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Here in New York the nights are drawing in and all of a sudden, an arctic wind has appeared, nails of icy rain, a chill that makes skin raw, and fingers ache and itch when finally warmed. Do you know the Hans Christian Anderson story of the Snow Queen? It's one that's lived in my imagination ever since it was read to me as a child, and it's strands of story eventually grew into a song of the same title. The tale begins with the Devil thrilled with his new invention: an enchanted looking- glass that has the power to make every good deed look gross and evil, and give the kindest person a hideous and disfigured reflection. He decides to travel with it up to heaven to goad the angels, but he doesn't get so far before their cries of fury cause it to shatter. The mirror breaks into thousands of pieces which come raining down upon the earth. Splinters fall into the eyes of humans, whole shards are lodged in their hearts. Those hit wake to see the world inverted; cruelty appears as rare beauty, madness appears to be sense.

The Snow Queen - Illustrations by Edmund Dulac The Snow Queen who is devilish in her own way, longs for a royal consort and so she kidnaps a beautiful young boy called Kai whose once good heart has become afflicted with the glass. She casts a spell over him so that he won't leave her side and bewitched, Kai spends his days gazing at blocks of ice, moving them into different patterns, a impossible and senseless jigsaw of 'reason'. With glass in our eyes and our hearts, life is distorted; it is a constant problem to be solved, rather than a mystery to be lived. Even as our fingers become raw and icy rearranging those lifeless blocks into a picture that is never complete, in the moments that we do awake from the enchantment, might we see that the world is also full of grace?

Disguised graces coming with the wintery weather. Like yesterday, when the cold rain starting filling up my shoes, and soaking my socks, and I had walked the length of 5th avenue trying in vain to find some warm boots, I ducked into a deli to warm up and started chatting to a silver haired lady named...Sylvia. We spoke about where she was from in Italy, and of magical fjords in Norway and how it was when she was young. 'Manipulation means destruction' she said, talking of relationships. I assured her I already knew that (whilst thinking that when you get older, it must be funny to hear younger people so earnest in their conviction that they already know everything). But the words remained with me in the particular way they do from strange, chance encounters. Or like the other day when the sun was still warm, I was sitting in Hanco's Bubble Tea house drinking a Vietnamese coffee (a swamp of sugar and cream) and trying my best to be economical. Coffee will fill me up and repress my appetite, meaning no need for expensive take-out food, I'd decided. Just then, an elderly man walked in hawking gloves, 'Please madam...I need to buy medication'. He was practically crying, but whether it was an act or not, I couldn't know. Perhaps he had his mind on his next bottle of meths, or bag of brown. (But it is shocking to me to see poverty stricken people rooting through the rubbish here, gathering glass and aluminium to re-sell). However, if he was desperate enough to walk around cafes at sixty-odd years selling gloves, I decided in reflection he can't be doing so great. Ok, I said, how much? $6. I had $10 and handed it over. Predictably, he made a show of rooting through his pockets. - 'But I don't have any change, lady' he cried. Guilt and annoyance did battle, and the annoyance won: I started counter-hunting for one dollar bills to pay him in. The old man suddenly located the elusive change: - 'There, $2 back, thank you, thank you' he said, cutting a swift departure. Curses. A pair of gloves for $8. So much for my eco-drive. And it's still practically summer. Turns out when the arctic wind started blowing the very next day, and the heating in my new apartment was broken, I was so happy for those gloves and glad that I'd bought them off the old man, and not from Macy's. (To be fair, he'd probably swiped them from Macy's anyway...). And last night when I came back find my flat was freezing, I dropped by my cousin's place to borrow some warm blankets and ended up staying for supper. I also read Dr Seuss to his daughter and for the record, the Cat in the Hat tells you it's best to keep your eyes wide open but if you can't manage that, one eye will do just fine.

As I was leaving, my cousin and his wife were telling me about the number of terrible events that had occurred in their apartment block in the past month; a daughter ('mentally ill') had tried to kill her mother (also 'mentally ill' but 'unmedicated'); a young boy had jumped off a balcony to his death...'all the teenagers here go loopy' which reminded me of a conversation I overheard the other day where a lady was talking about her father ('he won't take his medication...won't admit he's sick'). At what point, I wonder, will there be so many 'mentally ill' people in the world that it can no longer be argued that it is an illness, a malfunction to be conveniently corrected by lucrative medications? Aside from the fact that, say, half an apartment block full of 'mentally ill' people versus half apparently 'normal' ones start to make the notion of normality look a little shaky (being in it's very essence to do with status quo, the majority experience...) when might we start to entertain the idea that it could be the way we as humans live, the way we think - the mind with it's endless wanting and sense of lack, it's resentments and fixations, it's furies and disappointments, in turn giving rise to a society obsessed with becoming 'someone' over simple 'being', achievement and status over kindness, hoarding over sharing - that create different shades and intensities of the same madness and sadness, splinters and shards of the very same mirror? I will try and keep at least one eye open to catch the grace that I always see falling from the sky when I remember to look up from my puzzle of ice.



