taking place in London, sometime between 61 AD and 1992
- Impermanence and Bad-Assery
“You’ve never made bread?” M. is incredulous. I’m in the Café. Call it Café Verde. Call it Leapfrog Café. Call it Castaway Bay. Whatevs, mate. We’re in Deptford. Or in New Cross. Or in Blackheath. South London sprawls below the Thames’ curving gray green currents, streets and neighborhoods rolling along in harmonious cacophony. And by the Thames’, I mean the river, mate. This is the one point of relative calm, when I look out over the expanse of glittering wave fractals, my breath slows.
London formed into a port town by 43 AD when the roman foot soldiers employed the technology of a lever. This simple machine, a lever, humbly supported the propulsive expansion of the Roman Empire. This most basic lever, perhaps an ingenious idea of perhaps one of the most lowly footmen— let’s call him Vince— changed the migrations of humanity permanently. But let’s face it, permanence is a giant of mythic proportions. Imagine a restless Vince, pacing, playing a game called “perpetual motion,” gazing out over the water; “I know —we just need a bridge— a machine to transport us North.”
Most likely Vince never got credit. Most likely, the city center was constructed of earth and wood, and eventually a moat of water was dug around the nascent burg. Because every old town has access to the water; whether by port, or geographic disposition to port, one can trace rivers as lifelines. When I touch the lifeline on my palm, or the palm of a friend wishing for their fate to be foretold, I remember that under the apparent structure of the skin is water. Within each cell of human dermis is water. Solidity is perpetuated by illusion.
Water is the prerequisite for civilization. “Londinios” was under fairly constant attack for its early years, by marauding Vikings, determined Anglo-Saxons, and a Celtic Queen, Boudicca, who revolted against Roman rule after her widowhood stripped her of property rights. This all went down in 61 AD, so the Queen was “leaning in” on the early side. Her late husband willed his vast wealth to the then-emperor Nero, and Queen B. responded by raising rebellion in East Anglia. No doubt, even while she mounted the insurrection, the renegade diva was tapping into some long-term serious resentment. Boudicca joined forces with other powerful dissenters, who followed her lead. She was likely coveting control of the fertile acreage to the North, and the potential sloops for watercraft on the Thames’ Southern banks. It sounds romantic, but with the blood-letting of 70,000 Romans, the reality of this insurrection is anything but. In true warrior queen fashion, rumor has it that Queen B. refused to surrender, and died by ingesting poison instead. Bad ass, bitch. Her burial place is unknown, and the topic has endured much speculation. Some say her remains, interred thousands of years ago, lie intact, underneath the metro. The city has sprawled in the past thousands of years, becoming a pastiche of conurbation, as cities are wont to do.
- The Cafè
In South London, near Elephant and Castle, near Deptford, near the sloops of Greenwich. I’m the kitchen prep cook, cashier, server, and the barista. M. is the owner, or the owner’s niece, or the kitchen lead on any particular shift. I’m training on-the-daily as I work in the kitchen; this job is flexible, fits in with my student visa—that’s BUNAC, the British Universities North American Club. It’s 1992, and this flex-job, with all its roles— cooking, serving, tidying up, cashing out, was a perfect job whilst all the other 20-somethings in South London seem to be on holiday. While every single student in my social circle—which let’s face it, is modest—is off on other adventures, perhaps seeking parties and raves, and warmer climes in Majorca, Greece, or Ibiza, and I have no real need to go anywhere else on holiday.
“Does the body rule the mind…”
After work, it’s back to the tiny flat, with windows that prop open and afford great views of the rooftops in London. Mourning doves coo up in the eaves of the attic and I can hear the tic, tic, tic, of the payphone at the bottom of the stairs. I practice sun salutations, headstands and backbends. I consider my prospects from “the wheel” pose.
The café job was a perfect way to spend a day and fit in nicely with my “other” work, carving out an identity as a dance artist. My other work is most usually unpaid. Several times a week, nibbling on a sandwich I packed up at the butcher block counter in my flat, I am scouring notice boards for dance artist jobs, at local studios like Pineapple on the West End, and Holborn Centre, right in the middle of London. The Holborn tube stop is very close to the British museum, and morning class there often meant a walk through parks and bookshops before returning to the flat. After a morning dance class, I slump onto the dance floor, leaving salty patches of perspiration on the floor. After guzzling water and tidying myself up—a bit, this was the grunge era—I would mop up the sweaty residue with paper toweling, and shove my feet into leather-soled shoes.
The sunny square park is bordered by an iron fence; elderly residents sprawl on the benches, feeding pigeons. Often vendors set up small booths on the park’s perimeter. It is here that I meet Lenora Carrington, Surrealist artist, eccentric. I finger paintings by Vincent van Gogh, scaled down into a tiny pack of postcards. I don’t know much about him, but I know he was mad, purported to be bipolar, and in a poorly state, so agitated that he cut off his own ear. What did he not want to hear?
