Longing; The Ride Home

It’s the kind of Sunday for lazing – maybe all Sundays are? – pouring a second, then a third cup of tea. Standing in the kitchen, cocked hip, savouring the way soy milk pours in thick swirls, wrapping myself in a long cardigan, pulling it round as if it will stave away shivers from the deep cold that has set in outside.

Never has a January felt like so much longing. I readily admit that I am a longer – one who longs – in general. I have that romantic, wanderlusty personality for which there always seems to be something just out of reach, something far away and unattainable. Last year was a year of learning presence and satisfaction in the neverending now, and releasing fears of what might never be.

But a little of that longing is good for the soul. It reminds me I am alive and that nothing is permanent. Emotional foreplay of things that have not yet come to pass – bread for a writer. The pandemic has taken so much away from us, stripped us all bare, making room for what is new and fresh and alive. There is hope in this longing.

When my mind strays, it goes to New Mexico – galloping across pink-red pastures and mountain passes so high the sun bleeds the colour away. Sandias glowing in the hue of melon flesh and an air blown dry and brittle in winter wind. My current existence being confined to a little London studio flat and the few terraced-house streets surrounding it, this is not difficult to understand.

This is a particular brand of melancholy adopted by a certain type of individual who chooses to make their permanent home far away from the land of their childhood. Sometimes you have to roam distances away from it to truly understand what home means to you, or who you are because of it. James Joyce, for example, hated Ireland and left it as soon as he could, living most of his adult life in Paris and later Trieste, Italy. And yet he remained obsessed with Ireland, writing about it in every work. He famously quizzed each visitor that came to see him on specific details: at what exact angle a sign hung skewed on a specific Dublin street, or the colour of the rain and the exact placement of a tree or which flowers grew under a statue in Merrion Square. Joyce had no desire to ever go back to Ireland – most of his books are scathing satire on just how terrible he thought the whole place was – yet he was deeply obsessed with the beauty in its details from far away.

Something of New Mexico lives in my soul and breathes out of me in every word I write, and in every cloud I see passing overhead, in whatever new and distant place I take myself. A mountain in the Lake District that, somehow, shades in the colour of the Sangre de Cristos. The sky over Tibet is the horizon on the high road to Taos. A sunset in Kerala the fire of a high desert evening. New Mexico is everywhere to me, everywhere in me.

We are all trying to find our place in the world. The people who came before us, our family lineage, those that lived in the rented house before us or centuries ago visited a place we visit and left their written record. I am trying to find my own self in this endless line of humanity. Who am I in this eddying galaxy of existence and what do I contribute? What is the fabric of my soul even made of? How will someone link with me long after I am gone?

I have recently been reconnecting with an old friend and long-lost love – one of a number of unexpected gifts proving 2020 was not entirely a shitshow. He seems to mirror back to me my longing for elsewhere by constantly reminding me that New Mexico is windy and dusty and hard to love when you’re stuck there. It’s raining and cold and gross here, I tell him. Rain makes things alive, he says.

My search for connections through time and place brought me to the poet John Curtis Underwood, heir to the Underwood Typewriter company, who owned and lived on my family’s land south of Santa Fe before it became my family’s in 1958. Can we say that land really ever belongs to anyone, though? I don’t believe that we can. We do not own land, we are guests on it; if we live openly, then we understand we are part of it.

I ordered Underwood’s book, Trail’s End, a poetry compilation he wrote in New Mexico and New York. It arrived in a strange A4 sized book, printed-on-demand from scanned typewriter (fittingly) pages complete with typos. The date and place in which each poem was written printed at the bottom like a strange, cryptic code.

Santa Fé 12 4 18
New York 10 29 19

I was in search of family history ordering this book. I hoped maybe to find something familiar – a corner of the old ranch house where he lived before my grandparents, or the fleeting light of a Lone Butte sunset – somewhere in his poetry. A connection that would bring me and this stranger together across space and time.

Most of the poems are about Santa Fe life; most seem to be written in the autumn/winter of 1918-19. Elsewhere, Armistice in Europe was bringing World War I to an end; Teddy Roosevelt passing away in his sleep; a Russian Civil War was setting the stage for a new era of history’s unfolding. Underwood lived out the Spanish Flu in my grandmother’s house, and a century later I’m living out another pandemic a world away across the sea, dreaming of my childhood through a stranger’s poems.

In the end, I’ve found little of my family home in Underwood’s writing, but deeper pieces of myself are all over it. He was prone to taking long horse rides across the dry, dusty pastures, looking at the stars on frigid desert nights, noticing the way the sky slanted through his studio windows; writing. Like me, Underwood saw the world through the romantic lens of poetry; he noticed shades of shadow on mountainsides and the colours of clay soil.

There are answers here, as there are in the search for darkness amid light. Existence is not a series of boxes to be chosen: live here or live there; prefer desert or rain; love then or love now. Everything is always moving, changing. Flowing water in a parched arroyo. We have to flow with it.

Everything is, all at once.

We do not, cannot, own land but land can form the fabric of a soul, and maybe this is what connects us all through space and time.

Through a corridor of mountains that opened on the stars
We rode without speaking a word and all the while we were drinking in
The silver flood of moonlight that made the night a miracle
And I wanted to go straight on and follow you
Riding forever through space to the rim of the range and beyond.
There in the air was our empire, and there we went riding,
Riding on the moonlight rim of a planet that galloped through the night.


-John Curtis Underwood, from ‘The Ride Home’, Trail’s End
Santa Fé, 11 18 18

Honest Year-in-Review

If I look back carefully, this year was actually really good to me. I was strong and I did a lot of things. I got a new lease on my work life. I read heaps of books and rested. I became an International Dark-Sky Delegate at the beginning of the year and by the end of the year had started London’s first dark-sky group. I wrote some great stuff. I reconnected with people, and more deeply connected with others. I got to visit a couple of places in the UK when it was safe. I learned how resilient I am. I learned to cook more things. I healed a relationship with an old lover. I learned to be happy and peaceful in the moment. I developed a gratitude practice to be a constant reminder of the simple things. 2020 was, in fact, a year of deep and positive growth.

