Sunday, March 27, 2011

Inevitable losses

Forgive me if I get personal here for a bit. It’s spring in Washington DC (despite the fact we had a smattering of snow last night). The cherry blossoms are out and will be in full bloom this coming week. I am studying the weather forecast to pick the best day for me to go downtown and take my annual walk around the Tidal Basin under the blossoms. This ritual is hugely important to me – I think I’ve only missed one year in the 24 I’ve lived here. For me, it’s a time to take stock – like New Year or birthdays are for other people.
Taking stock is especially important to me now that I’ve reached the age when the inevitable losses have started. I need to stop once in a while and try to get some perspective on the trials and troubles of daily life. There’s only so much time and I want to spend it on the things – and people – that matter. Some people might get the same feeling looking out from the summits of the highest mountains in the world or over the ocean. But somehow for me walking among the crowds of people all happily paying tribute to a phenomenon of nature is as renewing and sustaining as religious worship. Those people are there despite earthquakes, tsunamis, wars, genocide, and the accidents, diseases and personal griefs of life. They’re there. Even in the face of my own inevitable losses, I want to be among them this week - joining that celebration of the always-astonishing resurrection of spring.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Worth a Thousand Words

Princess Titaua and her family, late 1880s
I am deep into the picture research for my short biography of Titaua Salmon, which will be published in Scotland this summer. It looks like it might get a bit of publicity as the launch of my booklet will be featured at the opening of the £46 million refurbishment of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh on Friday, July 29. Some of the museum’s most significant Polynesian items were donated or sold by the Princess and her husband in 1895.

There are many evocative pictures of the Princess. They all show a woman with long glossy black hair, almond-shaped eyes, and a Mona Lisa set to her mouth. Seldom if ever is she seen actually smiling.
They say every picture tells a story and none more so than the one you see at the top of this post, which was taken in the late 1880s. In 1878, very soon after the death of her first husband, John Brander, Titaua had married the manager of her husband’s company, a man called George Darsie. Darsie turned out to be a greedy man with no turn for business, and over the next 15 years, he ran the House of Brander into the ground.
Seeing their inheritance dwindle before their eyes, the Brander siblings became alarmed and took the Darsies to court. The bitter legal and personal battle lasted for years and was still going on when Titaua begged all her children to gather in a photographer’s studio in Papeete to take a family portrait.
All of her children complied with their mother’s request, except for her oldest Margaret, who was far away in Hamburg, married to a wealthy German merchant. Margaret had cut off communication with her mother when it became clear that Titaua wasn’t going to pay the 60,000 francs that Margaret’s father had left her as a marriage settlement in his will.   
But the other Branders were there - the five handsome sons in the back row, the second daughter Marion turned towards her mother in sad unease. There is a palpable sense of discomfort about the picture. Not even the children are smiling – the two last Brander girls and the three children Titaua had had with Darsie. George Darsie plays the part of stern paterfamilias, but he looks off into the distance as if detaching himself from the disapproval that must have vibrated in the air around him. Titaua’s lovely face looks strained and anxious. Perhaps it was coming home to her just how much she had lost by marrying the handsome Fifer – an enduring estrangement and alienation from her older children.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Within the Celtic Twilight

One of the milder swans of Coole
I know it’s a few days late for St. Patrick’s Day, but I just ran across this brilliant description by the great English short story writer V.S. Pritchett of his first encounter with W.B. Yeats in Dublin in 1923.
“It is a choking and confusing experience to meet one’s first great man when one is young. These beings come from another world and Yeats studiously created that effect. Tall, with grey hair finely rumpled, a dandy with negligence in collar and tie and with the black ribbon dangling from the glasses on a short, pale and prescient nose – not long enough to be Roman yet not sharp enough to be a beak – Yeats came down the stairs towards me, and the nearer he came the further away he seemed. His air was bird-like, suggesting one of the milder swans of Coole and an exalted sort of blindness…
He was only man I have known whose natural speech sounded like verse. He sat me in the fine first floor of his house. After the years, all that remains with me is a memory of candles, books, woodcuts, the feeling that here was Art. And conversation. But what about? I cannot remember. The exalted voice flowed over me. The tall figure, in uncommonly delicate tweed, walked up and down, the voice becoming more resonant, as if he were on a stage. At the climax of some point about the Gaelic revival, he suddenly remembered he must make tea, in fact a new pot, because he had already been drinking tea. The problem was one of emptying the old tea pot. It was a beautiful pot and he walked the room with the short steps of an aesthete, carrying it in his hand. He came towards me. He receded to the bookcase. He swung round the sofa. Suddenly with Irish practicality he went straight to one of the two splendid Georgian windows of the room, opened it, and out went those barren leaves with a swoosh, into Merrion Square.”
It is a passage that tells you everything you need to know about the poet – both good and bad – and even more about the very young man observing him. A perfect vignette.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Immortality and Paradise

I’d like to share with you a beautiful poem – Tiare Tahiti – written by the English poet Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) while he was in living in Tahiti in early 1914.

Brooke was fleeing from a complicated love life in England that had driven him close to a nervous breakdown. He lived for three months in a native hut in Mataiea on the south coast of the island with his friend, the American writer Frederick O’Brien. O’Brien described their daily life in his memoir, Mystic Isles of the South Seas:

"Brooke and I swam every day off the wharf… The water was four or five fathoms deep, dazzling in the vibrance of the Southern sun, and Brooke, a brilliant blond, gleamed in the violet radiancy like a dream figure of ivory. We dived into schools of the vari-colored fish, which we could see a dozen feet below, and tried to seize them in our hands, and we spent hours floating and playing in the lagoon, or lying on our backs in the sun.”
Like so many others before and after him, Brooke succumbed to the charms of Tahiti, experiencing a peace and a sexual freedom he had never known before. When he cut his leg on coral while swimming too close to the reef and the leg became infected, he was nursed by a young woman called Taata Mata - “a girl with wonderful eyes, the walk of a goddess, & the heart of an angel.” Taata Mata is the “Mamua” to whom he addresses this poem, which he wrote on the veranda of his hut, overlooking the dazzling blue of the lagoon. It is considered by those who know to be one of the best he ever wrote. In the poem he contemplates eternity seen from an earthly Paradise and guesses that even among “the Good, the Lovely, and the True” in Heaven he will miss “the palms, the sunlight, and the south.”

