November 25, 2017

An Elephant, a Rabbit and Other Things

DSC01158An Elephant, a Rabbit, and Other Things

 

As I crashed to the ground my mind split in two. The crushed elbow, the body on the pavement, were not mine. I saw the back of my silk shirt decorated with red roses as I walked away. That person had to get away. I knew I’d never see her again. Then pain came. I have no memory of the six hours, from midnight to morning, when the medics operated. They wanted to save my arm, my left arm, the one that wrote stories. A plate, screws and a prosthesis, all joined together to make me bionic.

Outside my hospital window a chestnut tree transformed green into bruised yellow. When I closed my eyes an elephant, her eye so close to mine, insisted on her compassionate presence. How I loved you Morpheus, god of dreams. People talk about pain, divide it into categories, give it numbers one to ten. In the flood of darkness, extinguishing all light, pain was simple.

 

Months after my accident I still couldn’t hold a pen. Complex Regional Pain Syndrome had been diagnosed, a disease that was attacking the peripheral nerves in my hand. More excruciating therapy, more drugs.  One night, unable to sleep and in search of comfort, I read my favourite Beatrix Potter’s story again.

When I was five and still not able to read or write, I could recite The Tale of Peter Rabbit by heart. There was one drawing that fascinated me. Peter had narrowly escaped from Mr. McGregor’s vegetable garden. His mother had warned him: “Your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”As a small child, I spent hours examining the picture of rueful Peter. The longer I looked the more I felt Peter’s relief to have escaped the farmer and be back in his own home, tucked up in bed. I gazed at the letters on the page. Somehow they were attached to the picture. My finger traced them. Then I saw it; three letters resembling something I knew. They jumped from the page. bed. That was it. I could read.

 

That sleepless night, while re- reading The Tale of Peter Rabbit, I felt just as frustrated and angry as I had when letters made no sense. How could I live handicapped, dependent, and in pain? Could I ever write again? People told me how lucky I was to live in the age of computers when writing flowed easily. But my writing came slowly from somewhere below my ribs, an undigested feeling of fear or anger or love and then it  lingered in my bloodstream until it rambled down my left arm to my fingers with words forming along the way.

My fingers twitched, my brain called me to attention. “Do it.” I found a piece of paper, put a tiny pencil between my left thumb and index, and ever so slowly, ever so lightly, wrote: Relax. Go to bed. I looked at the scribble and then, almost as an afterthought, added, You can write.

Paper Books or E-Books?

Jo Ann with her poetry book Transition

Even before Gutenberg printed his first Bible in Mainz, Germany, in the fifteenth century, the written word was considered the highest symbol of knowledge. But only a few could profit from this knowledge. Books were rare, and not many people knew how to read. With the printing press, books became common objects and all sorts and sizes were soon published and read.

Books became friends. Children developed powerful feelings around certain stories that left indelible traces, redolent of innocence and discovery. We decorated our homes and filled public libraries, law offices, and schools with them. Books travelled with us when we explored the world. They were at the root of the Age of Enlightenment. Books were powerful creatures. Writers were censored, tortured, and even killed, and their books outlawed or destroyed whenever governments felt threatened by the ideas contained within their pages.

Today, the World Wide Web offers vast possibilities for people to stay informed. Physical barriers are no longer enough to stop ideas circulating. All the knowledge we have put down on paper over the centuries can now be retrieved, free of charge, at the click of a finger. It is truly a New Age of Enlightenment.

Clearly the web-based networking is creating a new culture. But is this culture developing a cohesive narrative, and does it have any long-term significance? Do I value an e-book or a webpage as I value a book? I need to understand just what this digital virtual world means to me.

As a reader, when I hold an electronic tablet, it feels as impenetrable as a CD, and as impersonal as a washing machine. When I hold my first edition of Lady Barker’s Station Life in New Zealand, an insignificant book for most people, but the one that inspired me to a vagabond writing life, I am holding an object of love. My father spent hours searching for it, and proudly presented it to me after my first essay was published. It is 140 years old. The distillation of this beloved book down to little more than its words does not appeal to me.

I have often been scolded for travelling with books, an old-fashioned, out-of-date notion, when it would be so much easier to carry a kindle. But I like to leave books and pick up new ones when travelling, a little bit like Hansel dropped stones after he was taken into the forest with his sister Gretel. I can’t do that with an e-book… in fact, quite the contrary. An electronic device would only be one more object to worry about.

Research has been done concerning the ecological costs of an e-book versus a book made from paper. The result seems to be a draw  –  there is little difference in the use of natural resources and energy.

I know that visibility on the screen can be better than the classic text on paper. One day, when my eyes fail, I might be reading e-books, grateful for the large letters, though I am not sure I will be as comfortable, curled up by the fire with a metal slate. So, as long as possible, I will remain faithful to paper books, and I hope my local bookshop will survive this revolution.

