a year of walking

i am not quite sure when the urge to walk at great length became a strong force in my life. i have not always been a walker. i am horse rider. a hiker. i like the mountains. i like to float around in the water without doing much swimming. i love being transported places by bus or especially train. i find flying tolerable and running a slog. i have spent some time cycling (mostly in china, where it isn’t so much cycling as sitting aboard a bicycle and peddling for dear life). and, somewhere in the last decade, i became a walker.

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it is perhaps down to a housemate of mine some years ago in dublin, ireland, who recounted her adventures walking a portion of the camino de santiago in spain for implanting this notion into my head. just going for a walk and not stopping. everyday, waking early, putting on dusty boots, and planting one foot in front of the other, resolutely, until arriving at another bed at another sunset.

or maybe it is down to my dad. i blame him, and thank him, for passing his nomad soul onto me. he has always been a traveller and a wanderer. sometimes through his telescope into the outer reaches of the galaxy, but also in a bread van full of surfboards, or thumb out waiting for a ride down the pacific coast highway, clandestine rides aboard midnight freight trains through the american west, and best of all, a coast-to-coast horse ride from california to virginia in 1974.

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when i was a kid, my grandfather (my mother’s father) often told stories of how he walked from his hometown of groveton, texas, to the next biggest town, lufkin as a young man in the early 1930s – a 30-mile(ish) walk. i have no idea what the details or truths about that story are, but i suppose the notion sank in. pilgrimages seem to run in my family, on both sides.

whatever the reason, the urge has strengthened as years passed. afternoons spent flaneuring around prague, or short saturdays walking the southeast london green chain seem only to have intensified this primal need to get the world underfoot. many evenings these days, after the very short stroll from work to london bridge, where i get the train home, the urge to just keep going overtakes me. i could go to the white cliffs of dover if i skipped the 17.37 service to west croydon.

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in the next few months, i will (fingers crossed, if all goes to plan, etc etc) receive permanent UK residence. i have decided to mark this milestone by walking across england by myself. it feels romantic and fitting and, frankly, completely terrifying. the somewhat bleak scenery around northumberland has always appealed to me, and the 84-mile trek along hadrian’s wall through that part of the world seemed the obvious choice from the start. mileage to be upped from wallsend to a finish at south shields, so that i might complete the coast-to-coast journey in homage to john egenes, my dad and hero.

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so i’ve started walking more in preparation. what were occasional 5k morning walks in to work are becoming regular. the odd weekend stroll around southeast london is in the process of becoming a weekly ten or 15k across the english countryside.

getting around on your feet feels natural. by yourself, your mind goes through stages of clear-out. first, fretting about the previous and next week’s worldly woes. then, contemplating the things that are really irking you, and next ruminating on things from bygone parts of your life, and finally thinking of nothing at all beyond the way the hills curve this way and that, or the slant of the sunlight off a large oak tree to the east, or how to manoeuvre through downward-sloping mud without completely biting it.

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it is when the mind reaches these last reaches that you are truly walking. everything prior is a build-up, just as your body warms and muscles loosen, so the mind clears itself of worries, stresses, interests and obsessions. this act then becomes a kind of zen meditation as the world expands and contracts at the same time and you, quite literally, stop thinking.

walking with a close friend or loved one is both a similar and different proposition. conversation undulates with the rolling of mounds. now you are laughing at something that happened in work. next silently scraping mud off boots with sticks collected under a giant tree. then a sudden deep-dive into why this relationship or that ended, or what might happen next with a long-lost love. a poignant memory arrives of some moment you had forgotten, and you relay it in the quiet confidence of the countryside while boots stamp gentle outlines into damp soil. more silence, a hawk overhead, echoing of footsteps off the side of a deserted barn. a moment to stop and figure out how and where we just got lost. and more silence.

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walking is not my favourite activity. i would rather be on a horse, the gentle forward-and-back of withers carrying me onwards. a pat on dusty neck signalling the pricking of ears and an enlivened stride. a chat, and a connection, with a fellow earthbound being, which simultaneously understands and does not give a shit about you. a cheeky canter across an unspoilt pasture that leaves you both a little breathless.

