Alone one is never lonely: the spirit adventures, waking
In a quiet garden, in a cool house, abiding single there;
The spirit adventures in sleep, the sweet thirst-slaking
When only the moon’s reflection touches the wild hair.
There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone:
It finds a lovely certainty in the evening and the morning.
It is only where two have come together bone against bone
That those alonenesses take place, when, without warning
The sky opens over their heads to an infinite hole in space;
It is only turning at night to a lover that one learns
He is set apart like a star forever and that sleeping face
(For whom the heart has cried, for whom the frail hand burns)
Is swung out in the night alone, so luminous and still,
The waking spirit attends, the loving spirit gazes
Without communion, without touch, and comes to know at last
Out of a silence only and never when the body blazes
That love is present, that always burns alone, however steadfast.
May Sarton wrote this poem when she was just twenty six years old, decades before she wrote Journal of a Solitude, her remarkable prose work documenting the twelve months she spent alone at the age of 60. ‘Canticle 6’ was originally titled ‘Considerations’. It explores the fine line between solitude and loneliness.
Frida Kahlo is my third choice for The Purple Hermit Hall of Fame, my regular feature on disability and resilience. I first discovered her paintings when I was a mature student at Art School. I was drawn to the surrealist images, folk art style and vibrant colours. It was rare to see such powerful images of pain and disability. Frida’s work was autobiographical. She was fearless in her honesty, exposing vulnerabilities, her emotional and physical suffering. But at the same time there was a joyousness in her painting. Frida Kahlo was a passionate woman. She loved people and animals, she loved the world.
When I learned more about her life-story I was struck by the many similarities with my own and she became one of my artistic and personal influences. Frida was born in Mexico in 1907, just three years before the start of the revolution. Her father was a German immigrant who ran a photography business and her mother was Mexican. Frida contracted polio at the age of six. She missed time at school and was bullied by other children. She was set apart from siblings by her illness which left her with a wasted limb, one leg shorter than the other. Her father began to take a special interest in her and taught her photography, philosophy and literature.
At the age of eighteen Frida was involved in a horrific street-car accident which left her with severe, permanent injuries and a life-long legacy of health problems and chronic pain. Surgical interventions by doctors were disasterously unsuccessful. She had to abandon her education and her ambition to become a doctor. She spent months in recovery and in isolation, confined to a bed where she began to paint using a specially made easel with a mirror. Her work explored identity and included many self-portraits.
In 1927 Frida joined the Mexican Communist Party where she met her future husband, the famous muralist Diego Rivera. Throughout her life she was politically active campaigning for peace, equality and the promotion of Mexico. She chose to dress in traditional Mexican clothes as a gesture of support for her native culture and a rejection of U.S. ideological dominance. However, later in her career she travelled and work in the U.S. where her art was enthusiastically received.
Diego and Frida had a turbulent relationship punctuated by extra marital affairs on both sides. At one point they divorced and later remarried. Frida was a sexually liberated woman having affairs with both men and women. One of her lovers was the revolutionary Leon Trotsky. She defied many social expectations of how women, let alone a disabled woman, were supposed to behave. Even today, disability and sex is a taboo subject. But Frida let nothing stand in the way of her passion and being true to herself. She used her experiences as a disabled woman in a positive way, channelling her pain into amazing art. Towards the end of her life her health problems became more debilitating and she suffered greatly both physically and mentally.
Kahlo pre-empted Tracey Emin’s controversial unmade bed installation by about fifty years. In 1953 doctors had advised her not to attend the opening of her first solo exhibition saying she needed bed rest. So Frida arranged for her four poster bed to be taken to the gallery and she arrived there by ambulance on a stretcher. She stayed in bed while the party unravelled around her.
Since her death in 1954, possibly by suicide, she has been adopted as an icon by various political and feminist groups. It’s strange that her disability is often minimised in biographies even though it was plainly part of her identity as evidenced by her own paintings. Her art grew directly out of her experience of disability. But perhaps it’s too much of a challenge for many people to reconcile negative stereotypes regarding disabled women and the vivid truth of Frida Kahlo’s life as a beautiful, charismatic and talented artist.
“Everything looks more beautiful in retrospect”. So says Michelle Monaghan’s character in the 2011 science fiction thriller Source Code. The film, directed by Duncan Jones, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a US army captain who is repeatedly sent back into a virtual parallel universe in an effort to prevent an explosion on a Chicago commuter train. He tries to change history and many of us would love to do that when looking back on our own lives.
