Tag Archives: travel

Tools for being human, part nine: Cooking and eating with others

Hostel eating

In my childhood, meals were consumed eye-to-eye. The family sitting, circling the table, forks and knives hovering under conversation. Even Friday-night fish and chips were elevated, the hot paper-bound bundle of deep-fried all-sorts steaming the glass table-top. Tomato sauce allocated in five small dollops. Buttered bread in a leaning tower. No TV, no radio, no tapping sly LOLs to mates under the table.

In the warmer parts of the Mediterranean, an evening meal with family might last for two, three hours. In our house it was usually forty-five minutes. Three-quarters of an hour of noisy retellings, prompting questions, and arguments over who had found the most chunks of toffee in their ice-cream. Then at around 6:48pm Mum or Dad would check a watch, and table clearing would begin, just in time for the marine weather forecast.

Food was the thing that unfailingly drew us together as a family, but in many ways it was the winds that were responsible for what ended up on the table. My father loves, loves, loves the sea. He worked any number of jobs, but his default workplace was between lapping waves and sandy seabed, hunting out the ocean’s bounty. So between 6:51 and 6:57 there was a communal silence as predictions were made. Light variables, Southerlies dying out overnight, squalls,  gusts and gales.

If the conditions were favourable, my brother, sister and I knew we’d be bundled up in the back tray of the Land Rover, sliding back and forth amongst the fish boxes and dive lungs. Most of the seafood limits were on a per person basis, so the three of us plus Dad meant twenty-four crayfish. I ate a lot of crayfish as a kid. Fortunately Dad knew a lot of the Greek and Italian families that had been drawn to Wellington’s rugged south coast. And seafood to them, was like cigarettes to the imprisoned. So after a day in the sand we’d park up outside garages and kitchens, having our cheeks pinched by enthusiastic Nonas as the trades were done. Prosciutto for cod, baklava for shellfish, wine for scallops.

If say an eighth of my early years were spent on beaches and bays, then another eighth must have been spent in the kitchen. My father was trained as a chef, in a fancy hotel, by men who ranted in French. It was only natural to him, to spend time with us in the kitchen, teaching us to make pastries, sauces and casoulets. He had a library of faded French cooking manuals, but he taught us that the best meals were made from simple ingredients, drawn by hand, from land and sea. Fresh mushrooms from an absent farmer’s fields, cooked in cream and thyme. Butterfish cooked on an open fire with a little butter and a few capers, as the tide creeps stealthily away.

My first experience cooking in a commercial kitchen was beneath an 800 year old church in Cambridgeshire. I worked, ate, drank and played with a mix of central Americans, Europeans, Australians and Brits. A delicious blend of accents, cooking traditions, and ways of interpreting the world. We all cycled Cambridge’s narrow, cobbled streets to work, our wheels juddering madly as we swept past colleges and chapels. We’d lock our bikes to the church gates, beside boxes of early morning produce, which we’d haul into the larder, flanked by hundreds of shelved ingredients.

There’s something visceral about catering. There is the short time-frames of production. Menus were clipped to stainless steel walls at 6:00am, the first batches of scones and breads lined the counter at 8am. There’s the physicality, the great dance, flashing knives, swooping trays, fast marching waiters, swinging doors. There is heat and cold, the spin up of enormous ovens, the gentle shudder of cheese fridges. And of course there is the end product, the gentle stacks and swirls on the plate, the scents and tastes and colours of the season.

I know I’ve never worked harder, but I’m also pretty sure I’ve never laughed more. The various roles are all so tightly interlinked: the baker, the dishwasher, the cake decorator. No failure is independent, no success singular. We’d picked each other up, wiped one another down, and limped across the finish line as one, coated in flour, drizzled in sweat and thirsty for a pint. It’s the sort of teamwork that can build great fellowship. And of course, produce the occasional drama.

After catering a wedding, or a bell-ringers dinner, we’d sometimes set off on our bikes, for a chef’s basement home. There we’d drink Suffolk ciders and Speyside Whiskey, while one of us cooked food from the homeland. Pierogi, Coca Cola pork, tea smokes mash. One of my greatest ever meals was wild boar sausages, in banana beer batter, at 2:00am, eaten to the sounds of our Welsh head chef playing Alice in Chains tunes on his jet-black guitar.

