I’ve only realised now that I’m here, but I’ve come to a foreign country.

It’s not the language and landscape that are disorientating, nor the food and customs, unfamiliar though they are – it’s the activity. My friend has organised a busy week – travelling and meeting people and playing taiko, with new dojos and groups almost every day. In itself that’s not strange: two years ago a week like this would have seemed completely normal. But since my head injury, I’ve been able to do these things only intermittently, tentatively, and here it’s all so efficient. I’ve come into in a new world: a world of planning and execution, of intentions and actions, all smoothly following one another; a linear world of efficiency and efficacy, and of certainty – certainty in one’s decisions, certainty in one’s ability to see them through.

I look on in slight bewilderment at all these individual trajectories weaving around me, lines and curves lifting and looping and neatly intersecting each other. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of this world but back at home I observed it from a safe distance, hovering at the edges, lingering in the shadows, while I waited for my head to clear, for my nausea to subside, for my capacity for sure action to return.

But here these intentions, these trajectories include me and now I have to step out towards them; now I have to carry myself forth.

Tiger and Turtle sculpture, a rollercoaster walkway silhouetted against a rose blue sky in which the sun has just set

‘Tiger and Turtle – Magic Mountain’, Duisburg, Nordrhein Westfalen / North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
30th September 2022

for a friend

Rain hammering yellow on the siskins, and the finches, golden as your August fields. I watch them from the kitchen window as I run in to shelter from another downpour, finding it hard to believe that just this morning I was sitting in a sun-drenched garden in Aberdeenshire.

It was a flying visit – a rare opportunity to meet you and your family during your own visit back from the Basque country. It’s not an area I’ve ever been to but I hadn’t been to Aberdeenshire before yesterday and it seemed foreign enough. All these years thinking we were both just Scottish and I hadn’t realised you came from such different land – so yellow and broad, and so smooth compared to the volcanic upthrusts of Edinburgh where I grew up or the rough highland coast I now call home.

Our birds would have overlapped though, and I watch the birds to re-orientate myself now. They crowd the feeder intently, sharp-faced and focused, flitting back and forward between the swinging plastic tube and the lower branches of the ash tree. I love the deftness of the siskins but it’s the goldfinches that draw my eye – the flash of yellow in the wing, the jewel-red face. I’ve never seen such ruby on a bird, at least not in this country. There were, however, the hummingbirds that came to the garden when I lived in rural Québec. I’d thought they were insects at first, some kind of massive bees zooming back and forth by the wild apple tree, until they slowed down enough to come into clear view. And what a view: metallic emerald plumage with white breasts and an iridescent red plating on their throats, they were beautifully dainty but also surprisingly fierce, circling each other aggressively in tight spirals of defence and desire.

They seemed impossibly exotic, and were the only species of hummingbird to come to Eastern Canada, but almost all the birds were brighter there. The goldfinches were pure canary yellow – the whole bird the colour of our goldfinch’s wing flash, except for a small black cap and wings. Even the blackbirds had vivid wing-stripes of red and yellow; and then there were the cardinals, crested and clothed almost entirely in crimson. I got compared to a cardinal once, when I lived in Montréal, and we spoke about them when you visited me there (didn’t they appear in Lowry’s Under the Volcano?). However, it wasn’t until after you left that I started seeing – and hearing – them in the city parks, their jaunty presence announced by their distinctive pyew pyew call, a cross between a wolf-whistle and the noise we made as kids pretending to shoot each other.

We’re not used to such vivacity here in Scotland and, after years back here again, my eye has been recalibrated. When I look at the siskins – which are like drabber versions of the North American goldfinch – I think their colour looks unnatural, as if they’ve fallen into a tin of yellow paint. And for all that I admire our goldfinches, I can’t help being suspicious – that dramatic yellow splash, that fancy face mask – as if they’re pretending, dressing up; as if they’re not really from here.

The birds you describe seeing in the Basque country are bright too: lurid yellowhammers and smart black kites and redstarts, birds I’m not familiar with. But you still see sparrows and robins and it makes you feel nearer to know that we’re looking at some of the same creatures despite the space between us.

Because this is the way of it. You’ll return to the Basque country and I’ll remain in the Highlands, places that neither of us are from, but then we always were migrants or vagrants, never quite feeling that we belonged. Though I suspect it’s in that distance that we feel most at home, and perhaps with each other too, in our continuing correspondence, our lives separated as they’ve always been, stitched together by feathers and flights.

Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
2nd August 2022

joy in movement

The trigram Tui, the Joyous, whose attribute is gladness, is above; Chên, the Arousing, which has the attribute of movement, is below.

And it’s true. I complain about not being able to afford a home in Scotland but I secretly love being on the move.

I secretly love the long drive to Lochinver and the cold dampness aboard when I get there, the effort to keep warm with clothes and wood – finding, carrying, sawing, splitting; the burning the least of it.

I secretly love the aching tiredness of travel, the echoing ache for a home which means I don’t have one yet, which means I’m still on the land road or sea road, still plying my way through the waves of our lives, still live to the ebb and flow.

