On ‘The Fire Next Time’

The Fire Next TimeThe Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, and just about anything else written by James Baldwin, remains relevant. It’s spooky and altogether tragic that pieces written in the 1960s reflect the current realities lived by black communities and individuals in the US today.

Eloquent. Honest. Brutally clear and well-reasoned throughout, The Fire Next Time, much like all of his works, should be required reading for us all. They also serve as a stark reminder of the as yet unfulfilled promises of the Civil Rights era.

We will never move beyond the divisions we face now if we do not honestly and openly sit down and listen to one another and attempt to understand what it means to grow up black in the US.

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The After Flow

My (misspent) youth featured who knows how many concerts, shows, festivals and gigs, ranging in size from the small local pub with sometimes fewer than 10 to 20 of us devotees to general admission behemoths featuring tent cities and reincarnated walls of sound with 200 000-plus music-loving freaks all sharing a moment. Almost exactly 20 years ago, I attended my last large-scale festival in the United States, the Lemonwheel in upstate Maine quite literally on the Canadian border (featuring actual mounted Mounties!) for the most epic of Phish shows during four days of camping and two days of shows.

Today, festivals at least in Helsinki, appear much more grown-up in many ways. Or, perhaps it’s the attendee. That was my impression of the Flow Festival. Situated near an electrical power plant and the heart of Helsinki’s rather more colourful districts, this festival blew me away. With around 28 000 attendees each day, and featuring acts I’d not expect in Helsinki, surprises lurked around every corner of the venue. Ten stages, loads of amazing (mostly vegan and sustainable) food on offer, and plenty of port-a-loos, some which even flushed, this was fantastically fun. (My last festival could boast no such luxuries, and the port-a-loos were an unbelievably unpleasant experience by the second day of that misadventure! Trust me.)

I confess: most of the acts at Flow aside from Patti Smith (who rocked the house contrary to the review the Helsinki Sanomat), Lauryn Hill (who slightly disappointed me only because she played short, the song was off and she did not reprise any classics from The Fugees) and Kendrick Lamar (who connected and amazed me, even if I did fear the bruising from the hyped up audience at moments)  were utterly unknown to me before this weekend. Some I’d probably heard on one All Songs Considered or another. However, I’d never heard of most of them, particularly the Finnish acts. But, what a treat they all were.

Sunday began under dark, ominous clouds and threats of rain. But, as our crew entered the venue, the skies appeared a bit clearer and the air was filled with anticipation and excitement and joy. Overwhelming joy just being at Flow. This was a common theme across the three days. Everything up to that point had been oodles of fun. Why shouldn’t Sunday be any different?

Finding a man in a jacket with my husband’s name on it was one thing; my husband he most certainly was not. The first song I made it to by a Finnish band, Pyhimys, featured a kitty cat. Purrfect. Lyrically I understood nothing, but I liked this act. A lot. Not understanding the lyrics represented another common theme to my weekend. But, that mattered not. The vibe was funky and sweet. So sweet in fact, a little girl appeared on stage and sang along with the band and the crowd. More of that, please.

Next up was a lot of random-stage hopping and a bit of food.  One take away from the previous two days was eat early if you plan to eat at all or don’t want to wait an incredibly long time for so-so food. The queues get long the later in the day you eat. Whilst the previous day featured Ethiopian food to die for, Sunday offered up another Helsinki favourite, Na’Am Kitchen. North African and Middle Eastern flavours combined creating some of the most tasty treats imaginable. Spicy red lentils and black-eyed peas never tasted so good. Unexpectedly, there was even salad — fresh, gloriously crunchy mixed greens! And, this was at a festival cooked out of a tent! If you happen to be in Helsinki, go to their brick and mortar location. You will not be disappointed.

Next top was Moodymann, a Detroit legend, provided some of the best dance music I heard all weekend. From New Order to more contemporary funk, he had us all grooving and feeling fine. I rather regretted dashing to get to the next stage. But, that is also the Flow experience. So much is happening simultaneously that you have to sacrifice the beginning or end of one show to catch the next. And, on it goes….