For all those interested in books, this period is challenging. As a writer, extraordinary opportunities exist now to get my work out to readers. I am more at ease with these transformations than as a reader. I have had short stories, essays, and poems published by traditional publishers, but I do not have a network to fall back on – somewhere where I belong. I am too old to be of interest to an agent or publisher who think in long-term investments. Most of my writing must find its home in another way.

Several years ago, I decided to bypass the habitual publishing gatekeepers. When I finished my first book, Blowing Feathers, a memoir in my mother’s voice, the manuscript was praised and then turned down by several New Zealand publishers. Exasperated, I chose to self-publish it with Lulu. But my writing career did not prepare me to edit a book, design a book cover, format it for various kinds of devices, and then market it. I needed to learn, and  I obtained my knowledge from the web. Within weeks, Blowing Feathers was on the shelves in several US and Swiss bookshops and on Amazon. It continues to have a modest success, but I still need to put it on Kindle. As they saying goes: “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

But I am not a technical person, nor very good at selling myself. When I finished my second book, Transition, a memoir in poetic form, I knew a normal book has a lifetime of six weeks on bookshop shelves.  Yet I still wanted to see Transition out in the world.  I decided it was time to try a publisher who lived near me. The problem was that I lived in a country with four national languages, none of them being the one I wrote in. Fortunately, in Switzerland, this sort of complication becomes a challenge. After all, English is often used, and nearly all Swiss bookshops have a large selection of books in that language. The Editions du Madrier accepted my book, and the idea that we would create and sell it together.

But why was it important for me to be published? The answer is simple. I am a writer … and a writer needs readers. So, why didn’t I try traditional English-language publishers? Again, the answer is straightforward. As I mentioned before, I don’t know where I belong as a writer. I could not be bothered with all the rejection slips, which would inevitably come my way. I did not need to re-paper my bathroom, be it virtually or with printed paper. Yet I believed in my writing. I had something to say and I did it well, even if my audience was small. So why didn’t I put my poems up on my website? The answer is simple. I wanted my poems to be housed in paper. Impenitent, I wanted to offer a warm tactile object to my readers. For my third book, I will try another procedure and go for the best, where ever that may be.

I continue to hope that books and e-books will find a way to co-habit, just like radio and television do. In Transition, there is a short poem that I offer, as closing words, to you, my reader.

 

 Searching

 

Neruda writes of a poet’s obligation

to give both freedom and the sea

to shuttered hearts. Rilke sends me

to the limits of my longing.

 

There I encounter scribblers

infected by pain and pleasure.

Life, they say, is a farrago of experience.

I accept my yearning

as a way forward.

 

This essay was part of a talk given at the bookshop BooksBooksBooks on February 23, 2012. Four book lovers spoke about the revolution of books and what it meant to their professions. We were Sue Niewarowski, a book designer, Matthew Wake, bookshop owner, Dieter Bühler, an editor/publisher,  and myself, a writer.

Four book professionals discussing the future of books

Les Avants: after Hemingway

“Switzerland is a small steep country, much more up and down than sideways, and is all stuck over with large brown hotels built on the cuckoo clock style of architecture,” wrote Ernest Hemingway.

If this is not an accurate description of the country, it is a chiseled portrait of the alpine villages perched above Montreux, in the canton of Vaud, especially the once-famous holiday place, Les Avants, near which the young Hemingways stayed for a couple of winter holidays.

Les Avants, one of the first ski resorts in Switzerland and home to the first Ice Hockey European Championship in 1910, still evokes the fragile magic of a special time and place. Situated at around 1000 meters, vertically 3.5 kilometers above the town of Montreux, the village is the gateway to the Pays d’Enhaut, the High Country, which joins up with the Oberland Bernois. It may be reached in twenty minutes by car from the centre of Montreux, but the easiest way to arrive there is with the MOB, the mountain railway company that links the many facets of the region with its Golden Pass Line.

With a population of only 380 inhabitants, Les Avants has gone from being one of the most famous Swiss resorts of the first half of the 20th century to a tranquil haven for those who have retreated from the busy towns along the edges of Lake Geneva. The skating rink is only a memory, and the Grand Hotel is now a finishing school, Le Châtelard, where South American girls are educated.

In the centre of the village, the oldest European flower clock continues to tell the time even if the famous and fashionable have abandoned the village. Nature’s beauty remains. Many hiking trails exist, the most popular being La Tour du Cubly, where generations, during the month of May, continue to walk through fields of narcissus, with alternating views of the towering alps and the wide horizon of Lake Geneva.  Les Avants is also a stop on the cultural hiking track, indicated with yellow signposts, that crosses Switzerland.

