…beginning with rain

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Winter rain puts you in a funk.  You wrap up against it, hat, scarf, raincoat, hating the cold and the low grey sky.  But summer rain is an entirely different creature.  The birds retreat to the shelter of trees but you go out with bare arms and legs, feel the warm drops on your skin, smell the earthy rise of wet dirt and tarmac.  Above you a renegade seagull shivers the water from her feathers mid-flight.  When the rain stops the world glows in reflection, a heat haze fazing the horizon, and the following day the trees and bushes and flowers will have grown fourfold, nourished by this mid-summer gift. 

Thunder and lightening
Outside Las Vegas airport you watch giant forks of lightening crack open the sky.  Beside you are two police officers discussing a case of stolen cars that seems to have run cold.  They have stopped their day of law enforcement to gaze at the electric sky, and you are amazed at their amazement.  You are here to catch your flight home and you are eight hours early.  You cannot leave Vegas quickly enough, with its slot machines and loud music that overlaps from café to shop to café to shop.  But Vegas has given you one final show, so you’ll leave with no hard feelings.

You dislike Vegas but you have loved the desert, driving for hours through the ever-changing landscape.  You stop the car at the lonely restaurant in Stovepipe Wells.  The temperature is 122º and when you step outside you can barely breathe, the heat like an animal that wants to suffocate you from the inside out.  You want to cross the road to browse in the shop, the only other building as far as the eye can see, but you’re afraid you won’t make it, that you’ll collapse with dehydration before you get there or your eyeballs will shrivel up and pop out of their sockets.  The heat animal tells you there’s no time for this contemplation so you begin walking, every step slow with your leaden-heavy feet and you make it to the delicious air-conditioned palace of goods, buying gifts of native American art for your family.  When you leave you drive towards the salt plains, a vast white horizon that glows in the glare of the desert sun.

There is little that has the power to transform quite so much as a thick blanket of snow.  City or country, the familiar becomes something new, a muted halt to the regular, a brilliant white pause.  When you go out to be amongst it everyone smiles and says hello, minds quickened by the slowing, senses sharpened by the cold. 

A lover once told you things must be bad if the only thing you have to talk about is the weather.  He’d drawn the clouds so low around him it shrouded his thoughts, his eyes a mist of grey that distorted the truth of what lay before him.  You want to always talk about the weather.  How the sun burns on your shoulders.  How the rain trickles down your scalp.  How lightening purifies your heart.  The weather is the world expressing her moods.  To respond is to be alive. 

…on shaping the earth

Giant’s Causeway, Ireland


You stand on the seashore feeling the mutability of time.  Under normal circumstances you would gaze at the steady horizon, trying to absorb the enormity of the ever shifting ocean.  Its depth, its strength, its unknowable currents and flavours.  Under normal circumstances you would be awed by the way it has sanded and pebbled and beached the world.  But here, today, the mystery of the sea is insignificant compared to the dark hexagonal column beneath your feet. 

The shush of the tide is far away but your fourteen-year-old self is so close you can feel her, looking down at her white-socked and school-shoed feet framed by the face of the six-sided basalt.  The words of your teacher feel close, telling you about places of significance: Gaping Gill, Durdle Door, Arthur’s Seat, Lyme Regis, Fingal’s Cave, and the place where you are now, Giant’s Causeway in Ireland.

Here, millions of years ago, the earth was so hot it was liquid.  When something shifted in the atmosphere and the lava finally cooled, its chemistry of minerals chose to coalesce as interlocking columns, creating stepping stones of the most elegant kind.  There is legend that these columns were created by feuding giants to bridge the sea-silver gap between Ireland and Scotland, but why create a fantastical story when the truth is so fantastical?  Is it not enough that the earth itself designed these perfect and consistent polygonal shapes? 

Like the enormity of the ocean you find it difficult to comprehend this, but then you see how your feet step easily from one stepping stone to another, quickly as though you are in a child’s game, or slowly where you have to climb and the waves have worn their surfaces to slippery slopes, and you realize that the earth has designed you too, and all the other people that are stepping from stone to stone across the world. 