Enter Kendrick Lamar. Poet. Rapper. Historian. Urban fable-ist. Artist. Former thug-turned-performer. Pick your label and apply as you will. Kendrick was fun. I completely lost all of my peeps before he went on — the main stage area was jam packed like sardines by the time Kendrick’s performance began, which made it all the more interesting in many ways. I have no idea how long he performed — I don’t really care. It was fun, it was compelling and he had us all right there with him. The best bit of irony of the entire weekend also popped up at this point. Flow sent out messages to attendees via its mobile app and displayed huge screens asking the audience not to film or photograph Kendrick’s performance. (We appreciate your kind request and mostly rejected it.) Yet, somewhere in the middle of his set, the man himself asked us all to pull out our ‘lights’, which consisted of thousands of mobile-phone powered torches. Naturally, no one took a single photograph. Uh-huh. Well played, Kendrick. Well played.

The final act I caught was St. Vincent, and I honestly do not have the words to describe what I witnessed. Massive power guitar. Haunting lyrics and vocals. Surreal costumes and choreography. And, boundless beauty. Girlfriend is quite honestly gorgeous. I immensely enjoyed this act, but it was also time to go home.

Flow introduced me to an incredible amount of music, most of which I’m still listening to thanks to the Flow Playlist on Spotify. There’s so much I didn’t see. But, there’s more than enough for just about everyone.

My takeaways:

  • Use the earplugs. It’s Thursday after Flow and my ears are still ringing ever so slightly.
  • Pace yourself. Don’t fret about what you might miss; something else will intrigue and delight you just as much. And, you might be surprised by something utterly unexpected and/or unintended.
  • Pick your landmarks and make sure your crew knows them well. It’s damn near impossible at times to find folks.
  • Spend a bit of time people watching. This weekend gave me such a different perspective on Finns. And, I’m infinitely grateful for and endeared by it.
  • Removing that three-day wrist band is weird. I’d grown to rather love it.

So, when do we get to do it again? Here’s to Flow 2019. I don’t care who is playing; I’ll be back.

On ‘The Corpse Exhibition…’

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of IraqThe Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m honestly not entirely sure what I think about most of these short stories.

This was a compelling read, primarily because it provides a glimpse into a world I most likely will never fully understand or comprehend. War-torn Iraq both before and after the 2003 invasion by the US remains utterly incomprehensible for its violence and chaos. And, these stories paint rather vivid pictures of the realities lived by Iraqis against it all.

War is hell, and the hell lived by Iraqis is rather beautifully captured in this collection. It is not an easy read, but it is compelling.

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Surrealistic pillow, v2.0

My dreams in Helsinki are never as vivid or as surreal as those when we’re on holiday. But, every once in a while, my subconscious plays a little joke on me as I slumber. This morning, my subconscious decided to remind that I evidently really love gin and need to read some Hemingway again soon. Or, simply, Cuba is on my mind.

Just before waking, I dreamt that I was at some rather random gathering involving sail boats and Christmas trees, neither of which are at all common in my waking world. Amidst the festivities, some of us sat at a rather plain table whilst several of my fellow real-life gin-loving friends waxed poetic and sang the praises of one gin or another.

As a bottle of one of those gins was passed around, I poured myself a rather generous glass. No ice. No tonic. No garnish. Just gin. [NB: As much as I do enjoy a lovely and refreshing gin and tonic on a warm summer afternoon, I’d never ever consider just pouring a full glass! ]

After pouring, I look up and across the table from me sat Papa Hemingway, without his captain’s hat or pipe, but most definitely his snow-white beard and paunch.

Looking on and seemingly otherwise rather bored, what was his reaction to my long pour?

‘Is that all for you, sister, or are you sharing?’

I woke myself up chuckling.

Dream a dream, and make yourself wonder what the hell goes on in that head of yours when you aren’t distracted by all the bloody noise.

Papa Hemingway

[Religious] liberty?

I don’t mind religion. Nor do I hate the idea of belief systems. Religion, of any sort, simply doesn’t work for me, and really hasn’t since I was 5. I’ve explored them, studied several rather intensely, and honestly I just do not get it. No offence intended.

To be honest, I don’t even really take offence at anyone’s religiosity or the teachings of a particular religion precisely because it’s not mine. Some ideas and notions are incredibly offensive to me—condemning homosexuality or gender nonconformity, subjecting women to positions of inferiority and essentially removing them from the possibility of holding positions of power or subjecting them to standards based on their worth defined by men, etc. I find these notions more a matter of interpretation rather than simply a matter of religion per se. Individuals will always find ways to justify their propensity for shittiness and attempt to maintain their positions of power. To my mind, doing so through religious dogma remains particularly effective as a method rather than necessarily a matter of religion alone.

