The Wisdom of Fighting Zombies

Q: What’s the difference between Charlie Brooker and a Buddhist nun?

A: Not much, it turns out.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, Charlie Brooker is a British writer, satirist (tough job these days), and broadcaster. He dislikes most things and swears a lot. The nun I have in mind is Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist teacher and author.

How did I arrive at this improbable conclusion that these unlike people are very much alike? It started with binge-reading Pema Chodron. Sometimes books, like people, appear in your life and you wonder how you lived without them. They bring a fundamental shift of energy and wisdom that kicks down a door in your brain, shines light into a black room and blows away the dust.when things fall apart

One of Chodron’s books cropped up on the shelf of an Airbnb in rural Arkansas. Stealing it seemed like bad karma, so I went to Amazon for When Things Fall Apart and The Wisdom of No Escape. I was reading the latter on a flight to London, trying to jog myself out of a weird funk. The world felt like it was shrinking around me. Telltale clumsiness had emerged: dropping things, taking wrong turns, sending idiotic emails, all the usual signs of a swerve into depression. I needed to hear something good.

Chodron writes things like:

Our wisdom is all mixed up with what we call our neurosis. Our brilliance, our juiciness, our spiciness, is all mixed up with our craziness and our confusion, and therefore it doesn’t do any good to try to get rid of our so-called negative aspects, because in that process we also get rid of our basic wonderfulness.

Don’t you feel better, saner, more worthy, just reading that?

How about:

Loving-kindness — maitri — towards ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Mediation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.

That’s how she thinks, speaks, writes. Chodron exudes calm. Her philosophy is that people are basically good and need only to wake up that inner goodness.

Charlie Brooker begs to differ. “I don’t get people,” he writes. “What’s their appeal, precisely? They waddle around with their haircuts on, cluttering the pavement like gormless, farting skittles. They’re awful.”

That’s from Dawn of the Dumb, a collection of his “Screen Burn” columns for the Guardian from October 2004 to June 2007. The dates are significant because that was the pinnacle of my London music journalist/gadabout phase. It spanned my final year at Q, another year on a now defunct music magazine, and a stint as a promotions coordinator for a megalomaniac.dawn of the dumb

Good years, spent in a delicious, mindless haze of 9-to-5, city breaks, cohabiting, cult TV, class A’s, and the Saturday Guardian. That newspaper was the lynch-pin of my entire way of life. It was shorthand for everything that was important at the time: London, media, “culture”, aspirational cooking, self-conscious irony.

We didn’t watch loads of TV, but what we did was almost exactly what Charlie Brooker was writing about in “Screen Burn” (with the exception of The Apprentice, which I could never stomach). It wasn’t a matter of seeking out the shows he reviewed, more that he unerringly targeted the excruciating and gawp-worthy. Which we happened to watch for those precise reasons.

Finding Dawn of the Dumb amidst the pile of discarded holiday reads in the foyer of our building was like discovering a time capsule from that slice of my life. It took me back to an innocent time when the prospect of David Cameron as prime minister was just a horrible fantasy, and Big Brother still launched careers (if you can call them that). To my surprise, I still remember most of the BB contestants he skewers, a decade later, not to mention various X-Factor one-hit wonders.

Brooker makes it worth revisiting. He can make almost anything funnier and more vivid than real life. Take his description of Glastonbury music festival:

Once you’re in, the sheer scale of it is initially overwhelming. Imagine forcing the cast of Emmerdale to hurriedly construct Las Vegas at gunpoint in the rain. Then do it again. And once more for luck. That’s Glastonbury: a cross between a medieval refugee camp and a recently detonated circus.

As a veteran Glasto-goer, I promise that is the best description of it you will ever read.

I also watched the pilot of Prison Break, which he summarises thus:

Prison Break is possibly the dumbest story ever told. It makes 24 look like cinéma vérité. It’s as realistic as a cotton-wool tiger riding a tractor through a teardrop. I’ve played abstract Japanese platform games with more convincing storylines.

Brooker writes like a butcher dismembering a cow and most of the time his (metaphorical) knife is hacking at a hapless reality show contestant or D-list presenter. Not, you might think, of a piece with Chodron’s all-embracing gentleness.

