Picturing people

When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.

Ansel Adams

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Hm. I’m supposed to be writing today. I have a blog post pretty much all sorted out in my head. And one of my sisters is threatening violence if I don’t send her the next instalment of a short story I’ve half completed.

But my brain has been overtaken by images. When M and I went to the International Hot Air Balloon Festival in Chateau D’Oeux last weekend I took over 500 photos, and the colours, shapes and shadows depicted in them have been swimming around in my head ever since.

I rarely take pictures of people but there’s just something about the snow and the cold that makes everyone look funny, beautiful or interesting. And the balloons last weekend were so mesmerising that everyone’s eyes pointed upwards and no-one had the least interest in whether a camera was pointing in their direction…

Here are a few of the pictures I took. Please let me know if you think I should stick with the landscapes!

Seeing the world for Wilhelmina

We shall find peace. We shall hear angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.

Anton Chekhov

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So the 17th of January has come around again. It’s the day when I think the most about my beautiful mother and her short but fruitful life. It’s the day when she was born and the day when 21 years later she was married. It’s the day when I wish more than ever that I could talk to her, even if just for a couple of hours.

I never know how this day is going to take me. Sometimes I feel like celebrating Mum’s life rather than mourning her death. When I spoke to my sister Pinky on this day last year she said that she had a strong image in her mind of Mum sitting on a swing, smiling, with a glass of champagne in her hand. It’s a good image and I’m trying to focus on it today. But I have to admit that I’m struggling a little.

When I was younger my main emotion about Mum’s death was self-pity. Why did I have to lose one of the few people I truly needed? Then as I got older my sympathy started to shift. It was my mother I felt sorry for. She was so young! She had so much left to do and see. I can hardly bear to think about her suffering and her sorrow.

And today, a day when the Tupperware skies aren’t helping to lift my dark mood, my sympathies extend to a whole lot of other people too. My Dad… God, how does a man in his early forties say goodbye to the love of his life, knowing that he then has to raise their six kids without her? Mum’s siblings… I really can’t bear to think about how it must have been for them. Mum’s friends… What a terrible shock it must have been to lose the friendship of someone they loved so much.

I guess it was the sorrow rather than the celebration that I was feeling when I wrote this poem in 1993, ten years after Mum’s death on the same day that the Ash Wednesday fires devastated much of Victoria and South Australia.

Ash Wednesday

Ashes to foreheads, dust thrown on coffins,
You watched through the novelty of your death, Mama,
As fires raged in the east
And in the west six children screamed for your return.

Beyond suffering, finally distant from compassion,
You calmly observed the smearing of ashes
Upon the unseeing eyes of your children,
Watching with your unworldly vision
As their sight was irremediably distorted.

The ashes of palms or of people,
An inconsequential difference to you,
Your suggestion of Lent’s sacrifice persuasive.
But past beliefs were belied –
Not every Easter brings resurrection.

She’s happy now, away from her suffering.
You nodded your approval of Dad’s tearful wise words.
Immaterial, you were everywhere,
A part of you in everything, every thought,
Forever a reminder that you’d never return.

Three days later, liberated from life,
You saw us dressed in Sunday’s finest,
Pushing tears out through Valium,
Singing joyous hymns you’d requested,
As the town turned out to spectate.

We told ourselves ten years would pass,
Though none of us believed it,
While you, in your distant place beyond time,
Never doubted for a second.

And still you sit and watch,
and smile as we remember.

I’d intended to write a lot today. I wanted to write all about how great and funny my Mum was. How my sister Lientje and I recently went to see the place in the Netherlands where she grew up. How sorry I am that the adult sadness and madness and bereavement that followed my Mum’s death meant that we lost not just Mum but also those who were closest to her. I wanted to say that I feel the need to experience as much of the world as I possibly can, seeing it not just for myself but also through the eyes of my mother, who didn’t live for long enough to see even a tenth of what she’d have liked to. I wanted to reassure my friends who have lost their mothers in the intervening 31 years that although the pain of that loss never goes away, you do get more used to living with it; I’m afraid, however, that today is proof for me that the pain is still sometimes pretty acute.

So I’m going to write about her again on another day, on a day when I can do justice to her beauty and grace and positivity. But for the moment I’m going to leave the proof of that in her own hands by sharing a letter that she wrote to my eldest sister in 1981. Mum had been sick for some years by the time she wrote this and she would die two years later. But if anyone can see any proof of sorrow or self-pity in this then they must be better at reading between the lines than I am.

I could learn something from the light, self-deprecating humour and endless positivity shown here by my mother when she was 39 years old. And tomorrow I will.

But for now all I can say is, “I miss you, Mum. Over to you.”

Letter dated 13 April 1981

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.

TS Eliot, Four Quartets

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Although I’ve long since given up work for the much greater purpose of being by the side of a wonderful man called M, I make a point of getting up when he does. When we were living in the chateau our shared early mornings involved me driving him to the train station at 6am so that I could have the car for the rest of the day. That sleepy early morning drive isn’t necessary now that M’s daily commute starts with a bus from outside of our building, but I still love our ritual early morning cup of tea. Being able to get up to make it has involved a conscious shift in my circadian rhythms and the training of my night owl to emulate his early bird but it’s been worth the effort. It means that we go to bed at the same time and we start the day together. It makes me happy.

