I’ve never understood this bittersweet narcissism within myself. I love to wander lonely streets in unknown cities. To find a cafe and order a coffee and think to myself — here I am, known to no one, drinking my coffee and reading my paper. To sit somewhere just barely out of the rain, and declare that my fortress. I think of myself in the third person: Who is he? What is his mystery? I have explained before how I’m attracted to anonymous formica restaurants where I can read my book and look forward to rice pudding for desert. To leave that warm place and enter the dark city is a strange pleasure. Nostalgia perhaps.

[Roger Ebert, “All the lonely people“]

The internet has a strange sense of death. There is a rush for immediacy, for action, for content of all kinds. Functionally, it’s like that unknown city, rush and bustle and bother and noise noise noise. Especially noise. There’s noise of colour and noise of words, noise of image and noise of news, noise of opinion and noise of importance. Anything less than the loud alarum clamour of constant updates is seen as death. Or at least terminal illness.

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nothing to say

imageI have nothing to say today, although some News Of Interest is forthcoming. So here’s the Google Ngram results for ‘I have nothing to say’ (click to embiggen). The results seem to suggest a sharp decline in the recorded use of the phrase since 1900, which may also suggest that we have more and more and more to say as a culture, and less and less likely to think (or admit) we have nothing to say.

I can’t say I’m surprised. I also can’t imagine that everything we’re rushing about to say as a culture is of substantially greater import of what people may or may not have been saying in 1813. James Hogg’s long poem The Queen’s Wake was first published that year, for instance—that’s something.

fleeting things

In blogalectic with Jenna and Masha

It’s Christmas Eve, and I’m drafting a poem, and thinking about this week’s blogaletic topic of silence and ritual. If I had to say, on a normal day, what my writing rituals look like, it would involve coffee and nice pens and music. Sitting across from the Christmas tree with no accompaniment but the huff of the computer fan would not make the list.

And yet, it’s working. Wonderfully, magically, by whatever means I don’t know, I’m watching this preposterous little poem shape and gleam and change and grow and—this moment will never happen again.

The Rabbis tell us the world was only made to last for seven days, but every Sabbath it’s renewed for another seven. Rituals, the daily props and shapes we use to make us aware of sacredness, do not in themselves create the sacred. They point out and hallow what is already, unrepeatably there. They make us notice, and listen, and to pray. They draw our gaze to the permanence of fleeting things.

Jenna wrote about her daily preparation for writing, and about the intrusion of the sacred, and her ‘un-authorial’ practice ‘to jump up at twelve o’clock sharp and say the Angelus, mid-sentence if necessary’. My days, however, are a vague, hazy chaos of deadlines and books and children and occasional piles of dishes that need doing. So I have to agree with Masha:

days ritual is attempted: 5; days ritual is lived fully: 0

Silence is something that waits for us, welcoming us when we enter. It’s a place we can live in and something we can carry with us—of course it can be both at once—even amid the busyness of unravelling routines and broken rituals. Silence offers us a place out of the shadows where we can learn to be still.

There is a subtle order to chaos, just as there are silences between the notes in music. Despite our noise and disarray, the rhythms of silence break into our lives, if we let them. And so  as the world turns round the darkest days of the year, we watch the lengthening row of candles and the ever-growing light.

Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, and may you find wonder and beauty in the coming year.

silent winter

In blogalectic with Jenna and Masha

Weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.

Jenna is right when she says that the road into silence is different for every traveller. So maybe that’s why the road she thinks of looks so different from mine—not strange, though. Because my road into silence meant recognising that the road she talks about wasn’t mine.

Jenna writes: ‘Silence requires lifting a hand to stop the motion and speaking a simple word: no.’ No, to the noise and the clamour and busyness of the world. And there is certainly a point for turning away. But I’ve come to see that the heart of silence is not rejection but embrace.

Silence means saying yes.

Yes, to the sense that tells us that stress and heartache and self-hatred is not the life given to us. Yes, to less travelled roads and strange ways. Yes, to taking down the scaffolding we’ve built around ourselves. Yes, to letting ourselves acknowledge our grief, our pains, and our needs. Yes, to tears, to sorrows, to distances. Yes, to healing. Yes, to laughter. Yes, to the silent chamber where the world seems far away and the veil between grows thin. Yes, to daring to hope again. Yes, to wonder and yes, to beauty. Yes, to the overwhelming presence of a love we don’t think we deserve.

Even amid the clamouring, crowded world that demands our time, our attention, the welcoming place of silence waits for us, ready for us to say no to the constructs and masks and disguises that markets and peer groups and religions and social networks want to put us in—and to say yes to becoming who we are.

This is why the candles are lit in the darkest days of winter, why the extra place is set at the table.  There is something outrageous and beautiful in it, really. And it’s hardly a coincidence that in the silent, most sacred moments of the feast, we burst into song. We say no to the darkness, true, but even more we say yes to the light—yes to the hope of the seasons turning, yes to the outcast strangers at the door.

sacred time and fairy lights

In blogalectic with Jenna and Masha

It’s a cold night, a restless and windy night in St Andrews, heavy with the despondent dark of early winter. And I see that Jenna has blogged about “murderous fairies.” A pleasant topic in sunny old Washington, perhaps, but here—not far from the cathedral ruins and the endless, rolling shadows of the sea—it’s not a phrase I care to utter aloud. They might hear.

The cold wind brings a change of seasons with it, the last dreary days of harvest when the fields are thick with winter cover. The autumnal fires have burned out, now, and long dark of winter is here. In some small, almost irrelevant way, the world is different. We could say it’s the angle of the sun, or the frost in the air with the sky as sharp and steep as a cathedral roof. But it’s not that. It’s a change that feels the nip of delight as well as cold—the thrill of steaming, spiced drinks, heady fires, the bustle and excitement as we prepare for the feast. The night is closed round us now, but the lights are coming.

December is the cruellest month,  but winter is the season of lights.

We carve a small space in the darkness of light and warmth, and though it’s filled with laughter and music and sound, I think it’s a place of silence. If we care to stop and listen for it, we here it—the silence between the notes, before the laughter, as the candles are lit and the prayers are said. The silence of these feasts, of this sacred time of anticipation, when we live, as Masha suggests, the whole of the year at once, has in itself the promise to calm and quiet the noise and busyness of the rest of the year.

For Jenna, and Masha, and myself, these days of preparation and silence attract us to the place where our art is born. We create out of silence; the silence, not the sound and fury of the world around, gives us stories, and “the courage to stand up and die in order to utter a word or a poem.” These days of darkness and light remind us, silently, patiently, to return and not forget. Because forgetting is easy. Forgetting is fearful. The pressure of ordinary time—words and clamour and responsibility—where we pour these blog posts and other writings—demands that we speak and clamour to make ourselves heard. And the louder we choose to talk, the closer we come to losing our words and our voices.

Here in the silence of the winter feasts, though, it’s easy to remember. The memory is not easy—outcast nights, barred doors, grief and desolation and loss. But the memory is joyful: the light shone in the darkness, and still shines, and will shine again. Silent we stop to receive it, to wonder. Silent, will we dare to carry it with us in our ordinary time of words?

Outside the wind shudders against the glass, and perhaps the good folk ride with it on whatever errands they pursue—we can only hope they don’t pass this way tonight! But inside, here, in the silence and glow of anticipation—here is hope. Here is winter. Here is light.