Monthly Archives: May 2008

Finding new dreams to dream…

There’s a school of thought that says we should never let go of any of our dreams, but always continue to give them everything. That our failure or success in different fields is entirely determined by our commitment to that dream, by our belief that it will happen. That if we for some reasons stop dedicating ourselves to a dream, we will end up living a half-life that we will always regret.

I’m starting to think it’s more complex than that. A life lived without dreams would be sad, indeed, but as we grow and change, our dreams sometimes change. As our dreams contact reality, we learn more about them… and perhaps we discover we’re not so well suited to them as we thought. We may also find new things to dream about. So there come times when we have to reshape our dreams, or indeed let go of old dreams and find new ones…

(As I write this, I wonder – is this all really true, or am I just trying to reconcile myself to letting go of something that has been a cherished hope for so many years? I think it’s more than that, but it’s an important question.)

I’m at that stage with my dreams of singing professionally. There is no doubt in my mind that singing will always be part of my life. I had often thought of doing it professionally, in order to be able to dedicate my time to improving my skills and to have the opportunity to perform at a high level, but things never quite seemed to work out. Just over a year ago, inspired by the attitude I’ve described above, I decided that if I didn’t really give it a try, I would always regret it. And in trying to raise my game, I learnt a lot about myself.

Importantly, I think I’ve learnt that my joy in singing is very vulnerable to the fierce competition inherent in singing professionally… I love singing in concerts, where all I am asked to do is to give pleasure to my audience, and I delight in the post-concert comments which tell me that they have indeed enjoyed my singing. But doing auditions are so different, not least because success is rare and feedback is even rarer. And I can imagine that the pressure of having to make money would just exacerbate that.

Singing is very personal to me – when I sing there’s a sense in which I open the voice of my soul to my audience. And, as I found after the break-up, my personal emotions are closely entwined with my singing. I suppose if I went for it professionally, I would toughen myself up, learn a greater emotional distance.. but I’m not sure I want to.

I must also recognise that, at 31, it is in many ways too late for me to take the standard routes into professional singing. So much of that journey seems to depend on having the luck to be in the right place at the right time. And for various reasons, I just wasn’t.

Deep down, I also feel, rightly or wrongly, that I don’t have the steely discipline needed to really get to the bottom of my technique. To really hammer into my vocal and mental musculature the consistency that I would need to get to the top. There are a lot of reasons for that – I’m very much a person who lives in her head rather than her body, and that kind of athletic repetition doesn’t come naturally. I like to try different things each time… Also my expectations get in the way of my achievement, as I’ve discussed before.

Maybe there are people who only have one dream throughout their lives… for them to let go of that dream would be a real loss. But I have always been someone who has had a lot of different dreams.

One question people are asked, when trying to find the dream they should pursue, is “what did you dream of being when you were really young.” I know the answer very well – it was writing, not singing, that I dreamed of as a child. Not that I didn’t sing, too, but the stories and poems I wrote were an even deeper part of my identity. I don’t remember when I started really writing… but I know I tried (independently of my parents!) to send a story to a publisher at the tender age of 9, and that certainly wasn’t the first thing I’d written.

At sixteen, having written 3 fantasy novels of over 50,000 words each, I stopped writing. I realised that the stories we tell express what we know and believe about the world, and that I didn’t know enough. At the time I thought that I needed to move from writing fantasy to writing about reality, and that the big blockage was my lack of experience. Actually I’m still drawn to writing fantasy – the freedom it gives you to create a world in which you can give expression to so many thoughts that would be harder to communicate otherwise. And I think the effort of creating a completely new world often says much more about your views of how things work, or should work, than a story set in the “real” world.

In the months when I was too choked up to sing, I rediscovered writing again. And found in it a source of healing and expression that has been very precious to me. So much so, that I haven’t missed not being able to sing anything like as much as I would have expected. An important difference, for me, was that writing gave me the opportunity to do things my way.

