The fog comes on little cat feet

Fog by Carl Sandburg

The fog comes

on little cat feet.

 

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.

The fog has been rolling in for the past few days, covering Edinburgh. It feels like we’re flying, like the city has been taken up into the cloud bank, like we should be able to look down and see all the little people. But of course that’s not what happened. The sky has fallen and the clouds have come crashing down and we can only see what is right in front of us.

Those are the things that are hardest to see sometimes. So often we’re focused on what’s far away, on where we hope to be, what we hope to be doing that we ignore our immediate surroundings. How often have I stared out of the library window at Arthur’s Seat and completely missed the way the cobblestones shine when they’re wet, or the way the still-bare branches stretch out like arteries?

There are buds on the branches and maybe the fog is bringing spring. The flowers are here already, pale purple crocuses and butter-yellow daffodils. The weather has not kept up, and short skirts and sleeveless dresses still seem months away. Spring is an awakening, but an internal one this year. A delayed one. An awakening that should have happened any other time, after any other winter, but this winter was different. Harsher than most I’ve faced, but still mellow.

Long and dark and cold, the fingers of the fog reach out to chill me, but they can do no worse to me than December did. December froze my bones. Compared to that, this is just an unexpected chill up my spine. A light shiver, forgotten as soon as it is over.

 

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It’s a cage match between history and chemistry

In one corner sits History. History has been coming here for years, doing battle, waiting for the right time. Time is, in fact, on her side. She has the full knowledge of war and violence within her, her fists carry the weight of every fight that has ever come before.

Chemistry is in the other corner, checking out her bag of tricks. Tiny changes, minor imbalances that throw the world off-kilter, that’s Chemistry’s specialty. Mess up the equation, screw with the ratio, and Chemistry will kill you. Will kill everybody. Chemistry requires endless attention, she must be fed, be watched, or it will all go wrong.

A man, stripped to the waist with his heart up for grabs, holds up a sign and walks around the ring. The sign reads, “Fight to the Death”. There will be no second round. It must all be decided now, it must all be decided here.

He locks the cage behind him and a bell rings. History remains in her corner while Chemistry starts off with a literal bang. There is a flash of light and a smell like rotting bananas, and Chemistry is on a roll. She takes a water bottle, shifts it around, and offers it to History, her fingers adding a notation, adding one little atom, turning the liquid into a pale blue poison.

Having seen this trick before, History declines.

In fact, History pays no attention to Chemistry at all. Chemistry jumps around, tweaking Bunsen burners and creating noxious fumes, but History simply puts on a gas mask and continues reading. The audience is feeling faint by now, exhausted from the multicoloured pyrotechnics and breathing unidentified gases not meant for human lungs. Chemistry does not notice.

History looks up from her book and watches for a moment. Chemistry is close to the edge, she is building a bomb in her corner, she is ready to give up and blow everything away. While her back is turned, while Chemistry is focused on her work, History scales the cage, finding a hole where Chemistry’s experiments have weakened the metal, and crawls through.

She ushers the audience out, waking them up and helping them crawl to safety. She pulls at the man’s arm, letting the sign drop from his hands, and helps him stumble out of the arena.

Chemistry is finally finished with her experiment, the countdown is on, it will all go up in flames, everything, she will burn it to the ground. She turns, triumphant, only to see that she is alone in the room, and the Bunsen burner’s flame and the pending explosion will destroy her, only her, and she barely has time to think about what she has lost when  the entire arena is swept away in a final burst of light.

“Happiness Consultants” are a thing that exist

About eight years ago I was sitting in my then-boyfriend’s optometrist’s office waiting for his appointment to be over. I hadn’t brought a book with me and there were no magazines around, so all I had to look at was the slowly yellowing furniture and a wall of tall brown filing cabinets.

The receptionist, either sensing my boredom or seeking to alleviate her own, started chatting with me. We started talking about my boyfriend, about school, about the coming summer. Pretty typical small talk.

“Now, dear,” she said. “Do you mind if I tune into you?”

“I’m sorry?”

