I have lived…

I have lived a thousand thousand nights.
I have dreamed of cities eternal and ethereal.
I have crossed the patterned sand blown
scattered wastes of desert moonscapes.

I have scaled the boney bark of mile high towering trees.
I have swam in oceans, dived through flooded windows of city towers empty
parks and lonely spires.
I have walked cobbled streets, with domino playing door watchers.
And docked on distant harbour walls.

I have sat in smoky bar rooms waiting,
crowds of faces flashing past vision slow and quick –
waiting out the clock to the sound of pool balls smacked and pocketed.
I have knelt beneath the frozen eyed stare of saints,
and stone gods in countries hot and alien.

I have swam through gardens of luminous shaped coral.
I have climbed, on these adventurous faithful legs,
across continent divides, peaks where eagles cry for breath,
over country borders and historic changing shingle slides.

I have sailed through storms and flat mirrored water.
I have leaped onto planes at the last moment of booking.
And in books seen and done all that can be imagined and more.
And I have dreamed.

I have dreamed of it all over and again and more.
And through it all, though I knew it not until the last time I saw you…
which was the first time I saw you
– because a heart’s tick tock has no clock keeper.

I remembered and forgot instantly at your gaze
– you have shined eternal in my heart.

Moments, memories, dreams…
In searching for you through time..
In time I found,
You were present through all.

You and
I have lived
We can
never be

Angels in the shade of farewell.

Goodbyes come in all sizes, and rarely suit all.

The sky is pastel blue with a warm orange glow where the sun is setting, and the light is a soft brush stoke behind the deeper shade of the mountains. The air in New Zealand is still like a picture. Still like a landscape pause on Attenborough. Still as though I am holding my breath and waiting to move. I am getting ready to leave. Still.

I say goodbye to the land first, walk past the willow circle, stroke the bark of the old oak on the ridge where I watched the days disappear. Stroke the noses of the curious cows that come by the herd to watch me chop the hedges back. The sheep run at ten yards as they’ve always done. Except Alice, hand reared by humans, she now lives in the fields on the edge of the flock. She says goodbye with knowing eyes as I tickle her ears farewell.

Angels tread this earth, did you know? I have seen them, and I have crossed the flattened grass where their wake is lined with dew and the gentle morning light.

They dance around us, they lead us on with tickles and sound and flash, dangle breadcrumbs on the covers of our waters; the background track in the passing car, the shuffle song in the moments that jar, the numbers above doors, and the time that always shows 11.11 when you look at the clock.

Life seems to me, to be a series of overlapping circles. We weave in and out of each others lives. Kindness forms around the joins like glue, giving you the strength to pass another cycle, loop another turn, and keep spiraling on, hopefully going up.

I am leaving once again. Sometimes it feels that the story of my life is one long goodbye. Airport hard chairs are more familiar to me than any cozy, armchair fireplace stare. Escalator stairs to busy platform waits, and the ticket desk concierge is a hero with a thousand faces to my own glass image. This ritual of access, this departing mode of being, well trained at holding emotions in check, thinking ahead but not to far, and not to far back. Thoughts that reach to the next bus, the train time leaving, the airport checking in desk, and not ever further. Because when you are going, you don’t know where touch down will be.

If the being of I, is in the being seen by you, and we need the other to experience who we are, then who do we become, if who we are is the person that is always leaving or always beginning?

If I leave you, you love me as I go. If I return to you, you love me because you felt the absence. If I stay, you see the front of me, you taste the stale breath of a morning kiss. You catch the plate on the side board with slowly stubborning stains hardening in the sink, and the stray hair on the white toilet seat. When you stay, your mistakes are counted for and weighed. When you leave, all is forgiven, because in the space that held you, no mistake can fill. There is safety in distance.

The angles of leaving are a frozen down-turned face. A backpack with two legs walking smaller. A side-on kiss, a hug you don’t want to miss; the hiss and chug of a romantic platform run, the shouting out from a window leaning face pressed into the sun, and out then, of the shadow of a station roof; a red balloon on clear sky day. And the Angels watch and wish that one day you’ll stay and let love grow.

Angels tread this earth, and I know, because their kindness follows me still. I found it in the shadow of a tall building when I needed a ride. I experienced it through friends of a friend, who had no need to hire, but did. Another brother who sent a new years gift when I was in need. I recognize their passage in the discovery that I have family around the corner on every side of the globe that I never knew. I found it in the eyes of a stranger that I have always known. Do you see what I am saying; it doesn’t matter how far you go…You can’t hide from love.

I leave ‘Magic Farm’ in that moment just before the dawn. The light from the door carves the dark into a frame for my shadow. I turn and see my host and friend, blue eyes bright, nothing but love and understanding shining in the light. What a teacher, such a friend, an inspirational mother and lover of life. Dear Fran, it’s goodbye for now, in this life or the next. Thank you for allowing me into your family and home to grow.

Three months in someone else’s life. Three boys say their goodbyes. Each one a little me trapped in a prism of remembered age.

Tom fidgets. At eleven he senses the man he is changing into, which means he is unable to press tight. He stands sideways to hug me bye, but comes back again and again, because the boy he was inside doesn’t quite get enough, wants to cry. Tom receives the love in small bites, little and often.

Sam comes fierce. We fought the day before, argued over wrong and right behavior and I explain to him, that I only tell him straight and labor the point, because I care. If I didn’t then I’d be out of the door. Instead I stare him down and explain that love need not feel like pain. A cloud gathers and we wait each other out. In the dark he ambushes me outside the bathroom door, stained checks with hungry tears, they hang like fat caterpillars waiting to transform in my neck and shoulder, to take wings of words and words and words, just sounds and blurs that become keys that open my stoic heart. I hold him in my arms and feel his nine year old body shake, I notice how strange it is to be the comforter to a child so like myself.

I reflect on changes, because I used to fear having children in case they reminded me of me, and I’d find a way to push them away as I do with myself still, always going further and further afield from those I love and need, to the next adventure, to a new port where no one knows ya. He wants to know if he’ll see me again, and I tell him that the world is a small place, and full of meetings and re-uniting. I tell him that Love comes easy when you speak the language of the heart, and in that realm, time and space hold no spell, we are always beside and within each other. I wipe his tears and nose with a thumb, and then he’s gone.

