Thursday, 28 November 2013


In Japan there's a term for someone like me: furiitaa. A word formed from the English free and the German arbeiter which translates as freelance worker. According to Ruth Ozeki, a new author for me, this is 'someone who works part-time jobs and has a lot of free time because he doesn't have a proper career or a full-time position at a company.' Written in English, it's spelt freeter, which, as she says, does indeed look like fritter. Is that what I'm doing: frittering my life away? I beg to differ. I create in my leisure and explore new artists and books. I made a difficult choice to balance part-time work with free time because when I don't the world turns a dizzying black. And believe me, sometimes even this can be a fine line. But I make no claims on anybody – not on the state or other individuals – and yet living like this is seen as lesser. I matter less; I'm putting myself first to fritter, because obviously what I do outside my part-time hours is a not-so-guilty pleasure.
A full-time job carries weight, a part-time job does not, even if you complete more in one day than the average full-timer would. What a part-timer gives is never enough. This frustrates me because this is not a choice I undertook lightly; in some ways, it was forced upon me. If I have to live, then I must live differently. Being single, child-free, or a part-timer does not mean I'm here to prop the coupled up when they play happy families, or that I'm care-free. I too have the normal household chores to do and I do them singularly. I made a choice how to live my life to keep my sanity and you made yours too. It's not up to me or to anybody to help you live it responsibly or more easily.
Do not mistake me. This is not a rant, this is about sacrifice, tolerance and empathy. I've sacrificed all the personal goals most people aspire to: going to university, a profession, house, kids, a life partner to grow old with. Why? Because those kind of dreams are not for me, just as people with those dreams sacrifice their other interests. They put all their energies into raising a family or running their own business, whereas I put mine in space and time. I know what kind and how much peace I need to be me.
I consider myself fortunate to know myself as well as I do, just as I'm sure other women value the joys of motherhood. They prize time with their kids, whereas I prize quiet time with my books and papers. Even as I'm writing this, I'm imagining myself as an early feminist in a white shirt, buttoned waistcoat and tailored trousers, with page-boy hair and a cigarette in my mouth, like a heroine in a Sarah Waters novel, except my lips drag from an e-cigarette. My own childhood playground invention, puffing talc from a tin foil tip, while my overgrown limps dangle out of an armchair and my eyes rest on a half-folded paperback. Or I see myself sitting at a desk in wire-rimmed specs, furiously scribbling and scattering notes filled with my scrawl around me. Often, it's only when I look down I see my true attire: loose exercise pants, baggy wrap-around cardy, and Hello Kitty pink socks.
There used to be a time when being a scholar was respected. Men were esteemed and treated like gods, women were bluestockings.
There used to be a time when a grand European tour was a rite of passage. Men travelled largely alone, women had to be chaperoned.
What I'm doing now isn't so different. My life is studying. In my free-time, I learn psychology, philosophy, geography, history, and culture. Time is invested in my own sense of worth, it's never frittered.
Do not judge a freeter because their world is just as rich and does have meaning.

