the characters that make up the stage

monastery living – day 4 – 6 hours daily meditation.

It’s amazing, this process of coming in to your own life. Of putting on the shoes that have always been yours and wearing them with pride. Tying the laces this time, rather than stumbling over them. It carries with it such pain and yet such sweet liberation alongside it, as you see that it could only have ever been this way, and you’re so relieved to have finally starting making the leap; to no longer be caught in the cycle of fantasy and disappointment that have done so well to obscure the reality for you. This is our life. This day, this hour, this moment. And these people alongside us are the characters that make up the stage, whether we love them or hate them, they are all we have. So all we have left to do is accept the here and now and try to live in it as best we are able. But bugger me backwards how I can avoid it!

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the monastery finds me

Everything is starting to make sense, and it’s making me want to cry. My life coming into sharp relief. How much running there has been. How much time wasted trying to get away from myself. And the reasons why. The sad stillness I find in the spaces, always waiting for me. And eventually you can run no more. Eventually it is time to say ‘enough’. To sit still and to face whatever it is that’s coming for you. And to make friends with it: your own lifetime of stored up loses. To make friends with your own pain and guilt and rejection. To open your heart wide to yourself and say ‘yes it was hard, and yes I can’t change it now, and that absolutely sucks… and I accept it.’ Because I want to start living my life now. In this moment now. To commit to that for whatever it may bring. Because this moment is all there is, and whatever else you think you’re working towards is only a distraction. And so yes I commit again to stepping into my own life, no matter how long it takes. Into this life with all the parts in me I’m ashamed of and want to hide, with all the parts of me that grate and ache and with all my share of strengths and joys. I accept this lot. And I will try and love it. All of it. To stop hating those ugly parts of myself; to turn and to say sorry to myself for these hard judgements I have whipped myself with. And to commit to giving myself a bloody great big bear hug 🙂

And it is with this love for myself, and only with this love, that I am able to love anything else at all. It all starts with us and we stretch out from there, to our partner, to our brothers and sisters and family, to our friends and our colleagues and the people on the tube on the way to work in the morning and, well, to the whole bloody world.

wave

15th April

I can’t get over the waving. We just landed at a dim lit suburban station somewhere on the outskirts of Bangkok. There is a solo Thai guy sitting on the last platform bench. As he catches my eye through the window he waves at me. I wave back (yes you can still actually open the windows on Thai trains) and he beams, which in turn affects me. It’s such a simple moment of shared humanity, and yet it makes me so happy, this rich feeling of being a part of it all together. And the cynic in me can’t help imagine how unheard of it is to wave at stray men on British platforms, and how predictable response (fecking weirdo – what’s he after?). There is none of that edge here, that guardedness. Perhaps it is because I am too different to pose a threat, but I don’t think so. It just doesn’t seem to be in the water these folk drink.

do yourself a favour – miss the train once in a while.

4th April

do yourself a favour – miss the train once in a while.

A close friend of mine once told his grandfather always delighted when he missed his train. It gave him perhaps an hour to himself, stolen from the demands of routine. He made the best of it, refusing to ‘catch up’ on undone tasks, instead simply wallowing in a good book or the Sunday papers.

Today I had to travel to Hualaphong station in Bangkok to catch the night train to Laos. The last time I went to Hualaphong I took a cab. This time I am precious low on Thai Bhats and I need to make them last to the Laotian border. So I concocted an alternative plan. I would take the river ferry to the closest spot to the stationk, Si Phraya, and then trace the canal north from there until I calculated I could not miss the station. I left 2.5 hours for the journey. These are the things I experienced:

Sunset over the immense Wat Arun, the oldest and most magnificent Buddhist temple, seen in motion from then banks of the Chai Phraya; the birdsong whistles of the river-ferry men, communicating across the water in extravagant melody entirely unintelligible to me; robed monks giggling as the waves splash through their fingers over the side of boat; the energetic instructions of a homeless Thai totally negating to to register I didn’t understand a word, although we trundled along with a mixture of hand gestures and my scant knowledge of Sai, Kwa, Na, Lang (Right, Left, Forwards, Backwards); the canal route marker disappearing beneath an intricate winding market of thatched fishermen’s baskets replete with dried fish; and finally a collection of Huckleberry Finn riverside wooden shacks, balanced at precarious angles over two floors, washing strung over the water, the foundations shored up by the might root structures of the tree, the family lying comatose on the sweltering floor around today’s episode of the ubiquitous Thai soap (an chanting fusion sitting somewhere between Dad’s Army and Emmerdale – all Pythonesque eye-brow raising and gross infidelity against a seemingly endless hospital bed background).

