pilgrims way

2pm, march 12, deep hampshire and nearing the end of 16 kilometres. i set out to walk a portion of the pilgrims way, something i’ve been slowly and in pieces trying to complete for a couple of years. something in me knew this would be the last walk for awhile, i’d been headachy for a couple of days and thought dusting off the cobwebs might sort the stress (NB: still headachy a week later).

it wasn’t a particularly scenic walk, this one. it had its moments, but while the path’s name might suggest hallowed churches and prayerful hilltops, many sections are not particularly sacred-feeling. i’d earlier spent many long minutes tramping between a chain-link fence blocking a railway line – busy every few minutes with brain-rattling trains passing at full speed – and a sand pit where big trucks were rumbling around picking deeply at a huge earthen scar.

IMG_2333.jpg

it rained on england for most of january and february, and rivers and valleys i passed earlier were still receding; pools of floodwater and vestiges of overflown banks everywhere. when i arrived at this final seemingly unending stretch of mud, i was exhausted. legs crying, feet hurting, head aching. simply not sure i could physically get through it.

i started to weep.

it’s strange looking back on this photo now. with a week’s hindsight, what a beautiful spot this was. lovely overgrown ivy inching along edges, proud trees teasing at spring buds, high sun and a cold breeze hastening low clouds.

so much of my life over the past three years has felt like this moment. so many times i have thought, “this is it. i definitely will not make it through this.”

test after test. loss after loss. grief upon grief. getting through one and feeling relief, like maybe now things will just be okay. then another test, another loss, another goodbye, another crumbling tower.

each time, i have laid down and wept. grabbed my knees to my chest and wondered why. i have lost perspective and found it again. the legs of my soul have been broken and i have dug deep and found the healing powers within myself to stand up again. walk on. smile. feel the sun on my face. push up the next hill.

but looking back, every mud patch led to an island in the sun. and it turns out that it’s not about just being okay again. it’s about living in each second, fully, even when you are weeping.

i cursed my way through this one, told the universe to go fuck itself, told myself i couldn’t do it and then reminded myself that i absolutely could in fact do it. reminded myself of much worse mud patches. reminded myself about the day i climbed all of the crags on hadrian’s wall in one go and then walked 15km afterwards and saw ghosts of roman soldiers. cheered myself on with shouts of encouragement from voices just then a little out of reach. keep on walking! the voice told me.

when i started into this mud patch, i couldn’t see how far it went. climbing through mud with my legs aching, my head hurting, having already walked through a dozen other mud patches and maybe with a case of coronavirus really seemed cruel right then. in actual fact, it was probably a funny sight. the tears streaming down my face were clearing a lot of emotion, but they also blurred my vision and i swayed around, slipped and nearly fell several times. man alive, would i have been pissed-off then, and the birds would have had to listen to all sorts of obscene language.

some distance later, i emerged – my boots heavy with wet soil – and shout-sigh-growled out into the silent ether at the (mercifully dry) field in front of me. this release felt tremendously good in my body. we really don’t give enough credence to the healing powers of screaming.

the path led forward along a straight and long roman footpath, eventually past a roman settlement, marked on the map but of which there was not a visible trace.

there were no ghosts today. only my own higher soul whispering,

pilgrim, look what you are capable of now.

IMG_2335.jpg

 

turn, turn, turn

TurnTurnTurnCover.jpg

almost every formidable musical memory i have involves being in the car. music was the fabric of my family – my parents both played music and met on the music scene in santa fe in the 1970s. music literally made me; without it they would not have met and i would not exist. one of the fonder memories i have of my mother is her story that she used to place her mandolin on her stomach and play it when she was pregnant with me, and i’ve always held that as the reason i so love the sound of the mandolin more than any other instrument. i believe, though, it was my dad’s savant-like mandolin playing that really shaped my ear for it.

