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

clearing

All the sounds are so loud: the flapping wings of the hoodies cruising overhead, the beating of the cormorant upon the sea in front of me, the crisp chirps of wee land birds on the hill behind. It’s intense – the clarity of the still air, the clarity of my cleared ears. They don’t hurt any more but I hear the noise of all the life here so acutely it’s almost painful.

The hammer blows of someone working on the other side of the loch rebound across the water. A dog barks over there too. I know that cold water conducts sound across its surface very efficiently but I feel as if I’m sitting in an amphitheatre. Even the occasional gentle shwoosh of the sea along the shore seems amplified. A prawn boat glides in, cutting the water in two with a steadily increasing hum, and I have the sensation that not just this but all sounds are drawing near.

All sounds are drawing near and all sounds penetrate. The wings of the hoodies creak so densely it’s as if they’re sawing through the sky, and when they caw I feel as if my brain is being grated. The hard-edged audio quality affects how I see things too. The loch and its headlands appear fresher and more present, turning rapidly as the sun sinks from green and blue to black and gold. The air contracts to a sharp coolness. The loch seems huge and small at the same time, with myself just a stillness beside it, collecting audible events in an empty echoing head.

This unusual clarity might also be due to the fact that, for the first time in weeks, I am alone – my attention undisturbed, my ears free of voices. Indeed, that’s what I’ve come here for, for this loud silence and for these elements: blessed seashore, blessed solitude, blessed sound.

Lochinver, Sutherland, Scotland
29th October 2019