In winter, sledding takes over from hiking. In 1910, a funicular opened from Les Avants MOB train station to Sonloup, a pass above the village. The nature of the landscape demanded the audacious creation of a viaduct with eleven arches and two bridges. With the advent of the funicular, bobsleigh races were invented. When young Hemingway stayed in the region with his first wife Hadley in 1921/22, he wrote to his father; “The bob is only big enough for two … and goes all the way down the mountain through the wildest country you ever saw. Black forests of pine trees and gorges and the big mountain La Dent de Jaman….You ought to see us come down with Hash steering. She thinks it is a sign of cowardice to ever put on the brake. I use it every once in a while on account of the fine way it makes the slivers of ice fly up… It is the healthiest and nicest place you ever clapped a dead light on.”

Sledding remains Les Avants’ winter pastime. Every day, from 9am to 8pm, the funicular takes people up to the beginning of the run where they then slide down 2,100 meters, to the centre of the village. Three evenings a week, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, the funicular stays open until 10pm. for night runs.

Les Avants has only one hotel, and it is difficult to rent holiday apartments, but the village is a great place for a day excursion. While visitors sip hot chocolate on a café terrace, they may feel a spirit that is easily disregarded in today’s world. In Les Avants, the young Hemingways’ enthusiasm for simple fun and joy has never really gone away.

For more information and schedules go to: www.lesavants.ch, www.goldenpass.ch, and www.montreux.ch.

 

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich

I was seeking Julian, the first woman to write a book in English. She had lived in Norwich, England, seven hundred years ago. She is known as Julian of Norwich, her first name taken from the local church Saint Julian’s where she lived, as an anchoress, in a small room adjoining the church. One shuttered window in the common wall facing the sanctuary allowed her to participate in the mass and another window opened up to the outside world. There is no mention of her in any religious order.

An anchoress or anchorite was one of the earliest forms of Christian monastic living, quite widespread during the Middle Ages.  Withdrawing from secular society the person led a prayer-orientated ascetic life. Julian was reputed to be wise and she often gave spiritual advice and counsel to her visitors through the outside window.

Norwich is situated in an interesting area for bird photography and my husband, when he heard my plans, decided to accompany me. We divided up the week so we were bird watching on the Norfolk Broads one day and then on the other I followed my quest.

I was seeking a spiritual space of my own, not one imposed on me by generations of men, and I felt Julian could help me. Over my lifetime, as a woman, I had gained much in the legal, social and economic areas, but what I felt about the soul had little connection to what I encountered. What my body knew was not connected to any religious dogma, nor my intuition and consciousness to objective reasoning. My wisdom, gained from a lifetime of seeking, seemed to have little reality in the outside world. Julian offered me a powerful feminine image from her book The Revelations of Divine Love. “God all wisdom is our loving Mother.” The Church could easily have condemned this as blasphemy, but her book is considered a spiritual classic, unparalleled in English religious literature.

After Markus and I arrived in Norwich I set off for a short walk around our hotel. The district was called Tombland because hundreds of plague victims were buried there. I wondered if Julian, before she entered her retreat, could have lost children in the plague? Julian’s long life spanned parts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. At that time the Black Death struck rich and poor alike. In Norwich, bad harvests followed quickly one upon another, and hunger and desperation invaded the town and surrounding countryside.

Those centuries saw England in the age of chivalry. Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales and the Hundred Years War dragged on against France. A husband was easily lost in such long term fighting.  Norwich, a walled city of consequences, was then famous for its wool and weaving. While visiting the open market, I stopped at a stall where a woman was selling hand-knitted articles.

“What a beautiful jacket,” I said. “You’re an artist.”

The woman smiled. “My family’s been in this business for centuries, right here in this market.”

“Would you know anything about Julian of Norwich then? She lived in a cell next to Saint Julian’s Church in medieval times. I’m trying to find out about her.”

“You know, we’ve been connected to this area for as long as my family remembers and the Middle Ages was tough for everyone. In Northern Europe many women developed passionate individual forms of religion at that time.”

“But she wrote a book, in fact she was the first woman to write one in English.”

“Maybe…but I don’t have time for that stuff. Look at the competition I’ve got.” She pointed in the direction of a couple of stands where brilliant silks and cottons, surveyed by their Indian or Pakistani owners, were laid out in rainbow order to attract buyers.

I left her stall, jostled by the crowds. Why, for the first time in English history, had a woman of no special importance or education written a book in Norwich? Shouldn’t she have been running a market stall or her husband’s house? Twenty or thirty years after finishing her manuscript, Julian composed a longer version of the same book. She had probably learnt to read and write to accomplish these tasks because most women were illiterate then.