the car was where life happened for us in rural new mexico in the 1980s. it was 20 miles ‘to town’ from our house, a little three-room adobe mud rectangle sat squat on the middle of 80 acres of land. the dirt driveway was a mile long and led out to another dirt road, which led to a small paved road, which led to highway 14, the main route into santa fe. sometimes we drove straight up cerrillos road – santa fe’s main drag – to school or my parents’ places of business. other times we veered onto I-25, up the on-ramp that took us past the odd sculpture of a brontosaurus family that some guy had erected there for totally inexplicable reasons. looking this up later, i find out the man’s name was larry wilson and he owned a foam installation business.

for years, the music we listened to came in two types, depending on which parent’s car we were in:

1) dad: a penchant for tom petty and all americana, oldies, the beatles, the kinks and other classic 60s stuff. i first heard the indigo girls in the backseat of my dad’s AMC eagle wagon. we sang at the top of our lungs to ‘won’t back down’ by tom petty and i felt like a real rebel shout-singing the word ‘hell’ out loud.

2) mom: singularly listened to contemporary christian music and fostered my love for amy grant by constantly playing her early ’80s albums straight ahead and unguarded. i’d handle the cassettes with care, gently tugging the sleeve out and unfolding it, making sure not to tear the perforated edges apart, pouring over the lyrics. when lead me on came out in 1988, it soundtracked my young life for years after, and we’d wait in line at tingley coliseum in albuquerque to see her concert. afterwards i went to the merch stand and bought a white t-shirt with the album cover on the front that i wore so much it got holes in it.

Lead_Me_On.jpg

at some point, my classmates pushed me into listening to country and western radio, which in the late 80s and early 90s was still tolerable to my dad and therefore he’d allow us to put it on, especially when we picked up friends who also lived out highway 14 and carpooled together. we’d sing at the top of our lungs the lyrics to the judds and george strait songs, alabama, kathy mattea and tanya tucker.

one morning on the way to school, my dad had tuned in to the oldies station and we were cruising up I-25 when the song changed and something happened. the iconic twanging first four bars of the byrds’ ‘turn, turn, turn’ resounded through the speakers and my dad turned the volume up full blast and sang along. we were stunned into silence. though he often drummed on the steering wheel (sometimes so hard we wondered if it might fall right off), he sang rarely, and it was special when this happened.

we listened, rapt. he sang the whole thing, then shoved the dial back down to a normal volume.

one thing you might know, if you’ve ever met my dad, is that john egenes can spin a good yarn. he knows the art of hooking you into a story and then drawing it out for as long as possible in great detail. after the song ended, he started in on a story about how the first time he heard those first four bars of turn, turn, turn, with their telltale rickenbacker jangle, it changed his life. he was hooked on the atmosphere of the song and how it was like nothing he’d ever heard before.

this sunk in. until that point, my life had been so saturated by enforced musical surroundings, i’d never contemplated the idea of music changing something in me, or of being overcome by a sound so new you remembered it your whole life.

on another morning drive, we were flipping through the radio channels and had one of those moments where you tune into a station just as your favourite song (i guess it’s called your jam now) is ending and we all shouted and moaned from the back seat that we’d missed it.

then my dad launched into story, and another thing you will know if you know my dad is that he’s a real sci-fi nut and more than a little bit prescient about technology.

you know, someday, you’re gonna be driving along in your car and you’ll be able to just press a BUTTON on your radio and, bam, you’ll buy any song you want and it’ll shoot straight into your radio from a satellite.

some years later, in the weeks after my parents split up, my dad got a new place up and across highway 14. it was temporary, and definitely weird when me and my sister first got dropped off there. i can only imagine how weird it was for my dad. he’d made a big stew in his crockpot and there were boxes all over the living room filled with vinyl records. i’d never seen any of them before – they’d always been secreted away in his little recording studio, a tiny concrete square that he’d built himself from the ground up (just far away from the main house to provide refuge) and spent most of his time in.

