The smell of a vinyl record as you slide it out of its sleeve, placing it on the turntable to watch the undulating grooves, the crackling moment when the needle touches down.
Worms (the earth variety, not tape or thread).
Beginning a new teaching semester, the promise of new students, new conversations, emanations and realizations.
The sound of the dishwasher. The sound of the washing machine. A roast dinner that someone else has cooked. Sitting on a lawn someone else has mown.
Telling a class about House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski only to discover that someone has read it, both of you banding together to tell the class they MUST READ IT.
Holding a match to the wick of a new candle at dinner.
Ending a teaching semester, the promise of sleep, of absorption into your own reading and writing.
Pie – sweet or savoury, especially with a puff pastry crust (but not chicken with carrot lumps and short crust pastry – you once sat in the primary school canteen refusing to eat this pie, the thought of which still constricts your throat. You can’t remember how the stand-off ended, but you imagine the dry chicken and pastry thudded as it hit the bottom of the bin).
‘Most trees have spurts of growth to coincide with favourable climatic conditions. Typically, growth will stop when the weather becomes too cold or dry and the tree will enter an inactive period. During this time, buds are formed to protect the tree’s internal tissues, and once favourable conditions return, growth will recommence and an expanding shoot will push out of the bud – forming new leaves and branches.’
You want to uncover the truth of the body, the mind and the soul, so you cut your thoughts into neat segments, parts 1 through to 5. You catalogue, pinning these fragments to the board of your screen in the belief that separating the disparate clutter of your self will identify the core.
It takes time for you to realise that truth does not arrive in separate pieces, and however neat the display there will always be more lingering just out of sight, and more, and more. And what of the unpinnable? The unclassifiable?
And so you step back to look at this tree you’ve curated. The roots, the bark, the sap, the crown.
A further step back to see the forest and the animals, the countryside and the cities, the land and the sea, the earth and the sky, the Earth and the Universe.
And there you find harmony in the whole, growth blossoming as favourable conditions return.
‘The staple of the tree diet is sugar, which is generated through photosynthesis. Chlorophyll in the leaves absorbs the energy from sunlight, which is focused on the water molecules sucked in by the tree’s roots – splitting them into their component hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The hydrogen is combined with carbon dioxide to create sugar, which is in turn transported to other areas of the tree, while the remaining oxygen is released into the air.’
There is something that flows through you that for most of your life goes unnoticed. When it does make its presence felt you called it good luck, or serendipity, but there is no logic to this unexplainable phenomenon, so always you let it pass, let it move on with the transience of an autumn leaf. But recently you have learned that if you sit in your solitude and let your intellect and your body and your emotions rest, let them dissolve into the presence of the moment you inhabit, you feel this other thing rise up, and its ability to feed every part of you fills you with unexpected joy, and a vast sense of awe.
‘The ‘crown’ of the tree is made up of the branches and leaves. In deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves), there can be hundreds of thousands of leaves. The Royal Forestry Society estimates that a mature oak tree will produce and shed around 250,000 leaves each year.’
Branches of enquiry reach up to gauge the world, but emotions come and go as rhythmically as the leaves. The truth of this means you have always been unafraid to love, and, of course, you also have your intellect to soothe the pain of loss. In times of trouble, your mind will make you attentive, showing you the luminous sunset, the soft breeze of spring, the gentle words of a friend, gifts that console the present and nurture the future. You wonder then, if an oak tree conjures 250,000 leaves a year, how prolific are your emotions?
‘…trees utilise roots to extract water and nutrients from the surrounding area, as well as to anchor themselves in the ground. While most water is absorbed by the roots nearest the surface, some trees extend a ‘taproot’ deep into the soil. Roots can also play a part in reproduction, storing energy and defence, and some types of tree have developed aerial roots or buttress roots that extend from the trunk in order to stabilise themselves.’
The roots of your mind dig deep with tenacity. Your intellect believes it can solve any problem: philosophical, logical, physical, emotional; the problems of others and of yourself. Your mind employs Bloom’s Taxonomy: Knowledge — Application — Analysis — Evaluation — Creation. This is your anchor, your reason and defence. This is solitude, where the knotty or jagged becomes clear and certain. Once the truth is found, the solution will evolve. But, you have discovered, if your truth and the truth of others is different, the solution will remain elusive.
‘One of the key characteristics of a tree is the woody bark surrounding the trunk and branches. However, only the outer layers of this are alive, with a vascular system of cells called the cambium being responsible for the production of new bark. The inner layer of bark, known as the phloem, is briefly tasked with delivering nutrients throughout the tree, before rapidly turning into cork.’