I even arrive at the station an hour early, giving me the chance to get shepherded into a local outdoor restaurant, watching the station clock trail the hour over a misty Chang beer and a crispy pork omelette accompanied by stir-fried garlic morning glory (the fantastic name given to a kind of crispy spinach alternative). I am in the habit of judging extended transport waits a tedious bore, but this money saving exercise has been truly delightful.

rats

4th April – evening

The size of the rats on this station are excellent. Proper rolling-pin size. These are the real deal bubonic plague mother fuckers. And they don’t stick to the tracks either. They wing right across the platform at a pace that would probably out do me in a sprint. I wouldn’t like to try.

on the road again

3rd April

the road.

On the road again. Taking the night bus from Phuket to Bangkok. A 13 hour stretch and I find myself strangely looking forwards to it. The sting of heat has ebbed out of the day, the crepuscular light bringing with it a warm embrace as the pavements thrum with memory of the sun’s touch. 3 lanes of traffic stretch out dusty, ramshackle town. I am watching the shift of buildings slope by from the top deck: street vendor carts feeding jocular groups of men after the days work, miscellaneous car part stores and joineries, terraced houses with colonnaded upper balconies, gold and green gilted 12 foot Buddhist minotaurs guarding the red-gabled roofs of a temple – all of this jumbled together like so many coloured marbles in a jar. The road is filled with open-backed Nissan vans, whole families crouched on the floor enjoying the wind, industrial trucks carrying water bottles stacked criminally high, government buses wheezing cheerily through their constant belches, sign-posts in Thai and columns of palm trees in the central reservation. All of it so very foreign to me, giving it that intangible charm. Up ahead a bank of green traffic lights are beckoning us into the dusk. I am listening to Brett Dennen’s excellent ‘Ain’t no Reason’, and I realise it is a perfect moment. What is it, this lure of the open road? Poised between the past and the future, all reconciliations momentarily made and only haze-edged dreams up ahead? Is it the promise of the road not yet taken; the promise that life might just rise up to meet you this time?

in search of a human heart

31st March

I have just finished reading Boyd’s Any Human Heart. What a magnificent homage to life that it is. What a truly wise and tender composition of this journey each heart must take. And somehow, lying here under a palm tree in the space and silent babbling of a long afternoon, it all seems to resonate so much more. Being stuck in the intersections of life seems to make all its workings so much more visible; like renovating a house where all the wiring is on display before it’s chased back into the walls, fizzing and pulsing with the connections it forges through walls and over floors.

And I am filled with a deep sense of compassion for human beings. Of the courage it will take to live, fully. To meet, to share, to risk, to fall, to love, to lose, to mourn. Because whether we know it or not before we start we can be sure that we will lose it all, eventually. For no two lives are going to the same place; we can join the same carriage on the tube, travel side by side, holding hands perhaps. But then one of us will have to get off when we reach our station, which is ours alone. And I think of the pain of seeing those sliding doors close for the last time on the face of the person we have loved, before it whisks them away into their own tunnel; a tunnel that remains forever dark for us. And it fills me with a proud poignancy for those of us who have the strength to take their journey, willingly, despite it all, because of it all. Love comes too easily to the youth, because they are bewitched by the sense of their own immortality, the certainty that their love will indeed ‘last forever’. But how much more noble is it to love in spite of the fact you know you’re signing a contract with heartbreak, and you do it anyway, with wilful abandon. It reminds me of the Japanese concept of beauty, how closely tied to the ephemeral it is, symbolised in the Spring flash of cherry blossom, and how much more beautiful that makes life; that certainty that its own ending is implicit in its beginning. And how the very knowledge of that makes the whole edifice of life shimmer.

how much change can you handle?

31st March

Reactions:

It’s interesting to see how different people react to what I’m doing. What it taps into in them, their own hopes and ambitions, their own fears and insecurities. Mostly the reactions are positive, mixed with various degrees of consternation, depending on how conservative the listener is. Vincent was totally cool immediately. He was half black and his family had come to Les Banlieues of Paris in the last generation. French mother, Caribbean father. He showed no loyalty to France and neither did his brother, who now lives in Canada. Interesting that if this global transience gets into your family veins, it seems to pass from one generation to the next. His ambition was to make short bursts of money and use it to travel as widely as possible, perhaps eventually setting up a chain of restaurants across different continents and moving between them. He told me to take the job in Bangkok, make $70k for 2 years and then ‘you can just fucking go man, for 2 years at least! Daing! You will be a king!’

Sverre, of Norwegian stock, was far more conservative. With his usual stalling, pensive talk, he summed the situation up to himself in chunks: ‘so you just left?… And you don’t have anything to go back to? And you don’t know, at all… where you going to end up? But that’s totally crazy! So it could be Burma or Vietnam or Colombia, you are just waiting to see?… I think that’s brilliant. Crazy but brilliant! In Norway nobody goes anywhere. Sure to travel, but then you start to work, and you settle into the routine and that’s it! Twenty years in your office! So I had to go, you know. To get out, at least for a while. And that’s why I’m in Sydney.’ Sverre was studying International Business for a year or so. That was his adventure, what he needed to do to break the mould, and then he felt he would be ready to go home. ‘At least I will know I did it… I got out.’

