The longest night, sunrise

7:19 am. I have been awake for an hour under the duvet. I woke before 6:30 anticipating the alarm, which I set last night in the hope of watching the first sunrise after the winter solstice from the top of Blythe Hill Fields. What a wave of optimism that was — I cannot be pried from my cosy nest and fight off a pang of guilt, reminding myself that I am allowed to enjoy life, to rest, to be lazy, to mill about if I want. I do that a lot lately and have taken to calling it anticapitalist protest. The right to do nothing.

It is the end of the longest night of the year and still deeply dark. I check the weather app. The Sun won’t crest over London until 8:04, but it must be blue hour, so I pull on the Otago University hoodie my dad sent from New Zealand and tiptoe outside.

The weather is crystalline. There has been a hard freeze overnight and teeny shards of ice glisten on the roof of the garden shed. The Moon was full three nights ago and now hangs, lopsided like a partially deflated football, above the western horizon. Sprays of pastel pink off east are a glimmer of the coming sunrise.

I love waking up early in London. For a moment, each day has that Christmas-morning feeling, like you are the only one alive. The pandemic ground the city to a halt last year, but London picked its pace back up remarkably in 2021. The past few weeks have, at least on on the outside, been the usual flurry of last-minute Christmas shopping, crawls of festively decorated pubs smelling of mulled wine, people carrying diminutive pine trees down streets glistening with rainwater that should have been snow, the annual revisiting of Christmas Number 1s Past blaring in a post office queue that snakes out the door.

But look a little deeper and everything is just slightly off. Slightly different. We all know we can’t go back to how things were, but like a couple not ready to admit divorce, we are trying, just this year, to recapture what we will someday admit was lost forever in 2020. We aren’t ready to grieve yet. To let go of the old way. So let’s try this year one more time, let’s just try and see if we can make it work, we are saying to ourselves. We act shocked when the TV announces more restrictions, more cases, another surge, another variant. Get boosted, get your shopping done, we can have it all! We tell ourselves.

The sky is still a deep azure blue but there are signs of the sun — pink dusting a few wispy clouds, gentle streaks of yellow, a hint of orange. I am starting to shiver and thinking about a cup of tea but afraid I’ll miss the main event. These things always go on longer than you expect, I tell myself. There is time.

I stumble back inside where it is still very dark, and the wisps of colour outside have ruined my night vision. Muscle memory presses the kettle button down and brushes the teeth, and I am worrying about missing the main event. Rinse and check outside. Things are a little more pink now. A little more orange. The Moon is ever watchful over chimney tops. Steam is rising off of a pipe next door — the only sign of human life on this utterly still row of houses. Other life is everywhere though. The birds have started their dawn chorus, welcoming the return of the sun.

Back in the dark, I clumsily pour water into mug and wonder what it is that I love about the night. The winter solstice is my favourite time of the year. For most people, the annual return of the summer is a long-anticipated event. Darkness, it seems, is fundamentally difficult for humans. Indeed, it is not an easy nor a natural place for me, either, yet I crave it physically and spiritually. The vastness, being enveloped, being blanketed, objects dimly outlined in the warm glow of a single candle’s flame, how stars puncture the black vastness, how I cannot know what’s coming and this necessitates a deep release, over and over, of everything my body has held onto in this lifetime.

In the day, we can see where we are going. The world is known. The more light, the less mystery. I don’t think we are afraid of the dark. I think we are afraid to let go and dive deeper into ourselves.

Toes are starting to ache from the cold and the sky is now awash in neon pink. Fingers wrapped tightly around the mug gleaning every inch of its heat. Birds are in full, cheerful song. With a little more light, I can see the grass, twinkling with frost, a pale jade the colour of snow-covered pine trees.

Too cold…rush inside…set quickly cooling tea on radiator…fish fuzzy socks out of drawer and pull on winter coat. Collect mug, check sky. Magenta now roaring up out of a fire of oranges backdropped by a canvas of turquoise, seafoam green, aquamarine.

Winter solstice feels like the new year to me, and indeed many people celebrate it this way, including the Zuni, Acoma and Hopi tribes who lived on the land where I grew up long before my family arrived there. It is the point when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted farthest from the Sun. From here, day by day, we make our way around the star until — exactly six months from now — we are on the opposite side of our orbit and tilted so close that the sunset comes late or never. Those long, languorous evenings near the summer solstice are, for many, the best time of the year. The time when picnics stretch almost to midnight and time seems ample for pond swims, barbecues and just one more glass of rose in the garden. Not to turn everything into a socialist rant, but I do wonder if modern humans treasure long summer nights so because they offer us time for our own leisure and pleasure, while in winter, work drains the few hours of daylight during which we might’ve instead been outside, living.

The sunrise has now reached its fullest and brightest expression and I know it, so I gather it into memory and retreat indoors to cuddle back into the duvet with a fresh cup of tea. From here, the magenta and aquamarine and burnt orange will soften to pastel and wane until the sky is a plain, bright mix of white and grey and blue. Everything visible and obvious, everything in plain sight.

