In the few weeks before my Gran died, someone asked me to tell them stories about her life. I was stumped. She’d been a part of my world from the beginning, and I realised I knew virtually nothing about her.
My Gran had been a teacher, but I didn’t know what or who she taught. I knew she’d married my grandfather, a Navy engineer on nuclear submarines, and that he’d travelled a lot — she’d had to raise her kids by herself for long stretches. He died around when I was born, so for me she’d always lived alone.
My Gran was smart, funny and formidable. She’d terrified my mum’s school friends decades ago and much later, when I was a teenager, we’d argued a lot. She thought she knew everything because she was old; I knew I knew everything because I was young.
She was a stickler for propriety, but would unleash a string of filthy words to beat my sister and me at Boggle. She loved to walk in the hills near her home and to drive at breakneck speeds around the local lochs. She could be harsh at times, though ultimately she was kind and generous. During tough times, she looked after my mum, my sister, and me unfailingly.
These are the scantest facts about her life. Scraps. She lived for 93 years and I can only scrape together a handful of paragraphs about her.
Do the facts even matter? A complete catalogue of what she did every day of her life would reveal nothing about her inner world. My memories about the time we spent together are one-dimensional — tied to my child’s-eye perspective.
I don’t know what she thought about when we walked in the woods behind her house. I don’t know how she felt when she watched the rain run down the kitchen window or ate millionaire’s shortbread in her favourite café. Everything that made her her was locked inside her head. And when she was gone, it was gone too.
When a child says ‘I’ for the first time, it’s called ‘individuation’. But it means, ‘I now realise that I am cut off from the minds of all other children, all other people’. At that moment, we recognise that other people are ultimately unknowable. And then we spend the rest of our lives trying to connect with them.
We want to be understood, to be acknowledged, to be seen. We long for our inner reality to be as real to others as it is to us. We want to bridge the fundamental separation at the heart of the human condition.
Art appeals to me because it’s a beautifully human attempt to bridge that gap. Art is one human reaching out to another, to say ‘This is who I am, this is how I see the world, this is what is important to me. Do you see?’
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
I loved this book. It’s a series of interwoven stories of a small group of US soldiers fighting and dying in Vietnam. It’s a book about war, death, suffering, love, boredom, loyalty, transcendence and meaning. It made me think about the totality of what is lost when someone dies and the hole left behind. It speaks to the pointless brutality and awful beauty of war, the alternating states of ecstasy and emptiness.
Beowulf — Maria Dahvana Headley translation
I’ve had success with reading contemporary translations of old books recently (e.g. Emily Wilson’s version of The Odyssey). I found Headley’s Beowulf approachable, exciting and rich. She mixes vivid imagery and modern colloquialisms with a driving rhythm to bring out the greed and machismo propelling the characters towards carnage and ruin. I haven’t read other translations, but apparently Headley renders the female characters with much more depth and strength than in previous editions too.
In My John Berger Drag by Brandon Taylor
A sweet and thoughtful meditation on photography, friendship, and new cameras.
That’s the magic thing about photos. They lend a weight or emotional resonance to things snatched out of the air. Things otherwise unwitnessed or unacknowledged. In some ways, pictures put back the redactions in our lives caused by inattention or a lack of care.
Haitian Dances by Frantz Casseus
Exquisite, intricate and elegant Haitian folk guitar.
4 Hands by Roedalius and Tim Story
Minimal and hypnotic piano music from two masters. Submerge yourself in the looping, shifting melodies.
You can follow the Sounds of Art + Attention playlist to listen to these and previous recommendations.
Two Years on a Bike
A series of four films following Martijn Doolaard on his solo bike journey from Vancouver to Patagonia. The first film is a little slow to warm up, but once he’s out on the road it’s a joy. I was captivated by the scale and beauty of the landscapes that he is travelling through; and inspired by his endurance and equanimity in the face of dangerous or difficult situations. These films are a testament to the level of cinematic quality that is now accessible to skilled solo filmmakers using a minimal kit.
Your First 5 Tools for Building Fame, Money and Respect
I’ve been trying to stick to the adage ‘If you work with your mind, rest with your hands’ and have been getting stuck into some DIY recently. It’s satisfying to get away from the screen and fix something, no matter how mundane or humble. Ignore the clickbait title: this warm and pragmatic video recommends a solid starter kit of tools that will allow you to solve 90% of common projects around the home. When I add these to my arsenal, I’ll be able to cause untold destruction — I can’t wait….
Dedicated to Maureen McInroy
4 December 1928 – 27 February 2022
With all my love.