A world that great thinkers have decided is not a being but a thing.

Today is your forty-eighth birthday, and you’ve been brought here by your new lover.  He can’t fully comprehend the value of this gift, and you’re not sure how to explain it to him.  Neither of you know that your relationship will only last another month or two, merely the blink of an eye in the moving cogs of both your lives, a moment’s brush with the tide in the moving cogs of the earth.

But now, as you write about this moment of standing on the top of a volcanic column, you know his gift was a wondrous demonstration of the world showing its capabilities.  The gift of moving through time to transform a school-girl to a woman, her passions intact and still burning, from the imagined to the real. 

…the last great day of May


It is the last day of May and we gather in the garden beneath the high sun, some of us meeting for the first time, some already old friends.  Once we’ve eaten the collected treasures of olives and cheeses and harmonies of chocolate, we untangle ourselves to the drowsy lane, down to where we cross the stile and snake through the field that takes us to the meadow where the buttercups shimmer in their melting powdery yellow.  We divert for a time to the shade of the woods, finding ancient beech trees and a trunk to loiter and rest, letting the group catch up with itself and cool pink-tinged skin.  When we snake back down to the meadow the heat feels lush and buttery, so we lounge on blankets at a clearing beside the river until again the heat pulses us beneath the trees and a wooded river bank where we pull off our shoes and let the dappled river sharpen our senses, swishing our dusty feet or meditating or hanging from trees to let our feet dangle or dipping giant leaves to see how the water turns mercury-silver.  When we eventually emerge from this dreamless siesta the mayflies are dancing in the glow of late afternoon.  We stand amongst the tall grasses and look up.  Above us the mayflies rise in a flutter… pause… and drift back down… rise up… pause… drift down… rise up… pause… drift down… a fairy performance of filigreed wings against the infinite blue sky.  They are still dancing when we leave, this last great day of May.

…the slice of the knife

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You enjoy the motion of the knife cutting, the smooth sweep of the wide blade as it meets the chopping board, your fingertips curled against the onion’s domed back.  When you are done the dome is transformed into a heap of translucent cubes alongside a stub of woody stem.  Soon the smell of heated onions will fill the kitchen, the first tangible sign that dinner has begun.

You turn the knife flat to press the heel against a garlic clove, crushing the skin away from its body.  There are few things you crush with the knife.  Cardamon pods to release their pungent flavour, but you can think of nothing else.  You wonder if the knife is surprised by this turn of events, its blade ready for the slice, only to be laid flat as if ready for bed. 

If your knife presses down on a tomato and does not cut through its flesh like butter, you know it needs to be sharpened.  For now, you make a neat incision with the tip and with this beginning the blade can do its work. You’ll then wash the blade and sharpen, wash the blade again of its steel shavings.  You cannot tolerate a blunt knife.

You have a friend whose kitchen knives are all blunt.  She had a difficult boyfriend who would pick up a knife when angry or drunk, and even after she left him, the fear still remains.  You will tolerate a blunt knife at her house, but whenever you are chopping in the haphazard way of bladeless steel, you always think of him.

You never learned the fast chopping of TV chefs, although you did train as a chef many years ago.  One of your first lessons must have been how to use the knife, but you don’t remember this.  You do remember the sweated heat of cooking food, your hair damp under your chef’s hat.  You remember the fatigue of hours on your feet.  The clatter of spoons in pans, the slam of oven doors, the obedient call of ready chef hanging in the expectant air at the beginning of service. 

Cooking then became the food-making of motherhood, and your knife the enabler.  You taught your children at a young age how to use the knife, their soft little fingers curled against the dome of an onion.  They have both become good cooks and you feel glad that they can feed themselves, and they can gift their food to others.

Now your knife is like a good friend, working with you to create from the elemental.  The onion, the garlic clove, the tomato.  The slice is the beginning of something new. 