But when you’re in the throes of depression, these things are tough to see. They can be impossible to see. I imagine there are people out there who did not experience depression at some point this year, but they must be rare birds indeed. Being fucking knackered, feeling like you can’t muster any strength for a new year, being overwhelmed by a gentle and unwavering sadness, or just plain numb…I don’t know about you, but this is the New Year I am experiencing.

Choosing to remember the me of a different day, she’s still me.

I write here as therapy. It’s purely for myself, and if anyone that reads it and finds something of themselves in it, well that’s a bonus. But this is a space I have created for myself to write whatever the fuck I want to write and not worry about commissioning editors or tone of voice or word count or angles. It’s just me, unfiltered.

When someone talks openly about their feelings of depression, sadness, overwhelm or despair, the first response seems to always be to try to help ‘manage’ them. Make them feel better. Fix it. Even those of us who have experienced profound and sometimes lasting depression can fall into this response when confronted with a loved one who expresses a struggle.

I have thought about this a lot. Partly because I know when I receive a pitied or fixer response to my own openness, how revolting that feels. And partly because when confronted with my closest people expressing their sad-end-of-the-spectrum emotions, my knee-jerk reaction can sometimes be to offer solutions too. It is a real skill learning to hold space for someone else…to witness their pain or their joy without trying to change it or feel sorry for it. I have failed at this many times for those closest to me, despite my best efforts and intentions to be a true space-holder.

Being depressed and sad and angry and feeling broken beyond repair is okay. I’ve learned it’s really rather normal and I daresay even a necessary part of the cycle of life and healing. How can we possibly make a difference if we do not experience the full range of human emotions?

Society would tell you that these emotions are “negative” and need to be fixed. Managed with medication even. Made ‘healthy’ or shut down and put away for an ‘appropriate time’ (aka not in front of others or out in public). Fuck alllllllll of that. All human emotions, from wild joy to cavernous, aching, gut-wrenching sorrow, need and deserve to be seen and felt.

Openly and fearlessly.

If you are worried about being beyond repair, believe me you aren’t. I am not, and I am about the most ravaged person I know. Whatever coping mechanisms you’ve engaged in to keep showing up to life, that’s cool and fine and good. Keep showing up is the point.

Mainly, express the emotions. The MOMENT they arrive if at all possible. Emotions left unfelt will be stored in the body and turn to physical malfunctions. Our bodies offer us all sorts of clues to what we might be experiencing emotionally but not expressing. Sit still for awhile and you will begin to hear those cues. With more intense emotions, we have to find ways to do this safely. Rage and anger most of all need to come out, but in ways that are not causing physical harm to self or others. I like to scream into pillows or sometimes just stand up and shake my whole body like a child having a temper tantrum. I rage cry a LOT. Like a lot, a lot.

If you are managing to celebrate your wins this year, great job, you deserve to. We all deserve a goddamn medal for just getting out of bed in 2020. If you’re celebrating wins today, you’re much stronger than I am.

And if, like me, you are ugly crying in your kitchen to Jonatha Brooke, that’s fine, too. Let ‘er rip.

Better out than in.

Purge

I am the sort of person who doesn’t like anyone to see me not being strong. I was raised by a parent with some deep-seated emotional issues and being strong was a coping mechanism. When I excelled and was capable, I was rewarded with attention, which was the only form of maternal ‘love’ I ever got. Or maybe it’s because of my Leo sun and Cancer moon. Or maybe it’s just a personality quirk (ok I don’t believe in those). Whatever. The end result is that when I am curled up in a ball sobbing, no one ever sees it. Ever.

I’m strong to a fault. I caretake to my own detriment. I people please. I over-give. And because I’m an empath, I’m acutely aware at all times of every single thing that other people are going through and make every effort to accommodate them. Then when it comes my turn to be vulnerable and sad and broken, I don’t even know how.

A few years ago, I crumpled. I crumpled into a dark night of the soul that lasted months and I still haven’t fully healed out of it. I had so many emotional splinters that I’d been ignoring – actually I didn’t even really know I had them – it took emotional purge after purge. I purged until I was in a heap and no more tears would come, and then just dry heaved. One dark January evening, I had purged so much emotion out that I didn’t think I could get through it. I wasn’t suicidal but I just didn’t think I had the strength to exist anymore. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t move. I was just purely exhausted. I grabbed at the last string of something I hadn’t tried yet, and that was meditation. It helped, briefly. I kept going. It helped more.

Slowly, slowly, since that 2018 night, my nervous system has been restored. I cried everyday still for a long time, but a little less each day. Then there were days when I didn’t cry! Miracle. Days turned into a whole week, and then suddenly I found myself meditating more than crying. Meditating, and moving — not self-flagellating exercise, but soothing and gentle movements like walking, quiet yoga postures, stretching — these helped shift my energy.

But when a new trauma strikes, the old trauma responses are ingrained. It’s one thing to feel peaceful and healed when you aren’t actively being triggered, but when a situation comes along that scratches at that old wound, it can feel as if you never healed at all.

Tonight, I was fine, totally fine, until I wasn’t. I am alone. I am lonely. I am sad. These realities make me feel weak and powerless. Are others judging me? I am judging me. Everyone else has someone to drink gin with and watch bad TV with and welcome Tier 4 with and I am a sad sack sitting in my flat. Alone. I know I am strong and capable and beautiful and I know I have to give this love to myself, it comes from no one else. But let me judge myself some more for this, is where my mind goes.

I know these things are Brian – my brain, my ego – telling me lies. But tonight I am struggling to move through it. So first, I will write it and I will publish it and I will splay it around on the internet so that people can judge me or feel smug or pity me or whatever they want to do. At least I am telling the truth.

Then I will feel it all. The sadness. The loneliness. The abandonment from way too many people ignoring me, giving me up, forgetting about me or not even caring about me the way I thought they did. I will love myself through it. She deserves that love, she has that love. I will resist Brian’s cries that I should not write this. Should not publish it. It’s too raw, too honest and too much a chance for everyone to see you at your worst, Megan. Look at you, what a pity, Brian says. People will think you are really fucked up, Brian says.

