What does it mean that our greatest strength is now a deadly liability?

I have been thinking, and I find myself concerned. Not anxious, maybe troubled is a better word. Disconcerted, well aren’t we all in these exceptional and unprecedented times? But during covid-19 lockdown one recurrent element of my thinking has caused me to be particularly troubled. I am uneasy. I cannot guess the outcome. You see, I wonder how this disease is challenging what it is that makes us uniquely human. What might this illness-experience change about us, about homo sapiens, for this species the so-called wise human; what cost this absolutely appropriate and vital need to isolate?  Lakefornt_Trail_ClosedOne selfish choice to break quarantine, to refuse to mask, to fornicate: and people die. I am in full agreement; selfless compassion, the force of social morality is behind this stance. Individual freedom must be subjugated to the needs of the collective, the community. It is imperative that we stop this disease spreading, we must not transmit the virus, and to do this we must not gather or meet. We must socially distance. But as I said, I am troubled.

And I am troubled because as Aristotle noted, man (sic) is by his (sic) very nature a social and political animal. Our rise to global dominance is predicated on community. We come together and represent a force that can resist saber-tooth tigers and ice ages, make ocean voyages, fly to the moon and sample rocks on Mars. We developed language and religion through mimesis, sharing time and food, wisdom, celebration and the art of living. The ability to sing and thus to quiet a fearful tired child allowed the group to hide from predators and survive. Sharing our capacities, sharing our strengths, sharing our humanity we developed our priceless co-affinity, love and compassion. I am moved to help you when you are weak and poor and fatherless (sic). And yet our millennially proven strategy and strength through sociality must itself now be eschewed if we are to combat the greatest threat of the twenty-first century (?, well a very significant one at least). Our evolutionary advantage has been turned upon us and threatens to infect us all.

Social-Distance-Poster-2Beyond the virus with its deadly pathology, its symptoms and emerging enduring side-effects, we are all plagued by isolation’s traumas. Certainly nobody is surprised at the increased in suicides, apparently accidental shootings and overdoses, at the trauma and tragedy of mounting incidents of domestic violence. But beyond our psychological anguish, what are the effects on our very beings, on our souls if you believe in such ephemera? What is the impact on our essence, on what it means to be human? We are by nature social animals and yet we have been torn apart. And speaking for myself at least, Zoom and FaceTime and WhatsApp just don’t cut it. I’m lost. I’m afraid. I’m anxious. I am bereft without community, in person, along side me, enduring together. It is here that this virus attacks my very humanity.

I have no answers, and so in truth I am more than troubled. We are by nature social and political animals, we did not evolve because we could thrive alone. What next? What angst? What devolution? What isolation and decline? What cost wise human, what cost?

social distanced bean

I’m not the first to find America hard!

Nothing new about that title, what’s new is that I’ve found I’m not the first in my genetic lineage to find America hard and choose Australia instead. Meet George William Parkinson, my great-great grandfather. [I’m guessing that’s a painted back drop for the photograph, which raises the question, why roses George? Why rambling roses? Nice bow-tie and fob-watch by the way]

Gold Miner Ancestor Grannys Side George Parkinson

Despite looking kindly enough, my Grandmother, his granddaughter, said he was grumpy. She also had a story about his bowed legs, but if I told that now I would be getting ahead of myself. You’d be grumpy too if you’d had the pain in your legs that he probably had everyday since he was 11 years’ old.

George was born on the 5th of March 1838 in Bristol, Gloucestershire, to John Parkinson and Mary Anne Parkinson née Cole (pictured above), who were at the time both 18. George was followed over the next eight years by brothers Arthur and Thomas. John was an upholsterer and all seemed perhaps straightforward enough for the growing family. We will never know how they heard the news of Californian gold, or exactly what caught John’s imagination, but in 1848 he and George headed for New Orleans on the ship, The United States. John and George (aged 11) arrived in New Orleans on January 31st 1849 and headed up the Mississippi to join the overland route for California and gold. Yup, they were ’49 ers.

Here Granny’s story departs from the constraints of linear time. Her story had young George at the Battle of Little Bighorn, his life being saved only because on the day before the deaths of Col. Custer and all his men, George’s horse rolled on him breaking both his legs. Having been evacuated for medical attention he avoided the slaughter. George certainly had bowed legs, but Custer’s Last Stand, known to the Lakota and other Plains Indians as the Battle of the Greasy Grass, did not happen until 1876. By that time George was married and a proud father in Australia. Never let facts get in the way of a good story. Again we will never know, but I wonder if George’s horse did roll on him at some point on the wagon journey across to Sutter’s Creek. Accidents must have been regular. Perhaps because of his injury George and John left their fellow travellers, who were later massacred. Perhaps George’s broken legs saved their lives. Perhaps a growing lad with poor diet who rode a horse for months across America just developed bowed legs. We will never know.