In his 1968 “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked, “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars”. He was referring to the tumultuous time of his era and preceded this by saying, if he could ask god for one strange request, it would be to see the second half of the 20th century, because “something is happening in the world”. He was assassinated the next day.

The long night paints something only visible from its darkest hours. We wouldn’t have the technicolour sunrise without the deep mystery of the night. I do love the mystery.

The Gate

I wrote this piece as my final essay for Dark Mountain’s Finding the Words When the Story is Over writing workshop, which took place in March 2021. I submitted it to several literary journals but no one wanted it, so the editor of this website decided to publish it now. As the second coming of the apocalypse makes everything close in again, maybe there is comfort in deep time.

I arrive at the large, wrought-iron gate of Nunhead Cemetery as dusk is falling in a gentle hush. Half an hour before a March sunset, the evening has started to drag its feet a little, and a deep azure is settling over a line of oaks whose bare branches climb like witch’s fingers into the sky.

When the lockdown started, people wanted out of London. According to a report by the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence, 700,000 foreign-born residents left the city during the pandemic, and this figure doesn’t even account for the huge number of Londoners who migrated out of the city to live out lockdown in greener, more spacious places elsewhere in Britain. 

Those of us who stayed became ghosts wandering the leaf-blown streets of an apocalypse. We began looking for the pockets of wildness in our groomed suburban brickrow prisons. A moment of birdsong on a park bench. The busywork of spiders in the back garden. Muddy pathways through an overgrown cemetery.

There are four cemeteries within walking distance of my South London flat: Camberwell Old Cemetery, Camberwell New Cemetery, Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery, and Nunhead. Together these hold far more green space than the parklands nearby, and they quickly became havens for we the pandemic-stayers. Lycra-clag joggers huffing past stone memorials overgrown with centuries of ivy. Friends meeting for a cheeky, socially distanced coffee-walk. A dad pushing an empty pram behind a toddler in flower-patterned wellies wobbling past half-broken gravestones.

Over the months, cemeteries began reducing their opening hours. Some closed altogether, as crowds of nature-desperate visitors rose with the death tolls. No one could hold a funeral, but everyone went to the cemetery. Temporary signs appeared:

This is an area 
for quiet reflection 
and mourning.
Please be respectful
to those who have
lost loved ones
while you visit the
cemetery.

I set out tonight not sure if it will be open. It is the cusp of spring, and three days before the one-year anniversary of our first lockdown. Daily exercise is now the only escape from the ongoing orders to stay at home. I stroll down my terraced street and over a graffiti-covered railway bridge, to Nunhead’s east gate. It’s open. There is a posted winter closing time of 4pm, though it’s now creeping towards six. A recently printed A4 paper is taped up: 

If you find yourself locked in, please call this number.

Along with the likes of Highgate and Brompton, Nunhead is one of the ‘magnificent seven’ Victorian cemeteries that were built in a ring around London. In the 1840s when it opened, Nunhead was just a tiny, rural hamlet surrounded by fields. The churchyards in the City of London were filling up, and space was needed for the dead. And so Nunhead Cemetery was portioned out upon a high hill four miles south of the Thames.

I tentatively wander in, up a large dirt path that cuts through a section of shiny, modern graves that stand like bollards atop trimmed lawn. A second pathway splits off to the right, into a dense midnight of trees. It’s the first clear evening in a week, and days of rain have turned the path into a series of muddy lakes enveloped by giant oak, alder and chestnut. Headstones with carved weeping angels are veiled by tangles of ivy. Names and dates obscured by parakeet-green moss.

It grows darker and as I walk farther from the gate, it pulls at my mind like a magnet. Would it be scarier to be locked in or locked out? 

The farther along I go, the muddier the path becomes until the small, dark lakes are too deep and the dense sludge sucks at my shoes. It seems a wild mud and is dotted here and there with lost feathers. Space and time are stretched in layers: the airsong of past and present; soil-rich, cold oxygen in my nostrils; a full bladder begging for home. My body uncertain if it is present, or elsewhere, or a spectre floating in from modern armageddon. The trees, with their sentient roots climbing below bone, talking the ancient language – a forest of time wrapping in.

Time doesn’t seem to stop so much as swirl, leaving me unable to move off from the thickness of the mire. But slowly, the swirling subsides and the siren song of the gate begins to call. What time is it now? How long have I stood here? Long enough for trees to grow from the bodies of the Londoners that came before? 

After 12 months of lockdown alone, phoning a stranger for rescue would be far more disarming than spending a night among the dead. Retracing a careful route through the mud lakes, I make my way back to the main path, where the trees give way to open sky.

It is nearly dark now, and there is a group of walkers whose chatter jangles like church bells through the thick, cobalt air. 

The gate closes at six! they shout to a jogger heading in. But there’s a hole in the fence up top, if you know where it is.