Since then I’ve cooked puddings at Scottish festivals, supported by spliff-rolling Spaniards. I’ve whipped up dishes from the gardens of an Irish castle, and I’ve woken in the early hours to help bake bagels in Jewish delis. But many of my favourite memories are set in my Sister’s kitchen, under her backpackers home in Derry. Whenever I spend time there we end up cooking a slow meal, maybe a course each, starting some time in the mid afternoon. By the time the hot trays are drawn from the stove, the heavy wooden table is surrounded by people from all nations, wine from New Zealand, and throaty laughter.

 

For me, cooking allows me an opportunity to create, to interpret, to participate in something universal, something which transcends linguistic borders. It is an endeavour of creation which always finds a grateful audience.

So thank you Dad, for teaching me that if I dedicate myself to my passions, then there are fewer gaps in my life. Thank you Mum, for being the one who taught us the value of communion and companionship, and for occasionally letting us eat our steak in slabs of soft, white bread. And thank you to all of you that I’ve shared a kitchen with. You helped me expand my creative boundaries, diversify my cultural understanding, and extend my range of curses.

Bon apetit!

Tools for being human, part seven: Eclecticism

beer

I once sat between two huge men in a seedy Budapest bar, hoping my mate Paul wasn’t being drowned by their companions in some dark stretch of the Danube. One of us (I don’t think either of us remembers/admits whose idea it was) told the other “let’s get a cab to the seediest pub in the city”, and there I sat, dripping with sweat and regret. It was a situation which taught me several things. That I can trust Paul in a sticky situation. That if you’re unable to pay a debt to the Hungarian Mafia, then you get pimped out in live sex shows. And that my desire to experience more of life occasionally threatens to shorten it.

The other significant understanding that hindsight offers, is that my willingness to engage with as many different ideas, experiences and people as possible, builds the parts of me I’m most proud of. I believe there is a cost in denying myself an opportunity to try something out. The price is ignorance, reduced opportunities. And most disappointing of all, it means fewer chances to overlap with other people.

It frustrates me when people reject things without strong reasoning. “I don’t dance, I don’t read anything by female authors, I’ll never watch anything made by Disney.” It upsets me when I realise I’ve rejected something from a place of ignorance, from prejudice. Short-cut thinking is something I battle against, mental laziness. And sometimes it really is a battle. It is easy to maintain a huge list of ideas with a yes/no indicator next to them. Do I give a shit about dinosaurs? No. Do I care about someone else’s faith? No. But I find it is then very difficult to undo these binary indicators.

Instead though, I can leave a space next to anything that I haven’t tried. Am I going to be impressed by walking in the footprints of dinosaurs in Colorado? Blank space. I’m far more likely to convince myself to give something a try, if my mind isn’t already saying “not interested”. And once I’ve built a history of saying “Cool, I’m up for it”, then the momentum of previous exciting experiences builds, and it generates FOMO as a by-product. And the Fear Of Missing Out, is a great counter-balance to niggling anxieties about exposure to shame, embarrassment, or naked flames.

I’d like to congratulate my family for their contribution to this mental attitude. I grew up with two siblings, and though we all shared a love of hair metal and bourbon, we also developed independent ideas of what constituted a good time. For example my brother was the martial arts one, and my sister the horse riding one. And growing up with them meant I watched them find grins and LOLs in places I hadn’t been. And eventually I guess it was FOMO again, which led me to dabble in their respective arts. So one day I trained in Japanese sword fighting, which led to my involvement in the Lord of the Rings films. And another time I began taking riding lessons, which has led to trots amongst the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, tolts through the snow on Icelandic horses, and limb-ducking gallops across Czech forests. Oh, and several friendships, and a marriage.

My Dad didn’t do anything to counter my desire for diverse experiences. First, library visits with him meant I found joy in reading science fiction, Aesop’s fables, and to a lesser degree the ingredients on a can of toilet spray while I wait for difficult movements. This led to a (at this stage embryonic) career in writing, an inescapable interest in foreign lands and people, and a solid knowledge of non-CFC propellant mechanisms. Dad also had a strong desire to be his own boss, twinned with a low tolerance for boredom. So his decision to wear many different hats (firman’s helmet, chef’s toque, SCUBA mask) contributed to the ease with which I visualised myself as a chainsaw sculptor.

