stir

the road crawls into the darker distance

streetlights each a blinding eye

later now the sky is plush with blue

such nights when screams of all kinds 

come worming through the glass

and the air is stirred incessantly by trees

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The Pirates

Most of the men in Sophie’s room are prisoners. Not of her room, of course – they escaped from elsewhere and found refuge here. But their prisoner status hangs on them in ways they find difficult to scrub off, even against each other, rubbing body on body like furry backs against tree trunks.
Sophie’s bathroom is off-limits; the men are not allowed to use the shower. Despite these established rules, the space Sophie is able to occupy in her own bedroom eventually shrinks to a small section between the left-hand side of the bed and the floor-to-ceiling closet, with just a small sliver of the window available. The rest is covered in the moulting bodies and thrumming voices of men. The way the men behave is how Sophie imagines pirates do; they make large rounded gestures, with their teeth at all angles, and sounds shoot out from deep within their colossal barrel-like anatomies.

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Scallops

Here is the bottom of an ocean, shallow enough for the light to keep it bright and blue, safe enough for scallops to roam and find rest on the sand. There is little for the scallops to fear: the fish have disappeared.

One morning, as if snow had washed over all things, the sea was quiet, without a stir. The quiet was like a lid cast on a pot, and inside it the scallops shivered.

A few tried to see the bright side: here was a possibility to turn away from the shortsightedness of lying flat against the ground, so they turned onto their backs, which were shells as much as their fronts were, and they surveyed the vastness of what was now their territory.

They noted the sudden lack of shame in their dance; their scallopy way of swimming by opening and closing their shells was now the norm, no longer to be ridiculed by the nimble fish shooting past, curling and waving their translucent fins, or by the steady rocks who waited with dignity for a tide to sweep them along. The scallops knew their sense of self had changed: they were no longer half-way between fish and rock.

The scallops decided to merge into one organism. As they did so, they grew legs, or rather they connected their bodies so as to build legs and arms and a big empty head. The empty head needed to be filled, but the scallops didn’t know what with and so they left it vacant for now.

Here is the bottom of the ocean now, shallow and empty with nothing but a body supine on its floor. The scallops are one moving part and since the fish are all gone the ocean is even bigger than before.

The scallops realised that the fish didn’t leave empty-handed: they took the furnishings and hiding places with them, the coral and the seaweed, the rocks and caverns, all the features of the endless tank that is the sea. They left nothing but a plain carpet of grit behind. The scallops, after growing to the size of a super-organism, endowed with new faculties, noticed everything that was missing. They didn’t see it, exactly: they were blind. But their collective scale had changed, and they sensed more, and realised the enormity of the terrain available to them.

Still, the body wasn’t finished. The scallops had left it featureless, and night was falling quickly.

Some scallops had not yet been assigned a place in the body, and they floated alongside the superstructure like sheddings, like servants, waiting.

They aspired to be part of the body’s smaller articulations, perhaps even facial features: fingers or ears or a nose. One of them wished to become an eye: a ball of jelly, which would feel so familiar.

But it was not up to them, and those who composed the body decided that, as yet, there was no place for new parts. The collective body was still being developed.

It takes a few nights for the scallops to make more decisions about the body, and finally they all agree to assign themselves a mouth. There are no eyes yet; it is still too early for sight. There is no nose, for what is there to breathe? A mouth is all we need.

And the scallops celebrate by rotating the large grey body, which is their home, like a hog on a spear. There is nothing left in their surroundings to kick or run into, so they have complete freedom of movement, as long as they move as one. The body turns upside down, with its slimy skin catching the light and its veins crackling like a small fire, and the scallop head bends towards the ocean floor, leans down gently and takes a mouthful of sand.

Radio

Podcasts are great, and there are so many of them. It is such convenient fun to listen in on the research and/or thought collection of another person, often some-one specialising in a field I am interested in but haven’t done much delving into of my own. Someone is talking into your ear as if telling you a bedtime (or any-time) story, except they are telling you about the connections drawn between the various sources of information they have found on a particular topic.

