Hedgerows

He is speaking about his family history and its ties to a part of Wales I have spent some time. The presentation is beautiful, and everyone in the room is spellbound by his descriptions of the objects from his family’s history and the deeply sad story they tell.

He describes walking recently down the road where his great grandfather had been found many many years ago, and marvelling at the wildness of the hedgerows, somehow chaotic and contained at the same time. I know these hedgerows. I have gazed at them up close in the same way this man I do not know describes doing. 

He shows a picture of the hedgerows, and something odd happens to my heart. It wobbles a little, shaken by something like nostalgia, like grief, like the kind of sadness one feels for a friend going through a difficult time, except that the sadness is for a past version of myself. 

When I wandered along those hedgerows it was summer. I wore gumboots and sometimes a rain jacket. 

Sometimes I wandered as part of a little troupe, and we would sing each other silly songs, and pluck sticky weed, a plant I know as cleavers, from the hedgerow and stick it to one another. On these ventures I learned to recognise stinging nettle, and the other plants in the chaos of the hedgerow that would help ease the pain of a too-close encounter with the nettle. On one occasion, one of my wandering companions pointed out a delicate and tiny orchid, and told us all she knew about the plant.

Other times I wandered just with one other, often at dusk, my favourite time of day, and she and I would talk about the things that were making us sad, the answers we were trying to find in our lives. We would stop to look at the sun setting, and at cows in the fields. I’m not sure we found the answers, but I think what we grew between us on those evening walks along the hedgerows was some kind of hope—the kind of hope that a growing friendship feeds.

In Wales I also walked up a mountain, explored castles, dug potatoes, checked fields for molehills. I removed ivy from trees—an activity involving considerably more effort than that short phrase implies, with small axes and other tools, scrabbling through undergrowth and small branches, and as much brute strength as I could muster—and built and burned a bonfire. Of course, when I say “I” there, I really mean “we”.

Listening to this man’s presentation, a year after my own introduction to the hedgerows, I’m realise I’m finally beginning to understand the kind of room my heart made for the country I walked through then, and the people I walked with. I’m also seeing the depth of the fog that surrounded me at that time, and that perhaps it was a necessary buffer. As that fog has lifted, slowly, a gratitude for that time, those people, and that place has settled in its place. 

Later, at the pub, this man and I talk very briefly about our different connections to the place in his presentation. He tells me he’s spent very little time there himself, but its presence has haunted his family in the generations that came after his great grandfather’s death. I tell him a little about my time there, and I’m struck by the way this place is associated with sadness in each of our stories, and with a shift in the direction those stories. 

For him, this shift happened before he was born, and his exploration of it is in part an attempt to understand how it’s contributed to where he finds himself now. For me, this shift is something much more recent in my past, and I have a feeling that it will still be quite some time before I can see the impact it’s had on the wandering of my life. 

All I know so far is that I think of the hedgerows, and those wanderings along them, often. They are vivid in my memory—the voices of my wandering companions, the soft quality of the light, the quiet of the countryside, the texture of the different plants, and the scent of them. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about how things leave traces on us, and how those traces are not always obvious. Even when they’re felt, we can’t always understand what they really mean, or will mean. I may spend the rest of my life not fully understanding the traces left by the time I spent in Wales. And maybe this is what that man’s presentation showed me—that the traces of a place and things that happen in a place may be felt generations later, and perhaps still not understood.

Threads and spaces between have been concepts at the forefront of my mind for some time now. In my own talk at the conference where the man spoke about the Welsh hedgerows and his family, I spoke about sound as a medium that creates what sound theorist Brandon LaBelle calls ‘relational space’. This is an important argument for my thesis—and is both figuratively and literally true—but I also think that, at least figuratively, the same might be said for any of the senses. They are an opportunity to perceive relational spaces and to notice the threads that run through them. 

I’m still not quite there in trying to understand my time in Wales and what it’s meant for me. The threads are still loose here. But maybe that’s an interesting point at which to pause, and just to notice the slack in the weave. 

I think of my mother’s knitting. The way she weaves together threads of yarn over many hours, in stages, on and off, to make a garment; the way she unravels parts or all of that garment if the finished piece doesn’t quite work, and starts again. 

The things she makes are always beautiful, for all that weaving and unravelling and re-weaving. Maybe I’m still unravelling Wales, so I can begin weaving again.

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Moving through places

  It is the walking I remember most clearly.

It is the walking, and the muscle memory of it, the feeling of my feet inside my shoes and the ground underneath them, that allows me to remember other things about the places that—quite literally, it seems—etch themselves into me. I’m not sure I could come to love a place if I didn’t move through it. 