Alex is last, recently seven. Noble and brave, he’s been saying goodbye to me for weeks now – quiet and regular. He understands the fragility of life. That moments are not cheap. A long hug here and there, a tug on my beard, a pull of my hair. I have the bruises from the bouncing game we made on the trampoline he named ‘Zombie bouncing bugs’. He walks towards me stiff with morning tired, throws his arms around me like a cold man drowning in thick air. I bend awkwardly at the hip, kneel a leg and sit him on my knee and look for his face that slides into a place on my chest.

I never signed up for this, to be a kite of love. Hooks in the heart and on a line, I blow in the wind once more, the string tight and tugs with the three little boys each pulling the string in time, I soar, I fly, I hang in the no-space between other peoples lives – Such a blue sky; where the sun always shines.

I know that as I walk out that door, into the not quite gone night, that when I turn back, I’ll see the light shrink with every step, until it is another bright star on this journey and flight called life.
So leaving has become familiar, going away has become my home state, and now my state of home is back in my bag. What is a snail without its shell? How does a night owl feel in daylight with no tree? What is the purpose of a nomad in a world of societies of staying still?

I stand in the bus station coffee queue. ‘The Mull of Kintyre’ plays on the radio. It’s the first song in the music learners book. Suddenly I am standing in front of my parents with the new guitar they bought me for my sixteenth birthday, overlarge in my young arms. I fumble over the chords and strings like an eager virgin with his flies. My Dad goes out and returns with his bagpipes and begins to play the melody. The melody in the cafe is a chorus of many pipers, with Paul McCartney’s voice singing. “Carry me home.” But I can only hear one piper, playing long and mournful still from the corner of my childhood bedroom. There are no coincidences. Life is not a liner story. The Angels pressed the button play to reassure me, it’s safe to let the tears flow and I can be carried home, well, anytime.

The motion of the bus is a welcome relief. This is a familiar seat. I’ve seen the face in the glass as the world rolls past, transparent, it knows to look at myself when safely away from all that love, last.
The bus travels through a Narnia in summertime fast. Tall pine trees hug the slopes, a hundred thousand pale pebbles pepper the rivers flow beside the road – did your tongue stick then?

Later, the sky is pastel blue with a warm orange glow where the sun sets, and the light is like a loving brush stroke against the deeper blue of the mountain it is behind. The air in New Zealand is still, still like a picture, still like a landscape pause on Attenborough, still like I am holding my breath and waiting to move. Still I am getting ready to leave. Still.

When you leave and return you feel the love the most, and in the in-between, that furthest point, the cusp of the circle you travel, you feel love as loneliness. Go away slowly and come back soon. I have discovered my gift and curse in this realm. I am an addict of the outside-in view.

Expanding through the universe in our own mimic of the big bang, we grow, we go further…weave, we leave, in and out… One door closes as another one opens…

There are Angels in the world. They come in many guises, and they walk between worlds, and in the folds and joins of our loops, the kindness they share can last a lifetime, and carry you across the globe.

I walk in the soft evening light of my last in New Zealand, and I know that in Heaven, it will always be like this light of the day. The sun just behind the mountain, cascading beams high like a halo on the horizon, it could be the rise of a morning new, or the fading end of evening old – In heaven the sun is always about to say hello, or, it has just said farewell.

The Twisting Tree

Crucified on the hard wooden floor of my mind I lay awake and aware of my body as though for the first time.

The distant ceiling spirals deeply away into a bottomless rooftop tower. 1,981 raindrops drum the ground around and at each point of the circular pagoda. Overhanging tubes of bamboo, like the teeth of a cantankerous old giant, funnel cascading waterfalls into great puddles, releasing spray and splashing noises. The rain slows and eventually ceases.

The heat grows.

Healthy body, healthy mind, healthy living, healthy life.

Love your body, love your mind, love yourself and the world will respond in kind.

The voice floats to me from the cross-legged silhouette, framed by a huge stone portal that is filled with the blue-grey, dark-dawn. Over the voice’s shoulder the last star promises to return, slips away silently.

I roll onto my side. A single sleep tear drops onto the meditation mat. Within it, I see, in time the sunlight filtering through the haze of burning jasmine scented incense and tall green leaves. A red and white cockerel heralds the morning with its calling as a breeze gentles in.

Stone gargoyles watch over the courtyard from either side. Ganesha and his mouse, happy and content with a conker, preside by the bronze covered doors draped in a necklace of marigolds.Nearby a pair of rabbits lay entwined like yin and yang in their hay. Small trays of flowers lay before every entrance, welcoming the spirits of the land into the new day. In a cage a large fat black bird, with a long hooked beak calls out greetings in three languages to no one walking past.

At last I stir, as a galaxy of dust motes whirl in the slowest motion possible, a dance perhaps to a rhythm… The floor vibrating begins booming and banging. The music vibrates through my legs and feet; my back and bum, long gone to sleep are numb from the meditation, now hum with a new energy. I flex my knees, stand and begin to move, to enquire what this vessel on earth can do. Turn about and around, one hundred pairs of people are beating the sound of the drum with their heart beating feet. Legs hop and skip, bodies twist and twirl. Skin dark, skin light, skin golden and rolling, tattoos unfurling like banners and kites, teeth shine white, beaded braids curling, sweet smelling sweat soaked hair spins in the air as I move in, through and past, turn and duck, step sideways and back. Throw hands in the air, punch fist to the floor, spring up and jump into space between five other faces full of rambunctious joy. Ecstatic feeling thrills through me and I close my eyes again. Let my head sag back, arms out to my side, wide…

…Toes sink into the hard wooden floor of the Pagoda hall. Down into soft powered grit. Something washes over feet, sinking ankle deep to meet with cool water fizzing clean. Open eyes see little at all. The drumming of tribal music becomes the rushing pounding greeting as the Ocean charges in, then it breaks, white caps unzip across the shore. A huge full Moon rises up revealing the sea, painting silver stairs glittering like pearls raining.

