Category Archives: The Now

Brazilian Residency Notes Part 7



Yesterday a small group of us went to an Amerindian village to meet with a shaman. The above picture is of the ritual hut, where we watched a ceremony unfold, full of stories and musical instruments from the pipes to the lyre and drums. The floor of the hut was dirt, and we sat on pallets or on mats or chairs, or stretched out on the floor. A fire was regularly stoked with long branches, sending snowflakes of ash falling on our heads. The shaman laid out his objects and spoke slowly and at length. Thankfully one of the artists was kind enough to translate the discussions of his cosmology – the four elements that make up the world, and Patchamama, the (if I’m understanding it right) nothingness that rules it all. Some people took a kind of tea made from cactus called Wachuma – not a hallucinogen but a kind of drug that makes you look inward, that is to the shaman the personification of an ancestor who was seeking knowledge and was reborn into this plant.


There was a rhythm to the events, and everything happened at a leisurely pace.  The process of storytelling and ritual and music took over six hours and in the end we all walked back a couple of kilometres in the falling dusk, rather wordless about what we had seen.


Even now it’s hard to distil, an experience which is ongoing and will take some time to unfurl.




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Brazilian Residency Notes 6



(the artists’ studio, taken from the basketball court)

A full week has passed since I came to Kaaysa in Sao Paulo state. Here’s some of what I’ve learned, in an experience overflowing with expansive moments:

1. I am the only native English speaker here, though there is a French-Canadian woman here who, like me, doesn’t speak Portuguese. This state comes with its benefits and challenges.


2. The benefit of being surrounded by people who speak a language you cannot understand is a sense of freedom in social situations. There is no expectation that you will talk. You can flit here and there. You can busy yourself with your work, if you are working in a shared space, the sound of the language flowing over you. When people do talk to you, you know that they are making the effort. Their speaking in English is a kind of gift to you. You can cherish their words a little more.


3. The challenge is similar to the benefit of freedom. You are, in some ways, the ghost at the feast. With so much liveliness and companionship (people are very friendly here), you are the figure that can drift unseen or unacknowledged. Some times plans are made – for an excursion, for a talk – and you will have no idea until it begins to happen, at which point you must awkwardly ask what is going on. That question comes up all too often for my liking to my lips. What’s happening? You must always sound a little clueless.


4. I am the only writer here. The rest are visual artists. That is a double kind of invisibility – perhaps triple, with the language issue and my own introversion. All their art is in the studio, on the walls, on the table. It’s beautiful and complex. It sings out. My writing is in the books of mine I brought to share and on my computer. I have lent one of the artists my book; the rest have not seen my work at all, though we have had lots of conversation about their process, and a little about mine, only in the most oblique, partial way. It’s this that is possibly the hardest part for me. For my work to be unseen in the milieu of vibrant creation here is far harder than for my self to be so. This is some new thing for me to learn.


5. Things happen on their own schedule here – or appear to (see above). When someone is going to give a talk, there is no hour that is deliberately set aside for it. Lunch can happen at 1 or at 4. Dinner can start at midnight, long after you’ve broken down and cooked something and eaten it by yourself.


6. Sleep is a good idea. Brazil is so beautiful, and even with the days of rain we had, there was still so much to see and do, and a desire for the charming company of the others here, and even just listening, learning, writing, writing – people stay up late here, working at times that I have tried to emulate, for the experience. But all this comes at a price. Yesterday I was exhausted all day, and finally I made myself go to bed at the (ludicrously early) time of midnight. I slept til ten thirty, finally, rather than springing out of bed at seven after five hours of sleep as I had been doing. I feel better. A little tender round the edges.


7. I miss the rain. Now it’s gone. I have started listening to Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, and I wonder if she says anything on the role of rain and loneliness. It is a specific type of rain, though, with its own steady, kindly rhythm, that is not found in NYC, which her book deals with. I am fascinated to see what she has to say about visual art and loneliness, to listen to it, here, while I am surrounded with the stuff of it.


The learning continues.



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Brazilian Residency Notes Part 5



Rain. Days of rain, and the flood it brings. Above you can see the patio, under a near permanent two inch flood. So in all that time what did I do? Simply read, worked, talked to other artists almost endlessly. It stopped raining for the morning, in which I (foolishly as it turned out) did a clothes wash that is probably now still under and awning just as wet as it was when I took it out (the air saturated with water).


In that brief window of dryness I walked into town with one of the other artists, and we stopped frequently to look at some aspect of the town that marked it as fascinating – decayed ghost signs handpainted on walls, with black mould and moss creeping over it. A field that had become a swamp. A diy-looking area of construction. The mist draping gracefully over the rainforested hills. A binbag of exploded papaya. Dogs taking themselves quite affably for a walk.


Soon it was raining again, and it did not let up.


So, working, reading, taking notes, watching the others at work (something I could do endlessly, if it probably didn’t bother them), making communal meals, talking hours into the night about art theory and practice, swapping names of visual artists and writers. Drinking a little rum and juice and listening to the magnificent rain who owns the night, and all the frogs in it singing in praise.

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Brazilian Residency Notes Part 2



Yesterday I had no expectations for what the day might bring – and it turned out to bring quite a lot.