I even secretly love the slow quease that sweeps over me at sea because it means I’m out on it, because I’m not at home, because I’m only at home, here, in movement.”

I wrote that sometime during the winter of 2018 and came across it in a computer file a couple of days ago. Today I did the I Ching again, and again: joy in movement. But what movement? I’m here now, in my own home, the first home I have ever owned, and although I still travel, with my persistent brain injury I get about much less than before. Yet the movement doesn’t stop, it’s simply more focused. My back and arms ache from digging and chainsawing and swinging my new axe. And I still have a slow seasick-like quease though now it’s from the movement of my mind rather than the ocean waves, as I struggle to shake off the lingering effects of my concussion. But I’m still glad and maybe that’s more focused too. After all, no situation can become favourable until one is able to adapt to it and does not wear himself out with mistaken resistance.

So I pause and watch the chaffinches and goldfinches as they mob my feeders, and the thrush and dunnocks as they pick about on the ground, and the wee wren as it dots about the pile of unsawed branches; and I listen to the wind prowling round the caravan and to the river churning down to the sea. It’s almost incredible, all this incessant noise and action, and all I can hope for is that it never stops; never stops at all.

Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
8th March 2022

one for sorrow

I keep seeing solitary magpies: on new year’s day, on the big oak tree which towers over the rooftops opposite, a single magpie hopping around the branches, fluffing its feathers; yesterday, over the hill out the back of the house, a smart flutter like a fan opening on its long straight handle; and today, a sharp-suited fellow strutting across the car park at Monmouth Services. Is it a reminder, as I drive north towards home, or a refrain: one for sorrow, one for sorrow, one for sorrow?

Surely not, I think, to the magpie now flitting between the tops of the young ash trees which separate the car park from the green field beyond. We’re in a sorry enough state already. But then I don’t find the sight of a single magpie sorrowful. I find it reassuring: a solitaire, the solo path, at least for a while.

I glance at it once more and it swoops down swiftly from the upper branch of the ash tree to the grass beneath. Like Annie Dillard’s mockingbird as it steps off a tree, it descends intently in a movement so sure it’s not like a movement at all but rather a revealing, an illustrating, for a moment, the shape of space itself; as if it’s slid down the invisible thread connecting the branch and the grass, joining the dots of their shared reality. Or maybe not joining or connecting which again imply travel, but simply demonstrating, like particles in a quantum physics experiment, the seamless contact of all things. The magpie slips down from the tree the way the earth rides its trajectory around the sun, the way I cruise up the dual carriageway in my van, as if it’s not about extension at all but the continuity of the blades of grass and the branch of the ash tree and the cloud-occluded sun and my van’s course up the A449, determined yet liberated, effortless, sorrow-free.

(Mockingbird from Annie Dillard’s stunning book,’Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’)

Monmouth Services, Sir Fynwy/Monmouth, Wales
3rd January 2022


Yesterday – For years I felt I was a gathering wave: all heaped up with nowhere to go and urgently looking for a shore to break on. Now I feel as if I’m a buoy on the sea, pushed up and down and back and fore in the tides and wind-driven surges, but essentially just held here in suspension – in motion without momentum – while out to sea the waves busily wash past.

I can’t get a grip on things, that’s the problem. Little things: dry paper, kindling, replying to emails. Big things: how to make a living, how to make sense of what’s happening to society, how to come to terms with what’s happened to myself. The thing with things is that they are too much. Even the little ones. Especially the little ones. A head-injured taiko player I spoke to online said that living with a brain injury is like having a hangover. All you want is comfort food and sleep and you know if you just ride it out it’ll pass. Except we’re still waiting.

Today – And then there are days like today when there is so much beauty: too much to take in, too much to give out. The sea is spilling over with golden blue light and in it all doubt is dissolved. For today at least, the waves don’t make me envious with their rhythmic fluid motion. Like me, they settle as the sun holds them, as the sun settles and holds everything, forever and ever.


Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
19th October 2021

The Wanderer

Each time I move closer to finding a home: The Wanderer. And even now I have committed – biting the bullet and buying a static – I draw The Wanderer again. Strange lands and separation are the wanderer’s lot, I am reminded. I sigh. I just want to belong.

I haven’t always felt so ambivalent about this image. In the past it has inspired me – when I was stuck in a dead-end job and marriage, to become a wanderer was an aspiration; and, in recent years it has enthused me to persist in my semi-nomadic life, indeed, to attempt to make an art of it. It’s what prompted me to buy my wee Japanese van (and convert it to a mobile writing studio and overnighter), to live for much of the year on my partner’s sailboat, and to continually resist taking up stable employment in order to follow my taiko and sailing muses wherever they might carry me.