To the left a lighthouse flick flashers its beam across the reach of the dark sand beach and the purple galaxy shining night sky. As regular as a heartbeat and like the tick tock song of Big Ben that erupts to the right, gothic arches spiralling high, sand spewing nigh in its wake. A white clock face, straight black fingers point to the crime and lie that there is a time other than Now. Water rushes around your ankles and shins, a scratch and scrape, something touches skin. You look down, see a gleaming, shining, moon catching glass bottle with a rim of blood. With the tide a new wave rides something else to see. A plastic bag snags on your toe, a beer can, a crisp packet a magazine about T.V. Sudden sickness burns you inside, fall down and hide your face in the water that is hotter than shame and colder than guilt, pulls you in, draws you lower, weights you down, heavier than a crown.

Begin to heave, start to wretch and all the fag nubs, chewing gums and bits of crap you ever dropped to the floor fall out your maw and onto your hands. In desperation climb up, run and jump, duck dive into a watery world of dark, moonlight negative. Legs become joined, a single fin, you kick, you swim, seeing becomes a thing of thin sound whilst sound becomes your vision.

You seek and call out to the vast watery silence, seeking those that once roamed, mighty and majestic, nomadic and unbound. Nothing…ness. In the empty darkness of the ocean you cease. A single moonlight beam becomes the crease between the black curtain screen and stage. Around you a universe glitters and shines like a snow globe, a hundred million planets and lives swirling in slow slowest motion waiting for you to… Rising up.

Breaking the surface a millimetre at a time, each and every drop that rolls off your skin falls like a dime in moonlight, chimes as it hits the mirrored night like water. Spinning, now you’re a crystal chandelier of tears. One for each sea creature we failed to feel as ourselves.

Up and up, spinning so slowly… on the surface you see your reflection surrounded by stars, beneath the reflection you see another face, whose is it? As I see you, seeing me, what do you see when I look in me?

Earthrise finds you sitting on a cliff beneath a withered and twisted tree. Soft, brilliant morning light shimmers on the surface of pools and lakes between patches of trees and the seashore. The waves, so fast below are nothing but slow at this distance. Kookaburra bird’s call out from treetops, whilst the moon grins a Cheshire cat smile goodbye, says cheerio ta ta for a now and disappears into the baby blue sky.

How do you feel when you reach the land of your perceived destination? Observe the familiar culture in a strange place. Short cut lawns, sun scorched lines meeting titivated borders containing arid plants and vines. Excitement, anticipation, tiredness and a softly nagging sense that all this is unnecessary. Yet in penning these thoughts reminded perhaps that it is the act of moving that is destination enough.

As the safe and parental arms of western culture begin to enfold, in arms of airports and highways, high-liners, skyscrapers and Elton John on the radio a question takes hold… What is the use of a therapy that retails its own illness?

Look to the horizon, ever the wanderers’ greatest misleading friend and guide, seek out the distant quickly receding tide of wild. The vanishing spaces, the trees and forests, the swamps and the deserts where the wild things still roam, clinging on in the face of civilizations concrete advance, as we become Gnomes in someone else’s garden.

Yet, nature nurtures and waits for the day when we put ourselves to reckless sleep, like Snow White biting apple deep, waits patiently for its prodigal children to return to the wild within and without, a place called home.

Above us is a tree, black barked, old and hoary, with knobs and knots and forget-me-not’s growing scruffy about its glory. It is twisted to our eye, frozen in death, but outside of the fast passage of our time it has barely breathed one breath.

It is patient and it is still young in its stretching, reaching, grasping of life. It has learned to weather the strife by bending and shaping itself to the blowing of the wind.

And the invisible powerful force has learned to mold and rend, to become apart of it not divorced. So all can see that it is real, it does feel, it exists though it can’t be seen except where it will stay… Not all is as we see it to be… A twisted tree is twisting… still.

Drowning in Paradise

White sand, soft as ashes…

Littered by broken fragments of bone like coral, pushed ashore by clear crystal waters which rush in and slosh softly away again. Your feet greet the wet as it rolls in and out, warm washing, hushing and shushing thoughts away. Beyond the rolling rhythm maker, where the water meets the land, all the world is blue. Shallow electric becomes deep Aquamarine, melts into the sapphire of the sky.

You’ve seen this view before, by day and night, those dreams, only you know but we all share, take you there.

Dreams change, nightmares start then fade away again…into the blue.

I watched a man drown today, saw the pressure of water turn his insides outside, heard his girlfriends disbelieving scream trace the passage of his soul.

How much is a life worth, to make us mark it?

Looking back, piecing together the moments that made up his last, I can see the question asked and ended, for me at least, with the news of the plane crash, the invasion of Gaza, and most of all, with a little white cat…

Will you come with me?

There is something remarkably romantic about arriving somewhere via the Sea. One moment you are speeding, wave riding on a jet boat, skimming and smashing through waves, racing past reef breaks and then a slim strip of white smiles across the ocean, topped by a level of green trees. This grows into Gili T, one of three small tropical islands just off the coast of Lombok, Indonesia.

After months in India, the sound of Bob Marley and western dance music thumping out of restaurants and bars is a welcome home of sorts. Bare foot, sun-baked I wander the mud packed road which runs alongside the beach front, dive schools, tourist tat, food places with the same menus, the smell BBQ’s and huge fish caught and displayed for dinner on tables line the road.

My tatty clothes and scruffy hair at sharp odds to the trim tourist crowd, who shop in boutiques on weekend breaks – Backpacking has changed in South East Asia.
A Horse and carts trundle past, their jingle bells a pleasant reminder that here there are no motor horns and that somethings are slow to change.

Later in a packed bar, I do the drunken shuffle to reggae beats. Spinning and dancing and drinking. Surrounded by bikini clad Aussie girls and vest wearing macho blokes. Through the press something catches my eye, in a corner beyond the bar a T.V screen muted in the racket of our enjoyment.

