Calm Things

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Wanderings & wonderings

Old Winchester Hill Fort

Earlier in the month, our customary January picnic for B’s birthday. Another year, another Iron Age hill fort. This year was much, much colder. The pushchair, wheels jammed with mud, was abandoned half-way up the path, and collected again on our way back a couple of hours later. Whenever I think I might be safe to be let out into the countryside, I make a mistake like this. Who would try to push a Maclaren buggy up a very muddy hill? In our defense, we’ve just given our Phil & Ted’s — perfect for muddy walks — to a friend, desperate to rock her newborn to sleep in her living room. Anyway, mistakes were made, but fun — of a very muddy kind — was had, & the Pip-Pop proved himself to have some very sturdy walking legs. From the top, on a clear day, you can see the Isle of Wight. We couldn’t see that far, but the wind buffeting us up there was so strong that it sounded very much like the sea.

Old Winchester Hill Fort -- T, R & C

This week has been all about the colds. Our whole house smells delightfully of Olbas Oil to those who can smell anything. Experiments in scheduling continue. Early nights & episodes of Twin Peaks are keeping us going through the darkness of January. I’m in week three of getting up at six & writing first thing. Early conclusion: there is only so much time, it’s all about how you juggle it. I’m probably getting more writing done, but by about eight in the morning I can’t remember what I’ve written, so who knows about quality. I’m certainly getting less reading done because getting up early requires a fixed bedtime & lights off at ten. Some nights T has still been awake when we’ve been going to bed (she’s got a reading-with-a-torch-under-the-duvet thing going on, but that’s another story).

My plan to read/reread Penelope Fitzgerald is next up — The Golden Child, her first novel, arrived this morning. It’s one I haven’t read & I’m really looking forward to it. She wrote nine novels (five of which will be rereads for me), so if I aim for one a month I should have time in hand. These already sound like famous last words…

Between longing and regret

Consolations of the Forest, Sylvain Tesson

I live here in the realm of predictability. Each day goes by a mirror of the one before, a rough draft of the one to come. The passing hours bring variations in the sky’s coloration, the comings and goings of the birds, and a thousand almost imperceptible things.

from Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson (translated by Linda Coverdale)

A quiet start to the year’s reading: a journal of six months spent in the Siberian wilderness. Tesson’s account of his life in a log cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal is full of vodka, cigars, reading, and drinking sessions with Russian fishermen. Strangely, I liked him more once he was master of two dogs, Aika and Bek.

And here too the days are passing with rhythm and predictability. A new balance — waking early, writing in the quiet of the darkness, watching the moon wane — and sleeping early, dreams full of Twin Peaks. Here’s Tesson on his dogs:

The dogs twine constantly around my legs; in me they have found someone who responds to their affection. They neither rely on nor delight in their memories. Between longing and regret, there is a spot called the present. Like jugglers who ply their trade while standing on the neck of a bottle, we should train ourselves to balance in that sweet spot. The dogs manage it.

It’s soothing to embrace the repetition, to know always what one should be doing, to be balanced in the sweet spot of the present.

Rereading: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

If I could see my mother, it would not have to be her eyes, her hair. I would not need to touch her sleeve. There was no more the stoop of her high shoulders. The lake had taken that, I knew. It was so long since the dark had swum her hair, and there was nothing more to dream of, but often she almost slipped through any door I saw from the side of my eye, and it was she, and not changed, and not perished. She was a music I no longer heard, that rang in my mind, itself and nothing else, lost to all sense, but not perished, not perished.

I first heard of Marilynne Robinson on a Saturday afternoon in the late spring of 2003. I was reading the Guardian — as we did in those long ago pre-children days — when I came across an article by Paul Bailey about a novel of ‘eerie beauty’ published in 1981 by a writer who in the intervening decade had written several non-fiction books, but no more fiction. Bailey noted, ‘[A] second novel has not appeared. Perhaps it never will.’ His tone was that of one who was grateful that Marilynne Robinson had written anything at all: ‘A first novel, then, and possibly a last. It’s cause enough for celebration that Robinson found the time and space in which to set it down with such loving attention to what Ruth calls the “dear ordinary”.’

