notes from 1st week (ht)

monday

Am at home today – could not quite bring myself to brave the incessant rain and complete lack of anything even passing for daylight. I didn’t realise until writing up the last blog post the extent to which my mood is tied to the weather – I did, of course, know there was a strong link, but it was almost shocking to see how cheerful I was during the sunny part of the week and how quickly that nosedived when the rain set in.

Also at home because I think I can confidently conclude that the “work [at the weekend] in the House” experiment has failed […] I need a break and some alone time. I don’t know how everyone who comes in every single day […] manages it […] But it was truly lovely to be there, in a way – the sort of camaraderie that being in late nights or weekends naturally produces is always great fun.

[on sushi and modest friends, and other things]

tuesday

[in which I find myself incapable of writing while watching May pull out of the single market through my fingers]

wednesday

Okay, I’m going to give this another go after the disaster that was yesterday’s entry.

A few years ago, I wrote about a man who was like a map in his face, his speech, his stride. People can be like maps. People can also be like books. […] He is like a book. All sorts of people can be like all sorts of books. Sweet, simple tales of a rural girl in a big city daze, dashing war stories from tens of years ago, a glimmering haze of magical realism, of the mundane interspersed with questions of surface bricks and existential disbelief. He is like a book of many tales – not quite the sprawling expanse of the 1001 Nights, more like if the Buddenbrooks met the Decameron, a generational saga stretching across continents, of immigrants and refugees and good little church girls, of pain and loss but joy and hope […] a seemingly endless reserve of stories, wonderful tales both large and impossibly minute, but that chronicle those precious moments – however small – of that which we call a life. I adore people who are like books that clamour to be read, who let me open them up, sitting in the kitchen as I ask and they tell, pushing errant hair away from their face, eyes alive with old memory reformed into present fiction.

I wonder if they have told all of these stories before in quite the same way, in the same order and combination and context, because that makes a difference to those of us who make stories our trade. Are these pre-ordered words that always find themselves arranged in the same way, or is this the first time that these connections have been made, the thoughts pulled together to form a story in this way? I am always a keen hunter of those stories that have never ever been thought before my question, let alone been told, but it is all the more intriguing with people who are like books with many, many stories held inside them. Sometimes – often – it takes many years, a prospect to which I have no object. Perhaps I was not one who was made to carry stories, but one who was made to search for them and hear them in others – others’ stories making me all the richer for hearing them, and to be once heard is to be forever retold. Some years ago I wondered at those who travelled the length and breadth of the Spanish soil to harvest centuries’ worth of ballads, passed down through innumerable refractions of generational leaps, but now I have learnt not to wonder – for am I not the same?

To live for the stories I hear – sometimes, I don’t ask to hear those of even those I love most, when I sense that a chapter of pain and sorrow, hurt and regret, has long closed and I am a character in the happy epilogue, but when someone carries that pain around in their face – more than a shadow but still just a trace, hidden unless you look for long enough and listen in the quiet – I believe it must still be a story worth telling. And as the words come, I am already crystallising their sounds into memory.

thursday

Briefest of starts as I need to leave again soon, even though I only just came in. Although 9.30 is a significant improvement on my usual time, I’m seeing [my supervisor] at 10 (luckily around here and not at Merton) so I’ll need to head out again in less than half an hour. It’s going to be a fun but busy day – T. now, then meeting S. for lunch […] at 12.30, then the Ertegun trip to the OUP archives at 2, and then at 3 or thereabouts I may have the chance to get some work done, but not if I decide to submit my Oxford DPhil application first. I wish Facebook had an out of office or “please stop messaging me for now because I’m extremely busy” function. I can’t quite remember what I have on Friday – yikes wow I’ve run out of ink again, what used to happen once a month is now happening every week because of this writing – but I know it’ll be busy and involve lots of meetings. What else? All fine, research proposal finished Tuesday night at around 11, 13 hours after first coming into the House. I was pretty dead after that but it’s done and isn’t half bad at all. In any case it will have to do.