I follow them to the exit and stop at the edge, where the cemetery’s shadow meets the tangerine glow of sodium lamps on the street outside. A moth flutters onto my shoulder – my life is dependent on its pollen; its life dependent on this darkness.

Yes, the gate may close. And we may be locked in. But we will find our way out.

About Afghanistan

The place that I have dreamed about and wished to go more than any other is Afghanistan.

Afghanistan: the most beautiful country I have ever seen in real life.

My great concern with my life’s work has always been about seeing the world and describing it for other people. I come from a landlocked, remote part of the United States. I went to high school in an uber-conservative part of Texas where many of my classmates had never been outside of the state or seen the ocean, let alone travelled to another country. Despite how deeply multicultural the United States is, Americans are astonishingly under-exposed to different ways of life and, innocently or not, have very little to no understanding about how things operate in other places. I really believe that most of my American friends and loved ones want to understand more, but it is prohibitive when you live in a huge country and haven’t the means or time off to travel. I made understanding other cultures and other ways of existence my life’s mission, and that has taken me around the world many times over, and so I suppose I hope that maybe through my little lens, I can offer a different perspective than the ones that people see on the news. Let’s be honest, the media is a huge part of the problem. Our obsession with “the news” is actually our worst enemy, because “the news” rarely if ever captures the intricacies and nuances of humanity or real life. It portrays events devoid of real people, especially because the news is now tied to money, marketing, traffic and commercial and ad sales. The news is important, perhaps, but it is also our worst enemy for any attempt at world peace (except for money, which is the worst worst).

When my logical brain says all hope is lost, my heart still holds a well of hope. It is a small but deep reservoir and I know that love can change everything. So I am doing what I do, and that is to write with love about these things in the hope and belief that my love will meet your love and that will meet all the other wells of love, and together something shifts, one little pond of love at a time.

It is my great regret that, so far, I have never been to Afghanistan. At least not technically. But I have been very near it, and I have been professionally proximal to it for many years, and so I will write from my heart, and I will tell you what small things I know. These are not political things. There are many resources you can read about Afghanistan’s history, and how it was turned into the state of ruin it is in now. I encourage you to do so. Here is a wonderful, interactive history of the Great Game and early Afghanistan from the Library of Congress, with beautiful old maps. And the BBC has neatly summarised how we went from September 11th to the Taliban takeover of the past 24 hours.

****

In 2013, Lonely Planet offered me my dream job: Destination Editor for North and Central Asia. It was a brand new role on a brand new team of content editors hired to be destination experts on the regions they would be overseeing content for. I was hired into the job for my China experience, and if that wasn’t a complex enough part of the world to look after, I was also assigned all of Central Asia, and my region encompassed two dictatorships (North Korea and Turkmenistan, as well as, arguably at the time, Uzbekistan), and of course war-torn Afghanistan.

So, championing under-loved destinations has been my calling, and I jumped head-first into understanding the parts of ‘my region’ that I didn’t know, including Afghanistan. Lonely Planet published its first-edition guidebook to Afghanistan, by the intrepid author, and my friend, Paul Clammer, in 2007 – a time of relative peace in between many years of war. This wasn’t LP’s first coverage – of course LP’s founders Maureen and Tony Wheeler had travelled right through Afghanistan on their trip across the world in 1972, which led them to found LP. That was when Afghanistan was a free and open society. Amazing how much can change in a short period of time.

Paul’s first-edition guidebook was well before my time at LP, but I inherited his fantastic work, though the situation by 2013 had deteriorated enough that LP was no longer willing to hire and send a writer to publish an update to the guide. I still took my job seriously, and learnt Afghan history and held hope. I read the news of Afghanistan every day.

One day, around 2015, I got a cold pitch (a pitch from an author I’d never worked with before) from a writer called Jonny Duncan, asking if I would be interested in publishing a photo essay from his trek through the Afghan Wakhan. He sent some sample photos that made me melt.

The Wakhan Corridor is a weird thumb of land that juts up into the Pamir Mountains, forming the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

It is the product of the 19th century ‘Great Game’ colonial, territorial jostling for empire between Russia and Britain, which divided the area up into its weird borders. The Wakhan is extremely remote, extremely mountainous and extremely poor, on both sides of the border, but especially on the Afghan side. In the best of times, such as the year of Jonny Duncan’s trip, perhaps a few dozen tourists visited the Afghan side. The Taliban were never very active in the Wakhan, mainly due to its remote location, but that changed a few months ago when the US announced its military withdrawal and Taliban forces began to infiltrate the Wakhan for the first time, sealing up its borders with Tajikistan.

Looking across the Panj River to Afghanistan from the Tajik Wakhan

I wanted desperately to publish Jonny’s piece, but it had to go through a process of editorial sign-offs, for which I went all the way to the Editorial Director of Lonely Planet at the time, who was actually very keen, provided there were no insurance hiccups. Jonny had already taken his trip, so my commission was okay’ed. It was the first and only dedicated feature article about Afghanistan that has ever been published on Lonely Planet’s website and for that I am both heartbroken and deeply proud.

