself with the writers I admire and despair. I Google videos and interviews with them for evidence of their self-doubt. Usually you can find some.

I feel uniquely empty, incapable of adding anything of interest to the world, amazed at others’ ability to make conversation, to come up with witty responses, to communicate unfettered. I imagine how much I could put to paper with those talents.

My news feeds full of the atrocities in Aleppo, I feel all the more ashamed of even having such thoughts.

Still, I haven’t deleted the document. It’s still on my computer.

And it wouldn’t be if I didn’t believe, somewhere small and very deep down, that it was possible.

So I’m out of the closet. I’m trying to write a novel.

I read a piece of advice earlier that the first step to becoming a writer is to call yourself one.

I’m not ready to yet. But maybe I’ll change my mind once I hit the 10,000 mark.

I’ll occasionally write about writing here. Perhaps it will even be a welcome distraction from the task in hand.

corner

My writing corner (laptop replaces typewriter)

Five women’s blogs I check every day. For pleasure.

1. Fieldwork in Stilettos                                                                                                       I’ve been reading Kat Richter for years. She’s a Philadelphia-based writer and dance teacher who blogs about dating, writing and lately, home improvement. Her prose is extremely fun to read. I’ve followed her through a questionable “manthropological” dating experiment, a couple of meaningful relationships and roughly the same number of heartbreaks. If you think her posts sound throwaway, check out the couple of times she’s diverged from her usual subjects – to talk about the experience of encountering anti-abortion campaigners outside a women’s clinic and, drawing from her background in anthropology, to explain why there’s no such thing as race. Whatever she writes is lively, sharp and worth following.

2. Captain Awkward                                                                                                        When I discovered this blog, I devoured the archive in hours. Captain Awkward dispenses insightful, practical and thorough advice on subjects ranging from a  woman whose otherwise wonderful partner will not accept her feminist views to anxiety about interacting with former co-workers. Written by a movie writer and director, Captain Awkward promotes mental health, we well as sexual and gender equality. The blog is also mega-successful, with each post attracting hundreds of comments.

Reading is good offline too.

Reading is good offline too.

3. Brain Pickings                             This blog makes me gush. Maria Popova’s writing is exquisite, her take on philosophy, creativity and critical thinking  always thought-provoking and beautifully expressed. Her essays draw on the wisdom garnered from some of the world’s greatest thinkers and how their insights might apply to our everyday lives. Her selection of quotations and suggested further reading always make me think. Read her on the boundary between hope and cynicsm and diversity and difference in children’s literature. In fact, just read everything she writes. Her site remains ad-free and funded (though I’m not sure how substantially) by readers. For me, Brain Pickings represents the very best of what the internet can do to promote independent, creative thinking.

4. Broadside Blog                                                                                                                Caitlin Kelly is a veteran New York journalist who turned freelance a few years ago after losing her job at a major daily paper. She posts about work, travel, the media industry, as well as friendship and family relationships. I’m attracted to her crisp, uncompromising and confident tone, as well as the many insights she has about journalism. I don’t agree with everything she says, but the way she says it is reason enough to read her work. Her writing strikes that delicate balance between personal and professional- I feel like I know her but there’s nothing I wish I didn’t know.

5. Aileen Donegan                                                                                                           We’ve never met but know each other from our blogs and Twitter. Aileen’s a 26 year-old journalist from Ireland with an interesting background in online activism and experience living in Strasbourg. In the wake of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, she wrote a compelling piece about attending a small solidarity march in Dublin and about how that event, unlike demonstrations she’d been to in the past, sat right. I loved her recent post about the summer she spent as a teenager reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

I’m always on the lookout for new blogs to follow, so let me know if you have any favourites I should be adding to my list!

Ever the Bridesmaid…

Frau Bienkowski hasn’t managed to marry me off yet, which is a pity since she likes a good wedding. She’s always talking about William and Kate’s and is the first to know about the appearance of a new photograph of Prince George.

She’s interested in failed marriages too. Like those of former president, Christian Wulff who, scandalously, separated twice. And she thinks it’s high time his successor, Joachim Gauck marries his long-term partner. After all, Frau B says, she accompanies him to most official events.

source: Creative Commons Robbie Dale www.anonlinegreeworld.com

source: Creative Commons Robbie Dale http://www.anonlinegreeworld.com

Luckily for us both, our appetite for wedding-related stories has recently been whetted by living vicariously through my sister, who got married in Philadelphia in July.

Frau B was there every step of the way.

She was thoroughly briefed on the suitor. And on how he met my sister.

(“Everything is possible online these days!” she had said approvingly)

She knew all about  the navy bridesmaid dresses, which we ordered online for $25. She knew my sister was making her own wedding cake. And she had a good knowledge of the guest list too.

Ever the stylist, she worried about how I would wear my hair on the day. She suggested I get the same cut I had last December.

I have documented my fear of hairdressers here before. Believe me, they get worse when you cross the Atlantic. My cutter had scraggly blue hair and dreadful manners. She refused point-blank to cut the shape I wanted, instead insisting, “It’s 2014  dude. You sister is getting married! Try something new.” She also accused me of frequenting “old lady salons.” (She’s right obviously; hip salons don’t have libraries attached.) I ended up with a stupid cut. Relieved I wasn’t the bride.

Frau B was also privy to my pre-wedding music-related woe.(PWMRW; primarily affects  amateur musicians, according to DSM X)

I had brought my violin back from Dublin at Christmas after my sister hinted she might want my (other) sister and me to play during the ceremony.