I will feel it all and let it out, then let it go. I will look at the stars. I will sleep and I will get up tomorrow and try again.

Benediction

It is quite possibly the biggest cliche to wax lyrical about gratitude on Thanksgiving, and that is precisely why I’m sitting down to write what I am writing.

Since 2018, gratitude is something I practice everyday. I use the word ‘practice’ deliberately, as it is a ritual and an act that takes learning and practicing, much like my other practices: writing, yoga and meditation. It seems astonishing to me now that gratitude was not a calculated part of my daily life before then. Sure, I was thankful for stuff and kinda generally “grateful”, but I did not have a gratitude practice.

My gratitude practice has become prayer. I should go back, though.

I stopped praying, like praying to god, when I was 20. Having been raised in evangelical churches and schools, I spent most of my young life under a shroud of Christian propaganda. Not the sombre, ritualistic prayer of Anglican or Catholic traditions. No, prayer in evangelical Christianity as I understood it was a constant acknowledgement of the importance of my own self-loathing, my lack before a god who thought very badly of me and an ongoing self-admission of all the things I’d done wrong: ways I might have led a boy astray by wearing something too tight-fitting or short-cut, or hugging him at the wrong angle — and the fact that I had a girl’s body at all was bad altogether; ways I hadn’t shown up to church and looked or acted Just Right (“Honey, your bra strap is showin'” said the lady behind me on Sunday morning); ways I hadn’t honoured god with every action both seen and unseen; ways I had touched myself in pleasure, and every shameful thing — wearing makeup, dancing, saying the wrong words — BAD words, listening to the wrong songs by the wrong artists — artists who supported abortion or liberal politics. All of these were shame, and my prayers were a constant, sad, desperate plea for god to forgive me for being me.

When I left Christianity, that was it for me. Fuck this. Fuck religion. Fuck god and definitely fuck the southern right-wing church.

I recently have been reading a book called Longing for Darkness by China Galland, much of which is concerned with her worldly travels in search of Tara and the Black Madonna, and in doing so, finding a route back to her own spirituality and reckoning with her Catholic upbringing.

My own path back to spirituality has been similar. Years of tentatively walking through Buddhist and Taoist temples on my trips through Asia. Going through a Catholic wedding. Listening to musician friends openly leaving Christianity themselves. And then, a period of my own dark night of the soul: a series of deep cuts that left me so emotionally broken down that I had no choice but to find my own inner spirituality again to make sense of it all. I absolutely had to reach for the universe or I would have been sucked under and never come back up.

Several practices helped slowly anchor me into these important, dark depths. I don’t like to believe I’ve left the water so much as found a submarine in which to ride the waves, let the dark waters of emotion and spirituality and self come to me. Be surrounded by my own dark, sinuous, lovely murkiness. Me as god is a very rich, dark, indulgent and playful essence.

Meditation has been one of those practices. Learning to be present and, through that, disavowing every inkling of self-judgement. Jesus, learning self-acceptance is hard. Perhaps that’s what he was thinking during his own dark night of the soul. Yoga — something I’ve “done” on and off for years, but never really understood until I’d had a full year of meditation practice in me and then I really could grasp how yoga is about being present in the body, about self-acceptance, meeting your limbs and muscles where they are, not pushing but nurturing (not exercise and not fitness, because fuck that that self-hating nonsense).

And so we come to gratitude. The third in this holy trio. Every evening, after another self-nurturing ritual of cleansing face and teeth, I sit on my bed in the dim twinkling of fairy lights. I take into my hand a piece of smooth clear quartz that I found on my stepdad’s land in rural New Mexico, and I hold it carefully, lovingly. While running my fingers over the cool stone, I say out loud this nightly benediction.

Usually, I say the best thing that happened today. Often that is something small or simple. Sometimes it is something huge. On some nights, I offer myself a whole list of thank-yous – thank-yous to the universe and me and sometimes loved ones for all things, big and small.

Awareness, presence – these are the two foundations of Buddhism, and if I were to slot myself into any one religion (which I decline to do), it would probably be Buddhism. Staying in the moment. Because at the end of the day, the things that cause us worry and strife, the things that become stress, and the stresses that eventually become lodged into the body, resulting in physical illness (dis-ease) – none of these things are real. They are the result of a mind, or ego, attempting to “save” us by planning for unforeseen circumstances. By focusing on those scary unreal timelines, you call them in. By focusing on gratitude, you call in a timeline of abundance. This is the core of what some New Ageists call manifesting. I believe in manifesting because I manifest through gratitude and it is real in my life.

My best friend and I started an adjacent practice. The two of us are both prone to whingeing and can easily fall into negative spirals, and so when we find ourselves there together, we shout (over Whatsapp): FIVE THINGS TO BE GRATEFUL FOR. There are always five. Sometimes they are really funny things. Like “I have a toilet seat,” and “We don’t have to listen to that one person eat their salad really loud at work anymore.”

Gratitude drops you into the present moment. No matter what kind of bad day I am having (and I have had some pretty fucking bad ones, just like you have), I can find one small thing to be grateful for. With this, I am not suggesting we gloss over the hard things, the shit, the pain or the suffering. But I rest in the knowing that, by finding a moment of gratitude, the hardest days become easier.

What’s on my gratitude list tonight? So many things. For now? You, reader! This medium to express myself. An absolutely ma-hoosive Thanksgiving dinner, which I cooked in honour of myself. A nicely scented candle. And the supreme knowledge that I am deeply loved and cared for. First and foremost, by me.

Gathering In

October, rain, a familiar chill and the comforting scent of fire smoke on the air. As if overnight, the morning starts later and evening closes quicker. Mars rises and Vega sets. Blankets and hoodies and fuzzy socks are lovingly pulled from the back of a drawer. Thoughts are thick and full.

This year, I don’t feel I ever fully unfurled for the summer. A life of lockdown alone in a tiny flat has kept much that would normally be drawn out into the length of a summer night firmly rolled into a corner. Padding from the bathroom to the table to the bed, and on days when the sun is out, to the strip of garden that has saved my life and mental health this year. Everything feels smaller. The world is smaller. It was supposed to be.