Here I first read poets such as John Keats, TS Elliot, Sylvia Plath and George Sands. From a window above the square, the Smiths’ song “Still Ill” clips along. Morrisey croons with snagging verve: “Does the body rule the mind, or does the mind rule the body, I dunno…” The lyric and its sing-song riddle stays with me. I ponder the mind-body relationship problem as I walk through the vendor stalls. Clip clop tap my leather soled shoes on the pavements, past climbing ivy and the lunch crowd at pubs. Clip clop past the newsstands, greengrocers and smokers puffing through their breaks. I scan my metropass and prepare to play my commuting game.
“or does the mind rule the body? I dunno…”
I’m a professional dancer and action is where it’s at. Perhaps my mind rules my body, and my body rules my mind while I move. What’s the game? I call it “my perpetual motion game.” On any long commute, I play this way: How long can I go without stopping? Stopping signals the end of one round of the game. The Rules of Play are minimal, in fact, there’s only one: Keep moving. I can move at any rate of speed, but I must keep moving. Even a subtle weight shift of only a few centimeters counts. On a train, sometimes I board at the front, right behind the conductor, first car, second, and walk through the cars like a somnambulist, as they screech and swing over the tracks, and walk lightly, ever so slowly, through the cars, and their connections, across their ligaments and bony armatures, you might say, and exit at my station, from the last car. Once I’ve departed from the last car, then step out and move like a living statue as people rush in a blur all around me, begin the ascent from the deepest trenches of the tube, the underground smelling of rats and molder; I’ve still got a great deal of the game before me. I still had most of my life before me. It only ends when I’ve reached the final destination.
Victoria Station features one of the steepest and longest escalators. Commuters travel a steep, dizzying nearly 15 stories from the electric train up to the streets above. Did I stand stationary upon the squealing rails of those escalator tracks? Hells to the No! That would mean losing my game. I climbed, sometimes very slowly and more often, sprinting. I ran up those tracks like a goat claiming a mountain. The game gave me energy. The city gave me energy. I possessed so much energy. And isn’t life itself, a brilliant blue ball or energy? Synapses on fire.
“Your illusions are a part of you like your bones and flesh and memory.” –William Faulkner
About 9 months earlier, as I was leaving the U of M’s Student Employment center, I picked up a small pin, a union jack over a white background, and I pinned it to my black leather pouch which I’d brought home from the Womyn’s Festival, and I started doing my research, and making applications, and got things cooking, and after a bit of effort, filling out a paper and carbon two-page form in triplicate, the deal was sealed. I flew away, then, to England, to live in London for a year, all because I was desperate for a change, a shock, any kind of shaking-things-up. It wasn’t that I was unhappy, it’s only that I was lost. Like a dog still wearing its collar, but no leash, outside the Red Hawk diner on State Street, abject and whining. I am without a clue about which way to turn to find home. So per usual, I ran. I ran away from home and now I’m all the wiser for it.
Earning money with my flesh always brought me great joy. Wringing all the energy and vitality out of myself, purposefully, I’d see myself out into the evening, empty-headed; a washrag blowing buoyant on the line. M, chief cook and owner of the café, with her lovely almond eyes, and gentle British Indian accent, would cash me out. She, who taught me how to make bread dough and cook carrot and aramé soup, would press dosh; Dosh = notes and a bunch of quid, under the table, into my hand. This pay was a fair trade for my muscles pumping, my feet clip clopping, my burnished youthful agency.
On the way out, I’d whistle, after flipping the sign to Sorry, We’re Closed. I’d walk down the pavements with stretched and toned muscles, smelling rank, feeling like a goddess. Demeter, known as Ceres by the Romans, wore a headdress of woven wheat. The grain circled her forehead, a crown of sorts, even as the living plant grew, ever so slowly, in the bounteous fields under her bare feet. She probably wriggled big toes into mounds of the stuff, while she ruled and made declarations. Ceres had no need of shoes, and I feel her when I strut, exhausted but giddy, down the hill to the stop where the red double-decker bus awaits me. Flex and spin, clip and clop.
- Chemical Reactions as Metaphor
As a child, I was a Persephone, with absolute mastery of deference. I would trade a pound of me to buy an ounce of someone else’s happiness. Feel like crying? Make a joke, have a drink, have a splief; do it now, do it fast. I couldn’t get out of Hades with a map and a metropass. How did I grow to twenty years old and never made bread? No matter. I know now. Turns out it’s like driving a stick shift, ice-skating, or having sex. Once you’ve learnt how, you remember. Chemistry has no use for riddles.
The yeast itself comes in dense cakes, thick and luscious. Yeast is a living organism, as are my muscles. When dried, in pouches, or jars, the desiccated tiny bits look as far from alive as a mummy. But some life is encoded there, resting in the whirls.
The wheat flowers themselves are petite, like broccoli florets. They are arranged in an inflorescence. The flowers, given time and the correct conditions, blossom into kernels of the wheat; infant spikelets. When all goes well, the kernels grow, gaining nutrients from water and soil. How can this inescapable formula of growth—time, fortune, and chemical reactions—instruct us?