Now I am working on rediscovering my singing, because it gives pleasure to me and others. And I am also exploring songwriting, too. Singing will, as I say, always be part of my life.

But I have a feeling that the new dream that I want to start to dream will involve writing. So perhaps the title of this post should have read “dreaming old dreams again”!

(The youtube clip (with a great slideshow!) is of an Argentinan folksong called Sapo Cancionero, a song about a toad that is in love with the moon, with the eternal madness of all poets. The refrain means: Singing toad, sing your song – how sad life is if we live it without a dream to aspire to!)


Reflections of eternity

As promised, here is another of the photos I took last weekend with my new camera:

“Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror” – Khalil Gibran

Private passions – a patchwork poem

Someone, possibly more than one
Looks into our living room and the shaded room we sleep in,
at home in our patches and tears.

For years they have watched us, back-lit by the desert –
And we open up…. unchanging, alive
The warmest of greetings I utter,

And with ironic caw, they tell us, “who cares, who cares?”
They – the unjust, those who love, and do not love –
Preoccupied with gender.

Though I’m broody at times, frustrated,
Waving them off… By dogstar
I consistently find

A universe of gold, full of miracles, indestructible
In our living room and the shaded room we sleep in,
at home in our patches and tears.

Another patchwork poem set off by the Patchwork Poems blog, and derived from six amazing poems by five amazing poets. I thoroughly recommend each of them, though they’re all so very different it was very hard to patchwork them!

Running away together, by Maxine Kumin
Video cuisine, by Maxine Kumin
Ode to a Lemon, by Pablo Neruda
Fame is a fickle food, by Emily Dickinson
The clean platter, by Ogden Nash
Wonderbread, by Patrick Corn

Although my poem is entirely built on lines from these poems, which are all about food, I find I have written a poem which doesn’t mention food at all… I was about to say what I think it is about, but instead I’m going to leave it for people to interpret for themselves as I’m intrigued what you will say!

To find out if other patchworkers have developed something more food-related, or to find out more about patchwork poems (the principle is to use complete lines by other poets, with changes to pronouns/tenses permissible but discouraged) click here to visit the Patchwork Poetry blog.

(Photo by pdxnielson at flickr)

Illness – Friday five poem

Energy levels just crash through the floor.
Queasy stomach tolerates yogurt – but no more.
Gravel rattles in the chest and makes the throat sore.
Tissues streaked with ochre proliferate, abhorred.
And a kettle malfunction is just the last straw!

(Though I do have to say, I love getting to stay,
In my warm cosy bed so much more!)

This little poemlet was inspired by a recent cold and stomach bug – not to mention the very untimely demise of my kettle just when it was most needed for making hot comforting drinks! It was also built around the Friday five at poefusion – a challenge to write a poem including the words crash, yoghurt, gravel, straw and ochre.

It was written aiming to convey humour rather than self pity, though I’m not sure it entirely comes out… it probably needs to be read aloud, with a tone of exaggerated and increasing misery in the first part building almost to tears, then a pause before delivering the last two lines with a large and somewhat smug grin!

Oh, and I’m sorry, but the somewhat disgusting image in the fourth line was both apt and the only way I could find to incorporate the word ochre!

I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear I’m feeling better now and less likely to inflict “poems” like this on innocent readers in future…. 😉

Thanks for Mr Rob T at Flickr for providing a much needed cup of hot lemon and honey!


What is it about growing up and liking bitter things? The olive is perhaps the classic example of this… the sort of thing a child would immediately turn up her nose at and start making “yuck” noises. And yet adults politely nibble and derive genuine pleasure. I wonder if our tastebuds change, or whether it’s a shift towards more complex pleasures? A recognition of the sour that goes alongside the sweet in life, and often makes it taste better.

