Time regained …

IMG_3243.jpgIt’s been a long time since my last post. I could offer excuses for my long silence, even valid reasons, but I doubt anyone is interested so I won’t. Among other things, I have been offline and searching for lost time.

I finished reading Proust’s masterpiece a couple of weeks ago, and although I skipped a few bits where his introspection got on my nerves (especially in the Albertine episodes), I have to say that on the whole I enjoyed it and I am very glad that I finally made the effort. I am feeling pleased and proud of myself for having persevered and achieved something worthwhile. It’s a good book!

Having reached the “Fin”, where the whole thing comes full circle and all the loose ends are tied up, I realized why I had so dismally failed with it first time around, and now I feel the need to go back to the beginning and read it all again. That’s one of the greatest compliments I can pay any author. I am also still looking for a complete set of the seven-tome novel at a reasonable price; some of the volumes were in a second-hand bookshop here, but at 12 € apiece, that is more than I am prepared to fork out for something that sits unread and dusty in so many French homes. I’m in France at present. I remain optimistic.

Proust’s theme of memory – voluntary and involuntary – has recurred, aptly enough, in my own life during these last few weeks. I have been spending time with my daughter in our Brittany home, where the pace is slow and time is governed by the tides.

img_2756.jpgWe have had some very sad moments, owing to the need to have my daughter’s lovely and very lovable little dog put to sleep. That isn’t something you want to have to do during your holidays, and obviously it has cast a pall over the last weeks. It also led to a time of sharing doggy memories and stories, as she had been part of our lives for over fourteen years and had caused a great deal of merriment and amusement in that time. Other pets came back to life for us, too, re-surfacing in old photos that I have been sorting through.

And not only pets: people also.

After we cleared out my mother’s house last year, we decided to keep some of her furniture and had it shipped to this house in Brittany, where it fits in very well. Also in the consignment were several boxes, bags and suitcases containing photos, letters and other papers that my mother had carefully preserved, some of them now over a century old, and since we have had a few dull days recently I took the opportunity of starting to go through these. What a revelation! And what memories were evoked – including some events that I had entirely forgotten, and others that my daughter was unaware of. All fitting in with my Proustian mood, of course.

My mother never threw away letters or cards. We had to get rid of hundreds of Christmas and birthday cards last year, but had kept some that we decided had sentimental merit for us, for instance, correspondence from my grandparents, all my twenty-first birthday cards, and the cards my parents sent each other with tender and humorous little messages in them. There are also documents relating to happenings in my parents’ youth that are interesting for our family history.

But Mom had also kept all my letters home throughout my years away at university and from when I was a young bride and mother in Germany. Since I am in this respect a chip off the old block, I had kept the letters from my parents to me over this same period, and at some point must have given them back to my mother for safekeeping (my ex-husband was the opposite: he trashed everything that he didn’t see an immediate use for, so my mother’s later letters have vanished).

Thus we have a dialogue covering the entire decade of the 1960’s, plus incidental commentaries on events in the seventies, eighties and nineties, although these are sparser because I don’t have my mother’s replies, and anyway by that time we spent more time talking on the phone than writing to one another so the narrative is interrupted.

How strange to find myself suddenly back in the persona of the young woman I inhabited more than fifty years ago, reliving all the stress, drama and agony as well as all the fun and happiness of my late teens and twenties! The world turns, times change, and so do we. In some ways, although I recollect most of the events and my feelings then, I have difficulty in identifying with that “me”.

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I have little sympathy for that young woman who irritates and annoys me. I don’t really like her and feel ashamed that I was so stupid, crass and egoistic. There are photos to go with the letters, and although I know it’s me, I feel she’s almost a stranger. I judge her very harshly, especially as I re-read my mother’s kind, sensible words and reflect on how fortunate I was to have such a wise and loving adviser – whilst at the time, I stubbornly pursued my own wilful ways. We alter gradually and imperceptibly, like everything else in nature.

Would I have acted differently if I had known how things were going to turn out? I look at my daughter – kind, loving, sensible and wise – and realise what a silly question that is. Change one moment, and everything goes out of kilter. No Things have turned out exactly as they were supposed to. I need to forgive that silly, heedless, selfish girl I used to be. Whoever I am now, she is part of me and I have to accept her. What would she have made of me, I wonder?

(Oh dear, in my daughter’s opinion, I haven’t really changed as much as I thought!)

Flying Elephant …

There was an elephant in my room last night. A pink one.