*Inspired by Ruth Ozeki's A Tale For The Time Being

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Sower

The Sower, Van Gogh 1888
Vincent was preoccupied with a particular sower. In his studio, various depictions of this one peasant returning home were scattered like seed in-between successive sunflowers. The latter was his other obsession, with four already complete in one week, and one hung in his artist friend's bedroom. Paul Gauguin, who shared this yellow house in the South of France, was concerned. Relations were stormy, even though Paul understood too well the whims and fixations artists were prone to. He was exhausted coping with swings in Vincent's temperament, and his behaviour, at times, was irrational. No-one can disturb an artist deep in their work, especially when a subject has hold of them.
By day, Vincent was absorbed in mixing colours and laying them on with a palette knife, but still he could not get the colour quite right, and by night he immersed himself in this own painting. He watched the peasant walk home with a huge yellow globe behind him and tried to commit the land to his memory. Some days, he fixed his gaze on the setting sun, the next a knotty tree, while subconsciously he studied the sower. The way he trudged in the fading light through the darkening fields. A cap pulled down low on his head, a shawl covering his shoulders and back, and clutching a sack to his chest. Vincent was particularly struck by how distance and dim light made him featureless. How being faceless gave him an ruthless, almost raw quality. A blank canvas like earth waiting to be tilled. He made a study of this one man, when any man working the land would be perceived similarly.
Inspired by Jean-Francois Millet, an artist noted for his scenes of peasant farmers, Vincent had been made to see the sower differently. His role helped form the ripening fields, which had brought him to the fore of Vincent's artistic eye. The landscape was the sower's backdrop, as it affirmed his sun-leathered skin, calloused hands, and back-breaking toil. Vincent imagined him blessing the seed as he scattered it evenly, praying for good soil. The sower at ease with earth's rhythms, his work done with the setting sun. He is a mere steward, the land is his master, because land has a certainty and man does not.
Yes, it was this attribute that Vincent was envious of: the land flows with nature as does the peasant labourer, and Vincent could not. He felt ill at ease with the sun leaving, its cleansing rays restrained and virtually gone, and so gave in to his intense urge to use unusual colours as he'd seen once in a Japanese print, and which he later scribed in a letter to Theo, his brother:
'immense citron-yellow disc for the sun, sky green-yellow with pink colours. The fields violet, the sower and the tree Prussian blue.'
Even in these delusional years, Vincent knew he needed bright colours and was drawn to yellow. The brilliant yellow of sunflowers and the pure gold of the sun. The feeling it gave of life and light, which was often contrary to his own emotions. For the sower sunset was the end of another day, a chance for him and the land to conserve energy, to rest, whereas to Vincent sunset was witnessing the sun's and his own death. When the sun withdrew, a part of his soul died too, and became clouded with sadness. He withered as sunflowers do when the sun turned away from his face.
Yellowness, Vincent found, could be bright, comforting and melancholic, but yet in his paintings he tried to deny that colours must fade with daylight. Only the sower knows that both must dim, dark must meet light. Vincent always tried to contradict this and so was never cheered by the departing sun on the sower's back.
*Inspired by Jeanette Winterson's Sexing The Cherry

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Lime Tree House

Madame Zest always borrowed some of Katherine Mansfield's words when her guests tried to thank her, “I am nothing but the small clerk of some hotel without a proprietor.” She quickly dismissed their effervescent praise face-to-face and proffered the guest book. “Please write your comments here.”
On quiet evenings, accompanied by a large glass of red, she'd leaf through numerous entries of squiggly writing and linger over the remarks guests had left. They were testimonials to her years of service and proof that a woman was capable of running someone else's business, and very successfully too. When she wanted to relax, Madame Zest wrapped herself in a duvet of statements. At least she used to, but over the last couple of years, reading these had not satisfied or relaxed her. They irked her, often making her feel as if she was wearing barbed wire close to her skin, or as if her body was being suffocated by bubble-wrap. The comments guests left were still effusive, but her satisfaction from these had diminished.
As her name implies, all her life she'd relied on her zest, but now she had no more to give. Continuing, as she had done for many years, to single-handedly run front and back-of-house had squeezed the last drops out of her. She carried on meeting every guest's needs, but inside she was bitter and sour.
Every day, she rose at 5am to be the breakfast cook, waitress and dishwasher; at 11am, she stood behind the front desk to check guests out; then she morphed into the chambermaid and housekeeper, cleaning and inspecting the five en-suite bedrooms; afterwards if there was time before new guests arrived, she'd launder pillowcases and sheets, or shop for food and complimentary sachets of teas, coffees, and shampoos. And always the 3pm deadline loomed, for that was when Madame Zest split herself in two to be the Welcoming Committee: alternating between the role of General Manager and Senior Receptionist, with sometimes a third, the Head of Concierge, appearing. Each day was led by the mantelpiece clock and with the more or less the same apportioned tasks.
Guests buzzed and hovered like flies, while Madame Zest's under eye circles deepened from a faint blue to black hue. It was no longer pleasurable to serve the guests that came to stay, but it was unprofessional to swat them away, although inwardly her blood would seethe and her voice would rage. To her, the guests had changed.
Lime Tree House had become a magnet, it seemed, for the strange. The reservations diary was filled with unusual names: Mr. Anxiety, Miss. Panic Attack, Mrs. Resentment, Sir Bitterness, and Dame Impatient. Upon being checked in, they vied for Madame Zest's attention and were impossible to please. Could she confirm a wake-up call for 7:30am? Where were the brown paper bags she said they'd supply? Why couldn't she provide an ironing service? Wasn't the bathroom light bright? And just when would she deliver the extra soft pillow? Madame Zest suppressed her volatile temper and fulfilled all these demands. She entertained and swallowed the emotions of these unpleasant house guests.
This was achieved with such aplomb that in the mornings new, charming guests came down for breakfast. Madame Zest was baffled by this overnight transformation, and even more so when they checked out with different, but still extraordinary, names: Mr. Certainty, Miss. Serenity, Mrs. Twinkly, Sir Joviality, and Dame Contented. Madame Zest found it odd and unsettling.
Lime Tree House had been pitched into Madame Zest's emotional whirlpool. A vortex of conflicting moods and opinions, but as of yet, she hadn't recognised that the emotions she contained inside were portrayed by these guests on the outside. She would not concede that her mind had indeed lost control over its own guest house. 
*Inspired by Elif Shafak's Black Milk & by Rumi who likened the mind to a guest house.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The New Rabbit Emperor