Please read it and look at his lovely photos and understand how beautiful Afghanistan is: Hidden Wakhan: a trek through Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains

After this, I tried very hard to get an update to our ‘core content’ (this was our ‘guidebook’ content that fed both books and the website) on the Wakhan. I had a writer in mind who had potentially got a trip planned to the Wakhan, it was just a matter of finding a way to make it work. LP’s insurance would not allow us to commission and send writers to destinations that the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office listed as ‘do not visit’, so there was a blanket ban on us officially sending a writer. I tried to go through back channels, thinking maybe I could commission the writer on a handshake agreement and then pay him for his trip after, with a sign-off saying he’d have no travel insurance coverage from us. Unfortunately, this fell through in the end and it was a great pain to me, as I so deeply wished to offer the public and travellers a window and encouragement into a part of the world that most people thought of as war-torn, ugly, scary or some other negative adjective, take your pick.

Then Lonely Planet cut its entire content team and I was laid off alongside 17 other destination experts. And the company was sold. I thought I would never get to see the real Afghanistan.

****

In July of 2019, not long after I was laid off, Sophie Ibbotson asked me if I wanted to go to Tajikistan. A writer, tourism expert, consultant and PR, Sophie is one of my favourite people, because she is as passionate about post-conflict zones and misunderstood places as I am. And she also has the energy to keep trying to make things better.

Obviously, I did want to go to Tajikistan, and this was for a scouting mission with the World Bank. I was to travel alongside Sophie, who is consulting on the World Bank’s significant development investment scheme in Tajikistan, as well as a videographer and several World Bank types on a 10-day mission through Tajikistan, from its capital city (Dushanbe) east up the Wakhan Corridor, then north all the way to the borders with China and Kyrgyzstan. It was my dream come true.

For this trip, I was commissioned by The Independent to write a piece on driving the Pamir Highway, an article I am very proud of.

About a month before departure, I was busy buying maps of the Pamir from Stanfords, the storied travel bookshop in Covent Garden that is probably one of the only bookshops in the Anglo world that would just have a Pamirs map in stock on the shelves without the need to special order.

My Whatsapp pinged and it was Sophie.

“Would you be interested in going to Afghanistan while we are there? There might be a chance to hop across the border.”

Of course I was interested. Sign me up. What do we need to do?

It turned out a trip into Afghanistan was not on the cards for that trip, either, because like Lonely Planet, the World Bank’s policies wouldn’t allow us to go into a conflict-zone country during an official WB mission. Sad, because the Wakhan remained ostensibly safe then.

The trip still brought us within a whisper of Afghanistan. First, we took a helicopter from Dushanbe to the city of Khorog – an hour of mountain-brushing over peaks, right next to the Afghan mountains. Our driving trip took us up the Tajik side of the Wakhan Corridor, along the Panj River, which forms the border. Sometimes, the rushing torrent was only about 2 metres wide – tantalisingly close yet impossibly out-of-reach.

In Khorog, there is an Afghan Market that happens on Saturdays when the ‘security situation allows’, which basically means if the Taliban are being chill and everything is chill. Which it was for many years while the US forces were maintining the status quo. It wasn’t great – large swaths of Afghanistan were still under Taliban control – but the country was living in much more relative peace than it had during long periods of its active civil war.

Afghan traders at Khorog’s Saturday market

The security situation in 2019 was ok, and the Afghan Market was running. It is located in a newly built brick-and-concrete building just up from the bridge and border crossing. Mainly, Afghans come across into Tajikistan to sell all sorts of stuff ranging from food and spices to traditional eye makeup, herbs, used books and all sorts of odds and ends procured on Afghanistan’s black market.

This was my favourite place. We were told to be so careful, and we took that to heart. I felt totally safe, but of course you don’t really know what could happen at any time. Our guide could easily spot the difference between Tajiks and Afghans – perhaps based on nuances of clothing or physical features – but I was only able to spot the traditional pakol hats (soft, rounded felt caps) worn by Afghan men.

Driving for several days up the Wakhan, we had Afghanistan out our right-hand windows at all times. It was easy to see how much worse things were on the Afghan side – a tiny dirt track formed the ‘main road’, which was trafficked mainly by donkey carts and the occasional sputtering car. Road washouts and floods along the Panj are frequent, and a flood had left a line of foot and livestock traffic stranded with nowhere to go. They were right there, yet so far away. We carried on up the Tajik side on our relatively nice grated dirt road in our very nice Land Cruiser.

Looking across the Panj to the Afghan border crossing near the Khorog market

Near Ishkashim, our Tajik driver pulled the Land Cruiser over for a smoke break and pointed toward a bridge across the Panj, the only other crossing point between Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the Wakhan. He pointed toward a rusting tank and told us it was left over from the Soviets, and said that a tiny cohort of a few Taliban tried once before to take over Ishkashim (there is an Ishkashim on both sides of the border) but never made any progress, and that the town always resisted, so they never came back. There’s never been war up here, he said.