Early the next morning, the enchantment of spotting a barn owl undulating across a freshly ploughed field dispelled my peevishness. On the Norfolk marshes searching for waders, I watched a purple sandpiper dance about on a rock, pecking at mossy seaweed, while the bitter North Sea waves splashed the rock’s surface. I knew the bird made a scrap of a nest on bare ground. Its alarm call was loud rapid laughing, “pehehehehehe…” This dumpy creature seemed to defy reason, but it lived fully as nature ordained.

On Sunday, while listening to the cathedral choir’s hymn singing during a traditional Palm Sunday service, I realized I wanted Norwich to be as noble and pure as the voices that lifted me up into spiritual bliss or as nature blossomed in the spring sunshine. If Julian had had such an extraordinary drive to write, then I had hoped to find a place of inspiration; not this town that had the dubious record of being the first European town where a case of blood accusation resulted in a massacre of Jews. While Julian lived the town’s council also condemned people to be burnt at the stake because they questioned the Catholic Church. The smell of their burning flesh and their cries of fear and agony probably drifted into Julian’s cell.

I sat in the cathedral pew, but my mind wandered. I left the horrors of history and thought about the fenlands, flattened below a vast expanse of sky. I daydreamed about the daffodils swaying, inaudible in movement, along the winding riversides, and visited the hedgerows aglow with hawthorn flowers.  High up on the cathedral steeple a pair of peregrine falcons were nesting. I had seen one, with closed wings, make a spectacular swoop on a hapless sparrow. For all its violent selection of life and death, nature restored me whenever I got too close to human cruelty.

When the Dean stood up to deliver his sermon my attention returned to the solemn cathedral service. The Dean spoke of our habit to exclude the narrative of the other, even to cultivate conflicting narratives. It was the week of sudden uprisings against tyrants throughout the Arab world and the devastating earthquake, tsunami and atomic alert in Japan. “We still think we can run the world better than God,” the Dean said.

A vision of the barn owl appeared, flying ghost-like towards me, and then I remembered the ancient misogynous fable that women had no souls. I thought many women believed they could run the world better than men. I’m not sure they put God in the equation.

I left the cathedral and wandered over to the newly reconstructed St. Julian’s Church, only a few blocks away. During the Reformation the outside cell had been demolished. During W.W. II the church received a direct hit and was badly damaged. Nothing physical, except for a couple of manuscript copies of her book, was left of Julian’s life.

I sat alone in the rebuilt cell with my feet up on a bench and recalled the stories, both about Julian’s time and mine. They were similar in many ways. I thought about the terrifying dysfunctional force out there in the world seeking to ensnare and entangle. Julian had written, “and all shall be well,” a strange remark considering her knowledge of human beings, but indicative of her obsessive faith. As a woman who had spent most of her life living as a foreigner, I knew there were always several points of view. Rejection was as familiar as misunderstanding.

My body felt soft and fragile against the wooden bench. My mind continued to twist and turn. I did not possess Julian’s visions but I had a mysterious need to write which was part of my spirituality. Creativity was essential to my life. Julian, who understood the purpose of her life, wrote, “God is love.” Julian found her truth in that mystical being called God. She needed to share their relationship to the point that all the rest seemed unimportant. Writing was essential to Julian too and maybe our reasons were not so different. But if Julian meditated, prayed and wrote, she also knew how to listen, not only to God but also to her neighbors. I would remember that about her.

For those interested in bird watching in Norfolk I recommend Stuart White, head of The Bird ID Company and a man with a profound love of his countryside and a great understanding not only of birds but of human beings. www.birdtour.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering my Senses

water by M. Rasch

As a child I was not really aware of my five senses; I functioned more by instinct and growing intellect. As time went by, I realized how closely the reactions of my body led me to the very essence of life. The senses are nature’s road to explore the world; sometimes in horrific or painful ways, but most remarkably, to give and receive pleasure. In fact, the bliss of the sensuous lead me to a spiritual realm closely connected to such moments. Gradually, I began to understand that it was through the senses that my memories were created.

As a writer, my five major senses, smell, touch, hearing, sight, and taste, guide me to more poetic language.

 

Smell:

When I smell a lily, I am immediately taken back to my early childhood. One hot Christmas Day, at my grandmother’s home in New Zealand, I was drawn towards the perfume of a large vase of white lilies, picked from her garden that morning. As I smelt them, an unknown but delicious sensation quivered all through my body. It was only when I was older that I realized the perfume from the lilies’ overblown corollas had stirred my sexuality, storing in my memory a personal symbol of fertility.

Smell is the most precise sense. It is directly connected to breathing. I would die if I tried to stop smelling. Yet it is the mute sense. I am often tongue-tied when I try to describe a smell. Maybe the emotion a smell creates is just too profound for my language centers.