I am again speculating, but forgive me, no one in my family tree has ever been rich so I suspect John was a better upholsterer than gold miner. The next we hear of John and George they are in Victoria, again chasing that most elusive metal as part of the Ballarat gold rush. The Victorian gold rush began in 1851, and father and son must have arrived in Victoria by 1853, because in May 1854 George gained a third younger brother, James Henry.

Star of the EastThis had me intrigued. How and where did the family reunite? I cannot find any passenger lists showing John or George leaving California. And why on earth did Mary Anne agree to the family joining a second gold rush? I thought perhaps she had no choice if mail arrived from California telling her that John and George had moved on, calling her to join them. But then I found record of a John Parkinson and company of 1 arriving in Melbourne on September 1852 on the Clipper Star of the East; a ship that sailed out of Liverpool. Liverpool is a long way from California.

I looked on in the Unassisted Passenger Lists, and there she is, Parkinson Mary Anne, arrived Melbourne, December 23rd 1852 onboard the Covenanter (great name for a Presbyterian). Now this advert is not for Mary Anne’s sailing it’s for Progress, a ship to be succeeded by the new Covenanter. When I read it the first time I missed the ship’s name and imagined it somehow took over six months to arrive. I bet Mary Anne’s glad I was wrong, that does seem unreasonably long. Six months in a leaky boat notwithstanding. But now we know something of the Covenanter; it was new. And it is another bit of rich context:

Covenanter 10 Jul 1852

It seems that our Mary Anne arrived in time to cook Christmas dinner 1852, just three months after John arrived. I wonder if he knew she was coming? I started to wonder, am I saying that John and George returned to Bristol to collect Mary Anne and the boys? That’s romantic dedication if you’re at a gold rush in California. Maybe George’s accident was earlier on in their journey than I had assumed and in fact the two returned to Bristol without reaching their dream of Californian gold. Thwarted by these United States, did they too return home before setting out again in 1852. Frequent sailing miles? Maybe, but I repeat my question, why on earth did Mary Anne agree to a second gold rush? I am however not at all surprised that this time she refused to be left at home. Although I am curious why they didn’t all travel together.

Mary Anne is a very interesting woman; one of several I’m proud to list among my ancestresses. We guessed didn’t we that she and John were not affluent in 1848, perhaps John wasn’t the greatest upholsterer or perhaps his dreams were just bigger than his abilities. But whatever the reason, when he and George headed off in search of fortune in California, Arthur was sent to his grandparents while Mary Anne and Thomas went to the Stapleton Poor Asylum. Interestingly they weren’t admitted, they went at the instigation of their church, who arranged that Mary Anne would be trained as a nurse and midwife in return for board and lodging. That’s right, in 1848, Mary Anne was a single mother, separated from two of her children, working in an asylum and workhouse, training as a midwife and nurse. She does look capable doesn’t she. That photo up the top of this post is Mary Anne. And whether travelling with John and George or without, in 1852 she travelled with two small children to Victoria.

Mary Anne and John had a total of six children over 23 years. She died of pneumonia in 1879 at the age of 59 (women in my family don’t make old bones), in Auckland New Zealand. Of course they didn’t stay in Victoria, I mean there was a perfectly good gold rush south east of Auckland in the 1860s. I am only surprised John didn’t drag her over the Pacific to Chile.

Our George of the bowed legs, who was not at the Battle of the Greasy Grass, married Susannah Elizabeth Norris in 1866 in Fitzroy, Victoria. Poor Susannah died the next year and George then married Emily Browell and they had six children together. He died on 17 May 1920 in Footscray, Victoria, at the age of 82 and was buried with Masonic rites. George’s eldest son, Frederick Arthur Parkinson was my great-grandfather. My Poppa. To my knowledge he never left Victoria, but perhaps there’s something poetic in the fact that in this photograph he appears to be wearing moccasins. Or am I imagining…

Poppa Parkinson

 

Reading in a time of isolation

When we’re all feeling too overloaded by reality at the moment there’s nothing like a Lord of the Rings marathon to escape for a few hours from a world of hand-washing. There’s even a relevant parallel – Frodo went to Mordor to destroy something that was causing people to die, we have to stay isolated to stop something that is killing people, and it is something that we have the power to stop. Be like Frodo, do what has to be done, stay self-isolated – you’re saving someone’s life, maybe lots of someones. Enough rant, maybe. At least for now. But even I can only rewatch LoR so many times in a week, so last night I started watching Hanna – excellent, love it. Only one series (so far) so the binge won’t go too long and I’ll be back to reading!