We spent the night in a friendly homestay in the settlement of Langar, at the confluence of the Panj and Wakhan Rivers. I went for a lone walk in the evening, following the course of an irrigation ditch south, past a toothless shepherd and his bony cows, toward the Afghan peaks. The sunset was soft pastels. It was the kind of quiet where you can hear water trickling in some distance away and the flitter of insect wings.

That night, we sat on logs outside the homestay and looked for meteor showers and it was the first time some of the people had ever seen the Milky Way. It was the brightest sort of Milky Way – stars forever, and far beyond the reach of light pollution or war.

****

It is my greatest wish to visit Afghanistan, not for any reason than I believe it is a beautiful place full of people with love and kindness in their hearts. People who also want to see their kids grow up and get an education. People who want to have soft beds to lay in each night and warm showers. People who want family dinners and hugs and to hear a good story over a campfire, to feel the peace of not worrying about being shot or raped or pulled from their homes at night. People with beautiful landscapes in their heart, and myths. People who also look at the night sky and wonder what is out there and what this life is for.

A local lady offered to wrap me in this Afghan-style scarf.

I write this post in the vague hope of offering an alternative lens, any lens at all, on Afghanistan beyond 9-11 and Biden and George W. Bush and Taliban and terrorism. Those are the keywords yet they have nothing at all to do with the even briefest glimpses of this place, which I have been privileged to have, however under-informed and distant they might still be. I hope maybe pictures and words and experience can be a reminder that we are all human, we are all one, we are all the stuff of life on this little planet Earth.

I’m sorry this isn’t better. I’m sorry I don’t know more. I’m sorry my experience isn’t enough to make a difference or come at all close to understanding Afghan culture or people or real life. I feel sick today, and I will feel sick for a long time to come. But I hold hope in my heart that I will someday sit alongside fellow humans in the lands we now call Afghanistan, to have a meal and exchange stories and see light and love and know we are both humans together.

In the meantime, some things we can do to help:

  1. Write to your politicians demanding expedited legal routes for Afghan refugees to come to your country. Brits, you can do that here.
  2. Read about Afghanistan’s history (see links above, or just do some googling).
  3. Donate to an Afghan aid organisation, such as AfghanAid or Women For Women International.
  4. Open your heart and mind to a place you might have reached saturation point with hearing about on the news, and push yourself to be reminded that humans are humans, and we all deserve safety, love, food, shelter and a decent life.

Writing for your worth

It takes me a good, hearty exhale to start writing a post like this. I have been thinking about it all day. Ruminating on it over morning emails. Having conversations about it in my head during an afternoon walk. Discussing it with my best friend over text.

In my life, I really have had no choice but to write. Writing is what I have done from the time I can remember. Everyone told me I was a writer. Everyone. And I love writing. It comes to me as naturally as water comes from a spring. I just do it. I once heard Neko Case talk about singing and songwriting as though she felt possessed by some outside force; that music just comes out of her like a firehose. Less violently, this is writing for me.

Choosing to turn a creative art into a career lodged into the capitalist system is, quite frankly, as dumb as fuck. Those who have gone the route of finance, accounting or sales at least have some distance between their emotional lives and their livelihoods.

And writers, perhaps more than any other professional creatives, have to bend their art to the will of those who pay. While musicians may have to conform to a label’s ideals, it’s usually only one label at a time. Artists may sometimes think about which gallery their work is marketable to, but the work is still being bought and sold on its artistic merit alone.

But writers? Writers have to change their voice, style and topic to every different outlet that we write for. Dozens and dozens of different publications, editors, voices, advertising needs, audiences and guidelines. A dizzying array of expectations for word art.

The trajectory that most non-writers think that a writing career goes on is authoring books. Being successful as a book author is tough to do. Even the most successful authors out there generally have to have other sources of income. Probably every author you’ve ever read and loved is also a university lecturer or corporate communicator or spouse to the rich. You would probably be scandalised at what they got paid for their last book, even if it sold gangbusters. So most working writers are not book authors, at least not solely.

Most successful writers work freelance, and we take all sorts of jobs ranging from investigative journalism to travel narrative pieces in daily newspapers to communication, PR and marketing writing that largely happens behind-the-scenes (like newsletters, press releases, website copy and informational material). The written pieces that appear in the news or online with a writer’s byline (that’s your name at the top of the article) are vast and varied. They often do not pay well at all.

To give you an example, the last piece I was commissioned to write was for a major, major, major international news outlet and they offered me $600 for the article. In the world of freelance journalism, this is big money, but you have to keep in mind that I lodged a month’s worth of work into doing interviews, research and writing the piece. I submitted it to deadline in May; it still hasn’t been published and I still haven’t been paid. For other pieces I’ve written in the past year, the pay has ranged from £100-200 per article. It’s no life!

I sat down to write this evening because I was most recently commissioned to write a piece on a topic I’m very passionate about (dark skies) for a prestigious journal associated with a major outdoor sports brand. For me, it was a huge commission. I was thrilled, and to boot, they offered me $2 a word, which is absolutely ridiculous money in a freelance writer’s world.