The broken remnants of an aircraft downed over Ukraine, images of masked men with guns and bullet proof jackets in Palestine, the images seem to flick to the beat of the music as a city suburb explodes in a cloud of dust and fire, the screen shakes a little, images of children crying, bodies, bloody and burned being carried into broken down hospitals… a girl flashes her boobs at her friend as they dance past…tanks roll past schools, holes appear in supermarket walls. I look back across the dance floor, see the flash of red disco lights cross faces screaming along to songs twenty years dead.

The following day I am lying on the beach, feeling that sadness, helplessness, outrage of unchanging ways in the world, watching the waves, feeling powerless as the water-drops evaporate from skin, leaving salt stains and me dried out.

A meow, a nudge against my leg. A white cat come to comfort. She fuss’s me for sometime, insistent and demanding as only cats can be and get away with. She comes to my face, rubs her head against the corners of my right eye, walks around my head, rubs her head against my left eye. Was she preempting my tears? Cheered by this little spirit, I watch as she works her way up the beach, towel to towel, fussing sunbathers for moments, then moving on to the next.

Sometime later I stand, brush off the beach and pack things into my bag. I walk along the beach, following the white cat… Will you walk with me?

A hundred yards pass, I see her, little white body brushing up against a girl’s leg…

From the water a cry. A man shouts for help. Someone is trapped below. After a moment of hesitation and disbelief I drop my bag, run to the water and dive in over the coming wave. This is not me. This is a movie?

Twenty yards out, where the water has gone from white to electric to sapphire deep we tread water, four of us take turns to duck down to where the man is stuck, held on the bottom by the jealous ocean, she won’t give him up, he’s too deep. We go down in pairs, head diving, nose grabbing, legs kicking…

…The watery world is silent and clear. Reef and coral, the bones of the new growing on the bones of the old, decorate the floor with patterns of geometric colours, sea fans, pink and purple stand erect by sponges, orange, large and flexing, eels and urchins, fish large and small, blue and yellow striped, green and white, angel, lemon and parrot fish circle and swim by a man, arms slack, face up towards the light, towards me, towards us…a single bubble drifts up towards my face slips past… he’s too deep. Lungs burning we burst the surface hands empty, hearts heavy.

Frantic screams for help, commotion on the beach. A man carries an air tank into the water. Ten minutes have passed. With the tank we reach him, pull his lifeless body to the surface, hold him up and swim for the shore… holding his face to one side, yellow insides poring out… a stumbling run onto the beach, the press of hundreds crowd around to see, a women appears and begins CPR. We form a circle, desperately asking for space, the crowd pushes closer, phones and iPad held high…

to better
moment in…?

Please give him space…

Tempers flare, desperation makes warbles out of voices. The police arrive, push us away, wrap the body in a blanket, the zipped back shuts out the day.

A scream. Of recognition and disbelief. The mans girlfriend falls and collapses. The crowd denied it’s show moves away. The girl faints face down the sand sticks to her face, sand as soft as ash, as white as sun-bleached bone. Someone steps over her.

The four of us who swam out stand for a moment in confusion and failure. One walks past me, I reach for his arm, he shoves my hand away. I watch as everyone goes back to their towels. Two people pick up their bat and ball begin to play. The music is still pumping out of the bars and restaurants. I see a group laughing, see their teeth flash white – a memory of being told that bearing your teeth is a way of showing your weapons, a reaction to danger and threat. I stumble past a bar, three guys are ordering shots and down them with jeers and cheers from their mates. I have a conversation with some shocked faces. Someone is ordering pizza. Someone is ordering cocktails.

I go back to the beach, kneel in the sand. Look at the water that was so pleasurable before, has now become something sickening. I close my eyes as tears come.

See the hand waving in the water as fish from a tank swam past. I see the last breathe bubble float past my face, wonder if as it broke the surface, lost it’s aquatic shield, merged into the air from which it came, did it make a sound?

Did it carry a cry for help? To the faces looking down from above, reaching for him with arms too short, with our hair swirling around our heads, with the reflection of the sun behind us, turning our heads into angel halo’s – did he take comfort knowing someone was there, to care, hard enough to try to reach him?

Was there a whisper in that last bubble? a loved ones name spoken, that it might breach the surface, seek out the desired ear, and reach into that heart to simply say, I thought of you, when my last thought was all I had, I gave it your name.

I Lean my head back hearing the cry of the girl, so loud and primal, so like a seagull from home. I hear it rising, feel it echoing around the corridors of my heart and my own disbelief, grief. Feel it flow out and take wing, see it fly across the beach, above the heads of those who are keeping calm and carrying on. See it fly higher and higher until the land is simply green circles ringed by white, like bacteria on the skin of some glorious, monstrous blue fruit.
Up and on that gull-cry flies, across oceans and hot places to lands of deserts, across mountains of conflict and chaos, lands of fear and hate, occupation and reckless, endless hopelessness and equally shared, inherited homelessness.
It whispers around barren streets, moving children’s toys left abandoned in its passage, blowing through holes in walls decorated with blood of innocence.

It circles and soars, whispering it’s message.

That I was here, that I was someone. I had hopes and dreams and wants and desires and needs. I loved someone once and that was all that mattered.

And now they are gone. Just one human being. Just one life.

On the beach a man had died, I was sure of it. Didn’t I see it happen? Didn’t I hear his girlfriend scream, see her faint face first. Nothing had changed, the music still played and life carried on regardless.

Can one life be so cheap that we look away without acknowledgment? Without trying to reach… out?

Can many?

Something nudges my knee.

The little white cat is purring, rubbing itself against me in that insistent way, only cats can do and get away with.

I close my eyes, shutting out the blue, drowning in Paradise.

Varanasi Part 1- Row your boat, gently down the stream…

Picture me walking towards you across an Indian market by a wide river. It’s early morning and the stalls are empty. My hair is blond, curly and shoulder length. I am wearing a blue t-shirt and knee length shorts. As I come near my smile is replaced by a frown of concentration. I stand with legs wide apart, knees bent, blue eyes straight at you. Suddenly, as my hands mime the beating of a drum, you hear the deep and resonant sound of a drums and symbols playing in time with my hand motions. A huge tambourine clashes as my hands form into a prayer above my head, my arms go out to either-side and wriggle to the rhythm of a sitar that begins to play and the winning of a snake charmers trumpet.