“I have this gift. I’m able to speak with the universe and uncover things about people. But I find the universe is more cooperative when the people I’m asking about know what’s going on.”

All I wanted to do was spend a day in the April sunshine, and instead I was in a dingy office being asked if I minded that the receptionist commune with the universe to find out the answers to my unspoken questions.

“Sure, why not?”

“It’ll just take a moment.”

She went quiet and closed her eyes. I sat, uncomfortable in the hard plastic chair, wondering if I was supposed to say something. Lead her a bit, maybe? Let her know what I was curious about?

That’s when the tingle started. It spread from the back of my skull, creeping out in all directions, towards my ears, my forehead, the base of my neck. It swept down my spine and lingered in my shoulders. It ebbed and flowed through my body, and then it stopped.

“Well, that was interesting!” The woman smiled at me. “You’re a writer. How wonderful! You’re going to write about love, about all kinds of love, about love in every way we think about it and many ways we don’t. You need a pen and a journal, I can’t believe you don’t carry them with you! Here, darling, here.” She rifled through her cabinet and gave me a small red notebook and a black pen. The pen had her name and phone number on it with “Happiness Consultant” between the two. I thanked her and put them in my purse where, she was right, I had neither pen nor paper.

As my boyfriend walked out, she stage whispered across the room to me. “Don’t tell my husband I did that, darling. He hates when I tune into people in the office!” I promised that her secret was safe with me, shook her hand, and left, boyfriend in tow.

I wouldn’t have thought much of it (or even remember it, honestly) except that when we were talking about school, I never said what my major was. I barely talked about wanting to be a writer to my closest friends. I hadn’t even mentioned that I was reading anything, let alone that I dream(t) of writing as a career. And yet something about me screamed “writer” to her.

Did she really touch the universe and see into a part of my soul? No idea. But I wouldn’t mind at all if it turns out that she’s right.

Books I Adore #2: Trumpet

Holy cow, you guys. I did not expect to write another one of these posts so soon, but when you find a book like this, you have to talk about it.

I’m taking a course on Scottish Women’s Fiction and the books have been lovely. O CaledoniaThe Ballad of Peckham Rye, just wonderful books. But Trumpet by Jackie Kay is on an entirely different level for me. The other books were good and I enjoyed them, but this one? I want to sleep with this book under my pillow in the hopes that I will absorb the language, the characters, the completely perfect way Kay describes her characters and allows them to breathe.

It’s a book about secrets, about the lives we live when we decide the most important thing is to be true to ourselves. The families we create, the passions we follow. It’s also about how people react when the life they assumed we were living is not the life we led.

Joss Moody is a famous trumpet player from a small town in Scotland, where he grew up as Josephine Moore. As an adult, Joss got married, adopted a child, had friends and a home and holidays at the beach. Upon his death, however, his female genitalia is discovered and he is outed. The book follows the people closest to him as they process this information and try to keep on living in the wake of their loss.

There are lines in this book that are so perfect I had to stop and put the book down and just let myself absorb them. “Hindsight is a different light. It makes everything change shape…. I didn’t feel like I was living a lie. I felt like I was living a life. Hindsight is a lie.” Just stop and let that sit with you for a minute. Who of us would say any differently? Who wouldn’t say that the life they live, no matter what other people might think when they found out, is a lie? No. It is a life. It is our life, ours to define and live as we need to. 

And this, from the very beginning – I think anybody who has ever lost somebody they cared about will understand Mrs. Moody’s sense that “The space next to me bristles with silence. The emptiness is palpable. Loss isn’t an absence after all. It is a presence.” Look at what she’s done there. Those small sentences, those concrete ideas, all of them could be strung together. “The space next to me bristles with silence, the emptiness is palpable; loss isn’t an absence after all, it is a presence.” But no. This character can’t think like that, can’t string together long sentences. She can barely breathe. She can just barely get through the days and just the sheer simplicity of the sentence structure brings that to light. The thoughts hit her boom boom boom and all she can do is let them strike.