External stimuli such as warmth, climate, rainfall come together to influence whether a plant will make it or die trying. In medieval times, London bakers lived on Bread Street. The Great Fire of 1666 started in a baker’s oven and ripped through the wooden structures where the people of the burgeoning metropolis slept, no doubt dreaming of pleasant figments. Milling the grain into flour was typically performed by donkeys as they clopped around the grinding stones supplying force. Friction, gravity, and time collide with force.
- Time to Sow, then to Reap
Re: The reaping of ripe wheat, I return to Vincent van Gogh. An ekphrastic after the painter’s Wheat Field with Reaper, Auvers, 1890 is instructive. The plant bundles stand darkly Homeric, tawny brownish shocks broken by the heavy boots of the reaper. She wears a wide straw hat, and a fermenting, braided smile. The scythe in her hand hides her fingers, suggesting bionic impulses. She strikes, swooshing the mature but slender rod with a keening blade.
Over and over, she fells the hardy stands and the kerneled heads bend and bob. A few plump grains roll into gullies, awaiting beggars. Gleaners will follow on Saturday. Up with the sun’s early slanting rays, they are driven by the clawing in their bellies. Hunger forces them onto their feet. They move as a murder of crows, picking the shallow trenches clean.
Before this painting, one of van Gogh’s last, he wrote to his brother, Theo, in 1889: “There is nothing sad in this death, it goes its way in broad daylight.” As if the night-time is the only time for harvest. Van Gough himself thickly layered the pigments in this piece, asserting his will and expression strongly, as if he knew himself, that his time was running out.
Oh botanical time, which reminds us of all that must succeed for a plant to survive, and all that we must bear. Wheat is a flowering plant, but not in the way we might picture flowers.
Cultivated for millennia, first propagated in the Tigress and Euphrates River Valley, wheat was probably a mainstay in the Garden of Eden.
How can this be translated into more contemporary human terms? Warmth = love, relationships, family. Families are the people we return to because we really can’t escape without reckoning with them. Perhaps you can’t peacefully leave the world without dealing with, sorting out, all the entanglements of family. Does this theory point toward paranormal exploration? Are ghosts cluttering up a purgatorial waiting room simply because there aren’t enough qualified family therapists registered?
In what type of social climate might emotional and physiological influences, as well as race, class, caste, and access to resources be successfully navigated? Suddenly, Vince’s assertion that “we need a bridge” takes on novel significance. And van Gogh’s desire “not to hear” might not have been madness, but sanity.
Myriad other questions and speculative comparisons rise up. How does the rising sea level, and the increased frequency of extreme weather events tip this mediation of wheat? If wheat originally sprouted as a wildflower, and gradually became predominant as a cultivator, what kind of impacts might be plotted, in terms of botanical and geophysical data streams? Celiac disease, and gluten intolerance, more than an inconvenience for those who suffer with this illness and hypersensitivity have increased as certainly as humidity in the Midwest has crept upwards in the last decade. How wet is ultimately going to be too wet?
Today’s bread recipe, an Amish white bread, called for a full 16-ounces of really warm water. I am quite surprised so much water was needed, and in fact had to face worries that the bread dough would be a goopy mess. But as we often do, as we gain new knowledge, we feel our way. I use my hands and eyes to feel my way through the recipe, especially the markers, when to turn the dough out and knead it, when to punch it down. I can smell the yeast awakening and beginning its frothy munch. This recent baking adventure did take the better part of the day, approximately four hours, from start to finish. Most of that time was hands-off, as the temperature is cool at 66 degrees Fahrenheit. And the yield? Sustenance. For most.
Oh, ancient grain, basking in the light, when the day ends and the Underworld calls, whisper to us your Elysian secrets. Whisper the way the wind plays upon your spikelet fibers, like so many tiny bristles. Instruct us in the art of the lyre, the chalice and the everlasting fire. Remind us how to tend our own hearts, how to weather our illnesses. In puzzling out a remedy, a solution, Patience is all. Remember Queen Boudicca? After her term was called, she determined her destiny. She went out by her own hand. Some may call that cowardice; others, heroic. She rests under King’s Cross Station where the Victoria line rumbles on. Perhaps it was an echo of her bones, a tattle of invisible tonguing, egging me on in my cosmopolitan dance, across the millennia: Dance girl, dance. Put on your grain-dotted crown and rise up for your life. Dance across the floorboards of your doubts. Dance, stamp, and whirl, and never stop.
About the Author:
CM Sears is an essayist, poet, fiction writer, and interdisciplinary artist. Her work can be found in Sad Girls Club Lit, The Hare’s Paw Literary Journal, the American Book Review, and elsewhere. Her performance texts and scores/scripts have been presented by Glastonbury Festival of England, DLEctricity Festival, and by Wonderfool Productions. She writes and makes art from her home base in Michigan, United States.
Feature image by OpenClipart-Vectors /Pixabay