Autumn is a time for the great gathering in. A time for thinking over 9 months of life, assessing the things we stretched our limbs out to achieve when the sun was high, a season for clearing and making room for that which must be kept, stored lovingly through the darkness.

In the evening, it is dark again. The long summer nights since the June solstice have passed in a haze of trying to feel normal in a very not-normal world. Of stepping through the unknown and learning to trust. It is an irony that in the length of summer hours is when I’ve learned to walk in the dark, have faith in the unknown, to trust the path I cannot see.

I’m not sure how old I was when I first held divining rods. Perhaps 9 or 10. They all wondered if I had ‘the gift’ and handed me a pair of long, thin metal sticks in the shape of sideways Ls. We were standing on the dirt driveway outside our little adobe house, and someone put the rods into my hands – long end out – and shunted me off into the pasture. If the rods crossed then we knew where to drill.

I felt the weight of this responsibility because I had seen wells drilled before, our first well and wells on other properties, and I knew there was a big truck and it took days and days of a giant drilling rig to get down far enough to find water in a desert. I walked for awhile. I wandered. One rod spun to the right, then the other. Everyone dowsed for their wells in rural New Mexico as a matter of course, but I was just holding two sticks and really all the adults were ticking it off a list of things that none of them probably believed in. Everyone just wanted to get the well drilled, but if dowsing might find water in a desert then it was worth a try.

I wandered to the ridge, just at the edge of the driveway where the top of our 80 acres of land sloped gently to the east and down a clay escarpment into the arroyo below. The rods crossed. I stopped.

They drilled a well there sometime later and we had water and I never really thought about it again. I put so much of myself, my intuition, my well witch…away. She was not acceptable or real. She was evil at my church school. No she wasn’t real.

I learned to call it my gut and my intuition, I pushed her stomach aches and bodily responses away and ignored the moments when I knew something would happen before it did. Sometimes someone would comment jokingly that I was gifted or sensitive. I would be call the Oracle on a press trip or asked why I gave such good advice or how I knew. I shoved down my foresight about a friend’s impending breakup and sometimes woke up from a dream about a friend texting me to find that friend had actually just texted me, and I told no one because being a witch, an intuitive, a psychic, these are not acceptable.

This autumn is a time for the great drawing in. After three years of meditation, soul searching, reparenting, tarot reading, connecting, listening and hearing, past life regressions and telepathic conversations, and over a summer that has given me the space to feel into all of these things.

We’ve been taught that the darkness is bad, it’s evil, it’s scary, dangerous even. But darkness is simply half of a cycle, a critical half. A cycle we could not exist without. Like our lungs, we draw breath in, rest, flow in yin, sleep, allow our feminine side to be and nourish our bodies with life-giving oxygen. Then the exhale, expansion into masculine energy, awakeness, the doing, and an active offering of carbon dioxide to our planet. With each breath in, a moment to receive, feel, intuit, await in darkness. With each breath out, an expansion into all that we already knew in the light.

Let us be present in the liminal space between the long light and the great gathering darkness. Let us not fear the dark, but be gathered into the warm faith of our own divine knowing.

And let us allow ourselves to unfurl into all that we were told we should not be.

Man Alive

This is a short story I started writing when I was in university, and uncovered half-done in an old EHD during the spring of 2020. I finished writing it during lockdown.


He didn’t know how to come alive. That was, it turned out, his biggest problem. Everyone around him thought he was vital – but in truth, he wasn’t. He pretended to be a man of the world. But really, it was, well, fear of feeling something. That was the exactness of Jon’s problem.

It all sort of began when he fell in love with Daree. Daree was the kind of girl that should have a weird name. Or maybe it was the reverse – she was that kind of girl because of her name. At first, it was maybe all those things that attracted him to her. It was her whimsical, bouncy way. The way she tied her long, brown hair piled up into a brightly colored bandana. The fact that she knew about plants and green energy and organics. And so they became roving, partying hippies together.

Her friends became his friends. He moved with her – first to the East Coast so she could finish college. Then, out west so she could get a Master’s degree. Hell, he figured, I can get a Master’s, too. And so he did. He followed her right across the plains into the desert southwest, and when he got there, he told people he’d once been through on a train and never forgot the place. This may have been a line in bullshit, as he was indeed an excellent bullshitter. But it felt better to think he had his own ideas.

He and Daree bought a small adobe house with a big, dirt backyard and a greenhouse. It was on an old Albuquerque block with a park down the street and mechanics living next-door. Jon explained to people how he and Daree didn’t want to get married or have kids. He explained what a relief it was that Daree was on the same page. He explained that he was glad she didn’t want kids. He explained until he was blue in the face, and started wondering at night what he really believed anymore. Their house became a haven for her plants, which became their plants, and they got a dog, which loved Daree more than Jon. He explained this was because he disciplined the dog and trained the dog, and Daree just spoiled the dog. He was surrounded by Daree’s little biosphere of a life, so he learned to explain plants to other people. And he explained how much he adored plants, and gave people weird looks if they happened to be less-than-interested in the world of flora and fauna.

Daree made a lot of friends out west. She was ready to settle there, so her friends became his friends. She liked her program – which, obviously, included plants – she was studying biology and architecture, so she could build solar buildings and greenhouses that utilized non-pollutant energy. Jon adored her passion and explained that he was not at all threatened by the fact that she was, as he put it, super-smart and motivated. And he wasn’t. Only when he started to realize his own lack of direction did he begin to resent her lifestyle; her type-A friends, how they threw dinner parties, and talked about saving the world. They were people with big careers on the Albuquerque scene.

It wasn’t that he fell out of love with Daree. It wasn’t that concrete. It was more the way their lives kind of faded out of sight from each other. Daree spent less and less time at home. Jon spent more and more time drinking with his one good buddy, Sam, an over-feeling, heavy drinking, womanizing poet who fixed air conditioners as a day job. It was easy, too, to spend time with Sam. He liked to philosophize and shoot the shit and waste time. Jon could forget about how he lacked bearings and goals when he was with Sam. In fact, Sam made him feel downright put together. So they spent a lot of evenings sitting on the old, green vinyl couch in Jon and Daree’s house, watching Quentin Tarantino movies and quaffing can after can of Miller Genuine Draft.

