a dance to the music of time

Sourdough boule & starter by Klaussie

Fast

Sowing seeds, some so small as to feel like salt pinched between the thumb and forefinger.

Making Paris Cookies. Young and working in Paris as an au pair with my best friend we discovered on the internet a recipe called something like the Best Big Fat American Cookies. It was a recipe simple enough for a three year old to grasp, compelling enough for him to enjoy, and took under half an hour to make. We, for instance, removed about a third of the sugar and where the recipe called for granulated we used something with more molasses, like muscovado, or more bite, like demerara. Nowadays I use whatever sugars I have in and stir a spoonful of brown rice miso through the batter before baking.

When the way someone relates to you changes, in any direction.

The days at this time of year: 3pm at my desk at work listening to Clare Grogan sing about night falling like a grand piano as through the window the tree becomes less and less distinct from its background, darkness closing around the hemisphere like a fist

Dying (sometimes)

Slow

Gardening and the many staged delay between sowing and flowering. The agonising rest of it where seeds, over a month or more, germinate, sprout, send out and sink their roots deeper, become seedlings, develop buds, unfurl their leaves, and finally, sighing, flower. Often I wake the morning after an evening spent sowing to find, much to my chagrin, the soil undisturbed in its pot, flat as a fitted sheet, not so much as a hint to the seed’s unbuttoning.

Making sourdough bread, though it’s far from labour intensive. The majority of my time is spent not in the mixing, shaping, and baking and not in the maintenance of the starter but in finding a space in my flat which can provide the starter with the warmth and circulation it needs to bubble and grow but which also proves hostile to the abundance of fruit flies which circle like sots through my kitchen at all times.

My writing of these not so tiny letters

Learning to talk about and crucially not just around your feelings

The waiting list for council housing in my father’s neighbourhood, the same borough in which Grenfell burned. It is not long before the council website’s copy brings me to tears. ‘there are only 433 properties available for the Council to let’, it threatens. If you find yourself undeterred you can call the Housing Opportunities Team and if they deem you deserving of a roof over your head, you will be allocated points to decide your level of priority and added to a waiting list. The council has recently released my father, who has a dementia diagnosis and not more than a state pension to his name, from its ‘care’. Readers should note that none of the ‘Housing Opportunities’ for which he and many others are deemed ineligible are in one of the 1,652 unoccupied properties in the borough.

Dying (other times)

Easy

Waking almost every morning with Klaus. Not the waking itself, which I've never mastered with dignity, but her presence certainly softens the morning’s edges.

Obliviousness to incremental, slow change. Say you know someone who has been in NHS care from 2009 to 2017, then it’s not until they’re no longer in NHS care that you can pinpoint how much worse things became in those years.

Identifying the cause of the worsening.

The spring (for me). Some of the bulbs I planted over the winter have already set down their roots, awoken from their short, cold nap, and poked those first fingers of growth through the soil and up towards the sun. Permission to dream of days elongating and post-work tinnies in Burgess Park.

Difficult

Identifying which bird is making such a racket. My ability to identify birds in flight has improved but I remain steadfastly useless at song. Today, walking the route of the Grand Surrey Canal to Peckham Library I saw but didn’t hear the park kestrel. It was gliding high over the old wash house but by the time I rounded the corner it was gone. A corner shop plastic bag the shape of a perching crow caught in a tree briefly fooled me. Somewhere further along the trees were singing. I crossed in front of an oncoming runner to stand where I might better spy the chorus. Chaffinches, among them a male sporting a grey headscarf and lobster pink bib.

Every morning of 2020 so far I have woken to news of a burning world. 10,806 miles away my sister sends me a video of a magpie in Newcastle, New South Wales, who’s added to its repertoire of songs the sound of a fire engine’s siren.

Wage labour, especially when the world is burning

Learning to use the intimate first person rather than the distancing second person when describing how you (I) feel. Whenever in therapy I begin to describe a feeling I sometimes experience—say for instance anger—I switch instantly to the second person.

For some months now I have been turning these things over in my mind because it feels as if, of late, time has contracted and expanded, like I’ve been flung backwards and catapulted forwards, as if things have got easier and exponentially harder. In 2017, I was signed off work for a time because although sometimes work is the thing you can do when you can’t do anything else it is also often an obstacle to doing the things you need to, to those many parts of life that are impervious to the orthodoxy of employment, like needing to be at the hospital to visit a dying parent or to take another family member to an emergency appointment or to see if a friend can work from your home so that you feel less lonely and frightened. Whenever I could during that period, I started taking circuitous routes to and from the hospital, doubling or tripling the three mile walk. Or I rose when I usually would to get to work and instead of taking Thameslink I’d walk for hours in the cold to one of the big cemeteries or up through Sydenham woods, the ice-hardened earth shifting beneath me. I call these, affectionately, the depression walks. They allowed me to steal back time for myself without eschewing all that I had to do and they steeled me against an unceasing tide of bad news.