The 4 German girls are younger, still at uni, travelling through Saigon. They can’t begin to get their heads round why anyone Western would want to live in this dirty, bustling, decadent, other-worldly metropolis. They just keep saying on loop: ‘so you really want to live in Saigon? Really really? But why?’
‘I don’t know. Why not?’ is perhaps not the most helpful answer I could have given. It’s still outside their frame of reference, it’s too wide and too daunting, this huge potential of freedom we have in our lives. You can only really digest it one small bite at a time.

Heiko is a fellow teacher in a rough school in Freiburg, southern Germany, teaching the delinquents. ‘So you just quit and came out here? With nothing? No security or anything? To try and get a job and see what happens? Wow! And it has worked out for you, yes? You’ve found a job? Wow! So that’s lucky.’

I have posted on Facebook that I’ve just signed a contract to live and work in Saigon for 2 years. The responses are intriguing. 45 or so people like this. About 3 times like most things I write. So what does that tap into in them I wonder? The comments are interesting too:

Kat: Nutter 😉 x
Lea: 2 years??
Rob: sounds more like a sentence
Charlotte: Jeez little cuz!! Very exciting. You’re really one for the BIG decisions aren’t you?? Another adventure #Supercuz!
Karen: Good for you. I’ve got a bit of an itchy foot myself and love hearing of people taking off. Coolio!
Nina (Berlin): Bloody hell, are you serious? Little jealous, as it must be absolutely stunning in Thailand and cause I wish I had a tiny wee bit of your spontaneousity;-). But mostly extremely happy for you, Will, congratulations! What amazing news!
Vera: wohoooooooooo!
Jason: rolling deep Will. id expect nothing less young fella m’lad!
Sam: If in a couple of years there’s a whole load of Withnails coming out of Saigon, we’ll know who to blame! Good luck, mon brave. Will come and find you before you get too Martin Sheen. x
Keith: Bro I am so proud of u, gonna miss u man x
Felix: Felicitaciones!

To be clear I don’t put these down to celebrate this move as some kind of an achievement. I don’t think leaving home constitutes any kind of success, whereas staying is some kind of failure. Not at all. But it’s fascinating to me so see what deals with chance people are prepared to make in their lives.

big trouble in little brain

People pictures:

Lisa is living in the bungalow next to me. Or she was until she moved because it wasn’t private enough. A nest of four bungalows in a wood, 50 yards from an empty beach. When I meet her she is painting a watercolour, but curiously it is not of the view she is sitting in front of. ‘Yeeeaahhhhh, I trieed to draw thaat, but I just caaan’t help painting the seaaa, wheerever I am’. Everything she says is drawn out in a kind of whimsical sing song. To be honest I can’t even make the sea out in her painting, such a turgid clash of greens and browns and blues it is.

She is a drama teacher. Well, a kind of self-styled drama teacher who’s been volunteering in a local Thai school for the last 8 months. And she is dramatic in everything she does. The first time I meet her she is recounting how violent the UK is by telling a tale of when she was mugged and beaten up by 2 women. I am surprised to find myself agreeing with her point about English aggression, though I have to say I have never seen a woman beat up anybody, let alone a gang of them. She is throwing her head around, tousled hair flying into her green curry, enacting being pounded on the pavement. Despite it’s drama you can tell that no one at the table is very affected. It just doesn’t ring true. Stella says she has worked in a bar in Clapham for the last two years and felt perfectly safe. ‘Yah, but that’s clapham love’ she drawls, hinting at some rough end-of-tube district she’s unhappily ensconced in. I catch Johanna’s eye to see if she will add her own London experience but she shakes her head vigorously at me.

I confess to her I have forgotten her name from our bungalow meeting. ‘Oh and I yours, darling. Your name is a complete irrelevance to me.’ People laugh and she realises she may have been rude, so she continues ‘oh not just your name, darling, all names! What does a name say about who someone really is anyway? I mean who really needs a name?’ This is more than German Peter can handle, who flatly answers ‘this is how you know someone is talking to you. Without names, it’s just a mess’. ‘Ha! Germans…’ she giggles conspiratorially, but she doesn’t find any eyes to share it with.