Yet through them both runs a thread of intense compassion. Brooker’s rage isn’t at individuals, per se, it’s at the cruelty, greed or stupidity they manifest on TV. His purest vitriol is aimed at psychics that prey on the “grieving and desperate”. No matter how artfully furious, his columns boil down to one message repeated over and over: The world’s a mess, people are a mess, we need to be better and nicer to each other if we’re going to get through.

Charlie Brooker may disagree with this characterisation of his intent, but read the books: it’s there. Like Pema Chodron, he believes people can be better if they just wake up. His method is bucket of ice over the head accompanied by a swift kick to the kidneys versus her cultivate mindfulness and be friendly to yourself but they point the same escape

This proves Chodron’s point about brilliance/craziness. There is no single right way to do things. You can sit in meditation and learn to love each out-breath. You can also sit, shrieking, in front of crap TV. It’s not just what you do — it is the intent and spirit in which it is done.

The corollary to that is you can learn from all sorts of things. Laughing till I cried over Dawn of the Dumb was as mind-altering as mulling The Wisdom of No Escape. Don’t shut things down, they would both counsel. Keep your eyes and mind wide open, and try to laugh. That’s the wisdom of fighting zombies.


Is it normal to feel this crazy?

Ever have days where you just. Feel. Crazy? Like your mental timing belt snapped and the engine of your brain is beating itself to death inside the bonnet?

Michel de Montaigne – Essays

Keeping a notebook gives you the privilege of looking back on these moments. Below, you’ll find links to books by writers who articulate this feeling much better than I.

18 June 2016 is it normal to feel this crazy?

For every 10 waking minutes I feel confident, competent, generally positive about where I am and where I’m going, I spend roughly 27 minutes in a sea of anxiety, 13 minutes moderately depressed and/or hopeless, seven minutes angry/outraged and the other three minutes I’m eating, or drunk. Is this normal? Do other people feel their nerves are being prised apart fibre by fibre with dull tweezers? Or like their soul is wearing one of those lead aprons they weighed me down with when I got dental x-rays as a kid? How do other people feel? Am I normal? I can’t be normal; I’m pretty sure I’m crazy, or getting there. But how crazy. Should I section myself now? Kill myself now? Is that something only a crazy person would think?

It was Montaigne who wrote about the power of fear — that men are so frightened of death they run out and kill themselves. I feel like that a lot of the time. I’m so afraid of things happening I want to make them happen, just to get over the horrible anticipation. Having a shitty day and your boyfriend’s hanging out with his ex? Dump him immediately, because 1 + 1 = the square root of ohmygodhowcouldhelovemeasmuchasheloveshertheyhaveadogandeverything.

Not the thoughts of a sane person.

But the question remains, nagging. Am I a little crazy or a lot crazy. If I work really hard to keep it under wraps can I pass as eccentric? Or am I so fundamentally unreliable I should be straitjacketed immediately? I can’t answer these questions because I don’t know how crazy other people really are. Because the sane thing to do, when you suspect you’re crazy, is lie like crazy.

Cheryl Strayed – Wild 

Fill your Facebook/Instagram/Twitter feed with motivational quotes and pictures of sunsets (check), do yoga (check), tell people how doing yoga has transformed your life (check, plus it’s true), update your LinkedIn profile so you look smarter and more employable (check), network (check), laugh (check), use mascara (check), shave your legs (one of these days). There are ten thousand ways to fraudulently present oneself to the world as a functioning adult. I try. Other people presumably try. Or maybe their smiles are genuine, maybe that sunset really lifted their mood, maybe they are in fact super smart and ragingly employable. I have no way of knowing.

What I know is that for every minute of relative calm and productivity, I experience eight on a negative emotional scale that encompasses frustration, anger, judgement, anxiety, depression, panic, fear, self-loathing, doubt, despair, indifference, or plain boredom. Then there’s a minute when I’m drunk or eating. If for some reason I’m not drinking that extra minute gets devoted to the negative scale. If I’m hungover, 35 seconds of my good minute are converted to self-loathing.

