Tuesday, September 4, 2012

In Which The Fish Regards the Sea in Spring





My first Winter here has just ended, but Spring seems not to know what is expected, and lets the cold come creeping in. 
Deep, dark, bonefreezing cold. 


You see, it isn't the rolling Southerlies from the Antarctic one has to worry about, but the irresponsible rudeness of the Nor'easter: bickering with the surface of the sea with no grace whatever. Slapping coldness, stirring up the quiet deepness, chilling me. My fingers act of their own accord and I find my hands are less like fins and more like claws: so troublesome when one needs to glide through the water.


The solitary experience of swimming in a trance is over these days. There are lots of us, to and fro across the bay. The early lap is quiet, almost soundless: the later lap a party of arms and caps and trails of kicked froth. Banter and chatter, we are a school of fish.




Each day I swim with the usual silver fish, assembled quietly on the bottom, or soaring along just beneath the surface canopy. The Luderick with their small smiles, the Whiting with their anxious eyes. 
The Morwong with its painted face, the yellowtail scad in a cloud of a thousand, all moving about, catching the light in the green water of the bay.





I count the days until the sharks return...is it seven days, or more? One day I will look down and the mothers will be there, and tiny miniature sharks will pace around just above the wrinkled sand far below. In the meantime, I take stock...




Beneath the calm surface of the icy sea today, 
I see



               Six pipefish like a pile of pencils dropped
        
Port Jacksons hiding under ledges

Still in their pyjamas.

The usual rabble 
       
of long nosed Whiting and the other silver friends,

And Big Blue, poking at the urchins with his bony blue lips. 

I wish one time

Big Blue might come and bite me

with his little peg teeth

just so I can look into the impossible meniscus
of his 
big blue eye.

Monday, May 21, 2012


Memory in an Earthen shell

Edmund de Waal at the Sydney Writers' Festival
Sydney Opera House, May 20, 2012






 I know it was the Sydney Writers Festival, but as Edmund de Waal has repeatedly stated, he is ‘a potter who writes.’ So I arrived with the expectation that some conversation might be had about objects, their making and their presence. In some ways this was so, but I feel that any artists' dialogue was overtaken by a discussion of cultural history and religion. It was, however, a wonderful experience, as was reading his most recent book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, in which he traces the history of his family's ownership of the 264 Japanese netsuke of which he finds himself custodian. 

I have long been fascinated by this man, the creator of such quiet forms, of  installations of  objects possessing a measure of silence almost defiant of their own materiality.  But it is their materiality which holds our gaze, and reveals these hidden connections and threads of memory. In his work, in the spaces reside both the silences of loss, and the notion of empty space as potentiality rather than nothingness.





It has been said that the handmade holds memory in a stable shell. 
The very tactility and presence of such objects and the way they demand to be held asserts a particular force within our increasingly screen based, un-present existence. This is what has prompted Edmund De Waal's great journey into his own family history: a sense of touch, of connecting, of feeling. 
Of making visible the unseen through the material presence of the netsuke, holding them within the palm of his hand. It is the object itself which has made the connections for him.




He appeared on stage at the Opera House before a packed house. In the middle of the stage was a small table, a cosy table lamp, a rug, two chairs.  The backdrop was black, but the speakers were flanked by the vermilion banners of the Sydney Writers' Festival, two bright vertical shapes bracketing the figures within the dark void. Edmund de Waal wore a dark grey suit, black shoes and a white shirt, so that he was almost invisible  against the darkness: just his luminous face and his hands caught the light. His face. A  vertical slash of white shirt. His hands.


And what hands they were: they were singularly the most extraordinary hands I may have ever seen. He sat, and shifted his long limbs in his seat in that self-deprecating English way, at times almost curling his back to the overwhelming sight of the audience, then  knock-kneed and sitting on his hands like a schoolboy.  He was of the most interesting proportion: elongated, lithe.  And his hands were just enormous. Made for surrounding and enveloping around the growing sides of a ceramic form.
   

                    


As he sat, and spoke so beautifully, his hands gestured like two rather large pale birds. His knees jutted out, his long spine curved over. And all I could  see was a man sitting throwing pots on the wheel, his long straight arms  firm and balanced, his face poised above, coaxing, with these  uncommonly large hands, forms of great beauty from wet earth. Regarding with a zen fixedness the appearance of a vessel. A shape.





So I was,  somewhat disturbed by the way the discussion proceeded. Caroline Baum, competently leading the dialogue, seemed (to me) to be on the wrong track. I know that people will own a story, that they will receive it as if it has been written just for them.  A book will become the property of the reader, and once a text or a work has been released into the world it becomes, in a sense, an  audiences’ thing, to do with what they wish.  But I could not help thinking that Caroline, and the audience who were asking questions,  had missed the point.


It became about Jewishness. It became about everybody else’s family history and connection with the Jewish diaspora. It became about history. It became about everybody else’s sense of faith, and at least the audience groaned in solidarity when the  ubiquitous (catholic) stepped up to the microphone wanting a discussion on faith, presumably to shore up or affirm her own.

But it should have been about things: the feel of them, the tactility, the making, the holding, the drawing out of formlessness to form. About fingers, palms. About the scent of wet earth, about sculpting and pinching and creating a thing. About the way the sensation of that object prompts feeling and thought. About the way history and memory will come to reside within.

De Waal answered this question beautifully,  saying his faith manifested in a  jewish-zen-quaker-protestant way….which is perfectly evident if you actually look at his work.  His work is peaceful, silent, contemplative. It exists, within the context of the  florid, almost baroque family history of which he writes as a pause,  a caesura,  an almost-absence. 
An immaterial materiality, so to speak, a  pause in the concerto, a breath between arias.  The collections, the vast castles, the pattern, colour and gold of  the culture, experience and possessions of which he speaks and his family owned and lost is transcended by the purity and quiet of his own practice.