And then my wonderful Mum, she trained as a nurse, she worked with special needs kids, and then she led her and my Dad into a career in the wine industry when she decided to train in viticulture. So yip, I blame her for my weakness around an open bottle of wine, but also for my compassion, and that one time I worked as an art tutor with vulnerable communities.

So I have my family to thank for one of my greatest super-powers. And one of the greatest benefits of this power, is that it helps counteract a natural shyness. My readiness to consider almost anything has resulted in an interest in almost everything. I find that in general, when I meet someone new, I can usually find areas of commonality. Of overlap. This isn’t necessarily a shared experience or expertise, but if I haven’t told myself I don’t give a shit about laser holograms, then each time I encounter something around them, I build a little understanding. I write something other than “NO” in that blank box. And so when I meet an old Canadian scientist in a mead-dealing pub in Cesky Krumlov, we share an evening of stories, laughter, and herbed honey wines.

Common ground is a wonderful place for two people to start building a conversation, or mutual respect, or a plan to spend more time together. It doesn’t matter that I’m a Kiwi of no fixed career, and she’s a world class Brazilian surfer, my ability to find joy in more things rather than less, means that I’m more likely to be as interested in her side of the conversation as my own.

I’m far from perfect. There are plenty of things that I reacted against with minimal information. But I didn’t write “NO!” in the boxes next to Drum and Bass, or Trailer parks, or Bluegrass, and so when I eventually tried them, I discovered some of my most transcendent escapades. So I’ll push myself to maintain an open mind on as much as life as possible, because each new experience is a teacher, and each teacher guides me from places of ignorance, towards greater communion, towards stronger friendships, and towards being a more capable human.

Tools for being human, part six: Spending time in other people’s shoes

other-people

Before I started to travel, I thought the most inspirational experiences on the road would be those that belonged in an adventure film. Exploring intricate temples by torch-light, fighting imaginary foes on castle walls, passionate kisses on broken towers in front of rich sunsets. My first morning in Kuala Lumpur taught me that there was more to life than moments.

I woke early that day, a combination of time zones and excitement. I drew myself into thin clothing and stepped bleary-eyed into the dawn. I rose my hand over my eyes and admired the strong, early light painting a crumbling wall stone-fruit colours. I turned to look for shade and noticed an old woman shelling prawns on a step before a dark doorway. Our introduction was nods and smiles, and I stepped a little closer to look into her steel bowl. She tipped her head to the side as I made admiring noises, then held up a finger. She drew herself upward and then disappeared briefly through the doorway. She returned and passed me a second, smaller bowl, and nodded at the step. I sat down and she nudged the bucket between us. She showed me how to peel and de-vein with nimble movements, and then we sat, side-by-side, and watched the world wake.

She nodded to delivery men, she scolded children, and she kept an eye on my amateur efforts. She explained my presence to friends with shrugs of her shoulders, and they smiled in sympathy. And as the bucket slowly emptied, I imagined our spirits trading places, that it would be her that stood and brushed her hands on her thighs and walked out to find the tourist markets, and me that nodded gently and continued to shell prawns, rocking gently on the doorstep. And it was there, half-way through my second bowl, that I began a more important journey.

I once stopped over in Vancouver for a week, unsure what to expect. The first morning was cool and crisp, and I drew my beanie down over my ears as I walked towards the waterfront. I slowed to watch a young woman talking to her dog and rubbing its long ears. The two of them were curled under old blankets, beside steaming steel grates. I pretended to search through my bag for something, giving myself to observe without causing anxiety. I couldn’t get her out of my head as I continued down the streets, towards the super yachts and tourist float planes. What was the last thing she said to her parents? Did she befriend the dog here, in the city? The next day she was there again. And the next. I walked the same street each morning, hesitant to come too close, but curious for her story, for some understanding of the smiles she shared with her brindle hound.