Where does this leave me? I don’t know. I don’t know where I started, or where I’m going. Is there any chance I’m ever going to understand what it feels like to not feel crazy?


Books to staunch the crazy

Class Warfare, then and now

Like most Londoners, I am can’t look away from the awfulness of the Grenfell Tower fire and its aftermath. The death toll is at 30 and rising. Recriminations are flying.

Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian, argues:

Grenfell Tower should mark a point of no return. No return to the frenzied deregulation, cost-cutting and rampant inequality of the last four decades. These are not new evils. They have been lurking for many years. But it took the light of a burning building for the whole nation to see them.

These are not new evils.

working classThis is point is fresh and urgent in light of my current reading, Friedrich Engels’ sociological classic The Condition of the Working Class in EnglandWritten in the 1840s, it reports with unsparing detail and more than a dash of bleak humour, on the mindless cruelties meted out on the poor.

Deregulation, cost-cutting and rampant inequality in the Industrial Era meant children in working in glass factories that were so hot the floor would burst into flames under their feet. It meant girls working 18 to 20 hour days in London sweatshops, sewing the elaborate dresses worn by their social superiors. It meant women giving birth and staggering back to the factory floor within days to slave for 12 or 14 hours at a stretch, bodies oozing milk and blood.

It also meant violence. At one point Engels defends the courage of the English working class by listing “Incendiarisms and attempted explosions.” In the course of a four months attempts were made to blow up three different factories in Sheffield, a knife and file works at nearby Shales Moor, and factories in Bury and Bolton. “Six cases in four months,” he notes, “all of which have their sole origin in the embitterment of the working-men against the employers. What sort of a social state it must be in which such things are possible I hardly need say.” (Italics mine)

It is the same sort of social state where dozens of people can die trapped in unimaginable horror because some bean-counter wanted to save a few quid. The same social state where corporations dodge billions of pounds in tax while the government merrily guts programmes that help the poor. It is the same sort of state as its Victorian equivalent that judges people’s worth based on capital.

Modern Tories, like the Victorian bourgeoisie, pay lip service to hard work. They tell us it is the path to dignity and fulfillment and social inclusion. That’s why you should do it for eight, 10, 12 hours per day, as many days a week as your employer sees fit. This is why you should accept zero hour contracts and hustle a second or third shift for Uber or Deliveroo (companies awash in unearned capital).

This is a lie, like everything else that seeps through their pursed lips. Capitalism, as an economic system, is not designed to reward work. If it were, cleaners would be making six-figures and braying public school boys would be on the dole. If it were the jobs that barely deliver a living wage in Britain, like social work, teaching, nursing, fire-fighting, caring, would make people rich.

veblenThe severing of the link between work and wealth is not an aberration of capitalism, it is the ideal. It isn’t a flaw; the system is working perfectly. Capitalism is designed to support the accumulation and concentration of capital. Concentration, by definition, means something that belongs to the few. A good starting point for understanding this is Thorsten Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class.

Britain remains in the grip of its old evils because industrial capitalism evolved with a ruthless self-protection mechanism. English children no longer dip pottery into buckets of lead glaze with their bare hands, or die of consumption after inhaling industrial grit their entire lives. We’re not barbarians after all. Now the bourgeoisie suffocates the proletariat with hell of meaningless, repetitive, sub-living wage jobs.

“Nothing is more terrible than being constrained to do some one thing every day from morning until night against one’s will,” Engels writes. “And the more a man the worker feels himself, the more hateful must his work be to him, because he feels the constraint, the aimlessness of it for himself. Why does he work? For a love of work?… Not at all! He works for money, for a thing which has nothing whatsoever to do with the work itself; and he works so long, moreover, and in such unbroken monotony, that this alone must make his work a torture.”

Tories, like the factory barons of the 19th century, believe this torture is the birthright of the non-privileged. If you arrive in the world with capital you can participate in it with their blessing, otherwise, you can work.