Another pair of arms appear wriggling behind mine and another pair and another pair and another pair.

A base drum sounds once, twice, three times-four, my head drops revealing another person behind me and another and another and another, six Indian men move to either-side of me, each dressed as waiters. We begin to dance in time to the Hindi music that is now in full swing.

The market fills up with people. Women with glittering sarees of purple, green and red carry baskets of brightly cloured fruit singing in high voices. A line of white-robed men with yellow turbans hop and skip their way onto the picture pushing trolleys, singing in deep counter tones. Children run past smiling at you, teeth white, eyes bright, throwing flower petals. Myself and the dances have all dropped low and are kicking our legs out in time to the beat, hands pushed palm out and chanting “ha-ha-ha-ha,” Suddenly, a herd of cows, white, black, yellow and brown come charging from behind you scattering us out of the way.

Once the dust settles, there are seven beautiful girls in sarees of gold and blue who move into the cleared centre space. The music is softer now and the leader of the girls, an especially beautiful young lady, dressed in white and gold sings a song and dances, her maidens twirl their fingers and point their toes mimicking her moves. I roll towards her on to my knees and sing a note in Hindi, clearly entranced. My fellow dancers each roll and sing to one of the girls… Taking note of my t-shirt and shorts she shrugs and skips away, the girls follow her leaving us all crushed.

Then the music picks up again and my dancers produce a large sheet of fabric of spiraled purple patterns that I disappear behind. A holy man hops skips and jumps before you, his brown skin stark against his white beard. He sings a magical word and waves his staff towards the cloth from behind which you can see my clothes been flung into the air.

With a final wave of his stick and a wiggle of his eyebrows, and a rather violent thrusting of his hips, the holy man disappears and I appear from behind the cloth dressed as a prince in white and gold with diamonds glittering in my turban. My fellow dances are each now dressed as rich servants in red and white who follow me and grab you we, conga after the girls…

We dance along the dark and narrow alleyways of the town, between ramshackle buildings, dodging and leaping over dogs and motorbikes, high fiving stall sellers and ducking under baker’s trays laden with chapattis. The girls, led by the beauty in white, conga past us in the opposite direction singing in high whiny voices, ours mid tone, match theirs note for note. A window opens above us; a policeman with a brown face and a huge mustache leans out, grumpily singing about the noise. Above him five more windows open consecutively, each with a policeman older than the last, their mustaches getting bigger and grander and voices higher and higher in note and indignation. Until finally a wizened old head pops out, eyes barely open and sings. Glass breaks somewhere and the music stops. A ball flies through the air and hits the window that smacks the policemen in the face; all the lower windows fall shut knocking each and every policeman back through the windows. The ball falls past washing lines and clothes out to dry to land in my hand. I nod to the band that is huddled inside a shop front waiting.

The music begins again and the seven girls and we chaps following cross a bridge of boats on the river, hop skipping across from boat to boat to the sound of trumpets, sitars, symbols and drums, men in loincloths burst from the water, splashing us each as we pass and mermaids dance and bubbles mutter.

Back in the market place, the whole town is dancing, they lift me and the girl up in a great pyramid of arms and legs, an elephant marches past spraying glitter and rose petals from it’s trunk. The girl impressed with my dancing and new clothes flutters her eyelids and everyone cheers.

In the foreground and quite near to you, a huge tiger is sitting on a stone plinth having it’s paws pampered and nails sharpened by a lovely local girl with doe like eyes. He looks at you and rolls his eyes at my indulgence and extravagance. In the background, un-seen by the cheering crowd a monkey throws a coconut at my head and I fall backwards out of site. The Tiger yawns, then eyes go wide and jaw drops in astonishment as a troop of marvelous mice dance past his feet playing violins.

The Tiger looks at you and shrugs his shoulders…

…I knew I was outside before I woke properly, but wasn’t sure how or why? What I hear before sleep and dreams fully depart are noises normally filtered away by glass and curtain.

Subtle sounds and sensations heard and felt with closed eyes at dawn; The flutter of bird’s wings, the searching tongue and nose of an animal sifting through rubbish, the tightening of my skin and the pulling of my pores as the heat grows. Footsteps, sluggish and scuffing, the yawning of a dog, the splash of a boats oar in water. In the distance a radio turns on, a child cries and a woman silences it with soft words. Nearby someone is washing something, the plunging watery sound is rich and desirable – the roof of my mouth hugs my tongue tight.

The gum that has formed across my eyes slowly tears open. Out of the blur I can see the shape of a man sitting still and cross-legged before me. He wears a robe of orange wrapped about his waist and has a wizened, whitish beard that hangs to his belly is in stark contrast to the wrinkled nut brown of his skin, it’s long tangles fall down together with the locks of his hair to his waist – a Sadhu, a wandering holy man common to the riverside.

We are sitting in the shade of an archway at the bottom of a stairwell made of reddish stone; its coated in the same soft greasy layer of ash that covers all of Varanasi.

He smiles at me, or at least ceases to frown for the fraction of a moment, the deep creasers of his face fold deeper into the recesses about his eyes, he gestures to the right.

Slowly, I turn my head. Before us is the Ganges, grey-blue, still and quite. The red ball of the morning sun, two thumbs widths from the horizon hangs patiently waiting for me to notice it. On the far bank a flock of birds swoop and land on the surface silently. A man stands on his boat in the middle of the river; an oar paused in paddling as he regards the same view. A cloud of incense and hashish blows into my face from the Sadhu’s pipe making me sick.

I try to stand, nausea overwhelms me and for several moments I throw up by my side. My fingers cling to the warm yellow stone floor, as it becomes a wall, ceiling and floor again. My body shakes and what little saliva I have is leaking from my mouth in long strands, a tear falls and splashes in the mess of me.

