I didn’t know what I was going to say to you today. Only on the train, on the way in here, did it become clear. I realised that I’d been given the very thing that had to be said.
Absent-mindedly driving to work yesterday, I stopped at traffic lights. Waiting to cross the road were a mother with a toddler in a stroller. The child was turning around to engage the mother and something about the intensity of their moment shook me from my half-life. I saw them: I saw how alive they were. For them, everything in the world was unfolding from this moment together, whereas for me it was only the empty time between leaving home and arriving at work. At the corner of Darley and King Streets, Newtown, at 11.10am on Thursday 2/11/17, two worlds touched, one a half-world of befores and laters and the other a vital moment of here and now.
What came to mind, unsought, was Pieter Bruegels’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, and Auden’s poem about it, Musée des Beaux-Arts. These two have been constant reference points in my adult life. When I got my first academic job, at Macquarie University in 1984, the first and almost only decoration in my office was a print of the painting, with Auden’s poem glued to its back. Somewhat pompously, perhaps, it was to remind me of the role of sociologists: to witness the suffering that would otherwise go unnoticed. In 1989, the picture came with me to my office at UNSW, and it stayed for decades, until the foxing became too embarrassing.
While I was staying in Anghiari at Christmas time, 2016-17, I began conducting interviews with people who live in the town. Some were conducted in Italian, some in English. They will all be published in both languages.
Il senso di appartenenza ad Anghiari: Andrea Merendelli
Andrea è il direttore del teatro di Anghiari che ha sede in un magnifico palazzo settecentesco. Sono arrivata nel suo ufficio mentre stava per concludere un incontro sui futuri eventi con un gruppo di giovani, inclusa Armida Kim, e durante tutta la nostra conversazione c’è stato un continuo viavai di persone. L’intervista, condotta in italiano, è stata trascritta e tradotta in inglese da Mirella Alessio e questa ne è una versione editata.
I found that things became a lot easier when I no longer expected to win. You abandon your masterpiece and sink into the real masterpiece (Leonard Cohen)
In her book, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard talks about an American writer who has written a dozen major books over six decades. A book, she says, can take years to write. But this writer wrote one of his books, ‘a perfect novel, in three months. He still speaks of it, with awe, almost whispering. Who wants to offend the spirit that hands out such books’? (Dillard, The Writing Life, 13).
She describes the heroism it takes to write a book. The impossibility of the task and the humility required to meet it. ‘Courage utterly opposes the bold hope that this is such fine stuff that the work needs it, or the world. Courage, exhausted, stands on bare reality: this writing weakens the work. You must demolish the work and start over’ (Dillard, The Writing Life, 4).
The book, finally completed, conceived in your mind and constructed through your efforts doesn’t belong you. It never has. It came to you through an act of grace, unmerited. That it came to you at all is still a mystery. All you remember is the struggle, the awful daily struggle to find the words, the unease which remained with you from beginning to end: Can I do it? Can it be done? It was horrible. It almost killed you. It did, in fact, kill you and what was left in the wake of that devastation was the work, for which you are grateful. Continue reading The Writing Life – Homage to Annie Dillard→
This morning I visited Mastro Santi (Santi del Sere), a maestro in cabinet making and woodwork – in wood carving, inlaying, gilding, and restoring antique furniture. As one of only a handful of remaining artisans in this field, Mastro Santi is keeping alive a centuries’ old Anghiari tradition. (In future blogs, I hope to talk about other people who are keeping alive local traditions.) He also works in ceramics, and he is a member of a local group of musicians and singers who perform traditional songs, and he writes. (He has written a book about his own story in woodwork which gives a detailed account of his materials, tools and techniques. Other autobiographical writings are held in the national diary archive located in the nearby town of Pieve Santo Stefano.) Continue reading Master woodworker→
Towards the end of my teaching session last year I experimented with a dialogue in one of my classes. We had read Bohm earlier in the session and although most of the students expressed disagreement with him, they seemed really interested in the ideas. When it came time to discuss their relationship to their research projects (how they were feeling about their research practices and work habits, their topics, the ethics involved in doing their research) I decided to run the class like a dialogue group. I explained what we were going to do. They would each have a turn offering something about their current relationship to their projects; together we would draw out connections and extensions between everyone’s comments and write them up on the board; then the dialogue would begin. Continue reading Dialogue in class→
Last week I was delighted to come across this animal.
Part of my pleasure was that I thought I could identify it. Even though it was now in the front herb garden, and no longer among the camellias at the back, I presumed it was the same fine grasshopper with which I began this series of blog posts.
I don’t think this recognition was at the heart of my response though. The best clue to this are the words I said to myself at the time. If my response had been recognition of the same individual, I would have thought ‘Oh, it’s that same grasshopper‘. But this wasn’t my response. The delighted thought that came to me was ‘Oh, it’s you‘. Why did I say You? What did I see that made this a You and not just ‘that same grasshopper’?
Gardeners often talk of their state of mind. Gardening relaxes them. It changes their mood or perspective. It makes them feel differently about their lives. Although we often imagine that moods and states of mind are attributes of an individual, these experiences of gardening suggest that states of mind are a matter of ecology or sociology rather than individual psychology. The changed state of mind befalls the gardener; it emerges from their relation with the garden.
Indeed, just to take this thought a step further, maybe this is what is important about gardens. They are special places where people learn that what is innermost is also outside them. This is how they learn how they fit in a broader world that includes them but doesn’t belong to them. Continue reading A gardening state of mind→
For the past few months, since beginning this photographic project, I have been uploading photos every day to an Instagram account. There are now many hundreds there. Every photo is different but every one is also the same.
Take this image. What do you see? A fist? An embryo? A fern? A mother and child? A helix? A shell? A heart in a rib cage? A mathematical formula? Continue reading What do you see?→
Sometimes from far away
They sign to me;
A violet smiles from the dim verge of darkness,
A raindrop hangs beckoning on the eaves,
And once, in long wet grass,
A young bird looked at me. Kathleen Raine, ‘Exile‘
It was a cold and drizzly day when we visited Pieve Santo Stefano, a town some 15 kms north of Anghiari, near the source of the Tiber, which runs right through the middle of the town. Pieve is close to the birthplaces of both Michelangelo and Piero della Francesca. It was almost completely destroyed by the retreating German army during the second world war, and the non-descript postwar buildings contributed to a bleakness about the day of our visit. By contrast, what awaited us was yet another experience of the gracious hospitality we had been shown while staying in this part of Tuscany. Continue reading National diary archives, Italy→