…mind games

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Sometimes, you say something to your lover and a moment later he’ll ask you for a number between 1 and 100.  This is because the thing you said was the thing he was thinking, and so now he needs to test this moment of cosmic connection.  Very occasionally you get the number right, but often you are just a few numbers away or the numbers are transposed.  Either is a satisfying result and you can both continue with your day.   You wonder about this need to test the unseen, the unexplainable.  You wonder if the unseen is bothered by your doubt.

The parapsychologist J. B. Rhine invented the term extrasensory perception in the 1930s.  He carried out 90,000 experiments in the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University in North Carolina, and went on the establish the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man.  Now renamed The Rhine Institute, their current research projects include investigations into psychokinesis, bioenergy, healing and extrasensory perception.

You know someone who can see your thoughts.  You have known her for many years and how closely she feels other people’s emotions, sometimes a disorientating overload that she’s had to learn how to manage.  But you have only recently discovered she can see things too.  You were having a conversation and there was something you refused to tell her but it was too late, it was already in her head and she gave you one word to describe it.  You couldn’t speak.  This thing that she had no way of knowing had risen up unbidden in her mind. 

You once remarked to your lover that this person hadn’t called in a while, and in that moment she called. 

Coincidence, fluke, serendipity, happenstance, synchronicity, luck, destiny.  These are the words we use to explain the things we cannot see or measure.

When you were young you had a fascination with extrasensory perception.  You watched films like The Fury and Village of the Damned, and then later The X-Files.  You wanted to move cups and read people’s minds.  You feel that children in particular desire this skill to compensate for their lack of power.  It is a universal truth commonly known that some adults deserve a cup flying towards their heads. 

For most of your life your alignment with others has been a result of deference, so you found yourself swimming in their sea and calling it love, all the while confused by the riptides that pulled you away from yourself.  But now you discover a new body of water, a place where you and your lover can swim together, a place where numbers between 1 and 100 drift through the currents of your thoughts, where hope and desire and strange imaginings can mingle together as one. 

Think of a number between 1 and 100. 

Let it linger in the ether of your mind, and see who finds it there.

…flying over mountains

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Sometimes you read a book that you sink into so completely you don’t want it to finish, and when onward time means that you reach that final page, you want to hang it around your neck on a simple strap so you can wear it always against your heart. 

So it is with Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, a book that fills you with the true feelings of life, all the way  from struggle to joy.  It makes you want to live on the top of a mountain for a summer or hitchhike across the country or meditate in the woods or go to poetry readings in small downtown bars in San Francisco.  The main character, Ray Smith, does all these things, living in the 1950s and roaming around in a way that feels easy to him in his twenty-something wild-riding years, whereas you are advancing through your early fifties and only just connecting with Jack Kerouac’s writing, only just beginning to deepen your hunger for the freedom of travel and adventure and meeting unexpected people with unexpected ideas about this huge and tender journey that is life. 

You feel glad that you didn’t have these urges in your twenties. Then, you didn’t understanding yourself enough to know the choices you had, or what they would mean while and after you had them. 

You feel you understand this more now, or at least you know enough to understand that you know nothing.

And even though the world is in a state where travel isn’t a thinkable option and strangers may back away from you, you can at least read books like The Dharma Bums and think and write and plan.  And you can be free in your mind, closing your eyes to be amongst the pines on the top of a mountain to meditate beneath the cloud clusters and birdsong. 

This is where freedom lies, your skin tingling in the crisp haze of everything and nothing.

This is where you fly. 

…on road trips

The Nevada Desert


Some of the best road trips are long-planned and desired, whereas others are best done impulsively, such as driving to the beach on a hot day, or going out looking for one thing and finding another.  But always the best trips are when the unexpected happens.  An unexpected place, an unexpected person, an unexpected thought.