At breakfast she orders from the sweet elderly matriarch of the guest house, who’s only English is ‘No speak English’. She is trying to explain that she wants the fruit on the side of her fruit muesli. She gets two separate plates to mime putting each substance on each plate. Shortly after the lady returns with a large fruit plate and a bowl of muesli. She asks how much it costs and gets told the muesli is 40 Bhats and the fruit is 40 Bhats (2 quid total). But yesterday she paid 60 Bhats for a bowl of fruit muesli, and she didn’t expect to pay more for an extra plate. Again employing the delights of mime she gestures at some length that she wanted the original ‘fruit muesli’ divided as it was into ‘fruit’ and ‘muesli’. Now she has a far larger plate of fruit and bowl of muesli, but that wasn’t what she was asking for. She is trying to communicate that they can take half the fruit and muesli away and she will pay 60, but the lady is only getting that she wants to pay 60 and keeps repeating ‘No! 80 Bhats!’ She decides to take it to the manager and Seh comes over, the most chilled human-being alive, and adds his laconic glaze to the repeat show of spinning fruit plates. It’s more than I can bear. I go over, pick up both plates, tell her I will buy them and she can start again. She stares at me dumbfounded. But now, every time I order my favorite fruit-muesli, I get a separate bowl of muesli and a giant plate of fruit for twice the price. Somehow I can’t ask them to do it differently.

I am discussing this with Marshall (awesome yankee-stoner-climber-drifter dude) and he recounts a scene from his breakfast with her the next morning. Lisa has been doing her laundry. Well, she’s been putting it in to get done. It’s come back and her red bra and dyed her underwear pink. Disaster. She is outraged. Although the tone in her voice is more disappointed, let down somehow. Again she is speaking in English to the lady who speaks no English. ‘But surely you know that you have to separate! (I have a feeling this lady will learn that despicable word). You can’t wash white and colour together! You must know this! You’re a mother! How can a mother not know this!’ At this point Marshall says he fixed her a country stare that ‘put a cork in her blowhole.’ Marshall is the strong, silent and hairy type. A porch sitting, Deep South reflector who doesn’t declare his views on much, but when he does they are absolute and unequivocal. ‘I didn’t have to say nuttin’. She jus’ nu’. I spent the afternoon getting stoned with Marshall and Rand, and everything silence is filled with a spinsterly English accent ‘But you’re a mooothherrr!! You should knooooow these things!’

She left this morning, for a bungalow in a second hostel about 100 meters away which is 50 Bhats cheaper and 5 Decibels quieter, although I imagine the cicadas make a fair old rumble in the jungle back there. I wonder if she’ll complain about that? At lunch though, she comes back, to take advantage of our free wifi. She doesn’t buy a drink.

catch me if i fall

29th March

Woke up this morning thinking ‘JESUS MOTHER FUCKING CHIRST, WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING!!’. And nearly got myself a gun. It was 6am and my mind was racing. Leaving everything and everyone I know for 2 years at least. Moving to an Asian mega-city of several million shooting stars, seething with prostitution and decadence, buzzing and beeping with a myriad of mopeds. Feeling like I’m free-falling into a void of unlimited isolation, can’t stop the tumble, control just a distant memory. Terrifying. Keep still and try to sleep. Forget about it. Think about it tomorrow.

Somehow I do sleep and I wake 2 hours later in a totally different space. It’s like gravity has been reversed and the free-fall has simply slowed to a standstill. I’m floating, calm, observant, speculative. It’s amazing this desire for control I have. To fend off the unknown, to know as much of reality as possible before it actually happens, constantly seeking the numbers of life’s canvas so i can just apply the colour. But why? Why as a species do we so often plump for ‘the devil we know’ when it is precisely because we know it that we can say with some certainty it won’t make us happy; it will almost certainly never make us happy? Surely this is the real insanity? Surely we should try almost anything other than stick with a losing ticket?

Later I swim in the sea and think of where I’ve come from, the choices Ive made and the places I’ll be going to. It makes me a little proud of myself, and it makes me glow with an anticipation for the future, with a Gallagheresque ‘let’s have it!’ I summersault backwards and forwards, punching the water. Odd thing, to celebrate your life alone, but then somehow also so together, cocooned by the warmth of the tropical sea and the sky. I want to whoop for joy, for victory, but still Britishly fear the derision of the tourists on the shore. (Ha! Still imprisoned in my self-consciousness, even in a moment like this). I realise I am so fucking alive right now. I don’t know what will happen. I don’t want to know and that is the very thing that is fuelling me. That sense of ‘who knows where we’re going, but jump on for the ride; it’s going to be an adventure!’ And just heading out, your lunch on your back and a skip in your step.

It is dark. I am sitting on the balcony of my bungalow alone, watching the full moon carved up by the palm fronds. I’m listening to Keane’s ‘Somewhere only we know’. It is a perfect moment. I realise I am starting to have faith. To abandon myself to the current of life and see what patterns it has in store for me. And it feels like the beginning of a most momentous release. The letting go of all that exertion that has gone in to trying to ‘will’ the future. I’m reminded of John Lennon’s ‘Life is what happens, while we’re making plans’. And I smile, realising today I have freed a small part of myself. Given over the mantle to some other hands, feeling like if I play my part, if I let myself fall back, then they will catch me.