Walking in Mind

A Trail of Thoughts


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Will You Take My Hand?

Seven weeks have passed since the Spanish Prime Minister first addressed the nation to announce the harshest of lockdowns. Seven weeks in which I’ve not walked as much as a kilometre for pleasure.

Do you need food, something from the pharmacy? Then make it quick, but don’t linger. Keep your distance, get your things, head back home.

You have a dog? Well OK, twice a day around the block.

A few people improvise, but it doesn’t last, and by the second week there are no more stories of cats or goats being walked on leads.

What persists is the confinement of children, whose developmental needs trail behind a dog’s need to shit in the street. I phone my friends with small children to see how they are doing, cooped up together in apartments with only a balcony for outdoor space. We’re getting by, they say.

I go out to buy bread and discover that childless streets are the saddest of places. After six weeks they are finally allowed out, not for long, but it is something, and it shows on the faces of young and old alike.

Now, on this first Saturday in May, it is our turn, an opening for those of us who wish simply to walk without purpose, to work up a sweat, to pedal like there was no tomorrow.

It is still early, a little after 8 when P. and I leave the house. The rules are as follows. As two people from the same household we are allowed to walk side by side, but if we’re venturing out to practise sport then we need to separate and go it alone. I wonder where the line is drawn. At what speed, or with what gait, does walking become something other than itself? And what about the fact that we have dressed for the occasion in our best outdoor gear? Do our trail shoes and hiking shorts place us in the world of sport, even if we keep to an amble? In the space of fifty days the absurd has become a topic of ordinary questioning.

We live near the edge of town and are soon making our way down a narrow path between dry stone walls. To the east the sun is already well above the line of hills beyond which lies the sea we are not allowed to visit. But there is more than enough to satisfy our longing. Grasses hang firm and free across the path, and give way gracefully to our passing shins. To either side the hedgerows are putting on a festival of spring flowers, none of which had emerged when last we walked this way. Is borage always this blue, are poppies always so red, or have my senses been altered by so much confinement? I bend down to pick a single poppy from a cluster and walk over to where P. is standing, lost in reverie as she gazes out across the vineyards. I hand her the flower, she smiles, kisses me once and slips the poppy into a shoulder loop of her little backpack.

From time to time we meet others along the way, and I greet them all with a Bon dia. Some return the salutation, others — invariably the maskwearers — glance at me in silence from the corner of an eye. People are afraid, wary of others. If I offer to lend a hand, will you trust me that it’s clean? L’enfer, c’est les autres. Sartre’s words echo across the years with a new twist in meaning. But it is not what I feel. Hell is not other people, it is being unable to embrace them, to laugh and cry together, to raise a glass in sickness and in health. So take off your mask, show your face, ready your lips. This is what I dream of now.

When we reach home again I stop in front of the gate and kneel at the kerb to inspect our new pavement companion, Diplotaxis muralis, the annual wall-rocket. Each day I am half surprised and full of joy to find the plant still there, standing ever taller where normally it would have no place, its yellow flowers a beacon of hope. I doubt it will make it through to summer. Sooner or later, it will be uprooted or stamped on by someone who sees it as an affront to normality rather than a reminder of what is possible. One hand flat against the paving stones, I reach out with the other and rest a finger against a delicate petal, and in that touching I remember something that Leonard Cohen wrote in a poem, a song: there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

I push myself upright and head indoors. The cat is asleep in her chair, the kitchen smells of freshly ground coffee, and all our things are where we left them. For an instant all is right with the world, but then it cuts through, the voice of the poet singer, his eye on the future, coming at me clear from the tower of song.

Things are going to slide

Slide in all directions

Won’t be nothing you can measure anymore.

 

Diplotaxis muralis, annual wall-rocket


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Obol

Clearing ivy from the back garden, we uncovered a head of unknown provenance. The man had obviously lived well, this much was apparent from his neck and cheeks, the skin of which still sagged from the fat beneath. Had he, I wondered, watched us through the ivy as we indulged on summer evenings, gorging with friends until the early hours?

We warmed to him immediately, and so, to help him on his way, placed a coin upon his lips. I expect, one day, to go out into the garden and find him gone, but for now he waits, eyes closed, chewing on his obol, as if planning his next move.