Once upon a time, there was an Emperor who was also a rabbit. He was rich with life: a full belly, a faithful wife and lots of sons, but he was ageing. After a month spent on his death bed with a fluttering heart and dimming eyes, he muttered his last words and died with a huge sigh. His faithful wife wailed, his sons paled, and his principal servant called the priest to ensure his journey into the West was a safe one. His death was publicly announced and his people went into mourning: all wore black furs for forty days and nights after his passing, then the cry was heard for rabbit hunting.
In these parts, being an emperor was not governed by dynasty. The title was not handed down to sons. When an emperor passed, the family became custodians until a successor was found. Huntsmen searched throughout the land, they rested at temples and tea houses, and exchanged sacks of rice for stories of new births. But tracking a new successor down sometimes took years not months, even if the huntsmen were exceptionally skilled. A new rabbit emperor could only be proved by certain markings: unusual birthmarks, scars, deformities, or amputations, as rabbit people believe an emperor's character will always be tested. The predecessor was crippled and had a bald patch on his head, so it was said the next one must show pronounced signs of this.
For seven years, these huntsmen roamed the land, while the custodians grew fat from their fruitless wandering. The previous Emperor's wife no longer wailed and her sons were tanned, not pale. Most had married and now had wives plump with child; their courts were expanding. They overspent on hiring maids and buying furnishings, and did not care for common people. The huntsmen were weary, the people were desperate for a successor, and the custodians were happy the search had been prolonged.
Outside the Emperor's courts, a war had been raging. A few hutches inhabited by rabbits had been claimed by invading weasels, and those suddenly homeless were forced into labour camps. A mother and her young son were rehoused in such a one, in a coal mine outside town. Her son's name was Rabbit No Fur for he was exceedingly anxious and lame. He had once been trapped in a snare and his left foot had not healed when freed, so he now dragged his leg and tread nervously. In response to this latest stressful event, Rabbit No Fur shed all his fur from his ears to his white cotton tail. His tawny-brown coat fell away in one clump, which the camp doctor said was alopecia. Appalled by the taunting her son now received from officer weasels, she swapped his fur for a rich blue cloth with an old peddler, who too was a prisoner. At night, by the light of a concealed lantern, she sewed this into a fine coat studded with rhinestones, but the finished garment was so beautiful, it only made Rabbit No Fur even more noticeable. He was repeatedly punished with hard labour, until one winter's day, his jewelled coat was seized by a high ranking weasel, and so the mother, thinking only of her son, begged him to leave with the other escape diggers.
This he did, but he was recaptured, and along with the others was lined up outside the town hall to be beaten. Fortunately, some huntsmen were among the observing crowd, and upon seeing Rabbit No Fur's naked and maimed form knew this was the new Emperor. They immediately halted all proceedings, recovered his precious jewelled coat from the high ranking weasel, and rescued his mother. Rabbit No Fur was quickly declared the new Rabbit Emperor and the custodians were banished from his courts.
Peace reigned in this provincial town after Rabbit No Fur had been crowned, because unlike his predecessor, he put being a rabbit first before being an Emperor.

Sparked by Jeanette Winterson's 'Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?'