A dog approaches, or the bare skin and bones of one, it smiles at me both apologetically and with understanding and begins to lick my insides up. I feel, or think I feel someone standing over and behind me; the Sadhu must have come to help. I wave my hand and mumble thanks, but when I swing up right, he hasn’t moved at all. His legs are still folded underneath him in full lotus; his eyes regard me like still water.

I find myself thanking him anyway and apologizing for throwing up so close to his space. From the array of incense sticks and deity statues and pictures it looks as though this is his permanent spot, prime for seeing the Ganges and for being seen by tourists and pilgrims passing along its shore.

After a moment he says something in Hindu, the words roll out his mouth in a babble of noise I don’t understand. Sweat brakes out across my brow and body as I lean back, I look at him through half lidded eyes and try and remember why I am here.

Varanasi Part 2 – … life is but a dream

I wander around the city of Varanasi as the sun begins to set. I am at once appalled and enchanted. It is said to be one of the oldest settlements known to civilisation and I have rarely seen a more magical place. The old part itself is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways created by leaning skeletal buildings that grow out of the bones of those that are rotting in layers beneath.

Here children play cricket in gutters thick with flies and dying animals. Faeces of dog, cow, cat and man mix and patch the floor together.

Dogs, thin and mangy claim any spare space not already taken by cows or passing people. Some lay in dangerous way of the footfall and traffic, as though daring or wishing to be squashed and taken out of the chaos of this life and into the possibility of the next.

The tempo is high and fast. Traders of gold and spices, religious jewellery makers, tourist touts and food sellers all call out from the shadows. Hot plates smoulder and smoke, angry red in dark corners; fried patties and sweet breads fry in oils bubbling on hot coals and gas lit stoves. Men queue in food lines past open urinals bronzed with the stain of ages. In these corridors you breathe through the mouth shallowly.

In the main passages, motorbikes blast their horns impatiently as people pass and go carrying all types of supplies.

Hindu tourists mingle with pilgrims buying flowers or incense for offerings at the cities many temples. Armed police linger at every corner with antique guns and little interest. Chanting and bells ringing call who-knows-who from and to unseen places.

I look around me as the gloom gives way to night. On the stone shelves and doorways; skin and bone people curl up and claim spaces warmed by dogs by day, they use their knees for blankets.

A shadowy form detaches itself from a doorway, trails me asking if I want Heroin, his eyes are hungry with desperation for someone to share the ride he is on. I turn to the shadow, reminded of a former client of mine at the homeless shelter in Earls Court.

He’d had Heroin-numb-tortured eyes with ghosts for veins that tried to hide from him and his unstoppable needle, fading away, day by day. He had nothing left but that hunger. It took everything from him and gave shame and guilt back, trapped on a merry-go-round of self-hate with breaks that could not be oiled. Such is the agony of an addict, our criminalised sick, instead of pain numbed, it’s stored up and delayed for later when in sober thought.

The man asks me again.

“Herion? You want my friend?”

“No.” I say, my British’ness escapes my lips before I can stop it, thanks him though for asking.

He returns to his dark doorway and I seek out the light.

A noise causes me to turn and I step aside.  A troop of men carrying a wooden frame with body on top charge past. The body is wrapped in a shroud that’s come lose about the face, a dead eye catches mine, I do not wink.

I come across a press of people forming what could be called a queue to enter a temple beneath a metal detecting doorframe. The atmosphere is excitable, frantic and threatening to spill over into something more… pressing. It reminds me of the restrained lines of eager and anxious partygoers waiting in lines in London’s alleys or football fans on the way to the ground – Religion Hindu style, it pulses in the veins of those who worship, it is alive and feverish,  a far cry from the empty pews and cold stone churches of home.

As dark and grimy as this city feels it has an authentic ordering to its rhythm, as something that has evolved by process of evolution. Those that walk these corridors have earned their right by fight and survival to be here now in this place, walking the warn flagstones, washing in the river over lives and years, they know how to live this life, a community thriving on the passing-through-pilgrims.

It is in the new city that the contrast strikes hardest. Where the light of politics shines, with its infrastructure and education and a developing style of life.

Once out of the labyrinth I am assailed by the babble of a hundred thousand voices of cars and bikes and people. Taking a cycle rickshaw to the station, I see a man, hair shaggy, curly and wild, he wares nothing but an oversized pair of jeans that he clutches at the zip to hold them up. He walks without seeing or caring across the chaos of traffic. Amazingly nothing hits him. Once across, barefoot and shirtless, he fights off two dogs to scavenge through a rubbish pile – The apex animal going to feast. From nearby getting in line a dog, a horned curve necked cow, a half clothed child that watches with nothing in her eyes, the pecking order established – Modern India making way with no plan for the old.

Back into the wandering winding ways I follow a narrow stairway that leads down to the chalk like water where pilgrims and locals wash, waste and burn bodies in the holy waters. Huge crowds thousands strong gather after sunset. They swarm the Ghats, first washing, then singing and clapping as priests with painted brows, in ritualised movements burn clouds of incense that drift across the water to the accompaniment of chimes, bells, drums and clapping.

I walk away and follow the river to the Burning Ghats passing huge buildings of red, yellow and white stone that crowd the spaces with archways and pepper pot windows.

I reach one as the last of the sunlight disappears. Seven fires spaced out burn bodies. Gangs of family men stand nearby; the presence of women is forbidden since grief stricken wives are known to throw themselves or be thrown on the fires.

To be burnt on the Ganges is to free yourself from the cycle of re-incarnation. The four forbidden from burning are Holy men, deemed already pure, those bitten by a cobra the mark of Shiva and pregnant women and children.

Another body is carried to the water to be cleansed before burning. Fresh wood is stacked to build a pyre.

In the darkness an array of fire-lit faces observe the proceedings. Cows, dogs, goats, all stand interspersed with people bearing witness. It’s like bonfire night crossed with the Nativity – only at the other end of life.

Clouds of burning human and wood billow in the air, sparks fly up into the night, whilst men with hammers break up the ashes and bones left in old and cooled pits.

There is no smell such as I thought, not above the ash of wood and cow dung and human piss. Wherever you turn you’re likely to see a man pissing somewhere in India.