i’d never handled a vinyl record before – it was the end of the tape era and the start of the CD era, and i was aged 13 and lived and died by my walkman. seeing me idly scanning the boxes of records, he pulled a bunch out and showed me how they worked, popping open the scratched up plastic cover of his record player, lifting the needle and gently laying the big disc in.

the record was the 1966 stephen stills single ‘for what it’s worth’, by buffalo springfield. maybe i’d heard it before, but i’d never really heard it and the richness of those first four notes still warms me up from the inside out. bun. bing. bun. bing.

over the years, my mind has conflated the two memories, so that sometimes when i hear ‘turn, turn, turn’ by the byrds, i think of that first night as a divorce-kid, the smell of beef stew and the first feel of a dusty record sleeve in my hands.

megan young 2 sm.jpg

post script: there was one other moment in my life – this time in my 30s – that i heard music so different that it changed things forever for me, and that was the ethereal, spiritual sound of ‘lorelei’ by the cocteau twins, recommended to me by someone that cracked my heart wide open and let my soul out. liz fraser’s breathy, unintelligible vocals and robin guthrie’s sparkly guitars a form of jangle from the beyond, and i would not be the same after that.

winter solstice, greenwich park

IMG_1113.jpg

rain. the kind that feels like it will never let up, except it does and then starts again in another bucketing shower that sounds like someone put their thumb over the end of the garden hose and pointed it at at the roof. it’s been raining, mostly, since i arrived back from the desert a week ago – a fitting gush of englishness to counter-end a short new mexico stint, where every day was lizard-dry skin and ice-blue skies.

the shortest day of the longest year of the decade, and waking alone in a welcome sadness – polishing off bits of work, then nothing to do. christmas looms.

the rain is in fits and starts. sometimes it really gushes for awhile; a pool forms at my door and – oh those nights spent in the mudhouse last week remind me how possible a leak could be, but one does not spring forth and i marvel still at a roof which holds sway against this kind of downpour.

anyway, the rain is in fits and starts. in one of the starts, which i guess is when it’s not raining, i toss on a pair of gola trainers (remarkable shoes in water – i’ll always own a pair), an olive-green scarf and a corduroy coat and make for greenwich, not really aware of what is taking me there.

a pass through waterstones on greenwich church street yields a haul of books on nordic myth, darkness and the history of mysticism entirely appropriate for the winter solstice, which is lately my favourite day of the year.

it’s only just past one but the air is darkening like a dying candle – big grey clouds tell the weak, faraway sun where to go, and the wet, shiny street is full of people carrying overloaded shopping bags and unhinged umbrellas, rushing to get into the pub before another downpour.

i’m going uphill, into greenwich park, where a sandwich board reminds tourists the park closes at 6pm, though whole crowds are already descending the path from the observatory now under the dimming sky, as the sun inches toward 2pm. it will properly set at 3:53 today.

IMG_1094.jpg

i pause to let the lingering feverish sweat of a recent cold level off next to the meridian line at the top of the hill, under the statue of general james wolfe. an odd icon here, i always thought. the 1930s gift of the canadians to commemorate wolfe’s victory against the french at quebec stands a sentinel overlooking the park, the stately royal naval college and all a moment from the home of time, navigation, astronomy, the grave of edmund halley. weird.

IMG_1160.jpg

rain picks up. the view is immense – visitors here reap, after a little steep climb, an expanse of river thames and skyscraper, but i turn my back on all that and walk deeper into the park, bracing my umbrella up against another sideways rain starting to fall fast out of pink and orange cloudburst signalling the lingering rays of this abbreviated day.

it doesn’t last long. the rain. i cut across a small patch of grass, past a man walking a whippet in a puffy coat (the dog not the man) and onto a walkway away from tourists and baby buggies with their plastic partitions pulled down against the rain, which has already stopped again.

