poem about the perseids

supposed to be writing about stargazing. instead, a poem, written a time ago, on the same subject.

a shiver
and wait, neck craned, for a spark
of some comet’s con trail
to blaze far-offly through an upward gaze.
pour another drop of wine
brain firing on syntax backwards
like everything to do with us.
the heart is a vicious machine,
at least in the verse and melody
of the school of spies.
and in this crisp weather,
when autumn feels imminent,
the love of a great name
gives such pause to
those who must scare each other –
deep down –
with the things never said aloud
but felt.

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poem from the train to bukhara

dusty, dry, golden
the fan mountains silhouette
a line of white chevys,
blue soviet trucks

a level crossing
then dushanbe, and
afghanistan after.

vestiges of trade routes that criss-crossed
this land like vines
creeping up trellises, along shanty
warehouses, next to a
dwindling river
carving a ribbon of
jade through the
desert.

in some other universe

there is a caravan
packing your heart
next to mine.

7 september 2017

music, now and then

1996. i am in my bedroom. fifteen years old, and i have lit a gardenia-scented candle. loose-leaf notebook paper, some of it scrawled on in my semi-illegible handwriting, is spread out on the floor. i’m curled cross-legged on the floor too, a black epiphone everly brothers acoustic guitar resting over one thigh. it was a gift from my dad, who didn’t say much when i expressed what he must have assumed was a fleeting teenage interest in ‘learning the guitar’, though looking back he must have been thrilled i’d taken an interest in one of his passions. i loved that guitar mainly because it had stars inlaid down the fretboard.

mego

i wanted to learn guitar because i had a crush on josh jones, and he played guitar in the school worship band. i wanted to be the sort of cool, mysterious girl that played guitar and wrote angsty songs. the main problem was that i didn’t play guitar. or write songs. but i knew what angst was and music at least seemed to be in my blood – the child of musicians, from a family of musicians, i grew up surrounded by a host of americana instruments. i pushed back against the musical rapids that flowed through my young life. torturous saturdays as a kid were wanting a lift to the mall, but having to wait till my dad was done with his living room jam session.

when we are small, we resist the seeds our parents plant next to us in the hopes they will take root. but they do, and then later you are asking your dad for a guitar and he is buying you a chord book and telling you the four chords you need to learn to play any song in the world. this must have been one of the best days of my dad’s life so far, if i had to guess. seeing your kid embrace a passion and knowing ‘that’s me, that’s my contribution to human existence and it is perfect.’

you start by learning a D chord. it’s the easiest. your fingers don’t have to stretch that far. it hurts. next comes G and your fingers do have to stretch. the tips of your fingers sting. you keep pushing down in a vain effort to keep the strings from buzzing. they still buzz. surely the fingers are bleeding now. no? really? no blood at all? fuck this hurts.

you, if you are me, have to keep going because you have to be good at everything and you want josh jones to notice you and you want to be the cool, mysterious chick with the guitar. but it fucking hurts, and you throw the guitar down and it makes a noise like it might have broken and you are scared you broke it because really you love it and your dad spent money on it and it’s making you into something that you’re not sure what yet.

then magic starts to happen. you can play a song. badly, but you can. suddenly from pain, music is coming out of you, and you start to sing and even though your voice sounds like shit at first, you don’t care, because you are playing a D chord and then a G and then an A and it is giving you life and it is spiritual. the most spiritual you get aged 15. (or 36, spoiler).

i am the least talented of the musical people in my family. but what i lack in talent, i like to think i make up for in verve. my voice isn’t the best. it’s pitchy and i hit bad notes and i absolutely cannot harmonise to save my life. i was in the choir in high school for one day when i realised i would have to sight-read sheet music and learn to use my diaphragm, i  quit and went straight back to speech & debate. i have always gravitated toward ‘bad’ singers and people with quirky voices. don’t get me wrong, i wanted to sing with the angelic clarity of alison krauss and sarah mclachlan and sinead o’connor. but julie miller and tom waits gave me hope that it was ok for me not to sing classically. i still can’t.

the first song i ever learned to play and sing at the same time was ‘april showers’ by caedmon’s call, a band whose music and its members, particularly derek webb, have had an unquantifiable impact on the person i have become, and there has been some synchronicity with me and that band and this year and the release of derek’s latest album, ‘fingers crossed’ last week. i have not yet wrapped my head around what any of it means.