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but there are things to think about when you’re riding. is that flapping hay bale cover going to spook him? does his left hind feel off? shit, he just lost a shoe! here’s a patch of groundhog holes we need to avoid. argh, don’t let him put his head down for that loco weed. lean forward for an ascent up the mesa.

when you are walking, you cannot escape yourself: the long march of history, the cluttered back rooms of your own mind, or the moment when everything stops and you are totally and completely free, responsible only for one foot in front of the other.

stargazing


it’s cold. i am not sure how cold, because i haven’t looked at my phone or checked the weather app, but it must be hovering around freezing because the garden chair sparkles with developing frost when i shine a torch on it to find my way out. i didn’t think i was going to be stargazing tonight, but when i hopped out of an uber earlier after spending the evening drinking a decent amount of red wine at a fairly tedious PR event, i saw orion’s belt blazing a diagonal line above ballina street. i’d be in the back garden in ten minutes.

winter stargazing, like winter anything, i guess isn’t for everyone. i say ‘i guess’ because i do not understand ‘hot weather people’ or people who think sweating is in any way pleasurable. i am a winter person. i grew up at altitude, and the arid mountain winds of northern new mexico do seem to get into your bloodstream, because i cannot tolerate temperatures above about 15°C if there is any, and i do mean any, amount of moisture in the air. a couple of years ago in january, i was walking around in seoul, wearing some thermals and a big coat, and it was -14°C. i started to shiver and thought to myself, ‘oh, this is what it’s like to be cold’.

but i digress.


i have no idea how old i was the first time i can remember looking up at the sky, but can’t have been more than about five. that would’ve been 1986. my dad had a huge white telescope that took pride of place in our living room. it was massive, and i genuinely do not know how he managed to haul it out to the dirt driveway in front of the house on special nights when there were things to see.

the skies above rural northern new mexico in 1986 had something to see every night. they still mostly do. you can see the milky way, and it astonishes me that there are people – a lot of people – in the world who have never seen the milky way. it’s like snow. but nevermind, winter person here. the skies above northern new mexico in 1986 had a lot of things to see, indeed all the things to see. so it took a special event, like an eclipse or jupiter or venus passing really close to the moon, or halley’s comet, which we spent many evenings looking for that year, to warrant a fever pitch exciting enough to wheel the big telescope out from its throne.

my dad would set it up, spending what felt like hours making tiny adjustments to little black protruding lenses, spinning small round knobs and gently swaying the giant white cylinder this way and that until it rested in just the right position to see whatever it was we were looking for. this, for a five year old girl, was mostly boring, but being outside at night was exciting, and being with dad was a thrill. we learned to read a star chart, turning it gingerly to find just the month and day and then squinting to compare it to the sky. dad knew a lot about the stars and would recite their names and the constellations, as if they should mean something to us at such a young age:

there’s perseus. that’s andromeda next to it. there’s orion, see his belt with the three bright stars? that little cluster, that’s pleiades, the seven sisters.

me and my sister liked pleiades the most because it looked like a tornado made of stars that were sisters. how fuckin’ awesome.

i park myself on the frosting-over garden chair facing south. south is the best direction to face for any kind of stargazing south of the thames, because you are facing away from the main source of light pollution and, in winter, get a good view of the main events: orion, sirius, capella and the rest. the garden table hasn’t been used since october and, since the 16.27 sunset, has been slowly icing over in freezing temps. it is now 23.01. my wine glass slides toward me.


looking at the stars is one of the few activities in human existence that elicits true wonder. there is beauty there, the unknown, a sense of excitement, a sense of the ancient and everything that came before you and will follow you. you don’t know what any of it means, and yet there is a fundamental understanding that you, on this speck of rock in the outer reaches of the universe, are still part of something. the only time you can really feel any perspective at all is when you are looking up at a night sky, because you feel small, tiny, insignificant and yet connected.

when my first marriage ended, i spent a summer living with my mom and stepdad, which is when they also were still together. i was 22. mornings i took runs through the sandy, dry arroyo below the house, languorous afternoons were spent reading many books (i read seabiscuit that summer and probably never cried so much) and messing around with the horses. once night fell, my stepdad and i would each pour ourselves a pitcher of margarita, or crack open endless bottles of dos equis amber, and sit out on the patio looking up.

