This weekend I discovered the most marvellous novel that I’d never heard of before. Its called The Wall by the Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer, first published in 1968. Although classified as science fiction and ecofeminist it is really a profound philosophical meditation on solitude and the relationship between humans and the natural world. It contains beautifully intense descriptions of the close bonds that we can form with animals without being sentimental. The story is set in the Alps and recounts in diary format one woman’s struggle to survive in total isolation. The mysterious transparent wall that appears over night is a metaphor for the divisions between us all in a time when we interact with screens more than other living beings. The book was ahead of its time in anticipating many social and environmental issues we struggle with today. The Wall is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read and I would absolutely recommend it particularly if you are a person with a love for animals and nature.
I am always astounded by the strength of life force in nature if unhindered by human activity, the pollution of drugs and chemicals. A few weeks ago I cut a couple of branches from my Woolly Willow tree (yes, it’s really called that or Salix Lanata if you want to be formal). They were covered in gorgeous catkins and made a stunning statement in a vase in my hallway. When I decided to throw them out I was surprised to see they had grown roots so now they are destined for a new life in the garden next to their mother tree. Happy trees! I have many different willow trees; scarlet, golden, black, purple, Swiss, a ground cover variety, one that has spectacular black catkins in the spring. It is a wild, windy and wet location and yet they thrive. Branches may break off in a storm but they go on undaunted. If only we humans could do the same.
Easter is my favourite festival. As a natural born pagan I love the nature symbolism and message of renewal and rebirth. Those of us lucky enough to be not living in a war zone are able to celebrate with flowers and chocolate. In the UK the weather has been kind and we see signs of new growth and green shoots in the gardens. The Russian Orthodox Easter is not till next weekend. I have many lovely memories of Easter rituals growing up in a Ukrainian family. Easter is a big event in the Orthodox Calendar. Special food is prepared in a basket including hand painted boiled eggs, cold meats and a sweet bread called Paska and then taken to the church to be blessed by the priest in a midnight ceremony. It is later eaten for breakfast on Easter Sunday. This year I am having a peaceful and joyful time although separated from loved ones and have enjoyed painting eggs for the first time in years! Also having fun with my new rainbow lantern, (really cool!) eating cake decorated with bluebells and bumble bees and delicious chocolates in the shape of butterflies.
Every time I stop at a petrol station I ask myself the same question; how can an entire modern civilisation be built on a finite, flammable liquid that relatively few people control and that’s in short supply?
I probably inherited the creative gene from my maternal grandfather. He was a writer, photographer and political dissident in the former Soviet Union. He wrote for an underground newspaper and spent time in prison because of his views. Every birthday and Christmas he would send me a card with a specially written poem. He encouraged me to read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn at an early age. After his death in 1974 my grandmother gave me his camera which contained a roll of exposed black and white film. Years later I developed the film in my home darkroom and found images of myself as a young adolescent. It was a spine-tingling moment, alone in the dark watching the images slowly materialise and seeing myself the way my grandfather saw me. The images were faded and decomposed because of the length of time they’d spent inside his camera. They had aged, they had scars – like myself.
In the beginning was the word, according to the Gospel of John in the Bible. We experience and interpret the world through language. We write the words and the words write us. I’ve always associated writing with the desire to make the world a better place. It’s a way of getting inside someone else’s head, a chance to see life from another point of view. Writing has a therapeutic value but it’s much more than that…it leads to greater understanding and tolerance between people. It is a powerful tool for personal and social change. Writing can break down barriers, build bridges.
As a disabled woman I have been marginalised by a society that treats people as disposable commodities within the Capitalist machine. Throughout history disabled people have been ignored, silenced, treated as if we are stupid, useless. Alas, the ‘does she take sugar?’ attitude persists even in the 21st century. Disability is the last great taboo which feeds on society’s fear of death, illness and impairment. This is an issue which affects everyone, disabled and non-disabled, because we all age, sooner or later our bodies start to let us down and no-one is ever perfect. We live in a society obsessed with superficial appearances, it’s a kind of body fascism and it creates a lot of misery.