2017. i am in my apartment. thirty-six years old and i have lit an orchid and sweet coconut-scented candle. annabel, my teal-green ibanez thin-body acoustic guitar (bought aged 16 and named for my favourite-at-the-time edgar allan poe poem) slung over one thigh, and the loose-leaf notebook paper has been replaced by the steady glow of a macbook screen. my fingers fucking hurt because i don’t play enough and my voice wavers and cracks and falls flat and i feel that teenage wish to throw the guitar again. julie miller and tom waits have been replaced by lawrence from felt, whose bizarre voice has basically soundtracked the last two years of my life. clumsily, i strum out a few chords from ‘she lives by the castle’ and try to play it cool for no one, because i feel spectacularly uncool and wonder if i will ever be good at music.

it turns out in my case that if you were a nerd, you’ll always be a nerd, and a cool air of mystery is not something you can curate. plus 2017 me would like to let 1996 me know that nerdy is hot in your 30s.

isn’t music about how you feel when no one else is looking. the freedom of emotional outpouring when you are doing it or listening to it, whether guitar-throwing rage or unadulterated joy or life-altering love from another universe.

isn’t it about that very ultra-rare connection with another human that you, if lucky, experience through it?

and isn’t it about holding up the thing that your dad gave you, because he gave it to you. that is the beautiful thing.

guitars

post-script: i never did use my guitar to impress josh jones into dating me, but we got to be friends going to gigs and have remained friends to this day, and he (unlike me) has made a real career out of playing music. that is beautiful.

 

 

travelling outside your age (or, an ode to my cool aunt and uncle)


my aunt jane and uncle dave are legends.

they grew up in the 50s and 60s and have a million stories from high school in pasadena, california. surfing, playing in bluegrass bands like the smooothies, the heady early days of the rose parade, smoking in the mountains, seeing steve martin with an arrow through his head at the ice house. when all four egenes siblings (that’s my dad john, jane the youngest, aunt lonnie and uncle tim) get together under one roof, a lot of eating, drinking, swearing, arguing and laughing usually ensues. normal family things, and things i treasure, for they are rare and wonderful.


it doesn’t feel right to start writing about aunt jane and uncle dave without putting on a record, like rubber soul or django & jimmie. my family is musical: jane a professional violinist and teacher, dave an excellent guitarist, my dad a music lecturer and general music savant. i have meddled in music throughout my life, but was never as cool as my dad and his siblings; never cool enough to have a bluegrass band in high school.


my earliest memories of jane and dave are foggy visions of their house in albuquerque, clad in houseplants and mosaic coffee tables and home-knit throws, and a great big grandfather clock that struck resounding echoes on the hour – and still does.

tonight i stick joni mitchell’s blue on the turntable and wonder if they are gonna hate it that i’m about to write about them. probably, because they are nothing if not counter-culturalists and hippies in a way, as a slacker and member of generation x, i always envied. gen-x’ers wanted to care about causes but we were too busy not giving a shit about the man to bother doing anything.


friday at 3pm in santa maria novella railway station in florence. they appear off the rome high-speed service, dave with his signature lumbering six-foot-five, white-haired lanky figure and jane with her wave of pulled-back dark hair fronted by grey streaks in the exact same place my greys are coming in. hugs are brisk and conversation is immediate and easy despite a year apart.