Except for when he was at the University during the day, Jon tried to forget that he was an academic altogether. Though his study of philosophy often crossed his mind (as it was, in fact, a subject he loved to ponder), he pushed it to the back. He taught two Intro to Logic courses as part of his Master’s program, and though he tried to play them off as just “extra cash,” they were really the most interesting part of his days. His enjoyment in the wonder of philosophy on a large scale was difficult to put off. After all, he’d dedicated himself to it for four years to get a B.A. at UCLA, and now found himself enrolled in a post-graduate degree at the University of New Mexico.

Summer the first year that Jon and Daree were in the southwest, Jon stayed in Albuquerque, while Daree decided to visit her mother in Washington. Jon could face neither Daree’s crazy mother, nor his own equally confusing and dysfunctional family. His parents split up when he was very young, and his father remarried early. A few years later, after Jon’s half-sister was born, his dad was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His stepmom played obvious favorites with her own child, often leaving Jon to fend for himself. This made him bitter, particularly during teen-hood, when his sister was getting a car and a private phone lines, and Jon was barely getting lunch money. What was a mid-80s high school life but private phone lines, after all?

No matter, he sort of put the family stuff in the back of his mind. Especially after he met Daree. She was free and fun and allowed him to find a kind of life he never dreamed about. Her own father was fairly well off with an import-export business, and he was more than happy to contribute to his sunshine’s (as he called her) well-being. This suited Jon just fine, because it meant he and Daree always had enough, at least.

But the thought that there might be more had been creeping into his mind after they moved west, and that first summer was a kind of turning point for Jon. He found himself inexplicably unable to sleep or waking up out of sweaty, restless dreams. He felt short of breath and frightened, and often took the dog, Hemp, to the park or swimming in the river. Even then, he had trouble putting out of his mind the idea that his life and Daree’s were coming to some kind of impasse.


August 24th was the first day of fall term classes. At 9:45 AM, Jon gathered his messenger bag and collected the Introduction to the Philosophy of Logic, 3rd Edition textbook and headed to his first class. He swung the door open and walked airily into the room, trying to give the impression that he was cool and confident. He knew there would be students already waiting for class and he wanted them to see him as affable but not too goofy.

He let the bag and books collapse on the teacher’s station at the front and surveyed the room. Yep, he thought, typical. It was the standard fare of first-day freshmen, wide-eyed blonde cheerleader hopefuls and coeds, a few scattered nerdy misfits, and several older returning students.

And then he saw her. She was, quite precisely, unmemorable. And yet, he couldn’t help but glance at her a second time. She had long, brown hair and wore scruffy but well-fitted jeans and a truly ugly green shirt with Hawaiian print on it. Crunchy, but smart, he thought how to describe her. Smart? He took another quick glance at her, peering over his glasses as he pretended to flip through the textbook. Yes, she was definitely smart. She wasn’t chattering on with the other girls, and she looked older than they were, anyway. She had a crisp notebook and a well-worn pen, but wasn’t over-eager to use them. At the same time, she looked insecure – a fascinating combination which made Jon feel a funny sensation in his throat. Shit, he pulled himself back to the moment. I’ve gotta teach.

That 9:45 class became his favorite part of the week. Her name was Kathleen but she went by Kat. He hated that name. Though she several times asserted otherwise, he was sure she’d studied philosophy before, because she seemed to always know the answers, and she tended to blurt them out flippantly. Once, he had been explaining the difference between necessary truths and logical truths. These, he explained, are statements… that are true under all possible interpretations, Kat interrupted in a half-snobby, half-bored tone. He jumped back at her in surprise.

You have taken a class.

I have not!

Days became weeks and he found himself rummaging around in his bag after class as an excuse to talk to her. Or maybe it was vice versa, since she always seemed to be searching through papers or talking to another student for several minutes after class, too. Didn’t matter. He found the five minutes of company she provided him between 10:55 and 11:00 interesting. She unwittingly started walking with him to his next class, telling him stories like how she had her first shot of tequila over the weekend or asking him small details about his life. He forgot himself a little talking to her, and wasn’t sure if he liked that or not.

At home, things rolled on. Daree was busy with a design project for a small park in the central part of the state, and she often spent weekends working there. Anyway, she’d never had much interest in all that logic stuff, as she put it. At parties, Jon had a tendency to get a little drunk and start asking philosophical questions. Don’t start in with the ‘is language thought or is thought language’ shit Jon. God! That was now her standard response, and it always garnered a laugh or two, especially from their friends who had experienced Jon’s drunken ramblings.


“…So, we could honestly ask ourselves, is thought language, or is language thought? Where does one end and one begin?” he posed the question to the class on a Wednesday morning in October. At that moment, the skinny freshman kid sitting in the front row broke his pen and ink splashed across the desk. He made a move to clean it up using notebook paper. Lisa, an older Hispanic student near the front, scrunched up her face in deep thought. Jose, the tubby, jovial guy from a small village in the northern part of the state who spoke in thick New Mexico dialect, muttered, “It’s language. Eee yeah, la idioma for sure, man.” An awkward silence hung on the air as the rest of the class felt obliged to neither listen nor answer.

“It’s both.” Kat’s voice was clear, almost arrogant. “Language and thought are inherently bound up together – you can’t have one without the other. Just like culture…the way we think can only be understood in the context of our language. On the other hand, our language can only be really understood by knowing something about our culture and history.”

“Yeah…exactly,” responded Jon, looking at her in astonishment. “Because we simply can’t know anything without knowing both.”

“A catch-22,” said Kat.

“Yeah…” Jon trailed off as the class dismissed itself.

“If you know anything about ficus, you know this is NOT how they need to be potted!” Daree was ranting at a deliveryman from the local nursery. “This plant is going to die within two days if it stays this way! You’ve got to bring me a larger pot!” She ushered the bewildered man toward the door and turned back to adjust one of the insulation shades she’d begun hanging over the windows in preparation for winter.