Mmm reading, actual books, mmmm… when your brain starts to recover enough from the shock of adjusting to this world we’re currently working out how to live in, y’all are going to need to progress from the electronic box and read. And like I can’t always rewatch LoR, I can’t always read work stuff, love it though I do (I could write a post of all the anthropology stuff I plan on reading, now that would be speculative fiction). But back to published fiction written by others for my/our enjoyment. I recently asked my FB friends for recommendations, I was looking for something light or fun or mindlessly violent. I didn’t want to think too much, at the moment I’m being paid to think and sometimes we all just need a little gratuitous…. imagination to get us through. I offered bonus points for female authors since that’s still a penchant of mine. I’ll include their list below, or I might just weave them in, but for now I need to repay their generosity with a list of my own.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club Book 1) by [Goss, Theodora]In a previous post I recommended Theodora Goss’s now complete trilogy The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, and The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl. Love them all, totally what I’d love to be reading more of at the moment, but I’ve finished the series and so has Goss. Sniff. If you want some fantasy whimsy you can’t go past Laini Taylor and her trilogy that starts with Daughter of Smoke and Bone

“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love.
It did not end well”

my heart aches… luscious indulgence, blue hair and chocolate cake… I mentioned one of her books Night of Cake and Puppets once before. Just divine. When I want something divine I’m with my FB beloveds who are always happy to recommend any Kerry Greenwood, do yourself a favour, read them… Corrina Chapman, Miss Fisher… read them all. I also agree with my recommenders that Kate Atkinson is awesome and I can’t wait to read Big Sky. Wonderful Chicago based crime and flawed heroine VI Warshawski is always reliable at the hands of Sara Paretsky, wonderful local crime stuff.

Bad Memory (Jessica Shaw Book 2) by [Gray, Lisa]Also in crime, yes I’m realising that I’ve spent a lot of time in crime and mindless violence lately for some reason… anyway, also in crime is Lisa Gray who started a Jessica Shaw series that’s in a style similar to Sara Gran. These are both young women writers, very definitely writing for an anti-heroine millennial audience – these are raw, broken protagonists and totally awesome. Not for the reader who doesn’t accept that their young protagonists may do drugs and go off the rails from time to time. Speaking of millennials, an awesome young friend recommended Sally Rooney’s Normal People, and while I’m only two chapters in, I’m really enjoying it. Unique writing style that takes you way inside the characters, really great. Thanks Rohan.

My number one recommendation follows that trajectory of flawed life and crime: Alexandra Sokolov has just finished her 6 part series that I’m prepared to call as being the current Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’ve been reading these as published, and you must read them in order. OMFG. Violent. Inside America today. Just absolutely brilliant if you like your FBI agents conflicted, your vigilante’s hot and feminist, and the world a bit better without some toxic masculinity. Justice. Do yourself a favour, lock the door, claim the couch and read the Huntress FBI Thrillers.

Another writer I adore who has flawed incredibly powerful female protagonists is Nicola Griffith. Aud (rhyme’s with shroud) Torvingen is everything you want in an angry empowered woman breaking things for justice. The first book is The Blue Place, followed by Stay and Always. I am inviting you to pain however as not all of those are available in e-format everywhere. Griffith also writes SciFi that for mine is up there with Ursula Le Guin in terms of it’s creativity and depth: Ammonite is a mistress-piece. Also in the most amazing sci-fi tradition of Le Guin is NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy (finished). Just breathtakingly awesome, fabulous. Can’t believe I hadn’t read them earlier. I see that there are more Jemisin books for me to read, so yay for that!! If you were a fan of Iain M Banks, who I forgive for being a man, you’ll love Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series. Wow. I’ve only read the first but wow. Really complex so I would say I’m going to re-read the first one and then keep going in order, just because it’s hard to keep straight in your head and to be honest I just don’t remember the characters well enough at this point.

Back to Nicola Griffith’s though, proving the enormity of her talent is Hild, her historical reimagining of the life of Hildegard the Abbess of Whitby, long before her conversion. Just brilliant historical fictionalization, luscious and rich and womanly.