On my final day in the city I bought a coffee, a hot chocolate, and some dog biscuits. I approached the lamppost which marked her spot with a mix of trepidation and excitement. I squinted into the sun as I approached the steam vent but there was no silhouette. Her spot was vacant. I was struggling with my backpack and hot drinks, so I awkwardly repositioned myself, arrayed my burdens around the lamppost and sat on my pack. I sat there in the sun’s glare, comfy in my three layers of jackets, sipping at the hot coffee. As I pushed the first empty cup aside a pedestrian glanced down at the cup and then to my eyes, and I shivered under their gaze. I was there for an hour with her ghosts, rubbing my hands and trying to guess her name. And wondering where or who I might be, if I’d lived through her days.

When I walk amongst the native forests in New Zealand, the birds are quiet. If I slow, then stop and lean gently against a giant Kauri tree, and close my eyes, I become accepted. The birds begin to pass messages on once more, and I become part of the bush. In the first days in a new neighbourhood I am an observer. I listen to the way people greet one another, the “good mornings” and “I’m enchanted”s. I swap nods with the old gents with hands clasped behind their backs. I find the streets where people sit and watch and wait for someone to ask how their week’s been. And gradually the gravity of communion draws me in, and I become a somewhat awkward part of the environment.

In the first weeks I’ve found good coffee (or began making it myself). I’ve hunted out the borscht made by the ex-mayor’s mother, and it may not be the best, but she speaks a little English and calls me ‘the lost one’ and introduces me to the regulars. I’ve found a piano shop where the students go to practice and dream, and on Thursdays a slim, dark browed man plays Crowded House songs with a gentle touch and his own version of the lyrics. Maybe I’m trying to understand the history of rebellion by hunting out ghosts and graffiti. I know what time the fresh custard tarts are drawn from the oven, and when to expect the rains.

After a year I am talking with new words and laughing at new ideas. I’ve found a job, or a way to live without one. I’ve found a new shirt, a new hat, and a pair of shoes that fits. When I walk through the dust and the mud I leave differently shaped footprints. I affect the economy, the gossip, even the scenery. And they affect me.

Taking these opportunities to dwell in places and situations far removed, it isn’t about the photographs, or the harvesting of stories. Ok, maybe a little, I’m a photographer, a writer. But more importantly it is the most effective method I know of for eroding my ignorance. Mornings sitting on a cool sidewalk, watching what was being delivered, peeled, stacked or washed. Watching how dogs and wives and spilt blood are treated. Standing in a queue at the post office, listening to the banter between builder and bailiff. Each step I take in another person’s shoes is a step towards a wider horizon.

Tools for being human, part three: Understanding mortality

mortalityThere are dates within a year which tend to prompt self-reflection. My birthday, St Patricks Day, Hallowe’en. On these dates I usually find myself attempting an appraisal of my existence. I think of highlights and disappointments, of what has been present and what has been missing. I often then end up giving myself some sort of school teacher’s assessment. ‘Regan needs to find more productive activities on which to focus his energy.’ ‘Regan is prone to spending a little too much time day-dreaming in class.’ ‘Must try harder.’ And then there’s some sort of mental promise to myself to make changes.

I never thought to apply a score when I look at my life to date. I mean I can’t really look at it like an album or film review, I haven’t yet had a chance to enjoy the entire performance. But if I did have to rate myself, I can’t think of a time when I’d have given myself a perfect ten. Perhaps today I would give myself a seven. Recognition that there have been some standout achievements amongst the scattering of self-triggered disappointments. And as always, acknowledgement that there’s room for improvement. Up until quite recently though, I never really thought about whether there was time for improvement.

Death has always been an abstract idea for me. I thought occasionally about the final moments, the actual end point. Would I rather drown in a sea of lava or choke on a hotdog? Which Metallica song would I have play at my funeral? But not until I started losing people did I really understand that my time on earth is finite. I only have an unknowable number days left in which to train for a marathon, write a best-selling novel, and/or undo the psychic damage of mistakes I’ve made in the past. Lately though mortality has started to have an effect on my understanding of the world. I’m beginning to understand that my choices are made against a finite span of time.

And now I can see the that I might be able to utilise those times of deliberation and contemplation in order to make useful changes.  I can imagine two different personality-dependent approaches to ensuring that the rest of my life can be used to drag up my overall rating. If I imagine my life as a graph, a jagged chart of time versus enjoyment, with each upward spike a moment of joy, or kindness or ecstasy, and each downward dip a failure of morality, character or heart. If I want to use my remaining days above the ground to improve my overall score, I can look at affecting either the time-scale, or the enjoyment-scale.

