some summer

dog day nights
fan blowing rounds over lavender limbs
the rings of saturn lapping along the periphery

remnants of grass, gone to hay in tardy sun,
picnic blankets used on blythe hill fields.
squint and you see a vortex of canary-wharf towers

veiled
in convective undulations.

she is a listless star, settling herself upon shropshire
connemara, the gulf of st lawrence.
jupiter steadfast come night, a lantern over the garden,
southampton, nantes.
a crescent moon and venus in the azure settling
over by bristol, kinsale, prince edward island.

and then there will be
the perseids,
another year gone,
the expanse of august,
longing.

i think i will look back on this riot time

as an eclipse.

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independence day

it’s late afternoon in 1988 and we are in the car – my dad’s AMC eagle with faux wood panels down the sides. no air conditioning, and it’s hot in early july. a dry, still new mexico heat, the kind that makes your hair go all static-y and melts the plastic on the steering wheel if the car is parked too long in the sun. we pile out at santa fe downs – the racetrack my grandfather always took credit for building. as a girl, i imagined my larger-than-life ‘papa’ nailing up planks and dragging dirt, his face shaded by a huge stetson and his alligator-skin boots getting dusty driving a backhoe, though later i came to understand that his claim on the track was merely financial and, like a lot of my family history, complicated.

we pile out and walk for what feels like a year from the car to the entrance, where a giant concrete tunnel seems to pass underground and back up again, right out into the middle of the racetrack, over which looms a covered grandstand. for a horse-obsessed girl of almost eight, standing on the soft soil of an actual racetrack gave me the same feeling i’d later experience standing on the great wall of china and ascending the eiffel tower for the first time.

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my sister is four and being pushed in a stroller by my mother while my dad points out the details.

back behind there are where the horses live.

can we go see them?

not today. he indicates toward a semi truck parked across the grass infield. look, see out there – that’s where the fireworks are going to come from.

the sun drifts downwards west behind the slate blue ortiz mountains, lighting the sky to their north above us in a crayola box of shades. a blanket is produced from the basket on the back of the stroller – an upright, spartan sling on wheels made of plastic piping and synthetic polka-dotted material and with a small pull-out sunshade that had done me no good as a baby and was currently not shading much of my sister.

we sit all evening and get hungry and cranky so that by the time the fireworks start going off, i am in an inexplicable rage and my sister, who’d been gazing upwards at the purple and blue blasts, gets a piece of ash in her eye and has to be bustled off to an ambulance waiting somewhere nearby. (she was fine but we were all traumatised and i wonder now what this experience was like for my parents who, i presume even at that point in their marriage, didn’t really like each other very much).

there were other fourths of july. the hour-long drive to albuquerque, past small juniper trees at the turn off for la cienega and down la bajada hill, beyond the pueblos and then bernalillo, where a ribbon of the rio grande could be glimpsed between rows of cottonwoods in years when there was rain, to the airport. my dad said this was the best place to watch the fireworks, which were set off somewhere from adjacent kirtland air force base, and i suppose the 1980s were a time when knowing you could use the open-air top level of a parking lot for a free family fireworks outing (hopefully one where no one got ash in their eye) was the essence of cool.

july 4th is the only holiday i remember us celebrating as a foursome; hell, one of the only things i remember us doing as a foursome full stop.

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when you’re a kid, people ask you dumb questions like ‘what’s your favorite holiday’ and my answer always was the fourth of july. at fifteen, this was highly idealised: it’s not a commercial holiday. i wasn’t wrong, but then time goes on and your family turns out to be messy and then so does your country and you move away to another state and then another country, and start to wonder how you could possibly have loved such nationalistic nonsense.

it was the shitty hot dogs. being smushed onto a blanket covered in pet hair, fingers smelling of ketchup and potato-chip salt. the wonder of fireworks cracking off against an indigo sky. sucking the last juice droplets out of a deflated capri sun bag through a strangely sharp straw that might slice your tongue. making cut-offs out of your old jeans with a pair of scissors and hoping you might get your first kiss under the cover of all that magic. swirling sparklers into fairy shapes that lingered on the thick air for an extra moment.

