Thursday, August 31, 2006

This past week was difficult. It is exactly one month since I miscarried. Strangely it is worse now than it was immediately afterwards. On reflection I think this is because I was so relieved at being alive, that I focused more on that than losing the baby. Now all I can think about is how isolated I felt, how much blood there was, how small the baby was, how the doctor referred to the baby as "the matter", even though it was recognisably a foetus (that makes me feel really terrible). I was cleaning the bathroom this weekend as we had guests coming and noticed that the toilet seat was damaged (slightly skewed). When I asked the giri whether he knew what had happened, turns out I damaged it when I passed out, fell over and grabbed at it to balance myself. I have no recollection of this at all. I do remember passing out and the jarring sensation as I hit the floor. It was scary.

A friend visited last week with her new baby and told me about someone in her NCT group whose baby died while she was in labour. This seems in my mind to be infinitely worse than what happened to me, so I feel bad too that I should feel so upset about such a comparatively minor experience. I never felt the baby move.

There's a programme on ITV here in England with two cleaning experts that apparently go around shaming people into cleaning up their messy houses (I don't remember the programme name). Last week one of the ladies, Aggie, was interviewed on Richard and Judy about her new autobiography (I was channel - hopping, ok!). In it she describes miscarrying at five months, alone in her flat, and burying the baby in the local park as she was so frightened and didn't know what to do (the incident occurred 30 odd years ago). The same day as the interview last week she was taken in by police for questioning because of her description and may be charged with concealing a body. While obviously I had full medical care and my case was also different, what struck me about her story was the fact that she was so upset so many decades later and clearly remembered how terrified and alone she'd felt as though it was yesterday. Does one ever get over it?

As all insatiable readers do, I have turned to books to make sense of the world around me, with limited success to date. I started off with MISCARRIAGE: WHAT EVERY WOMAN NEEDS TO KNOW; a positive new approach by Lesley Regan, and found it singularly unsatisfactory. While it clearly describes every possible cause for miscarriage and how to avoid it, I am already in the "been there, done that" phase. I have already experienced it and know what caused it - now what? I was struck by the fact that this book sits in a sort of no man's land of information. It serves little purpose for the woman who has already experienced a miscarriage, but on the other hand you wouldn't really read it while you were pregnant as you wouldn't want to think about miscarriages. I suppose it fills a general slot for students writing papers etc.

I am starting to realize that for me this has less to do with finding out further information on miscarriages, and more to do with experiencing, accepting and living with grief. So now I am on the lookout for books that might deal with this (any suggestions welcome). Mining through a secondhand bookshop yesterday I found FINDING HOPE AGAIN: JOURNEYING THROUGH SORROW AND BEYOND by Peter Millar. The words that leapt from the page I opened it on read:
To feel attached to a wider sense of lament is not to lessen my own personal sorrow, but rather to give it greater grounding, depth and movement (p. 44)

I do feel this way. I have been struck by just how many people I know have had miscarriages, many of them multiple. I am even more struck by the fact that I had no idea (most only told me once I had a miscarriage myself). While I knew of some of my friends' miscarriages, the scale of the more accurate experience is startling, but in a strange way very reassuring. There is a wealth of anguish, but also great comfort and peace of heart from these women. Like Millar's words, I find hope in that.

On to slightly cheerier topics (and more representative of my daily life; despite how the above sounds, I am not permanently wretched). Exploring Canterbury this past weekend with a visitor reminded me that this is a great centre of pilgrimage. Living here every day it is easy to forget that and go about one's daily business without seeing what actually is right there. John Stilgoe, one of the finest teachers I have known, changed entirely the way I look at the world, but sometimes I need a reminder to actually look at what is in front of me - to see it as it is now, but also think about what the buildings, cobblestones, lampposts, gargoyles, gratings, edifices, towers and trees meant when they were young, or younger, and what they are now. In a city as old as this where pilgrims have trudged or come striding to the cathedral for over fourteen hundred years, that is a great deal of wider context and meaning. As I walked home yesterday, a Franciscan monk (brown robed and worrying at the white cord around his waist) waited at the busstop reading a book amidst a swirl of tourists and returning students. Everything changes and yet nothing changes. It made me smile and feel at peace with the world.


Sunday, August 20, 2006

To take my mind off lazy, fat, marauding kitties who wait under trees for baby birds to fall out of them (not even bothering to climb the tree!), I watched the most superb film this afternoon: je chanterai pour toi/I'll sing for you a film by Jacques Sarasin, subtitled Boubacar Traore walks through memories of love in Mali. Meetings with Ali Farka Toure, Malik Sidibe, Mamadou Sangare, Madieye Niang,... It is extraordinary, beautiful, and if you are like me it will make you cry - not because the story is unusual but because it is universal in the scope of his music.