That said, not all of the podcasts I listen to are effectively non-fiction; some of my regulars are also artfully composed digests on literature or music. But the thing about podcasts that brings about a kind of fatigue, sometimes, is that they involve choice, specifically the choice to give oneself over to what is effectively another person’s realm, voice, and material. I have to be in the mood for the host’s voice, timbre, diction, and favoured topics.

You could argue that this is just as much the case with radio, but the nice thing about radio is that you tune in and things have just been streaming on without you, you dip into something that’s just going on already, and whatever host is there, whatever piece is playing, you settle in and listen to it: it’s the equivalent of sneaking into a performance room with the lights out, taking a seat at the back, and not having to explain yourself or introduce yourself to anyone. Things just unfold in front of you at their own pace, in their own time, and if you leave, they will continue even if you’re not there to listen to them.

Psychologically, there is something soothing to me in this, and radio, much more so than podcasts, is a medium I love. The fact that I can tune in and tune out and encounter a surprise, is so relaxing. I don’t have to choose whether I’m more in the mood for a podcast on the misuse of apostrophes or an interview with Damien Hirst, whether I’d rather listen to a woman’s take on contemporary slang, or a man’s; I can just tune in and see what’s there.

All this to say the following: my one true love, as far as radio goes, is a station [the Belgian classical station MUSIQ3] that has been in my life since I can remember grasping the concept of radio stations, and being able to differentiate one station from another. It plays in my parents’ house, and now it plays on my laptop whenever I want audio company but don’t want to let one of the usual podcast hosts or Youtubers* into my space. For some reasons, radio hosts (perhaps it’s just this particular station, though) seem less intrusive, simultaneously less rambling and less scripted, and they give more space to what I need: music I didn’t choose, but that someone else (smarter, with better taste, passionate and well-intentioned) chose for ‘me-the-audience’.

Radio is my permission to let someone else decide, to drift along with a programme that isn’t directed specifically towards me and my preferences (inferred from whatever links I may have clicked, or tastes I may have indicated on social media) but exists on its own merit. This all probably sounds too much like I’m asking for permission to like and listen to radio, when a lot of people around me seem to have time only for things that are specifically designed for them, things that will in some way improve them or boost their knowledge, but I like the drifting, leisurely quality of radio, the way it doesn’t want to do anything for me in particular. It lets me listen in, float along with the programme, without pretending to make my life any more productive.

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* Don’t get me wrong, the video essay is one of my favourite contemporary forms, and I love watching, and learning from, those – but sometimes I like tuning in to something for any other purpose than listening in on something.

After that hiatus

After a long period of not really writing, not immersing myself in writing, I become shy around it.

I’ve spent two months with other people’s writing, other people’s ideas, while making very little space for my own. And now my own writing feels like an alien gesture, something that would make me laugh if I walked in on myself doing it. So I tiptoe.

I’ve become afraid of doing the wrong thing. The act of writing, right now, is no longer carefree play, and my momentum or sense of purpose is so easily broken. Writing is external, a turning-inside-out of the mind’s parts, and because I am conditioned to assign greater authority to external assessments of me than into the way I feel about myself, I worry that the more I put out onto the page the more this material will collate into unflattering image of myself, increasing the chance of me messing up in a way I cannot ignore.

It is then that it becomes more important than ever to remind myself of the permission I have to mess up, to be sub-par, to throw out the idea of a standard in the first place. Returning from the pressure to achieve, dialling back to a state of play and permission to be playful, is hard work. What makes it hard is that it often doesn’t even feel like legitimate work. Alongside my return to the act of writing strolls an unwelcome sidekick: a deep and condescending voice telling me that the part of me that wants to play is the part that’s lazy, seeking an excuse not to have to make an effort. ‘I’m your critical spirit,’ says the voice, ‘and I am here to protect you from the part of you that’s naive.’

But that voice is not a writer, nor is it aware of the amount of good play does me, how kind and rewarding it feels to act without needing to be perfect, to do things without needing to achieve something, and how sad life would be without that feeling of ‘I don’t know what comes next, but I can’t wait to crawl in this direction and find out on the way.’