i loved that the fourth of july made me feel like, for one night a year, perfect life was possible. maybe my parents could be happy together. maybe i would be a normal kid who would meet an amazing crushable boy who liked her just as she was. that i lived in a great state in a great country where things were safe and happy. realities, of course, are different: my parents were so much better off apart, and as a result so were my sister and i. being a normal kid is overrated and turns out to be boring, and yes there have been several boys and there will be others, and so much the richer life is when you allow people to pass in and out of it in their natural time. there is no such thing as a great state or a great country – these are imagined things, it turns out – but the people that collectively make them up can be great and so can their cultures.

the fourth of july represents the unbridled optimism of childhood and a memorialised version of america – my version. it is nostalgia. but then maybe nostalgia is merely a yearning for things you think you remember having but that never really existed.

it’s late afternoon in 2018 and i set a pitcher of sun tea out to brew in the unusually sunny warmth of this year’s british july and think of my grandmother, who taught me this skill. she loved me but openly hated my cousin and it turns out people are really incredibly complex, and we never see all of their sides, even the ones we believe to be soul mates, or family, parents or anyone else.

it’s hot. i stick on a fan and some ani difranco, and sit down to write.

poem from the may stars

god how many tears have i cried
drops in the gaze of arcturus
sad, hot rain in conversation with jupiter
the chill-hard rules you decided on without my consent. you were
suddenly gone
but spica and the moon
in a may’s eve dance
a rotation of centuries that flee while they last.
us in a series of lives.
there’s still time for this to be the one where we
meet eyes in a felt-tipped dream
but if not, i’ll find you

in the next universe.

 

 

 

 

 

the mouse

it was after work some weeks ago, and i’d skipped out at 4.45pm on friday with plans to meet my cousin and her daughter for a special dinner at the oxo tower. they were visiting from california, and it is a rare treat when a member of my family is both wonderful and kindred enough to warrant meeting up with…and also passing through london.

i wandered out of work into a blaze of april sunshine – a treat of a warm, dry day at this time of year – sun peeking through a few fast-moving clouds interrupting bright blue sky. with an hour until i was meant to meet them for our sitting, i thought about a gin and tonic, and given i was due to fly to asia for five weeks in just under 24 hours, a little celebratory sunshine tipple seemed just the thing.

i crossed blackfriars road at the busy southwark street crossing, battling the brisk wind that constantly blows down then up again from the huge glass building where i work. and then the raft of militant cyclists pouring up and down the cycle lane. i skipped past the mad hatter (the only victorian hotel pub within striking distance still standing in the midst of a glass uprising) and a mini-waitrose supermarket and found myself on marigold alley: a small, brick-lane pedestrian alley that connects upper ground to the thames path.

there was a dark-haired man wearing a messenger satchel slung over one shoulder, stopped just ahead, peering at the ground, and below him, a small creature barely moving. approaching, it became clear this was an injured rodent – a tiny field mouse with a broken leg.

the tiny mouse, which may have been a baby – note to self: brush up on murine anatomy and life cycle – was attempting to crawl helplessly across a small patch of the brick. above, yet another modern glass office building and in front a sliver of ‘garden’ consisting in the main of pebbles intersown with a handful of tufty sweeps of urban feathergrass.

the gentleman says he thinks the mouse’s leg might be broken, but it seems ok if not for being on the hot bricks. maybe if we could get it into the landscaped bit, it would fare better.

i don’t want to touch him though, the man says gently, with a tinge of guilt.

no, maybe for the best not to handle him, i agree.

simultaneously, and without speaking, the man begins rummaging in his messenger bag and i flick through the assortment of books, headphones, papers and printed travel documents in my canvas work tote, finding a couple papers i deem unnecessary in comparison to the mouse’s life.