Keep the masses uninformed or unexposed to different ideas and, of course, they’ll follow along blindly. Teach them to not question authority by using scare tactics ranging from punishment in the here and now to an eternity of misery and damnation, and likely they won’t critically examine the shaky foundations upon which those beliefs are based.

But, that’s not my problem with religion. I do question beliefs. And, I do question authority. My own, and those specifically I’m told I must believe. It did not make sense to me at 5, and it still baffles me.

Whilst I don’t mind the religion of others, I do mind being forced to adhere to and follow the beliefs and ideology of ANY religion. It matters not a jot if that religion is Protestantism, Baptism, Catholicism, Satanism, Hinduism, Islam or ANY other dogma that professes to be ‘The Truth’. Not just one capital T, but two. Unless there is verifiable, testable, replicable evidence to back up a claim, I’m not interested. Call it blasphemy, and call me a heathen. You will not be the first.

Believe what you need to in order to cope / manage / understand  / make sense of this crazy world around you. But, creating laws based on any religion is not evidence-based nor does it allow for religious liberty for ALL religions. Anywhere.

So, if we’re going to venture down the rabbit hole of creating a task force to ensure Christians are not persecuted due to their religion, will we do the same for those Muslims who associate with Daesh or who follow Sharia law? How about Rastafarians? (I’m fine with that, although I suspect Jeff Sessions won’t be.) How about the polygamous practices and child marriage practices of some sects of Mormonism?

In the United States, the framers of the US Constitution sought to ensure that no religion stood above any other, and that no religion was a part of the State or government. They felt it so important that they made it the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I’m looking specifically at Thomas Paine here, but they all had important points to make specifically in relation to this:

Religion

The impossibility of the hummingbird

I love hummingbirds.

Impossibly small and yet so completely resilient and strong. The first time I caught a glimpse of one flying about and feeding I was mesmerized and enraptured. That child-like delight has never left me upon seeing one of these tiny creatures. My heart always skips a beat when I stumble across a hummingbird seemingly floating in air on its silent and speedy little wings.

Each time we visit Cuba, the best days feature a hummingbird sighting. Spending sufficient time in one spot, we come to know their schedules. One of our best days ever we walked out the front door to find three flitting about and feeding upon the same bush.

This past trip, our hosts’ yard featured multiple hummingbirds, although I was hard-pressed to distinguish between the individual beauties. Witnessing a hummingbird fight for the first time left me utterly speechless and rather more in awe of these fierce, tiny little warriors.

Pancho, as our hosts named him, visited the same flowers each afternoon around 15.00. One day, I was fortunate to have caught these images. As I sat near this particular bush and tried to not move despite my excitement, I heard the whirring of air and wings colliding. Perhaps even more than seeing a hummingbird, being near enough to hear one’s wings was somehow perfect. But, watching one sit idly on a nearby branch in between feeds was even more impressive. I somehow never imaged a hummingbird sitting still.

My patience was rewarded that afternoon. I give you Pancho, the Cuban Emerald.

Pancho - in flight (2)Pancho feeding

On ‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Grief affects each of us in unexpected ways. Each death of someone we love leaves marks we rarely anticipate or understand fully until time passes and healing begins leaving scars where wounds once festered.

This incredibly personal book details not just one woman’s grief following the unexpected death of her father, but her journey through that grief through the careful development of a bond with and training of a goshawk. Knowing nothing of falconry, it’s a fascinating read. But, more so, it’s an intimate and brutally honest narrative, both recounting her own misery and despair at losing her father and describing her failings related to her bird. (And, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.)

Replace her goshawk with whatever pet who you’ve owned or bonded with during a particularly difficult period in your own life, and it’s completely understandable how Ms Macdonald begins to assume the personality of her goshawk. She lives, breathes and sees the world through Mabel’s eyes completely distancing herself from the world beyond. It’s an escape from the reality that left her heartbroken. And, utterly relatable.

This is a beautiful read, if rather forlorn and bereft at times. Yet, given her eventual emergence from the very deepest depths of heartache, it’s also full of hope. She emerges from the darkness and dark times. And, all of us can use a little reminder of what is possible these days.

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