And, okay, one more because I just can’t stand to let this world go. “He paused before he ticked ‘female’ on the death certificate, then handed the pen to her; it was as if the pen was asking her to dance. She took the pen carefully and looked at it, twirling it around slowly as she did so…. She looked as if she was praying as she wrote.” See what I was saying about sentence structure earlier? It’s not that Kay does not write in long, flowing sentences. She allows the character’s emotional state to dictate the language. The character focused on here works at the registrar’s office and takes pride in his work. He fills out birth certificates, marriage certificates, and death certificates, and does it with precision. He wants everything to be beautiful and to be true, and he appreciates Mrs. Moody’s care in signing her name, in her reverence of the moment. He appreciates the way she acknowledges the kindness he tries to show her – he says he cannot tick ‘male’ because it would be a lie. But he uses the name ‘Joss Moody’ instead of ‘Josephine Moore’ and gives his life and his choices as much validation as he can. The interaction between the two of them is small and beautiful and full of kindness.

Okay, I could go on and on, but really, at the heart of things is this: if you love good writing, read this book. If you want to see more stories being told, better representation of queer characters, of minority characters, of the things people struggle with that many of us never have to think about, read this book. If you care about people, read this book. Read this book. Read this book. Read this book.

Fortune favours the brave. Or the gullible.

I’ve only ever had my fortune told once.

We were in a bar sometime past 2 o’clock in the morning, celebrating the success of our masters program’s first public reading. A friend had been lying down on a bench and using my chest for a pillow and suddenly she sat up.

“If somebody buys me a drink, I’ll tell their fortune.”

This is, perhaps, not what you expect when you think of getting your fortune told. Maybe you, like me, think of tarot cards or a dark room and a woman draped in velvet and peacock feathers. But this is what life presented me with. After all, I’d never had my fortune told, and I’d especially never had my fortune told by a drunk poet. And how many people can say that’s happened to them? (Sidenote: This is something you’ll run into frequently with me. If it’s absurd/rare, I am game.)

I asked about my writing and then, panicked, thought maybe I’d been too specific.

“Was that too much? Should I just ask about love? Fine. Will I ever fall in love again?”

My poet medium looked at me. After answering the question about writing, she addressed love. She was almost reluctant, almost amused, almost – well, almost I’m not quite sure what.

“Oh, God, that’s a no face. That’s a no, isn’t it? Okay, it’s cool.”

I was almost resigned. I’m 27, I’ve got two failed relationships under my belt (in the sense that, despite what we thought was going to happen, they did not end in marriage), I am working on being totally okay with being single again. Single life, when done right, is wonderful. The last time I was single, I got my life set up just exactly how I wanted it. I was seeing my friends all the time, I was playing Ultimate and learning to rock climb. I traveled when and where I wanted. I worked my butt off and never had anybody complain that I was late for the third time that week. These are wonderful things. They were wonderful at 25 and they’ll be wonderful again soon.

But they’re not wonderful yet. So when she looked at me, I was worried. No more love? That’s it?

“No! I mean, yes. Yes you’ll fall in love. And it’ll fucking ambush you.”

She laughed. This is a girl who knows some of my most ridiculous stories, who had just heard me read about a broken heart 6 hours before. She held my palm, her fingers baby soft, and looked into the air just past my head as if watching a movie play out.

“You’ve got one more love. And it’ll be delightful. Six months. And it’ll take you completely by surprise.”

“Wait, it’ll only last six months? Or it’ll happen in six months?”

“It’ll happen sometime in the next six months. And you’ll never expect it when it happens.”

I’d never had my fortune told before not because I didn’t want to know but because I never believed that it was possible. The future isn’t some pre-written script we’re following, and I don’t know that I think anybody can see what will happen. But I also know how it felt when she held my hand and looked just past me, and it felt honest and connected and real. So we’ll see how it goes. At any rate, no matter what happens in my love life, in six months I won’t be any worse off than I am right now. But apparently things could get a whole lot better.

Books I Adore #1: The Handmaid’s Tale

You guys. This book.