Last year Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate's album In the Heart of the Moon was my favourite of the whole year. Every time I played it in the shop we sold out. Everyone bought it, including people who had never bought an "African" or "World Music" album before. Ry Cooder (who gathered the Buena Vista Social Club from Cuba together) made a date with the two of them at the Hotel Mande in Bamako. They arrived, they played - no rehearsals - and the result is at the same time spare and full, luminous. The entire album is guitar and kora, with very occasional vocals from Farka Toure. They won a grammy and toured; the dates in London didn't quite suit us and we thought "next time". Ali Farka Toure died in March this year - there won't be a next time.

je chanterai pour toi follows Boubacar Traore (also known as KarKar) visiting old haunts in Mali after many years in exile. The footage is amazing, interweaving film clips from the independence period in the early sixties, photos by the master photographer Malik Sidibe, interviews with friends and contemporaries and all held together by footage of the return trip to Mali, with Traore playing solo or with other artists en route.

The film opens with Traore playing his guitar (he has an endearing way of cradling it as though it were a lover, with his head resting on it):
When you talk to each other,
don't forget to invoke the name of God.
And if you love God,
don't forget to invoke His Messenger.
That's what the prophet said,
the prophet Mohammed.

Let us open wide to others,
the doors of our homes,
because death spares no one,
not even the powerful.

That's what my brother Kalilou said.

That's what my wife Pierette said.

I open wide the door of my home to you
because death spares no one,
not even the powerful.

If death should spare someone because he is powerful,
if death should spare someone because he is well known,
then my brother Kalilou
would never have left this world
And my darling Pierrette
never would have left this world.
(translation and words from the film)
There is a fascinating discussion of religion at one point, overlaying footage of one of Mali's mosques built in mud. I found it resonating strongly with ancestor worship in southern Africa, the worship of the amadlozi. After a section on Bambara fetishism and Traore's involvement, Mamadou Sangare narrating says:
There are two aspects to KarKar's spiritual life. On the one hand there is this really strong belief in the supernatural, mysticism, etc. and on the other, there's Islam, which restrains certain fervours and behaviour. Islam taught him to renounce vengeance, Islam showed him how to be tolerant. Islam showed him how to accept the people who abandoned him. Thanks to Islam he was able to accept Pierrette's death...
Also an interesting comment when placed in the context of some current views on Islam in the "war against terror"!

The best place for African music and related paraphenalia is Stern's Music. They sell copies of this DVD which are all zones compatible, and there is a seperate CD of the music from the film also available (same title), with downloadable samples of tracks online. I hasten to add that they also have a huge sale until September 1st! I know, I know, I sound like an advertisement for them, but they are truly nice people and what they do is a labour of love.

I've learned my lesson with Ali Farka Toure - when Boubacar Traore is next in town I'll be the first to buy tickets.

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

We have all the pleasure of owning cats, without any of the responsibilities - we borrow them from our neighbours! On one side there is a lovely hyper chatty cat and on the other side a tribe of five. Most of them come over for daily scratching (definitely no feeding or they might just move in!) and of late we've nicknamed them collectively the "marauding kitties" as they tend to lie in wait at the front door and make a mad dash to be let in as you leave. Alternatively one of them presses his nose to the french doors onto the back garden and glares balefully at us until we let him in - the pressure!

Turns out the nickname is apt for more than one reason. Yesterday evening I looked out the window while dishwashing and noticed a little crumpled shape next to a fat cat under one of our apple trees. My heart sank, but I felt obliged to attempt a rescue. It was a terrified fledgling wood pigeon shrunk down into please-don't-notice-me-I'm-not-really-here pose. Since it didn't appear outwardly injured I seperated it from now growling cat and put it in a box in our guestroom. The internet is a great place to look up things after office hours - soon I had established what to feed it (mashed up digestives in water) and how to care for it (dark and quiet box).

This morning we put it back in the apple tree and within half an hour the parents had found it and were feeding it enthusiastically. I was so thrilled, watching them from the study window periodically throughout the day. Immensely satisfying. This evening through the french doors we saw a blur of furry fat cat and I started yelling my head off. Would you believe it a different cat was trying to make off with our poor fledgling who had attempted another flight and landed on the lawn again! Once again we trotted to the rescue (the cat confused by my enraged yelps, but nevertheless still fairly determined).

So we go to sleep tonight with the little bird once again ensconced in the guestroom. One hopeful sign is that this evening (unlike the day before) it was actually trying to fly out of the box, but hasn't quite figured out how to take off from such a sharp angle. Let's hope that means its flying technique is improving rapidly and that tomorrow morning it will successfully be able to fly out of harms way. The fat cat was up the apple tree looking for him tonight, so it had better learn quickly!


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Francofinn has been spoiling me with books while I recuperate, and she certainly has picked a great selection for lazy days on the sofabed. BOOKS, BAGUETTES & BEDBUGS: The Left Bank World of Shakespeare and Co. by Jeremy Mercer is a perfect holiday or recuperative read. No need to concentrate too hard, but nevertheless well written and genuinely fascinating. Mercer is a Canadian journalist who finds himself somewhat down and out in Paris after a misstep or two in his regular world of crime reporting. The famous English language bookstore Shakespeare and Co. near Notre Dame becomes his haven. "Payment" for a bed in the shop amongst a bizarre, but very human cast of characters, requires reading a book a day, keeping the shop tidy and helping out behind the counter.