I stThe Ides of April: A Flavia Albia Mystery (Flavia Albia Mystery Series Book 1) by [Davis, Lindsey]ill mourn the passing of Ariana Franklin (Diana Norman), I loved her Mistress of the Art of Death series, must read some of the books she published as Diana Norman. Of course I also enjoy Cassandra Clark’s Hildegard of Meaux books AND in writing this I’ve just discovered there are two I haven’t read yet!! YAY, happy Wendy. Staying in historical fiction, Lindsey Davis has a new book coming and I do totally love her Flavia Alba novels set in Ancient Rome and focusing on of course Flavia Alba, a private eye and hysterically funny young wife. Awesome fun. Very dry.

I have some Indigenous Australian and American women on my kindle sample list – looking forward to those, but there are some days when risking a new author feels like a gamble I’m not up for at the moment. One I read a while back is Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby and it was great if you’re looking for Australian Indigenous writing about life being an Indigenous woman today. And I see she has another Too much Lip, that I must look at.

I MUST get myself into Toni Morrison, unforgivable to be hesitating, I have the Song of Solomon waiting. If you’re looking for Black American heartache of the most contemporary kind I recommend Jesmyn Ward’s Men we Reaped. It is such an important book, Black Lives Matter y’all, and those young men were killed by the violence of the American system… it’s a compulsory read now that I pause and reflect. Read more Black women folks!

While I’m on my soapbox about race and equity and justice I’m also getting picky as I get older, not only do I prefer reading women writers, but if I’m going to read a book set in Africa about African people I want it written by an African woman writer… so sorry I’ve gone right off Alexander McCall Smith… sad because I did love those books, but these day’s I see it as cultural appropriation and I’m not comfortable with that. I’d rather go looking for the awesome African women writers like Chimaamanda Ngozi Adichie. I find Olivia Butler’s writing not to my taste, but for African Sci-Fi I believe you can’t go past Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series – loved that to bits. I like the look of Elif Shafak’s work too although I’m yet to read those. If you’re looking for Palestine I recommend Consuelo Saah Baehr’s Three Daughters, it’s really special. Of course the Title image for this post is from a book by the late Marsha Mehran, an Iranian refugee who wrote two of the world’s most beautiful books Pomegranate Soup and Rosewater and Soda Bread, they’re about being a woman from Iran adjusting to life in Ireland. A struggle that Mehran herself was tragically unable to make.

For those of you in Asia and in need of a laugh I strongly recommend Ovidia Yu – just so much fun. She has two crime investigation series set in Singapore: Aunty Lee is set in current times and is full of wonderful cooking, I swear you can taste the page. Su Lin instead inhabits pre-WWII Singapore and the first book is The Frangipani Tree: it is a total delight. I’m currently listening to The Tensorate Series which is brilliant sci-fantasy from Singaporean queer non-binary author JY Yang. Totally fabulous to inhabit a gender fluid, sci-fi universe that has no white colonising cowboys (we all know I love Firefly, but you also all know exactly what I mean by this comment). French/Vietnamese American author Aliette de Bodard has three really enjoyable Asian sci fi books in The Universe of Xuya series. Now that I’ve looked at her webpage there are recipes and more books to try. I especially like the ideas of her Vietnamese inspired retelling of Beauty and the Beast where they’re both women and the Beast is a dragon… curious!

And while we are in Asia but returning to America, do read The Healer’s War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. It’s a fictionalised fantasy autobiography that is really worth taking the time to explore.

That should be enough to keep you occupied for now, do let me know if you have other ideas to add to my pile of potentials. There are so many worlds in our imaginations just waiting for a text to unlock their potential…

So if you’re thinking about going and socialising, remember grab a book instead. There will be a day for meeting up with friends,

Image result for this is not that day

 

A bike and the God’s revenge

So today the God’s decided to remind me of their potency after I’ve been teaching my 18 year olds that in the Odyssey they’re literary devices and that Marx was right that religion is the opium of the people, there is no god but man himself [sic.].

My backpack laden with laptop, dinner as I’d been offered a double shift, tea and water, texts, whiteboard markers and glasses. My person ensconced in tights, socks, boots, jumper, coat, gloves, hat, thankfully I remembered my pants before heading out the door and managed to pull them on. I raced to the lift, well as much as a heavily weighted tortoise can race. I checked both public transport apps and the sms and found there was no bus. Backpack too heavy to walk I decided it was time for a bike. Fortunately there were bikes at the rental and I’d brought my oci-straps.