Perhaps I've just had an unusually bad run of it, but I am developing a theory that this is Latin-America's revenge for years of heavy-headed intervention: supplying the US with the rubbish-est dog water excuse for coffee ever. Percolated dregs strained of all flavour and then further diluted, burnt crayon topped with bitter froth, variations on that theme but none of them pleasant. Until I discovered the best cafe. You know that your coffee habit is getting compulsive when you've seen the same guy behind the counter 6 days in a row, and are wondering when he's going to ask you if you ever get a day off? It's on a little unassuming corner, a crossroad and doesn't appear to have a name. Outside are some old leather boots from which pansies grow. It has all of about 6 seats and the furniture looks like it was picked up on a retro-skip. It also has the added bonus of selling (for reasons still unclear to me) a little treasure of British food imports. It's interesting to see what count as foreign curiosities here, and adds up to an evocative compendium of childhood memories; yes, Bird's custard (I remember my mother making this with bananas and it being so hot it scalded me and my brother's tongues...but we...couldn't wait!), lemon barley water, Hayward's pickled onions (eaten with roast beef) and Lyle's golden syrup (trickled over porridge on sleepy mornings at my grandparent's Scarborough house by the sea).

Sunlight still streams most days through the windows as I sit at the counter and work. The air has a new little bite to it, but so far more of a playful kitten than the full on jaws of cold that I know to expect from the winter proper. In anticipation, I went shopping to find a down jacket, and en route discovered the magical world of "M&J Trimmings" on 6th Avenue.

Like a housewife at a fairy tale market, I fingered lengths of organza and eyelet lace, the crystal sewn fabrics (tiny bead clusters, pearlescent barnacles), tin and flint buttons; I drew out spools of feathers - guinea hen, ostrich on their satin tapes, silver studs and perfectly round paillettes. And watching the other customers was an equal treat, some lolling past with a dreamy look, others purposeful and brisk, their baskets filled with buckles and maribou. In the same way that I choose my cloth of words and music, cut and tease it into eventual form - I wondered what they were planning to pin and fold and finally drape over skin and bone on that dusky evening?



New York friends have told me that this can be a lonely city to exist in, that the alienation and isolation can at times be crushing. To which I must reply: Have you, New Yorker, ever lived in London? To clarify my point, I'd propose a video link-up between the Hogshead pub in Camberwell and the Bacchus Bar in Boerum Hill; the News Coffee shop near Manhattan's Union Square with an Italian sandwich shop on Gower Street, London. And then wait for the men in white lab coats to tot up the number of friendly verbal exchanges, level and duration of eye contact and, well, just general acknowledgment of other humanity. Because I think Londoners are pathological in their avoidance of conversation - whether it's just a friendly natter about the latest news or to initiate a little date-making chat - and the only, only way this might ever alter is in the event of a force majeure; you know, terrorism or a particularly nasty rainstorm. New Yorkers by comparison, seem ready to talk at all times of the day and night and do not skimp on personal details. I find this for the most part a welcome relief from my former life of awkward exchanges and staring at people's toes on public transport.

Busker in Time Square/Piano (NB sparsity of photos occurs when you lose the card reader for camera)

A word of warning or advice: carrying a book around almost guarantees that you will be talked to/get chatted up. Not exactly the most obvious conversation starter is Peter Brooks' 1960's manifesto on the way forward for modern theatre 'The Empty Space' you'd think, but here in NY? It's a winner. Kind of like how you hear apocryphal tales about how your average Russian man on the street was once able to quote swathes of Chekhov and Dostoyevsky whilst in the bread queue, here in NY it seems like everyone wants to discuss Peter Brooks with me. First, I get chatting to a guy who runs an experimental theatre company in the Bronx. Then: 'That is just about my favourite book on theatre EVER” says a girl wandering past my table in the local coffee shop.However, when therapist-dance-man's expression suddenly narrows and takes on a steely glint, and he delivers the heart-sinking line 'excuse the forwardness of this as we don't have much time', I brace myself for what I have suspected all along: he is a member of a cult, dispatched to loiter train cars eyeing up the potential lost and lonely. It explains it all. The dancing with trees. His preternaturally intense focus on a foreigner like me. And above all, that handshake. Why else? Oh crap, no, he just wants to ask me out for dinner. May he have my number? “Of course!” I find myself saying. (Years of conditioned politeness...dammit). We should have dinner sometime. “That would be LOVELY” (Put your card BACK in the wallet). Too late...too late...And yesterday on the train over the Williamsburg Bridge: “How are you finding that book?”. “Er...what? Ah yes, the book”. Conversation with fair-haired local who has a firm handshake ensues; turns out he's a therapist working with 'authentic dance' in natural settings, and heavily into the Japanese Buto movement. It's all quite sweet but as a Londoner the frequency of these spontaneous conversations takes some getting used to. My impulse is to be cagey but it takes some doing when people are so guilelessly nice.