What you can see in the photo above is Ilha dos Gatos, the island of cats, just off the coast of Boiçucanga. The other artists on the residency were taking a trip there yesterday, something I didn’t know about since I passed out in my room at seven, and slept through various door knocks to see if I’d like to come. Eventually I was roused and asked “would you like to take a boat trip?” to which the answer is always yes, by the way (I am not often asked it, sadly).

I took a car down to the small boat with Ed and his wife Maria. The trip over was in beautiful sunshine – I missed the turtle apparently swimming alongside the boat, but no matter. On the island, folk went swimming in a natural pool full of tiny striped fish and gobies who wriggled themselves up on land. The beach had a few other revellers playing music, and a big friendly dog roaming about. A big fresh fish and some aubergine and courgette were grilled up, and so the time passed by quite peacefully. Until it came time to head home.


Our boat, rented for the day, was nowhere to be seen. On the hills of the coast, a great dark blue stain was spreading, with little white forks of lightening here and there – a bit of summer afternoon rain, it seemed. Still no boat. Then the storm hit us – just as I had wanted. The wind whipped about. The rain so heavy it felt like warm hail. It pounded into the sand and into the bare shoulders of the artists and the singular other group left. There was much concerned yelling on both sides while their dog ran around and up to us, shaking and looking for reassurance. The coconut trees swayed menacingly. Finally the boat arrived but it was too choppy to come close to shore, so we were ferried by waterski in ones and twos. Rescue waterski – and the first time I’d ever ridden one. I clung on with Maria. Once by the boat we had to jump in the water and swim to the ladder. My rucksack was soaked through, but luckily someone had brought a wet bag to keep all of our stuff safe.


The ride back was slow as everyone, soaked to the skin, eyed the shore, where the folds of the mountains retreated in gently grading triangles of blue. Until the river where we boarded. And then back to Kaaysa.


I couldn’t have asked for anything better, really, for a welcome into Brazilian life.

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In the Herald

Some words of mine recommending a lovely, under-publicised place in Scotland are in the Herald, alongside a few others.

Check it out here!

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Filed under Scotland, The Now

September activities

1. Pursuing with static vigour the idea of Autumn – that is to say, ideas collected from other countries (North America, mainly). Leaves red and orange. Mist. A little bird skeleton with the wings still on. Mushrooms and toadstools. Camp fires. Slugs and black beetles under stones coming out when the rain does. My tweets accrue on the subject, while I stay indoors looking at a milk sky, trying to:


2. Write essays for the Necessary Fiction residency. Write a recap for The Female Gaze. I need to start, I stare at the blinking cursor, my head in the mountains, my hands rustling leaves. I link too much, I stand signing. I am a sign of myself.


3. Awaiting. Waiting. Which has more verve, more glamour? To await something. Waiting on something. Waiting for. This is the linguistic exploration of someone at a bus stop, looking both ways and there is nothing and the phone battery is dead and you forgot your book. No cars. A deer up ahead, ghostly on splayed foot. My white deer, I think of you. It disappears around behind the corner shop and the recycling bins.


4. All the waiting leads to omens. To rituals – checking things, expecting things. Imagined deer. But a magpie did land on my window sill however many days ago. I couldn’t see it, but knew from the rattle. When I got up to look I only caught sight on the wings, the gloss – and it landed in a rowan tree, and there is no meaning in this, of course not.


5. No writing. Writing fiction will be October. I want cold breath and a clear head for that time.

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Filed under Planning, The Now

Numb fingers type faster


Today was one of those high, blue, fine-threaded days that brought a frost, and which means that my flat, a tenement from the thirties, is cold inside. We have heating, but it’s on a pretty poor gas system and we recently discovered that it was squeezing D’s lungs. A space heater will have to do us, when we feel lux enough to use it. The low today is only minus 2 celsius, so it’s not great trial. It just feels a little Dickensian to be wrapped in – okay – snuggies and blankets, with cold noses and fingers that bend a little unwillingly.


But I’m not here to complain. I’m here to express my gratitude to all of the people who have been visiting this blog recently and who have started following me on twitter. To the people who retweeted my story from yesterday, and who contacted me directly about it. Thank you! I think every writer craves an audience, and feels that when he or she has made a connection with a reader that that is something really uplifting.  I cannot explain this comfort, except that all writing is a form of communication, an attempt to lay out in textures and black marks something important to them. A story that burns through the finger tips. That wants, as Sundog Lit say, to burn the retinas. To light someone else up in the ways that they can and are able be. A less-than-perfect cross between song and chatter, physical sculpture and neon and flame.



It’s a dark time of the year, as I have said. Cold, blue, low lit. Writing is more important than ever, it feels. Reading, huddling round a book or bringing one clumsily, bittily, into being. I will have more time, now that my work, sadly, is cutting back my hours in the winter slump. The pictures above are from one of the distractions of the season: the Christmas Market on Princess Street. Outside of the picture are little huts strung with lights and tinsel, selling overpriced decorations and German snacks and hot mulled wine with schnapps. I’m thinking of setting up my own stand – selling a poem. Selling a photograph of this city. I won’t, because I’m truly not business minded, but the idea of doing it makes me smile. The possibility of physically handing my art over to someone as we both shiver and clap our hands at the chill.


There are ways to speak and ways to see on these cold days. If it’s warm where you are, perhaps summer, I am envious, but not. How are you managing though, wherever you are?


And thank you, as ever, for reading here.

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Filed under 2012, consolations of reading, consolations of writing, The Now