I eventually strapped my backpack on the front of the bike, eventually as the oci-straps kept springing off. I’ve discovered others don’t call them that, was that just my Dad’s name for them or some special 4WD insider lingo? You know what I mean, they have hooks on each end and stretch, they keep stuff strapped in place, allegedly. Just as I was about to mount I discovered my jacket zip had parted at the bottom so had to take off my gloves, balance the bike while unzipping and re zipping and then I could be on my way. Don’t pick on the gloves by the way, it was 5C.

Of course as I set off from the bike stand a bus came along. Anyway I’m riding along and ping. There’s a noise in the front wheel. I keep going and the noise escalates. After a couple more blocks I notice there are no longer any octopi holding my backpack in place.

I managed to get to the side of the road and dismount without falling off – a singular advance on recent rides. Of course you’ve guessed the first oci-strap was wound around the front wheel’s shaft, the second was just loose and tangled around the handlebars. Balancing that bike with a 10kg backpack on the front while trying to unwind that oci-strap was no mean feat. But, eventually untangled and re-strapped I continued my ride. I did vaguely wonder why my pants felt lose.

Eventually I got to the library where one returns one’s bike, and felt quite proud when I dismounted again without falling. Docked the bike successfully and got the green light. Hey it’s $1200 fine if you lose the bike. But my pride disappeared when I reached forward to unstrap my backpack and my pants fell down.

Pull up pants. Button. Zip.

All I can say is praise the goddess for opaque black tights, and that today there was no snow.

Divvy bike 2

Proven Survival tools in Chicago

IMG_4861America is odd, an intensive MA is… intense, winter has been arctic vortex insane, and I’ve been neglecting you all rather than bombarding you with exhausted monologues of frustration and tears. But spring has sprung, the grass is ris’, the end is approaching (of my MA and possibly civilisation as we know it, but let’s not despair). We are lovers and fighters and we don’t give up for anyone. I thought tonight I’d share some of the soul-food that has sustained me over the seven and a half months that I’ve been here. It’s free advertising for the capitalists who benefit from your purchases, fetishes and consumptionisms, but see how you go enjoying my suggestions…

The Marvellous Mrs Maisel… it’s hilarious, she’s brilliant. It’s empowering in a quiet yeah don’t give up kinda way. It’s discretely feminist in a who needs men other than for sex occasionally kinda way, there’s no violence. Did I mention that it’s hilarious? Wish there was more tv like this – it’s from the writers of the Gilmore Girls so I wonder if any of you watched that? Maybe I wish she drank less because really women, we don’t have to drink like fish to be successful, just like we don’t always need men and fish don’t need bicycles. Scenes in the second season in Paris… love, love, love. Oh Paris… so sad on so many levels for so many reasons. Oh Paris…

Of course if you binge watch it right before giving a class presentation you might find yourself giving high speed asides on family dysfunction that are related although tangential to your topic and seemed funny to you but may have gone over the heads of your class since it is morning in America and you are not Mrs Maisel.

Reading about women getting on with living and inspiring us all to believe that we can… Ariel Gore’s We Were Witches – I would never read a novel about a just-gone-teenage American woman living in poverty, going to college with a baby, coming out… it is brilliant. I read it in a day, another beloved friend stayed up most of last night reading it. Just so wonderful on more levels than I know how to say.

IMG_5331Reading fiction about women doing fabulous things after not being given an easy start in life, without spending agonising pages on self reflection and guilt trips… Theodore Goss The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, and the follow up which was equally as luscious, European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. All those awful male Gothic scientists like Moreau and Rappaccini and Jeckel and Hyde, well Goss has blessed them with intelligent, wilful, hilarious and damaged daughters who seriously kick their fathers in the reproductive-selfishness organs… and Gothic scientific society where it hurts. I laughed out loud, they’re brilliant. Oh and when I’m trying not to think before sleeping but can’t afford the time of a novel or the risk of binge watching a series of tv, I’m reading Ursula le Guin short stories and talks in bed, with a warm turmeric and cocoa drink.

Ooops missed another series that’s beyond delectable – an ageing Sherlock meets and marries a far too young Mary Russell (“My wife reads theology at Oxford.” “Of course she does”). Ah Laurie King – love them, they’re delicious… at times ethnocentric and a touch creepy given the age differences, but luscious and a good giggle in a feminist, even a fish likes to cycle occasionally kind of way.