***


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Fennel

By late spring the fennel has bolted all along the trail that winds its way through the vineyards. Walk there towards evening and you will see, clinging to the long stems, countless little snails. I have a mind to gather a hundred or more of these caragolines and take them home as a gift for P. She would cook them the simple way, the way they do in Lleida, the way her mother taught her. She would bring them to the boil in fresh water, adding only a couple of bay leaves, a sprig of thyme, some salt and pepper. In ten minutes they would be ready. There is nothing, she says, as sweet as a caragolina that has gorged itself on fennel.

But P. is far away right now, so instead I will send her this photograph.

It will be the last thing I do today as I lie on our bed, ready to sleep. In the morning, over breakfast, she will open her iPad and there it will be. A reminder that I miss her and that I am holding on to the little things she brings to life, clinging to them like a caragolina.

A photograph as kiss, leaving on her lips the taste of fennel.


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Seeing, Feeling, Telling

1. In Catalan

Entre marges i vinyes

hi ha un camí

que em porta

a la gratitud de viure.

 

2. Landschap

 

3. En anglès

A spring afternoon,

between stone wall and vines,

I stumble across

the gratitude

for what is,

for a place

becoming home.

 

4. What do you see, what do you feel, in the language(s) you inhabit?

 

5. The invitation of the poet, Neruda:

que no nos llenemos la boca […] con tanto tuyo y tanto mío

…let us not fill our mouths […] with so much of yours and mine

 

6. Rebel against hate, rebel against indifference, rebel against those who would divide us.


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All The Things You Give

It is All Souls’ Day. This is what I am thinking, although I say nothing. After work I go with P. to the hospital, where we find her father already asleep, or so it seems. He is still dressed, but covered with a blanket and facing the wall. The television is on, an early-evening action film, but he is oblivious. I lean over, kiss him on the cheek and rest my hand on his shoulder. He begins to stir, so I speak my name. Kiss, hand, name. He shifts a little, squints, and closes his eyes once more. Then, to my surprise, he turns open-eyed towards me and says something that I take, at first, to be delirium.

‘I’ve left you some fruit on the…’

He pauses, the sentence hangs in the air, the word not found. Lost in the twilight brain.

‘The bedside table, on the bedside table. Some fruit.’

The words come. I look to my right and see a mobile phone, a box of tissues and a glass of water. No fruit. But then I find them, tucked beneath an open tissue. Two ripe berries from a strawberry tree. I realize then what he has done.

A few days ago I had taken him out in his wheelchair, half an hour together in the hospital gardens. It was a sunny morning and I lingered, trusting that he wouldn’t catch cold. Along a path I had never before explored, we discovered, the two of us, a small grove of lemon trees, separated from the garden by a mesh fence, its diamond holes just too small to pass a hand through. And then, at the end of the path, another tree.

‘Miri, un arboç,’ I said. Look, a strawberry tree.

I reached up and picked one of the berries, knowing from its colour and feel that it was not yet ripe. I placed it in his hand and waited. With his right index finger, he rolled it back and forth across his left palm.

‘No te lo comas.’ Don’t eat it. ‘It’ll be sharp.’

He let the berry fall to the ground, and I wheeled him back to his room.

So, he had remembered all this today. A daughter this morning had taken him for a walk along the same path and they had picked a few berries from the tree. Ripe enough to eat. He must have held two of them in his hand, trusting that later I would visit. They were there waiting for me. The sweetest berries I’ve ever tasted. As sweet as a father’s love.

 

Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), and ripe berries


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A Loss Foretold

No words here these days and weeks. It has been a time of listening, of uncertainty, and sometimes it is best to remain silent. Keats spoke of negative capability, and psychoanalysis has made a virtue of being able to hold one’s words in the face of not knowing. But a time comes when something has to be said. To be offered. Doubts prevail, but as one of my Catalan psychoanalytic tutors used to say: “S’ha de dir.” You must say it.

***

For Maria

Two hands, 85 and 88.

First entwined in ’55,

they’re at it still,

holding on

and holding out

against an imminent farewell.

 

Not long now,

she knows,

unknows,

until her hand will close

around his absence,

seeking still

that wordless love

to see her through the days.

 

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