 

Touch:

After my first baby was born I always gave her a massage after her bath. My daughter lay naked with her legs up in the air and gurgled. A broad, bubbling smile flashed on and off when I rubbed the soles of her feet and caressed her body. I had read that babies could not survive without being touched, but there was so much more. As a mother, I was discovering the emotions of maternity. Touch taught me that life has depth and contour.

 

Hearing:

Hearing is the writer’s sense, just as much as the musician’s. The word poet comes from an Aramaic word that denotes the sound of water flowing over pebbles. I have a major stumbling block in writing a description about the sound made by water. There is a wooden bridge that spans the Sarine, a mountain stream in the Oberland Bernois, which is a special spot for me. I like to meditate there. I concentrate on the dancing water’s voice and search for words to describe the melody. I shut my eyes because the flashing sunlight playing upon the stream’s translucent depths distracts me. I still have not found the right description for that water song.

Hearing is my most delicate sense; for example, the unusual sounds made by a music therapist stir my soul and allow me to vagabond in peace and plenitude without moving from my relaxed position on the floor. But I react in a strong negative way to noise and love the “sound of silence”. The world is full of sounds beyond those made by human beings and I am awed and sometimes frightened when I listen to the mighty language of the earth and its creatures.

 

Sight:

The eye loves novelty and can adapt to almost any scene, even one of horror. Unlike smell, which has weak physiological links with the language centers of our brain, language is steeped in visual imagery.  Every now and then I give myself a test. What was that person wearing? What was the color of his eyes, hair, skin?

I am usually very attentive to what goes on around me, including the news seen on TV. When I take my glasses off, the rest of the world disappears into a hazy background. This is my way of symbolically escaping the world’s traumas. Sometimes there are just too many terrible visions to absorb.

Light and color are part of sight, however color occurs in the mind and not in the world. Color-blind people are born without the necessary eye equipment to convey color sensation. They will never see a rainbow in all its glory. But my son who is color-blind takes vivid black and white photos, lingering lovingly on detailed form. He sees differently. This is the common miracle of the human body. To some extent we all make compensations for what is weak or missing in our senses.

 

Taste:

I adore the taste of good chocolate. The creamy caramel flavor, which oozes around my lips, then inside my mouth, and slowly down my throat, is a culinary delight. My taste buds inform me if my food is eatable or poisonous. They tell me if it is sweet, sour, salty or bitter.  Taste is what stimulates me to prepare meals and carries me beyond the paradox of life killing life in order to survive. Human beings “sanctify” events with food. Yet the body’s quest is not for truth but for survival. It takes mechanical energy, like the taste of chocolate, and converts it into electrical energy so that the brain, which is blind, deaf, dumb, and unfeeling, can analyze the object.

 

Using My Senses in Writing:

I try to keep my senses clear of weeds. Imagination helps. When daydreaming, I linger with one or the other of my senses. That way the unconscious spills over into the conscious. It is easy to write: “When I was a little girl I was entranced with my mother.” But if I float a little longer with memories of my mother, I see, smell, hear, feel and even taste her intimately. She had thousands of freckles all over her arms and legs where she had been exposed to the tropical sun.  After using all my senses to bring my mother back to life, a memory returns that allows my writing to become unique.

One day my homework consisted of learning to count up to one hundred. I could not get the abstract sense of so many numbers.

“May I count your freckles?” I asked my mother. She held out an arm smelling of verbena and lavender.

“Go on darling, count them. But they’re not freckles. They’re sun kisses,” she said laughing and I really believed she was beloved of the gods.

Geneva Writers Group

Susan Tiberghien (far left) with GWG members at the Press Club

On January 23, 1993, a group of seventeen English-language writers gathered for a workshop on the first floor of the long-established Café du Soleil in Petit-Saconnex. Some of these writers had been with Susan Tiberghien in a writing workshop at the American Women’s Club; others had met with her in an evening workshop open to men and women. Geneva is a city of transitions and traditions, a lonely place for writers who have been up-rooted, and Susan, a born leader, wanted to share her passion for writing.

For the next three years she taught workshops on different aspects of creative writing to this small group of writers who named themselves the Geneva Writers’ Group. In September 1996, a more formal structure was established. By then, Susan, already a mother of six and a grandmother, had become an inspiring writing instructor as well as a published author. She gave a morning workshop, with handouts and writing exercises, and led a critiquing session in the afternoon. Thirty members now belonged to the GWG with seven of them forming a steering committee. Workshops took place once a month, from September to June, and were open to all who wished to develop their writing skills in English. Both beginning and published writers were welcome. Membership was eligible to those who attended three workshops a year.

In 1997 the anthology Offshoots Vol. IV was published, a joint venture by the American Women’s Club and the GWG. The authors, writing in Geneva, were from fifteen different countries. The anthology, a biennial collection of prose and poetry, had originated at the American Women’s Club. In 1999, the GWG published Offshoots V alone. This was the beginning of bookstore readings, radio competitions and reading invitations from different associations including the US Embassy. Master classes, the first on poetry given by Wallis Wilde Menozzi, were also initiated.

