Terra incognita

My weblog statistics tell me that in the last week my writing has been read most by people from Spain, the United States, the UK, Poland, Germany, Turkey, Colombia, Denmark and Japan and one other location. What surprises me is that my home country isn’t in the top 10. But since I’ve taken some distance from the place where I was born and raised and express myself in a different language than the one I grew up in, it makes some sense. What surprises me more is number 7 in the list. “Unknown territory”. Where could that be? They must have internet there, otherwise he, she, they or it, couldn’t have read my posts.

in a landscape



The first day of November. After a night filled with thunder and lightning the outside world looks like new. The streets are still quiet, the early morning light is reflected in big puddles of water everywhere. It is only a matter of time before the sun will rise, even though the darkest half of the year has just started.

Like a lot of Christian celebrations and holidays, All Saints has pagan roots. It originated from the Celtic celebration of Samhain, marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. It was seen as a liminal time, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld thinned and spirits could more easily come into this world. It was believed that the souls of the dead returned home for one night and had to be appeased.

I am in the habit of walking to the sea early in the morning of November 1st and think about the dead. The ones closest to me first and when I reach the beach and sit down to look at the waves, I try to think about the others which is harder because I don’t know what they looked like, how they laughed, how they drank their coffee, how they loved and lived. But they were here. Not here where I am sitting but here in this world where I move around in.

I walk along the boulevard to the plaça del Mar to pay my silent friends a visit. They are there day in day out, in the Room where it Always Rains. Five bronze figures, slightly smaller than human size, looking in different directions and despite of their physical closeness every single one of them in complete individual isolation. They always look sad. But it always makes me happy to see them. The sculpture was made by Juan Muñoz and has been here since 1992. Not a lot of people know it is actually unfinished. The cage that surrounds them was supposed to have an irrigation system that would make it rain continually but due to technical problems the installation of the system was delayed and when everything seemed to be resolved, Muñoz died before being able to approve it. The piece was left unfinished but the original name was kept.

On my way back I see parts of palm trees scattered along the roads. Big chunks of the bark, shaped like female corsets, leaves shaped like gigantic feathers as if a prehistoric bird just flew over. The greenhouse in the park, housing a small artifical Garden of Eden, is closed. Through the planks of the doors I can see the light filtering through all the different shades of green. I’ve been here many times but I only found it open once.

I sit down on a terrace, order coffee and open the book I brought. “The Shape of a Pocket” by John Berger. “The pocket in question is a small pocket of resistance. A pocket is formed when two or more people come together in agreement. The resistance is against the inhumanity of the New World Economic Order. The people coming together are the reader, me, and those the essays are about - Rembrandt, Paleolithis cave painters, a Romanian peasant, ancient Egyptians, an expert in the loneliness of a certain hotel bedroom, dogs at dusk, a man in a radio station.” The book was on my list of books I wanted to read and last Monday it was there, in the second-hand English bookshop in Gracia.
I read bits and pieces. Inbetween the essays are details of the photo that is printed on the cover, a crowd of anonymous people, made on Primrose Hill by Peter Marlow during the Eclipse of 1999. The last essay is titled “Will it Be a Likeness?” and between parentheses it says “for Juan Muñoz”. I knew it was in the book but that wasn’t why I had put it in my bag this morning. It was a random choice, I took it because it was the last book I bought. And when I left my house I hadn’t planned to visit the bronze figures.
I read the essay. The main character is a man in a radio station. John Berger performed the text in theater several times, directed by Muñoz himself. Apart from making sculptures and installations, Muñoz was well-known for his texts and radioplays. The first performance of “Will it Be a Likeness?” in Frankfurt was simultaneously broadcasted on the radio.
Page 246. “For sometimes a sound is more easily grasped as a silence, just as a presence, a visible presence, is sometimes most eloquently conveyed by a disappearance. Who does not know what it is like to go with a friend to a railway station and then to watch the train take them away? As you walk along the platform back into the city, the person who has just gone is often more there, more totally here, than when you embraced them before they climbed into the train. When we embrace to say goodbye, maybe we do it for this reason - to take into our arms what we want to keep when they’ve gone.”
I sometimes wonder if you can really sense the difference between somebody being out of sight for this moment only and somebody no longer being in this world at all. The sadness that comes with somebodies death is the awareness that we will never see them again, never talk to them, never hold them. But when they were still there, only somewhere else, out of eye’s reach, we never felt the same sadness. Maybe it is because we are incapable of living in the moment.