on those nights, we didn’t look for constellations. we just let the galaxies come to us and conversation wash over us. we listened for the far-off sound of cars on highway 14 and the rumble of someone driving up coyote trail and we saw UFOs hovering in erratic patterns above the ortiz mountains to the south.


i don’t know where we go after this life, or if we go anywhere. but my eyes will always gaze up when the sun sets, a reminder of how small i am and how connected we all are in this ever-expanding universe. and if a day comes in this lifetime when i can literally shoot myself to the stars, i will be on the first ship out.

caedmon’s call and the start of 2017

14.35pm
new year’s day 2017
south of york station, virgin east coast service to london’s king’s cross
not listening to caedmon’s call, but felt’s ‘forever breathes the lonely word’

i didn’t go to whitby in search of caedmon. in fact, i had no idea there was a connection between the little english north sea-side town and the band that i followed super-religiously (pun intended) throughout my most formative years. a quickly-planned twixtmas trip to york somehow escalated to the inclusion of whitby – not exactly nearby, but also not that far away – on the itinerary for reasons i genuinely cannot remember or even fathom now. this detail passed me by but became relevant.

caedmon’s call was a band for and of christian people but they weren’t a christian band. or they were, and by that i mean they wrote songs that dived into christian philosophy in a way that my church high school would’ve called heretical. maybe not that extreme, but they made me ask questions and they created wonder where previously i only felt judgement and the push to conform.

after some time, me and the band became ‘friends’ because i went to far too many concerts – sometimes driving upwards of 14 hours across moonbeam-strewn texas plains to catch them in just one more bible-belt town’s church sanctuary or college auditorium. i pushed up the gumption on a snowy night around 1995 in wondrously named glorieta, new mexico and exchanged addresses with derek webb after the show. we wrote letters and chatted on IRC at musicians’ hours and i went to more shows. later i would even cover one of their songs on a long-lost fanclub rarity album (yes i just linked that there and it is from a bygone age and that’s all i have to say).


this is not really meant to be a post about all that, but it is about that, because the sun was setting over whitby a couple of days ago when i realised there was a trajectory of my life that had just come full-circle.

it was a big, yellowish orangish pinkish orb and it was shattering the blue winter sky into a million fragments of pastel when we walked up the 199 steps to whitby’s anglo-saxon hillside retreat where the very oddly shaped church of st mary and, behind it, the foreboding crumbles of benedictine whitby abbey, live, windbattered and muddy. the churchyard has a very atmospheric graveyard where the headstones look out over the north sea in a bleak and perfect fashion. they are all small and old worn stone, like you expect headstones in a graveyard like that to be, but then there’s this one 20ft-high spire of a cross at the very corner of the cemetery.

i credit bill, who looked more closely at it and spotted the name ‘caedmon’ on it, and i knew immediately it was not a coincidence, for how many caedmons were there, ever? at the bottom of the cross, inscribed:

“To the glory of God, and in memory of Caedmon, Father of English sacred song. Fell asleep hard by AD 680.”

caedmon was basically a stable boy at whitby abbey in the 600s. but hilda – at that time abbess of the then-mixed abbey – saw something in him and his verse and voice and encouraged him to keep singing and writing, and caedmon wrote what are possibly some of the very first songs and poems in the english language (a northumbrian dialect of old english), though he is all but forgotten today.


it called me to wonder about caedmon and hilda’s friendship. what did the powerful abbess see in a stable boy? he must have had a very special aura around him, and perhaps she was lonely despite the many monks and nuns around her. if being a career woman in the 21st century is hard, i can only imagine running a sizeable abbey in such a time must have been a gargantuan task with few real friends to call upon. it is said kings came to hilda for advice. who did she go to, i wonder?

sometimes friends arrive in guises that are inexplicable and not really that sensical – inconvenient or troublesome even – and we just have to go with it. i like to think about caedmon and hilda’s secret friendship, hanging out in the stables at odd hours maybe, the puffing of horses in torchlight while they exchanged music and verse in damp, hay-heavy air. hilda probably worried with each footfall she might be discovered in such a tryst, and caedmon just wondering what he did to attract such an important woman’s attention.


