Wednesday, 16 November 2016

WHAT MATTERS NOW

Sleep has always been a shy, mysterious, elusive sheep for me - rarely does she come when I call.
But lately, sleep is more fractured than ever.

I read in a piece by Mary Karr, poet and memoirist, that during this year's American election, doctors suddenly had a rush of patients ringing in or reporting as emergencies, cases of false tachycardia. My own persistent tachycardia this year may be rooted in more determinedly medical background, but now I wonder if I too am experiencing a world wide case of shared disturbance of the heart.

These are troubled times. More so than ever before? I think not, on our personal levels. But on a global level, I believe we may be experiencing a seismic shift in our comprehension of the state of things. 

A thing I think: human beings are extraordinarily clever at denial. In our bones, we know we must die. But we also know we must live in the face of such irrefutable knowing. To live as though you are not dying is the art and craft we develop innately, from our first squall. 

And yet, here I am, awake in the middle of the night; and yet, here we all are, anxious for what is to come. 

Buddha would say, 'What has come to be', meaning what has come, has come to be, because of all things past leading to this present. Not inevitability as fate, rather a collective gathering of historical human action and consequence has brought us to this pass. 'This is because that is'. We cannot unlink ourselves from each other. Frederick Douglass believed America to be wilfully blind in 1862 ('We have sought to bind the chains of slavery on the limbs of the black man, without thinking that at last we should find the other end of that hateful chain about our own necks.' from his speech 'The Reasons for our Troubles') and wilfully blind she continues to be. 

But here we are, on the eve of a new leadership, which will implicate us all, wide awake, hungry for comfort, with very little comfort to be had. 

Last evening before I fell asleep for a while, I attended a paper on Vietnamese-American writer lê thi diem thúy, author of the acclaimed novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For, and later went to a theatre performance of A Room with a View starring Felicity Kendal. While watching E. M. Forster's novel turned to play, I was making all sorts of connections between modernism and post war immigrant diaspora writings, until Kendal spoke this line: 'Novels aren't silly. Literature can influence things, sometimes.' She was speaking as Charlotte Bartlett, but it was Forster asserting himself, for all time, with that dictum.

It was a clear bell reminding me of the more recent affirmations of Toni Morrison and Atul Gawande, Mary Karr and Junot Diaz - the arts matter now more than ever. Our individual voices, thoughts, small decisions, matter. Resistance looks like protest marches, but true resistance begins with just one person choosing to think or behave in more awareness of themselves and one other. Look a little closer at the fellow human being beside you. Perhaps he is crouched outside the theatre, soaked in his black garments, because it rained while you were inside the warmth of the theatre, and he was outside making his sign (PLEASE HELP), awaiting the richest of the town folk to bring his coin collection up to the figure necessary to enable a night in the hostel. 

Perhaps you saw him and crouched down beside him and emptied your pockets of notes and coins. You put your hand on his shoulder and he said, 'God bless you.' Perhaps you walked by, not seeing him at all, heading to your car, your home, your family. Perhaps you saw and walked quickly past anyway. 
Be sure he saw it all.

Illustration by Nino Novellino via Read What Rosie Wrote

Saturday, 5 November 2016

GIRLS ON A BUS TO GEORGIA (O'KEEFFE) - PART II

My favourite piece by Georgia O'Keeffe turned out to be one of the first works I saw in the exhibition. Upon entering the exhibition, Mum immediately said, 'I think this is it.' She meant, dolefully, that we had scurried across London, reliving the same bus journey twice, hopped up and down the Tate Modern's escalators twice (we forgot to pick up our tickets at the booth the first time), only to find the O'Keeffe retrospective was contained in a single room. Happily, Mum couldn't have been more wrong. We were rabbits in a warren, the two of us, along with the hundreds of other Londoners who had also decided that the last days of O'Keeffe were not to be missed.
O'Keeffe began in 1916 with charcoal and wash on paper, determined not to 'use any other colour until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white'. But while she was painting lines, curves, shells, abstraction, her husband Alfred Stieglitz was busy photographing her hands, breasts, limbs, so that when colour finally exploded onto her canvas, he was ready to have it labelled erotica.