IMG_1158.jpg

clouds move fast. the sun cuts in a slice of yellow across a path leading to the park’s west exit, in the direction of the last light. it’s lined with ancient, gnarled, horny oak trees, whose black bulbous trunks rise to block the salmon sky into a mosaic of branches that resemble witches fingers.

i walk slow. let my umbrella drag a little on the ground. take pictures of piles of wet leaves and loiter while a couple passes loudly discussing what wine to buy at marks & spencer for a christmas party tomorrow. then the park gate is before me, and afterwards a small laneway where puddles reflect the pink sky.

IMG_1163.jpg

i duck down wellington grove and continue west, chasing the thin last sunlight through an unmarked footpath that leads steeply toward the georgian mansions on hyde vale, decorated for the season in pine wreaths and already lit for the evening by the warm amber glow of victorian porch lights.

this is how winter night falls on a solstice afternoon.

IMG_1185.jpg

monsoon

what am i going to write
about this far-flung evening
not so quiet
not so normal
not so
anything
seated alone on a south-facing porch
rain dripping off every surface
patter of droplets
chirp of frogs
everything is
damp
three hundred twenty tree species thrive
in the high western ghats
which one’s in shadow
which one’s towering above
are there cobras
are there macaques
sheltering the
downpour
what comes next on this journey
switch off the lights now
wait in the dark
let your eyes adjust
chirp, plink, splatter
croak, plonk, splash
i’ll go
tomorrow

munnar.JPG

chang’e

is she still waiting there?

on a hot october evening in a hong kong park in 2006, little groups of friends hover around colourful lanterns. tiny bonfires are lit. there are candles and incense. people are stretched out on blankets. it’s night, but there is an odd feeling of day in the air because of the all the light. the candles and the lanterns and the fires and the incense. and the moon.

hong-kong-midautumn-2006.jpg

chang’e went to the moon by tragic accident. she was married to her guy. houyi, a terrifically brave archer whose soul purpose was to shoot down the extra nine suns that at the time were scorching the world. the divine king yao was so pleased with houyi’s mad bow-and-arrow skills and grateful to hou for saving the world from climate change that he gifted him the elixir of life. but houyi didn’t drink it right away – he wanted to become immortal, but only with his beloved by his side.

houyi was great at archery but not so great at choosing the people in his life, and his apprentice was this greedy twat by the name of feng meng. feng wanted the elixir, duh, and one day when houyi was out hunting, feng broke into their home. but chang’e was wise and ran to her husband’s defence, drinking the elixir to keep it falling into destructive hands.

as soon as she drank it, chang’e became immortal. you might think that was a good thing but she was distressed at having to leave her beloved behind on earth, so she flew away to the closest place she could find – the moon – hoping he might join her someday.

on mid-autumn festival, we celebrate the moon. we being anyone who follows the lunar calendar and anyone who loves the moon, and me. mid-autumn festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. the farmer’s almanac calls it the harvest moon; it’s one of the brightest moons of the year, and the perfect culmination of summer’s end and the crisping of air under a night sky. or a too-warm night sky, like that october night in hong kong 13 years ago.

Chang-e001.gif

maybe the spirits of those that came before become our guides. maybe they live in some dimension between here and the beyond, in the meaning we ascribe to a sneeze or a toad, in synchronicities, in our weird dripping faucets, on the moon. maybe they guide us, maybe they whisper stories for us to learn and unlearn. maybe it is up to us to see these old scars and tend to them, and in that way. maybe it’s up to us to make the world new.

whatever you believe, it’s nice to think chang’e will be lighting my path up blythe hill with her moonlight tonight.

chang’e is pronounced like chahng-uh. she donated her name to the chinese lunar rover program, so now you know.

separation

how long will i
sit in silence
while this cord stretches out
far, far, far
you in the space beyond
denying – trying – what’s
ours from forever
wait, wait, wait
a universe of
expectancy, patient
unconditional
love, love, love
for the
ages
keep on walking
into fog thick
trust, trust, trust
and i can hear your thoughts
and i can cry your tears
from across the globe
from south of the river