At home I continued reading on my balcony. Today is one of the last days I can see the sun for a few minutes just before 5 pm. In the next days it will disappear completely behind the buildings. The arugola is still thriving. The two avocado plants have doubled in size since spring. The weeds with the yellow flowers inbetween the cacti are still growing towards the sunlight and moved almost a meter out of the balcony into empty space. Small birds like to balance on them and eat the seeds. In one of the flower pots that has only soil and some unplanned plants in it, I notice two snails. A big one and a small one, cozily huddled up together on a dead leaf. I live on the second floor and in the two years I’ve been here, I’ve had bumblebees visiting, wasps, butterflies, caterpillars, sparrows, black and blue tits, once a big seagull, but I never saw a snail on my balcony. Where did they come from? Did they climb all the way up here? Together?

When I got my new cheap but much appreciated Ikea bookcases in the beginning of this year I left two shelves book-free and filled them with precious things, small gifts from friends, ceramic cups, memories of journeys, stones, a few small buddhas surrounding a little stone dragon and a rawhide rattle, handmade with much love, a shamanic tool that is used to help accessing the spirit realms. I received it last year, in Transylvania, when I was part of the Fire & Shadow programme, exploring the state of the world, our place in it, and how we might weave a new kind of story in an age of upheaval and uncertainty. Inbetween spending time in two of the wildest places in Europe - our first encounter was in the Scottish Highlands - our group of about 20 people met online to talk, discuss, learn and share. Susan couldn’t be there in Transylvania but she made a rattle for everybody and sent it over. I didn’t use mine to try to enter the spirit world but I was very happy to have it on me when on the fifth day, during a 24 hour solo retreat up in the mountains with nothing but a sleeping bag, I was woken up by a growling bear a few meters away, invisible behind some trees. My second thought was to grab the rattle and make some noise. Which I did. My first thought was to remain as silent as possible because I wanted to see the bear.

The rattle is made out of animal skin with a handle constructed out of dried cactus. We were all asked to think about our totem being, symbol, spirit animal, or mythical beast. I sent Susan a picture of a snail and she painted it on the dried leather part.
I don’t believe there is any meaning in my spirit animal deciding to appear on my balcony on this day. But you never know. I’ll see how long they will stay. There isn’t much to eat, they are not a big fan of arugola but I’ve got some lettuce in the fridge they might appreciate.


Looking for Jesus and Jeanette

I am always surprised by the things I find in my books. Usually I left them there myself, a long time ago. Polaroids, notes, postcards. But I didn’t put this in here. And when I brouse through the book I realise I didn’t even read it, which is odd because I love Jeanette Winterson and I read most of her books. “Sexing the cherry”, published in 1990; my book is the Dutch translation but the flyer is in English, printed in the U.S.A for the Pacific Garden Mission.

I find it an interesting combination, Jeanette Winterson and The Lord Jesus Christ so I google it. “Jeanette Winterson” and “Jesus” and I find a speech she gave in 2010. “The Temptation of Jesus”, The Manchester Sermon 2010, delivered in the Manchester Cathedral. She starts with a retelling of the story of Midas, who loved gold so much that he wished that anything he touched could turn into gold. It brings her to capitalism and modern day politicians and our individual responsibility. She quotes from Matthew, writes about the soul and describes the struggle between Satan and Jesus.

I read the back of “Sexing the cherry”. It says is it a mixture of history and the most fantastic and gruesome fairy tales. Of course the Bible is the same.

Still it doesn’t explain how a flyer with the purpose of converting an innocent soul ended up in a book about “love, sex, lies and truth, and twelve dancing princesses who lived happily ever after (but not with their husbands)”. But it led me to the beautiful and still very relevant speech.