Creative writing and art have given me an equal voice. They have empowered me, helped to counter the negative stereotypes of disability that underpin mainstream culture. Visual arts and writing are two sides of the same coin for me. I often incorporate text in my artwork through collage and photography. I enjoy unexpected juxtapositions. I tend to use abstract and surreal imagery and a lot of colour in both poetry and art. They are just different ways of communicating my unique experience of the world. In recent years I’ve focused more on poetry as it feels purer, more precise. It satisfies my obsessive compulsive streak! Poetry works through the construction of images, as well as metaphor, rhythm and rhyme. And there is the important visual element of words typed on paper, black on white, the shape of the poem on the page. Concrete poems, ekphrastic poems, black-out poems, cut-up poems, acrostic poems all rely on our visual sense.
I am often asked about my working methods. Like many writers I keep a journal. I try to write every day even if it’s just a few words. Ideas and phrases frequently come to me at night and I record them on my phone otherwise they are lost. Sometimes the first line of a poem will take root in my mind and I can’t rest until I’ve put it down on paper. Once it gets a hold on me I can’t let go until it’s finished. Stephen King said that when he’s writing it’s as if he’s just a channel, a conduit for a story that already exists in a mysterious parallel universe. I agree. Like King I believe in what the psychologist Carl Jung named the collective unconscious. Creative people and mystics are able to tap into universal images and stories that we need in order to navigate our path through a complex and difficult life.
There have been many tines when creativity has literally saved my life. I survived several long hospital stays trapped in a bed alone in a small room because I had paper and pencils. I was able to make my mark on a world that seemed to have forgotten me. I have a vivid memory of drawing a vase of anemones on my bedside locker when I was in intensive care at the age of nine after spinal surgery that left me paralysed. Looking at those delicate flowers, the pastel colours, the shapes and recording them on paper reminded me of the beauty of the world beyond the horror and pain of the hospital.
We all need art, we all need stories, we all need to survive.
The smell hit her the instant she opened the door. A mix of cats, geraniums and cigarettes. Isabel hated smoking and potted geraniums in equal measure. She didn’t own a cat. She shoved the mountain of accumulated mail out of the way with her crutch. The paramedic placed her bags inside the hall and disappeared down the overgrown path without saying goodbye, still grumbling about how you were only allowed one piece of luggage in an ambulance.
Isabel closed the door behind her and locked it. Her hands shook and her heart threw summersaults of joy to be home, in her own private space, finally away from the prying eyes and probing fingers of the white coats. She’d thought this day would never come. She’d thought it was over, the end of the road, kaputt, finito, nothing left except bedpans, pain and humiliation. No future except days lying in her own stink, face down in a bowl of hospital porridge while the fat lady sang.
Panting with exertion she shuffled slowly into the living room and sank into the cane chair by the French doors that faced onto the garden. She’d missed her mountains, the light and emptiness of the vast sky. Her solitary room on Ward 3A looked out onto a brick wall. She couldn’t see the sky at all, not even a sliver. The only way she could tell if the sun was shining was by the light reflecting in the brickwork, the changes in hue. On a bright day the bricks gleamed like tiger’s eye. On a grey day they were a dull flesh pink.
Now Isabel surveyed her garden, still marvellous despite the weeds and rampant lawn. The hollyhocks blazed magenta. The roses drooped with lush scarlet blooms, the honeysuckle smothered the archway and on the horizon Morven and Scaraben glowed purple in the evening sun. She sat there for a long while, just breathing, in, out, in, out. She was alive. She was home. No one could hurt her now.
And then she saw the boots. Dirty workmen’s boots placed casually in the middle of the kilim rug she’d brought back from Turkey. They were caked with mud, one boot tilted as if they’d been cast off in a hurry, the soles worn, the brown leather wrinkled with age. Her chest tightened in panic and she scanned the room for other signs of disturbance. Everything seemed much as she’d left it the day of the accident other than a layer of dust and a few cobwebs. There were books and magazines in a tidy pile on the coffee table, logs stacked by the wood burner and dead daffodils in a stained glass vase on the window sill. Her grandmother’s vintage clock had stopped at five to five.
Isabel couldn’t bear to touch the disgusting boots with her bare hands so she nudged them closer with her crutch. One of them tipped over and a tiny square of paper fell out. Leaning unsteadily from her chair she picked it up and unfolded it with trembling fingers.
Written in red biro on a torn piece of graph paper was just one word, ‘remember’.