Monday, January 24, 2022

Morning Ragas One and Two


 A raga is a particular form of  Hindustani classical music. For those with ears more musical than mine, there is much to explore within the tradition and the complexity. Unlike most western music, there is a specific association in many cases with time of day and even season. As the sun was lighting up the sky this morning, I remembered a concert of ragas in a church hall in a suburb of Indianapolis many years ago. It is music to get lost in and find yourself again. It is, like jazz, played by musicians who know their instruments and the traditions of the music well, but play within that framework--riffing off each other, if I can extend my mini-musical knowledge with another cross-cultural metaphor. I remembered watching the music unfold and the feelings it created within me.

I miss the music and music making and the friends who dubbed me 'Ganesh-an' after the elephant-headed God, Ganesh. Ganesh is known, among other things, as the remover of obstacles and seems to be associated with travelling and good beginnings. In the early morning on the far north coast of Scotland, those motifs began running in my head. 

Ganesh is often pictured dancing. I have several images gifted to me by my friends. In the one on my mantel, Ganesh has bells on his ankles and is dancing. If you look at it for more than a moment, you can hear the bells. In another miniature, a tiny Ganesh stands still with a parasol over his head. Perhaps it's meant to indicate a traveller, but to me it looks like the doo dah man of New Orleans jazz. 

And so what else could I do but make my own morning ragas?


Early Morning Raga I

Perhaps the sun arrives today with news

to lift my heavy tread. When did my feet

become so earthbound stiff and slow?

If I could fly what would I see instead

of walls and floors and all the chores to do

for those of us born out of clay and sea?


After Coffee Morning Raga II 

Begin with mismatched socks

stripes on one foot dots on the other

or stars or sheep whatever once

made you smile

Put on that smouldering red shirt today

What have you been saving it for?

We’ve already had the rainy days

More than Noah and his overcrowded ark endured

Before the flood washed the world clean again

Come out among the flotsam and the jetsam

fabric torn and left flapping in the breeze

prayer flags for wayfarers in our strange new old world.


Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Boris Johnson’s New Hairdo and the Rhetoric of our Times


I am a writer. I used to be reluctant to say that because I have a great deal of regard for writers, and I am by nature someone who thinks I am too small for whatever needs doing. In the sense I want to offer up today, we are all writers. A writer constructs narratives or stories. We all do that to make sense of our world. We need stories in which we can tuck all the troublesome details of everyday life so we can get on with things.

Boris Johnson was renowned for his singular narratives that were more expedient than factual long before he became prime minister. If I were an investigative journalistic kind of writer, I’d insert here references and examples. I’m telling a story so familiar to us all now that I don’t think that’s necessary. Despite knowing he told porkies—as my husband says—he managed to become Prime Minister. And that brings me to his hair—again I might properly insert here examples or references to expert opinion, but I hope without that we can agree for the moment that deliberately mussing up his hair was part of his, self-generated narrative—the part that was meant to say something like ‘Gosh, I may get it wrong sometimes, but I am just a guy trying to do my best for the team.’ And we were supposed to feel as if we were a team.

The team-based rhetoric has also been the narrative of the mainstream media. The news and the newspapers, where we could and should get more nuanced storytelling, report on Covid as if it were a sporting event. Every day we have scores—Covid cases, hospitalisations, deaths—always delivered with just the right emphasis to show some sympathy. As if to counter that, we have numbers of vaccinations and boosters, including a grand total of those vaccinated. Covid is the bad guy; those of us on the booster side are the good guys. As with the Olympics coverage, we are also regularly treated to vignettes of heroes or tragedies. It is, of course, much too simple. Dangerously simple.

That simplified story allows those not on the right team to be vilified. I actually heard someone say of a person not vaccinated who died of the disease that ‘he got what he deserved.’ It also precludes looking at the things we can do—in addition to the vaccinations—to protect ourselves and our loved ones—opening windows, staying home when we can, but most of all being kind to ourselves and to each other no matter what story we tell ourselves.

Truth, they say, is the first victim of war, and I think now the mainstream narrative is shifting to that of a war time drama. And it begins with Boris Johnson’s hair. Now that the ship he has not been steering for some time is sinking as the Covid scorecard gives the game away, he has combed his hair as if to say I am your captain and we will ride this out together. It will take more than a haircut to get this narrative to float, I think, but I am often befuddled by the stories people choose to tell themselves.

