My trip is over. It’s hard to return from travelling, shifting from spontaneous movement back into a more fixed routine. But it’s a treat to know how much I’ve been missed. Thank you followers for all your wonderful messages!
I set off at the beginning of March with a month return to New York; an unusual choice for someone who loves remote places, big countryside, quiet. But something had pulled me to the city. There was a desire to witness streets and buildings I had grown to know through cinema, and also the fact that my mother’s sister lives there.
I have seen Ruthe a handful of times, growing up. There she is, one Christmas when we lived on the farm, putting up my hair in bright clips she’d brought all the way from America. Suddenly, a fuss is being made. It turns out I have nits. Ruthe and my mother are flapping and talking in their wonderful Portuguese.
Some people say it’s an angry-sounding language, but to me it’s the crash and jingle of open expression. I stopped speaking Portuguese when I started school in the UK and began to learn English. This suited my mother because leaving Brazil had been heartbreaking: to only speak English in the home was another way to forget the country she’d left.
I have always seen Ruthe as the one person that can draw out my real mother. I love seeing them together. This is when I catch a glimpse of Sonia – the woman who grew up on Copacabana beach, who says what she thinks and loves to laugh.
Since my father retired from his overseas travelling, I’ve finally been able to discover the real him and, through that, the side to me, which until now has felt alone, without source. I wanted to see Ruthe again to try to understand the other side to me – my mother’s side: Sonia, the part she left in Brazil.
The wonderful thing about Ruthe is that although I’ve only seen her a handful of times, I love her from my whole body – not just my heart, but in all surrounding blood too. I think of her and feel every cell of oxygen in my veins reply, without condition.
It was the same for my mother when Ruthe first came to live with her and my grandparents. Mum was an only child and my grandmother warned Ruthe about her jealous nature. But the first thing my mother did when she saw Ruthe, was hand over her very best doll.
Sonia has never done anything like that, my grandmother told Ruthe.
New York gave me the chance to see how much Ruthe loves Mum. She forgives her everything in that, for her, Sonia has nothing to forgive. As Ruthe and I sit out on her porch in Queens, we giggle together about how Mum starts laughing, and then cannot stop, and then wets her pants a little, and then starts coughing. It’s the most hilarious display, but one that Ruthe has seen more than anyone else; only with Ruthe does my mother truly forget herself, and her worries, and laugh.
Ruthe was nine when she came to live with my grandparents. My mother was sixteen.
I ask Ruthe why Mum was different with her – I remember my mother’s stories of how she was always trying to read with her cousins, whining, asking her to come and play with them.
Go away, she would tell them. Stop bothering me and let me get on with my book!
But if Ruthe wanted something, Mum would drop everything. She taught Ruthe to read, put her through college. I love to hear the way Ruthe often says to me: oh my god, I owe Sonia everything!
Mum was a lawyer in Brazil, but when she came to England her degree meant nothing as it was based on the Napoleonic code. Then she fell pregnant and my father knew he had to find a home for them. He took a tenancy on a farm in Salisbury, and then he left for a project in Africa. He was away for two months. My mother hadn’t even got her UK driving license.
Ruthe came to visit us on the farm one year. My father was absent, of course. She told me that Mum had to go out and left her with my brother and I. We were upstairs playing. She was in the kitchen.
My god, Gabriela – the silence! she says, touching my arm. It was unbearable. I had to put the TV on. I don’t know how Sonia coped with it.
As for my brother and I that silence is something we’ve always known, something we love – but we didn’t grow up in Rio de Janeiro; we didn’t give up everything for fields of wheat, blowing in the wind.
Ruthe told me something about my grandfather one evening as we ate a meal in a Brazilian restaurant in Manhattan. Eurico was a man I never knew. Mum often tells me about the books and chocolates he used to bring her when he came home from work. He once danced with Eva Perón.
I asked Ruthe about when he died and she told me that he had become very afraid, of life almost, so nervous was he of dying. He used to be in his study while Ruthe and Mum were getting ready to go out, saying he was fine, and then suddenly he’d call Ruthe and say, please stay with me here – sit and read to me.