You always believed the workings of the body to be an exacting science. If you take the prescribed tablets, follow the physiotherapy, modify your behaviour, your body will respond with recovery. And so you work your body hard with daily exercises, you avoid lifting, you avoid standing still, you avoid long walks, you take the small blue pills and the large white ones, you always sit with cushions, you never arch your back. Your mind is determined on the logic that treatment = health. So of course your mind is outraged when the logical doesn’t materialise, and it begins to tell you every day that you are broken.
Your favourite pen is a Pilot G-2 07. Always blue. It has a comfortable rubberized grip, a click mechanism so no lid to lose, and the ink gives fluidity to your thoughts as it glides across the page.
The male swan is called a cob, the female a pen. Once they find their one true love they stay together forever, the pen incubating her eggs on a mound of sticks and leaves and moss. Mute swans are not mute. Their windpipes are looped within their breastbones and will make a triumphant call after driving a predator away from their beloved nest.
There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write. William Makepeace Thackeray
The first pen was created by the Egyptians who filled tubes of marsh grass with ink, squeezing it through the sharpened nib. They also invented eye liner. They liked to draw on whatever surface they could find.
In the city of Lakeland, Florida, a family brought two swans to live on the nearby lake, but the swans didn’t know each other and didn’t like each other. They were kept in a pen to encourage intimacy, but once released the cob flew away, possibly as a statement to the family rather than his penitentiary cellmate. Finally he returned and they began dipping their bills to one another in courtship, but there is no record of a subsequent brood.
You buy your favourite pen from your favourite stationers, halfway up the cobbled street in your home town. In this shop you can also buy artist’s materials and gift stationery, such as bicycle paper clips and journals whose covers are embossed with green and gold peacocks or maps of the world. For more serious stationeers, there is a multicoloured collection of Leuchtturms, your journal of choice.
I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom. Jay Dratler
With the invention of the quill came the first cursive writing. You imagine living in this age, holding a goose feather for the first time, dipping its nib into the ink and feeling its movement across the page, one letter running into the next letter and the next letter and the next letter. A whole new way of writing; a whole new way of being. What a thrill that must have been!
The squid is a cephalopod with a vestigial internal shell called a pen, which is made of chitin. This serves to protect their internal organs and muscular jet propulsion system. ‘Suckerin’ proteins make up the squid’s tentacle suckers, which is similar to spider silk. Both creatures like to capture their prey; the squid releases mucus and ink to avoid becoming the prey. It is virtually impossible to keep a squid in captivity as they value their swimming freedom and have been known to jump out of their tanks. They will also happily eat any pen-mate they have been gifted.
The fountain pen was patented by the Italian, Petrache Poenaru in 1827, but it was prone to drying and blotting. Lewis Edson Waterman solved the problem in 1884 with three channels of ink. Poenaru died in 1875, so he went to his grave either thrilled or disappointed that his design had not been matched.
Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own stories. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything. Jane Austen.
In the 19th century Birmingham was a hub for the pen trade, manufacturing 75% of the world’s pen requirements. A disused pen factory on Frederick Street was turned into a pen museum, and still houses over 5,000 examples of the steel nibs, reeds, quills and other pen paraphernalia that passed through the city. The majority of the factory’s workers were women.
You have been locked in the pen many times in your life. With work, with children, with friends and lovers, with deference and obligation. Always the ink on the page is the place where you fly away, explore new ways of being, avoid becoming the prey.
You like to believe that if you’d worked in a 19th century pen factory, you would have slipped a steel-nibbed fountain pen into your pocket and taken it home to a quiet room where there were books on the shelves, books tucked beside pillows in the armchair, books open on the desk beneath the window. You would have sat at that desk and opened the journal your wages paid for, you would have uncapped your stolen fountain pen, and proved your own existence.
the wedding hall This is where you first meet. You are both married. He is in love with his wife, but you are not in love with your husband. There is live music and dancing, platters of food and a cake, and afterwards you both continue to be married, you both work at the lives you hope to have.
the lounge bar You interview him for a story you want to write, sitting at a table on the terrace on a chilly spring day. You sense a nervousness in him and this in turn makes you nervous, interruptions mingling with paused confusion, the awkwardness palpable as you try to talk and eat, concentrating on your questions and his answers, being professional. He is funny.
the kitchen (1) You are dancing with your friends, the room filled with light and warmth. He sits at the table laughing, his fingertips touching the base of his wine glass, and he is looking at you with pure unfiltered adoration. You believe he is still in love so you keep dancing, pretend it never happened, there was nothing to see. You have become good at this over the years. An emotional baseball player, knocking the truth out of the park.
the living room (1) He asks you to water the garden at his house while he’s away. The summer is hot, the plants are thirsty, and once the humid air smells of wet earth you go inside where he calls you on the telephone. You pour a glass of wine and sit in his chair looking out from his window. He sips his own wine looking at a mountain and river and forest. You sip your wine looking at rooftops and chimneys, dog-walkers going past in the street. You talk about the lives you still hope to have and the people you are still trying to love.