You borrow a friend’s soft-top car and drive along the south coast of Wales.  The day is hot so the roof is down and you wear a sunhat and factor 50.  You stop at The Mumbles and Three Cliffs Bay and end the day at Worm’s Head, the island shimmering in the evening sun, a place where Dylan Thomas once became trapped in the dark, afraid of the rats and ‘the things I am ashamed to be frightened of’. Before you set off on the return journey you sit on the terrace of the cliff top pub, writing and smoking cigarettes until your dinner order arrives.  The day feels full and rounded, burning with heat and unexpected adventure.

If you discover a warm day amongst the Mondays to Fridays, you and your son will drive down to your favourite beach.  You listen to his music while you drive, feeling the delicious pull of the cliffs spectacular in their orange glow and ragged sheer drop.  You have driven to this place so often it’s like a pilgrimage, picnicking and swimming, browsing the beach-side market, going to the fish and chip huts for dinner.  Your son in particular needs this place to replenish, to pull back from his life and gaze at the sea, reminding himself of the truth of things.

The biggest detour you ever drive is over a hundred miles to see your friend, who called just before your first trip with a new lover to say her boyfriend had assaulted her and was on the run from the police.  When you finally get there you find her strangely excited as she recounts the story to you, explaining that the police are still hunting for him and she has an emergency number to call if he turns up at her house.  When other friends arrive to take care of her, you continue your trip with your lover, the days coloured by these events as though a rip has been torn in time and the guts of someone else’s drama has spilled out.

Your longest road trip (in time and miles) is from San Francisco to The Grand Canyon.  Over the course of three weeks you stop at various log cabins, mountain holiday apartments and desert motels, visiting small towns and vast landscapes, discovering the unexpected.  But it is the unfolding miles that you love, the space between places, the road ribboning ahead and smudging away behind, through the ever-changing character of Yosemite, the moon-like threat of Death Valley, the prairie plains of the Hualapai Indian Reservation.  You are so present when you drive, your concentration unwavering in the moment you are inhabiting, and you do not want to be anywhere else but right here.

Your Sicilian friend takes a road trip from the south to the north of the island to collect you from the bus station at Palermo.  You have been excited about this final phase of your trip in her soft-top convertible, anticipating music and laughter as you plan your stay together.  But on the way she has an accident on the motorway, her car flipping onto its non-existent roof where she hangs upside down from her seatbelt.  She calls you from her hospital bed and tells you to catch a bus to Castelvetrano where her friend will meet you.  A trip that never happens.  A trip by bus instead of car.  A trip of worry that your friend might die.  This is not the right kind of unexpected. 

Your son has been obsessed with On The Road for many years.  You think he sees himself in Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty, as many young men have before him, the story fuelling his desire for the epic potential of a road trip.  Out of all the people you know, however ordinary his road trip may begin, his is the most likely to turn epic.  You are envious of this. 

There are many road trips you want to take.  Up the Atlantic Road in Norway, over the Rockies in Canada, through the volcanic landscape of New Zealand.  To your favourite beach with your son.  The hills and valleys and rivers and trees and cities and oceans and islands and interlocking roads are waiting for you.  One day soon you will get in your car and drive, and you will find the unexpected.

…on cars

The red Toyota in Death Valley


The car is a fragile thing.  If it hits another car its bonnet will buckle, its windscreen will shatter, the dashboard will crumble and fall around your legs where you sit in the passenger seat, and you are trapped.  There will be miniscule shards of glass in your hair, scattered like gems across your cheeks, burrowed into your ears and nostrils and shoes and pockets.  Its engine will catch fire with a delicate orange flame that you can watch from your position as a captive audience. 
Sometimes, people are more fragile than cars, but sometime not.

Your first car was a Morris Marina, bought soon after you passed your test at seventeen years old.  Within a few months you scraped its wing driving too close to a wall, but this was the only wound it bore from your inexperienced parenting.  You had all you needed to escape the small village where you grew up, and you understood that injuries where bound to happen somewhere along the way

Your next car was a red Datsun Sunny, old and rust-riddled, reluctant to participate in any journey when it was cold.  Sometimes you would become stranded across roads or at junctions, its engine stalled and unwilling to start again.  You hated this car to an unreasonable level for an inanimate object that was just trying to die in a dignified way.

