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 bundles 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.

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the telemarker

it was your head.
cocked glasses, aquarian smile
bag dropped casual-like on a desk, too old for the skater look
you were affected but smart and god i loved it
the boy with the arab strap comes on now
and instantly i’m there
11pm, 2004, october something. we took apart
and rebuilt
an old VCR on the wood slat floor
of your house on…
, oh,
what was the name of the street
and how funny i can still smell you
feel your mouth on mine
in the pagosa springs
, but was it hazeldine road or linda vista?
where i left you, no you left me.
where you dressed as the crocodile hunter
jumped off your roof on tequila and who knows what.
where you let me sleep over and then bought breakfast
while your girlfriend was in denmark.

you are still a fire in my throat
but i can’t recognise your old house
on street view
anymore.

i wanted to fix you
with skiing and a steve earle soundtrack
we huddled close on a stranger’s couch in
a new-build adobe santa fe house.
a stroll around the plaza, the bull ring
i let you smoke
and the smell of red wine linger next to me
we went to bed separately that night
and i think now i was good at being confusing back then.

you needed space
and you went to taos and this was before smartphones
and texting and the constant on.
it was a three-hour drive.
i was thinking of your crow’s feet all the way up the rio grande gorge
past velarde, embudo station, the turn off to truchas.
we drank barley wine
on high bar stools at eske’s – conveniently
tiny enough for three pints of arm-brush butterflies –
and drunk-drove to the strokes,
windows down
rocky mountain nightwind
swirling us round for one last nite.

years later, an awkward dinner at chama river
you tell me about your new wife
new kid
and i smile and i am happy for you
and we drink beer again, not the same,
and pretend
we were not a thing
back then.

mud

slurp.

that sound.

there is nothing quite as unsettling as the sound of mud. boots struggling through it. slop slop slopping. a momentary stuckedness, then the unsuctioning of a boot bottom and, with it, the noise.

there is nothing that a desert flower detests more than mud. i can assure you, being one. i’m not saying that british people like mud, because i don’t think anyone likes mud apart from 11-year-old boys and black labs.

but desert people are raised in an odd, waterless world. rain is a joyous, almost spiritual experience. it doesn’t make mud; it just causes more dust to be raised. a water droplet hits off of dirt so dry that it literally can’t form mud, it just poofs up in a small whiff of dry dirt, then settles into the soil and vanishes as if it never existed.

i used to feel like the wicked witch when it rained. water? on my skin? what is this devilry? i didn’t learn to work an umbrella until i was 20 and moved to the east coast. when new mexico rains come, they fall hard and fast, then they move on. it is a giant, violent and all-encompassing monsoon that sprays the landscape for 15 minutes and doesn’t dally, leaving you to wonder if you dreamt it. this happens once an afternoon at about 2pm everyday during the months of july and august. after that, it is bleak blue sky and white sun that washes out everything within view, until winter winds and, maybe, an overnight snow that brings a pile of white fluff. it, like the dust, blows away in the wind, and does not create any mud.

slurp.

my right foot suctions down into poopy-looking goop, then rises too easily against the force of my leg, spraying the back of my calf with droplets of brown semi-liquid. i plant my left foot forward, but it slides unsteadily a short ways, and this process is repeated.

it rained most of yesterday and dawned today a bright, cold blue. my companion and i are somewhere west of wendover, trudging through the chilterns on a mad mission to get through the first hike of the year. all things considered, it’s a good day for it (in british, this means it is not actively raining right now), and given a choice, i’d battle mud over sweat any day.

it takes about eight hours after a new mexico rain for the crunchies to form. this is the term my sister and i as kids gave to the mudcracks that would form where fleeting puddles lingered for too short a time to be splashed through. it seemed like the rain went straight from droplets to crunchies, and that there were never puddles to be enjoyed. rather, enjoyment came in the gleeful stomping on the crunchies, which made such a delightful crispy noise.

800px-Dried_mud_(La_Fajana)_03_ies

long saturdays, we’d spend a full hour or two wandering up and down the length of our mile-long dirt driveway hoping to find a patch of crunchies after a monsoon. sometimes this would end in a fight as we battled for who would get the last toe over the final crack. who knew when it would rain again; you had to get the crunchies while you could.

walking in mud, for me, is overcoming a deep-seated and dark force. mud inspires in me a visceral dislike, such that i would do almost anything to avoid it, even despite the logical knowledge that i have on boots prepared for such an occasion.

this january walk through the chilterns is an exercise in mud-dodging. my companion picks her way up a small leafy slope while i spread my feet apart and hop from foot to foot straddling a slop of puddle. we face an epic slope, skiing our feet upwards and back in vain effort: moving a lot but not going anywhere fast.