Alas, time travel and parallel universes are still the stuff of fantasy. The relationship between the present and the past is complex. Looking back can feel like being lost in a mist where the edges of reality become blurred. Memory is unreliable. Research has shown that after a while we do not remember the actual past event but more a previous memory of it. Our perception of the past changes over time, shape-shifting and misleading. The Czech-born French writer Milan Kundera described it thus; ” We pass through the present with our eyes blindfolded. We are permitted merely to sense and guess at what we are actually experiencing. Only later when the cloth is untied can we glance at the past and find out what we have experienced and what meaning it has.”
The process of writing can help our recollection and understanding of our personal histories. Time unravels like a piece of knitting. But there are still blind spots. I’ve realized that memories of some painful events from my past have been erased or diluted. Perhaps this is a defense mechanism. I have to work really hard at remembering them, removing the blindfold. As I grow older I’m periodically overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia. Its tempting to believe that life was more real, more authentic, more fun in the past. Perhaps the younger we are, the more intensely we experience events but the fact is life was never perfect. Each day we are confronted with problems and difficulties. Satisfaction and happiness are derived from how well we rise to the challenges of life.
I took this photograph at Wick harbour. Wick is a small fishing town about thirty miles from my home in northern Scotland. In the 1800s it was one of the busiest and most prosperous herring ports in Europe. The bay was filled with hundreds of boats, the quayside lined with thousands of barrels of herring. The shouts of fish wives mingled with the cries of sea gulls and the howling wind. Today it holds the silence of abandonment. But decay can be beautiful. The old paint, fading colors and streaks of rust in the photograph are evocative of some strange interior landscape, peeling back the layers of time.
Britain has a new fairy tale princess. Meghan Markle is refreshingly different from the usual British Royal being of mixed race, successful, independent and a self-declared feminist. I am not a monarchist but it is always heart-warming to see two people genuinely happy and in love as Meghan and Harry seem to be. But I’ve been wondering how many of Meghan’s female friends are sincerely rejoicing at her good fortune? Or are they secretly sticking pins into little Meghan effigies, making vicious comments behind her back and tearing out their own hair in a jealous frenzy?
As a teenager I devoured feminist writing by Simone de Beauvoir, Marilyn French, Erica Jong, Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan. I grew up believing in the value of female friendship, that there was a natural bond between women. Unity would make us stronger and female friends would offer a sympathetic ear and support in times of despair. We didn’t need men to rely on, we had each other. The feminist argument implied that in the past men had practiced divide and rule, forcing women to compete against each other for male attention. By grouping together women would be liberated from male oppression and pursue fulfilling lives.
Decades later I’m not so sure about this theory. After fifty years of feminism women are at each other’s throats more than ever. Female bullying is on the increase with the development of social media, an ideal weapon for bitching and back stabbing. I’ve lost count of the number of female friends who have betrayed me, lied to me, magically disappeared whenever I have a crisis, resented my boyfriends, tried to sabotage my relationships and begrudged me any kind of happiness or success. Experiments have shown that narcissistic women who are often at the center of social cliques try to surround themselves with women they perceive as less attractive, weaker and less successful. This makes them feel better about themselves. They will shine ever more brightly by comparison to the ugly ducklings. So any attempt by The Queen Bee’s entourage to break out of this subservient role will be perceived as a threat, met with negativity and even hostility. Insidious passive aggressive tactics may be used to demean a female friend in these situations. It’s tragic that many women feel so insecure about themselves that they cannot tolerate a friend’s success. We cannot blame men for making us compete among ourselves. No-one can have everything in life. We are all blessed with different gifts and talents. The important thing is to be the best possible version of yourself and stop comparing yourself with other people. Some of us drive BMWs, some of us take the bus. Some of us play the violin like an angel while others make the best cookies in the world. Some of us have children, others have exotic holidays. But we are all equal, precious and unique. As the cliche goes, life would be boring if we were all the same.
If you are a woman with real female friends then count yourself lucky. True friends are like rubies in the mist of deceit. If you ever find one, make sure you treasure her. And Meghan Markle, I wish you well. I hope you will sparkle in the glow of sincere friendship and love.
DIARY OF A RAG DOLL
Here she comes… stilettos
tapping, floorboards creaking.
She’s no dainty, porcine
in skinny jeans reeking of charity.
I shudder, squeeze back into the darkness
under some old Cosmos.
I’m in for it once more, beaten
blue, still sore from our last meet,
left knee splitting at the seams,
dress fraying, fingers unravelling two ply.
We started out so well. I thought
she was my friend until she began
smothering with home-
made soup, stories of The Perfect
Life. So I told her stories of The War.
She smiled, looked away.
She said, get out more,
visit Barcelona or Tibet,be more party,
get a tan. You’re so depressing;legs so thin,
skin so pale, eyes so sad.You’ll never win.
Her six inch heel smashed down my head.
Afterwards, I tried harder, pinned
flowers in my hair, started writing poetry. You’ll never be normal, she laughed.