I love olives. I am immediately drawn back in my mind to a sunny day in a market in a small French town, to a stall where wooden tubs and wooden scoops proudly present their wares. From the deepest black olives (wrinkled, tart and intense), to the springlike green set off by flashes of red pepper. Going via the slightly unreal purples of my favourite Kalamata olives, sweet and piquant at once. Even tiny ones, bright as jewels – just a thin covering of flesh over the stone but such an intense flash of flavour. Not to mention the green-gold nectar of virgin olive oils gleaming in the sunlight. Such a pleasure to select a mix of all these different types, run them home, spill out the glistening nuggets on a plate or just munch them from the bag. Nibbling the flesh off the seed, then finding a place to spit it out. Not the politest of food, when properly enjoyed, but all the better for that!

Strange how olives are often quite a social food – in any pizzeria the chances are someone will have olives on their pizza that they don’t want – and the olive vultures at the table circle and pounce to be allowed their taste of the salty goodness.

Beautiful trees, too. So gnarled, and yet with such delicate silvery leaves.

I heard once that the fruit of the olive tree is actually virtually inedible… until it has been pickled and salted and generally run through a complicated process that results in the fruit we enjoy. I wonder how anyone came across the idea of doing that… if you taste a fruit and it is initially vile, it takes persistence, or serious hunger, to devote so much effort to finding a way to make it edible.

Maybe that’s another dimension of adulthood… finding a way to take things that are initially unpalatable and turn them into something rewarding. A determination. A willingness to push through the difficult times and the bad flavours. To make something happen, because you believe that it can. There are sweeter, lower-hanging fruit. But there’s something satisfying in making a bitter fruit into something which is, perhaps not yet sweet, but still profoundly satisfying. Our lives need their olives.

Though I sometimes wonder whether the times we live in are not conducive to creating olives. We’re not hungry enough to need to make the offered fruit into something edible. There is so much low hanging sweet fruit around us that it is easy to become lazy. The opposite of Tantalus, the grapes fall so close to our lips that we become too lazy to reach for different fruit. The routines of contact with the world around us in its most basic form, to draw water, to cultivate the food we eat, to be physically part of the ecosystem… for most of us, this is so far away. And so perhaps it is too easy to stay in a perpetual childhood, eating sherbet lemons rather than real ones. Yet life would be very dull without the piquancy of a fruit as complex and as well-earnt through labour as an olive.

This is a 15 minute writing practice inspired by Red Ravine – to write for 15 minutes about olives, without censoring or correcting.

Photo credit – Olives, originally uploaded to flickr by steve green.

Patterns, intelligence and the present

In response to a post over at Cafe Philos, I commented that:

“I think one of the crucial parts of intelligence is the ability to make links and detect patterns – which is vital for experiencing the present as well as predicting the future .”

Paul responded:

“I’m very curious about what you said there. Would you elaborate please on how making links and detecting patterns is vital for experiencing the present?”

And as often happens when someone asks you to elaborate on something you’ve said, I was to begin with stumped to know how to explain what I meant, and took a while to work my way through to it. But here, Paul, is my answer:

Perhaps the best place to start is a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but I found it a fascinating book. One of the key points it makes is that the way we perceive the world around us, normally, is not by seeing shapes and lines, but immediately interpreting those shapes and lines as things. Which isn’t very useful if you want to learn to draw… so the book encourages us to learn to look without interpreting. A fascinating and challenging exercise, that shows how fundamental making connections and interpretations is to our perception of reality. (A similar effect comes from trying to do a mindfulness meditation, where we just notice sensations without attaching any interpretation to them.)

If you want to draw accurately, you need to focus on the detail of what you are actually seeing, not what you think you see. But mostly we don’t have the time or the need to focus on detail – we need to get a quick gist of the forest. I look out of the window now and I see a hillside covered in houses. If I focus, I can see the red and black and green colours that make up those houses – the shadows and perspectives that make me see them as on a hill. And would help me draw them. But mostly all I need is to know, ah, there are houses on that hill.