we are spending six days in florence for what has become an annual international trip together. jane and dave started travelling later in their adult life; they are american baby boomers discovering the world as semi-retirees and they have definitely got the travel bug. watching them figure out the italian public transportation system on their own for the first time, for example, was truly beautiful.


the joy of intergenerational travel (what a terrible term) is not something i’d ever thought about. when we are travelling together, it isn’t like a ‘family trip’ where i imagine bickering and bad meals and complaining. we have pretty similar interests (wine, food, culture, chillaxing), and that makes it easy. but i find myself seeing the world through their eyes, and hopefully they are seeing it some through mine.

one thing that happens is that i slow down. being with them makes it pretty obvious just how fast i take life. i walk at a london pace, quite literally, and a gentle stroll through the piazza della repubblica now becomes a moment of wonderment, as opposed to something you just get past or through. queries about what a building corner’s embellishment is call me to question, wonder, then google a lot of things i probably would not notice. musings on just what, exactly, makes this particular pomodoro pasta so much better than any before it create amazement in the everyday, and confusion with a waiter causes questions in my mind about whether the term ‘marinara’ has a different meaning in the united states than it does in italy. now i’m thinking about things.


these interactions also lead to mindful questioning in a way that maybe my generation never would. we are slackers, we are jaded, we think we know, and a lot of the times we do know. if i may generalise, baby boomers wonder at things, and it is a joy for a member of my grunge generation to experience that purity of questioning.


on tuesday evening, our final night in florence, we crack open the last bottle of chianti classico we bought on saturday’s tour of tuscan wine country. we are all wineaux, that is something that brought us together in the first place. three plastic chairs are perched on a narrow, high patio at our airbnb on the 7th floor of a suburban florentine building. before us, the arno river carving a rust-coloured ribbon through red-tiled roofs and the moon and saturn raising a ruckus over the duomo’s cupola, pinkened by the just-set sun.


dave lights up a cuban and talks about his father and fishing and high-school buddies; jane rolls her eyes having heard these stories a million times before. they got married young in LA city hall (or was it pasadena? because i am a slacker, i fail to remember these details, but i’m sure they will correct me, with the clarity of memory they maintain).

cigar smoke wafts over us in the heat of the italian june evening and we savour this moment, for it is the stuff of life.

poem from the summer solstice, 2017

the hottest day this year
the longest day this year
sun glinting white-simmer off a blue peugeot
sweaty cyclists and women in too-big sunglasses
passing picture windows.
me, wood-surrounded in the dispensary, hide from the warm
resist the sweat, zest, passion, pure swelter
outside reeks wet and heavy, like beijing
or LAX in late spring
when the 747s are all idling at accordion jetwalks
and the tarmac, baking, sends up shimmering hotwaves.

they say the stars have lost siblings
are they theirs and where do they meet
in the rites of afternoon
is it in feet splashing through lido waters
or walking up chalk escarpments
where do they meet
in this verisimilitude

glimmer, twinkle, glimmer, blink
the sunset has its way
houses, chimneys, bricks, grease-worn cafes shutter
glimmer, twinkle, glimmer, blink

the hottest day this year
the longest day this year
rays pinken the streets and their doors
couples swig their pints and get louder
arguing on barstools.
did anyone speak, do we ever? when the sun hits blinds,
resist the pull, zest, passion, pure kismet.
inside, a hi-fi drums some kind way to suffer
or, like rabbits in early summer
whose promises tomorrow are rings of fire
and time seems to be running out, and back in.

out here hope remains (on england, coast-to-coast)


i did a lot of preparation for the 84-mile (it turned out to be 97 all-in) trek across england along hadrian’s wall national trail. one of them was to make a playlist, which i titled ‘england, coast-to-coast’. in fact, i never listened to it once during the whole nine-day excursion. but the songs looking back offer some oddly spiritual foresight. maybe i would learn something from them after i was done. here are some of the songs, and stories, from the journey.