Communication was going electronic and by 1998, when the group held its first international writing conference at Webster University, professionals on the business of writing were already offering panels on new and different aspects of editing, publishing, promotion and production. The weekend conference also gave high-level instruction in fiction, play writing, creative non-fiction and poetry.

In September of that same year, in need of bigger premises, the GWG moved to the Geneva Press Club. The elegant old building, La Villa Pastorale, which housed the Press Club, was not far from the Café du Soleil so writers could still return there for lunch.

A new millennium offered an affirmation of life and the GWG seized this moment to consolidate its core goal of sharing a love of writing. On May 15, 2004, by-laws were written and approved by members and the Geneva Writers’ Group was registered as a non-profit association. Other amenities followed: a service that co-ordinated small independent groups, a mentoring service, literary salons, play production, and a biennial Meet the Agents weekend. As of today there are 170 members from 30 countries. There have been seven international writing conferences and in 2009 the twentieth anniversary of Offshoots was celebrated. Published novels, memoirs, poetry collections, non-fiction books, articles, short stories and blogs are tangible results of the group’s success.

Throughout the GWG’s development Susan Tiberghien has remained firmly at the helm. Thanks to her remarkable capacity to network she has brought fine instructors to Geneva. She has generously and intelligently encouraged countless writers to get their words out, to believe in their potential. I have been a member of the GWG since its embryonic gestation and I have seen how Susan’s love of the beautiful art of writing helps diminish that which is ugly, shabby, or vulgar. Though writers should not be guardians of morality, nevertheless they search for their truth in full-blown solitude. The Geneva Writers’ Group not only offers them professional instruction and assistance but it also offers them a home to befriend others who share their passion for words. As Susan says, “the continuing expansion and creative spirit of the GWG is due to its family of members, the old-timers who welcome the new ones, and to its steering committee that expands to twelve every other year for the Conference.”

GWG website: www.genevawritersgroup.org

Part of the steering committee hard at work.

 

GWG members enjoying lunch on the Press Club steps

 

Obituary for a Christchurch Home

This morning I received an email from the city of Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand:

“Our home moved on its foundations and the roof is ready to cave in. The stone fireplace fell and the chimney collapsed. The plaster on the walls has peeled like a banana.  The conservatory dropped, windows broke. Cracks are everywhere, especially in the foundations. The house moves, creaks and shakes with aftershocks, which are coming within minutes of each other. We have received the red sticker for demolition.”

I was asleep in Switzerland when the earthquake struck Christchurch. Twelve hours separated me from New Zealand – they were already into the next day’s afternoon. My floor trembled and I swayed against the door.

My childhood home was built by my parents on a hill that looked out over Christchurch towards the Southern Alps. We moved in when I was four years old in 1949. Calmed by the protective shelter of giant eucalyptus, which towered over our glass and stone house, I found a haven.

Months before, a fire had roared through our apartment building one night. When the fire was put out only the stench of wet cinders and a faint glow of broken beams remained in the dawn light. I could not get dressed – my shorts and sandals were devoured by flames. The little chairs and table where my brother David and I drew pictures evaporated, and even White Bear, who had never left me before, had disappeared.

But on Aynsley Terrace, a house rose up that would not burn down, a house designed by my mother, that had a room only for me, with twin beds covered in blue eiderdowns and a desk built into the wall. My father and I planted hollyhocks underneath my window and a china doll joined me for company. Terraces lead down to the river Heathcote, one terrace had an old walnut tree where a swing was placed. Ice plants and wild geraniums covered rock walls, built by my father with help from other family members. From the bay windows the green copper dome of the Basilica and the Christchurch cathedral spire reassured me. God was centered in our city.

When I saw on television that the cathedral was destroyed as if a bomb had fallen on it, suddenly I heard David singing and felt my grandparents’ presence next to me as we listened to him. For a time, David had been the choir’s soloist. His voice seemed to reach every corner of the high vaulted roof. I learnt that tourists had been on the cathedral tower when it swayed and fell.

Twenty-four hours passed until my loved ones were accounted for. I was aching for people I no longer knew – the girls I’d gone to school with who were now grandmothers, neighbors who had watched the city grow and had grown with it. My life in Switzerland continued, but part of my mind was roaming around the Christchurch streets as the dead were buried, possessions retrieved, lost pets hunted and cars dug from the mud.

When I was eleven years old I left Christchurch for the United States, never to return to the city, except for a three-day visit when I was thirty. My parents had taken us away as parents do, but I never wanted to leave. I thought it inconceivable that we would ever abandon the shelter of our home. But when a family arrived to visit the house and two little girls bounced on my blue eiderdowns and fought over who should have which bed, I knew again that empty ache of loss.