here, it’s a script but it should work. the man points a messy staple of papers at me and i wonder if he must be an actor on his way to a reading at the national theatre or somewhere in soho. maybe, like me, he’d taken a detour to walk along the riverside for a few glorious minutes in the london sun, and here we’d found ourselves, caring for a despised animal.

we work in tandem, putting the mess of script and papers down in front of the frightened creature, trying to delicately coax it onto its life raft.  finally, the mouse aboard, we hover in a silently coordinated dance, each holding a ream of papers, the mouse at the centre, walking quickly but unmovingly to the strip of landscaped pebble garden.

we gently lay the mouse down in the shade of the glass high-rise and breathe a paired sigh of some kind of relief. maybe it would be ok. then we stand there awkwardly for a couple of minutes, watching the mouse inhale, nose around and then and bobble carefully along the rockery.

well, hopefully he’ll be alright, i say and i am really hopeful.

yeah….well…thanks. sorry, and…thanks for your help, he says, pushing the mouse script back into his satchel.

it was nice being a saviour with you.

3am, mount everest.

i wondered how the stars would be. belle and sebastian have been in my head for days. days of climbing, slowly. first gyantse, 4000 metres. shigatse after, where crimson-robed monks wander in and out of dusty shops selling saran-wrapped golden buddhas and rolls of prayer flags in primary colours. then shegar – a pitstop on the way to the top of the planet.

by 3am, the stove inside the base camp yak-hair tent has gone out. it’s a two-room tent; me, my guide, driver and one random chinese guy who says he works in the military are sleeping on beds along the edges. the tibetan family who run the tent are asleep in the next room. the stove’s in the middle, where we huddled last night before bed, drinking hot water out of giant thermoses and trying, basically, to breathe.

these days, i feel like i am always in search of the stars. even bright arcturus – one of the few visible under london’s blanket of light haze – is a comfort when it pops through the clouds. but a deep yearning to be utterly overwhelmed by the starmap overhead seems constant.

the stove has gone out and i am wrapped in three thick blankets, on a couch-style banquette layered with tibetan carpets. i can’t breathe or sleep very well. the bathroom is a grim proposition (everest’s toilets have a deserved reputation of being the worst in tibet, maybe on earth) and it’s easily -5C outside, maybe -10. i uncoil the blankets from my appendages and stick a hand into the cold in search of my head torch and flick it to a gentle red glow.

feet into frozen boots, barely tied, and then i unlatch the tent door and step out into the frigid air.

just dressing and standing up at this altitude – 5200 meters or 17,060 if you measure in shoes – is difficult. muscles ache from the cold and the lack of oxygen, lungs struggle to keep blood flowing. there is a constant gentle dizzy and every single step has to be taken at a careful pace.

the moon is out, a half slice that at this altitude is bright like a fluorescent lantern. qomolangma sits a perfect white triangle at the top of a narrow, glacially-carved valley filled with boulders and rock scree. the moon has illuminated its north face so that it stands like a sentinel above base camp. between the glow off the mountain and the starshine, i don’t need my headlamp.

i wondered if this sky would beat kyrgyzstan’s epic remote stargazing session last year. it’s different, not comparable. there are fewer stars here, partly because of the moon, but the chilly glow of the mountain overseen by the big dipper and a million friends is tough to top. even with the stinky toilets.

it’s been a rollercoaster ride. but the trouble won’t keep me inside.

poem from a high hard sleeper

 

swirls of red dust
grey mountain line
non-descript
and, above,
some black clouds threaten.

an engineering marvel
they always say
utility poles, wires, disrupt dirt
and thousands of li
of green fence.

two ladies in the berth opposite
watching loud chinese soaps
on a mobile
while i drink an imported IPA
bought in xining.

more flat miles pass
trundling ever upward
but this does not feel

like the roof of the world, yet.