“We can blame the banks. We can feel like victims. But we bought into this. Money has been our only currency and our core value, which is insane, as it doesn’t really exist. You exist – the person I love. My body exists – my one true home. The planet exists – beautiful, blue, long-suffering, fragile, and irreplaceable. Friendship exists, and our kids, and books and pictures and music, and the feeling we get, when just for a second, life in all its unlived possibility stands in front of us.


I said at the start that I had hoped that the economic crisis would cause us to rethink our values – what is so upsetting is that the progressive secular Left has not done any rethinking worth the name – just a bit of apologising and tinkering – while the really scary Right has gone for an all-out war on all those touchy-feely policies they hated – as though subsidised theatre and the arts and single mums and welfare payments brought us to our knees – not a totally naked and savage free market god. Even Baal the flesh-eating god of the Philistines wasn’t as demanding in his sacrifices as the god of the free market. All of the planet and all of its peoples fed into the money-making machine…”

Read the full speech here: http://www.jeanettewinterson.com/the-temptation-of-jesus/



The day started with a nightmare. It was one of those classic ones, where you have to do something important and you are late and then you can’t find the right location and the harder you try, the more lost you get. It is hard to shake those off after waking up. Making coffee and drinking it on your balcony while reading something can drive it out. Not the newspaper. Some poetry maybe. Or a little bit of Jarman’s “Modern Nature”. But there was no time for it. I had to pick up the bag with my Spanish books which I had left at a friend’s place the evening before and do my homework before my class started.

It is still warm enough these days to walk around in your t-shirt most times of the day. The jacaranda trees are blooming for the second time. The street lights were still on but switched off at 8.15. Sunrise.
I used to walk to the sea in the mornings to watch it and do some writing on a terrace on my way back but these days I sit in a classroom four mornings a week, finally learning all the different ways to talk in the past and future tense. The present tense I master already, or at least kind of. The fifth day I teach. The sea is for weekends only.

I got my bag. I did my grammar exercises. There was still time to drink coffee and smoke and look at the people walking by. Some pigeons were fighting over a piece of bread. I lighted my cigarette and read the text on the lighter. I don’t know where I picked it up. It said “Nunca abandones tus sueñes. Duerme 5 minutos más.” Never abandon your dreams. Sleep 5 minutes more. Any other day that probably would have made sense.

My Spanish teacher likes to teach us some history and geography and language theory while explaining the differences between past simple and present perfect tense. We had to combine dates and facts. 1492, Columbus set foot in America. 2002, Olympic Games. 1981, Spain entered the European Union. 1936, Franco starts the Civil War. 1939, end of the Civil War, Franco comes to power. 1975, Franco dies. One of the students raised her hand and asked: “Who is this Franco?”

I walked home. I did the things you do on a Thursday afternoon. E-mails, laundry, reading the newspaper, preparing my Friday class. Nothing much to write about. An ordinary Thursday weekday. I opened my balcony doors - or tried to. When summer starts, they get harder to open. The wood expands and on rainy days it is even worse. There is a trick to open them, you put your right foot against the left door, pushing it back while pulling the handle. Sometimes it takes quite some force. Today they were very stuck. And when I pushed and pulled and leaned backwards the metal handle broke off.

Just in front of the doors there is the one piece of furniture in my room I really like. A big coffee table. I found it online not so long ago, somebody wanted to get rid of it but didn’t want to carry it all the way down many flights of stairs to dispose of it. With the help of a friend I picked it up, transported it back to my place and loved it. A heavy metal frame with an ingenious system to lift and move the top part so it turns into a table with two table leafs next to each other, one slightly higher than the other. In its “folded” state the two heavy glass sheets are in the same position with a bit of space inbetween them.

Physics. When you pull at a door the energy gets transferred into the movement of a door. If the door is stuck and the handle breaks off the energy gets transferred into the movement of your body. I fell backwards with a lot of force and fell full body through the first sheet of glass. It completely shattered. The second sheet of glass held my body.

I didn’t have a scratch. Not even a tiny bruise. Just before I wanted to go out on the windy balcony I had put on a big sturdy long sleeved vest. Pieces of glass were hanging from it.

I imagined what could have happened. But nothing did. Only a table got lost, no big deal. As simple as that. Still I made sure I told the two people I talked to in the evening that I loved them.

Life is good.