journal for Beltane
On commonality, Bognor, and Miss X
i — death stories
The problem with being fascinated by death, both the mystery of its echo and the pondering on it by others in culture, is that it doesn’t tie-in with the ‘themes’ of most of the year. I’ve tried to decorate life a little more with some ancient festivity & symbolism foci. Hallowe’en and winter? Nailed those. But seasons like Beltane today, that prime place for life & growth & abundance? It’s unfamiliar.
Midway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, while the planet warms itself (for better & worse), I sit, yet again, with death stories.
Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking records the upstream swim through that murky weirdness of loss. My first ever film marathon, completed by a trip to the cinema for John Wick: Chapter 4, follows one man’s prolonged retaliation against the murder of his dog. Time Shelter — written by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, shortlisted byfor this year’s International Booker — follows Gaustine, an enigmatic flâneur who opens a 'clinic for the past' as a treatment for Alzheimer's sufferers: each floor reproduces a decade in minute detail, transporting patients back in time. I didn’t enjoy the translation itself, but the concept of our pasts (is the collective plural of past ‘history’?) invading the present, and an attempt to save the slow decay of one’s mind, was in theme with the rest.
Joy and solace were found, though, with Persephone’s printing of R. C. Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September. From the author himself:
‘The story was a simple one: a small suburban family on their annual fortnight’s holiday at Bognor: man and wife, a grown-up daughter working for a dressmaker, a son just started in a London office, and a younger boy still at school. It was a day-by-day account of their holiday from their last evening at home until the day they packed their bags for their return; how they came out of their shabby boarding house every morning and went down to the sea; how the father found hope for the future in his brief freedom from his humdrum work; how the children found romance and adventure; how the mother, scared of the sea, tried to make the others think she was enjoying it.’
It, too, felt familiar — it echoed of summer childhoods on the Isle of Wight with my grandparents, eating gritty sandwiches and nan brushing our toes before we got in the car. The Fortnight in September was ‘about’ nothing in particular, but it felt like it mattered more than most things I read. So much of human life found in one trip to Bognor: the fleeting nature of joyful moments, the creep of endings, the humility of poverty & struggle & actual happiness found in the smaller things.
The seasons celebrating the fullness of life, then, may find their home yet.
To want & welcome contentedness. To bathe in joy when it comes.
That’s what my Beltane can be.
ii — the gift of a nightmare
In The Lottery, a new posthumous short story collection from The Haunting of Hill House author, Shirley Jackson, there was a funny little opening tale: Nightmare. A woman is asked by her boss to deliver a package across the city. While travelling, she’s followed by a citywide advertising campaign that demands people FIND MISS X and win a host of exotic gifts. MISS X, no matter what the protagonist does to change the match, is an exact likeness. Eventually, she caves. It must be her. By succumbing to the ordeal, though, her paranoia melts and… she is free.
Embracing our fears, shifting our perception, could turn a nightmare into a gift. It was a clever little story. I thought of a few other things that consider passing time, how it affects perception how to make the most of what we have: my sad it’s gone / happy it happened playlist, two quotes from a book I’ve just started by Jenny Odell called Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, and a third from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 4, Scene 3, 218-224) that my grandfather told me once and stuck to me.
‘The moss arrived in my apartment around the time I started thinking about this book. It was still growing when I finished. True, it will probably not live in that spot for five thousand years, as has one moss shelf on Elephant Island in Antarctica. But in the long meantime, it has taken three years of sunlight, breathed three years of air, and witnessed three years of me at the kitchen table. … it has been a reminder of time: not the monolithic, empty substance imagined to wash over each of us alone, but the kind that starts and stops, bubbles up, collects in the cracks, and folds into mountains. It is the kind that waits for the right conditions, that holds always the ability to begin something new.’
‘In Ancient Greek, there are two different words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos … is the realm of linear time, a steady, plodding march of events into the future. Kairos means something more like crisis, but it is also related to what many of us might think of as opportune timing or seizing the time. … qualitative rather than quantitative time, given that, in kairos, all moments are different and the right thing happens at the right point.’
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Defeat or embrace your fears — one or the other, nothing between.
Treat life as an opportunity.
iii — from Monday 10 April
I sit in the café, pull out three books, and prepare some markers for them. I tear little squares of paper, slot them in the top of the seam roughly 20 pages apart each, with the expectation — currently, but it may change — that each collection of pages is roughly 30 minutes of reading.
Before I have the chance to do that or read anything, though, the younger of the two women working this morning sits at my table to talk to me about the white & ginger tomcat that has sauntered in and hopped onto my table. It’s a regular here and I often coax it up — now, I think it just likes my company & energy. She tells me she has her own cat (which is actually the neighbour’s), and she asks if she can sit with me until she starts her shift. I’m not doing anything important, so she sits — we talk for 45 minutes or so. I think: I give too much advice, about university and moving to London if that’s what she wants to do. I try to be helpful but it probably isn’t what’s being asked for — I say as much out loud, but she says instead that I’m just ‘someone who is very confident and able in doing what they do — something I’d like to be more myself’. I reassure her that’s not entirely true — I’m often all over the place. In hindsight, this probably isn’t so reassuring.
When she leaves to start work, I suddenly feel an intensity. Not grief, nor happiness. It’s something like a recognition of individuality — a sharp pang of commonality, a good feeling, attempting to mix with the knowledge that this also means they struggle, too, as I do. Here is someone trusting me with their attempt to be confident, I assume a considerable part of their day but something I’ll forget a week or so later. I think of the other barista behind the counter: an older woman who has described her lazy grump of a husband to me plenty of times; the tomcat who roams this area and hasn’t, yet, been harmed enough by someone to be scared back inside; the tall (I’m talking at least seven feet) woman with whom the younger woman meets for ‘human mapping’ — I’m told it’s something about astrology (which turned our chat towards tarot cards at one point) — who has folded into her regular corner of the room, sat with the weight of someone who must predict the planet; the tiny woman, who celebrated her 70th recently (I overheard) but dresses like she’s 30 and sits outside holding hands, most mornings, with her chain smoking husband — she says hello, gives the cat a brisk scratch between the ears.
I don’t know any of them, but I know something of them all. The rush of identifying myself as a human who lives in a larger community both hurts and makes me feel glad to be alive and experiencing it all.
I continue tearing slips of paper, and slotting them into my books.
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