In Paris I wore familiar sandals that collected dust and dirt, as did my feet. It was hot. My skin was always warm and slightly dusty. I was calm in Paris, alone. Comfortable in my dusty warm skin. I walked for hours in that city. In crowded places and quiet ones. I was isolated by my very minimal French, but often welcomed with a cheery ‘Bonjour’ or ‘Bonsoir’. I listened to the language like one might listen to music. 

I bought very little in Paris, other than food and a couple of small gifts. I had only a small backpack with me. I was blissfully free of luggage; similarly, baggage. 

I walked through cemeteries, galleries, streets. Barely speaking, mostly listening, often lost. 

In Edinburgh, I wore lace up shoes I’d bought in Ireland. Comfortable but still stiff while I wore them in. They made a pleasant click on the wide footpaths of the New Town, and held steady on the cobblestones of the Old Town. It was cold enough for a jacket and scarf in Edinburgh, though it was the beginning of summer. 

I was sad in Edinburgh, but somehow simultaneously so pleased to be there. I fell in love with the architecture in that city—with a beauty that seemed to embrace the idea of dark edges. It helped me to embrace my own shadowy outlines, to allow the sadness just to be. 

In the Scottish National Gallery I sat near a gallery tour group while the leader talked about a sculpture that looked from one angle like it was grimacing; from another, laughing. When the tour group moved on, I looked at the sculpture with a gallery security guard and another patron. I was the only one of the three of us who was tall enough to see the sculpture clearly from both angles. Only I could see the happy face too. 

In the New Town I found a cafe down some stairs, below street level. It had black and white checkered floor tiles. I sat in the window with a book, not really reading, and instead looking up at the street. The slightly acidic, but also sweet smell of coffee, and the melody of Scottish accents. 

I walked through galleries here, too, and castles and museums, and up a hill where I could look out over the city. I walked through my sadness, through my shadows. My feet were sore in Edinburgh, rather than dusty. My hair was wild, blown about by the wind. 

It is the walking that helps me remember these places now, and myself in them. The residual feeling of one step after another, the sense of moving slowly through space. It is the walking that has imprinted in my mind some kind of map of these cities: incomplete, hazy, highly individual, perhaps inherently unshareable, but undoubtedly precious. 

Too much sitting 

I’m in another airport, with my little backpack and my handbag, and the little knots of excitement/anxiety (I’m never entirely sure which it is) in my brow and the muscles of my neck I always have when I find myself at points of departure, and a low hum of ache in my lower back and the joints where the base of my spine meet my pelvis. 

I’m stupidly early, which I almost always am (except when I miss my flight—I seem to be a person of extremes). The departure gate is slowly filling with other people who are anxious or excited or bored or just plain tired. 

I find the most boring parts of travel, perhaps paradoxically, the most interesting, the most nuanced.

I love watching how other people deal with these moments (minutes, hours). At this departure gate, many are looking at a device of some sort. A woman reads a magazine with a picture of a big pile of fruit and vegetables on the page. A man checks and rechecks his passport and boarding pass. One woman—young, maybe 19, with sandy red hair and glasses and milky skin—sits with her elbows on her knees, her head in her hands, and just looks. Looks at everything and nothing in particular. 

I love watching how I deal with these moments (minutes, hours). Do I reach for a device? Do I read? Do I check my email thirty times even though I know there will be no new ones? Or do I, like the young woman with the glasses, just look?

Do I just look at anything and everything and let my mind wander? 

The ache in my back is from all the sitting and it annoys me. The sitting and the aching. The River Liffey has left a greater impression—a quiet one—in my mind than I realised until I found my mind wandering to it. I’m not entirely sure why at this point. Something about rivers in general, I think. I am tired. I would happily look at Ireland’s green for a whole day, but I wonder if I’d change my mind about that if it had rained more while I was here. There was so much sun in Ireland for my time here. 

I miss important people in my life. A lot. But at the same time I like being on my own. I don’t know what to do with that tension. I wonder where all these people are going, beyond the destination of the flight. Home? Holiday? Work? I wonder where I am going. I wonder what on earth I’m doing, roaming around like this, vague and tired. I think about some of the ways in which this year has been incredibly difficult and strange for me and can see that somehow the wandering is helping, even if I can’t say how or why. I don’t know what’s coming next on this trip, and I’m surprisingly calm about that. 

I think about the yoga anatomy video I’ve watched in the last few days about the nuanced relationship between the different parts of our nervous system, between the parts that speed us up and the parts that slow us down. 

My flight is called. There is movement. My body is glad for it. The knots in my neck muscles relax a little. I find my boarding pass. Departure again.

Slow and steady: realising there is no race

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/3a9/1665537/files/2014/12/img_0513.jpgI’ve always been a fast walker. I think it began when I was very small, and had to walk-run-walk to keep pace with adults. And it continued that way, always trying to keep up with someone or something, present or not. 