I submitted a first draft knowing there would likely be a few rounds of back and forth with the editor to hone the piece and make sure that it fit the word count so that it looked pretty on the page of their journal.

Yesterday, I got an email from the editor with revisions, and requesting a second phone call (we already had a 35min call – that’s 35min I could have been writing or working for another client). I’m pretty good at being edited now (we all have a little ego, to be fair), but the suggested revisions were, frankly, heartbreaking. They strayed from the original brief, which was to write about the importance of natural darkness, and instead wanted detailed stories about my personal life. They asked for huge cuts to the length, yet wanted more emotion on display, and emotion I simply do not feel (rage, anger, sorrow). The editor’s exact words were, “I want to see more of your vexed soul.”

To say I found this inappropriate would be an understatement. The ask is impossible – the editor projecting emotions onto the piece that I simply do not feel or experience, and then wanting me to write something about my deeply personal experience. Even worse, the company’s contract takes an exclusive right to all the material in perpetuity. Meaning they keep the copyright. So, if I write about my childhood or a particular experience, the brand has exclusive rights to use my story as they wish forever throughout the universe, in an ad or marketing material whenever they want, and I can never use that story again. Wtaf you might say.

I wish this was uncommon, but it’s very common. Every different outlet I write for expects slave labour. You shall not have your own voice, but should be a chameleon that somehow captures the “brand identity” of the publication you’re writing for. Yes, this includes every major news outlet you think you know, love and trust.

The worst part is that, having sat in the corporate editor’s chair myself for many years, I sent many pieces back to writers with this sort of feedback, and hate myself a little bit more each day for it. Gladly, I never told anyone I wanted to see their vexed soul, at least.

In my vexed wanderings today, I made the choice to pull my piece from this publication. I know my worth, and it goes way beyond the ‘great’ money and byline in a well-known publication. One difficult aspect of this is a creeping guilt that I should exploit every opportunity to educate the world about an environmental issue I’m passionate about (light pollution). Sometimes it’s just not worth it, and that’s ok.

Over the past few years, I have done a lot of inner work on boundaries, self-love and reparenting. Nothing – and I do mean NOTHING – is worth stress, insult, time-suckage and grief like this. In the interest of capturing my advice for other writers, or anyone in the commercial creative arts, here are some reminders:

  • Don’t be afraid to pull a piece or walk away from a contract. You don’t need a “good” reason. You just need to feel a bit uneasy about it. Trust your damn self.
  • Some people might see you as difficult, picky, sensitive or even arrogant. People will see what they project. Honour what you feel and what’s right for your work and art.
  • There will always be more work. You can manifest it. I know that sounds woo-woo, but I had my best-ever financial year as a freelancer in 2020, after losing literally ALL of my work in March 2020. I sat down and said, ok universe, send me work cause I got NOTHING. Then I made a margarita. Work came in spades. I don’t have days off right now.
  • Know your worth. You write your unique experience. Your voice is valuable because it is yours. Conformity to a publication’s standards is necessary to a certain extent, and then there is also a point at which you need to say no.
  • Read your contract. Read every commissioning note and contributor agreement in detail. Learn legal jargon that might screw you over: in perpetuity, exclusivity and licensing are important. You could be signing away your rights to use your own childhood stories in a future book or screenplay. Red flag!
  • Never, ever be afraid to walk away from a commission, no matter how big the publication’s name, no matter how much they are offering you. Trust your own feeling about the work first and foremost.
  • Always, always keep a space to write just for you. Whether you share that with the world is your choice. But make sure you have a space (as this blog is for me) that is creative and free, that doesn’t conform to the desires of commissioning editors or commercial schedules or SEO needs or market analysis. Because fuck all that capitalist, patriarchal, slave-labour bullshit.

At the end of the day, write you, for you. Because we are on the verge of the apocalypse everyday now, and we need real people to stand up and speak their own truths. To show beauty in their own unique way. I create for me, for my soul, for my purpose. Not for capitalism or striving or achieving or for meeting the brief of some millionaire’s faceless digital media corporation. Or to sell fancy hiking gear.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

Shoulder-of-Mutton Hill

Saturday. It is supposed to be hot – well, hot by English standards, but when you are used to cool weather, 27 feels hot – and I am going in search of the poet Edward Thomas.

It’s not the first time. Midsummer 2019, I went in search of the footpaths of Edward Thomas and his best mate, Robert Frost. They had matching cottages over the hill from one another in Gloucestershire and spent many fine, late summer evenings talking and walking through high grass on the path that connected them. Back then, I was in the middle of staring down the void – a ragged shell of a woman just after a series of ego-stripping life events culminating in being laid off from my dream job, the one I’d built my entire life and identity and friend circle around.

Three days alone, walking footpaths, climbing steep Malvern Peaks, one after the other: Midsummer Hill, Swinyard Hill, Hangman’s Hill, Millennium Hill, Black Hill, Jubilee Hill. Finally, Perseverance Hill, and this was the sort of metaphorical place naming synchronicity I couldn’t even take in fully at the time.