“Daree! Where is Hemp’s foo… what’s going on in here?” Jon entered the greenhouse of their little two-bedroom house.

“Fucking idiots cannot seem to get things right to save their lives! God, sometimes this city drives me crazy.” Her voice hit that decibel that made Jon’s limbs feel like they might dissolve.

“It’s a desert, Daree. What do they know about ficus?” Jon was joking. He’d discovered she hated it if he joked when she was upset, so he did it for his own amusement. She glared at him and stomped back through the living room, her sandals reverberating against the hardwood floors.

“Hemp needs food.” Jon followed her as she poured herself a glass of tap water and leaned against the kitchen counter. There were unwashed dishes splayed about the sink. Bread crumbs and a half-eaten pizza crust littered the counter. “He’s out of food and this place is a goddamn wreck. We’ve got to clean.”

“I’m going back…” she swallowed a gulp of water and put the glass down to rest amid the wreckage. “I’m going back to the studio tonight. This project is going to send me to my fucking grave,” she walked back into the living room, letting him trail behind again. “Why do they need a park designed in Shitsville, New Mexico again? Who gives a fuck?”

Jon talked over her chatter. “You’re going back to the studio? For christssake Daree. The dog has no food, the house is a mess… This is the most I’ve seen you in like four days and you’re just leaving again! Jesus!”

“Jon, we have been through this waaay too many times. You know I have to get this project done. You know how important this is. This is not some useless thing I’m doing… This is bringing in money and this is my passion. Don’t do this to me again, I swear…”

It was the same fight they’d been through dozens of times before. Jon felt too tired to bother. He knew how it would end. He just shrugged, took his wallet and keys, and put on his favorite leather jacket leftover from 1993. It’d been awhile since he took his motorcycle out for a spin. No matter that he’d have a hell of a time bringing home a 16-pound bag of dog food on the back of it.


Kat had an easy time passing Jon’s class. She loved philosophy and she loved the way he taught it, and she was spellbound by his lectures and his charismatic manner in front of the class. One Wednesday, Jon was feeling particularly self-conscious, and Kat sitting there expectantly listening to him wasn’t helping. He mumbled out a few words but nothing seemed to come out correctly. Something about modality and… um, what was I saying? Nevermind, class dismissed, see you guys next week.

He packed up his things and tried to make a quick escape, fluttering down the hall of the 1960s building where his early class was held. Then there was a tap on his shoulder. Kat smiled and Jon felt a jump in his stomach that was at once worrying and elating.

“What happened in there?” she joked in a silly tone which made him relax a little.

“Oh, who knows. Hangover. I have the flu. Worried about this project for my Master’s. Who knows.” He really didn’t know.

“Look, I had an idea. Are you walking this way?” she indicated toward the Philosophy Department’s offices. He nodded.

“Next semester, I was hoping I might do something for additional credit, and I really enjoyed your class and I was wondering if you might need, like, a TA or something?”

There was a rush of exhilaration in Jon’s chest. He absolutely did not need a teaching assistant, and was doubtful it was something his department even allowed, especially for Master’s students teaching survey courses.

“Oh, hmm, like someone to grade papers and look through all the endless piles of quizzes where people still don’t know the difference between realism and nominalism?”

Kat smirked and he enjoyed the smirk and the fact that she got his jokes made him feel tall and powerful. He told her he’d check with the department and see if that was something they’d do and let her know.

Daree was going back to New York for several months as part of her program, to work on a project to learn about urban garden design. She’d leave just after Christmas, and she was in the throes of packing up pruning shears and coats and fleece headbands into a tatty suitcase when he got home from teaching. Sam was there, wearing the same cargo pants and black Pixies sweatshirt he’d been in yesterday, laying across their green couch, nursing a bottle of beer and talking about different varieties of weed.

“Want a swig, man?” Sam lifted the half-empty bottle towards Jon, making no effort to move otherwise.

“No, I don’t. How long have you been here?” he said, heading into the kitchen, finding the same dirty plates from a week ago piled up along with a new mug with a used lime in it and a bowl with some stubbed out cigarette butts. “Jesus, you guys. What the hell do you do? Just sit around in here all day making a fucking mess in the living room and day drinking?”

“Dude Jon, you’re one to talk, don’t get so bent out of shape dude. We were all drinking last night man, it’s cool.”

Jon stood over Sam and stared at him. “Why are you here?”


The final week of class passed Jon in a blur of giving exams and finishing off a group project on indigenous philosophies of the Southwest that he’d been working on that fall. Kat passed the final exam in his class with 98% and it gave him a small thrill marking a red X next to the question on epistemology that she’d gotten wrong. It wasn’t that he wanted her to do badly – he couldn’t deny that found her brainy qualities attractive – but it made him feel powerful to find a flaw.

When they saw each other after the last class, she joked about the red X and then asked if he’d found out any more about the TA thing. He hadn’t even asked the department, knowing they didn’t offer that kind of program and would never give him permission.

“Yeah, they kinda can’t really do it officially, but…I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t just do our own version of it. Like, unofficially but then you can put it on your resume and put me as a reference and stuff. I dunno, what do you think?”

December had set in and the morning sun hadn’t yet melted the early frost off the handrails in the open-air corridor outside the classroom where their final had been held. Their exhales were rising in puffs of white crystals.

“Okay. Sure,” she looked at him fearlessly, searching his green eyes and his furrowed brow. “I guess that means we should probably meet to talk about it,” he said.

“Yeah. I guess we should,” she smiled.

Kat went to Japan during the winter break – she was also studying Japanese and history as part of her degree and was spending a couple of months at a language camp near Osaka. With Daree gone, Jon spent most of the winter taking Hemp on long, languid excursions cross-country skiing in the Sandia Mountains north of town. He and Sam drank beer and Sam regaled him with stories of his sexual exploits – he was seeing a woman who was into the occult and had a very detailed story about how they fucked transcendentally on her pagan altar. They smoked rollies and he let Sam take him to a house party at a friend of a friend’s near Kirtland Air Force Base for New Year’s Eve.

