Not many people know that I ever wrote books, and even fewer would know or care that I stopped writing them. Fewer still would be interested to know that in spite of stopping, I decided to un-stop long enough to write one more about why I had stopped—which might seem the height of tautology, or self-delusion, or hypocrisy, or narcissistic self-absorption perhaps. But I’m glad I did, no matter if it’s self-contradictory. Here’s why.
One night at the tail end of August, when I was twelve years old, there was a thudding on the back door of our summer home, a dilapidated cottage up the Cherwell Valley north of Oxford, England. Our mother opened up, and we heard her cry out in surprise and delight. It was a rainy night, and we gathered round to see what was going on.
“Come in, come in,” Mum called, and out of the weather stepped a windswept heap of a man wrapped in a damp, hairy overcoat, with two dogs at his heels. I guessed it must be Speedy.
We’d all heard of Speedy, and even caught glimpses of him on the far side of fields in his shaggy greatcoat the same color as his spreading ginger beard. Staff in hand, he’d be pressing along, the dogs weaving in and out of hedgerows in his wake. But I’d never seen him up close before, face to face.
He appeared in the valley each spring, putting up in the ruined mill, hidden in a lonely stand of giant willows. That place had an atmosphere. On sunny evenings it was enchanting. On dark afternoons it was ominous, with the long willow wands stirring at cross purposes, hissing like the ocean.
Speedy spent his winters on the south coast of England, where it was warmer. No one knew how it was he started coming to our valley, but every spring he would show up. No one minded, not even the farmers, even though he used his dogs, a terrier and a lurcher, for hunting rabbits and moorhen. He was a dab hand at smoking pike, which he hooked from the canal, and he buttered up the village women by bringing them yellowish sides of oily, smoky fish. Mum was thrilled when he brought her some.
This was the mid-1970s, when there were still bona fide tramps stalking the byways of England, old-school “men of the road” such as had been beating the footpaths for at least a century, or maybe much longer. We’d heard of tramps, with a mixture of fear and fascination.
The autumn evening Speedy rapped on our door, rain was lashing down. He stood under the little porch, his hairy coat dripping. He brushed himself down, opened up his front, and pulled out a little puppy.
“Well, you did say,” he said to Mum, and wheezed out a laugh.
“Oh yes,” she cried, in a mix of delight and nerves, and ran off to the kitchen to put together a bag of food, beer, and tobacco for him, as well as a banknote from her wallet.
While she was gone Speedy looked down at us kids. We’d never seen a face like it. First off, hidden between his beard, hat, and hair, it was hard even to see his cheeks. Then when you realized you were looking at them, it was a shock to see skin so ruddy and chapped that it looked more like animal hide. Then you landed on the eyes, shimmering, alive. They shocked you when you stole a glance at them, there was so much life and light in them. It was like having a wild animal in the room.
“So then,” he asked, “which one of youse’s she going to be?”
At first we didn’t know what he meant. His voice was a growl somewhere under his coat, and we couldn’t make head or tail of his accent—it was more like thunder heard two valleys off than speech.
“Eh, then?” he prompted us.
“Wha-at?” my sister asked hesitantly.
“Oose’s she gonna be? Yours or yourn?” he asked in a singsong.
“Oh,” we said as we both got it.
He was holding out the trembling puppy, yellow-brown, with a dark shining snout, like a baby African hunting dog, with black eyes that gleamed at us eagerly.
Even once we were understanding him, Speedy’s voice still sounded strange and muffled, yet the words rang clear in his body. You could understand him better if you listened to his chest.
Speedy didn’t have a home, or kitchen, or bedroom. He basically just had himself. That and the land. He was at home anywhere.
“Who’s gonna yold her first then? Reckon it’ll be you,” he said, handing the puppy to my sister.
Mum came back in with the bag for Speedy, and he said, “Much obliged, ma’am.”
We’d never heard anyone call her ma’am before.
“Thank you,” she said politely, and we sensed that he was somehow important. He stood up stiffly and was off, into the night and the rain, his dogs at his heels.