Every New Year’s eve, as well as making resolutions and entertaining private hopes, I write down hurts, experiences, and habits I want to leave behind, cast them into the fire, watch them burn, watch the paper curl, turn to ash and smoke. In anticipation of 2018, after what the doctors kept calling ‘the fast end of a slow death’, I made only one wish—for an uneventful 12 months. I wanted a beige year, nothing of note. If things couldn’t be restored to their prior order, and everything I’d read about bereavement assured me they could not, I wanted more than anything for them to slow down.

The experience of that fast end had painfully dislodged me from time’s normal flow. I had tried for a while to keep up everything, to attend to everyone and myself, to walk faster and further. Seeking proximity, I started new relationships and when they didn’t suffice I jettisoned them, sometimes cruelly. In trying to carry on as if nothing had changed, I only delayed the inevitable. My plans all unmade by the necessary disturbances of a crisis Whatsapp group, 11pm ambulance rides, and 3am hospital admissions.

When eventually I wanted and needed to return to the pace of the living, I realised how unaccustomed to the normal rhythms of my own life I’d become. In Heaven’s Coast written during the last two years of Mark Doty’s lover’s life and ‘the long days of new mourning’, Doty talks about how Wally’s AIDS diagnosis hovered ‘over Wally’s body, and its intention was to erase the time ahead of us, to make that time, each day, a little smaller.’ Reading, I recognised this constant threat of time’s diminishment—like a corneal abrasion, always, even during the day's most mundane moments, present and quivering urgently in the periphery.

I suppose I was lucky to have made it to twenty four only having had cause to consider death and loss in the abstract, but once consideration became non-negotiable, once I found I could no longer take for granted the future presence of a parent whose continuance I’d always just assumed, so many of my ideas about my future began to crumble. If observing dying was an aperture slowly contracting, grief was a wound in which time suddenly gaped open, willing me to fill it. Threat made good, time thoroughly diminished (at least for one of us) there loomed for those of us that remained the question what next? And so began a slow rebuilding.

That year I made gardening and baking the media for an experiment in rehabituation, in reconfiguring my relationship to time. In contrast to that demanding period, gardening and baking rewarded consistency over quantity, they required little more than I had to give, and their only real demand of me was my patience. Most of all, each in their own way they reminded that time was not linear but orbital, that much of what comprised life was small, quiet, and repetitious. I was quickly disabused of the notion that either baking or gardening might be useful ways to suppress, avoid or resolve grief, but they did help me to adjust to a reality that might be but is not necessarily peppered with crisis.

In university I studied observational documentary, a narrative form which shakes off the rapidity of mainstream cinema and attends instead to slowness, to the quotidian, to the details of life that aren’t sutured to a received order of filmic importance. I am preternaturally impatient but watching, once I got the hang of it, felt not unlike standing, bewitched, beneath a tree waiting for whatever it is you can hear to perch on a branch close enough for you to be able to decipher it, to cup the image in your mind. In grief, I revisited some of these films. I watched James Benning’s slow lakes again, I watched shepherds herd sheep over the Beartooths in the Sensory Ethnography Lab’s Sweetgrass, and I relaxed into the daily rituals of New York Public library’s different branches in Frederick Wiesman’s Ex Libris. And watching, I entered into a timezone not dissimilar to that of a garden in which nothing’s yet bloomed or a flat in which one is making bread in an ancient way.

Of course you cannot build a dam against time, cannot slide it into a fixing bath, and cannot in life remove oneself from its effects. Now more than ever, it feels as if time is running out. In many important ways that is true; the more the brush burns and the river’s banks break, less the sand in the hourglass. And personally, time has begun another one of its contractions. Another father’s diagnosis—a long, slow, difficult illness, erasing the time ahead. Even mixed dementia follows a path, five years, eight at a push. In a new notebook I write down the changes I notice better to relay them to his social worker, reluctantly as a stenographer taking minutes for a meeting they weren’t scheduled to attend. Like Stephen as he got iller, Rupert can recall in lavish detail the lives of his musical heroes, the plots of all his favourite books, and minor publishing drama from the 60s but no matter how frequently I repeat it not what I’m doing that evening, not his own plans for the afternoon, and not where we’re meeting next week. Mine, my mother’s, and my step mother’s names coalesce on his tongue.

In 2020, newly 27, I brace myself for a new decade in which great, slow, and complicated loss will figure, just as it did in the previous one. But, though much has changed, though the dead remain resolutely dead, growing old in the wrong dimension, and though time presses ever on, I comfort myself with steadfast things. I still walk, circuitously, around the edges of London through every season—a habit I’ll never cast into the fire. On the balcony, a corm’s pink roots form like a crown of hair and grow longer and stronger. Yeast still bubbles in the jar. As ever, as always.


Header image: Sourdough boule and starter by Klaus
Body image: Sourdough slice by Klaus
Title explanation: for every birthday, christmas, remarkable occasion my father has given me a postcard of Poussin's painting of the same name. He loves the book and inexplicably he really, really loves Anthony Powell's 12-volume cycle of novels.