I re-read this for approximately the 17th time the other day and it struck me, once again, how much I love Margaret Atwood. She is amazing and you should all worship her. (You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.)

The world has gone crazy and the US has been taken over by religious zealots who restrict women’s access to reading, writing, and true community. These are women without agency, controlled by men, and given rank based on past choices and fertility. The world Atwood creates is terrifying because she shows the tiny steps taken to get to this horrifying world, the slow slide and sudden stop of a culture headed somewhere truly dangerous.

Man, no wonder I turned into a raging feminist. I read this book for the first time when I was around 14 and it nestled its way into my heart, reminding me that I did not ever want to be Offred or Serena Joy or Moira, forcing me to speak up for fear of having my voice taken away from me.

But reading it this time was something special. I am working on my Master’s in Creative Writing (I’ll admit here that I don’t actually know if I’m supposed to capitalize any/all of that, so I just do it because it looks important) and the thing I hear consistently from one of my tutors is that I need to be more descriptive. I need to show the world, to immerse readers in it and help them connect to my characters. It makes sense, when you think about it, but we are a generation of people raised shouting into the void of the Internet and words have been my salvation since childhood. Heck, I don’t even really think in images or remember them particularly strongly. When I meet guys I don’t think about their eyes or remember their face – I remember the impression they gave me, the things they said, whether they made me laugh. I pay attention to general attractiveness, sure, but unless it gets brought up I won’t even notice the colour of their eyes.

So to be a descriptive writer is, to me, a kind of magic. How do writers use words to create images that stick with me when I can’t even really remember how things look in real life? I don’t have to look any farther than Atwood’s prose to see how this can be done well. Re-reading it this time, I was struck by the sheer amount of physical detail. I have a clear sense of the house Offred lives in, the town she wanders around, the oppressiveness of the Rachel and Leah Center. A new character is introduced early on in the book with the following description: She walks demurely, head down, red-gloved hands clasped in front, with short little steps like a trained pig’s on its hind legs. I mean, look at that. Look at it! Physical description that informs the reader about both the woman (“She walks demurely” and “short little steps…”) and the world they live in (“red-gloved hands”), that combine to make a judgement on the way women must live (“like a trained pig’s…”).

Even just straight physical description gives readers an idea of the character’s mental state and the world around them. The tulips along the border are redder than ever, opening, no longer winecups but chalices; thrusting themselves up, to what end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out like shards. The flowers are not just flowers. This comes right after we see women mourning a child lost in the womb and just before Offred’s trip to the doctor’s office, and it shows us what is at stake. The women are blooming, especially the red women, forced up into the world, but they are empty. Birth rates have dropped dangerously low and Offred exists in this community for one reason: to breed. What, then, will happen if she cannot? This one passage about flowers in the garden gives readers an idea what Offred thinks will happen, what she worries about. It is not explicitly stated, this relationship between flower and woman, and yet it is woven through the text. The images she uses highlights important emotional moments and, in this way, plot and description and character development all merge into one glorious being.

If reading makes you a better writer, writing makes you a better reader, too. So I’m sorry, Ms. Atwood, that I have never appreciated your book the way I needed to. That I didn’t see the skill. I saw only the surface, a beautiful book with an incredible story, an unsettling look at the world we could become. I’m sorry that even now I don’t appreciate it the way I will in ten more years, or ten years after that. But I promise to keep reading, because if I know anything in this world, it is that truly great books stay in your heart and your head for years and change as you change. I can’t wait to see what Offred and Gilead are like the next time I encounter them.

Love! Writing! Adventure!

Hello hello!

I’m Sarah. I’m a writer, I’m a student, I’m a goofball and compulsive traveler. I’m also one third of Love. Writing. Adventure., a project I’m working on with my friends Hayley and Oglaya. We’re in the very, very beginning stages of it, so there isn’t much to see yet, but I promise that will change soon. In the meantime, I thought I’d set up a little blog on the side for related thoughts that don’t really fit in with the project as a whole but might interest people as they start to get to know me and my ridiculous attitude towards life.

So here I am, world! Here I am, WordPress! Let’s do this thing.