I use my brain for a living, so it’s funny how ideas pop into my head when I’m not actually trying to think. One of my ideas was to go on holiday in Mexico. Well, I figured I deserved a holiday after the cosmic butt-kicking that has been my life of late! I canvassed a few mates, made some enquiries and before you could say El Jimador, we were lying on the Yucatan peninsula soaking up rays and enjoying the life aquatic!
I usually travel alone, so it made a welcome change to be sharing cocktails at Miami airport with an old friend and getting to know the locals when we arrived. Another friend arrived. We spent the week talking about cats, philosophy & things that didn’t really matter. We shared the things that did…We hired a car and drove when and where we weren’t supposed to. We swam in a lagoon filled with tropical fish and the odd Barracuda. We saw sea turtles and watched a mother lay eggs in the sand, and another clutch of babies battle their way into the sea. We went snorkelling in underwater cenotes. We developed a taste for ceviche and habaneros, washed down with frozen Margueritas. We explored the ruins of an ancient civilisation, and saw the ruin created by a modern one. Blissful!
One of my holiday habits is to write a postcard to myself. I jot down 3-5 resolutions to remind me of how I felt while I was away, and what I want to achieve when I return home. Just when reality bites and you have to go back to being a grown up, your postcard arrives to cheer you up and boost your resolve. This time, although I bought the card, it remains blank. Perhaps I haven’t thought of what I want to accomplish, but I think it’s blank because after reaching a ripe old age, I’ve accepted that life is mysterious and challenging. It ebbs and flows like the ocean.
In Mexico, our past was in another country, our present in a place filled with colour and sunshine. Our future…well, a bit like the writing in the sand that gets washed away by the tide… that’s unwritten. Perhaps that is how it will stay.
Today I went for one of my habitual walks on the beach. These walks are usually a solitary pursuit – time to myself to think and not think. Wind, waves and the yearning cries of the gulls and guillemots. On my part of the coast,the forbidding British Winter has granted us a sunny reprieve – it’s been clear and crisp – blue sky, and so icy that the seafoam has frozen and the chalk cliffs sparkle with frost. Beautiful, but only crazy people and dog owners are out on the beach. And me…
I must confess I have always been a cat person. However, since dogsledding in Finland I have returned home as a husky whisperer (yes, I know what you are thinking, but no…I don’t have a premium phone line. If I did I’d be stinking rich and living in Hawaii!) It’s just that somehow I’ve acquired an affinity with dogs. I don’t know how. Or why. Perhaps they have an affinity with me… probably more like it, because judging by my personal life its the mutts and the strays who think they have a chance…
Anyway. I’ve noticed something really odd on my walks along the beach. Dog owners, who are of course a breed unto themselves, keep chatting to me. Now in and of itself, that would not be weird (It’s England after all and everyone talks to you)…but they all stop and ask where my dog is…like I have a dog! Car keys? Check!… Ipod? Check!… Attitude? Check?… Canine…erm, no!
When they ask me, my defense is to say that I am walking my dog of special breed – the ‘invisible’ dog. Of course this is patently an excuse, as it’s perfectly clear I’m walking myself, but it seems to keep the dog owners happy. And their dogs don’t mind either. I’m even contemplating carrying a tennis ball and a leash – just to look the part!
Still, I can’t help wondering if they see a ghost dog. An invisible mutt. Now I just need to work on the invisible man. Ha! That leash may come in handy after all.
A few years ago, I bought a piece of land on the West Coast of South Africa. I did it on a whim. Actually, I had a really frightening experience flying over the Pyrenees (our plane hit clear air turbulence and dropped 300 ft in 3 seconds). I wasn’t ready to die with a bunch of strangers, and somehow, having a stake in African soil seemed like the right thing to do in case it ever happened again.