This callousness rarely spills into overt murder in the enlightened 21th century. When it does, as with Grenfell Tower, it is an unfortunate outcome of fiscal prudence. Saving a few thousands pounds while insulating a tower block is perfectly reasonable. After all, there are MPs expenses to pay, second homes to keep up, children to send to private schools. These exquisite capitalists are generous about their own needs but frugal when it is someone else’s life in the balance.

I would like to have some pithy words of advice to wrap this up. A five-point plan, maybe, or six tips for survival. I’m sorry to say, nothing springs to mind. I’m mired in this system just as much as you, they and we all are. klein

“Protest and Persist” by Rebecca Solnit offers powerful ideas. Naomi Klein’s new book No Is Not Enough might have some pointers. If you have any suggestions, thoughts, or have a story to share, jump into the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke.


Let’s Talk About Sex

True confession: I spent the last 48 hours trying frantically to write about my sex life.

You heard me. In a burst of bravado I pitched some ideas to a women’s magazine. To my horror, the editor asked me to write one. I was at REI, queuing to buy socks for Chris, when her email arrived. I went hot and cold, then dizzy. Was buying his favourite socks going to be enough to make up for dishing personal information in a public forum?

“Is your husband comfortable with you being this open about your sex life?” the editor asked.

Good question.


That night, after a couple glasses of wine, I took the plunge: “So, how would you feel about me writing about our sex life?”

To my relief, he was good with it, as long as he got a preview.

That, it transpired, was the least of my concerns.

Travelling from Oregon to London to Ibiza to Manchester in the space of a week left me short on creative time. I finally sat down to write in Manchester. Perched on an uncomfortable hotel chair, in my pants, I tried to render in words the elusive emotions of an intimate encounter. Quelle surprise, words went belly up on the page like fish in a dynamite pond. It wasn’t moving, it wasn’t sexy, it wasn’t even coherent.

Thankfully Chris got back from work so I could quit for the night.

My Wednesday deadline was poised like the sword of Damocles. Saturday night I caught a train to London while my husband got on a plane to Denmark. It made perfect sense to spend 10 hours on a slow-mo Hackney bar crawl with Ruth, rounded out with another bottle of wine at her flat.

I was wide awake at five o’clock Monday morning, heart pounding, anxiety’s fingers wrapped around my throat. Too dizzy to read or sit upright, I lay on the sofa chanting, “All is well” in the vain hope it might be true. Needless to say, the essay went untouched.

Tuesday I flew to Spain. Rather, I caught traversed taxi-plane-bus-train-taxi transport sequence that got me from Finsbury Park, north London to Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz (best known for its sherry and horses). En route I had plenty of time to think about the ways this personal essay was not working. In a burst of desperation/inspiration I emails to a couple of Portland (OR) based sex therapists. They both responded and, thanks to the nine-hour time difference, I found myself with an 11PM and 2AM interview.

The first one was easy enough. It is light in Jerez till after 10PM so another hour wasn’t a stretch. I set two alarms: 1:40 and 1:45. The fidgety timekeeper in my brain booted me awake at 1:37. Chris was wide awake in Helsinki so we texted till five to two. Then I hit the call button on Skype and snapped into chipper journalist mode.

On the evidence of the interviews sex therapists are a delightful bunch. Both women sounded like people I want to be friends with. This gave me hope. Maybe their wisdom would bleed into my writing. Maybe their sensibleness would make sense of my nonsense.

After chatting to Chris I fell asleep around 3AM, slept through my alarm, and woke beneath a cloud. Must write personal essay. Must find a place to live. Must… must… must…


Crawling back into the surprisingly comfortable twin bed, plugging my ears and waiting for the world to go away never looked so good. Behind all this, the nagging thought that I could have asked for an extension on the essay. Hitting deadline is one of my sacred principles though, the freelancer’s code. I didn’t want to look like a flake on my first outing. Nor did I want to send something that would shame me as a writer.

Midday came and went. Two more drafts begun. A plate of rice and beans eaten on the terrace. Phone calls to an estate agent to arrange a 5PM viewing of a flat 4km away. That’s a 50 minute walk according to Google, which dispensed no wisdom on public transport. I mentally blocked out the afternoon: write till 4. Walk, view, walk back. Then I had till 10PM to send the piece, based on a 5PM finish in the magazine’s New York office.