day one

feel the weight of letting go
feel more lightness than you’ve ever known
you can’t see when light’s so strong
you can’t see when light is gone
(ride, ‘twisterella’)

rain. i am about five miles from my starting point: bowness-on-solway, the west coast of england. the weather is surprisingly tempestuous; water is blowing in off the choppy irish sea, and it’s hard to say if it’s rain or oceanwater. probably both. the road is flat and empty and feels endless and i am walking on pavement that, at the wrong time of day in the wrong season, would be flooded over by the firth’s tide. it nearly is now.

first one sock begins to dampen. right down the leg, straight in through my waterproofs. some minutes – or hours – later, i feel the first slosh. water has breached my boots. i am officially english-wet. my internal screams of agony – why are you here. just turn back. what are you doing. walking across a country? you are incapable of this. you are going to have blisters on day one. give up now. you don’t have to. – almost best me.

walking across a landmass is, above all, a meditation. it is a self-coaching session. a test in the mettle of your mind. over the next nine days, these self-flaggellatory comments will transform into zen mantras – a study in how to carry out mind over matter. but for now, a shivery pub lunch of vegetable soup and hot whisky, then steeling myself back into a sodden jacket and onwards, because if i give up on the first day, i will never forgive myself.

i don’t, and i am never gladder than to reach ‘cosmopolitan’ carlisle and be greeted by adele, a chatty former finance manager turned guesthouse owner who overshares about her marital problems. she hugs me in all my wet things and doesn’t fuss about muddy boots on her floor and, after drying out and having a beer and a meal, i think, i can do this. i am doing this. bring on tomorrow, into the wilds.


day two

over the turnstile, out of the traffic
there’s ways of living, it’s the way i’m living

i want a range life
if i could settle down, then i would settle down
(pavement, ‘range life’)

evening light and it seems like it will never darken over walton, or this bunkhouse garden. there are the northern lasts of the pennines. it’s clearing to sun and blue sky and the closer hills are green with ridges lined by dark trees. you can differentiate the pennine fells because they are purple and tan and grey. i am reminded of connemara.

day two is a walk out of civilisation, over the M6 motorway on foot – an arresting moment on a pedestrian bridge – and the first glimpses of the wildness of hadrian’s wall that is yet to come: green fields, the beginnings of the vallum (a trench the romans dug alongside the wall, which becomes my closest friend on this journey), the faraway buzzing of light aircraft from carlisle airport at about midday.

nighttime: a deserted bunkhouse with a needy, pushy cat and some sheep outside my window for company. i set an alarm for stargazing but, at this latitude, it’s past midnight before the sky gets truly inky and i snooze right through it, my body racked with the surprise of two full days on foot.

day three

have you ever wandered lonely through the woods
and everything feels just as it should
you’re part of life
you’re part of something good
if you’ve ever wandered lonely through the woods
(brandi carlile, ‘have you ever’)

the walk into gilsland, over the river irthing, curving south under limestone crags and lined by cool, early summer grass on its east bank. this is surely the best section of the walk: a path so close to the wall you could (but shouldn’t) brush it, fingering every fissure and chink as you go along.

at one in the morning, i descend a darkened stairwell, head still hazy from much beer and wine shared over dinner with a canadian couple and english brothers, all boomers, walking west opposite of me. the steep, narrow guesthouse stairs creak; have i woken them all? maybe not. i turn the latchkey to the giant front door and step out into the chill of the garden. a million tiny pinpricks of light through blackness form a dome over this magic place. i’m still in cumbria, but northumberland is on the other side of the road.

day four

i wanna walk and not run
i wanna skip and not fall
i wanna look at the horizon
and not see a building standing tall
i wanna be the only one for miles and miles
(dixie chicks, ‘cowboy take me away’)

crags, the start of them in greenhead. i am so worried about ascending the first one at walltown that i use the men’s room in the quarry picnic site and, upon realising my error (hmm, i think those are urinals.), simply shrug at a group of german walkers warming themselves with coffees at covered tables just adjacent to the loos. ‘been walking too long,’ and they chuckle knowingly. they must be on day five, headed the other way.