If I was a certain type of person, I would concentrate on extending the time scale. I would make choices which I hoped would ensure I survived for long enough to achieve more happy spikes. Maybe I start to reduce my exposure to risks. Perhaps my next birthday would be a meal in a small restaurant, close to home, rather than two weeks in a war zone. I might take out insurance in order to protect myself from incidents. Rather than saving for airfares, I’d harbour money for my later years, protection against poverty. My New Year’s resolutions would be used to set restrictions and goals which promote durability over excitement. ‘Drink less’, ‘eat better’, ‘run more often’. You can probably tell from my tone that I’ve opted to take another path.

Rather than plotting to make it to my hundredth birthday I’d rather make the most of however many birthdays an active and varied life grants me. If my life is a book then I’d rather it was a mid-length thriller than a thousand-page health and safety manual. I’d rather take a few risks than avoid all of them. At the end of a year I’m more interested in promises to myself which excite me. ‘Visit a country that scares me’, ‘make my own surfing movie’, ‘learn enough French to say “Two beers please, my friend is paying”.

Of course there are issues with opting for a (potentially) shorter, brighter life. Most of the time I don’t have a Plan B. I go to the doctor when I’m in pain rather than when I want assurance. But the one really problematic side I see to my approach to life, is that there is a degree of selfishness implicit in focusing so much on my own desire to extract all I can from as many moments as possible.

My drive to see more of the world, to hear more from its people, necessitates that I’m rarely in one job or city or neighbourhood for very long. This means that my new friendships are frequently fleeting, that I don’t get a chance to warm them into something more permanent. There’s a melancholy there at times, when I see an update on Facebook from someone I once spent just a few days with. Someone I wish I could have engaged with more, offered more to, drawn more from. One thing experience has taught me is that people are always a component in my happiest moments. Someone to help gather wood for the fire, someone to play guitar while I sing, someone to high-five when I hang ten.

As I write this on the last day of 2016, consideration of my mortality helps me understand what I want from whatever remains of my life.  I’m not great at making promises to myself anymore. I’ve failed once too often at the ‘must eat less at Christmas time’ pledge. But tonight I’ll be thinking of the people who I’ve met, who have triggered curiosity, and wonder, and who have inspired me to be a better version of myself. And I’ll promise to try harder to reach one hand back towards old friends as I hold the other out towards new ones. Because although I don’t know how many days I have left in the world, I do know that I want as many of them as possible to be shared with those people who teach me to fly, rather than those who tell me it is too dangerous to try.

So to all those who shared smiles and laughs with in 2016, thank you. To all those I wish I’d had more time with, I’ll try harder in 2017. And to those who passed beyond my reach, I’ll look for you in the stars when I next dance under the blanket of night.

Losses and gains

Cognitive dissonance is a term for what happens when you experience something which upsets your understanding of how the world works. Like being told by the people you surround yourself with that a comet will destroy the world on October 12th, giving away all your worldly possessions, breaking ties with your  family and friends, and then waking up on October 13th to someone’s Beyoncé alarm.

As I climbed into a yellow cab outside JFK three weeks ago, I believed that Trump’s loss was inevitable. I believed this with the same depth of surety with which I’d once dismissed the Internet as ‘just a fad’. I was about to become very familiar with cognitive dissonance.

As I looked out the taxi window onto the streets of Queens I was also preparing myself to be lonely in a new city, to be ready for rejection on both sides. But despite my anxieties, New York City and I just…clicked. Within days we ended up giggling together, telling in-jokes and slamming Hennessey and Red Bulls in dive bars at 3:00am. I remember a moment, maybe a week before I flew out of New Zealand, when I read something about New York being a place that all sorts of dreamers headed, in order to birth their ideas. And that was it, I met so many people who had dreams, and talents, and self belief. And they talked with me. They shuffled along the bench and made room for my ass and my ideas. My imaginative soul had found a new home.