I am very fond of Paris, but have never visited Shakespeare and Co., despite knowing of its existence, I suppose because I am usually experiencing life with local French friends while there, rather than looking for something English. However, I will definitely make the effort to make a pilgrimage there next time I am in the fabulous city, if only to soak up the atmosphere (which is after all a very Parisian thing to do!).

Mercer leaves out a great deal, I suspect, but I certainly forgive him as blow-by-blow accounts of living hand to mouth can be painful (Knut Hamsun's Hunger, being a classic account). I loved the description of a stressed-out and anxious Mercer sheltering in Shakespeare and Co. during a storm. On buying a book he describes:

When it came my turn to be served, the young woman at the desk gave me a bright smile and folded open the cover of my book. With meticulous care, she stamped the title page with the crest of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. Then she invited me upstairs for tea (page 3).

What more could one ask of a bookstore?!

For me, the real fascination lies in the shop itself and the unique owner, George Whitman, whose socialist beliefs are the bedrock for the unusual set-up in the shop. He claims to have homed 40 thousand people (mostly writers after a fashion) for varying lengths of time, and one feels as if it may well be true once we've gotten to know George better. I'm not sure that he's exactly likable, but his motto is "Give what you can, take what you need" which he has consistently upheld over his long life. One of the rooms in the shop is marked with the words "Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise". One comes away from this book with a very real sense that cliche and tweeness have no place here, with words carefully and particularly chosen with their real meaning in mind.

P.S. For those of you in the USA, this book was published there in 2005 by St. Martin's Press under the title Time Was Soft There.


Monday, August 14, 2006

Great excitement! Some luscious new African fiction out this month.

First the giant, Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong'o with the English edition of WIZARD OF THE CROW - Africa Book Centre has the original in Kikuyu (MUROGI WA KAGOGO) from East African Educational Publishers in Nairobi, should you wish. Slightly annoying publicity blurb where the UK publisher's own website refers to him several times as Ngugl. If you can't even spell his name right and you are the publisher, how do you expect to launch his work to a wider public, I ask you?!

Next (and the two I look forward to with most anticipation) are new titles by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Tsitsi Dangarembga. Their previous novels Purple Hibiscus and Nervous Conditions respectively are absolutely wonderful books.

From Nigerian Adichie (who also happens to be an intelligent, modest and singularly beautiful woman - shucks) the new title is HALF OF A YELLOW SUN. The recent anthology Granta 92: THE VIEW FROM AFRICA published in January this year was a rather delightful taster of writing from and on Africa. It included The Master by Adichie which is, I believe, an extract from this new book. The Master is densely layered and so absorbing that I read my way through it oblivious to a screaming fight (literally) playing out around me on a train home. When I surfaced I had largely missed the whole thing, bar a yell or two - how disappointing!

Zimbabwean Dangarembga faces a frighteningly critical audience with THE BOOK OF NOT. The eighteen year gap in publication dates between this and Nervous Conditions which was released in 1988, is enough to make anyone anxious (she has published no other novels in the interim). In addition, this is apparently a sequel, continuing the story of Tambu. Can your character live that long inside your head? For her sake I hope so. I will read on in trepidation.

I haven't started any of these yet, but will add them to the teetering pile and relish when their turn arrives. My current book is totally African unrelated - MARIANA by Monica Dickens, whose girly horsey books I read as a child. This is nothing like those. A book for adults, written in 1940, it has a superb sense of place and time, yet resonates today. Here an extract from page two:

People were kind and friendly and amusing, but they thought that companionship and conversation were synonymous, and some of them had voices that jarred in your head. There was a lot to be said for dogs. . .

Beyond the inconstant firelight and the beam of the oil lamp at her side, the rest of the room was in shadow; not the sort of shadow that makes you keep looking over your shoulder, but a quiet, withdrawn friendliness, as if the unseen objects were waiting until they were needed again. Beyond the room, the night was lashing itself to an impotent fury of wind and rain. Mary thought how strange it was to think that only a few inches of wall separated the placid cosiness of the sitting-room from the howling, streaming darkness. Houses were very defiant things.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Apologies for the silence - it has been a momentous few months.

After lovely travels criss-crossing the north-eastern USA visiting old friends, attending weddings and relaxing (thank you to all of you we managed to see, and promises of "next time" to everyone else!). We returned home to find that we were expecting a baby. If we were David and Victoria Beckham, the child would have been called "Manhattan", luckily we're not. Also, for anyone who has ever wondered about morning sickness, allow me to assure you that there is no such thing - it should be more aptly named morning-noon-and-night sickness!

Sadly, a couple of weeks ago, I miscarried. There's not much to say really, except that I also nearly died and had to have a rather large blood transfusion. If you've never given blood - do. If you do give blood already, all I can say is that while you will never know the stories of those who receive your blood, they are extremely grateful. Not a day goes by that I don't think of the folks who gave blood for me and I am deeply thankful.