then there is the constant struggle to dislodge the mud from the sides and bottoms of your boots as it tacks itself on, adding more and more weight to your already straining quadriceptic efforts. god, my knees fucking hurt.

in the desert, rain is a special thing. it freshens up a world that feels dead from the baking sun. it springs you to life, infusing the air with a coolness and the intoxicating scent of ozone and damp soil. the droplets hit your car windshield, and you roll the window down and stick your arm out to let the cool spray coat your hand, dried in an instant. and the rain stops before you can even enjoy it.

these moments are not unlike the fleeting hours of sunshine on a january day in britain. lauren and i break just before midday in whorley wood, too famished from mud-dodging to continue. there is a howling, icy wind that abates in a small clearing under a copse of giant elm trees. she ungloves a hand and tests a log for dampness, then another, finally settling on the ‘least wet’ one and we sit, unearthing sandwiches and crisps from the depths of our backpacks.

the wind carries on its way. our fingers go numb. clouds part for a moment. the sun hits our backs and suddenly it is warm like a summer. then all too quickly, the sun is gone again. like rain in the desert.

poem of highway 14

it bucketed
the day i gifted
the bishop’s passing.
a talisman of wishes,
sueños where i see badlands through ocean rain.
the soundtrack?
feast of wire: dulcet painting, desert noir
that we would lay down to,
find orion.
i put us in a pickup bed
somewhere south of socorro
dusty nostrils, crimson clouds
no…pink! no, azure.
then, squinting, the pleiades –
seven sisters all of a tremble.
we’d drive
the turquoise trail, to where it meets the gold mines in madrid
pastures full of cane cholla, buds about to be may fuchsia
dirt between tufts of galleta and tall feathergrass
brown like your skin
after a summer in wild basins.
this rainless landscape
was always so perfect to me.
but nothing is clear now until a downpour of you.

IMG_9699

a year of astronomy

The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, or falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries. – Carl Sagan

Copyright Stephen Lioy - Photography and Travel Media

much like i don’t believe in regrets, i don’t believe in new year’s resolutions. there is something so self-flagellatory about starting a brand new year off by focusing on something you’ve been doing wrong. even when phrased in an ostensibly positive way (“this year, i want to get stronger and work out more”), its foundation is negative (“i am not currently strong enough”).

i would like to say that, currently, as we are, we are enough. everything about me and you, right now, is enough. even when i shower myself in self-hatred (which i do plenty), i am still enough. just as i am. right now.

instead, i’ve adopted a different practice recently: themed years. this idea came to me from a friend’s concept of giving her years a specific word, like bold or compassion. the idea is similar to a resolution, but doesn’t start from a negative base. rather, it invites you to consider that theme in your life for the whole year.

i’ve taken a different approach, theming my years around things that i want to explore more in-depth in my life. this opens the year wide, giving you 365 whole days to explore something, make it part of you, let it wash over you, and eventually (and in my experience), become a beautifully habitual part of your life. giving yourself an entire year, spread before you, eases the burden. there’s no rush. you’ve got time. 52.14 whole weeks. and you don’t need to use all, or even most of them. just use what you want.

in 2016, my year was poetry. i completed two poetry MOOCs. i practiced writing a chinese-style poem. i wrote some (not a lot of) poetry. i published a tiny bit of it on this site. and i read a lot of poetry by way of signing up for poem-of-the-day emails. i started a poetry twitter list, which still feeds me verse and lyric on a daily basis. i am still writing poetry. it worked.

in 2017, my year was walking. first i bought new boots, and some walking trousers. and then i walked a helluva lot. i walked across an entire country. i trekked several long portions of the south downs way. i walked the lea river and part of the ridgeway. i took 37 walks last year, not including the nine days on hadrian’s wall; these ranged from short 5k strolls into work to 25k bangers. some were overnights. one was with a tent. there was a lot of mud. and some sunshine. plenty of cows. quite a few tears. and huge sense of achievement. i learned to self-soothe while walking. walking got me through the hardest year of my life. and i learned that even 2km is something, so long as you keep on going. and i will. this year and for the rest of my life, because walking is now inextricably part of who i am.

so, here we are in 2018. this year’s theme is astronomy: a topic i have written about on this site already. my dad got me into stargazing: he exposed me to telescopes and the night sky from the time i was little. i’ve always loved the stars, but not until living in london, where visual access to them is so limited, have i yearned for them so much.

this year, i will be looking up. thinking about the heavens, and the cosmos, the universe and the infinite mass of space and time. my dad said to me recently that looking at the stars has always kept him centred. i am looking for more of that in my life: a sense of perspective, being centred.