It flew in through the open French window at dusk, clattered about a bit and then hid itself where I couldn’t chase it out again. Seeing that it had apparently settlde down for the night, I gave up the hunt and went to bed myself.

This morning it was clinging to the inside of the curtain; I opened the window and poked my visitor out. It sat trembling on the windowsill, evidently traumatised, so I did what I would have done for a bee and gave it a large blob of honey. Maybe I killed it with kindness? Eventually it stopped fluttering and lay perfectly still, its nose and feet in the honey. Dead.

What a privilege for me to have been honoured by its visit. I feel quite sad that I wasn’t able to save this very beautiful creature. RIP.

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My gorgeous elephant hawk moth

Another elephant-related incident – a tenuous link, only because elephants never forget – occurred a few days ago. An old school-friend contacted me to ask, given my elephantine memory, if I could recall a song we sang in primary school (that’s over 60 years ago!). All she could remember was that Miss Stevenson had taught it to us and it contained the word Innisfree. As far as I was aware, we never sang Yeats’s poem so I knew it wasn’t that, but from deep in the swirly mists of my childhood arose a faint melody, flitting in and out of my consciousness but – like my moth – never quite catchable.

However, the following day I suddenly knew the title: The Flight of the Earls. Instantly, the melody returned and most of the words. Not Innisfree but Innisfail, the old poetic name for Ireland. I googled it, and found that it was a poem by Alfred Perceval Graves, set to a haunting melody by Charles Villiers Stanford. Neither name meant anything to me, but I was glad to be able to free my friend from her torment of forgetfulness.

What bothered me in all this, though, was that the name Miss Stevenson also meant nothing to me, although I distinctly remembered singing the song at school. My friend sent me a succinct description: “Grey hair, straight style, usually in grey clothes. lived till she was 102.” Sounds like a typical schoolmarm, but despite racking my brain nowhere can I find either an image of her or an echo of her name. The melody, however, lingers on. And so do the lyrics. I’ve been singing this old song as I go about my chores. Poor neighbours!

The subject of memory has been quite topical for me lately. In Sanibel library, towards the start of my vacation, I found a thousand-page biography of Marcel Proust on sale for two dollars. The size of this is commensurate with its subject, of course: A la Recherche du Temps Perdu may not be quite the longest novel ever written but it certainly looks impressive on a bookshelf (over 3,000 pages).

Now when I was about 20, my BA (Hons) course included a couple of trimesters studying the French novel. My reading list included hefty tomes by Balzac, Hugo, Zola, Flaubert, Gide – and of course Monsieur Proust, whereby the book on which we were to be examined was the double volume of Le Temps Retrouvé, which is the final link in the chain bringing the story full circle. That of course obliged us to read the entire set of seven volumes – no easy task in the limited time available – and it was competing with such heavyweights as Les Misérables, L’Assommoir (which is also one of twenty books in the Rougon-Macquart series) and my candidate for the most boring book ever published, Bouvard et Pécuchet.

I was able to boast truthfully that I had read all of Proust in French but I didn’t admit I had retained nothing! There just wasn’t enough time to digest all the imperfect subjunctives and unfamiliar vocabulary, and I was lucky in the exam that I was able to choose other works to write about. During the intervening half century, I’ve played with the idea of re-reading this magnum opus but – until now – it’s remained a vague idea.

Although the Proust biography was a bit heavy going for beach reading, I did manage to finish it (and bring it home for future reference), as it piqued my interest in Proust once more. Then I discovered I could purchase the version intégrale of A la Recherche for Kindle for a mere 2 euros! This time, I have the leisure that was lacking in my youth, the patience to linger over the notoriously interminable, serpentine sentences and the maturity to discover the charm, humour, profundity of thought, intensity of analysis, richness of language, the vivid evocation of la belle époque, and the sheer poetry of Proust’s account of his search for lost time.

I’m normally a fast reader, but here I have met my match. In four weeks, I’m only two and a half books down, four and a half to go, halfway through Du Côté des Guermantes. I know already that when I finally reach the end, I’ll have to start re-reading from the beginning to refresh my memory: maybe this is a project for the rest of my life! I think I will have to buy the hardbacks. Surely I’ll find a set in the brocante.

They will look very impressive on my bookshelf.