But the New Year has brought a problem. A proper, lovely first world problem. The problem is that I’m so ridiculously excited about the year ahead that I just can’t sleep. I’m up in the middle of night doing silly things like writing blog posts and sorting through the hundreds of photos I’m now in the daily habit of taking, while listening to music that I’m desperate to teach myself to play.

The year started well. After a beautiful Christmas in the UK catching up with much loved friends and family, M and I drove our car onto the ferry in Harwich and headed across to Holland. Amsterdam is currently the happy host to my gorgeous sister Lientje, and Dad has also set himself up in a little apartment there for three weeks so that he can spend some time in his hometown with his firstborn. (My old man is, after all, a Dutchman.) Seeing Dad for the second time in a year and Lientje for the third was miraculous. It’s not something that happens often when you live 13,941km (give or take a metre or two) from your family.

I’d never been in Amsterdam for New Year before and hadn’t really known what to expect, though a lovely Dutch woman in my French class had promised that I was in for a treat. In the afternoon of New Year’s Eve we followed the watery trail left by thousands of tourists before us and jumped aboard a canal tour. I really had no idea of how much I’d enjoy it. Getting a different perspective on the streets we’d walked and the houseboats we’d inhabited and the bars where we’d toasted our ancestors gave us a much better understanding of the city we all love so much. Despite being a born-and-bred Amsterdammer Dad had never done a canal tour before, so plugging in the headphones and tuning in to the Dutch audio guide gave him a fantastic historical insight into the city he used to cycle around as a boy. I, of course, saw most of the 100 interesting sights on the tour through the viewfinder of Santa’s greatest ever gift, but that in itself brought me perfect joy.

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The early evening saw us ticking off another experience on Dad’s Never Done Before list. When I used to go to Amsterdam every year for work I always made a point of visiting the Srikandi Indonesian restaurant for their fantastic rijsttafel, and I was surprised and delighted when we were able to get a table for dinner on New Year’s Eve. Oh my God, I can still taste the lamb in aromatic soy sauce… Divine. I was able to pit my gluttony against Dad’s restraint and between the four of us we managed to make a respectable dent in the 14 delicious dishes they brought us. What I wouldn’t do for a Srikandi doggy bag right now…

We’d already finished dinner by about nine o’clock and we weren’t sure how best to fill the hours until the promised fireworks would fill the sky, nor where best to plant ourselves to watch them. We’d been told that if you’re not interested in joining the throngs of tourists in popular places like Dam Square or Leidesplein – and we weren’t – then one of Amsterdam’s many beautiful bridges would be a good place to be. Dad had bought me a tripod for Christmas (yes, I confess, I am indeed the most spoilt woman on the planet) and I was keen to set it up and take some photos of the display. We walked and walked, however, the rain, cold and fatigue slowly filtering into the four of us, and couldn’t find the perfect place to stand. So when, at 11:30, we rubbed our eyes twice and realised that the empty, available taxi before us was not in fact a mirage, we jumped into it and requested that it first drop Leintje at her apartment and then take Dad, M and I back to Dad’s.

We poured three Dutch gins and put the television on so that a Dutch TV show could count us down to midnight, and I made sure I had Skype on my phone so Leintje could rejoin our little party at the witching hour. We shouted along with the TV countdown – …drie, twee, een! – and that’s when the city exploded. It turns out that organised fireworks displays are not the Dutch way. No, these people want to party on their own terms, so every man, woman and cycling dog lights up their little own part of the Amsterdam sky. They take this stuff seriously. With Leintje watching the fireworks both at her place and across the ether with us on Skype, Dad, M and I went outside to join the party on the canal, and watched as all that private money was blown up and spread in beautiful colours across the cold skies of the brand new year.

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The next day, after M had visited a sweet shop and bought enough triple salted Dutch licorice to see me through at least the first quarter of 2014, Dad and Leintje sang a Dutch song as they waved us off for the last little leg of our latest European adventure. We drove down as far as Luxembourg and saw enough of that little duchy to make us determined to head back there some time soon, then returned to our happy new little home in Divonne.

And it’s here that, in the last five days, my insomnia has taken hold. I still go to bed at the same time as M, and after reading a few pages of the Geneva International Book Club’s latest suggestion I even fall asleep for a couple of hours. But then my eyes spring open and my mind starts to swirl in anticipation of the great things this year promises to bring. I wonder about whether I should sign up for an intensive French course in Nyon or Geneva. I think about how best to capture the theme we’re currently exploring in Photography Club. I daydream about which destinations our travels will take us to as we continue to take advantage of our central European location. I plot blog posts and wonder about whether to post my short stories here or on some other platform. I contemplate whether most of the work I do in the immediate future will be paid work or volunteer. I listen to the steady breathing of the man who makes all these things possible for me, and I lie awake with the excitement of the adventure of the four years we’ve already shared and the many (I hope) we have ahead of us.

2013 was brilliant but in many ways gruelling. But now it’s put to bed and the year ahead is pregnant with possibility. That’ll do me. I can’t sleep but 2014 is out there and it’s ours. And I’m feeling good.

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