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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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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His bones are elsewhere

For those of you who don’t follow my ramblings on Twitter, I’m posting a link here to a piece I’ve written and which has been selected by C.C. O’Hanlon for publication on the website of Burning House Press. I recommend a leisurely browse around their site, where you’ll find a rich array of words and images that will lead you off, both geographically and emotionally, into other worlds.

My piece is entitled This is not a memorial, and other stories of remembrance, and you can read it here.

 

Portbou

 


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In the Pyrenees There is Beauty in Both Life and Death

1.

High in the Catalan Pyrenees

a lignified cetacean,

a washed-up monument to deep time,

to the singularity of sea bed and mountain peak.

 

Mountain pine. Pinus uncinata

Mountain pine. Pinus uncinata

 

2.

The Catalans call it clavell de pastor, shepherd’s carnation,

the name a reminder

that this is the wild source

of a flower we know from elsewhere,

a decoration for table or gravestone,

and once a symbol of revolution.

 

 

Maiden pinks. Dianthus deltoides

Maiden pinks. Dianthus deltoides

 

3.

Its purple cowls draw the eye,

invite the hand to touch,

revealing nothing, yet,

of the poisonous heart

that for millennia

has served schemers

and fooled the unknowing.

 

 

Wolf’s bane, monkshood. Aconitum napellus

Wolf’s bane, monkshood. Aconitum napellus

 

4.

Here at the source,

before contamination and ownership,

we may drink freely of the water of life.

 


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Postcard from Cadaqués (Catalonia)

The photo poster in the window of the bar is as faded and familiar as the black and white image it displays. There on a stone bench sits the owner of the bar in his youth. He is playing a small Spanish guitar in the company of a much older man who is sitting to his right, Salvador Dalí.

Inside, the Café de La Habana has changed little since I first came here over twenty years ago. Tealights on the low wooden tables, rickety chairs, and, in one corner, a little cube of stage adorned with a single microphone stand.

At 11 o’clock sharp the owner appears carrying the guitar that he once played for Dalí. Both he and his instrument are old now, but together they continue to offer songs of protest and of love, songs sung in Catalan, Spanish, French and English. Borders are crossed, the edges of time blur. I am held in the present day only by the absence of cigarette smoke, by an unsilenced mobile phone, and then by the words of a song.

In Ancient Greece, a foreigner without citizen rights in his or her city-state of residence was called a metic. The English word is formal and uncommon, but the French métèque acquired the tone of our ‘mongrel’ and became a derogatory term for Mediterranean immigrants regarded as having impure origins and shifty-looking features. It seems that we have learned little in the almost fifty years since Georges Moustaki composed Le Métèque, proudly proclaiming himself to be a cultural mongrel and inviting us to think again about what we see. Here I am, he says, that man with the ugly mug of a wandering Jew, of a Greek shepherd; that man with the hands of a petty thief; that vagabond among you, offering this song of love.

***

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Two Trees

Ca-ca-ca-cak. Ca-ca-ca-cak. I hear them before I see them. One, then a second magpie bobbing around beneath one of the old carob trees that stand just off the riera, the now dry stream bed along which I am walking. The landscape around Sant Pere de Ribes is veined with several of these stony conduits, and since moving here three years ago I have followed their course, up into the hills to the west, or down to the sea some five kilometres to the east. I’m not going far today, however; I’m just using the stream bed as a logical way to orbit the town before nightfall.

The last hour of the last day of autumn. Surely a fine time for a walk. Forty minutes ago I had closed the front gate and looked up at a crisp Mediterranean sky with my coat still open, but the sun has dropped now behind the hills and the afternoon has turned dummity and cold. I button my coat and climb up out of the riera onto the path of dry compacted mud that runs along its side. The carob trees that line the way are restless now with the song of invisible birds calling out the passing of the day. In response, I find myself whistling the refrain of a Duke Ellington tune I’d been listening to at lunchtime, an eleven-note clarinet lick mimicking the Bluebird of Delhi.