At times, I think I’ve felt what my grandfather did. A nervousness of something. For me, it doesn’t necessarily come with a foreboding of death, but I feel rigid when I’m in this state – as though I’m looking out at the world from my body, which has become a cage, keeping me held fast in a desperate attempt at safety. But counteracting this fear has been a desire to burst free, travel, perform on the stage. They don’t necessarily work that well together these two forces! In the beginning, one holds the other tight, and neither are very happy – but then the dam breaks.
This time, the water surged as I booked a flight to New York, thinking: I’ll start there and see where I end up.
As I write this, I smile at the places I did end up: on the subway, wondering why these seats aren’t taken until I sit down, realise the stink and watch the estuaries of piss, winding around my feet as the train snakes along the track. Then there was the beauty parlour! Me, with both legs in the air, naked from the waist down, having the best wax I’ve ever had from a gorgeous lady called Fernanda. Or, on a train for over thirty hours, crossing America while a man on his mobile behind me says – listen, you fired your gun, but it’s not like you actually killed anyone…
And, suddenly, I’m in a carpark in Buffalo, sitting in a hire car.
I’m humming to myself, this nervous, trilling tune because I know I have to drive – even though I only ever really cycle places, and normally in my own country. I’ve driven a car a few times this year, but I think the fact that I’m positioned on the left – hoping I can pick up how to use all the gadgets like headlights – is making me uneasy.
At some point, I just have to start the engine and go.
A little over an hour later, I’m watching the water crash down Niagara Falls as the sky begins to darken and snow falls gently. I am alone. The wind is icy and I can see the spray from the waterfall turning to slush in the air. At moments like this, I’m grateful that my fear of life cannot keep me tied up – that something greater pulls me out, draws me onwards. I have a bed for tonight, and tomorrow I’m going over the border into Canada where I’m going to drive until I hit Lake Huron. Like the thoughts of sitting with Ruthe, having my life opened up a little more, Huron County calls to me. This is Alice Munro territory. Her writing kept me going over the years I struggled to find my own voice, and now it’s time to see where her stories came from. I know Alice still lives in the area, close to where she grew up. I’ve read about her favourite restaurant in Goderich, the wonderful secondhand bookshop there. Who knows, perhaps I’ll run into her…
For now, though, it’s time to get back to work, and another year of my workshops. Currently, I’m busy with the students at City University, preparing for City Nights. The third Monday of each month they will be reading to agents at the Betsey Trotwood in Clerkenwell.
I am also running a 5 night residential writer’s workshop on 15th July with the gorgeous Anita Lewis, providing fresh, exciting food and an accepting space to explore creativity. Anita and I will be looking at how to guide your ideas from those first, messy feelings of inspiration to a tangible form that others will enjoy. We will be exploring creativity through movement, breath, food, conversation, laughter, silence, fun, rest and writing. Please feel free to email if you have any questions.
Have a look at my day workshops in Oxford, which are going to be a lot of fun this year. These include: sorry, but remind me why I’m following my breath, and it’s a writer’s life, don’t we know it!
My mentoring work with freelancers and writers continues, whilst I prepare for the Guided Retreat on the Masters programme at Oxford University where I will be teaching this year’s writers about public speaking.
I am also opening up a ‘library’ on my blog where, with help from a very accomplished colleague, you can browse ebooks. At the end of each month we’ll be discussing a new title, looking at what works with the writing, what doesn’t, and seeing what we can learn. It is part of my philosophy that a writer needs to read in order to learn to write, and also that the advice of a good editor is invaluable. Do please let me know if you are interested in having your ebook put under the microscope!
I’ve come back with new eyes, new feelings and a greater sense of my own history. The rest is up to Spring. Let’s see what grows in the coming weeks!
Worth checking out
A huge thanks to Laura’s Mess for nominating me for an award. As you know, I don’t quite follow the rules when it comes to these, but it always gives me a good opportunity to mention other lovely bloggers. This site is particularly gorgeous with it’s lush recipes and stunning photos.
Also have a look at the wonderful Nina – with words that flow like water. Her enthusiasm is unboundless and her blog a real pleasure – full of treats from super quotes to great short stories!