how this theme will manifest in my life: let’s see! to start with, i’ve signed up for an intro to astronomy course at the royal observatory in greenwich (the home of time and early spacegazing!). i’ve also enrolled in an astronomy MOOC via edx. hopefully, i will save up for a small traveller’s telescope or a pair of binocs, learn to better use a planisphere and memorise a few more of the stars and constellations visible in the annual night sky. some of my travels will also be astronomy-themed or star-centred, and maybe even combine walking and stargazing! and i will read a lot, and probably rewatch contact at least once, because it is the best.

is there something you are interested in but never made time for? some small part of you that wishes you’d been this or done that instead of who you are now? i am here to enable you to make that part of your life, even if it’s only in a small way, or you worry you might not finish, or you won’t be good enough, or you can’t.

because it’s 2018. live your best life. start small. what have you got to lose, for the cosmos is out there, undiscovered, waiting for us.

top photo of me stargazing in kyrgyzstan last september shot by the mega-talented stephen lioy.

poem about ten to midnight 2016

a poem i wrote on this night last year. 

i wanted to write a poem
about 2016
for awhile, but then nothing came.
i waited, watched deathly hollows two,
felt the weight of severus’ death this year
and all the others
and the coming one so and too soon,
then took myself to twitter
to expel the need for some kind of
resolution.

spent the year
swirling around in mysteries
the enigmas of san lorenzo
and his ancient street
and his bratwurst mile

and so it begins again, all at sea,
with more questions than answers,
a weight
prequel to the one to come.

sure, i’m not a poet
and despite this year of lyrics
the twelve month’s best words –
and the only ones i’ve written worth
uttering on a cold rooftop, or a serviced apartment
with the aircon on at new year’s –

were always about you.

a russian train, and peter the great

Around Moscow, the country rolls gently up from the rivers winding in silvery loops across the pleasant landscape. Small lakes and patches of woods are sprinkled among the meadowlands. Here and there, a village appears, topped by the onion dome of its church.

Peter the Great: His Life and World, Robert K. Massie

midafternoon, and the nevsky express is trundling through the countryside somewhere outside of saint petersburg. everything i’ve read about the bleak landscape of russia in winter is true: it is a great, flat expanse covered in snowy crust and blanketed by thick pines. sometimes this is broken up by a town of wet-stained grey houses painted over in anaemic shades of pink and blue.

though it’s barely past 2pm, the light wanes. a meek sun tries to push through menacing white snowclouds. the hour becomes pink; we cross a frozen river. it feels right being carried across this coldscape to close a year that, for me, has been fuelled by grief and heartbreak.

where do we get our desire to travel, and how do we decide to go where we go? cheap flights make things easier than they were generations ago, but that deep-seated wanderlust seems hard-wired into me in a way i’ve never fully been able to explain.

and the mystery of how we choose where we go. do the destinations, in fact, pick us at the times we are ready? i’ve wanted to go to russia since i was 22 and read robert k. massie’s peter the great. this led me to a temporary college major in russian history, quickly abandoned once i tried actually learning russian and took a moment to consider where a career in this arcane subject might take me. in fact, it probably would have been more useful than i thought back then.

why, then, after all these years, am i only here now?

i read peter the great and fell deeply in love with the early 18th century world i imagined peter the first lived in. a man larger than life (quite literally for he was 7ft tall!), an outsider to the murmuring, bearded world of old muscovy, it was peter’s inquisitive mind and search for things beyond where he lived that put him down in history books as an enduring world leader and the man who single-handedly built backward russia into an empire.

some might say peter was a visionary. to me, he merely followed his heart to the places it took him: lake pleschev outside moscow, where he first encountered a boat and learned to sail it. the city’s german suburb where he made his greatest friends from all over the world. travels in europe. an excursion in england, living in deptford, not far from where i do, and learning the naval arts from great british shipbuilders along the thames. and eventually the frozen marshy gulf of finland, where he built his own perfect city hundreds of miles from the dark, old capital.

rereading massie’s book over these few days in russia has led me to question what exactly it was about peter that captured my imagination, for he was also a deeply flawed man, prone to bouts of anger and overindulgence that led him to an early grave at the age of 52.

it seems to me peter lived with reckless abandon, an underrated quality and one we are taught will lead to our own destruction. for peter, it helped him build an empire and, it seems like, have fun while doing it. and so maybe it is possible to live our wildest, most improbable dreams, find our craziest moments of bliss and still be someone great and build something enduring, too.

the nevsky express slows upon entering an eerie patch of frozen fog. a dead forest of tree stumps closes in on the tracks from every side. the world goes charcoal-grey and suddenly the train compartment’s lights offer a warmth of contrast to all that, out there. another frozen river carves a snaking path of black ice below, and then there’s a small village of shanty wooden huts, roofs sagging. more fog, more pines, more snow.

and somewhere ahead, the steaming lights of old muscovy.