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Reading really important Australian Indigenous serious truths about knowing about what was happening in our beloved land before invasion… Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu should be obligatory, mandatory, do not pass Go, reading for every Australian. READ IT. Then do yourself a favour and read Griffiths Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia. It is frankly terrifying how new white-scientific knowledge about Indigenous people, culture and history is, how ignorant white-Australia remains, we need to get educated Australia. READ IT. Think deeply. You might even find your change your mind on some important things.

Now I should be studying, but Pooper the wonder dog upstairs has been barking for hours which is also stopping me going to bed… so it’s time for a sing-a-long. Or listening to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto LOUD. True, not at all a feminist piece unless you’ve watched episode 10 of season one of Sense8, in which case you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about in terms of a feminist imagining of listening to The Emperor. Luxuriate in it. Remember the potential for awesomeness that was born when you emerged and took your first breath. OMG pop culture leap, the Emperor, is Rey going to have to do an Arya and stick it to the evil dead? Where would the universes be without women getting on and doing the work that just needs doing? You have watched Sense8 haven’t you?

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Another miracle is the new Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier album, The Words of Men. When we saw them trial the album, Deb wanted to call the band “Deborah Conway’s Toxic Masculinity.” We laughed. It wasn’t just the wine. I think they’ve mis-named my favourite track: they called it Don’t You Forget Me. It really should be called Let’s Drink to Getting Old – it would be played at every Gen X significant birthday party for the next fifty years. Do yourself a favour – it’s on youtube, you don’t even have to pay – give it a listen, sing-a-long. Sing-a-long LOUD with ear-phones in while walking in the rain at a top-10 university in North America. Toast total strangers with your umbrella… only realise later that it’s beyond fortunate that nobody called the authorities to report you as having a mental crisis and being in need of shooting. But hey, do yourself a favour, listen, sing-a-long discretely. Somewhere safe. It will do you good deep in your soul. It’s good to be having the chance to be getting old(er)… we love too many who didn’t get that opportunity. Cease the Day.

Life is miraculous, we have to be here for each other somehow. I understand why people love spring when they’ve had real winter – why Easter is celebrated in spring. I worked out why I’ve been photographing so many flowers – that little bulbs could survive out there under the earth, under the snow, and then with just the provocation and encouragement of a little warmth they rise and produce such wondrous hope. It’s enough to make even the most lonely, damaged soul feel like there can be new life.

Oh, the below images are from the best gallery I’ve ever visited – big call. It’s in Baltimore and it’s called the Walters Art Museum. I did try to label the images so you could see the names and artists. The Japanese sculpture was exquisite. Very very good for the feminist soul when dead rich white men leave us wonders to enjoy!

Friday night is West Side Story (Lyric Opera), Saturday’s a cohort Chicago’s Architecture booze cruise, and Sunday (afternoon thankfully) it’s Greek Independence Day parade – research for my study of ethnic identity in America. What a pity they’ve forgotten how to make Greek Coffee. Sigh… see you there!

A more Classy type of Tourist

Soundtrack: The Sound of White
Missy Higgins

IMG_2112Today was a really good day. Starting with a walk to a Farmer’s Market, finding a Compost Club, sharing a warm drink and ideas in a stimulating space, before heading off to the Art Institute of Chicago where I became a member. So happy. On the bus on the way in I heard a somewhat pretentious man declaring his love for John Singer Sargent, the feature artist of the exhibition I was going to see. The thing this gentlemen declared as breathtaking about Sargent’s work is his use of white. I therefore made a mental note to attend to the use of white in the exhibition.

Those of you who’ve seen my posts about other exhibitions know that rather than reproducing each painting in full I mostly tend to post images of fragments of the works that speak to me. On the way in, my first taste of white was a marble where Zeus turned himself into a goose (swan, but goose works for me) to seduce this Queen of Sparta.

IMG_2118

Anyway goose neck distractions resisted, when I eventually entered the Sargent exhibition I aimed to capture what to me is The Sound and smell and taste of White in Sargent’s work, the richness of his palette, the fullness and emptiness of White which must be the hardest tone to paint.

 

Oh, and before we go to Sargent, one of his influences was a gentleman who should always be indulged for his atmospheric use of white and light, Merci Claude.

Monet Train

 

Like a freeze-dried rose, you will never be, 
What you were, what you were to me in memory.

IMG_2156 ed

I deliberately photographed this Street in Venice from the side, adopting a position of leaning on the wall, and like the men allowing this determined young woman to walk on, her thoughts uninterrupted.

I love the strength about these women that Sargent manages to embrace.

If things get real for me down here…

This lovely child was described as an Italian or Spanish beggar girl in Paris. So exposed and real for her down there, begging dressed like a virgin, a world apart from the high class portraits he went on to complete.