So as we watch people and things I feel we unconsciously look out for patterns – something as simple as the cadence of someone’s speech, or as complex as a personality trait. Visual patterns – verbal patterns. We can’t process the details individually, so we have to find some way ofrelating to them as a pattern. Like a computer’s zip utility – that looks for repeated sequences of characters that can be captured more simply. Or, as a former music teacher used to say, “don’t listen to the notes, listen to the music”.

But that quote also brings out the fact that what we look for is more than a mechanical pattern. The patterns we find often have a deeper meaning than the details. Emergent properties. We not only look for patterns in the present, but with things in our memories… so I see a poorly built house and remember what it is like to be in a house like that, and a little bit of that remembered discomfort sneaks into my perception.

Let me give you an example to show how this shapes your present. I imagine there’s a cup of coffee (half empty, half full or steaming hot and ready to drink;)) somewhere near your computer right now. Your perception of that cup of coffee is shaped by your associations with coffee, your memory of how long ago you made it, where you got the cup from, the colour and texture…. all these things brought together shape your experience of that cup. If you forgot those associations, or were someone else who had different associations, it would be a different experience.

It’s like every single thing that we experience is the centre of a kaleidoscope of associations. It’s true of simple objects – but even more so of people. People are even more resonant with links and memories – memories we have of those people themselves and of others that were similar in some way.

By contrast, imagine being an amnesiac, or someone who couldn’t make associations. You’d be experiencing the world in black and white, compared to our normal technicolour! Indeed some descriptions of autism I have come across suggest it is this inability to reduce detail to comprehensible pattern that makes the world so difficult for an autistic person to process.

For me that complexity is an intrinsic part of our perception of the present, though so instinctive that we normally don’t notice.

To go beyond that, then, to link it to intelligence… Firstly, think of a standard IQ test – so many of the tests, whether verbal, numerical or patterns, are about detecting patterns and then applying that pattern. To decide what is the next number or pattern in the sequence, or the word that is to x as y is to z, we must find the pattern that we have been given. Once we have found that, the next step is easy.

I also feel that this sort of pattern-making is crucial for problem-solving. To apply what has been learnt in one situation to another is often the best way to make a breakthrough.

Making links is also vital for creativity – particularly when they’re unlikely links. Metaphor. Imagery. Association.

I suppose what I come down to is that the more intelligent we are, the more patterns we perceive, and the richer our perceptual world becomes. I’m not necessarily talking about a cultivated, educated intelligence here – education can often limit us to seeing a certain set of patterns, where a spontaneous intelligence can see a wider range. But the ability to interpret, see patterns, and make links, is for me a vital part of our connection with the world and of our existence as intelligent beings.

Does that answer your question, Paul?

(the beautiful photo is by James P Blair and is included in National Geographic’s gallery Patterns in Nature)


The beast arises from an ocean of riven time,
Jaws agleam with the dust of what was once precious.
Each sinuous movement a reversal of physical law
A murky intelligence in its eyes which nothing can clarify.
Its rising makes our solidest truths seem dim and volatile.

Most terrible because it is silent…
More strange than any fantasy…
In contemplating it the heart flutters
Feels the foundations of its peace tremble

Even to think of it makes the universe feels bent

For this beast of our fantasies devours our souls’ precious time.
Reverses all the clarity we feel we have gained.
Throws us silent and naked into a volatile universe
Where the bent and twisted fragments of our peace flutter sadly.


This was inspired by two prompts –

Firstly from poetswhoblog – to write a jigsaw poem featuring the following words: time, precious, reversal, clarify, volatile, silent, fantasy, flutter, peace, bent. Having used them all I felt I had more to write, so I ended up using each word twice, changing a few of them the second time.

Secondly, readwritepoem‘s challenge to write a poem about something that doesn’t exist. It seems my imagination came up with something rather dark, so I’m glad it doesn’t exist! Though perhaps I should say, it doesn’t exist as a real creature…

The photo is Ocean Deep, originally uploaded to flickr by Julie Elisabeth.