Years of perseverance, before and since, and now, we have reached June 2021. Well?

Back to this hot Saturday, and I pull on the lightest-weight mask I have (as there is now a choice of four masks, one for almost any occasion) and board a Southwest Trains service to Petersfield. I have been to this little town once before, and it occurs to me as I leave the station that Petersfield was, literally, the first place I ever really walked from. Sure, I had walked and hiked and all the rest of it. Most of my young life was hiking. But that trip from Petersfield was different. It was my first overnight across the South Downs in preparation for 2017’s coast-to-coast walk across England. I was haggard and in deep grief, my stepfather having passed away that week. I needed to cry, and spent 48 hours sobbing up and down chalk hills, through mud and rain; the Earth cried with me.

So, Petersfield is a special place.

Today, I am not going east to the South Downs, but instead, walk northwest out of the station, up over the A3 screaming with Saturday sunseeker traffic heading to the south coast, and into the hamlet of Steep. This Hampshire village was where Edward Thomas spent most of his life, moving from cottage to cottage with his wife, Helen Noble, and their family.

There’s not much in Steep. Some quaint homes and cottages. A large boarding school, where Helen Thomas taught for many years. A tiny, medieval church with a small yard full of wonky headstones – the windows on the south wall were apparently dedicated to Edward Thomas in the 1970s, but sadly the doors remain firmly locked on my visit. I go looking for the cottages where Thomas lived, but all are privately owned or difficult to find now.

Thomas’s name appears on a small but lovingly tended World War I memorial on the main corner of the village. Thomas came to poetry late in life at the prodding of his best friend, Robert Frost, and was only a working poet for about three years. His first poem, “Up in the Wind”, was published in 1914 and a slew of some of the finest verse on landscape, nature, solitude and love followed until he died in the trenches in France in 1917.

Thomas was a walker like me. He loved being in nature and revered the English countryside, and was lucky enough to have lived in it before the advent of motorways and mass tourism. Most of his poems address nature, many of them set in the hills around Steep.

These are the Ashford Hangers, a series of escarpments running north-to-south, west of Petersfield, perpendicular to the South Downs. A small internet wormhole into the etymology of the word ‘hanger’ yields very little, leaving me to believe these may be the only ‘hangers’ in existence.

A path leads me past a small waterfall marking the site of an old mill, through a dappled woodland, up a quiet country laneway and onto a steep forest path leading to the summit of the main hanger: Shoulder-of-Mutton Hill. At 750ft, it’s no Sandia Peak, but the rocky trail leading past pines to a view across what feels like all of Hampshire is perfect.

It’s hot and I’m sweaty and breathing as though I’ve been sedentary through a pandemic for a year. Partway up, I plunk down on a log and pull out my copy of The Selected Poems of Edward Thomas and turn to ‘When First’.

When first I came here I had hope,
Hope for I knew not what. Fast beat
My heart at sight of the tall slope
Of grass and yews, as if my feet
Only by scaling its steps of chalk
Would see something no other hill
Ever disclosed. And now I walk
Down it the last time. Never will
My heart beat so again at sight
Of any hill although as fair
And loftier.

‘When First’

Edward Thomas knew what it was to stare into the void. Later in the poem, he hints at a changing tide in the world, as whispers of the Great War were reaching Britain. Thomas vacillated and eventually decided to enlist in the British Army, motivated mainly by a desire to protect the pastoral life of the English countryside that he so loved. “Something, I felt, had to be done before I could look again composedly at English landscape,” he wrote to Robert Frost about his choice to go to war. He left England to fight in France in early 1917 and would never see his beloved landscape again.

Walking on this hot Saturday is easier than so many before it. For a good handful of years, I cried everyday. Purging things I didn’t know I needed to purge from childhood and maybe lives lived before this one. I was silent and felt broken, staring into the void. Walks were another place to commune with the darkness, and I found in those footsteps – one after the other – a form of meditation and healing that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Keep on walking! a friend messaged me during my coast-to-coast walk. There is no simpler and more profound a life meditation. These words are now etched on my heart.

Though many forms of movement can incorporate meditation – yoga being one I also practice weekly – it is only in walking that the body assumes a kind of methodical, gentle purpose. Running is too intense to be meditative and other sports occupy the mind in such a way as to distract. Only walking allows you to experience the void while moving through it with direction.

The day passes and the sun is high. I stop at the top of Shoulder-of-Mutton Hill to eat a warm chicken-and-tomato sandwich and some crisps in the company of a few pollen-fat bees. Today, there is only one other set of hikers – a mother and daughter, who I run into several times over the hours, each time offering one another friendly words of encouragement about the steepness of the trail and the heat. Keep on walking! I tell them.

By the end of the day, I haven’t come close to many Edward Thomas landmarks, but his soul is everywhere. And somewhere between back then and now along this long path of perseverance, I seem to have reached contentment.

