Thursday, 29 December 2011

A pane of glass, and the dream of summer and winter.

   Coming back down the hills, over the river, and toward home after a walk in the thrashing wind, there is a sheltered stopping place where flowers bloom even in the darkest days of winter.  Outside, gales of wind, howling and roaring, shake the metal frame of the arboretum and scratch at the glass.  We walk from room to glowing room of the greenhouse, listening to the creaking and watching clouds roll darkly beyond the glass sky.

It is strange to walk in a hothouse at night.  Almost empty of people, there are shadowy corridors with only a little bit of coloured light at the end where a lamp's light shines off tightly growing bunches of flowers.  Walking through the dark, towards that brightness, one can stop and smell a flower that has the scent of early spring, and another that hints at midsummer.

 In the Arid Room, there is a sign that can be read in the daylight which says that on every day of the year there is a different type of bloom among the cacti.  And so we hunt the flowers in the gloom, finding a few odd-shaped blossoms of lemon-yellow and magenta.

 A blackbird and a wren live together in the high leaves of the tropics, where the humid air is thick and scented and drops of moisture fall from above.  Orchids and Spanish moss press in on us only a few feet from the wild northern night that falls in early afternoon, and the hothouse seems like some kind of biological enchantment growing on this landscape.

 In the centre of the glasshouses there are Christmas trees sparkling next to banana and palm trees, patches of poinsettias and cyclamens.  A river of tossed coins and goldfish flows under tiny, arched bridges, and somewhere in the backrooms of the greenhouse a man is jingling his keys and calling out that this strange, glowing place is about to shut for the night.  And so we slip back into the dark, churning sea of wind and whirling cloud to walk down the empty streets with their stained-glass entrances blazing, all the bay windows full of Christmas trees, and behind them families eating at long tables.  On the longest nights we make our own light.

Wishing you a season of the brightest, most beautiful light this winter!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The sky touches every last thing.

   Only some fat flakes of snow whirled down as two men in their winter hats erected scaffolding on the house across the street.  We took our old route down to the sea, looking for evidence of the snow all the while, but there were just some pockets of frost that the sun forgot to chase away from mossy grasses.

Little, glittering shards of the sky flew past and bit us. Small birds came running on their wings, back and forth to the tree at the window, and now the tree is bare of every last rowan berry.  Now there is only a thrush that comes and sits on the chimney pots looking down its nose at me through the foggy wet morning window panes.

Towards the sea with coat pockets full of holes and chocolate and the danger of losing things in the lining.  We saw another couple, as we slipped between some gravestones and up a hill to a tear in the wire fence.  They laid down new flowers, laughed and called to each other as they hurried back and forth to and from their car.

Beyond a rickety wooden weather shelter by the road, the sea floor was swelling up out of the waters, pushing sandy streams down and behind it as it crawled toward the line of cars and cafés.  Down toward the harbour, a pod of surfers rose and fell in silhouette. 

This month goes creaking on, little tasks get crossed off lists, and there is a lot of hurrying here and there.  One whole day baking, another on the phone.  Buried on my desk is the old tile I use as a palette, and I am sure that the paints on it must be dried all the way through by now.  I feel like, on some still December days, when the normal streets are empty and everyone is in the shops, if no one is looking it should be allowed to float slowly, deafly, up up up away into the cold, quiet blue.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Der Nikolaus

   Since today is the 6th of December, the feast of St. Nicholas for those who celebrate it, I thought I would send my own little Nikolaus out to you.  My father used to tell me that on this day every year, in the town where he was born in Germany, Der Nikolaus would visit in the evening.  As he passed through the streets, parents would run out of their houses to call him in for a meeting with their children.  All the children knew that the visit of this big, rough-looking man in his worn red coat wasn't a great cause for celebration.  The meeting between Der Nikolaus and a child involved an assessment of that child's behaviour since Der Nikolaus' visit the year before, and at the end of the discussion, either an orange or a beating was doled out. 

   When I asked my father if Der Nikolaus was all alone when he visited the houses, he said "yes. Well, unless maybe he had been out drinking with some friends before. He was a rough sort of man."

    In case you are wondering: the 6th of December aside, Christmas itself wasn't so frightening for my father.  He and his brothers would be called into the living room late on Christmas Eve to find that Der Christkind had visited and magically left behind a table set for a feast and a tree decorated with lit candles on every branch and presents beneath them.  I was always astonished by the idea of an incarnation of Jesus as a baby that left a trail of magic and riches behind him, and I would ask to be told about him again and again.  Sometimes I spent Christmas Eve with my father and his family and returned Christmas morning to celebrate again, in typical Canadian fashion, with my mother and her side of the family. 

   This year, I have tried to be more clever with my cards.  I made them a few weeks ago, so they will hopefully arrive on time this year!  And I tried to make the subject of the cards more obvious than last year, or the year before, since apparently not everyone wants to read the wee stories we tuck into their cards.  At least this year I don't foresee getting little notes into February asking why I made a card with a picture of cows on it.  St. Nicholas is so common there can be no confusion.