By the time I set out I’d hatched a new strategy. Ditch the narrative essay. Focus on the key message: How this experience helped me overcome my relationship fears. Write it one-two-three-four. There was a conclusion tacked onto an earlier draft that I could live with.

“If I can write the essay to fit that conclusion, it’ll be okay,” I said to Chris.

He took my panicking over writing about our sex life better than I would. It’s unlikely the tables will ever turn, but if they do it is going to take an effort of will to sit back and let him be frank.

Jerez Norte is a dead zone during siesta. Avenues, parks and office buildings uniformly deserted. I walked along, past HiperAsia, Lidl, Mercadona, mounting pieces of evidence that my destination isn’t where I want to be.

Enrique was in his car, smoking and texting. Tufts of nasal hair, like Meyer Wolfsheim. We stood in the shade next to a bar and he told me this was the best zone of the city. It looked like Marina Botafoc without the yachts: soulless blocks of flats with high gates and artificially turquoise pools. We looked at one of the flats. Sterile, ugly, with a tiny oblong that passes for a terrace in this town. The walk back was, mercifully, quicker for being familiar.

wallaceHome, straight to the laptop. Write. Write. Write. As I hacked away, the thought kept repeating: A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again. David Foster Wallace’s essay of that title is turgid and self-important beyond belief (it encapsulates the experience of reading his work) but it is a great title. And captured my precise feelings about writing the damn essay. It should have been fun. A yomp. I was just asked to write about my experience. What could be easier? Pulling teeth, for one.

Even with the wise, candid sex therapist input the essay veered like a rudderless sail boat. There’s a Spanish saying: va viento en popa means to go extremely well, to be on a roll. My roll was more kid-backwards-downhill-on-skates (waiting for a crash). I scrabbled for my best writing teacher advice: Break it down, tackle small sections, don’t edit, keep writing.

I meant to pour a glass of wine to aid the creative process but couldn’t bring myself to leave the desk for that long. Sentence by clunky sentence I inched towards the conclusion. That kept changing too, but it was low on my worry list.

Around half-eight I plunked the last words in. It wasn’t good, but there was an introduction, four main sections and a brief conclusion. It was 1037 words. I spell-checked and proofread, consulted their website for the therapists full names and titles. After it was done, I read it again.

Chris was messaging from the gig in Helsinki. “Have you sent it?” he asked, 20 minutes after I told him I was finished.

“Just now,” I said, opening an email window.

The editor replied not long after: “Thanks, I’ll send notes tomorrow.”

Dread oozed back into my bubble of relief. It is without doubt one of the worst things I’ve ever written. Easily beyond repair. So far, nothing from New York today. I’ll just have to deal with it when it happens.

George Orwell remarked that writing a book is like a long bout of a painful illness –and he was a man with ample knowledge of both those things. Writing a personal essay to order is acute, like projectile vomiting in public. The topic of my essay was a huge confidence boost, writing about it smashed that confidence to fragments.

Win some. Lose some.

If you must write about sex (or anything) get help


Camera Poems

About this time last year I met Ilona Wagenaar, a talented and brilliant Dutch fine art photographer (and international lawyer). We clicked and, after a long lunch at Can Curune in Ibiza, she proposed I write the text for a book of photography.

The result is, Camera Poemsa stunning coffee table volume that combines her pictures and my words. It was a free, playful collaboration, completely unlike any writing I’d done before. Instead of a strict brief she gave me the images and let me use my imagination. This created space to explore and ask questions — which I then had to answer.

Ideas and narratives emerged organically from the colour, texture, repetition, reflections, and references in the photos. It was one of the most joyful projects I have ever undertaken and that shines through in the book.

For more about Ilona and her creative process, read this interview in The Heroine’s Journey. For a sample of images and text from the book, read on.

Camera Poems cover art — all photos courtesy Ilona Wagenaar


Ilona Wagenaar is, among other things, a fine art photographer, writer, lawyer, educator, connoisseur, artist’s model, and publisher. For the artist, every experience hones the vision. The more lives one leads, the broader the perspective, the deeper the insight.