Of the footsteps of life,
The friendliness, the strife;
In its beds have lain
Youth, love, age, and pain:

I am something like that:
Not one pane to reflect the sun,
For the schoolboys to throw at—
They have broken every one.

I am something like that;
Only I am not dead,
Still breathing and interested
In the house that is not dark:—

-excerpt of ‘Gone, Gone Again’

Poem on a thesis of romance

What is it you think
I want
some bouquet of conventions,
lame dinners, fakery,
cliched on balloons with coiled ribbons?
Sometimes my words are uncomfortable(y)
My mouth gets it wrong,
what my heart wants.
Romance: it’s not an arc-shot kiss
soundtracked by a hipster ballad;
it’s not anything except when –
being just you – that is enough.
But there are some things I think are romantic:

sending songs, instead of saying it.
whole playlists of feeling.
in-joke emojis
and in-joke everything
like that moment at a party
in a room full of people
you look over and a split-second of eye-contact, you just know.
Trying not to laugh at an in-joke
when someone else says something that is serious
but all you can do is laugh inappropriately
and can’t wait to talk about it, later.
Knowing that song sounds like me.
Kissing in the kitchen.
Making out in a forest;
surviving a night of wild camping
where an argument almost breaks out
and then the stars come out and
your problems are hushed by the universe.
Buying me a coffee
and looking past my facade of strength, the day after my
stepfather dies, to say
“You will feel this, you know. You need to feel this.”
Just being able to be,
let your hair down
swim naked
enjoy the realness of a body unadorned
and to speak out loud, in moments of quiet,
the things we are most afraid of, and still be admired
afterwards.
To fuck up, say the wrong things,
have everything go sideways
and know that you
will still show up.
To hold the memories of what we did
and almost did
in hot springs
so long ago and still wish
for more moments like these.
That you do not fear my wildness
you admire it.

I think that romance
is the courage of being
unafraid in the mirror of your eyes.

2021 Travel Resolution

I was recently approached by a major travel publisher and asked to write a short contribution to a round-up of authors offering their travel resolutions for 2021. The piece was to be about 150 words and include a photo. I was offered US$40 for this. I wrote the piece, focusing on two places I would love to visit if able, and received feedback that they were changing the direction of the article and now wanted something less destination-specific and more themed, with ‘tips’.

I rewrote the piece from a deeply honest place. It was longer than 150 words (but, really, not that long and do I need to remind anyone that the internet is infinite?). I was asked if I would “make some cuts”. I said no, that this is what I have to say. That’s when they ghosted me. A couple of days ago, I saw by chance that the article had been published without my contribution. Luckily, the commissioning editor of this website was happy to publish a slightly longer piece, so it is below.

It’s time to make change happen and we have to be brave enough to say the scary and honest things first so we can then get about the business of doing them.

Travel Less, Travel Regeneratively

I don’t make resolutions and this year is no exception. I find them to be either empty promises that make you feel good about yourself with no follow through, or just a way to self-flagellate. What can we say about travel in this new decade? 2020 changed the world fundamentally, cracking open our systems of social order, governance and economics. We have to take this, our one chance as humanity, to rethink everything. Mass tourism cannot continue along its previous and destructive course, and so if any resolution is to be made this year, it is to understand how our social order has contributed to a system of travel and travel media that is fundamentally unequal, white, colonial and exploitative. Can travel be a force for good? Absolutely. Is it most of the time? Certainly not.

To move forward from here is for travellers and travel writers like me (read: white, rich European/Americans), to understand our part in the systems of the world that create inequality, climate change and environmental destruction, and critically, to change. This means owning the uncomfortable truth that we must travel less or not at all, and we must travel very, very differently. Some of us, many of us in the industry, probably need to consider career changes (I have), and travel as a whole must be understood as a privilege and not anyone’s right, and one that comes with grave and profound responsibilities to listen, self-reflect, learn, fight for justice and give back.

One pathway to this is the concept of regenerative travel, whereby each trip not only is ‘sustainable’ or carbon-zero, but actively regenerates the environment and communities. But these trips are hard to find – the concept is new and most of the travel industry is focused on economics, money and restoring what was. To travel this way takes real effort. There is no quick list a traveller can tick off to achieve a life of regenerative travel. It means doing the hard work of self-reflection and owning your personal history and part in the systems as they are today, and then making the tough choice to travel a lot less, and when you do, to choose trips and experiences that actively give back in a non-exploitative way. It’s a nigh impossible ask just yet.

An example of this is the Global Himalayan Expedition’s regenerative trips, which are carbon negative by funding and putting travellers to work installing clean, solar electricity in remote communities, while providing multiple opportunities for the traveller to listen and learn from the Indigenous people they meet along the way. Tips? Stop travelling for a period of self-reflection. Listen. Reassess why you want to go somewhere. Ask yourself, ‘Is this actively helping the world or just self-indulgent?’. Nine times out of 10, the answer will be a tough pill to swallow, and in those cases consider staying home and getting involved in your local community instead.