Things were going okay at first, though I hadn’t played in years. My fingertips were getting tougher and I was playing halfway in tune. Then one night, when I was doing my floor exercises (as you do) LSB tried to step over me to get to the couch.

Except he tumbled over my open violin case instead. I watched as if in slow motion as he landed, knees first on top of the instrument.

Snap. Crack. An expletive.

I twisted out of my yoga pose faster than you can say “downward dog” in time to see my E string spring loose. Then the A string. Then the bridge collapsed. It was all very traumatic.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

I had to bring it to the Geigenbaumeister. He fixed it for €10 and told me he’d had a Stradivarius in earlier that week. Frau B told me I’d got lucky. She was right. Could have been much worse. Could have been a collapsed Stradivarius bridge.

When I visited her last week, Frau B said: “Tell me everything about the wedding. Then show me the pictures.”

I told her that my sister was objectively the most beautiful bride there’s ever been.

That the wedding took place in a medical museum which boasted among its displays a gigantic colon. (Available for guests to view before dinner).

That everyone survived the violin duet.

That the cake was spectacular.

That my tough big sister had to try really hard not to cry during the (self-written) vows.

That I had to try even harder.

When I showed her the pictures,  Frau B said. “My! What long hair your sister has got!”

Streetwalking in Schöneberg

I had some time to kill the other night, so I walked up and down Bülowstrasse. It’s in the Schöneberg area of Berlin, where Albert Einstein, Hans Fallada and David Bowie all lived at some point.

It was only 7 o’clock, so I was surprised to see prostitutes lining the streets so early. There were six of them. Two emerged linking arms from a shop before separating to take up position.

They weren’t anything like the prostitutes at Hackescher Markt who are both glamorous and absurd in their identical fishnet tights, baby-pink corsets and furry boots.

These women looked eastern European. They didn’t have a uniform, but they were all wearing  plastic strappy high-heels; the kind you’d find in a basement store in the Ilac Centre in Dublin, full of artificial light and pumping music.

The youngest of them had brown hair, very narrow shoulders and was wearing denim hot-pants. She had earphones plugged in while trying to hail down cars.

The oldest woman wasn’t bothering to show her legs. She was dressed casually in jeans and a leather jacket. She had reddish-brown hair and looked bored.

The woman whose face I can’t forgot was standing near a lamppost supporting a campaign poster for Germany’s neo-Nazi NPD party. It featured a fish-bowl picture of an old lady under the slogan: “Geld für Oma statt Sinti und Roma.” (“Money for Granny, not the Sinti and Roma”)

The woman had her hair scraped back into a ponytail. She was performing her job awkwardly – trying to hail down cars by forming a stop sign with her hand, like a police officer would do to check a driver’s insurance.

Tears were running down her cheeks.

No one stopeed but she kept on sticking her hand out at the passing cars.

Freshly Pressed

For most people, “freshly pressed” means a glass of orange juice with pleasing bits of pulp, possibly accompanied by a croissant or lakeside view.

But for bloggers at WordPress, “freshly pressed” is an accolade.

It means that a WordPress employee has decided to feature one of your posts on their homepage, exposing you to lots of other bloggers, some of whom decide to “follow” your blog and a few who take the time to leave you kind and thoughtful comments.

Image source: www.ulaola.com

Image source: http://www.ulaola.com

For an introvert, it’s like winning a year’s supply of networking.

It’s like being at a writers’ conference, with sweaty palms, about to approach a stranger with an awkward, self-deprecating introduction, only for the entire spiel suddenly to be rendered completely unnecessary, paving the way for a return to the happy corner where you were munching a canapé and starting at animated people self-promoting.

Today, I was “Freshly pressed.” It made me very happy indeed.

It also made me think about encouragement and success.

I’m no neuroscientist, but sometimes I wish I were.

When I am sad or frustrated or overjoyed, I like to imagine the neurons in my brain squirting coloured impulses, which travel across convoluted chemical tracks at reckless speeds.

When some one says something kind or complimentary to me, a little cluster somewhere behind my forehead ignites,like a flickering light bulb finally screwed in right. I might respond awkwardly, by fumbling with my hands or countering with disproportionate (but heartfelt) praise.

But all the while, inside a little squirt of something which I’ll call adrenalin for want of an MRI, has begun to gush about my head, leaving me feeling unusually motivated.

Kate Katharina poses as an introvert suddenly relieved of the duty to self-promote.

Kate Katharina poses as an introvert suddenly relieved of the duty to self-promote.

It’s like magic, really.

Except it’s magic that anyone can perform, any time.

Encouraging people is deeply satisfying. My mother is so good at it, that she could probably turn professional.

My favourite people to encourage are humble types, whose faces immediately display a strange guilt when you tell them that they are wonderful and who can’t think of any words to say back.

Or people who have a secret dream that isn’t quite so secret and whose faces melt strangely when you casually remark that they could achieve something they’ve never admitted to desiring.

Fortunately, you don’t need a top hat or a bunny to encourage, though in some cases either or both could come in useful.

You can encourage with words or gesture, or even by keeping your dissent silent.

And like an alchemist, you can cause a little light to go on in someone’s mind, giving them the energy necessary to finish a painting, or take an exam, or learn to swim or ride a bicycle or sing a song.

Thanks to all my readers, old and new, for encouraging me to cultivate this little patch of blogosphere.

I wish I could say that being “freshly pressed” hasn’t gone to my head, but I’ve already told you all about the little light bulb that lives behind my forehead.

“Freshly pressed” or not, I promise I’ll try to keep my writing free of pulp.

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