Complexity cannot be faked or forced, it has to arise from the fertile earth of experience. The roots of Ilona’s work are nourished by a lifetime of diligent study and autodidaction; by ceaseless curiosity and refusing to be a spectator. From her undergraduate study of art history, to her career as a lawyer, to her parallel life as an artist and muse, Ilona has used her formidable intellect and confidence to nurture creativity instead of yielding to convention.

She was, for many years, the partner and creative collaborator of portraitist Cornelis le Mair. He painted her over and over, fascinated by her keen eyes and eloquent composure. Ilona always blurred the line of subjectivity, though. As often as she sat for portraits, she turned her camera on le Mair, his home, their shared lives and friendships, capturing the colour and flourish with great warmth.

For Ilona, everything is a potential subject. She is bold enough to welcome the challenge of photographing the lives and work of fellow artists including le Mair, Lolo Loren, and Hans Laagland. She thrives on the technical and intellectual challenge of not just reproducing but interpreting the art of fellow creators, with incisive, colorful, revealing results.

Still-lifes, landscapes and studies of the natural world take Ilona’s photography a step further into the realm of exploratory and abstract, drawing from an immemorial well of inspiration. Her lively eye and finely honed technical prowess probe the deceptive simplicity of nature to unveil its underlying complexity. Her work continuously engages with and articulates a profound truth: Art is not an object. It is a way of seeing the world.

pup 1



The contrasting focus of these two images open a dialogue about perception and experience. The wind-turbine stands rooted, motionless it seems, apart from the whirl of blades. They spin on the edge of invisibility, too swift for the camera shutter; we infer their existence because we know the tricks movement plays. Our confidence loses its footing in the next frame as our eyes contradict our mind. The bounding dog looks motionless; the static ground blurs. We confront the unreliability of our assumptions, our haphazard approach to physical evidence. Mostly, we ignore the fact the earth turns at tremendous speed. We ignore the fact the universe is mostly empty space. It is easy to pretend that perception is reality; comforting to imagine a non-existent solidity.

Movement is a gentle reminder of the wild energy of the universe. Yet it reverberates with appreciation for ordinary comforts . The joy of a pet running to its beloved guardian; the elegance of a turbine channeling the power of the wind. These pleasures have an unquantifiable energy of their own. They keep us grounded amidst the uncertainties of life on a spinning planet.

“We still continue to deceive ourselves about the motion of that which is to come. The future stands firm… but we move about in infinite space.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke

death 1


Two skulls rest cheek to cheek, grinning at a private joke. A skeleton reclines, hat pulled down to shade absent eyes. What do the dead know? What is the source of their enternal silent mirth? Mortality plays dice with humanity’s most fundamental anxiety. Instead of solemnity it slyly observes our futile evasions.

Emblems of music, art and literature mingle with chopsticks, bowls and empty brocade silk boots. Aspirations to immortality brought down to earth. Quotidian death-in-life, or vice versa. Beady eyes peer from a rigid fringe of feathers, a desiccated owl, wry and wise in death.

Desire, not life, is not the opposite of death. Consumption is a flickering candle we cling to in the face of a darkness we don’t understand. But the things we crave are faithless, indifferent. The expensive watch unrepentently marks our progress towards the grave. Gorgeous vases are as empty as soulless bodies. Flowers wilt with no thought for our delicate psyches. We turn to cameras to stop time, to books and maps for enlightenment. But somewhere, an invisible hand skillfully pours water into a dish. Another petal falls from the rose. A rocking chair creeks in a soft afternoon breeze. The skulls watch and smile.

“I want an honorable goddam skull when I’m dead, buddy. I hanker after an honorable goddam skull like Yorick’s.” ~J.D. Salinger





Eyes are the ultimate interloper. Physics instructs us that the act of observing changes the behaviour of the observed. Our eyes guilty of ceasless interference. This ineluctable relationship lies at the heart of these mirror-like images: Seer and the seen come face to face, two irreconcilable visions. One pair of pictures shows a rusty chain within concentric red circles. Questions fly like sparks struck by its deceptive simplicity. Is the chain falling into a bottomless hole or rising to an unknowable height? Are the red circles an object or a trick of light? Does the chain symbolise bondage or escape? Is it hoist or an anchor?