By the time Speedy walked away that night, I realized there was another way of being human. It was unlike anything I’d known. It was as if the room itself had just been shocked, and a stunned peace fizzed among the furniture. An aliveness that was new, and not my own, welled up inside me.
An idea bloomed: the land itself could be your home. We were earth-born creatures. Why shouldn’t one be at home anywhere on earth? Just like Speedy and his dogs?
The next year happened to be 1976. It was a summer that would go down in British history, when haytrucks spontaneously burst into flame and traffic backed up for hours on the roads, when reservoirs ran dry, and in our valley the fields hardened into rustling savannas, and the cattle-trod mud either side of gates fired into terracotta. The woods turned dark and serious under the dome of natural sky, as if for the first time tasting a maturer life long denied them.
It was also the summer we got to know Speedy for real. He befriended us and taught us some of his tricks. How to make a snare out of garden twine and set it on secret rabbit paths. How to catch and smoke fish. He told us of his winters on the south coast, his life on the open road. Roped in his hairy overcoat, stringed into his boots, he liked to sit still and watch things, he said. You could learn a lot if only you just sat yerself still. Everybody else, the whole world, is rushing about all day long, they don’t have time to learn nothing, if they just stopped still a moment they’d be amazed what they’d learn.
He also talked of old roads that crossed the length and breadth of the land. These days, people didn’t know how to find them, but they were plain as a pikestaff if you knew what you were looking for, he said. “Most people can’t see the ghost roads”—another name he had for them. “They only show theyselves once you been walking a lot.”
We didn’t know what to make of that. But the open road was real enough. Speedy didn’t have a home, or kitchen, or bedroom. He basically just had himself. That and the land. He was at home anywhere. He was his home.
All through that long, hot summer we imitated him, slinging on backpacks stuffed with sleeping bags, tea, and bread, wandering the local valleys and hills, sleeping rough under the stars, drinking sweet tea made with stream water over open fires. There was a small, changing group of friends who would join us. We felt we were starting to live. We had also discovered the old poets of China by then, who wandered and wrote elegies to lost friends, to wine, to the gorges and cliffs among which they roamed. We dreamed of becoming wanderers, vagabond world lovers like them, finding every day a new life in the contours of the land, chasing the scent of a fulfillment always just out of reach.
All the above—that’s one story, one version. There is another.
Often I felt my body hadn’t been made for this world at all. I was born into burning skin, a nettle shirt. At school we learned about the mythological beast Typhon who lived under the volcano Etna. That was me. I lived in a volcano. Or else a little Typhon lived inside me, belching sulphurous steam that worked its way out through my skin.
They called it eczema, which meant “boiling out.” Bubbles appeared under the dermis and epidermis, broke open into the air, and the itching, weeping, bleeding and so on followed. When my family was living in Oxford, the doctors often sent me to the Radcliffe Infirmary, where I’d lie in crisp sheets through days of lonely relief, feeling numb and safe. When I was home, the district nurse came daily to lay me on a towel and bathe me in antiseptic solution, which smelled like toffee, then wrap me in coal-tar bandages of gray, wet clay, which smelled like chalk.
Because of those old poets of Tang Dynasty China, I decided I had to be a writer. By nineteen, by hook or crook, eczematous or not, I had written my first book. By twenty-four, after a minor breakdown, after a series of “cutting-edge cures” for the eczema—goat milk, chamomile tea, marigold tinctures, kinesthesiology, bioenergetics (the more maverick the cure, the more scientific-sounding its name)—all of which had resulted in immobilizing body-wide flare-ups of the affliction, I was lost in a labyrinthine PhD thesis on Homer and was simultaneously slowly dragging myself through revisions of the book.
Eczema doesn’t only mark the skin. It imprints the psyche. The shame runs deep, clever at reinforcing itself. A stranger’s glance across the street, a brush-off by a teacher—shame looks for shame. The despair can be intense, because in spite of the doctors’ predictions, the disease never seems to end. Year after year you keep passing the landmarks by which it should have left. Every time you think it’s withdrawing, back it comes. And the inaction, the repetitive dead-ends, the self-thwarting that seems to make a kind of sense when your skin is so sensitive and unhappy, when the very air you breathe makes it seethe and convulse—eventually they take their toll. I got depressed.