Sleeping With An Alligator

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My “I-Spy-Wildlife” list is getting longer, with the addition this week of a firefly and an iguana. The firefly was gleaming like a misplaced Christmas light in a bushy palm tree one dark evening. Wondering who on earth would have put a fluorescent green LED there, I was on my way to investigate when it took flight and vanished into the night. Beautiful, miraculous, amazing! Ogden Nash’s verses on The Firefly occurred to me:

The firefly’s flame
Is something for which science has no name 

I can think of nothing eerier
Than flying around with an unidentified glow on a person’s posterior. 

The iguana appeared before me on the bike path, popped into the undergrowth and reappeared a minute or two later as I rounded the corner. I didn’t get a proper look at it, so was very gratified when another one (or was it the same one stalking me?) showed up a quarter of an hour later on another bike path in no apparent hurry. An incredible looking creature, wearing emerald-green enamel plating on its body and bright flaming orange and red scales around its head and neck.  Sadly, I didn’t have time to get a photo. I know dinosaurs are usually depicted in muddy colours, but I can’t help trying to visualise Tyrannosaurus Rex in iguana hues. What a feast for the eyes!

My stay in Paradise is drawing to a close. Most of the snowbirds have flown home, and the rainy season is upon us. Being British, I don’t mind rain. In fact, I’m enjoying these showers and deluges with intermittent bursts of sunshine. The temperature is still in the 80’s F (around 30°C) so even if I get soaked as I ride my trike through the raindrops, it’s no hardship. It was certainly needed, and the earth is soaking it all up. The ibis, pelicans, egrets, crows and anhingas don’t seem bothered by it, nor do the rabbits.  I suppose they all have waterproof outer coverings. And the woodpecker is still pecking away loudly.  IMG_2460

An anhinga (also called a snake bird) got into trouble at the edge of the lake a few days ago. We could see its wings flailing and a lot of splashing and squawking, but couldn’t quite see what the problem was. Had the alligator got it by the toe? Was it fighting a fish? A large white heron fluttered across to its side, probably curious, and half a dozen crows started wheeling around cawing menacingly above it. Were they simply waiting like vultures, or would they actually dive and give the victim the coup de grâce, validating the phrase “a murder of crows”?

We were on the point of going out to see what was the matter when a young couple in a golf cart drew up alongside and hurried to the rescue. The bird had caught its foot in some netting that is presumably intended to retain the muddy bank. The man tried to free it using his golf club, but that wasn’t enough so my friend offered him some scissors. He eventually managed to cut away the mesh trapping the anhinga, which was not only exhausted but probably also in shock by this time, as it made no effort to fly away at first. Our neighbours also came out to see what was going on and offer assistance if needed, but the bird then decided it had a large enough human audience, rose gracefully into the air and disappeared on the other side of the lake. That one, at least, lived to tell the tale.  IMG_2430

The anhinga is a very beautiful bird. Its alternative name of snake bird comes from its appearance in the water, as not being very buoyant most of its body is underwater when it swims, and only its long neck and head can be seen, resembling a snake about to strike. It is much like the cormorant in that its feathers aren’t completely waterproof. That has the advantage that the bird can stay underwater longer when it dives for fish, but the disadvantage that when it emerges from the water its wings are waterlogged and it has to sit a while with wings outspread to dry.

Right from my first night here, I have been aware of some slow heavy breathing as I lie quietly in my bed. I made sure that there was nobody else in my room with me, and dismissed the thought that maybe I had a ghostly bedfellow sharing my king-size. The window was open, so the sound was coming in from outside, and I rapidly deduced that something must be slumbering among the mangroves in the swampy nature preserve a few metres away across the road. INNN-hale …. EXXXXhale …. INNNhale … EXXXhale. I needed only to listen to it for a few seconds, and I was instantly in dreamland. I described this to a visiting friend who confirmed my suspicions. “Yep, that’s an alligator.”

Life will seem very dull when I get back home,

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A Place In The Sun …

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Did you miss me?

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No news is good news in my book, so I trust you weren’t unduly concerned! Yes, I’m on that peaceful paradisiacal island in Florida, where the sun shines and everyone smiles – Big Rock Candy Mountain has nothing on this place!

I’m back riding my trike, which gets me everywhere I need to go, swimming 50 laps of the pool every day (before breakfast if I can manage it, when no one else is around) and tending my suntan. My best friend is taking excellent care of me, and I am trying not to be too difficult and inconsiderate – she deserves a gold medal for her patience!

The wildlife here is as fascinating as ever. We have alligators of various sizes, which emerge occasionally from the golf club lakes – the small ones to bask on the grassy shore, the big ones to roar like a lion as they seek the females.

