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