The second duo is an unapologetic visual pun, a playful take on the mechanics of vision. At first we see an eye. Decontextualised, the metal crosshatch suggests an art exhibit, perhaps a close-up of a sculpture or a robot. Study the image longer and the apparently concrete object dissociates into layers. The internal curves of the structure which, at first glance, seem deliberate, become ambiguous. Are we looking up at a series of non-symmetrical balconies through a grated window to the sky? Or are we at the top of something, looking into the belly of a carefully constructed beast? Is the eye staring back at us?

In both sets of images the obvious first impression melts on closer inspection, creating pervasive unease. Anxiety rises as we see reality shift and distort beneath our gaze. Beauty and ugliness are projections of the eyes. There is no such thing as an innocent observer.

“All that we can see is only a fraction of the universe.” ~Jeanette Winterson

For more of Ilona’s art, and to learn about past and future exhibitions and projects, visit her website

Related books

Being Married

Getting married is a peak experience. Being married is climbing a mountain.

totally unretouched
Grand Teton, Wyoming

I don’t mean that in a negative way. Standing in thin air gets boring. But the shift to day-to-day, one foot in front of the other is a major adjustment. In such times, it is essential to seek the wisdom of those who have gone before. Especially if your family history includes a succession of marriages with the sinking/explosive properties of depth charges.

We began married life with Joan Didion’s gimlet-eyed appraisal of ’60s Vegas,  “Marrying Absurd” from her astonishing essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlahem.slouching

“Dressing rooms, Flowers, Rings, Announcements, Witnessess Available, and Ample Parking,” Didion writes. “All of these services, like most others in Las Vegas (sauna baths, payroll-check cashing, chinchilla coats for sale or rent) are offered twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, presumably on the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot.”

My husband and I wed within 48 hours of getting the marriage licence. Our engagement (unannounced) lasted about two weeks. Why the rush? Because it passed the last day test, e.g. if tomorrow were my last day on earth, I wanted to spend it as his wife.

Here we are, then, married.

Life continues.

Specifically, he is still on the road with work. I’m staying with family, living out of a suitcase for the final weeks of his contract. Some time in the next month we hope to have a home in Spain. If everything works out. We count on things working out.

Optimism is a prerequisite for any marriage. Ours is probably no more demanding than any other, just different.

It is easy to feel alone in this new thing so I am grateful to my dear friend, the gifted writer Melissa Madenski. When she says, “you should read” I listen. Over coffee at Tabor Space — a coffee shop sanctuary tucked into a church in Southeast Portland — she recommended This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett.

happy marriage

A couple years ago I read and loathed both The Patron Saint of Liars and Truth & Beauty but Melissa doesn’t give bad advice so I trotted off to get …Happy Marriage.

Among other things, it taught me to be willing to give writers another chance. Though I have no desire to read any more of her fiction, Patchett’s essay on marriage sends reverberations down the long bones of my legs. She writes of her relationship with her second husband which, for over a decade, was defined by her refusal to marry. After a disastrous first marriage she decided there was no need to ever do that again. A sensible stance, if you ask me.

Then her partner is diagnosed with a serious heart condition. “All these years I had thought to be afraid of only one potential ending: by not marrying Karl, we could never get divorced,” she writes. “By not marrying him, he would never be lost to me. Now I could see the failure of my imagination. I had accounted only for the loss I knew enough to fear.”

I know that feeling, the hammer-blow realisation that what I’m scared of isn’t what’s at stake. Fear is provocative, especially in relationships. Not fear of what is, but fear of what we remember, and what we imagine might be.

Adrienne Rich describes it as “pain… flashing its bleak torch in my eyes/blotting out her particular being/the details of her love. (From “Splittings” in Dream of a Common Language). We all have baggage, remembered wounds that flare up under the heat of common languageemotional intensity. The memory of pain become a self-perpetuating cycle of fear, if you let it. Fear is a virus that needs us to replicate. It will multiply and gorge itself on our happiness unless we keep our eyes locked on the details of our love.