i have fallen in love with northumberland. it is a 1.5km walk from today’s guesthouse, which is perched along the wall’s edge on a bare bluff, to the only other building within view in any direction: the milecastle inn. the sun sets to the west, casting yellow, then orange and now the deepest of pink rays through my pint glass, nearly empty of a locally brewed best bitter. a late-running cyclist flies by in a hurry, probably on his way to once brewed for a more lively night’s stay, and as the sun reaches the horizon it’s time to stroll back to my bed. feet aren’t even tired, they are being good to me.

by the time i reach the b&b, pink is fading to purple and rich azure. i stop on a small stone bridge below the house and spend an uncountable number of minutes listening to the trickle of haltwhistle burn carving a ribbon out from under cawfields crag to the east. i will climb it, and many others, tomorrow.

day 5

i’m walking in your shoes
for just a mile or two

my heels are raw and torn
but i will dig them in for you
…i’m running out of faith, i’m tired of saving face, and where the hell is grace
(jonatha brooke, ‘walking’)

up, it goes straight up. you grab the first rock handhold and employ a tired knee to lift the left boot up onto a ledge. steady, and wonder why you overpacked. why do you need so much water. was that second protein bar a necessity? maybe not, if it means you might fall bass-ackwards off the back of a craggy face. it’s only the first of these today, there are at least 20 more ‘ups and downs’ to come. in places they are steep hikes, in places they are vertical climbs. take it easy, i say outloud to myself and the rocks. go slow, and go easy. you have all the time in the world. don’t fall. just go slow. one step, one rock, one climb at a time.

i tell the universe thank you for holding off the rain today. right now. and beg it to continue. i can’t do this if it’s slippery, i chide myself. i could have. but this first face is a watershed moment at the halfway point across england, on this journey’s most difficult place. i am not even to sycamore gap, that perfectly placed tree where kevin costner and morgan freeman jauntily scared away the sheriff of nottingham’s henchmen in robin hood: prince of thieves, and i’ve promised my friend joe i will send him a selfie from there. up, down, up again. stones, some of them slippery some steep, i am afraid of heights and why am i doing this again? have to get to housesteads and then i can rest. a huge ruin of a roman fort, a hastily scoffed tuna sandwich, nip into the portaloo and then i have to be on again, for i’m only halfway through today’s 26k trek and there are still crags to come, and rain. yes, rain.

sewingshields, one of two toppermosts on the whole walk. for me, the second and last one. there is a waymarker here, and the sudden realisation that i’ve climbed all the crags there are to climb, and that the tough work is done, brings a flood of tears. these turn to tears for a dear one lost, and three more kilometres have passed before my face is dried by the wind. just a measly 10 more kilometres to my bed, i think.

the path flattens out onto the treeless northumberland wilds. i am avoiding a group of walkers ahead and slow a bit. legs tire, feet begin to ache. there is nowhere to sit down, for leagues in any direction. the vallum carries on in a straight crevice, mile after mile. the elation of finishing the crags wanes more quickly than i’d expected. it’s here the positive voices surface to keep me going. encouraging words from friends, texts from family members, simple mantras from soul mates:

you got this kween!
you can do it, i got your back my girl.
i’m really proud of you sweetheart.
keep on walking!

i put this last one on repeat and meditate. kilometres pass. feet throb more and i think i can’t. i can. keep on walking! i begin saying it out loud, shouting it out into the nothingness, shouting it with cheer and a jaunty lift of the arms. a smile, it helps. up another hill. then, reaching brocolitia forti expend a few precious extra steps to enter the temple of mithras – now reduced to a collection of low stone ruins – and leave a few new pound coins. just in case.