2016 was a hard year for many and a year of loss and passing away and foreboding the end of many things. i was sort of hoping that this full-circle life-loop-closing would have some symmetry to it, but actually i first heard caedmon’s call in 1994 and that marks a hardly-round 22-year anniversary. still, much happened in 2016 that felt like the poetic end to some things and the mysterious beginning to others, and i can’t help but feel this strange meeting of caedmon in his final resting place, just a few thousand minutes before the end of 2016, and so many thousands of miles and lives lived since i first heard his story, simply cannot be chance.

When I’m cold and alone all I want
Is my freedom, a sudden gust of gravity
I stop wailing and kicking just to let
This water cover me, cover me

some old photos:

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with derek and my mate becky at trees in dallas (appx 1998?)
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with garrett buell (caedmon’s call percussionist) at the guild 2 weekend (1999)
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myself and my dad, john egenes on mandolin, performing ‘too tender’ at guild 1 weekend (1998) – surely the worst best kept digitised photo of all time
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art lawry, myself and i can’t remember the guy on the right, guild 3 weekend in columbus, ga (2001)

a poem for 2016

qilian mountains, zhangye, gansu

2016: the good things

an ordered poem-list of in-jokes and obscurities

  • the shins, finally, live
  • maijishan
  • wifey and the globe
  • snottingham
  • sunlight bathed the golden glow
  • eleanor of aquitaine
  • bled
  • Y667
  • and the stars
  • romeo
  • that bottle of wine in the courtyard of the garrick inn in stratford-upon-avon
  • hotdogstreetsslashgiggles
  • kweens
  • in particular kweens xmas market lunch
  • jones
  • something sent to sleep at the stage
  • taitung celestia
  • kattybabylove
  • sobbing at the high countries
  • in the car
  • at the target parking lot.
  • aikea-guinea
  • is
  • the friendship of peter lee
  • xiahe, walking the inner kora
  • messages
  • BiD, GKM, LoB
  • the day of fourteen k and red dirt girl
  • the dome of st pauls
  • i myself am exhausted and my blood pressure has dropped
  • in
  • do you know that fucker
  • the wild atlantic way times two
  • kat-meganchat
  • which became spreadsheet, briefly
  • then history
  • not having a stereo in the car that once
  • the beer sludge river
  • and then you said, “let’s obliterate them.”
  • that swim at praia da rainha
  • love
  • teenage fanclub
  • BLANCHE!
  • brexit cats
  • the MVE in greenwich
  • goodbye darlin’
  • sunset over the drava
  • sunrise over whitby abbey
  • hashtagpickletickle
  • again
  • slam ‘er down boys
  • big beery advent calendar
  • dramatised performance of ‘the waste land’
  • and seeing ts’s pavilion in margate
  • the search for, and not finding of (yet), an old street tower block
  • you got rid of the dickhead
  • and got your passport
  • you got rid of the dickhead
  • and discovered dogs
  • you weren’t the snoggy girl
  • and all our shared ubers
  • stargazing in the back garden
  • an email from jc brouchard, who might be real
  • coffee
  • gibbous
  • stop saying gibbous
  • the train through flanders
  • nashville sound and bakersfield sound
  • trieste.
  • the viking splash tour
  • three days with tag
  • charlotte and blueberry
  • mexican bandits, which reached me in new places
  • bill clinton and the balloons
  • TOWELLLSSSSSSS
  • ENDIVE!
  • the snow that fell on the danxia landform when i was unprepared
  • mary chapin carpenter
  • and all roads lead to 1992
  • your laugh and your smile lines
  • finally, the monks who saved me at tiantishan
  • because they prove that the world is inherently good
  • and there is still magic to be found
  • and felt.

tiantishan grottoes

poem about papa

a wide-brim stetson
and ostrich-skin boots
tan slacks, bolo tie
well, in here, we drink whiskey
he drawled in the saloon

i hammered in planks
on the boardwalk each july
sound of far-off cars
planes cut wisps through the high clouds
dust devils spun through pastures

like us, prowling round
in the ole bronco
i was twelve, awkward
barely into boys back then

he was the world’s biggest man.

on margate sands

On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken finger-nails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
Nothing.

