At first the possibility of attending Joe's funeral seemed a remote one; since Mol's last health crisis, I had resigned myself to no more trips away anywhere for the foreseeable. She is considerably better, though still not too steady on her legs, has a slightly bunched look about her, and rather lacks energy, but there haven't been of late, touch wood, any of the frightening, pain filled collapses. The problem particularly however, is that she tends to need supervision most of the time, if she needs to go out it can't always wait (old age and steroids), and in the early morning she wakes up disoriented and shaky and has to be scooped up, carried downstairs - she's coming up on her own again sometimes but we fear her sliding down and injuring herself - and taken out sharpish. Tom, sleeping without hearing aids, doesn't hear her at these times, and anyway the risk of his falling himself while carrying her, in the house on their own, isn't one I'm prepared to take.
That was the practical objection to my going, but also there was the fear that I would be an unplaceable oddity on such an occasion, an embarrassment even; who I was and how I knew Joe would not be readily explicable, in the same way that I can't easily explain to most of my 'real world' acquaintance (so I haven't much tried) the peculiar, and extraordinarily intense, nature of the grief his loss has brought. Come to that it's been fairly hard to account for it to myself.
I only met Joe twice in the time we knew each other, meetings which were quite delightful, perhaps above all hilarious, filled with those kind of stories and anecdotes that had me helpless with laughter but which never seemed nearly as funny when I tried to repeat them afterwards. He was a gregarious, extrovert, charming, and socially confident character (none of which generally applies much to me), who hugely enjoyed being out in the world ; it couldn't help being infectious. Yet that was really just a few hours out of seven years, spent in public spaces, and/or shared with others, hardly constituting knowing someone well in most accepted senses of the term. And with all his generosity, frankness and open-heartedness, he was private and discreet in personal matters. Yet he has been one of the most important people in my life, one of my very dearest friends.
Our friendship was otherwise the preserve of written words and images: in books and poems, English and French, recalled, recommended or sent in the post, in occasional cards and postcards, in a brief exchange towards the end of exceptional handwritten letters, in many e-mails, but above all in this shared and open medium of blogging. Such a horrible word, we agreed, for such a wonderful thing.
I first discovered Joe's blog, Now's the Time, just about exactly seven years ago through Roscoff pink onions - Joe and I conversed rather a lot about fruit and vegetables. The relevant post, and his first comment on Box Elder, are here.The onions became something of a theme after that; I took him a bag of them when I visited, and the following year sent him a net of the sets to grow. He wouldn't rise to my attempts to start up a 'mine are bigger than yours' competition in growing them, mine after all, he said, were playing at home, though he did pay me the compliment (I think that's what it was anyway...) of saying I was the kind of girl who knew her onions. At that time he had set up a separate blog on which he had put the first few sonnets of the 'Handbook for Explorers' series, but had gone no further with it. I read them, begged to borrow a couple to put with photos for a qarrtsiluni submission, and that was the beginning of that most satisfying, rewarding and memorable project; I wrote about that time in this post, after converting it to book form. It still fills me with wonder, it was such a joy and a privilege. Later we used that blog, called Compasses, for the 'Questions' call and response series (which began with another qarrtsiluni prompt). From very early on, Joe read my poems here with interest and care, commented positively, and generally encouraged me in writing them; I had very little confidence in their worth compared to other people's work, and without his support probably wouldn't have persevered with writing poetry at all.
For Joe was the great encourager, in so many ways, which for someone of a sliding courage like mine, is a precious thing. Which didn't mean he'd let you get away with any slacking in terms of clichés, sentimentality, or jargon; he was the gentlest but firmest of critical readers. His presence over my shoulder will always, I hope, encourage me to find fresher, crisper, more direct and original ways of saying things. I may not always succeed (I may not always write much), but I will try.
But dear though these collaborations are to me, and the correspondence that went on behind them, and much as I treasured every comment, positive, humorous, shrewd or compassionate, that he made here, the most important thing, which made Joe dear to so many, was his writing, and later photos, on his own blog. Now's the Time began in June 2005, and Joe continued to post there with very few breaks until the day before he died last week. In time, the format (initiated by Clare Law, née Grant, who also lives in Tunbridge Wells and still maintains her Three Beautiful Things blog) of noting down three beautiful things everyday as a kind of observational discipline and counting of blessings, became wider in its scope for him, so that in the end almost anything could be included, and in his last few months, ravaged and wearied by illness and pain, grief-stricken at the decline and loss of his beloved Heidi, his physical strength and world reduced, though he always tried to uphold a stoical cheerfulness and positivity and find things to rejoice in, there was no place for any false Pollyanna-ism; on New Year's day he wrote
It strikes me forcibly that somewhere over the rainbow the absence of blue birds prevail in a vacuum of horrors. And I am sorry, it is not and probably never has been a "wonderful world", wonderful as it would be if that were exclusively true. It is the lies that make sentimentality unacceptable.