But finally, out of desperation, I found my way to what really lay behind the old Chinese poets’ lives and work: meditation. A number of them, including Han Shan, had practiced Chan, or Zen. They sat still each day. They let their minds dissolve into the clouds, empty into the river. A bit like Speedy said he had done.
By then I needed it. I got myself trained in transcendental meditation, hoping to follow their example. And it actually started to help. Gradually the daily sitting calmed my nervous system, cleared my mind, and in the stillness, the internal ravages of the disease began to dissipate and release themselves. The slow growth of inner well-being began to “knit up the raveled sleave” of my skin. It’s a long story, involving healers, therapists, doctors, and some wise masters, but I learned and healed enough to finish the original book, land a contract for a second, and get out on the open road as the traveling writer I had wanted to be. For the best part of two decades, I traveled and wrote. And meditated. Move. Write. Sit. Travel books, poems, articles, novels, novellas. It was awesome. The books never became bestsellers, but prizes and awards came, and the publishers kept offering optimistic advances that bankrolled my strange life. Seven books later, deeper in meditation than ever, married, the momentum of roaming finally easing up, settled in New Mexico, while teaching at a college for Native American students and training under a live Zen master (Joan Rieck Roshi), something else happened, outside all calculation, that didn’t fit at all with my plans.
It had only been a matter of time. I hadn’t realized meditation was a time bomb waiting to go off. It’s a story for another day, but I dropped into the fringes of what those Zen masters and poets of long ago had found. “Body and mind fell away,” as one old master put it. “I fell into the midst of all things,” as another said. Personal agenda evaporated, the drama and story of “me” sloughed off, and a new kind of life emerged, born of a wide silence that pervaded the world, in which all things fizzed with a great peace.
Not all of us want or seek “awakening,” and it was an accident that I stumbled on a path toward it, but when I had a small taste of what it might be, the relief was indescribable. The sense of freedom, joy, love, the concern for others—all were a kind of sanctuary, a resolving of the conundrum I had felt life to be, worth every ounce of effort to find. And at that point, the writer in me vanished. The nub or node or burr in my ribcage that had been with me as long as I could remember, which I identified as the source of the writing, full of angst and hope, yearning and pain, from which the phrases came—it had gone. And I didn’t miss it. For the first time, I didn’t have to write. That simple fact was like a soft rain falling in a dry land.
I got myself trained in hospice care and started tending people in their last weeks of life. I drove down to the prison on the edge of Santa Fe, where I live with my family, to lead inmates in meditation. My masters appointed me a junior Zen teacher, and a different way of life began. Somehow I had morphed from a troubled, restless writer into a—well, a less troubled meditation coach. Peace became a way of life. I never could have imagined such a possibility, yet here it was.
It was several years down the road that chunks of prose started appearing during my morning sits. Instead of letting them float by, I kept a pen and pad at my side and scribbled them down, mostly as a way of deflecting them, I thought. An old unease stirred: was this a book coming? Was I going to get caught up in all that again—sales, shortlists, the literary pecking order, the elation and despondency, the servitude to a demanding muse? Silence was better, kinder. But the prose kept coming, and one day I mentioned it to a friend, who asked to read it, and without thinking I let him, and he passed it on to an editor, who told me I had half a book and when could she read the rest. And it dawned on me that even a book could be done in a new way, not the old. Instead of being part of a general craving, it could be an offering, a gift, a contribution, not really my own anyway.
As a kid there had been few things I dreaded more than writing thank-you letters. The sense of reluctance, of drudgery, was so intense it made it hard to think of anything to say, even about gifts and treats I had relished: somehow the pleasure there ought to have been would drown in duty. But when I realized what this new book really was, it became the most joyous task, worth trying to do as well as I could. It turned out I did have something more to say, and here was my chance to say it. Many remarkable people had cajoled and coaxed me along the path over the years. The manuscript turned into 300 pages, but really it was all just one word, for them: thanks.
Adapted from One Blade of Grass: Finding the Old Road of the Heart, published by Counterpoint Press © 2019.
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