[…]

friday

[on mental health and vulnerable moments that take an equal vulnerability to reproduce online] Am sitting in the kitchen to write because I just had to be alone […] Am seized with that intolerable gloom that finds its way to a grasp around my throat every so often – and lately it seems to be very often indeed. […] Why this time? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s the inevitable downside to my thoughts about stories and story-telling this week. Because I can’t have any nice things. As I thought more and more about stories and who tells them and who listens, obviously the […] shadow poured itself in and turned even those absorbing thoughts into a sick worry: if I am better suited to listening and receiving and retelling than being the originator, what does that mean? Does that make me boring? void of interesting detail? empty of anything worthwhile to relate about me, my life, my history, my work? And while I was thinking this, the realisation appeared as if before my eyes, that if I think I am devoid of worth in that way, it means that I essentially think I am worthless. And that made me so unbearably sad because I can’t ever remember thinking “I am worthless” outright. I would never tell myself that. I know how this life thing is supposed to work and that isn’t part of it. But it’s the same thing: to think “I am lacking in worth” is the same as “I am worthless”; to think “I don’t believe there is anything of interest in the work that I do” is no different from “I don’t think the work I do has any worth”, which means I secretly, and without knowing it, think my work is worthless. And that realisation makes me far sadder than the negative thoughts themselves, because I can’t believe […] that I of all people think about myself in this way. Have I really internalised all those comments and turns of attitude and interruptions and “corrections” so much? […]

[…]

*

Why do people tell stories? To entertain – to earn – to be heard. To be sure. The reasons for telling a story and the choice of story are important: I would think so, as what I want to do revolves around finding out why some German writers chose to write about a Spanish knight from three centuries back, of all things. But what about when you don’t quite know why a story is being told to you in the way that it is? Or – when you can perhaps guess from the tone and the emphases, but can’t quite be sure? One of the more mysterious stories I have recently been told is that of the Tzadikim Nistarim, the 36 hidden righteous ones of mystical Jewish tradition. What to make of that when it is told simply but grandly, and followed by a satisfied silence and a turn towards the door? Is that a tale told with a purpose, or simply for effect or the pleasure gained from such a telling?

Perhaps this is why it is such a joy to be told that someone is thinking of you, because it is proof and assurance that you are indeed a character in the chronicle of their life, which is always shaped more by their thoughts than the actual events that unfold around them, proof that object permanence does exist. By telling you that, they are telling you a story of a thought, one that starred you in their mind as you wish to be seen.

sunday

On the train back to Oxford after a flying visit home. Didn’t get to write yesterday because a) lie-in which b) was followed immediately by the spur of the moment decision at 11.30am to go to the Women’s March on London. I don’t think we’ve ever packed for the weekend and left the house as quickly as we did yesterday. We jumped onto the train to Marylebone – the new Chiltern Railways line – and headed straight to Trafalgar Square for the speeches. We could only hear varying amounts from where we were, and I do believe that, at a women’s march, 6 foot tall white bearded guys may want to consider checking to see if they’re obstructing the view of actual women standing just behind them, as this particular miniature woman of colour couldn’t see a great deal unless on tiptoes. The signs were the best part, though. They were truly imaginative and by equal parts hilarious and touching – my personal favourite was the one that simply says “London Hates You”!

This will be the year that I step up my activism a bit more, whether it’s going to protests, writing to representatives, giving money […] I know I can do more and it’ll hopefully make me feel less hopeless as well.

Received several looks on the Tube yesterday for reading Feminist Fight Club. I’m done with most of it so should hopefully finish it today or tomorrow and then I can pass it around. I’d give it a 3/5 based on what I’ve read so far: it’s funny, relatable and engaging, with some very good advice – I particularly like the sections on body language and the chapter entitled “What Would Josh Do?”, as I’m all in favour of observing successful, confident white dudes and learning from their behaviour  – but it feels somewhat over-long and a little repetitive, meaning some of the advice seems insubstantial and could have used some more anecdotes to prop it up. The writer reads like a well-meaning white feminist who was educated about intersectionality a little while ago and has earnestly been trying to integrate women of colour […] into a movement predominantly based on the experiences of white New Yorkers. It’s no bad thing – some of the advice for WoC isn’t bad at all, other times it’s well-meaning but weak – but it is obvious to anyone reading. It is, moreover, often far too reliant on this sisterhood based on anatomy, with just a little asterisk to say “hey, women without a vagina are welcome too” at the bottom, when a better choice would have been to drop some of that imagery (like “vagffirmation”? Really?) completely. There are so many things that unite us as women, like strength and skill and resourcefulness, that in this case (where biological oppression related to reproductive rights, for example, was not a concern) it would easily have been possible to emphasise those qualities. It’s a useful book, though, and I suspect I’ll be needing it in the years to come.

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