The West Coast has been described as a high-speed connection to your soul. If you know it as I have come to, this is absolutely true. I’m not the first person to fall madly and truly for the light that brings clarity of thought and peace to a restless spirit. Endless white beaches where you can walk for miles without seeing another person. The Benguela current that runs deep and icy along the shoreline, giving winter fog and cerulean sea (sea that is still cold enough to take your breath in summer). Semi-desert scrubland that reveals little of the Khoikhoi and San who were the first people to live here, but that nevertheless explodes into bloom when the spring rains kiss the earth in September. It’s a wild and stunningly beautiful place.
And when – as now – the choices I’ve made begin to get to me (living in a cold country amongst strangers), my thoughts draw me back there. Little and often. Constant. Constant. They say that once this part of the world has crept into your heart, it will never leave you…
I’ll be returning there this year.
My bike has spent seven years rusting in the side return of a Victorian semi. I bought it on a whim, rode it once or twice and then when the incentive (who was also the person who convinced me that cycling would be a good idea) took a left turn and never came back, the bike sort of stayed where it was.
Everytime I looked at that bike it reminded me of all the horrid things that happened in that relationship, but more than anything else, it just reminded me of failure. My failure. How stupid I had been to let someone that ego-driven and selfish into my life – and by mistake. It was a totally unintentional sort of thing. The incentive (tall, dark and handsome, of course) invaded with ease and charm. I regret that he got past my defences so easily. I regretted that bicycle too, but I couldn’t bring myself to give it away.
When I moved house, the bike moved too. Funny really, because a lot of things that were more loved, were left behind and didn’t make the journey down to the coast. The cat, for instance. After the move, when I was unpacking, I found a list I had written at the beginning of this year. It said: ‘get bicycle fixed’. It might as well have said, ‘mend broken heart’. So I did. I wheeled the rusty, decrepid thing down to the bike shop and asked the nice man behind the counter to take a look and see what could be done to repair the worn tires, adjust the rusty gears and stop it from squeaking when it went over a bump.
Two weeks later, that bike is fixed. Shiny, non-squeaky and fast as lightning. We went for an inaugural ride along the beach today. Like most people starting something new, I wobbled a bit at first. Then somehow the sea and sky worked their magic. The wind blew, the bike flew. And as we passed the regular dog walkers, anglers and pensioned perambulators I felt a sneak of happiness.
Over 200 years ago, Blake, in his Auguries of Innocence, wrote ‘To see a World in a Grain on Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour’. I think what he meant was that the secret of happiness does not reside in grand sweeping moments, but rather is to be found in those small, still moments of intimacy that modern life does its best to stop us from noticing.
I’ve moved down to the coast, and I’m fortunate enough to be in an area where there are both brutal landscapes (industrially attractive shingle beaches, rough-hewn piers) and wild spaces (cement sea, greenery and white cliffs). I grew up in the Cape which probably has some of the best beaches in the world, but somehow my rough little patch of SE England has beauty all of its own. It’s an under-rated place – like the shy girl in high school who looked a bit nerdy and then turned out to be a beautiful swan, or the woman whose sense of humour helps her to laugh at what it prevents her from having. It needs time – and courage – to be appreciated. It also needs patience – noticing that rare seaside plant or beautiful butterfly when walking on the Leas, seeing the possibility in newly harvested fields with rough, stubbly remnants of crops, and hearing the seagulls and guillemots and ring-necked doves greet the morning… along with the high speed train and the ambulance rushing to the local hospital!
Despite being a non-believer, I know that I believe in the god (or goddess) of small things. In life, as in business, its the small things that really matter. A warm smile, a lovely day, a beautiful autumn scene – that man on the tube who gave me his seat, my coffee shop guy in the station who greets me like a long lost friend, even though he does not know me, the local shopowner who was kind and comforted a distressed nine-year old by calling her mother, the optician who gave me a discount and a free eye test just because he could. Small, but important things.
Having moved from a massive city to what I would term the coastal boondocks, it’s been an adjustment, but its also been a pleasure. Don’t get me wrong – in my small pocket of London where I used to live, my neighbours were fantastic. I miss them. But I also know that the people in my pier-side town have restored my faith in the little things.