Dear Girl I Do Not Know: Notes from a field in Yorkshire

The Biscuit ThiefI watch my youngest daughter, the Biscuit Thief as she sleeps in our tent. Her hair, damp with morning dew, smells of last night’s campfire; charcoal, pitch, ash and bread. She breathes softly into the earth while her feet, shaped just like her father’s and blackened with soot, stick out from under the covers.

It’s  a long time since I spent significant amounts of time alone with the Biscuit Thief and I have been hoping this camping trip in Yorkshire will help us bond. In fact, I can’t remember being alone with her since the lonely days following her birth by emergency caesarean when I, numb from painkillers and vacant while a blood-transfusion rioted through my veins, could do little more than stare at her from my hospital bed. I could not feel who she was. I have, if I’m honest, spent the last six years searching for the Biscuit Thief, trying to intuit her; a blind snake belly attempting to sense the rain.

Yesterday, the Biscuit Thief jumped from a tree trunk to catch a branch several feet away. She swung wildly from her natural trapeze, beaming from ear-to-ear as I admired her new-found bravery. She leaped again and again until her hands were raw, her knees were bruised and her elbows greened with grass stains. She watched an owl scoping the dusky fields for twilight mice. She ran wild and free and slept deeply, next to me. We curled around each other like a couple of cashews, two quarter moons entwined.

Today, we returned to London from the wilds of Yorkshire. Returned to the metallic fixtures and melancholy squeak of the local swings, to the tiny space that comprises the Biscuit Thief’s bedroom, and I realize it is just no longer acceptable to me, this shrinking down, this boxing-in of life, of her life.

I know that my Biscuit Thief is in the hollowed-out trunk of the oak, she is in the rocks and clover, the shooting stars and the ankles that ache in the cold morning dew. It is no wonder I find it so hard to find her in the city we call home.

I know so many parents, like me, are torn between the countryside and the city; between the raw and the cooked. What choice have you made and do you regret it?

In Andalucia

Spanish bullBy the time you read this, I will be floating on a lilo in a pool. I will have a blank, can’t be arsed facial expression, like someone whose OD’ed on Botox, been slapped by a fish, and then had a shock.  I will be roasting like a piggy on a spit, slowly browning like the meat gyro up the kebab shop on the Harrow Road. I will occasionally look up from my paperback, its spine melting and pages wrinkling in the heat, and utter the words, “more figs please” to whoever will listen. I will have a sweaty lip ‘tache and clammy nethers, but this is not the point. The point is, I’ll be in Andalucia, Southern Spain, one of my favourite places in the world. Land of the poet I love the most, Federico Garcia Lorca, and, more importantly, home (via La Mancha) of the best cheese ever, Manchego. It’s from SHEEP!

I’ve always had a bit of a ‘thing’ about Spain; it’s been a long-term crush. In my late twenties, I took myself off to University having originally bypassed the whole degree thing, choosing instead to pursue a rock n’ roll life on the road armed with my acoustic guitar and a handful of songs about being dumped. Ultimately, my rock n’ roll years were actually spent in the back of a transit van that smelled of vomit and boys. Disillusioned and practically brain-dead after saying, “Check…1… 2…check 1…2..” for the 35,000th time, I decided to go to back to school and exercise my brain.

My chosen course was a BA in Humanities with Hispanic Studies. Over the four years of my degree, I was immersed in all things Spanish and South American in terms of literature, art, music and language. I spent some time in Madrid. I conjugated a lot of verbs. And I sussed out the many things that pull me in about Spain.

For a start, I love the language. It is BRILLIANT because there is something that I call the verb of diminished responsibility. In Spanish, it is perfectly legitimate grammatically to say, “The car crashed itself” or, “The table broke itself” or, “The wee, peed itself all over the floor mummy”. You can blame inanimate things for human weakness linguistically! Genius!

The hair. Gotta love Spanish hair. It’s everywhere! The men are all, “Ooh, you may look admiringly at my Erik Estrada ‘tache and rest your head on my wiry chest forest while I read you something by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a schmexy voice.” Yes, I like it.

And the women! Those long, black, shiny tresses. Sigh. As the owner of some flaky, brittle, blonde fluff up top, I am so envious of that long, black, shiny hair.

And I love the whole flamenco thing. Yes, it may be a cliche, but stomping around on the earth and shouting is EXACTLY my kind of medicine. I ended up doing my thesis on the Spanish concept of duende which is this intangible thing that happens in flamenco; a cross between frenzy, enlightenment, excitement and an existential moment of realisation about death, sex, love, pain and the futility of human experience. As far as I can work out, most women experience a moment of duende in childbirth at some point, and will tell anyone who can hear it exactly where they can stick their duende, but I didn’t know that when I was in my twenties studying it.

I like the way flamenco as a dance form is directed at the earth. None of this pointy uppy toward the sky stuff or being contorted into a masculine shape like in ballet. Flamenco dancers usually have busts, waists and curves, and that’s just the men! Some of the best female flamenco dancers are bloody ANCIENT and have all the grace and power of fire. They strop around with a pained facial expression like I do at parent’s evening.