This painting, titled 'Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow' is a perfect example of O'Keeffe naming her painting abstract, but the viewer being directed to think otherwise. With her flower series, this labelling became more pronounced. There is something voluptuous, sensual and anatomically vivid about certain flowers, the tongues of canna lilies, blowsy skirts of opening petals, but the painter faithfully representing them may be doing just that. These 'Oriental Poppies', I think, look just as they should.

O'Keeffe addressed her viewers: 'you hung all your associations with flowers on my flowers and you write about my flowers as if I think and see what you think and see of the flowers - and I don't.' Meanwhile, Salvador Dali painted a rose and was dubbed king of surrealism. When O'Keeffe painted bones and skulls, and meant bones and skulls, they called it surrealism. 'The bones do not symbolise death to me,' O'Keeffe made clear. 'They are very lively.'

Pretty too, I think...


The biggest surprise for most people with the range displayed at the Tate Modern was probably O'Keeffe's architectural paintings. 

She was homey, and settled into her places and spaces with the kind of certainty bones have when they settle into earth. She painted doorways over and over again, and explored the adobe dwellings of Taos Pueblo - here Mum found her favourite painting among the longest continually inhabited dwellings on earth.

On the bus to Georgia, I mentioned to Mum that someday I wanted to paint my own version of reality  as I see it through my highly compromised vision. It would look something like an impressionist's painting, I told her, with bits missing or smudged out. A few hours later, I stood in front of Cottonwoods, 1952.

There was nothing O'Keeffe did not attempt - from my own myopic world to worlds of synaesthesia and chromothesia - translating sounds such as cattle lowing and music, into something for the eye. In the last years of her life, there were clouds, vast expanses of blue, calling to mind Joni Mitchell's lyrics, 'It's clouds illusions I recall'...


Monday, 31 October 2016

GIRLS ON A BUS TO GEORGIA (O'KEEFFE) - Part I

Trying to get my mother to leave her Cambridge nest and my father (in no particular order), is a nearly impossible feat. But I managed it yesterday. I would like to say I whisked her off to London, but there was very little whisking, and a lot of cluelessness. Mum and I were two rubes on a bus. 
We managed the part from Cambridge station to Kings Cross just fine. Well, apart from missing our train by a whisker, and then having to wait for the next - but it was fine. We bought lunch and ate companionably as rural life turned to city scape. At St Pancras we managed to locate the right bus, thanks entirely to my mobile phone (it is not called a smart phone for nothing!), hopped on, whipped out our coins... only to discover this is not the way things are done in Big Cities. No more coins. You need cards - oysters or credit. My wallet, as usual, was tucked into the deepest recesses of my bag. The bus driver waited, patiently. We need to get to the Tate Modern, we chirped. Blackfriars Station? Oh yes, he said, after the bridge. Will you let us know? I'll let you know, he sez. We settle in, picturing something like this:


Cue an interminable number of stops later... Mum and I have been hawkishly watching the signs change above our heads, but not actually knowing where Blackfriars is in relation to anywhere else - Peckham Library, Bird in Bush Road, Bricklayer's Arms - not the most romantic or pretty scenic route - we were waiting for a bridge. Finally, I tilt my way to the driver's seat. Er... I begin. Oh no! he looks horrified, and proceeds to apologise so profusely and with such sincerity that Mum and I instantly forgive him and prepare for an unstable journey back to the village. 
Fortunately (yes, there can be good fortune even in a crummy situation like this), we had left it so late to ask advice, that we had reached the end of the bus route 44 stops away from Kings Cross - and the bus driver promised to restore us back to Blackfriars - he had to retrace his steps anyway, but there would be a switch to a new driver. Not to worry, he promised to explain our 'situation' to the new driver. He did. And they both laughed. Grrrrreat. Mum and I are now the laughing stock of the London Bus Company. 
We count out 20 stops before I start to get nervous - Mum, who had pointed out various landmarks now pointed them out again. Oh! it's that tree again! - and I tilt my way back to the head office. He gives me two options - both involve walking, turning left and then left, or right and then right. We tumble off, vowing to take a taxi for the homeward journey. Neither of us can face the bus in London darkness.