I follow the path for a couple of hundred metres and then, after passing beneath the stone road bridge and its red-metal pedestrian twin that allow passage in and out of this side of town, I climb again, up the stony bank and onto firmer ground. Ahead of me on the same side of the road a paired line of Aleppo pines form an inviting tunnel through which I have often walked, but it is not these trees that have brought me this way. The tree I want to look at is an ash, and it stands at the edge of the little car park on the other side of the road.

The ash has lost now the last of its leaves, but a few bunches of brown keys still hang from its lower branches. I reach up and cup one of the clusters in my left hand. By keeping my palm steady I find that I can move my fingertips across individual keys without dislodging the whole cluster. Their touch reminds me of the fine tissue paper that my watchmaker father always used to protect the disassembled pieces of a work in progress. I open my palm and watch as two dry seeds spin slowly to the ground.

The browns and greys of the wintering tree contrast with the exaggerated tones of the plastic flowers that are strapped to its trunk. I think that someone has altered the arrangement since I was last here, but I can’t be sure. Plastic flowers give nothing away. They don’t wilt or fade, which I guess is the point. As a memorial they are meant to symbolise permanence, a triumph over time and events. Yet in wishing for a place where nothing is lost, we cut ourselves off from the gift of living in time, from the possibility of renewal. An absence of decay is not necessarily a sign of life.

I didn’t know Toni personally, although he’d served me on a number of occasions when I bought stuff from the hardware store where he worked. I’d also seen him a couple of times while out walking the woods around town, his face recognisable despite the helmet as he scudded by on his mountain bike. A man in his thirties from a local family, a friendly face at work. That was as much as I knew about him.

The absurdity of the accident must make the loss even harder to swallow. The little car park whose border is marked by four ash trees is an obvious place to leave your car if you’ve just finished your morning shift at the hardware store and are now planning to spend the afternoon up in the hills on your mountain bike. Toni had probably parked there on countless occasions, and he would have been aware of the slope and camber of the ground. As he unloaded his bike through the hatchback door, he wouldn’t have expected the car to move, and it was no doubt an instinctive action to push against it. The mechanics of it all favour a loss of footing, and then a drag until the first obstacle is met. Apparently the paramedics were soon at the scene, doing their best at the foot of an ash.

With the last light seeping from the day I decide to head for home. The road rises past the little car park, and then more steeply still towards the top end of town. Halfway up the hill I take a right turn along a street that gives me a level run to my own, and it is there that I am puzzled by the lights up ahead, braids of red that seem suspended in the air. As I approach the junction I see the source. Where the four streets meet there is a small roundabout, its central island home to an old carob tree that has held its ground throughout the development of the neighbourhood. Since I last passed by a week ago the tree has become a Christmas carob, its trunk and major branches adorned with beaded strands of tiny red lights. I like what has been done to the tree, and I’m sure Ramón will be able to tell me more about it.

Ramón and his wife Marta run the delicatessen that stands just off the roundabout, and they can be relied upon for good cheese and local news. I’m barely through the door before Ramón greets me with a resounding ‘Hombre, ¿qué tal? ¡Cuánto tiempo!’. I smile at the thought that for him, a customer he hasn’t seen for a week should be welcomed with the words long time no see. While I choose the cheese and ham that will be tonight’s supper I ask him about the tree. He looks up, places the knife on the wooden board in front of him and pushes his shoulders back until they are straight.

‘That’s our doing’, he says. ‘Well, not just us, the other shops along here have all chipped in. Council wouldn’t put up ten cents, even said we’d have to get special permission to hook the lights up to the grid.’

‘I like it,’ I said. ‘Good on you.’

‘If it was up to me,’ Ramón said, ‘I’d have music playing in the street as well. Bring a bit of warmth to people’s lives.’

Having bought more than I need from the wily vendor I step back out into the evening and head off toward home. There is a hint of wood smoke in the air, and I think that perhaps I too will lay a fire in, make the house warm for when my wife gets home. Pausing at the end of the street I take a last look back at the illuminated carob, and there in the shimmer of its lights see the spectre of an ash standing alongside it. Two trees. One for sorrow, one for joy.

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