Over the years I grew used to the feeling. Good things happened to me and I moved on. But in my mind I kept a magic place and sometimes returned to it. I became a ten year old again, playing in the conservatory, living make-believe adventures.

This morning the email arrived. It came from one of the girls whose parents had bought our home. She moved in after her parents moved out and her own children had grown up there. She knew her home was beloved ever since it was conceived in my parents’ minds. I cried … no, I howled … not ashamed to admit that the house was like a member of the family. I am only grateful it did not take a human life when it died.

International PEN

The logo of International PEN

The international logo for PEN (see above) unites three initials: P for poets & play writers, E for essayists & editors and N for novelists and non-fiction authors. International PEN is a world association of writers, founded just after the Great War in 1921, in London, by Mrs. C. A. Dawson Scott, a writer and active feminist. She wished to bring together authors of different nations to uphold the liberty of expression and favor good will and respect between people. Her idea succeeded probably beyond what she had ever imagined; in 2010 there are 145 centers through out the world with more than 15,000 members.

With time, several committees developed within PEN, focusing on particular problems that confronted writers. Writers for Peace and Writers in Prison are two important areas that concern many writers, as well as translation and linguistic rights, writers in exile, an emergency fund to help imprisoned writers’ families, and women writers’ specific topics. I will offer only one statistic that explains much of PEN’s work: according to the International Federation of Journalists, 137 journalists and media workers were killed in thirty-six countries in 2009.

.Mrs C. Dawson Scott

Mrs. C. A. Dawson Scott, founder of International PEN.

So why am I a member? First of all, I am grateful for the liberty to say and write what I think. By participating in PEN I am publicly committed to help writers who do not have these fundamental rights. Second, I believe in the power of words – many times I have seen one person’s words change a situation. Why else are leaders or governments so concerned when it comes to keeping journalists in control, surveying websites and emails, engaging communication experts for their own interests?

My third reason is the difficulty in learning how to connect with others while keeping an open mind and a respectful attitude. Good writers speak their minds and no mind is the same as another. Ever since PEN was founded the intrusion of politics has been a source of debate. The centers try to respect one another’s autonomy of judgment, just as members of each center do the same with each other. Unfortunately, like religion, politics often mean passion and PEN is a perfect place for intellectuals to learn to listen and receive the other’s argument without offense.

In PEN Centre Swiss Romand, founded in 1944, I have learned a great deal about tolerance. Many foreigners are established in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, especially around the Lake Geneva area and many, who are writers and/or journalists, belong to PEN. Therefore the PEN Centre Swiss Romand  is an active beehive because these members have often been out front where oppression and violence occur. In meetings, these strong-minded people can clash like Titans and it is not always easy to follow their line of thought.

But their work is magnificent. Five members are engaged actively in Writers In Prison and/or Writers For Peace. Fawzia Assaad is International PEN’s delegate at the United Nations’ Human Rights Conseil, Hoang Nguyen Bao Viet follows writers’ problems in Vietnam and Mynmar, and Dinah Lee Küng does the same for China. Mavis Guignard faithfully produces a quarterly news bulletin on the Writers In Prison committee’s work and other news. One member, Susan Tiberghien, founded the Geneva Writers’ Group with active members from over thirty countries and there are others, each committed to International PEN’s ideals.

I am proud to be a member of PEN Centre Swiss Romand and I salute my fellow members in this simple blog for all the time and energy they offer so that other writers may enjoy one of our fundamental rights – freedom of expression.

Château de Lavigny

 

Château de Lavigny, summer 2010

Most writers have a life beyond their computer and I have always been curious how fellow writers balance their work with other responsibilities. A novel, play, or poem doesn’t just happen. Months of mental meandering may occur before the first word appears. But this activity comes without a salary. Of course, many writers have university grants, government allowances, generous family members, inheritance, and other sorts of financial and practical help to assist them. But what about those writers who are without such help?

When I began my writing career I used to dream of a regular income and a cottage by the sea, Ireland seemed ideal, where I could be alone with my imagination. Does this sound familiar?

Fortunately, many countries have developed writers’ colonies where artists may retreat for a while and concentrate on their art. Between Lausanne and Geneva, in a village overlooking the lake and the Alps, a quiet, elegant retreat exists where writers from all over the world may go for three weeks and be left alone to write. The submission directives are simple – the applicants should have one book published (not self-published), speak fluent English or French and be able to pay their travel expenses.

Two decades ago, Jane Ledig-Rowohlt bequeathed her fortune and her home, the Château de Lavigny, to be used as a literary colony in memory of her husband Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt. A “spirit of international community and creativity” was the foundation stone for the establishment. For the last fifteen summers, in five different sessions, up to eight writers are provided each with a private room, all their meals, and time to write and to discuss their ideas with their companions. Once a session, on a Sunday evening, local guests are invited to a reading performed by the residents.