Now's the Time must surely be one of the most excellently maintained blogs ever, despite its consistency never becoming samey, formulaic or glib, always substantial, showing a clearly formidable intellect and erudition, but worn lightly and without condescension. Never sententious or pontificating, nevertheless there was a pervasive sense of wisdom in his work, though he would have scoffed at the idea. Martha, another blogging friend, wrote lately in an e-mail
'He posted over 3000 days of gentleness, humor, wonder, curiosity; always kind, never bitter or snarky, even when he might have been justified in being so, even when something in his life irritated him'
In the end, the final beautiful thing was Joe's life.
So, for the reasons mentioned at the beginning, I doubted I would make it to the funeral. Yet it was, frankly, tormenting me. Ryanair, the budget airline on whose capricious offices we depend for much of our travel to the UK are still on their winter timetable, three scant flights a week, but we talked about it and it seemed that if it was scheduled for a Tuesday or Thursday, I could be away just two nights, stay with my sister, catch a train to Tunbridge Wells in a day, Tom and Mol could sleep on the sofa downstairs, she'd wake him up getting down and even if she peed and pooed on the mat by the door he could just throw it outside and wait till I got back, surely nothing too dreadful could happen in that time? Then the message came that it was to take place on the Friday of next week, and my heart sank. That would necessitate five nights away, including a weekend when the vet would be unavailable. I couldn't in all conscience leave for that long. But hope had taken hold, and I hadn't reckoned with the open-hearted, welcoming kindness I have received from Joe's family, which quite undid me and made a nonsense of the hesitation that was the other obstacle.
What if, I wondered, I could find another route, getting round the Ryanair dependency? A mad March hare took possession of my mental faculties, and the next thing I knew, I had booked a Eurostar out of Paris to Ashford in Kent, about twenty miles away from Tunbridge Wells, for the Friday morning, arriving just before lunchtime. I did pause long enough to make sure that Robbie and VR, who, without being in any way pushy, had already made every kind offer of help within their power if I wanted to come, could collect me from there. I would stay with them in whatever overnight accommodation they arranged, and come back the following day. Tom and Mol would barely notice I was gone. Despondency gave way to elation.
That elation has since ebbed somewhat, and I am undergoing more than occasional wobbles about it; it really is a wayward escapade. Travelling Eurostar at a weekend at relatively short notice is eye-wateringly expensive, at least for people whose main travelling consists of occasional budget airline hops and short excursions across the departmental border. Catching the first train from St Brieuc to Paris Montparnasse in time to get to the Gare du Nord to board the Eurostar at 10 am necessitates getting up at an hour which is not early morning but in fact the middle of the night, seriously, I am uncertain that going to bed at all will be worthwhile. The sorrow that was giving rise to incoherent crying jags that were bewildering and embarrassing to family and friends has been allayed since the moment I made the decision, but has to some extent been replaced by a knot of terror, there is so much that might go wrong, with missed connections and who knows what, then all the expense of money and energy will be lost, and more demanded. The woman ticket clerk at St Brieuc when I went there to buy my ticket looked at me with astonishment - that time of the morning, and you're coming back the next day? This is exceptional! Yes, I replied, this is exceptional. Hard-faced and bureaucratic at first, she was in fact wonderfully patient and helpful, assured me of time for connections, got me the best prices possible while explaining the pros and cons. She looked me in the face as I left with a combination of bafflement and something which might even have been concerned kindness.
Nevertheless, since making the plan and putting it in train (no pun intended), I have been able to go about things with a lighter heart, and that same day, yesterday, I felt I could at last sit down and begin to write this. Yes, it will be an exhausting and sad day, it could all go pear-shaped and even if it doesn't I will doubtless be suffering the Channel tunnel equivalent of jet-lag, and must be very careful not to have one too many glasses of wine and keel over in some embarrassing fashion. But it might, just might, be rather marvellous, to come up out of the darkling western fringes, draw into Montparnasse station in a Paris dawn, race across the city into the graceful interior of the Gare du Nord, disappear under the sea and come out into the Kent countryside in spring, be taken up by kind and affectionate friends and have lunch in an English pub (Robbie's pledged me wisteria-clad, but it's a bit early for wisteria, so I won't hold him to that). Then to see new faces perhaps bearing a familiar likeness, to hear words and music to bring joy and solace... to sleep well, make all the right connections and come home to find nothing amiss, it might all just happen. As so often before, and no doubt not for the last time, I find myself wanting to write and tell Joe about it.
Best not to think too much once plans are made.
Leave without goodbyes. Discard the text
Other travellers use; keep little in your head
Except the need to know what happens next
In the story you make up as you go.
Prudence is the first thing to jettison,
Then take your leave of habit and say "no"
To every comfort you have ever known.
New patterns in chaos to discover,
First lose your way, see the needle spin,
Take moon for sun, not know what world your in,
Till, the first stage of your journey over,
You glimpse a path that seems impossible,
And know, at once, where your next step must fall.
Handbook for Explorers, 3 - in a small way, something like that.
And yesterday morning too, the first swallow swept over the garden, and wheeled around our heads as we left the house.