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Signs tell us not “to feed or frighten the alligators”, a reminder that we are just as scary to them as they are to us. The lakes are also home to duck and moorhen families, the little ones strung out behind the parents and paddling as fast as their little legs will go. The adults often join us in the swimming pool, swimming around and preening themselves.  Since they can’t read the sign saying “Don’t swallow the pool water”, they drink it tooI

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I have encountered a softshell turtle three times, twice as she was crossing the road and the third time as she meandered around in our garden looking for a place to lay her eggs. She dug several holes, keenly watched by the iridescent black sea crows who like to eat the eggs, so we added a bit more sand cover for her eggs after she had finished and plopped back into the water. Hopefully, some eggs will escape the crows and the babies will hatch, though I’m told they could take a couple of months, so we aren’t going to see them.

IMG_1072These turtles are strange looking creatures, with a long round nose like a snorkel and a telescopic neck that suddenly pops up periscope fashion to allow the animal to get its bearings. They can move unexpectedly fast, and I wouldn’t necessarily bet on the cute little brown bunnies (which also abound here) if they were racing together.

We have birds galore: a woodpecker who wakes us with his hammering each morning, doves, cardinals, ibis, egrets, herons, ospreys, sandpipers – and of course, pelicans.

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These remind me of pterodactyls, so ungainly when they waddle around on land but graceful as swans on the water and incredible acrobats in the air. What is the collective noun for a large group of pelicans? A platoon? A plethora? A posse? A plunge? They can nosedive at speed into 18 inches of water without getting their bills stuck in the sand, and come up with fish every time. I marvel at their ability to spot the fish in the sandy waves, and wonder how they manage to avoid colliding with each other when they plunge.

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There are also some beautiful plants and especially trees on this island. I brought my water paints with me, but have been too lazy to do much with them. I am enamoured of one particular banyan tree that I have photographed and hope to immortalise in paint before I leave. Or when I get home. One day.

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In the meantime, I’m relaxing and not troubling my little head with all the problems I could find if I wanted to, such as the sale of my house in England and what the insurance company will or won’t cover … it will all work out in the end. Things always do. To quote the Dalai Lama:

“If you can’t do anything about it, why be dejected?
And if you can do something about it, why be dejected?”

Tribute to Miss Sophie

I have this little poem, written long ago, on my Cats and Catterel page – a typical example of my catterel, I think. It’s a tribute to our dear departed Miss Sophie:

Miss Sophie, grande dame par excellence,
Has an air of distinction and elegance,
As she daintily poses her purposeful toes
Neatly and carefully under her nose.

A toss of the head, a disdainful stare,
If you haven’t brought supper, a dismissive glare;
She sits on the staircase and looks through the rails
Listening to gossip and storing up tales.

Oh, how could you think that she’s Little Miss Snooty?
A cat white and ginger, a soft-hearted beauty,
Never was any so misunderstood
As Sophie, who really is gentle and good.

Just look how she dotes on the people who love her;
Remember, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Miaou

High time we had a blog about CATS again, I think, and what could be better that the Duetto Buffo di Due Gatti by Rossini? My favourite performer of this is actually Montserrat Caballé – she is a true pussy cat!

soulgifts - Telling Tales

 ‘Miaou’ means ‘woof’ in cat.
George Carlin

If your cat falls out of a tree, go indoors to laugh.
Patricia Hitchcock

Cats have let us humans into their lives for about 4000 years. They had the Ancient Egyptians twisted around their tales. Seriously – they were worshipped as gods and goddesses. Some of them were even mummified.

From there they moved on to conquer the rest of the world. Genghis Khan, Hannibal, Julius Caesar and Napoleon were mere amateurs in comparison. By 500 BC cats had become the most popular pet in China, continuing on to take dominion in India and Japan. From there they moved on to take over the Roman Empire and Britain where they were declared to be sacred and valuable animals by the King of Wales. Killing a cat was an offence punishable by death.

Something horrid happened to cats in the Middle Ages…

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Horse Sense

Occasionally
Despite the elephant in the room
The ostrich has the best policy
Letting sleeping dogs lie
Rather than disturbing a hornets’ nest
Or opening a can of worms.
So don’t let the cat out of the bag
Or put her among the pigeons.
A wise monkey knows better than
A bull in a china shop.
Instead of telling it straight from the horse’s mouth
Just let the cat have your tongue.