There was a point when Edmund de Waal lost his composure and commenced weeping. Naturally, I was compelled to weep along with him,  as he explained about finding that the records of his Viennese ancestors had literally been erased by some SS minion. It was this that undid him, and he had to curl his body into a shape which excluded the sight of hundreds of people watching on.  Tears poured from my eyes.




I had not been expecting this emotion, although I should have. Edmund de Waal spoke in such a kindly affirming way, despite his evident emotional fragility and his jet-lagged state.  I felt sad that this man had been separated from his clay, his wheel, his pots, his family, his house, yet  he continued to share his thoughts for an hour and a half with grace.

He left the stage and finally allowed himself to look at the audience, most of whom were standing, applauding. He paused for a millisecond, taking it in, raised his luminous hand, and suddenly waved, like a child getting on the  schoolbus, before being hustled through the darkened corridors to the signing table. It is this sudden, guileless waving which provides the punctum to the picture,  the thorn that pierces my heart. Still.

I joined the long, long line, and waited my turn, clutching my copy of his book, The Hare with Amber Eyes. Not The Pot Book, which I had considered bringing. I hadn’t actually brought it to be signed, but just to flick through on the ferry, and to look at the pictures, but I stood nonetheless on the end of the vast line of people, feeling like a groupie. Feeling that I was in fact utterly different to all the other people on the queue, when in fact I was not, all of us feeling that he had spoken particularly to each of us. A professorial kindness, politeness couched in a genuine sense of giving.




When It came my turn I was struck by the effort Edmund de Waal was making, in his tired and jet lagged state. I considered for a moment whether I could reach out and feel the tips of his fingers, but I straightened up, smiled, and handed him my book. Your hands...
 I began
must be tired 
 He sat up, looked me in the eyes, and spoke. 
Oh, yes, they are! Thank you  for coming, glad you enjoyed it. 


And he smiled then, leaned forward, committing his entire body to the gesture
and using his great big hand, crossed out the printed version of his name in my book, and signed his own.


Postscript.


Later that night, after I had journeyed home in the late evening light, eaten my dinner and spoken to friends, I stood at the basin in the bathroom to wash my face for bed, and there on my face were black crusty tearmarks, fanned down my cheeks like the Nile Delta. So I wonder if Edmund de Waal wondered who the chimney sweep with the wild hair and blackened face was at the Sydney Opera House, proffering her book.

Monday, September 5, 2011

In which the fish returns to the sea


 I had a think about it, and I could not remember a time for over two decades when I did not swim. Every day, wind, rain or shine.
 For a few years, it was at 4pm when the shadows began to lengthen and the light lay obliquely on the surface of the sea. 
Gradually, necessity dictated that I rise at dawn and greet the ocean as the sun rose. 
Life is like that, always changing the rules of engagement.



 For most of my life, the idea of not swimming was unthinkable, and at times the thought of doing without it was something  incomprehensible and distressing.
 I would feel physically ill at the prospect of a day with no swim. 


Everything in life has the potential to become an addiction, I suppose. 
Swimming was mine.

Thankfully, it was legal.



 Like all addictions, one will go to great lengths to obtain a hit. 
I once swam 2km in 10C water one winter by tricking myself that I was about to get out. I just kept going, saying I'd just do another few meters...
and another...
and another.


 I began to realise a kind of useful philosophy. 
when people asked with horror how I managed to swim so far in the cold at that hour,
 I would try and explain that it is all a matter of the mind: that  actual sensation of being so cold, and the burning on the skin is all transient. It disappears in minutes and your skin tingles and burns, so that you don't feel the cold at all. 
And at dawn there is no warm sun to feel on your body, so the water seems a lovely prospect since it is often warmer than the air anyway.



  I began to think of this idea in relation to things that made me anxious: 
it will pass, it will change, these things are transient.



 But this winter, because of reasons, it became harder to swim. 
The ocean pool was demolished to be renovated, which  ruled out dawn swims among the predators having their breakfast in the wine dark sea.
Work interfered with daytime swims, and my lovely sojourn in golden-hot Venice seemed to render me vulnerable to the cold. The sea spent the southern winter in a state of fury, waves lashing and rolling and thundering, making it particularly hard for the ocean swimmer to make any headway at all. I did my best, but I almost had my pelt flayed off by rushing columns of sand.





 I was indeed a smelly and rotting dried up old fish out of water.




 Until one day someone suggested I join her swim group, two beaches away.




 Everybody is very loyal to their own territory, and at first I declined. But I began to think I might just have a try. I hadnt quite known where and when this bunch actually swam, so she ordered me to meet up and come along. 
So,



 I did.



We swim across a marine reserve, out to a headland which shelters the bay from the heavier waves rolling in from the sea. 




Creatures breed in this bay. They are all protected: 
Sharks, Rays, Eastern Blue gropers, Wrasse, Luderick,
 Whiting, Squid, Cuttlefish, 
Old Wives, Silver Bream. 




and last spring, I am told (and have seen pictures)
a baby humpback whale joined in. 



 So the fish has migrated, and now swims in the bay in a shoal.


and every day now, 
 says hello to the Gropers, the Rays and the Sharks, 
the Wrasse and the Luderick, 
the Spotty Catfish, the Old Wives, 
the Sand Whiting and the Silver Bream, 
and the salt soaks into her gills, enlivens her scales, illuminates her big fish eyes
and she says to herself when she thinks of the woes in the world:

this too will pass

and swims boldly across the bay: into the ocean, 
home at last.