This all began well before election day. I had made what ended up being a very good decision to begin my exploration of the city from a Williamsburg base. From there I found great coffee, astounding vegan Reuben sandwiches, and hundreds of artisans practising intricate arts, from distilling to button-making. I found centres for Judaic thought, summer food-markets that looked out over Manhattan, and people who looked me in the eye when I explained who I wanted to be. And looking back on it, I realise that as much as that time was about New York charming me, it was also about me appealing to her.

It isn’t easy to explain, but I think it was about being open to anything. It was about starting the conversations, sitting at the bar rather than the booth, dancing on the rooftop rather than in my dreams. It was about expression and engagement. It was also about being comfortable and confident. I was surprised to find I was more comfortable in that city than anywhere else I’d ever travelled. I was frequently a racial minority of one, but most of my endearing moments were with people who had been labelled as minorities their whole lives. I was often lost, but I quickly built a trust that lost was a euphemism for ‘on the way to an unexpected experience.’

And then just as all was going so well, there was that election night. At around 4:00pm I stood on the corner of 46th and 9th Ave, debating which party to attend. A tall beggar in a thick coat asked me for a dollar for cawfee, and I declined. He began an explanation as to why I was making a poor choice. As he talked I noticed shapely sculptures outside an Irish bar, The Playwright. I gave him a ‘waddayagunnado?’ shrug and explained I had no change and I was meeting a friend. A friend called Bud. Who was apparently half-price between 4 and 6pm. Good timing Bud.

Half the screens above the bar showed sport, the other showed a mute countdown to the first voting results. I dragged a stool under myself and drank in the scene. There was a good mix of characterful faces, and there was a password for free wi-fi. So I ordered a beer, connected, and an hour out from the start of Trump’s ascendency I found out a young man I knew had taken his life. I looked about the thickening crowd, I looked down at my hand about the pint glass, and I looked back to the last times I heard from him. I swallowed back my beer then I noticed a woman next to me was drinking from two different glasses.

‘What are you drinking?’ I enquired, hoping for something more exotic than Budweiser.

‘Hennessey,’ she replied, ‘and Red Bull.’

And in that exchange I found a new friend. And even as I struggled to come to terms with a feelings of loss, either I or the universe found a way to balance some sort of scales. I’m not suggesting that a new friendship can offset such dreadful loss. No, it was simply my head trying to find a way to reconcile a fresh case of cognitive dissonance.

The next morning I said goodbye to Matt from Bow Bridge in Central Park. I think he would have appreciated the view, and my imagining characters from the film Highlander beside me, talking about the coming end of days. I looked to the water below, the layer of fallen leaves. Then I looked up to the skyline, to the sunshadow forms of skyscrapers, and the sun behind them. And although I felt lead in my centre, I also felt the lightness that acceptance in a strange and new place brings. And now I wish that somehow I’d been able to help Matt find that. Or whatever it was that he’d needed to make a different choice.

The days following the US election results have reminded me of the importance of finding our voices. Of telling stories, and of being actively, positively human. And so I am going to start a new set of writings in the coming weeks. I’m going to try to hunt out 100 tools for being human. From Eye Contact to Trees, from Hope to Lego, I’ll be exploring the things that help me maintain my positivity, my humanity, in what can be a difficult world if we let it. Because I need to ensure that I’m doing, rather than simply being. And because I want to be there for people, more effectively than I have been in the past.

Unbinding myself from my masculine story in order to grow

Women

Photo coutesy of the fantastic Roni Kay…

There have been two points so far, at which I have had to re-invent my novel. The first was when I realised that the central story wasn’t big enough, and I replaced a distinct vodka with a unique religion. The second rewrite became unavoidable when I realised that if half of my characters were going to be female, I had a lot to learn a lot more about what it means to be a woman.

That epiphany was the result of three awkward periods of self-discovery. I experienced the first of these after I managed to almost completely destroy a friendship with an adventurous and astounding woman, Elza, through my inability to understand her perspective. The two of us spent several months travelling together, and yet the whole time we also moved further apart. The silver lining to what was a dark cloud was that honesty on her part allowed for introspection on mine. I was at least able to learn a valuable, if emotionally expensive lesson.