la la

To Carthage then I came

there is a victorian pavilion in margate where ts eliot wrote the third section of his most famous poem, ‘the waste land’. it’s the sort of poem that seems to draw people to it, although it is also among the most complex and least understandable poems ever written. i was certainly taken in by it when i first read it during a high school british lit class i won’t say how many decades ago and have been trying to understand it since. i mostly still don’t.

my time in london has got me closer, for much of ‘the waste land’ is about life in london. like me, ts was a yank in london – a fact many seem not to realise about him – and lived long in this city; long enough to have absorbed the futile shuffle of city workers across blustering london bridge every morning and how, somehow, there is still beauty in that.

london also drove ts mad, as it will do any person who lives here long enough. he captures the sort of love-hate that every londoner feels at some point, almost alluringly referring to the city’s ‘violet hour’ just before vitriolic adjectives about ‘the human engine’ and the river thames ‘spewing’ oil and tar and drifting logs. like most londoners, ts loved this city, and yet he sometimes felt it was killing his soul.

margate is a seaside town on the southeast coast of england in kent, which had its heyday during the victorian era just before the turn of the 20th century. queen victoria thought open-air bathing and sea-salty oxygen were good for the health (which…obviously). until rather recently, margate was on a mostly downhill trajectory since that time.

ts went to margate in 1921 to recover from a ‘nervous breakdown’; as far as i can tell, this just means he just went a bit mad for awhile, and haven’t we all. when ts arrived there, it likely would’ve still been busy with cafe-goers, electric trams and swimmers polka-dotting its crescent beach. over the decades, these were replaced by gaming arcades, greggs and wetherspoons.


a friend of mine – a self-described london dilettante and the sort of person who can be relied upon to think up these kinds of odd and wonderful excursions – suggested a day out in margate recently, and we happily obliged, thinking first of the sea air and rumours of a revival of pubs, particularly the ‘micro’ variety, selling good ale and nothing else. yes please.

it wasn’t until i started reading about margate that i discovered the ts connection, in particular, the seaside pavilion where he sat writing ‘the fire sermon’ (drawing on saint augustine at some length) and looking at the sea. i expected to feel something special here, or at least see what ts saw when he penned such mighty and difficult-to-comprehend language.

the sun was dropping to the west and we were almost to running late for our train back to london when we paused at the pavilion, after a day on the ales following a rather random group of morris dancers around margate’s excellent selection of small pubs. the sky was an ethereal grey-blue of the sort where the colour is washed out by a brilliant, dusky almost-evening light. the sea was steely and shimmering, but calm.


inside, the pavilion has a bunch of fold-down, cinema-style seats facing the water, where i imagine ts must’ve sat during his long days recovering and writing. but that day, in one corner, stacks of stained cardboard boxes, used tesco bags, grubby blankets and empty bottles surrounded a small group of homeless people holding cans of cider and looking menacingly at anyone daring near their makeshift residence.

what of that. i am not sure. the pavilion was designated a grade II listed building by english heritage in 2009. because of that it still stands, and it is indeed magnificent with wide views out over the north sea. add a high salt breeze and it seems almost anyone would be penning poetry under its latticed gables. too, it would be easy to compare the state of things there now to ts’s uneasy state of mind as he embarked on writing ‘the waste land’s’ tumultuous part III – downtrodden and eroded by too many days in london (a condition most londoners will still report with semi-regularity today). but even that metaphor seems too forthcoming for such a work as ‘the waste land’.


what i can say is go to margate. drink some ales. if you are unafraid of the cold, have a swim.

look at the sea from ts’s vantage, and you will feel something – possibly inexplicable. i did.

poem from maijishan

maiji shan

lean back, crane, gape.
15 mi, up up up
unaffected visages, strings of browned beads
swirling orange fabric
hewn in rock
before the sun rose on this time.
did those monks know, care, we’d come –
build catwalks and stairwells and handrails
windhowl through wire mesh –
for glimpses into dark caves, where
after millennia,
some painted faces waited.
you can see them hanging
robes dangling, swaying feet inside
bamboo sandals
carving an eyeball, a simper, a hand aloft
reaching
up this cliffside
for nirvana.

what sort of faith is this.