The wanderer has no fixed abode; his home is the road: I’ve romanticised that in my mind for so long now, hitching it to my more existential desires to pare myself down – to put myself through a process of ‘subtraction’ as Milan Kundera would call it, to reach the state of ‘no abode’ of the old Zen traditions of Japan. But maybe I’ve become too attached to the image. It is a great freedom to not have a home you’re obliged to return to and take care of, and a privilege to have friends and family who help you to make it work. Yet homelessness (of my relatively luxurious sort) is its own tether as well. Your mind is constantly entangled in calculations and plans: where to go to do this or to get that or to find the other. And if you’re someone who becomes readily attached to places and people, living such a circuitous life can be tiring. Your heart, strung out between too many of them, starts to become stretched thin and frayed at the edges. This has its own beauty of course – now and again the breeze catches the worn tatters which flutter a moment then settle and still, and you feel exposed and sensitive and close to things. But even wanderers need a break sometimes: a spell on dry land and stable ground to recover spent energies, to heal injuries, to take nourishment in depth rather than breadth and – dare I say it – to grow some roots.

And yet…

card depicting a wandering figure and far mountains, sitting in grass in front of the sea

Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
4th July 2021

Balchladich beach in a south-westerly gale

The green wave curls,
the white wave smashes,
the cream banks of foam quiver on the sand
then scatter up into the wind like bursts of hysterical laughter.

The whole foreshore is a seething plain of froth
with gulls drifting high above it,
appearing to just hang in the sky
like the long banks of cloud laid out, unmoving, overhead.

In the south, the mountains, striated with snow,
hold themselves up like a frozen wave –
a suspended crest,
a momentary stoppage –

and I wonder how we can continue,
the sky so still,
the sea so live,
the earth so static.

Balchladich, Assynt, Scotland
23rd March 2021

notes on a head injury (1)

I sit on my sofa-bed trying to read. I’m bathed in radiation, nestled between the soft light of the bulb hanging above me and the warm breath of the fan heater in front, but the comfort doesn’t console me. I’m trying to read the book which is in my hands, trying to catch hold of the words on the pages and find their connected meaning, but it’s difficult. It’s as if I can’t get in. My brain slips on the surfaces, lapsing instead of latching, and I find myself stumbling repeatedly over mysterious unseen obstacles.

“I begin with haard’dloq, extremely thin new ice that cannot be stepped on without danger, and then hikuliaq, new ice which is still slippery and yet can be travelled across.” *

Perhaps the subject matter isn’t helping and I wonder if it’s strange that I’m choosing to read about ice just now. It’s the season for it, I suppose, but it’s been a mild winter here so far. The temperature has rarely dropped towards zero and nothing has frozen yet. There hasn’t even been frost this week, the air being too wet and wild to permit any kind of stasis. I don’t think there’s much in our freezer either: the congealed mass of peas which I held to my head after bouncing it off a rock has long since been cooked and eaten. Nonetheless, I find it hard to get a grip. Words slide from the pages as I read, their crystallisations of meaning melting out of memory almost as soon as they’ve assembled, or sometimes before. It’s not that there are gaps – I’m not aware of any specific absences or elisions – but the greater order of things eludes me. On the rare occasions when I do manage to gather some sentences together, the reason for their proximity remains opaque.

Maybe I’m trying too hard. My consciousness is so clumsy at the moment, skiting across the veneer of the world ungracefully – and ungraciously. Yet, because or in spite of this, other things are drawing my attention. Maybe they’re always there and it’s only now I notice but lately I’ve been encountering all these little consonances; things echoing and repeating in different places. Photographs of snowflakes I see online recrystallise unexpectedly on the pages of a book, floods seep out of pages and into the fields around me, a phrase uttered by a character in an old Northern Exposure DVD is repeated by my boyfriend in the kitchen half an hour later. It’s as if different fields of existence are resonating, as if life itself is rhyming a bit.

I’m not sure what’s going on – if I am picking up on some subtle patterning or am simply confused. I’m certainly disorientated. Indeed, in some ways it seems that the world is inverted; as if I’m trapped on underside of ice and observing life from there. The most familiar things appear strange and at times I barely recognise myself.

It’s not just the brain injury, though that’s a big part of it. It’s also the lockdowns, the endless reiterating train of them: closing down, shutting up, holding in, keeping apart. Their effects are not just superficial. Like everything living, we’re not so much entities as processes – doings, motions, living veins running through the world. And when our activities are frozen and our moving stopped, we ice over, we ossify, we lose hold, not only of our livelihoods and of the human animals that we love but of our very companionship with ourselves.

It’s a discouraging time, all in all, but the consonances give me heart. Each time I meet one it’s like a warm touch, reassuring me that I’m still in favour with the world, still alive among its undercurrents even as I struggle at the surface. Indeed, during these moments I begin to feel a sense of belonging again; a sense that I’m inhabiting a deeper part of my brain and a deeper part of my body – a place beneath the stalled outer layers where my movement is more fluid, my contact more true. It’s a confirmation, a reminder, and a relief: that there’s life beneath; there’s always life beneath.

*Nancy Campbell, The Library of Ice (London: Scribner, 2018, pp. 112-3)

Pontycymer, Glamorgan, South Wales
12th January 2021