Wednesday, 28 May 2014

My life with books

I am making myself a cup of chocolate tea while debating whether I should buy yet another book by Keith A. Smith on bookbinding techniques. I like them, I am thinking, because... well, they read like books. I can sit down with my tea and read about the structure of books as if it were philosophy or religion, even. Well, ligature and religion kind of have the same origin. And then there is The Book. Books are powerful. I was happily reading somewhere that young people prefer real books to e-books. It doesn't take that long to make tea, but I am a very fast thinker, and I managed very quickly to run in my head a super fast film of my life with books. So here it is. I was born in Venice, in a flat full of books. My grandparents and great aunt could read many languages and had a massive collection of French, German and English classics. My great aunt read me stories, translating in real time without pauses or glitches. At the time, my father was head librarian at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence. At home he had about 5000 books. We had no bare walls. I can't recall what my first reads were, probably Treasure Island and To Kill a Mockingbird. But the first love was Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, from a collection bound in red leather. I was ten. I would stand on top of my bed and recite, "O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" Then I read The Rivers Ran East, in a thatched hut in Venice Lido, and the Secret Agent, and I started dreaming, dreaming of adventure, far away places, full of spies, and palaces and jungles. I knew that wherever I went, there would be another layer to beauty -  the layer of literature. I got a job in a Russian library, age 14. I knew the alphabet, and that was sufficient. There was nothing to do, so I would go into one of the empty reading rooms and meditate lying on the floor while staring at the shelves. It was a good job. Then I worked in bibliographic research, at the age of 19. Before the Internet, finding books was difficult. So you needed book finders. Except that I wasn't finding anything, I only packaged the books and took them to the post office. The rest of the day I would read Lovecraft and all the dark spooky literature, like Derleth and Machen that were lurking in the dusty shelves. I dreamt of rooms without corners. Around that time I started to translate and proofread books, and study and accumulate degrees and all of that stuff that is kind of the backbone of my life as a freelance translator and writer. My adventure among books continued with a job at the British Library collating manuscripts, when it was still inside the British Museum. Walking through those corridors and handling those mysterious codexes was magical. Apparently some librarians in the past died in there because they got lost. Bodies were found years later. Then I became a book cataloguer for book dealers, handling the most incredible, fragile, bizarre specimen, and falling in love with bindings. I translated a book or two on the history of bookbinding and did research and scouting for a Milan publisher catering for the bibliophile. We had some great adventures trying to buy the rights of obscure books written by obscure writers. I ate the most wonderful veal milanese near his beautiful office, while chatting with the great writer and friend Hans Tuzzi. Then I indexed and proofread a world atlas for two years. I was paid to do arm chair travelling. I had to type fast and go through thousands of names, but I dream fast, so I dreamt a lot, especially about Mongolia, as it reverted to the Mongolian names of all its towns, rivers and mountains. I have written more Mongolian words than any of you, I bet. We pored over the published atlas with my best friend (and avid reader) and her family in her Genoa flat. Then we made a laurel wreath for my dad, when he was still alive. It hung in the kitchen for nearly six years. Now, well, I still translate, and read, and sometimes write books. And in between I bind books, draw and collage in books, and read Keith A. Smith, as if it were the best novel ever. Do I like books? I think I do.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Memory and reality pegs

The other night, as usual, I was reading a novel in bed. In the middle of the page, I read a direct speech that said, "They used him as bait." As it didn't make any sense in the context of the story, I went back a few lines. But when I got to the same spot, I read again, "They used him as bait". And that's when I decided it was time to turn off the light and go to sleep. I knew that that sentence was not in the book, that it was a creation of Mr Sandman, that it was time to abandon reality and go somewhere else. But how did I know? People affected with dementia don't know the difference between reality and imagination. How do we know the difference? I am always so aware of the difference that I don't even have nightmares. In fact, I love scary dreams, because I know they are dreams, so it's just like watching a movie on tv. Only better. But I don't know how I know. Because, when you think about it, it's an extremely fine line. I don't know anything about insanity or mental illness from a medical point of view, but I cannot stop thinking that reality is both strong and fragile. How interconnected are reality, sanity and memory? Is loss of memory the cause or the effect in dementia? It seems like real memories are replaced by invented ones. But the invented ones are pretty consistent. I thought that lack of continuity was the clue that we are dreaming instead of being awake. But if continuity is not lacking, does that make us sane? I have more questions than answers on this subject. So, I'll tell you more episodes of my life and my idea of reality pegs. It seems to me that a certain amount of effort is made by everyone to stay grounded in what we call reality and that we are scared of things that somewhat disorient us, because we don't know what might happen to our sense of reality, hence to our sanity. I was a smoker in my twenties, a dedicated smoker, with so many rituals about brands, ashtrays, lighters. I tried to quit once. After a day without cigarettes, I was running a bath, and I saw myself entering the bathtub as a different me. A non-smoker. A different person. I felt that the bond with Me would be so loose, that I might not remain attached to Me and fly away, I don't know where. So I didn't quit. I eventually did, about five years later when smoking was not one of my identity pegs anymore. I have this strange image that we build reality and sanity and perhaps memory itself by hammering tent pegs along the way, reference points. And that when we lose some of these pegs, we don't just feel disoriented but also a bit less real, a bit less grounded, less rooted in solidity. I especially find that with flying. I am here within the solid walls of my flat, looking at a familiar view out of the window, and I definitely know that I am me, and awake, and living this particular life that I am living, as a solid entity called Francesca. If I am flying somewhere, in a couple of hours time, I could be catapulted into a different flat with a different view, where I have to resume a previous life. I can do it, unharmed, but I need to imagine it, and to imagine it I need to remember it, and to remember it I need pegs, I need to rehearse in my head the whole journey. Last year we were driving around California, it was evening, dark, and we got lost (yes, we had gps), we couldn't recognise anything, and because we had hammered no pegs, we could not judge if we were in a safe place or not. The area was deserted and there was only one restaurant open. It looked weird, the people, the furniture, the pictures on the walls. We had no reference point, like floating in space. Everything turned out ok, the food was reasonably good and the waiters reasonably friendly, but the feeling of unreality stayed with us for a long time, it had been like falling out of a net. A net that you don't think it's there, because you take it for granted.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Chains, change & choices