In case you've been wondering why Blackfriars - our destination was the Tate Modern, the most visited art museum in the world - 5.7 million visitors last year. (How did they find their way to the Tate?) I had read about the Georgia O'Keeffe retrospective and discovered that October 30th was the last day. So I was determined to go - and knowing O'Keeffe is an artistic inspiration for Mum, really wanted her to accompany me. The four hours it took us to reach her work were worth it. The retrospective was breathtaking, and beyond my mother's expectations. She and I had visited an O'Keeffe exhibition in 2003, in Vancouver, but unlike I, who fell instantly in love with O'Keeffe's later Taos paintings of cow and horse skulls in the desert, Mum had become disillusioned. O'Keeffe had been paired with Frida Kahlo (another reason I was instantly smitten) and neither had been given full scope. Mum and I have different reasons for loving O'Keeffe, which I think is a comment on her extraordinary range over the 98 years of her life.


I scribbled copious notes on the back of an envelope, and on a bright pink post-it as I roamed from room to room, but I shall save those for another day, another post. For now, here we are, on the upper balcony of the Tate Modern, exhausted but satisfied. My mother and I.


Wednesday, 19 October 2016

AMAL, NADIA, HANYA AND MICHELLE

For some years I stopped actively seeking out music. I'm not sure why. Music is memory, and not all memory is happy or sad; some memories are layered with depression, anxiety, fear, loneliness. Lately though, thanks to Desert Island Discs, I have found myself returning to music. I love the unexpected choices. I find myself delving deeper into the archives, particularly glad when I discover philanthropists like Sigrid Rausing and humanitarian activists like David Nott, vascular war surgeon. My favourite episode is with Aung San Suu Kyi - I think it is the only occasion when the interview takes place not in the BBC studio, but in Burma, in Daw Suu's home.

These days I am inspired by Amal Clooney, international human rights lawyer, currently attorney to a young 23 year old Yazidi girl, Nadia Murad, who managed to escape her captors and be smuggled out of Mosul to Stuttgart. She has recently been named a UN Goodwill Ambassador, but of course this involves her telling and retelling the tales of crime that were committed upon her person, and the bodies of thousands of women still remaining in the camps.


A friend of mine asked if I wanted to be part of a new book club; the first book we read was Hanya Yanigahara's A Little Life - a book that divided readers last year. Some thought it relentless in its portrayal of the suffering of its central character, Jude. And others, like myself, though no less fatigued by such a detailed rendition of a broken life, found truth in a narrative that does not see its way to an easy resolution. Nadia Murad may have escaped ISIS, but she will never be able to forget. We, in our lives of comfort, safety and daily entertainment, may find it a little too easy to imagine that suffering can be papered over. Especially the suffering of girls, of women.

And so to remind us to shore each other up, and stay alert and conscious to the ever present denigration of girls and women, we have our big sister Michelle Obama, a truly admirable mentor, to speak for us. She reminds us we are right to hold our boys and men to a higher standard than those among them who enslave, assault and abuse with impunity. Some of us, Michelle and myself included, and hopefully you too, reader, know men with integrity, refined intelligence, kindness and a strong sense of justice. To them we turn and hold out our hands. In the fight for human rights, we need each other. We have always needed each other.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

UNMAKING A WAVE

It is silly for the wave
to long to be merged
with the big ocean
and the wide open sea.
She is the ocean.
She is the sea.
       
           Does that mean
           she can never be free
           of their tumults
           and their authority?
           Where, in all of 'their',
           is she?

Best to evaporate

           and nestle, a raindrop,
           on an old oak tree,
           sheltered from storms,
           cupped by leaf love,
           a sweet, refreshing
           mystery.

© Shaista Tayabali, 2016

Today is Thich Nhat Hanh's 90th birthday. I am remembering my week at Plum Village in the Dordogne, when I was part of a wonderful dharma group - here I am tucked under the wing of Sister An Nghiem (Sister Peace), an African-American nun who left Washington's mayoral office to actively work for peace and change. We need to concentrate on our change makers and our peace workers so we can remember the best of who we are. Thây has always been that for us. Happy Continuation Day to our beloved gentle monk!

Thursday, 6 October 2016

AN ORANGE SLUG IN THE PATH OF A RATTATA

They came. They conquered. They left. With a piece of my heart tucked into the soles of their feet.