My roommate earlier protested the rule that a tourist isn’t allowed to take a photo at the burning Ghats, yet an Indian can piss near a pyre burning someone’s remains. I ask him how he would feel, if a tourist turned up at his relatives funeral taking photos of him grieving? He asks how I’d feel if he pissed at that funeral? On the river, a boatload of tourists observes from the water, cameras flash like a concert crowd. I feel like taking a piss at them.

After the burning I seek the silence of the river, needing to think, needing to be alone. But a constant barrage of young Indian men approach me, repeating the constant mantra a tourist must first hear, then like an old track on the radio, come to know off by heart.

“Boat? You want boat? Hashish, ecstasy, marijuana, cocaine, DMT, heroin, anything you want, you want something my friend?”

Frustrated and disappointed, must I wear an orange robe to gain some solitude? Supply follows demand so who to be angry at, them or tourists? But this is not Ibiza-India for good times; it’s a place where life meets death, is that the reason sought for escape?

Varanasi is an uncompromisingly honest place and beautiful for it. Illusions we wrap around ourselves in like a shroud are stripped away here. Up close and personal, no amount of makeup, sun-tan or skin lightening cream or designer clothing can disguise you, no air-con, luxury hotel nor status will let you escape the truth of what we are in this world – A temporary, living-breathing thing of flesh and bone and shit and sweat that will pass away one day.

Death cannot be locked in a box, transported in metal and glass on wheels to be buried like a treasure, hoarded for a rainy resurrection day.

Death and Life are the same game, it’s in the room, in the air, in the present moment and those that have gone before and care are free to be in the trees that grow and the breeze that blows away our grief, because once grief passes, Love remains.

Sitting by the river at night I wonder why Indians call the Ganges Mother.

I decide to phone mine.

She asks if I am having a nice time.

I don’t know how to answer, what kind of a time am I having?

In the absence of information, she goes straight to the heart of things.

Are you eating properly?

Was there ever a more pure, sincere and divine expression of Motherly Love?

I wander all night long, until lost and too tired to find my hotel I sit down under a sandstone archway where the Sadhu’s sleep near the flowing river, carrying all its life and all its death.

Sleep comes slowly to a place like Varanasi, it settles down in stages, like a dog walking in circles before finally collapsing. There comes a point where you can hear it snoozing, the soft sigh of wind disturbing dust, the patter of a cats feet, the gentle flutter of a white owl flying between boats. Above the archway stars peek at you from behind ash clouds, checking you’re awake, the red eye-like glowing of the Sadhu’s Charas pipes in the dark watch you too as you drift off, whispering up your nostrils with promises of…

… The sun is rising higher, I can feel the shade retreating across my face.

The Sadhu speaks again to me, a babble of Hindi.

“He says, that it is now you are dreaming.” Nearby a boy sits on his haunches watching me, watching the Sadhu.

I look at the old man. He regards me with those deep, still eyes and speaks again.

The boy translates.

“Now you not awake, the dream begins again. Now you dream is the life, but in life we must be waking up.”

He nods, offers me his charras, I thank him, hands closed together, yet decline.

I look at his turban, thinking about glitter firing elephants.

“It gives me funny dreams.” I say.

Watched by the Sadhu, the boy and the dog, I walk to the waters edge and stretch.

A breeze blows off the water, it ruffles my hair.

I will be leaving this place today, a decision to make by the Mother Ganga.

To the right She grows and flows for many miles more, becoming wider, heavy and pregnant with India’s matter which she pours into the Bay of Bengal.

To the left She washers and waters arid-lands green for miles as She comes down from the Himalayas and somewhere, up there, she must narrow to a stream, a trickle under a single stone from snowmelt.

Shall we seek the end? Where it appears to disappear yet in-fact merely merges with something infinitely greater than itself, opening up into a new ocean of possibilities, breeding a new kind of life.

Or to seek its source and origin and perhaps then in discovering what came before, better understand what comes after?

Which way?

A group of seven girls walk past me along the riverbank in Sarees of all colours. One, a beauty catches my eye. She casts a look over my dust covered t-shirt and shorts and dishevelled hair and continues on her way.

I look at the Sadhu and at the boy and at the dog that all look back at me.

Does it matter which way we go, isn’t life only a dream?

Soul and Surf

Sometimes you need to leave a place before you truly see its beauty, feel its value, sense the hole that it filled inside of you.

As the Rickshaw chugs and climbs its way up the steep, palm lined road, I catch the last glimpse of the home this place has become. Sunlight filters over treetops casting shadows over the stepped Ghats; pea-green ponds of cool waters, where people wash away their day and prepare for the night. The village temple, two thousand years old and rising, clings to the distinct red rock of Varkala, its gargoyles and gods and dogs watch with indifference as we go by and the house rooftops which shelter beneath the canopy of palm leaves seem to slumber as though we were never there, we were but a dream.

Last night I stood in the cliff top garden of Soul and Surf and watched my last sunset over the sea in that place, where the red kites fly and the giant bats haunt the night, where cloud city-scapes pass you by almost in hands-reach and where dreams breach the horizon, caught in the wild wind of the heart and imagination, where the surf sings you to sleep.
Energy collects around particular people-places, then leaves without a trace. The Cafe, now an empty shell, bare and broken down ahead of the monsoon looks sad and alone. I can still sense all the guests and staff busy at the counter, ordering fresh cake and coconut blended juices, yoga slices and fresh chopped salads. I can hear the Hindu beats and the chuckling, excitable singing of the Indian boys, unhurriedly cooking. The garden devoid of its sun-lounges has lost its purpose, lost its soul. The dinner tables, the breakfast bar, the hammocks removed, the reception area with Sunil’s funky, soul-music silent. The entrance where the surf wagon and rusty ambassador sit, the surfboard store-sandy-floor from the beach, clean. Kerala house with its high tilled walls and soft slap of echoing feet… empty. And the space beneath the fig tree where the yoga mats lay and the sessions held in the morning sunshine…

Breathe five; four, and three, hold the position, two, one… Breathe out. Bending, twisting, reaching for toes that no-one seemed to notice or care for before. They are now prizes at the end of the long race up my legs, just out of reach, yet close enough to not give up. Hold the position that would baffle a biologist… dedicate this practice to someone in your life… Knees drawn up, twisting, locking arms and facing back – these are the spaces where we hold our pain caused by others… breathe out… twist and bend… these are the spaces we hold the pain we have caused others… breathe… remember to breathe…

Why am I feeling this pain? It is not inside of me but is it outside of me?