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me or anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time that I love to walk. I’ve never owned a car, and for one reason or another, I’ve never quite settled into riding a bike. My feet and legs have carried me all over the place. I walk a lot. And, until recently, everywhere I went, I walked quickly. 

Sometimes I needed to move quickly; sometimes not. Walking quickly was my habit, and I was, I guess, quietly proud of how quickly I could make my way between places on my own two feet. 

This year, for one reason or another, I’ve finally stopped hurrying everywhere. Bit by bit. A cumulative slowing. 

I’ve slowed enough to notice how I’m walking, and to begin to make changes to my locomotion that mean I’ve less discomfort and pain in my hips—discomfort I didn’t realise was so bad until it wasn’t there anymore—and less compression and rigidity in my back—something I hadn’t actually noticed at all, until it too began to disappear. 

But what’s amazed me the most is the ripple this slowing of my walking has sent into the rest of my life. As my walking has slowed, so has my thinking and feeling. Just as there has been space open up for me to notice my physical body and the physical surroundings it’s moving through, there has been space open up in my mind. Space between the thoughts and the feelings and the worrying about everyday or not-so-everyday things. Without a doubt, slowing my walking has calmed me. There’s something about unhurried motion that works so well for me in this way.

Sometime earlier this year, I made a little pact with myself to stop hurrying. To stop rushing. Even if I was late. Perhaps especially when I was late. 

Because I realised at some point that for me, hurrying and anxiety were really one and the same. Hurrying was the embodiment of my anxiety, and hurrying had become so habitual for me that I was no longer sure whether the hurrying or the anxiety came first. 

It’s been an interesting exercise. Not one I’ve always succeeded in, of course. But those little ‘failures’ are probably the most interesting. Once I’d made the connection for myself between hurrying and anxiety, the times I failed to slow down became a sign that there was something it might be useful for me to look at. An anxiety that was perhaps stronger than my general desire to slow down. Noticing that I’d failed to stop hurrying became an opportunity I could take advantage of when I did manage to slow myself. 

And the funny thing was that most of the time, those ‘stronger’ anxieties were not really worth worrying about, once I gave myself the opportunity to tease them out a little. More often than not, they were like a shadow I’d vaguely seen in the corner of my vision as I hurried past—a shadow that looks like a monster until you look at it properly and realise it’s just the shadow of a tree branch moving around in the wind.

This year has been a very full year. Full of wonderful things, but also things that were challenging (those things were often one and the same). It’s not surprising that there were some anxieties lurking. (There always are, aren’t there?) But what I keep thinking about is how I’ve managed to get more done this year by moving slowly than I could ever have even hoped to have done by hurrying. 

The past year feels for me like it was an extended lesson in wandering, in noticing things along the way. Perhaps in appreciating things along the way, rather than missing them as I rushed towards some fairly arbitrary destination or goal. Stopping to smell the roses, sometimes quite literally, since many of my neighbours are skilled gardeners.

I keep thinking about how my year has been full, but not busy, and that the difference between those two things is all in how they feel. I know which one I prefer.

Wandering, place and muscle memory

20140417-214025.jpgWe are walking down streets we don’t know, ambling, listening, looking, taking it in, and talking, always talking. The sun is out and I have to take off my cardigan as I warm up from the walk, but then put it back on again as the sun disappears behind a cloud.

There is a tiny homemade market in a little park, the stalls set out on picnic blankets. There is a little old woman sitting on a park bench with her granny trolley, squinting at us. A string trio dancing around on a street corner, and further up the road a brass trio in an open arcade. A woman out the front of a men’s suit shop, spruiking its wares, referring to the plain suits as “staplers you have in the cupboard for years”.

The sun comes out again, disappears again; I remove my cardigan and put it on again.

We have been walking for more than an hour when we decide to catch the tram to get where we’re going on time. We catch it to the end of the line and start walking again, but abandon the journey about ten minutes in, realising we’re not going to make it in time after all. The tram takes us back to the open arcade, and we wander through a market, where a sign tells us that, yes, in case we were wondering, one of the stalls sells organic chia. A man talks in short bursts into a fuzzy microphone about the vegetables he’s selling. A few doors down there is a gourmet grocer and deli, and further down still, a bakery where we eat tidbits off pretty little plates before we begin walking again.

Back in the quiet streets, we take several wrong turns, some on purpose, to explore, others by accident. We walk down cobbled back alleys and peer into gardens. We listen to the breeze through the trees, and get acquainted with neighbourhood cats.

We are looking at houses, but, in doing so, also exploring a possible new stomping ground, a possible new life. Walking streets that we might later frequent, guessing (probably incorrectly) at short cuts we might take. We walk steadily for three hours.

Life is strange in transition; the softer autumn light and cooler air seem apt. And the walking, the slow, continued movement, the tiring feet and legs—these things help a sense of the place settle in a little, become somehow a muscle memory as well as a mental one.