And if I listen to, the sound of white, 
Sometimes I hear your smile, and breath your light. 

That clear white skin, and the incredible detail, all accentuated with tones of white. Sadly the only woman of colour in the exhibition was also the only nude: in coloniality white is pure, black skin is always licentious.

But if I listen to the dark, 
You’ll embrace me like a star
Envelope me, envelope me

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This incredibly self-possessed woman is not a Sargent, this work is by Giovanni Boldini. Love Miss Clark, Actress.

Sargent did have an en plein air phase which for my taste could be skipped over with one exception.

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And of course Claude was an influence on this phase of Sargent’s career too. Love Claude.

Thankfully Sargent returned to portraits and for a while also painted some men, where the detail in the White on White is exquisite.

At that time he also painted this stunning watercolour in Florida.

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Of course as I wandered out from Sargent’s White I discovered my favourite elephant god looking on the reflected white of the Chicago skyline, and thought my day complete.

But a trip to any excellent gallery can include an unexpected twist, and in this case I embraced the fact that no one does White like a Japanese artist.

And so coming complete circle with Missy Higgins, I found this incredible work by Japanese artist Mineo Mizuno, whose father died in WWII before the artist was born. Called Water Drop, the gouged empty centre speaks physically to the silent sound of the characters repeated over the surface that mean “null”, “void” or “nothingness”.

My silence solidifies, 
Until that hollow void erases you, 
Erases you so I can’t feel at all. 
But if I never feel again, at least that nothingness 
Will end the painful dream, of you and me. 
If things get real for me down here, promise to take me to 
Before you went away, if only for a day. 
If things get real for me down here, promise to take me back to 
The tune we played before you went away.

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And if I listen to, the sound of white,
Sometimes I hear your smile, and breath your light.
Yeah if I listen to, the sound of white
You’re my mystery. One mystery. My mystery. One mystery..

And so we wander, not alone

Wander or wonder or both? Today I am happy, I’m productive, I’m Wendy. I feel like the malaise of the last few weeks has lifted and there is so much that I want to do – watch out world, Wendy is awake.

And yet, today one of my dear friends is in the depths and immediacy of unwordable grief. Two other friends move tentatively with scabbed wounds, scars forming, hurts still real and fresh. Eyes furtive. Anger flashing. Loss of people, dreams, hope. Others I know are weighted with life, and like Frodo and Sam in Mordor can only wearily put one foot in front of the other. For others, in the words of Ursula Le Guin “There was nothing she could do, but there was always the next thing to be done.”

It would be easy to feel guilty for enjoying the sun, the smell of my steaming tea. For feeling some measure of control over life as I hear the washing machine spin, as I start to write an essay that’s been brewing in my head for a couple of weeks and must come out of its safe prognostications into the world of words and grammar. My toes are cold, but they want to take me outside so they can scrunch in the grass and dirt and proclaim “I am alive!” Energised. And yet a quiet niggle, “How can I be happy when others are in so much pain?” And another, “Don’t get too excited, this too shall pass.” I resist their ache and breathe into the space between my ribs.

Life is so fluid, fragile, fleeting. Formless. So precious. We try to hold fast, too tight, too human. Days like today are so sharp and clear. Intense. I hear one conversation, clumsy, god I hope I was clear, I hope in your pain you heard. “You gave words to their humanity” I know I tried to say. “You said that slavery and oppression weren’t the whole of their story. That even declared sub-human, people claimed their humanity in small acts of resilience, their agency in small acts of resistance. You gave them back those actions. It matters.”

I sip my tea. The Korean chimes proclaim my washing is ready for the line, for the gentle air and warming sun. Feminism must be inclusive if it is to be feminism, my essay wanders toward the keyboard. Breathe. Life is … this instant.

And so we wander, we wonder. We are social beings, us humans. We share, we journey. We are scared to trust, and yet we do. Time rolls us, twirls, layers. We pray to deities we think we don’t believe in. We reach out. We hold… and we let go.