Last night, around 2am, the owls were busy tap dancing on the roof of the Coach House, the converted garage I have called home for the past three years. I thought of Raf, who sometimes worries about me in the midst of all these owls. But he understands I'm nocturnal. 'I'm nocturnal, too!' he declared, last summer in Portugal. He was four then. At five, he is now a skilful Pokémon catcher. One sunny day, he and I combed the entire village, collecting measly Pokéballs at the phone box library and finding mostly Rattatas and Pidgeys (and a Mr Mime!) - he got stung by thorny ivy snakes, was shocked to discover roses have thorns and the duck pond from last year seemed to have vanished, so all in all it was 'the worst day, ever.' 
But! We met an orange slug. Have you ever? Bright and burnished, it looked nothing like its ordinary grey camouflage-ready mollusc cousin - Raf and I were gripped by the drama. Of course neither of us knew we were looking at Arion vulgaris, the cannibalistic roadkill eating variety. Arion vulgaris - what a name! I'm quite partial to the term vulgaris because in the late thirteenth century that is how lupus was referred to - lupus vulgaris.

I didn't blog last month - one of the rare months of complete absence. I have been struggling with chronic tachycardia most of the year. I hope there is nothing too sinister, cardiologically speaking - fingers crossed, anyway - but at the same time, almost twenty years of lupus, steroids, chemo and immuno therapies have no doubt taken their toll. My heart is overworked, but never under appreciated. Did I tell you I've finished my book? My last chapters are all dedicated to my heart, wondrous organ that it is. 

While the smallest loves of my life are far away in other countries, I am head down, writing to publishing agents. I rise to meet the day and either crumble back to bed or send my book with love to strangers. Wish me luck as I wave it goodbye!

Thursday, 25 August 2016

BIRTHDAY GIRL BUBBLES

Have I mentioned I've been writing a book for the past couple of years? A few weeks ago I completed it and am now sending it to agents. Fingers crossed, mes amies! George Orwell once said, 'Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.'

When your life is already 'a long bout with some painful illness' writing a book is double trouble. Orwell's words have been of great comfort to me. A raft keeping me sane and self-forgiving. I love when writers share their lived writerly experience - it is so friendly.


For my birthday I decided the friendliest thing I could do for my worn out mind and body would be to book myself into a spa. I chose The Bedford Lodge Hotel & Spa. Knowing it would be no Balinese Shangri-La, I kept my expectations low. But it was magnifique. The Spa isn't overtly fancy, and for the first time I truly appreciated how simplicity of form in architecture and design can be beautiful.



Edith Piaf accompanied me through most of my stay. In the steam room, in the lunch bar, she rolled me up in her trills. Songs of the knowing heart.


Lunch was a jungle of rocket, avocado, orange segments and sweet potato. So this is how sweet potato is supposed to be cooked, in petite squares of delicious goodness. Mind you, after a while, chewing rocket and salad leaves can feel never ending. How do cows and horses do it? 

At the hydrotherapy pool I cannot contain my laughter when jets and bubbles nearly whirlpool me across the water. I have no cool at this point. Who cares? I have already embarrassed myself by not being able to open the steam room door (the steam had practically sealed it shut!) or work out how to turn the shower on. It took a long, long time to decipher the knob had to be twisted left not pushed. Sigh... all the while caked in five shades of mud...


It was a busy time with canoodling couples, mothers with their about to be married daughters and best girlfriends taking time for themselves. I didn't feel lonely at all. First because I had spent half my birthday with Mum and our beloved friend Victoria...


And later because I had Albus and Scorpius from the new Harry Potter to accompany me; but at dinner, when dessert arrived with Happy Birthday lettered across the plate, a couple decided I could not be alone on my birthday. They insisted on buying me a glass of Prosecco, and as the night wore on, on listening to some of my poetry. I recited three poems and was thrilled with their response - neither of them are readers, neither of them expected to like, let alone love, poetry. They wanted a birthday poem but I hadn't written one yet, so I recited the poem I wrote last year. Here it is...

August

Which means my birthday
Which means a beginning 
And an ending.

Months pass between poems
That don't resemble poems

Because there's too much noise 
And poems were always about silence 
On the inside.