    It also happens that my husband's family has a tradition relating to St. Nicolas' feast day: my husband used to always find little treats left for him in his shoes on the morning of the 6th of December.  And up in Scotland this year, it looks as if tonight we might be receiving the wonderful gift of the first snow of the season.  So I'll be keeping my fingers crossed for snow and wishing you lots of foil-wrapped chocolates in your shoes and hot spiced drinks by the fire!

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Light at the End of the Year

   These long nights and short days are little poems of flickering candles and twirling notes.  Sometimes, it is the slow part of the day.  There are the sounds of dishes being washed and some northern-English Christmas carols from the archive my husband works on.  There is one carol about a new bride who plays a game of hide-and-seek with her groom on their wedding night, but she is never found... until many years later a heavy, old chest is opened and a wedding gown is found with a skeleton inside.  There is a pedal organ and many voices.  Other carols are less strange, full of "hark, hark" and angels.  In some villages there used to be bands that would wander about in the cold on Christmas Eve singing and playing music in the streets until the sun rose on Christmas morning.  Apparently many churches made sure to acquire big pipe organs to curb this behaviour, bringing the music into the church and the choir under their control.  I must admit I never suspected a beautiful church organ as being used as a force for control and loss of culture, among other things.


   The night before last, we heard the most beautiful music from Hungary and Romania.  I never have my camera when I need it, so there are no photos of upright basses, accordions and fiddles catching the light of candles stuck in old bourbon bottles, or women dancing past stacks of piled up chairs (only some glimpses from last weekend in Edinburgh for your eyes).  But at least I can direct you towards the source of all the beauty: the website of The Jani Lang Band, and that of Tcha Limberger, who was playing along with the band as a special guest.  The music was brilliant all night and all of the musicians were amazingly talented, but I was completely spellbound by Tcha Limberger's solo part of the evening.  He sang, sometimes in Magyar and sometimes in Romani, as he accompanied himself on fiddle or on guitar.  I didn't want it to ever end. 



And as December settles in and blackbirds sit in the bare branches just outside eating red berries, as the afternoons turn inky and dark and gales blow in off the North Sea, I have to fight with myself not to hibernate.  One more spot of brightness keeping me from a long winter's nap is Romica Puceanu, who I found out about by reading the lovely City of Reubens blog.  Romica Puceanu started singing in Bucharest cafés when she was just 14, and she had a gorgeous, velvety voice backed by beautiful cimbalom, accordion, and fiddle playing.  Little treasures like this are especially important in winter, I think.  These long evenings need to be filled so full that it doesn't seem to matter if the sun ever rises again.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Windows and Wallflowers


   I have been off dissecting accordions with a group of old gentlemen and strolling the back lanes in the dark.  I have sold raffle tickets (and won a mouth harp!), and drunk free whisky that made my arms go numb at an art show I contributed a couple of things to.  I have been practising old tunes on the concertina around sunset these days.  I have spent some lovely evenings in the homes of people who have thrown open their doors to me.  In short, I think the anxious blues of the past months have been chased away, and we are settling into another winter.  Now that absolutely all of our plans have fallen through, I can safely say that we are staying here in Aberdeen for a little while yet.  I think it will be lovely.   

Two very, very late or very, very early crocuses from the other day.

We will be heading down to Edinburgh later on this week, so I thought I'd share an old photo of some stained glass windows there that I always enjoy looking at when they are lit up at night.  The whole matter of "nobody watching" is a little bit funny with all the crazy surveillance in the UK.  But it does make me think of my grandparents and the strange joy they seemed to derive from keeping tabs on the neighbours. 

"My mother knew everybody in this street.  She could reel off the occupants of every single house; everybody could once upon a time.  Now they come and they go.  That's why these tragedies happen; nobody watching.  If they knew they were being watched they might behave." (Click to enlarge)

Update:  I'm back from Edinburgh with more info about the image above. The window displays are still in place, though they weren't lit up when I passed by the other night.  On further, closer inspection it appears that they are not stained glass windows, but skillfully done papercuts with coloured tissue paper added.  I was also able to find out that the artist is Astrid Jaekel and she has done other delightful installations like this one, which can be seen on her website.

Monday, 7 November 2011

A horn that can only sing to my eyes.

By three p.m. the November sun has hammered itself into a thin sheet of gold leaf that rests on top of damp, bent-over grasses.  Beaches that sit at the bottom of green cliffs with scuttle-down foot paths are already pulling the waves up around them and settling in for a long sleep in the early evening shadows.

Even as the light changes so quickly there are odd moments of birds suspended in the air just over head. Their wings flap hard but they hang in the same spot, unable to advance against the wind.  The earth is whirling through space, but we have paused for a second.

In the coastal hills that roll just above the city, a huge horse walked over and  pushed its enormous forehead up against me, with quiet half-closed eyes.  Down on a rocky little beach in a craggy place, an old sea freight container sits covered in layers of paint and rust, full of secrets.