Whenever I go to the readings I am struck by the music of the different languages. The writers often recite part of their work in their mother tongue, be it Mandarin or Swahili. There are unusual rhythms and rhymes and something faintly exotic as if I have traveled across oceans and continents. I recognize the contentment of children who play together though they do not understand one another’s language.

Cocktails after a reading

The legacy of Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt continues to penetrate the Château de Lavigny. He was a great editor and translator, a man who influenced international publishing and contributed to the cultural rebirth of post-war Germany. In the 1930s he was already bringing internationally celebrated authors to German readers and after the Second World War he continued to remain open to new trends while still keeping his publishing house’s high-quality literary tradition. His list includes the works of such writers as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Updike, Gunther Grass, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Italo Suevo, Henry Miller, James Thurber, Harold Pinter and Vladimir Nabokov. But most of all, Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt cultivated friendship and generosity with his protegés. The Château de Lavigny contains letters from many grateful authors speaking of these qualities.

In reality, these qualities are still within the castle’s grounds. You hear the result in the readings. I have copied out a poem written by a Ukrainian poet, Natalka Bilotserkivets, who read to us last Sunday evening so that you may share in the pleasure.

Angels’ Wine

There’s a peaceful place of girls, flawless as crystal,
of unbreakable children, strong as steel,
where snake-victors in silent, frozen halls
sip angels’ wine dropped to their knees.
There’s a peaceful place of surrendering grasses
where the dragon sings for all undying hours.
He bids his time, wise head bowed,
a brocade of wings embroidered with flowers.
Monks dwell in cells of burgundy-colored rocks.
Poverty burns inside their bowls.
Angels’ wine has neither been seen nor tasted
like tears lost to a river or in our elapsing souls.
The scorpion sleeps at the foot of the rhododendron.
No victories or failures prevail.
And in the window’s light, a sacred darkness.
Like script on a scorpion’s scales.
(by Natalka Bilotserkivets)

Garden Creatures

Dawn is filtering through the curtains and I hear blackbirds calling to one another above the patter of spring rain. Our suburban garden is waking up and I lie in bed and think about all the inhabitants who live here with us.

Some years ago, children and domestic animals claimed our land, but now grandchildren come and go and Markus and I are discovering we are hosts to a multitude of nature’s creatures. They are often seasonal guests, arriving and leaving with precise knowledge that escapes us human beings. The first year after we built the house, swifts made a nest in the eaves and, ever since, they return to lay their eggs during the first two weeks of May. The lizards hibernate, but they too appear as soon as the sun warms up the rocks and brings out the insects. In the neighbors’ orchard, a mother fox has her den. Last year, she produced five cubs. Markus and I hid behind bushes to watch them play and anything we left outside became their toys.

In summer, many tiny creatures flit in the air or crawl around on the leaves; blue, red and yellow insects, bees and bumblebees, wasps, caterpillars, butterflies, bats and moths of all colors, grasshoppers and ladybirds. And, of course, there are a wide variety of birds. Some only stop for a brief meal; others seem to belong here. A couple of wood pigeons have made one of our pine trees their day perch and their soft five-note cooing brings gentleness to vibrant summer afternoons. We also have a slope of grass we call the marten field because those slender agile mammals perform their midsummer’s night dances there.

 

When autumn arrives we watch the squirrels collect their winter hoard of nuts. They are rather shy and do not like to be disturbed in their work. The badger is a much more friendly guest, but it only comes in the dark of night. But the most remarkable event is the arrival of enormous flocks of starlings. When gathered in the poplar tree behind our house, they fuss and fiddle gregariously and then they swoop silently down to feed on ripe grapes in the local vineyards. Often they darken the sky, while coordinating their flight plans and strengthening their wings.

In winter, a melody of birds continues to entertain us. The first in the morning is the robin, which knows breadcrumbs are waiting for it. Blue tits and black tits fight over the hanging food ball, finches perch daintily on the food table and the green woodpecker digs under the snow for worms. Every ten years or so, a flock of waxwings arrive from Siberia, forced by lack of food to come further south.

One early morning, several springs ago, I was drinking a mug of tea while looking out the kitchen window onto the front lawn, which is not very large, but has a panoramic view high over our village and Lake Geneva. A young buck deer came around the corner of the house and stood quietly a few yards from my window. He seemed to be searching for a way down and then he looked up at the pink sunlight appearing on the mountains beyond the lake. I kept very still. He turned to me and we spent a long time just contemplating one another. I felt that mystery and magic had entered the garden. Ever since that visit, I see our garden as an oasis of serenity and I try to leave it a little untamed so that the wild ones feel at home here too.

 

(All photographs by Markus Rasch)