These are the days of
Inside, Out.
And noise.

One hundred years have passed
And will a hundred more?

Here I stand.
Here I stand.

And the tide is slipping,
Pulling away from me.

And I will catch up
Someday. 

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

THE TIME I WAS ALMOST FAMOUS

So there I was minding my own quiet business in the Shire when I received a call from the diversity casting researcher at Channel 4 - she had been reading my blog and was impressed enough to consider me good TV material! Out of all the subjects I could have imagined this TV documentary to be about, the very last would have been a cooking show. I was so taken aback to be scouted for 'Come Dine With Me' that when she asked if I had a few minutes for a questionnaire, I rolled right with it.
So Shy Star, do you give many dinner parties? Er... no.
If an ingredient went missing would you freak out and be super stressed? Er... no?
Who would be your worst nightmare guest? What quality would you hate in a guest? What's your most annoying quality? What would people say is their first impression of you?

And finally, Shy Star, what will you be cooking for us?
By this point I was sweating, brain fried and hysterically laughing - Er... fusion cuisine, I fronted. With lavish amounts of fruit; avocados would feature. How would I entertain my guests to break the ice? Oh, with cocktails and charades, I said peppily, really going with the spirit of the thing. Knowing that when I put the phone down and soberly discussed the 'opportunity' with my parents my surreal encounter would dissipate.

Strange things have happened to me in my life, but this is high up on the list of strangeness. I coulda been a contender, you guys! A few weeks passed after that first call and then another casting researcher approached me yesterday. This time, head more firmly screwed on, I averred, politely but with alacrity. Talking about books, writing poetry or living with lupus, these I shall happily be on TV for - but whipping up four courses of a meal for four strangers and a film crew - almost famous will do nicely, thank you.

Although I am touched that the first lovely casting researcher visited my blog, took the trouble to read me and thought me admirable, I will always much rather be cooked for than cook for - a shame I am learning to take on the chin. My apologies to all my friends, and particularly my cousin Imran, who is still awaiting a dinner invite...


Photos courtesy C.Barrere

Friday, 8 July 2016

MY FATHER KNOWS

My father knows when great men 
were born, and when they wrote
the works that brought them fame.

When empires fell, and why
our history books fail
us, time and again.

He teaches me how to listen 
for the silences, the in-between states,
the graceful exits of saints.

Two birds fly past me
and out of sight. My father knows
when the birds come, and when the rain.

Watch for the thread, he says, 
and I see it. I feel it strain, trying to maintain 
our broken wings, our feathered remains.

We are tied together, my father and I
and you, echoing souls, gathering close
and closer by the day.  







Saturday, 2 July 2016

BREATHLESS

for Jo Cox

I would have let you see me
if only you had asked.
I would have looked into your soul
and listened; sama,
the Sufis call it, as they whirl
in whorls of dhikr, remembrance.
Remember me now that I am gone
far away into a muted land,
where my heart’s beats are unsteady
and my eyes are blind.
Something came for me
before I was ready. You came for me,
with knife and gun, the old
and the new; in case one failed,
the other would protect you.
You were scared of me, a girl
who packed toothpaste in summer
and mothered two babies
who know you now, who know
the face of hate
but long before they knew you
they knew the face of love,
of hope blossoming, of hearts
healing, and eyes seeing beyond
this breathless fabric you wrapped
around me.
At night you lie awake
and think of me; you cannot
forget my surprise – you thought
I would expect you
but you see, Friend, I thought
only the best of you.

- Shaista Tayabali, 2016

I was recently contacted by the editor of Visual Verse magazine. She hoped I would contribute to July's edition of poetry inspired by imagery. The photograph chosen was 'Unsplash' by Oscar Keys. I had been thinking about Jo Cox; many of us have, as waves of xenophobia echo around the globe. What a remarkable human being she was, unknown to most of us until known for this act of fear, of violence, of hatred committed upon her body. When Istanbul was bombed the other day, I turned to my father for comfort - and he reminded me that though these heinous acts occur, so also do acts of extraordinary kindness, compassion, generosity. 'We don't hear about those,' he said, 'but they occur many times, more times than any of these atrocities.' All we see are the worst of ourselves. Perhaps we are looking in the wrong places?