You think fondly of the racing green Honda Quintet you owned for many years.  It had an electric sunroof, which felt like the height of luxury and sophistication, and when your then boyfriend stoved in the front crashing into another car, it started straight back up again.  You have had a love and respect for Japanese engines ever since. 

You once sat in a TVR at a motor show at Earl’s Court.  It had a walnut steering wheel and dashboard, and you fell deeply and eternally in love.  You are never likely to spend vast sums of money on a car, but if you did, this would be it.

Several years ago you took your teenage children on a road trip from San Francisco to the Grand Canyon.  Early in the trip you broke the rental car, and then you lost it. You had no clue where it was, so you rented another and continued your journey.  This new car was a bright red Toyota which was ridiculously photogenic against the chalky mountains or the heat-hazed desert, so you felt the previous loss (a car so generic you can’t even recall what it was) as a kind of serendipity.  Those days driving on wide empty roads listening to the soundtrack from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Velvet Underground or Dope Lemon were some of the happiest days of your life. 

(Afterword:  The rental company found the car and fixed it, so when you finally returned home there was a large bill waiting on your doormat).

You were nineteen when you were trapped in that flaming car.  Later, you were told that you and the car that came towards you on the wrong side of the road were both traveling at 50mph, so you both stopped dead, a combined impact of 100mph.  Your then boyfriend was driving and he climbed out unhurt.  When he saw the two cars welded together and the flames rising from the engine, he ran for help.  The first car that came along that quiet country road was driven by a man who happened to have a fire extinguisher.  Soon, firemen arrived and cut you out.  Ambulance men ferried you to hospital.  Doctors and nurses patched you up and you stayed in hospital for four days. The man in the car that hit you stayed for longer, but he did recover from his injuries.

You sometimes wonder if this is the closest you’ve ever come to death.  Possibly, but you didn’t feel it at the time.  Even as you were watching the flames, unable to move your legs with no-one around to help, you knew that you weren’t going to die there.  You knew that you were safe.  Something was going to happen and your days would keep on turning.  Something like a man with a fire extinguisher. 

Driving to you is more than getting from one place to another.  It is an effortless drawing away from the familiar, a shifting into the unknown and discovering the unexpected.  It is turning a corner to find a valley with the sun cutting low to make the fields of wheat glow orange; it is topping the brow of a hill to find the ocean glittering with promise; it is a sudden hailstorm that forces you to stop in a layby to listen to the clatter on the windscreen; it is the sleepy churchyard with yew trees carved into extraordinary roundness; it is the road running along a river where you catch glimpses of deer and rabbits and hovering sparrow hawks. 

It is all both fragile and resilient. It is stillness and movement. It is security and adventure.

Your car is sitting below your window now, waiting for the adventures to begin again.

…books in formation: 6 to 10

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6. Winter Journal, by Paul Auster

Auster writes his journal in the second person.  He is the you of his own story, but the reader is also the you of his experience, living with him and inside his mind.  And so my own you is born, a you who is both me and not me, who has permission to access my thoughts and my life and lay them out on the page.  You are brave and honest and sometimes reckless, while I hide away, trying not to be noticed.

7. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

O’Brien understands the human impulse to tell stories, describing the need for soldiers in the Vietnam War to let the words spill out, shaping and reshaping their reality until it became a tolerable truth.  He says that stories are for ‘joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are.

You feel Ray Bradbury’s advice when you read this, that O’Brien is your ‘someone higher, wiser, older’ who says you are not crazy, that it is all right… hell… fine, to tell your stories.  And as time is forever moving forwards, you will forever be discovering how you got from where you were to where you are.

8. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

You read this alongside Working Days, Steinbeck’s diary account of writing the novel at his house in Los Gatos, California, while building work was being carried out nearby, noise and kerfuffle and self-doubt constantly disrupting his flow.  You think of this whenever you feel yourself making excuses for not writing… too noisy, too quiet, not good enough, not time enough, too much coffee, too honest, too difficult….

You also remind yourself that he lived for a while in Bruton, Somerset, a mere eleven miles away from where you live now.  Sometime in the future you will visit his desk that resides in the museum there, and you will stand in the room with the ghost of his brilliance.

 9. Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer

At some point you feel the need to find the slippery edge of your creativity, to understand how it can sometimes be elusively uninterested and sometimes surging in its urgency.  You want to understand why you dread the page, held back by the dead weight deep in your stomach, but then when you find your way creepingly into the story you are lost, suspended elsewhere, and then afterwards, you feel weightless and free, unfettered by the things that troubled you before you began writing. 

You find many practical answers to your questions in this book, learning about the functions of the frontal cortex, the hippocampus and the basal ganglia, so you can fool yourself into thinking the vagaries are now a navigable journey. In truth, you know the answers are beyond you, beyond language and biology, beyond anything earthly, and really all you need to do is to pay attention, pay your respects to this unknowable universal force, and write.

10.  I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

In Angelou’s first memoir, she said ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’  She told her story with clear-eyed honesty, and you felt the complicated shame of keeping your own secrets in comparison to the simplicity of telling the truth.  You find that once you begin telling the truth, it is very difficult to stop.

Of course you are human, so you still have your secrets, but you try to tip the balance towards honesty, and somewhere along the way you discover that writing is a way to find the truth when it has been mired in mystery and muddled perception.  If you can achieve a fraction of the elegance and grace that Angelou showed through laying words onto the page, it will be worth the knotted pain of cracking open a difficult truth.  And somewhere there, perhaps enlightenment comes. 

…books in formation: 1 to 5

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1. Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande

Brande taught you how to think into your stories.  She explained the strange alchemy between movement and creativity, a cocktail of circumstance that is both individual and universal, and, if the measurements are right, as potent as morning light on a sunflower. 

Still now you think while washing up, while driving, while soaking prune-like in the bath (also a favourite with Douglas Adams, planning the next turn of events in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, draining the bath and refilling when the water went cold).  Movement and thought… movement and thought… as inextricable as love and longing.

2. Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

A student recommended this book to you, and you were astonished by the fluidity of Strout’s sentences, like rivers of rhythmic words that capture the heart of her characters and the people and places they love.  She moves like a spell, into and around her people, slipping through time from past to present to future, collecting and polishing meaning and insight along the way.  For similar reasons you fell in love with the writing of Vladimir Nabokov and Laurie Lee, all practitioners in the art of fluid punctuation.

3. Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury

Bradbury loved to write.  LOVED to write.  In this flaming burn of a book he shares his experience of writing and advice for writers:—

‘… the first thing a writer should be is — excited.  He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.’

‘Run fast, stand still… the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are.’

‘We all need someone higher, wiser, older to tell use we’re not crazy after all, that what we’re doing is all right.  All right, hell, fine!’

If you are feeling tired of writing or unsure of your path, all your need to do is read his chapter titled The Joy of Writing, and you are back there, pen in hand, lost in the white heat of creation.

4. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

Isolation, repressed emotion, fires of destruction and the shame of insanity all combine to create, for you, the perfect novel.  These ideas and themes you revisit again and again in your own fiction and nonfiction, and you secretly hanker to live in an old house on the moors, the wind howling at the walls and windows while you write by candlelight. 

5. The Pillow Book, by Sei Shonagon. 

Shonagon, a 14th century Japanese noblewoman, wrote her memoir in the form of a list.  It is wise and funny, poignant and articulate, and there is a simplicity to list-making that you will be forever drawn to.  You will write essays this way, and you will write your blog this way, leaving space for the reader to make her own connections between seemingly disparate items.  That space, you have come to understand, is where meaning lies.

* * *

Next time: …books in formation: 6 to 10