Binti, a woman of earth and stars

Binti and Binti: Home, by  Nnedi Okorafor
The above incredible image was sourced from DestinAsian 

I really want to write you a review of the novellas Binti, and Binti: Home, it’s a long time since I read such real science fiction. But I find I’m not sure where to begin. Instead of finding words or images to share with you, a story line to attract you, instead my brain is still and I can feel earth, coarse damp earth, rough wet clay on my skin. I want to smear it, rub it onto myself. This is unusual for me, I am a woman of water. But the scent of living soil is in my nostrils, minerals seeping into my blood. Enervating. I feel grounded. Real. Growing, alive, but still and stopped. I want to go outside and bury my hands in the soil, feel its pulsing life. To stand on rock and earth. I don’t want to appropriate her culture, to claim for myself otjize, the culture of the Himba women of Namibia. I just want to inhale that grounded life. Maybe I want to reach out and touch that warm supple skin. To taste transcendence in immanent earth. That is the gift of Binti.

Binti is a young woman of colour, the first of her people to be accepted into university on a far planet. She leaves alone in the early morning. By leaving she is exiled. She is the sole survivor of a massacre. She is a harmoniser, a woman who weaves mathematical patterns of meaning and peace. She is powerful. Transcendent and deliberately immanent. Woman.

I don’t think Binti asked me any profound questions, other than why she should be the first woman of colour to have a science fiction series of her own. I love that this is a book written by a woman, about a woman. A book about a woman who dared to defy social strictures that would have held her at home, told her who to be, how to be a good woman. Instead she journeyed away, redefined the meaning of being a good woman. Took the earth from which she came and healed others. Created earth with the power of womanhood and healing and home, although the distances of space ached between. Returned to find change for all life is change. To find something new of herself and her people and her universe. To find echoes of time.

Not since my earliest readings of Ursula Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World some thirty years ago have I felt so connected to a science fiction culture, a science fiction character. And I love science fiction. So that is the highest praise I can offer. Neither Binti or Binti: Home are long, they leave you aching for more. And to be honest, I don’t think I liked the end of Binti: Home. But I desire, long for the next instalment Binti: The Night Masquerade. I’m holding a deep hope that Okorafor doesn’t fly Binti away into unreality, when she has been so grounded, so real to date. And so sniffing earth, tasting ground, smelling stardust with our toes, we wait.

 

 

Last stop before home

I said earlier today that it feels like I’ve been travelling since June when I headed off for Montreal. And I know I was home in November, and a bit of December, but wow what an 8 months. No wonder I looked tired when I reached Thailand. This afternoon in Singapore I’m glad to be on my way home. In Inhaling colour, tasting light I promised you some more of Melaka outside the home of Tham Siew Inn so here’s my final post before home.

On Saturday we drove from KL to Melaka and found ourselves in the midst of celebrations of the end of Chinese New Year. Oh what fun. We passed the procession on the way into town and as they circled and wove their way toward their temple goal, we seemed to keep crossing each other’s paths, twisting and twirling. So much colour and vibrant life, energy. It was the celebration of the Emperor that falls at the end of Chinese New Year and brings prosperity and life. Lucky us.

In between bits of march passing us we managed to fit in one of many fabulous and huge feasts, this one in a large old home, building, warehouse that has been renovated. I was to discover a few of those over the weekend. Continue reading “Last stop before home”

Inhaling colour, tasting light

Soundtrack: Beethoven: Piano Sonata#14 in C Sharp Minor Op. 27/2
Moonlight, First Movement

Tham Siew Inn

I have been so privileged this trip to stay with families, to be welcomed into people’s homes, invited to share food, to sit. One of the truly great privileges of this trip was being taken by a dear friend and her family to Melaka, and then invited into the home of artist Tham Siew Inn. Such an honour to quietly spend time inhaling the atmosphere of the artist’s residence, imbibing the green of their gardens. Drinking tea. Sitting us women, peeling pomelo. Talking with family members, two sons creative artists themselves and the oh so real, material, tangible woman-wife-foundation, herself a teacher and creative floral artist. There were times sitting with the art, wandering the rooms, up and down the stairs, when I caught myself almost wondering what we were doing next, but not following the thought as time had slowed, the lime infused walls cooled the heat of stress and haste, and I wanted to just be, to be breathing, to just be. The colour breathed calm into the empty places in my soul. And of course sharing together much much wonderful local food breathed companionship into the empty places in all our bellies.

When you look out from the first floor gallery through the open windows, the old green glass with its patina of the ripples of time, you see into Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, one of the oldest streets in UNESCO listed Melaka. That’s the street where you find the artist’s gallery, and it’s a street of contrasts. From the most hip art coffee house The Baboon House, to a museum with original shoes for Chinese women’s bound feet, to a UNESCO restored house showing original architecture and building styles. The atmosphere of creativity, grounded in history, twisting and tasting and reinventing identity and vision and place. Continue reading “Inhaling colour, tasting light”