And the time signatures in flamenco music, wow. None of your standard 4/4 stuff here. No, time signatures are in things like 78/3, 196/4.8. They make prog rock bands sound like kids with a Casio drum machine when the batteries are wearing down! OOh and the cajon. That big, booming box that is used to beat out the rhythm. That’s what I like. I nice, big, phat cajon being slapped by a hairy man in 78/5  time on a hot, steamy night. I also like the way flamenco embraces musical notes that aren’t generally considered part of the standard music scale. They use quarter-notes, eighths, wibbly-wobbly-in-between stuff that only Andalucian dogs can hear. What’s not to love I ask you?

The wild poppies and the stars. In rural Spain you still get incredible starscapes at night as there is little street lighting. By day in the spring, the wild poppies mirror Orion, Perseus and Cassiopeia on the scorched earth. It’s heavenly.

Everyone has their ‘other’ land do they not? The place where we sketch out a fantasy other life, places that speak to parts of our soul that lie dormant at home. Spain speaks to my wild places; I am barefoot all the time, I eat with my fingers and swim in the moonlight, shedding pounds of London grey and lard.

Where does your heart sing that is not called home?

Musings on Kite Hill: Earth, Air, Marriage and Trees

Kite on Kite Hill

I recently spent an afternoon on Kite Hill, one of the highest peaks of London’s ancient public land known as Hampstead Heath. The Heath, all 790 acres of it, is about as wild as the city gets; unruly tufts of long grass dance upwards to an expanse of rolling sky, pockets of unhindered nature abound indifferent to mower, trimmer and shear.

The view of London from Kite Hill is exuberant; it’s as if the land has embedded the awe of everyone who ever climbed to the top; the summit offers all the comfort of a giant collective sigh. The hill is officially known as Parliament Hill and legend has it that this is where Guy Fawkes planned on watching the destruction of Parliament in 1605. I have always known it as Kite Hill because its topography captures the breeze and creates an ideal location for kite flying. My husband loves this place as do I, so we traipsed to the top of it with our five-year-old a few Sundays ago.

The husband was flying the kite equivalent of an F1 Tornado aircraft, streamlined and breathtaking in its high speed drops and turns. My daughter and I struggled for half-an-hour to launch a kamikaze paper butterfly which is now residing in the ‘shit toy’ pile at home. With her kite launch aborted, my five-year-old removed her shoes and ran off to try and adopt a stranger’s dog and I was left to contemplate the world to the buzz and hum of airborne diamonds, dragons and sails.

As usual, the summer in London was doing about five different weather fronts at once. Ominous sulky clouds petulant with rain hung below fluffier ones skipping along on a different breeze. Sunny fingers pointed down from the heavens lighting up the edges of buildings; glimpses of Mediterranean blue played a tantalizing peek-a-boo with the fug.

Why, I thought, do people fly kites? For me kite flying is an engagement with an element I’m not that comfortable with, air. It’s just so unpredictable! I watch how my husband patiently holds the strings of his kite while it twists and pulls against his grip. I witness the kite’s incredible instinct for pockets of friendly air, for slipstreams to dance in. In my husband’s hands the kite is tugged and repelled into a hissing, buzzing gambol. It is an air dervish.

This is how many a marriage works I think to myself; one partner will have that instinct for air, a chaos in their soul which leads them to perpetually arc and crash. The other will be anchored in the earth, solid and resolute, always catching the falls and admiring the acrobatics. Most of the time it works, this ground to air gavotte. But I know that when a kite tumbles to earth, it can do so with surprising viciousness. Things can turn from joyous dance to broken heap in a moment and it makes me sad to think how many times I’ve seen it. How fragile and how predictable these things are. How incredible it is that the loving intention of one can save both flyer and flown, and how sometimes the only thing to do is let go.

I grew up on the edges of Hampstead Heath and have been walking its paths and feeding its ducks since I born. I have watched saplings planted in the Seventies grow into sturdy kings. If we are lucky, we find somewhere in Nature that provides us with an outer landscape that mirrors our inner world and in many ways this is mine. I am struck by how I have loved in different ways all those whose hand has held mine up on Kite Hill. All those who’s reassuring grip has steadied my course; those who unraveled me and anchored me, and those who let me fly.

I am thinking of my dad’s baseball-mitt sized palms wrapped around a hardback copy of the Observer’s Book of Trees which I still have. Between us, we could identify every genus of tree between the bandstand and Kite Hill; Silver Birches, Oaks and London Planes giving way to shrubs and Rosehips on the upper slopes. When several mighty Elms were felled in an attack of Dutch Elm’s disease, I actually wept.

My little brother’s hands, covered with mud as we raced each other to the top, fire in our lungs.

My arm linked through my best mates’ as we made the trek from our school on Swaine’s Lane towards the running track for the annual humiliation of sports day.

A lover’s hand curled around mine a lifetime ago, and the same hand letting go.

Now up on Kite Hill, my youngest daughter fills my arms with wild bouquets of daisy and couch grass and I lie on the slopes longing for sunshine while kites sing among kestrels.

(Copyright Sara Bran 2011)