The second flashlight to be shone on my gender naiveté was held by another inspirational woman, Linda. I’d always found ways to convince myself that there were no vast differences between men and women, that it was simply our individual experiences that led to misunderstandings. But Linda helped me see that as my own experiences had only ever been as a man, I had ended up with a strongly gendered bias to my thinking. Yes, I was a product of all the things that had happened to me, of my environment, of the people I’d spent time with. But it would have been impossible for a woman in similar circumstances to have the same experiences. Society’s attitudes towards gender trumped my hope that we weren’t so different as we all seemed to think. Shit.

Around this time I read a Margaret Atwood quote, which compounded my understanding:

“Men’s great fear is that women will laugh at them. Women’s great fear is that men will kill them”

I spent some time bouncing between the two sides of that quote, combating my defensiveness. Both Margaret and Linda had helped shift my perspective in a new direction.

The last twist to my viewpoint was a short, sharp one, encountered around half way through the film ‘Wild’. In the scene that challenged me, Cheryl Strayed is alone in the woods, and she’s approached by two hunters. My presumption at this point was that things were going to go dreadfully wrong, and I wanted to be anywhere but in the theatre, watching what I thought would happen next. It was my intense relief when the men didn’t attack her that shook me. For years I’ve tried to point out that the media’s to blame for other people’s heightened fears, but I have to accept that I’ve been shaped by the way ‘they’ portray the world as well. And if the media’s amplification of a history of men subjugating women has made me uncomfortable at the idea of a woman caught alone by two men in the wild, how much more fear must that idea hold for some women?

I spent a lot of long walks rattling around inside my head after that, trying to make sense of all this. I explored my past. To what degree had I sexualised past friendships? How many relationships had I destroyed through wilful ignorance? How many women had I scared through my actions, or words, or attitudes? It would have been easy to tie myself to my failures, to see myself as a bad person. But in my heart I believe that I am good, and that I am the engineer of my own future. So I decided I needed to stop digging a pit and start building a bridge. I resolved to do better, to be better.

The interesting thing about taking so long to write a novel, is that the rewrites can mirror your experiences. This rewrite of my story began with a look at my characters. One character was blind, and I’d spent a lot of time trying to write as a person without sight, as someone who draws the world inside her head. But two of my four central characters were female, how much consideration had I given their experiences as a women in determining their paths through the story? Not enough.

So I began to read more by female authors. I examined the great conversations of my past, how often was it a woman who kept me awake, offering me new ways to examine Christianity, or gun control, or Israelis? Or Batman?

And then I walked from one side of Spain to the other, usually in the company of astounding women. And through this time I began to rewrite my female characters, as women. My principal character is a man, but he had to change too, his motivations, his confrontations with himself, the impact of these women’s new decisions on his plans. In fact he really had to step the fuck up. To say much more would give away too much of the plot, but I know that when I write the foreword I will be thanking a number of influential ladies.

I don’t want to be an apologist for men, I don’t see much value in trying to explain what shaped my biases in the past. But I do want to say thank you to all the people, men or women, who have contributed to me being a better person today. Some of you managed to improve my world view in as little as 24 hours, astounding. I will always be to a degree the result of what surrounds me, so I’m making a promise to myself that I’ll continue to as often as possible surround myself with good people. And I make a promise to all of you, that I will do my best not to cause fear, or anxiety, and to try to put myself in your shoes.

Being a part of something (but not just anything)

Legs

Five days out from the pass through the Pyrenees, less than 100 miles from the French border, I was close to lowering my pack gently to the warm, dry earth and waiting for a bus. Just a fifth of the way through an adventure I’d been thinking about for nine years, I came uncomfortably close to giving up, and that moment of compounded doubt has been weighing on me over the past couple of months. With some time for reflection, my frustration and despondency was largely around what I felt was a lack of ‘community’.