days six, seven and eight

keep me guessing with these blessings in disguise
and i’ll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes
(caedmon’s call, ‘faith my eyes’)

by day six, i can do anything. walking has become as natural as breathing, as it should be for any human being. we are born to walk. we are given legs and we learn to use them before we can even communicate with other humans. we are born to walk. by day six, i am in my most natural state. strides are long. feet are in fine condition (a credit to my scarpa boots, and a careful routine of washing, moisturising and application of body glide and preventative compeed each morning). legs feel strong, soul feels stronger. i hope this walk never ends.

day six, i stay at the wonderful robin hood inn, a must for all walkers of the wall. it is the last point at which you feel you are walking the wall. from here, it is a simple two-day descent into urban newcastle, watching wilderness turn to farmland, and farmland to village, village to suburban riverside, industrial suburbia, and suddenly, you are counting six bridges crossing the river tyne and there are no more crags, just the pubs and mobile phone shops and hurried novocastrian pedestrians marching up dean street. where am i?

day nine

there’s forty acres, and redemption to be found
just along down the way
there is a place where no plow blade has turned the ground
and you will turn it over
cause out here hope remains
and all these rocks they are crying too
and this old land is crying out for you
(caedmon’s call, ’40 acres’)

i pack light. shed a small tear, then stuff my boots into the bottom of my large rucksack, which will be stowed in the hostel until the day’s walk is done. in a moment of planning madness, i’d arranged to catch a train back to london the same evening that my walk finished.

feet feel weird in trainers but slowly adjust to pavements as i stray out of central newcastle early and into the eastern suburbs. pound shops give way to endless blocks of modern red brick houses, then dual carriageways banked by greenery, and then a glimpse of water and some bobbing boats. i duck through a council estate and past an actual coronation street, then down to the shields ferry. this seven-minute boat ride will be the only form of non-foot transport i take on the whole 97-mile trek, and so close to the finish!

out of the boat, my heart is starting to race. i have to walk down south shields’ high street first, past mcdonalds and more pound shops and pubs with midday punters drinking tall, bubbling pints of lager. i can’t go fast enough, but i’m worried about the end.

then there’s the sea. i want to finish on a proper sand beach. pound, pound, pound…my heart is matching my footsteps for the first time since bowness. i stop at a bench and wrench off trainers in haste, tossing them into the daypack in favour of sandals, and finally, here is sandhaven beach. i can’t get up the dune fast enough and the tears are stinging at my eyes making me lose my way. toss the bag down, toss the sandals off.

the north sea water is freezing in may and feels blissful on my tired feet. i stay for awhile, because the sun is high. savouring the last few minutes of solitude, and the view out into the nothing of shimmering waters.

when i get on the newcastle metro, and then the virgin train to london, life will not feel real. probably ever again.

ivinghoe beacon


the top of ivinghoe beacon. all of england is in view, it feels like. a chill wind bristles from the south somewhere. maybe it passed cornwall or the north downs before causing a wave of horripilation under my pink-shell jacket.

i climbed a chalky escarpment. boot in front of boot, carefully. then, a directional stone offers some idea of which way is which.

north: a lone hawthorne steady against the gusts. beyond – miles of patchworked farmland. a man nearby tells his companion that the faraway spire, so small from here, is the church in their village.

south: a country road, here and there streaked with red and blue cyclists, winds into a copse of trees and away.

east and west: hills, forever.

a windswept jack russell and a westie waggle at a group of daytrippers playing tricks with the wind. if you lean into it, it will hold you up, a dad tells his child. maybe no one is thinking how iron age man came, too, for these views. not to admire them, but use them to keep hold of these lands.

overhead, a 737 – maybe wizz air by the juice-purple stripes on its tail fin – lowers into luton. i pull out a tesco ham and cheese and imagine the time of hill forts. life was short, uncomplicated and dirty. full of stars on frigid nights, and kinds of chafing we cannot imagine now.

if you lean into the wind, it will hold you up.