Something of his fervour must have stayed with me, for somewhere (I seem to remember the Oxfam bookshop in Brighton) I found a copy of Housekeeping and I too fell under its spell. There it is in my reading list for 2004, between Notes of a Scandal and a reread of Peter Carey’s Bliss. From that first reading, I retain an impression of dreaminess, of wateriness, of the lake and loss and the lyrical, Biblical language of Ruthie.

And, just like that, a decade. Three children. Three more Marilynne Robinson novels, when, like Paul Bailey, I had hardly dared to hope for more. I’ve read Gilead twice (2007, pregnant with T; 2010, pregnant with the Moose) and Home once (2010). Lila is a pleasure saved against future drought.


Coming back to Housekeeping I had forgotten the density of its opening chapter, the way the stories pile one on another, the weight of history pressing down on a house, a town. The writing slowed me down and I noticed for the first time Doris Lessing’s verdict on the back of my copy of the book: ‘I found myself reading slowly, then more slowly — this is not a novel to be hurried through, for every sentence is a delight.’ And that sense of density and slowness reminded me of Donna Tartt’s dictum of density and speed. Perhaps there is room for both. Perhaps this partly explains the difference between a book of 187 pages and a book of 784 pages both of which feel equally ‘lived’ to me.

Ruth’s story had stayed with me, in almost all its particulars, in a way that those other books from my 2004 reading list haven’t. It’s a slight enough tale on the surface — after Ruth & Lucille’s mother leaves them on the porch of the house she grew up in & drives into the lake her own father died in, Ruth’s story is one of loss and the peculiarly large space those we have lost take in our consciousness. For five years their grandmother cares for them ‘like someone reliving a long day in a dream’, then one morning she ‘eschewed awakening’ and the great-aunts Lily and Nona briefly care for the girls before, alarmed at caring for two young children, they flee leaving them in the care of their mother’s younger sister Sylvie. Sylvie is a drifter, in the language of Fingerbone an itinerant, and gradually as Lucille allies herself with the normality of teenage clothes and friendships, Ruthie is drawn further from these things into Sylvie’s drifting lifestyle. But with Housekeeping the surface is hardly the point.

I can’t have missed Housekeeping‘s Biblical references the first time I read it, but I don’t think I was sure what to make of them. One of the pleasures of this reread was the knowledge of Robinson’s enlarged oeuvre & a better understanding of her overall sensibility. Reading Lily and Nona’s justification for calling Sylvie back to Fingerbone to care for Ruth & Lucille one can’t help thinking of Jack Boughton, the prodigal son of Home: ‘They agreed that the forgiveness of the parent should always be extended to the erring child, even posthumously.’ And knowing the centrality of grace to the Gilead books, how could I help reading this line about Ruth’s grandmother and her three daughters with added weight, ‘She had always known a thousand ways to circle them all around with what must have seemed like grace.’. To me, that ‘seemed like’ seems crucial, for perhaps this is not the grace bestowed by God.


Finishing Housekeeping for the first time, I found out what I could about Marilynne Robinson. It wasn’t much. But there was somewhere on the internet at that time a portion of a 2000 interview with her from An American Scholar. I have the print-out still.

MR: I wrote a lot of ‘Housekeeping’ in France. I wrote in a little dark room at the back of the house while trying to hide from the neighborhood children fascinated by this American family living in their midst. I was trying to remember when I was in Idaho.[…]And at first it seemed undoable and then I began to realize that if I gave my mind time it would discover things. It knew things that I would never anticipate it knowing and so there was this whole rising out of the sea of this remembered landscape which was a strange experience in itself because it was a discovery of mind about my mind that I would never have otherwise have made.

And this, which I have always loved,

It’s very difficult when you’re starting out because you have the strange abstract idea of what it would be like to write without having an experience of yourself writing. So you do all kinds of crazy imitative stuff or whatever.