For years now, my travels and experiences have been about engaging with new groups. I can bus and bike and walk between places, but it is the ‘dwelling within’ that I need. I love that feeling you get working, eating, drinking and dancing as part of something, a trailer park, a village, a castle estate. I like to feel as if I belong, even if for just a few weeks. I can see the roots of this in my teenage years. At around fourteen I moved from one class to another, away from all my mates, which began a period of angst tinged adjustment. I concentrated on my studies, and exam results were great, but I missed banter, camaraderie, teasing, and hearing that a girl might fancy me. So that summer I held a party, and made new friends. Once school restarted I spent study time remodelling the school’s furniture, learning a dozen ways to make imitation marijuana scents to frustrate teachers, and slipping out with Darren to go on a booze buying mission for his next party. My grades slipped a little, but the social rewards were worth it. I remember the slight disappointment as I saw what my compromise had done to my exam results, but I knew I had good friends, a long Summer (and Guns ‘n’ Roses ‘Appetite for Destruction’) to pull me through.

As I’ve continued to push, pull and swing myself through life, I have done whatever I could to ensure I was part of some sort of group, even if it meant occasional new compromises. I hung out with goths in the graveyard, moved from one country to another, changed jobs, grew my hair, cut my hair, dressed as an Orc at nights, moved into an artists squat, took up chainsaw sculpting, all so that I might be able to share my days and nights with good people. I draw so much energy from having others with whom I can laugh, apologise, confess my sins, indulge in new ones, and recite classic stories with over pints and chips. So it is very difficult for me to imagine how people manage without that sense of belonging.

On my fifth evening in Paris, several people attacked concert-goers, drinkers and diners, in a choreographed symphony of destruction. As I lay propped up against the wall in Montmartre, listening to helicopters and sirens, I kept circling back to ‘why’? What state of mind do you have to be in, in order to be drawn into a group that is willing to unleash such fury? And all I could think of was those people pushed to the edges of a society, those without that sense of belonging I find so essential. If I had grown up marginalised, harassed, even despised, if I didn’t have the support of family, friends, peers, what path might I have chosen? If the Hells Angels, or Jahovahs Witnesses, or local ISIS recruiters offered me a chance to belong to something, could I really be blamed for reaching up an arm and letting myself be drawn from the pit?

Of course I then rally against the idea of what I’d have to do, how I’d have to change my thinking in order to even get through some of the initiations for these groups. Paying money to advance to the next level of scientology, learning to refer to my workmates as ‘people capital’, beating a defenceless person with a crowbar. But then I remember all the small (or large) compromises I’ve made myself, in order to belong to something. And I think of the despicable ways I’ve seen some people behave within corporations, as if being part of a business excuses you from having to be human. When did that person’s need to feel like part of the management executive team eclipse their need to be kind, considerate and reasonable? How much time without positive human contact would it take, before I decided I was prepared to compromise my morality, my rationality, in order to get to share wear a uniform, secret handshake and ammo collection with a bunch of people who were just as lost and misplaced as I was?

The morning after that day of doubt on the Camino, the sun shone. I had discussed my difficulties into the evening, and I had decided to alter my approach to the journey. I realised that in order to find community I had to offer it. I took the time to talk with people who sat alone, and I offered my own stories freely, without expectation of reciprocation. And as seven days became sixteen, and one hundred miles became two, we all underwent testing times, physically and emotionally, and there in the cracks, that was where community grew. Because as our vulnerabilities were exposed, as we became part of each other’s solutions, and as our stories began to entwine, bonds were formed. And we all began to have faith that the next time we struggled to shoulder our pack and stand, that we would find someone standing above us, offering a hand up, and a smile of understanding.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all our sister’s and brother’s keepers. It is no good ignoring people that are struggling, or alone, or broken. Because it is when we feel that we no longer have anything to lose, that we are at our most vulnerable and susceptible to the will of others. We need to remember that people want the same things, no matter what language they speak, or what name they have for god. They want to feel important, included, valued. If you have friends, family, workmates, support, then maybe consider asking one more person to join the football team next winter, or come to your place for New Years Eve, or to the beach for a swim and ice cream. Because surely it is harder to grasp for the unthinkable, if you have friends holding both your hands.

I am back in New Zealand, back in my small community, where I have ready access to people, smiles, and ice cream. But over the past three months I was on the other side of the world, and most of the time I felt like I belonged, whether I was in London, Burgos, or even Zubiri. Thank you to everyone I met and walked with on the Camino Frances, I was honoured to be part of your journeys, your triumphs, your disappointments. And thanks to everyone I met afterwards, old friends and new, you welcomed me into your homes, your families and your Hip Hop album releases. Mucho gracias.