I feel trapped. I feel so trapped and so sad to be trapped that for a while I felt I wouldn't be able to write my Monday post this week. Then I thought that perhaps I could write about being or feeling trapped, and see if I can do it while it hurts, while my vision is still blurred by pain and sorrow. I don't want to tell you why I feel/am trapped, I've learnt that, unfortunately, only a few pains go away by talking. The rest of them go away by change. And here is the point I am trying to analyse. Should you force change or wait for it? Please, please, obviously, think for yourself, do what feels right to you, I cannot advise you about what is trapping you and what course of action or inaction you should take. I just like to analyse things, take them apart and see how they work. I needed peace to lick my wounds, and wherever I turned I found a new bar to my cell, until I was completely surrounded by bars. I sat on the cold floor of my tiny cell. If I had been a cat my tail would have wagged furiously. I am not a cat, so I cried instead. But I cried loud, so loud, because I wanted something to break, the sky, the walls, my heart. I wanted change. Now. I wanted out of the cell. Now. But nothing did break and I calmed down, eventually, out of sheer exhaustion. Slowly, I started touching the bars of my cell, tried to see what they were made of. Most of these bars have been there for three, four years or longer. Some have been there forever. So why, all of a sudden, I didn't see any way out and all hope was gone? Because I'd had enough. I had allocated a certain amount of time for the endurance of these pains. But they were still there. It was not fair. Not fair. Life should be different, things should get better. Life should be fair. I deserve better. I wanted to gather up enough negative thoughts to create enough negative energy to break the bonds with rationality and cause change. Change would set me free. And because I can't see a rational, viable change in the near future, because I cannot see a change that I can bring about in a calm, mature way, I want to gather up enough frustration to explode into irrationality and break the chains. A lot of people do that, too many people do that. To end up in even smaller cells, hurting all their loved ones in the process. Caressing the walls of my cell, I crawled towards my headphones and listened to my favourite music and, slowly, I fell asleep. This morning, I woke up in my cell, with all the bars still in place, but a shift has occurred. A tiny shift. It was raining, I opened the window, the air felt fresh, and my rhododendron had nine pink flowers sparkling with dew. My husband had rescued it from a skip over ten years ago. And when it makes flowers, it does it for us, as a thank you for having saved its life. Miracles do happen.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Idleness, contemplation & the machine

When I draw, I feel I should be reading, when I read, I feel I should be cooking, when I cook, I feel I should be tidying up. We should do something productive all the time. If you are productive you are good, if you are not, you are a sloth, and you'll pay for the consequences with guilt and less real happiness. Because happiness comes from being productive. Do you sense that there is something wrong here? Who taught us all of this? And when? "Work ennobles" evokes some dark memories. Something has gone wrong, perhaps from the industrial revolution onwards. I am not sure. But we talk of ourselves as if we were machines, we talk about being wired up wrong, needing to reprogramme ourselves, change software, recharge our batteries. In this desperate need for productivity, we've also tried to suppress, eradicate or redefine a lot of feelings, emotions and nuances. Melancholy doesn't exist anymore, sadness has been replaced by depression, with its diseased, malfunctioning machine connotations, definitely something to eradicate. Because the only acceptable feeling is happiness. You must strive for happiness at all costs. But not just any happiness, only the real one, the one that comes from hard work and success. The happiness that comes from a walk on the beach is no good. And what happened to reverie, contemplation, boredom? The machine should never be bored and should never be idle. So, instead of daydreaming, we text, watch videos, play games, read and write on our social platforms. There is no boredom to prompt us to look deeper, there is no search for meaning. That would be idle, and might lead to melancholy. Perhaps, if we went for a stroll in the woods, sat on the beach staring at the sea, lied on the grass counting fluffy clouds, perhaps if we did all this, we would shatter into a thousand tiny pieces. Before this madness of man machine productivity, contemplation was seen as one of the most spiritual pursuits. Reverie is as important as work in a balanced life. Try to do something new today: do nothing. And see what happens. You might be surprised.