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guanyin and longshan temple

taipei. humid. a final day, and with no plans, where to go and what to do? it’s an easy choice. the city (and the island for that matter) is stocked with temples: buddhist, taoist, a mix of folk traditions. big colourful, scary-looking gods guarding doorways. and goddesses, lingering in shadowy halls. like guanyin.

guanyin is the bodhisattva of compassion. sometimes male, most times female. always gazing off with a wry simper, like she knows how it all turns out, and it’s fine, and your worries are ill-advised. guanyin is one of the most popular and beloved deities in the chinese pantheon.

it’s humid and even by 10am in early march, i am that sort of uncomfortable-warm in unmentionable places and relish every moment of metro air conditioning on the three-stop ride from my capsule hotel to longshan temple.

for reasons i still can’t really explain, i started really reading about guanyin last year, at the outset of what turned out to be the most difficult year of my life.

but i’ve encountered her numerous times before. first on putuoshan, an island off of shanghai dedicated to guanyin. there’s a 100-foot-tall golden statue of her gazing out to the east china sea here, and at the age of 24, seeing this had no effect on me, or so i thought. that trip, i was concerned about visceral things: winds that blew up and stopped the ferry crossings, so how would we get home (via a slow night ferry it turned out). but guanyin stuck, and looking back over myriad years visiting chinese temples, i am now sure she got in, somewhere, sometime.

a small park fronts longshan temple, and it is full of retirees playing chess, doing taichi and sitting around gossiping. there are signs everywhere bidding you not to smoke, and because this is taiwan, no one smokes.

the temple is heaving. i step over a raised wooden slat through the threshold. a group of domestic visitors pushes up to a window to buy bundles of incense sticks, candles and bags of oranges and packets of steamed zongzi rice dumplings to use as offerings.

the crowds are mainly taiwanese tourists, but they take temple-going seriously, lighting sticks of incense and starting at the bottom of the temple, moving clockwise, visiting each deity in a circumambulation.

i keep to the back. this isn’t a new drill to me, but i remain uncomfortable: maybe i am too foreign, too white, too uninitiated, too unlearned, too sweaty…to partake. i shouldn’t be here. i didn’t buy the incense or the oranges as offerings, i shouldn’t be here.

my heart says i should be here. i am not religious anymore, i keep telling myself. and why do i feel things in a buddhist temple that i cannot explain. put these thoughts away. move to the next deity. not sure what this one is either, and too embarrassed to try bowing or praying or whatever anyone else is doing with such ease of rote.

i go all the way around, pausing at each deity but nothing else. at the far northwest corner, students are making offerings to the god of literature – exam period is coming up and the statue of wenchang dijun with his long flowing beard is one of the few i can easily guess.

the whole east side of the temple seems to be taken up by windows where small queues have formed of people looking for guidance from fortune tellers, operating kind of like bank tellers. line up, pay your price, get some guidance. it is tempting.

but i have to get to guanyin.

it’s a tiny climb up a short set of wooden stairs painted dark red, and then you stand in front of the central hall of the temple. inside, behind a low wooden fence, is a tall seated statue of guanyin with her usual unaffected countenance – not really surveying the crowds lined up. they are bowing, waving incense up and down, and candles, and trying to say thank you to her or offer some word or prayer to her.

i am with them, and i still feel like a fraud, but whatever happens when you feel something spiritual that you can’t explain happens, and then tears run hot down my cheeks through closed eyes.

a lot of taipei, and taiwan in general, hearkens to its founding when hakka immigrants from fujian province in mainland china came to taiwan, and they brought religion with them, starting temples all over the island. longshan was one of them, founded in 1738, and it has been rebuilt a few times, surviving wars and earthquakes and typhoons and still remains a centrepiece of the capital’s religious (and touristic) life.

i stand here talking to guanyin, or to myself, for a short number of minutes. there are tears, and there are also beads of sweat inching down my spine. the year floods over me in a wave of emotion, but i don’t feel alone in this crowd. everyone loves guanyin. we are here together, we are all experiencing compassion somehow.

the tears burn less hot, then stop. against my sense of self-consciousness, i make a short bow, then move off into the crowd, darting between couples and groups of families, back out into the taipei heat. back out into the world.