I stood on the rooftop, remembering a dance by torchlight, of an angel moving in the shadows…
Now they are all gone it is as though the world is in a permanent state of dusk. As though denied even the splendor of the sunset, now left simply with the memory of its heat and the remanences of its dying light. Even the dogs sensed the change, becoming at once more irritable and needy by turns. Rupee, keeps the space outside my door warm with her body through the night, keeping others out or keeping me in.

After they left, I tried to summon up the motion to leave the now drab place. But part of me wanted to stay to, until even the locals had left for villages in the mountains out of reach of the floods to come, to become part of the grey, to merge into the rain-rotting furniture, to feel the jungle push through and escape the manicured lawn as the monsoon feeds it’s insatiable appetite, its creepers climbing my legs, passing through my parts, wielding me to the garden chair, keeping me there…

Yet life moves on and you and I must go with it.
India truly is the land of the heart. It beats triple time. Life refuses to be ignored, to go quietly about its routines and rhythms; there are no neat English gardens here. Life is oozing around you. Green and bursting. It flies in your face with a hum and buzz, crawls up your feet, crosses where the vain and bone meet and tickles and bites. Crumbs fallen from your mouth become mountains to be moved by hives of activity and rivers of ants of which a multitude of sizes and colours exist. A splash of honey exposes the addicts, stuck in the mud of sugary heaven, others clamber over the still live but petrified bodies of… friends? Every moment is a new discovery of a creature, insect and plant you’ve never seen or heard of, each as weird and alien as the next.

As with the small, so too with the big. Rivers of people like ants rush through the day, horns beeping, cars and bikes weaving a strange hypnotic dream, a health and safety nightmare. India is an around the clock show, tickets are free and non-refundable – whether you realise it or not, you are part of the exhibition. Hours are passed in the sharing of intimate moments of insight, self realisation. Hope is discovered in the crooks and crannies of each other’s-life’s dark corners. Meaning is chiseled out of the hard rock of our hearts. Every day is a chance to relive your pain and joy, to do it differently, to feel it again. Life is exploding here. It’s like god is ejaculating all over the place and we are swimming in the mess.

Love, it comes along in life, hits you in the stomach. Love comes along in life and punches your nose, love comes into life and twists your nipple and it feels so good but hurts so much too. Love comes along and smacks you in the chops. And you feel that love has had its way with you, Love has moved onto another, passed you by like a cloud. Then Love comes along, when you least expects it and kicks you, really hard in the balls… Bring it on life; let’s see what you have next.

India is Life and Life is love. If you want to know what India is like, it is like love comes knocking in the guise of a stretching wrack. Your pulsating heart is pulled and stretched with all it can take. It hurts, but the hurting helps you grow.

Sometimes you need to leave a place before you truly see its beauty, feel its value, sense the hole that it filled inside of you…that is true of people too. More so than the bits and pieces, the material things… energy flows where people grow, and India is growing inside of you.

Where we are…

Imagine yourself descending a steep stairway that has been hacked out of the raw, red-rock face of a cliff in Kerala, India.

The sea roars its welcome below you; tall palms wave too, their leafy shadows flirt shamelessly between you and the sun, casting weaving pattern-webs that at once cool and entrance. The sun, possessive of your attention, dazzles through the foliage all the brighter.

Your entire skin is present and loud crying in such a way you have never felt before. It’s in direct and constant translation between you and the worlds messengers. Heat, which at once prickles, soothes and sores, ants crawl and tickle, mosquitoes whine and warble their junky need; what you give them is life, what they leave you is lumps, blood-spill stains and a dependent itch to remember them by.

There is the cool of your sweat, slick in your armpits and between your legs, on your face, rolling like tears and smears on your sun glasses, stinging your eyes with cream and all at the grace and command of the burning sun.

Your feet, barefoot and used to the soft caress of wool and cotton, fitted soles of leather and cushioned padding of trainers are now in screaming observance of rock, grit, scolding sand and litter. There are shells and stones too amongst the plastic, glass and metal to dodge. Ye they are now fulfilling their true and designed purpose; to be ambassadors of you to the world, the first contact, the anchoring point between you and the earth.

On tiptoes and steadying hands you clamber across rocks, ruff with pockmarked faces. To either side of you a golden smile of sand stretches wide and welcoming. You hop and skip across the feet-fire sand, burning your soles like coals, into the cool wash of the wet sand and the swirling shoreline.

Waist deep you become at once present, feeling each and every splash and surge, the taste of salt, the seas breath in your hair. The conflict, this mighty war of elements for your attention and affection; Cool skin against hot, fast air against stubborn sand, rolling water against the constant sun. Embracing each, you surrender, lay on your back, float, feeling the lift and loose lightness.

Blue sky, the colour of hope fills up your world.

Lovingly rocked you are in the arms of the sea and sky, with only the sun and wind for company.

If you care to know, the soothing music of the seashore reminds you where the land is.

P e a c e full n e s s

Distantly there is the cry of Sea eagles and Red winged kites with wings the length of your outstretched arms. They swoop and circle in and out of your sight from their nests in the Mars red rock, green covered cliffs, one, three, five and seven. They rule the blue sky until the black of night takes over; then it’s the turn of the giant fruit bats to rule the thermals, rubbing out the stars with their passing.

How did you get here, to this post card paradise? You followed your heart of course. Why else would you dream of red wings framed against a blue sky, whilst you were back in the Spring of England.

You stand, the Indian Ocean drains down your shorts and legs, feet planted deep in the sand of Kerala. You look towards the setting sun, the first star shyly shows itself, we smile together, you and me, because that is how I remember you, miss you and at once feel close to you.

from Kerala with love,

I am so glad you are here.