Patchett recognises the consequences of letting the virus breed. “The fact that we came so close to missing out, missing out because of my own fear of failing, makes me think I avoided a mortal accident by the thickness of a coat of paint. We are, on this earth, so incredibly small, in the history of time, in the crowd of the world, we are practically invisible, not even a dot, and yet we have each other to hold on to.”

Holding on to each other is the privilege and work of being married. Writing that, it occurs to me to wonder how this will read to me when I’ve been married a year? Five? Ten? What will time tell? Should I save this post as a draft for a few years to make sure things work out?

I could. But that would be to blink in the face of pain’s bleak torch. And I can’t see the path ahead if my eyes are shut.


Notebook Heroes: Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau was genius at keeping a notebook. Some of his extensive journal became Walden, a timeless, beautiful assertion of Transcendent philosophy and call to individuality and authenticity.walden


The Journal is a doorstop volume gleaned from Thoreau’s notebooks. It is a treasure drove of description, anecdote and inspiration from a writer who was never short of — nor shy of expressing — ideas. The following excerpts are from a journaling workshop I run from time to time. Savour them then pick up a pen start your own notebook.


Henry David Thoreau, The Journal

Nov. 9. In our walks C. takes out his note-book sometimes and tries to write as I do, but all in vain. He soon puts it up again, or contents himself with scrawling some sketch of the landscape. Observing me still scribbling, he will say that he confines himself to the ideal, purely ideal remarks; he leaves the facts to me. Sometimes, too, he will say a little petulantly, “I am universal; I have nothing to do with the particular and definite.” He is the moodiest person, perhaps, that I ever saw. As naturally whimsical as a cow is brindled, both in his tenderness and his roughness he belies himself. He can be incredibly selfish and unexpectedly generous. He is conceited, and yet there is in him far more than usual to ground conceit upon.

I, too, would fain set down something beside facts. Facts should only be as the frame to my pictures; they should be material to the mythology which I am writing; not facts to assist men to make money, farmers to farm profitably, in any common sense; facts to tell who I am, and where I have been or what I have thought: as now the bell rings for evening meeting, and its volumes of sound, like smoke with rises from where a cannon is fired, make the tent in which I dwell. My facts shall be falsehoods to the common sense. I would so state facts that they shall be significant, shall be myths or mythologic. Facts which the mind perceived, thoughts which the body thought.

Nov. 12. Write often, write upon a thousand themes, rather than long at a time, not trying to turn too many feeble somersets in the air, — and so come down upon your head at last. Antaeus-like, be not long absent from the ground. Those sentences are good and well discharged which are like so many little resiliencies from the spring floor of our life, — a distinct fruit and kernel itself, springing from terra firma. Let there be as many distinct plants as the soil and the light can sustain. Take as many bounds in a day as possible. Sentences uttered with your back to the wall. Those are the admirable bounds when the performer has lately touched the spring-board.

C. is one who will not stoop to rise (to change the subject). He wants something for which he will not pay the going price. He will only learn slowly by failure, — not a noble, but disgraceful, failure. This is not a noble method of learning, to be educated by inevitable suffering, like De Quincey, for instance. Better dive like a muskrat into the mud, and pile up a few weeds to sit on during the floods, a foundation of your own laying, a house of your own building, however cold and cheerless.

Methinks the hawk that soars so loftily and circles so steadily and apparently without effort has earned this power by faithfully creeping on the ground as a reptile in a former state of existence. You must creep before you can run; you must run before you can fly.


Jan. 27. Trench says a wild man is a willed man. Well, then, a man of will who does what he wills or wishes, a man of hope and of the future tense, for not only the obstinate is willed, but far more the constant and persevering. The obstinate man, properly speaking, is one who will not. The perseverance of the saints is positive willed-ness, not mere passive willingness. The fates are wild, for they will; and the Almight is wild above all, as fate is.

What are our fields but felds or felled woods. They bear a more recent name than the woods, suggesting that previously the earth was covered with woods. Always in the new country a field is a clearing.

The Journal and Walden on Amazon