Standing in a beige-carpeted living room holding a red Solo cup full of margarita, he counted down to midnight with a roomful of drunken strangers. Sam had disappeared with a woman in a silver tube top, so he slid the glass door open and stepped out onto the strangers’ concrete patio to roll a cigarette. He thought about Kat and tried not to think about Kat and felt guilty about Daree and was angry at Daree for not being there and for leaving him with all of her plants and a list of explicit instructions on how to care for them. He wished he could’ve kissed Kat at midnight, and wished that he wished it was Daree, and felt an excruciating surge of fear and excitement letting his mind stray to Kat’s round face and soft lips that turned up in a coy smile when he looked down at her.


It was deep winter when the January term started. Kat was back from Japan and they’d been exchanging text messages and agreed to go over the syllabus for the class that she would be TA’ing with him. They met up at a local brewery and she ordered a porter and Jon had an IPA and they joked around for awhile, and Kat told him all about her trip and a million crazy stories. She talked a lot and her eyes flashed around excitedly but he heard none of it and just stared at her while she rambled. She seemed so full of life to him, and he wondered if he’d ever been that way. In part he was attracted to her energy and at the same time he felt almost repulsed by how alive she seemed to be.

“Look, my sister’s organizing this trip to Colorado to go skiing. You ski right? We’ve talked about that. I know you ski. Do you want to go? It’s next weekend, and, well, the more people we have the cheaper it is, ‘cause we can all just split a cheap room. They are driving up on Friday morning but I thought since we have class Friday morning maybe we could drive up together on Friday night. What do you think?” She was speed-talking.

He stared at her, his mind racing. First, he had run through the small salary he got from the University for teaching two classes a semester over the Christmas break – mostly on booze for him and Sam, and dog food for Hemp. Second, what was this offer? What did it mean? Surely she just wanted him to go along as a friend to help out with costs, but it would mean spending a weekend with her.

“Hmm, I dunno, I kinda need money to pay the rent. Lemme do that and see if I can.”

Once the idea was planted in his mind, there was no getting rid of it. He earmarked some rent money in the bank and called her and said he could go, but only if they drove in his car, knowing he could put gas and lift tickets and food on his credit card. Sam would look after Daree’s plants and promised to keep Hemp fed, which Jon accepted dubiously.

When he picked her up Friday afternoon, she was wearing a thick, fitted wool sweater and she bounced out of her house with a pair of scratched-up skis cast over one shoulder and a duffel bag in the other hand. He chivalrously lifted the skis from her and pushed them into the rack on top of the car and motioned to the passenger seat.

It was a four-hour drive to the little former mining town with open-air hot springs. Jon found himself strangely nervous and rather than try to think of conversation to impress her, he asked her what music she listened to and if she liked Belle & Sebastian, and she said she hadn’t heard them before. He pushed a cassette copy of The Boy with the Arab Strap into the player, and the dulcet first song started:

He had a stroke at the age of 24
It could have been a brilliant career

They reached the ski town well after dark, and Kat’s sister and her boyfriend had already checked in to their shared room at the local motel and were out for dinner so Kat and Jon veered off the main street into the parking lot of a little Italian restaurant called Luigi’s.

Inside, the tables were decorated in laminated red-checked tablecloths, and when they got there, Kat’s sister and her boyfriend had already finished eating. They sat down and Kat asked how the drive was and asked if they were planning to go to the hot springs. Jon felt a flush of relief when they said they wanted to get to bed for an early start up the mountain the next morning.

“Oh, man. I really want to go for a soak tonight, though!” Kat protested. She looked at Jon. “What do you think?”

“Yeah, sure. I’m up for it. It might be kinda cold, no?”

“Exactly!” she said with a laugh, taking the spare room key from her sister.

It was snowing gently when Jon and Kat left the restaurant, walking out from the warm atmosphere, blinking into a sea of featherlight flakes wafting but never seeming to touch the ground. They got into the car and didn’t speak while Jon drove them through the dark, wet streets until a telltale plume of steam could be seen rising out of the damp street ahead. The hot springs were located along the river that flowed in an icy rush through town, and had been developed into a resort of cascading pools of different sizes, shapes and temperatures, all lit with low, colored lighting that washed the whole place in a kind of dreamlike atmosphere.

They rummaged through their duffel bags for swimsuits and Kat paid for the entry fee at the front desk.

“I’ll just change and head out to the pools and see you out there,” Kat said in a rush not looking at Jon. This made him feel nervous and uncertain. Had he gotten this all wrong? He wanted to impress her, but also sort of wanted to run away from the whole situation. She had never given him any indication, beyond coy glances and mild flirtation that could’ve been applied to anyone, that she found him the least bit attractive. He felt out on a limb. Slightly buzzed from the Chianti they’d quaffed with dinner, he changed quickly into a pair of dark blue swim trunks and tiptoed outside.

There were dozens of pools, each glinting with sparkling uplighting and obscured by steam. The stone pathways were wet and slippery, and he wasn’t sure if she had even finished changing yet. Or maybe she wanted to steer clear of him, to not give him the wrong impression. He searched several pools and, although it had stopped snowing, he had begun to shiver and was about to give up, when he saw her shadowy figure float through a cloud of steam in the farthest pool.

His heart started racing and the entirety of his life vanished into this one, singular moment. He waded down into the pool where she was immersed apart from her almost-bare shoulders, which were just out of the water. She’d tied her long hair up, but a few wispy strands had gotten lost and fallen down, sticking to her neck. She looked up at him.

“It’s so freezing out there!” she said just a little too fast. He plunged himself in, letting the hot water baptize him and inhaling the steam like a drug. She cast about aimlessly, her eyes reflecting the purple and green pool lights, and the nape of her neck dampening as she floated.

She spun, gently sending a small wave of hot water toward him, commenting how magical it all was, looking up at the nightsnow clouds.

It was his moment. Before she looked at him. Before she could protest, or tell him she didn’t feel the same way, or laugh awkwardly and ask what’s all this, he floated toward her and scooped her up, his lips finding hers in a hot rush.