As a writer, I am starting here to construct a more inclusive narrative, and I urge you all to join in. No one asked for Covid; no one ‘deserves’ whatever the wily little collection of proteins dishes up. Scientists don’t have all the answers—nor is there a single ‘answer’ to any of the many questions raised by this pandemic. The government could have/should have done better. Public health has been underfunded with now drastic consequences, and we need all of us to be looking around with an eye for more complex narratives: beyond heroes and villains, winners and losers, and above all beyond any rhetoric that puts us at odds with each other.

Thursday, December 02, 2021

The Other Side of Women's Work

 I was pleased to have Tentacular want to publish my poem, 'You cant say No.'  It is a look at women's work--insert here the usual disclaimer: it is not exclusively women that mend and darn and knit and stitch all maner of things--some alluded to in the poem. Nonetheless, it was invariably the death of an aunt or mother or grandmother that sent grieving relatives looking for a home for the relics--for that is what they were--of their loved one. It is a bit of humour with some grain of truth in that whenever an archaelogist finds something that cannot be explained in their own terms, it is deemed 'probably of ritual use.' And that is what had become of these pins and needles, bits of wool, handwritten notes. The relatives knew they had some value, so they would not discard them or casually cast them aside, but they had lost the sense of them.

I never said No to their urgent requests for a safe home for the items. Sometimes I would get a bit of story about the person or the items, but usually they were just passed on hurriedly with obvious relief and a grateful smile. These donations made me sad because it meant a talented pair of hands was gone; more importantly, it made me sad because tools are living breathing things and they had been reduced now to artefacts. It was that sadness that prompted the poem. Stephen King is said to be a cheerful person who writes his nightmares away. My poems are often sadness that is caught and wrapped into a safer place. 

Women's work is essential and frequently invisible.  Elizabeth Wayland Barber was able to learn much about linen and ancient Egyptian textile arts because the linen wrappings of the mummies were of so little value that they were discarded and left in the tombs where grave goods and mummies were carried off and highly touted. For marvellous insights into 'women's  work' her book is a gold mine: Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years has been shared among my crafting friends and, as I typed this, I bought an e book version of it to read it again.

Urban myths and conspiracy theories are said to prevail because they hold to 'truths' that can't be disproven. I fear the image of women's work as domestic frippery may be among those myths that does not easily disappear. With naivete and enthusiasm I set about to fill the knowledge gap in knitting by putting together an intergenerational knit group, Northern Loops. I received funding from an agency that despite my best efforts failed to understand that knitting--the ability to see something and make it a reality is intellectual property, which in and of itself is valuable--more valuable than the end products in many cases. Some of my efforts to describe what knitting could do may still be available on the internet someplace. The funders' best understanding was that knitters up north could do christening shawls for the London market and make some money. Like the women with the leftover tools, the funders understood women's work only in the artefacts.

For me, the other side of women's work is the agency of the women. It should be obvious that it is empowering to be able to make things, but that seems not to be understood. In making things there is not only the benefit of the object created but in the conceiving and making itself. Makers can give voice to their feelings and effect political change. Classic examples are the suffragettes wearing their colours in their sashes and carrying their banners.  An American example is a wife who cut her husband's Ku Klux Klan costume into pieces and reshaped it into a quilt. And we know much of the  history of our world because it was stitched into tapestries. And that prompted another poem, a testament to agency, Knots.


The wind like a curious calf

tugs at the knot holding the farm gate shut

teasing one end

then the other

the nut hard centre holds fast


The wind moves on to test

tender branches and fledglings

it conjures sea foam into white horses

galloping towards the shore


Inland it staggers

like a drunk looking for a fight

tumbled rubbish bins

skittering along the street


I know this wind

like the trees in my small patch

where they lean themselves leeward

and hope their roots stay anchored

in the patient earth

I am waiting for her return


When the sturdy steel gate swings free

I am already there moving crab like into the wind

the salt wind stinging my eyes

until I can lean my shoulder into the wild gate


Step by step I soldier toward the gate’s anchor

hurled back again and again

on the third try I have the gate where I want it

the wind regroups the gate shakes


My hands are stiff with cold

but my fingers know a different kind of knot

soft loops of the knitter, the weaver, the mender of clothes

I wrap and knot and wrap and knot and wrap and knot

the gate rattles

the ends of the knots dance freely

yielding without giving way