By the time he returns home, the strawberry plants have perished.
the cinema It is mid-week, midday on his birthday, and you both go to your favourite cinema where there are blankets and foot stools and staff who care about what they do. The film is funny and sparky and you laugh, eat popcorn, drink the wine you’ve smuggled in, aware of his leg beside yours. Sometimes his hand rests there too. When you emerge into daylight it is raining so he orders a taxi. On the back seat you are aware of his leg beside yours. Sometimes his hand rests there too.
You suspect he is no longer in love, but still he is trying to be loved.
the kitchen (2) You visit his house with the man you are trying to love. You carry the thick weight of disappointment at his presence, but the three of you talk and drink and you pretend this is the evening you wanted. Each time you visit the kitchen, you or he stacks the tangerines higher in the bowl, an orange tower topped with a coffee pod or a plastic cup or a pencil. You have a headache but still you stay, this second-best kind of seeing him better than not seeing him at all. When you leave, the man you are trying to love makes a cutting remark and you argue on the drive home. You are not fighting about the cutting remark, you are arguing about your disappointment.
Still you try to love this man, while trying not to love the other.
the restaurant You have not seen him for a long time. You are no longer trying to love someone else and he has stopped trying to be loved. You sit at a table in the middle of the restaurant drinking gin and tonic, the freedom of being with him surging through you like a torrent. The room sparkles through his eyes and around you both, and you get the sense that people are staring at this torrent that swirls around your table pretending to be nothing more than friends.
When you go back to his house you sleep in his bed and he sleeps downstairs in his living room.
But neither of you sleep.
the living room (2) Again you cannot be with him, but then, no-one can be with anyone. In many living rooms across the land things are said that have been left unsaid and lives change imperceptible or monumentally, all without leaving the building. You too sit or pace or stand at your living room window, talking on the telephone. You talk to him every day. You say the things that have been left unsaid. You talk about the spaces you have been and the places you have seen. You talk and you wait. You talk and you wait.
And then one day he climbs into his car, and he drives to you.
34. After he is gone the loss empties you of feeling, so you stand in the herb garden every night to smoke one cigarette. He was taken away before anything began so you aren’t mourning the loss of what you had, you are mourning what can never be.
Except, of course, that’s not entirely true.
He was never taken away. He took himself away, and when you stand in the garden every night you wonder if any thoughts of you passed through or alongside that decision.
You exhale, trying not to dwell on the question. You cannot bear the answer. Although it is easier to think of your own suffering than it is to think of his, which came as it did with no sense of choice.
Over the weeks, standing in the herb garden, you watch the mint retreat to woody stalks. The thyme becomes a tangled knot. The purple-headed chives fade to white. The garden sinks into cold and dark with just a rectangle of yellow light from the kitchen, a low glow from the windows above where your children sleep or read beneath their sheets. Sometimes there are stars, pin holes in the black.
The nicotine tingles in your blood. Clouds shift. The earth tilts as you inhale your meditation.
The weeks turn into months and still he is gone.
Still you wonder where you were in his decision.
Still you evade the answer, and you evade the real question.
Over winter you stop smoking, and when spring arrives you stand in the herb garden in the pale and tender sun, and you see that amongst the dirt and weeds the mint is sprouting plump rippled leaves from its sturdy stems. Not dead at all.
You feel a flood of relief, and wait for him to return also.
33. The wild silence comes with the roaring noise of thought, with words that run and run and run and revel in their cycle, their impatience to go nowhere, their insistence to be heard. The wild silence is neither patient nor restless, loud or hushed, careless or yearning. She knows but will not speak, her emerald gaze enough for the roaring noise of thought to see itself in its own mirrorball, spinning and fractured, glossy with illusory promise. The wild silence shivers her leaves, a branch dipping to touch the mirrorball, slow, slow, slow
where the sky sounds are; feather flight and billow drift