And then, she was kissing him back, draping her wet, warm arms around his neck and sinking towards him, their figures tangling together like wet cloth. Time slowed. Her fingers brushed his shoulder and she let one hand trace the line of his clavicle. He kissed her more and and he could swear he felt the blood as it passed drop by drop through his veins.

Now he was alive.

Bulguksa

 

It’s a dream I revisit often, more these recent months. I am with strangers in a white minivan, winding its way through the rice-paddy green of a back road in South Korea. The road begins to ascend, and then we are in a low, undulating deciduous forest of birch and alder. We arrive somewhere and get out. A stone bridge blanketed in white paper lanterns leads over a small river, past an open-air wooden gate where giant, muscular guardian gods painted in red and green and turquoise suggest what lies within is special.

A campus of wooden buildings sits on manicured dirt courtyards. Tiled roofs, gently upturned; stone stairs leading to porticos where doors slide open, their latticework frames perfect and delicate. The group of strangers are paired off, and I am directed to a small room along with one other – a woman from Seoul.

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Outside the door, we take our shoes off and slide on plastic shower slippers. The room is plain and small: a fan, a bookshelf of Buddhist texts, two floor mats and pillows for sleeping. We are given matching, plain blue uniforms: simple cotton trousers and shirt.

****

We gather later in the dining room – a big echoing hall with a buffet and long, vinyl banquette tables reminiscent of a summer camp canteen. Across the corridor, shared shower rooms, each cubicle with windows opening out into the leafy beyond.

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I worry unnecessarily about my appetite. But we aren’t supposed to go hungry here. Eat as much as you like, a monk smiles, just make sure nothing is wasted. I take a plastic bowl and metal chopsticks from the pile at the end of the buffet, then scoop some rice, greens, wild mushrooms, courgette and tofu in, topped with kimchi. The bowl isn’t full. I eat everything, and wash it down with fresh water, then go again. Half a bowl, just enough, eat it all. Am I full? Maybe a little more. Every grain of rice gone? Yes. Okay, clean your bowl over there now.

After dinner, we pad sockfooted into a gathering hall where meditation pillows are arranged in a semi-circle, each fronted by a bamboo tray with green tea service and cakes. We sit, we wait. A monk enters swiftly; his head is shaved and the long, wide sleeves of his robes waft on some unfelt breeze.

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The monk sits, and speaks of cleansing the mind, of non-attachment, of letting go of desire. He asks if there are questions. The strangers are silent, and I am silent. A mosquito buzzes in my ear, the overhead lightbulbs are bare and seem harsh and bright for such soul-scratching conversation. Then, says the monk, we shall have cake.

****

Night falls. We feel our way past the soft curving walls of silent buildings, over settled dusty walkways, back to our rooms. The stream, somewhere out of sight, reminds us the world ticks on. The bulb in the bedroom is as bright as the one we sat under in the hall with the monk, and a few moths find their way past the screen door before it slides shut. I switch on the fan and lay on my bedroll, watching the moths circling wildly under the bulb. There is no internet, no connectivity, nothing but the dull ache of thoughts.

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9pm. A huge, antique bell is sounded somewhere outside. We rise, slip our shoes back on and crackle across the stone courtyard to the main temple hall. Shoes are left recklessly in pairs all over the steps.

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Inside, cushions are set in perfect rows on huge carpets; the walls lined with scrolls and silks worn by the energy of seekers and dripping with prayer. It is warm and smells of incense and socked feet and late evening dew. Outside a brain-rattling symphony of crickets. We sit cross-legged. A small, well-used paper booklet offers the chants in Korean script, with approximated pronunciations below in Roman letters. We start chanting and it feels awkward and stilted, until it doesn’t and then it begins to feel dizzying and I wonder if I am hypnotised. Some regulars at the temple are sitting in front of me and they know the ropes. They anticipate the monk’s words and they know when to bow. I follow. It’s physically exhausting.

Stand. Hands together at the heart. Lower into a kneel, lower forehead to the floor, palms to the floor, then palms lift, hands return to heart, head up, stand. Repeat. Again. Again. 108 agains.

****

Hours before dawn, the gong sounds once more and we get up, gathering half awake in hushed tones, shivering under our cotton uniforms in the main courtyard. The pale violet hint of a new day casts imperceptible shadows. A nun tells us not to speak, and leads us single-file into the forest. Clear your mind, she says, follow me.

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We walk. I do not know for how long. I can’t see, swimming in darkness but flooded by sound. The river gets closer, we get closer to it. It is close now, it is very loud. The splash of water over rocks like fireworks in my ears. My breath a soundtrack, each exhale puffing in a small, deafening white cloud. A gentle crunch underfoot loud as a thunderclap. Squirrels awakened early, rustling branches in such bright noise it could signal the end of the world. And it is also emphatically quiet. It is silent. Everything is still and moving. I am alive. I am. I am.

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Dawn breaks as we sit down on dewy grass, our bums instantly wet and cold and stained. Now, it is social time! the nun smiles. Please, talk warmly together! It is strange, so suddenly, to return into my body. To engage with another being. What should we say. We are alive. We are together. How can we even capture this feeling in words? Do you have children? What brings you here? Look how the sun creeps up over that peak.

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The grey mist of proper morning is cast over everything when we return to the temple. A monk shows us to an open-air porch enclosed by screens, below which runs another small creek trickling over stones. He indicates to sit, legs outstretched, on huge pillows. The pillows are warm and the air is so cool and wet and the stream sings its pebble song.

I close my eyes. This is not a dream.

I am alive. I am.

****

This story takes place at Bulguksa, an 8th century Buddhist temple on the slopes of Mt Toham in Gyeongsang-do, South Korea. Bulguksa is the head of the Jogye Buddhist order. It is a temple of exceptional significance in Korea and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. My stay was arranged through the incredible Templestay program, something I would encourage all seekers of themselves to do, if they are able.

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I write for free. If you enjoy my writing and have the means, you may toss some coins into my tip jar or buy me a coffee on Ko-fi.