Art and ash in equal measure

Photo: Liz Breslin
Photo: Liz Breslin
I'm not sure I believe in things happening for a reason but let's say it's reasonable, when you're away from your people and your place, for an extended amount of time, to feel a little homesick, writes Liz Breslin.

Liz Breslin
Liz Breslin
It's easier to quell the feeling when life is all harpsichord concerts and excellent art exhibitions and pierogi and bike rides. New writers, new writing and excellent bookshop cafes. Which it is.

But, in the past week, life's also been a bit dog bitey and hospital waiting roomy and I've lost one of my new favourite pair of socks (navy blue, mid-calf, decorated with St Mary's basilica and pigeons and obwarzaneks - Krakow's own bagels). I think it was Leonard Cohen who said "Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash" and I'll check that as soon as the WiFi is working. Because did I mention the WiFi is down and I spent part of my Saturday night with a nurse who said "now I'm going to hit you" and thumped my back, hard, twice, to check my kidneys?

Ashen with lack of sleep and the confusion of medical matters in translation (shout out, though, to the brilliant receptionists, nurses and doctors of the Department of Infectious Diseases of the University Hospital in Krakow, who are almost as wonderful as the people at Aspiring Medical Centre, who I got a bit homesick for), I started a poem called "Ten Yoga Poses You Really Need For Rabies" but it wasn't shaping up very funny and I didn't get far past the title.

Home is where the heart is and who the heart is and I'm fortunate enough that I know my home, my people, are there for me. Plenty are those who can't ever go home, or have to live with homes that have been irrevocably changed. See: colonialism, war, climate change. See Hana Pera Aoake's essay, "We begin floating in a womb" in Runway Journal, for a Maori viewpoint/discussion of saudade, the Portuguese word that is not quite melancholy, not quite nostalgia, not quite the missingness of things in your depths, in your bones.

I don't have saudade, not like that, though there is very much a presence of absence as I think about my family and my place and carry them, always, always, with me. But, a funny thing: back home, I had a kind of anticipatory weird homesick longing for being here in Krakow. I think I was excited to be able to scratch the itch of "hiraeth". A Welsh word. Again, it's a bit untranslatable. Again, it's about the longing. In a bittersweet way, for landscapes and times and people almost known.

And so, in spite of and because of the undercurrents, I'm so grateful for the opportunity to be here in Krakow, exposed to depths and breadths and heights I couldn't otherwise know; filling in the ethnographic gaps in pasts that may have belonged to my family, that might belong in my writing. It's a gift.

No emotion, no experience is useless in an artistic context. Since the WiFi is now back up and humming, I can confirm that yes, it was Leonard Cohen who said the ash thing. While I was looking, I found this also excellent quote by Helena Bonham Carter: "I think everything in life is art. What you do. How you dress. The way you love someone, and how you talk. Your smile and your personality. What you believe in, and all your dreams. The way you drink your tea. How you decorate your home. Or party. Your grocery list. The food you make. How your writing looks. And the way you feel. Life is art."

Postscript: I'm drinking warming lemon, orange and honey tea in De Revolutionibus, an excellent bookshop cafe, putting the finishing touches to this article and working up more fiction and poem plans. I've been snapchatting and speaking with my family, who are far away and feel so close. I'm homesick and I'm happy to be here. I am wearing both my basilica/pigeon/obwarzaneks socks.

Liz Breslin is in Krakow, Poland on a Unesco Cities of Literature writer's residency.