Then a snippet from a more recent interview, the Paris Review‘s Art of Fiction no. 198 from 2008,


Did you ever have a religious awakening?


No, a mystical experience would be wasted on me. Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.


How would one learn to see ordinary things this way?


It’s not an acquired skill. It’s a skill that we’re born with that we lose. We learn not to do it.

We learn not to see. But reading Robinson, one might start learning how to see again.


My thoughts on Housekeeping, and particularly on the strangeness and permeability of Ruth’s narrative voice have been made far more coherent by watching two lectures on the novel by Professor Amy Hungerford. She draws out the links that I would have been entirely unaware of between Marilynne Robinson’s interest in 19th century transcendentalism — whose key figures included Emerson, Thoreau & Emily Dickinson — and Ruth’s fluid consciousness.


We’ve just started watching Twin Peaks for the first time. I basically can’t wait until evening and that first twang of the synthesizer and the picture of that little bird. Scouting the internet for advice on which of the pilot episodes to watch, we found an answer that ended by saying ‘lucky you still having TP to watch for the first time’. Well, if you haven’t read it, lucky you for still having a first reading of Housekeeping ahead of you.

Reflections & intentions

Frosted samara

The weather is mild again. The little ones are back at school. The Pip-Pop cried after we’d dropped them off and were walking to town. ‘Popsy go to school too, Mumma. Popsy want school.’ I feel jet-lagged — waking a full three hours earlier than I was by the end of the holidays. Through the loft window the sky is a dazzling turquoise and the clouds — fat and white with heavy gray bases — are racing by.

If I think back, without looking, at what I read last year these are the ones I loved: Crossing to Safety, The Lowland, Leaving the Atocha Station, Light Years, A Suitable Boy and Daybook. And for this year I have a few projects in mind. I’d love to read/re-read all of Penelope Fitzgerald & Michael Ondaatje. I’d like to continue with my pencil in my hand, and I want to continue to start & end my days with a poem.

T (seven & a half) is leaving me far behind her. At breakfast she told me the entire story of Treasure Island and then apologised for not being able to use enough expression when she’s summarising a book. The holidays have also seen her get through Anne of Green Gables among others (did I already say that she carried on & finished Little Women without me). So another new year wish is to follow along with her a little better — even if it means picking up the books after she’s read them.

For my writing, here’s the lesson I need to go back to,

…doing writing practice endlessly with no structure in mind puts you on the road to Never Never Land — never finishing, never publishing.

The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Priscilla Long

She’s tough on me, but I need it. (And she does believe in writing without structure to find out what you have to say, but then you have to choose a suitable structure/come up with one, and write into it.)

And here, for the blog, I’d like to tell you everything nobody has ever asked me, and — naturally — make things a little more beautiful.


I’ve photographed the helicopters or keys on this tree so often that I now know they’re called samaras. Here they are in last week’s beautiful frost.




Frosty morning

Frost on glass

Mornings beautiful for their encrusting of frost. Afternoons reading on the sofa. Silence at the turning of the year. Thinking about effortless effort. A year of something small: page after page of days in black ink.

The company of friends, and the first year that T has been awake at midnight — tiptoeing down from the double-bed she was sharing with her friend and her friend’s little sister to stand wide-eyed at the pictures of the fireworks on the Thames. 1.30 & I creep to the loft ready to bring her home & find her and her friend both lying on their tummies, reading. Boys heavy with sleep and warmth as we carry them home. Starting the year a little jaded. I read Paddington stories, while B cooks a roast.

The year ahead hazy with possibility. It will be the first year in seven that we haven’t had a child under two or been expecting another. That is something to marvel at. Moving to the next stage with grace. Never to forget how lucky I am to have them, all four. And this year I will be the same age as my father, though he has been stuck at 37 for the last twenty-five years. How sometimes it seems that it is all going so quickly but the days arrive, one after the other, each for the using.

2015. May it bring you whatever you wish for.