We crawled up into a rocky place below the lighthouse, with our feet hanging out over the cold waves and just enough room to sit, and as the sun set we drank hot milk tea from a flask and ate bannocks.  A lonely seal peered up at us, and the city spread down the coast in roaring lights as orange as the sky.

Friday, 28 October 2011

A Lonesome Place

A Lonesome Place, oil on wood 24.5cm x 30cm

    The weather smiled on me and finally gave up a bit of light for taking photographs, and so now I can smile a funny sort of smile at you by finally sharing a new painting.  I should probably mention that what you see in the images below is a lot bigger than reality (which is why specks of dust look enormous!).  And the colours are, as usual, not quite right either, though they're the best I could manage in my little setup.

   This painting began when we lived in Paris.  We only had use of a bathtub, not a shower, which meant that washing long hair was a bit tiresome, and it was impossible to successfully be in a hurry about getting ready to go out.  It also meant that sometimes ideas might swim past while one was lying flat in the tub mulling things over, looking up through the water, and listening to the pianist upstairs practising (the sounds were louder underwater).  Just over a year ago, in the summer before we moved to Scotland, I fished this idea out of the water.  When we moved, I carried its physical beginnings in my hand-luggage, but at that time it was only an underpainting, a little further along than it is in this photo:

And then thin layers of paint, with thick layers of time in between them, were piled one on top of the other.  Paint dries so much more slowly where we live now, especially as winter comes on.  

As I settled in to work on the painting, I fell into a world that had its own laws of matter.

For my paintbrush it was a tangled maze through transparent and solid forms.

As I wound my way through it I slipped in little details like feathered hair, and clothes that might have been a bed sheet stolen from a washing line, or woven out of a night sky.  I tried to work in clues quietly.

I wanted to build an outdoor place, with an architecture of leaves torn from old manuscripts and trees that grew in stained-glass window arches.

In this crowded thicket of a painting, I hoped your eyes might dance a bit.

And now, all of my smallest paint brushes are down to their last one or two bent hairs. 

A good sort of problem to have, I suppose.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Some time after the sun was extinguished...

 A little while ago, earlier this morning, we woke up, my husband not quite yet late for work (and me with a day off).  The covers seemed heavier than usual, in fact, there was a real pressure weighing on the bed.  But it was only some cloud that had slipped in around the window's edge, not to worry; it was easily brushed off onto the floor. 

   And then, as early as that, the first mistake of the day was made: the heavy curtains were drawn back from the window, and contrary to custom, the room was not illuminated.  No, rather, every last drop of light that had made up the gloom of the curtained room was sucked out, into the dark, dark day.  I guess that light is out there now rioting around somewhere, giving even more strength to the wind that is galloping about and grinding down the houses. 

    In Canada, snow may creep up around your windows, it may even cover your house, trapping you inside, but there is a limit to snow.  Cloud, on the other hand, is a substance that may go on farther than the imagination can stretch. 

   The rain is hissing on the window panes, and I guess I am alone now.  Even if my husband is not carried away to Norway or further by this wind, he has very little chance of being able to fight his way back to me through all of this cloud, I should think.  I would light the windows with candles, or make a big glowing, warm hearth fire to guide him back to me, but we've burned all our wood, all our candles.  I think the best course of action is to hide myself away in a heap of blankets and hot water bottles.  It's true that I will most likely meet my end smothered by my own accumulated clouds of breath, which help all this cloud to grow at a terrible rate, but I will scrawl out some  pictographs in case my resting place is uncovered one day.

  But for this long stretch of grey days, I would have posted a painting here, which I finished some time ago.  Instead I'll leave you with a page from a little sketchbook of remembered dreams I've been working on for the Sketchbook Project, which I was lucky and won entry into over on the Pikaland blog.

   May God preserve you from unending cloud.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Pacing October

   And then I became filled with anxiety, wordless troubles, and restlessness.  Worries and aimlessness whirled around me like dead old leaves.  Boxes sat unpacked, plans were left unmade, and an aura of indistinctness hovered about these dusty rooms.  There was a swelling grief of unnamed things.

The only thing left to do was to retreat to the park and the woods on the outskirts of town. 

Eating apples on a park bench, drinking hot tea from a flask.  Walking until the night falls, heavy and inky.

At this time of year, early in the mornings and evenings the light is not yet lit in the hallway and staircase of our tenement.  It is necessary to enter the yawning building and feel along the wall in the pitch dark, stumble over to the first tattered step and then begin climbing up the flights of stairs, hoping the neighbour is home so that at the landing, by the doorstep, some light will shine down from the window above their door to make it easier to find the right key.

We are still possibly moving countries again in a few weeks time, though nothing is close to sure enough for us to have started preparing at all.  I paint a little and then worry that there is not enough time for the paint to dry before it will have to be packed up and sent away to wherever it is that we are going.

At least there are the woods and waves and howling winds.