Tragically, within a year of leaving Tahiti, Brooke was dead. Having been commissioned in the Royal Naval Division on the outbreak of World War I, he died of blood poisoning from a mosquito bite on the Greek island of Skyros while waiting to be deployed to the carnage of the Dardanelles. He was 27.
As you will see from the last two lines, this poem was where F. Scott Fitzgerald found the resonant title for his first novel, This Side of Paradise

Tiare Tahiti (Papeete, 1914)
Mamua, when our laughter ends,
And hearts and bodies, brown as white,
Are dust about the doors of friends,
Or scent a-blowing down the night,
Then, oh! then, the wise agree,
Comes our immortality.
Mamua, there waits a land
Hard for us to understand.
Out of time, beyond the sun,
All are one in Paradise,
You and Pupure are one,
And Tau, and the ungainly wise.
There the Eternals are, and there
The Good, the Lovely, and the True,
And Types, whose earthly copies were
The foolish broken things we knew;
There is the Face, whose ghosts we are;
The real, the never-setting Star;
And the Flower, of which we love
Faint and fading shadows here;
Never a tear, but only Grief;
Dance, but not the limbs that move;
Songs in Song shall disappear;
Instead of lovers, Love shall be;
For hearts, Immutability;
And there, on the Ideal Reef,
Thunders the Everlasting Sea!
    And my laughter, and my pain,
Shall home to the Eternal Brain.
And all lovely things, they say,
Meet in Loveliness again;
Miri's laugh, Teipo's feet,
And the hands of Matua,
Stars and sunlight there shall meet,
Coral's hues and rainbows there,
And Teura's braided hair;
And with the starred tiare's white,
And white birds in the dark ravine,
And flamboyants ablaze at night,
And jewels, and evening's after-green,
And dawns of pearl and gold and red,
Mamua, your lovelier head!
And there'll no more be one who dreams
Under the ferns, of crumbling stuff,
Eyes of illusion, mouth that seems,
All time-entangled human love.
And you'll no longer swing and sway
Divinely down the scented shade,
Where feet to Ambulation fade,
And moons are lost in endless Day.
How shall we wind these wreaths of ours,
Where there are neither heads not flowers?
Oh, Heaven's Heaven! - but we'll be missing
The palms, and sunlight, and the south;
And there's an end, I think, of kissing,
When our mouths are one with Mouth. . . .
    Tau here, Mamua,
Crown the hair, and come away!
Hear the calling of the moon,
And the whispering scents that stray
About the idle warm lagoon.
Hasten, hand in human hand,
Down the dark, the flowered way,
Along the whiteness of the sand,
And in the water's soft caress,
Wash the mind of foolishness,
Mamua, until the day.
Spend the glittering moonlight there
Pursuing down the soundless deep
Limbs that gleam and shadowy hair,
Or floating lazy, half-asleep.
Dive and double and follow after,
Snare in flowers, and kiss, and call,
With lips that fade, and human laughter
And faces individual,
Well this side of Paradise! . . .
There's little comfort in the wise.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Starving in a garret

Young woman reading in an attic bedroom by Alice Squire (1840-1936)
I have made a few stupid decisions in my life, and almost all of them have been financial. By the time I was 26, I had a well-paid job and I owned my own flat in North London. Now I am twice that age and live from check to check and in a rented house that is crumbling around my ears.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining. No one but myself is responsible for my choices. And to give myself some credit many of my choices have been fabulous. Coming to live in the US and marrying my husband, to name but two. But like many writers, money has always been my Achilles heel. Can’t live with it, can’t seem to live without it.
In my experience, living with it requires waking up every morning and spending a minimum of eight hours working for someone else, often doing something that is at best boring and at worst exhausting and deeply uncongenial. Living without it means being freer to spend one’s time doing the important things in life, including writing down the many stories that are teeming in my brain. But it also involves lying awake at night staring at the ceiling with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach because you’ve no idea how next month’s bills are going to get paid.
Most of the time, I exist somewhere between those two extremes but for many years my life has been situated more towards the latter end of the spectrum than the former. As any freelancer knows, there is never any guarantee that a check will arrive at the end of the month. There is no safety net, no safe place to land. Every penny I make is spoken for before it ever reaches my bank account. Sometimes I yearn to be able to afford a nice house with high ceilings and clean new windows and fixtures. But then I know that would mean leaving this house which – shabby though it is – has character and is located on a nice street full of great neighbors.
Life is full of trade-offs. In my twenties, I was on an exciting and well-paid career path that fed my ambitious side but sapped every ounce of energy and creativity I had. If I had stayed on that path, who knows how prosperous I might have been by now. But when I said as much to my wise mother who had watched the toll that job took on me at the time, she said, “And you’d probably be an alcoholic too.” And it’s almost certain that I would never have written a word of fiction or had the time, energy, or inspiration to follow the trail of the amazing South Seas story I first discovered on a tombstone in Scotland. The road not taken isn’t worth regretting for very long. As Shakespeare said, “Poor and content is rich, and rich enough.”