Why I Write Outside: Laps of Longhand

Oh Comely 2016

Genius loci, one regular calls me. Spirit of place. 

This season, I kneel daily beside my town’s historic lido, writing slow on scrolls of pool-length paper while swimmers do fast laps and grab the lunchtime sun. Writer-in-residence. Genius loci, one regular calls me. Spirit of place. 

The emergency which delivered me into this strange occupation happened a decade ago. It was sudden, painless: an arterial haemorrhage after the birth of my first child. I saw the light, believed my life was ending. I survived, just. Mended, almost. What I never recovered from — and hope not to — is the slow time of accidents I’ve lived in since: this fragile extra life; the total, continuous attention it gifted me.

For years afterwards, like a surfer watching the sea for swell, I waited for my children to start school. Swam out then into the free days, away from newspapers, office gossip, tv shows: Those distractions from the precious here and now.

The only essentials after my near-death were pens, paper, a park bench. Poetry. I travelled through time and space; landed in the east of five hundred years ago, a thousand. Kenko, Bashō, Po Chü-i — a world away from fast, mass-produced culture. Even the titles a balm: Fishing in the Wei River; Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel; Essays in Idleness. I began to write outside and attract lost souls, as they did.

‘I’m redundant,’ says a middle-aged man. ‘I’ve all these hours now. Will you read to me?’

‘Does it come back, the quiet?’ Asks a wistful new mother. ‘Not unless you keep space for its return.’ I am succinct with her, Zen-strict.

Back to the here and now (words repeated in the scrolls, as I discipline myself to the moment again and again). This season and its mythical mile of longhand. My Wild Patience: A phrase from poet Adrienne Rich, but eastern still. Process over the pursuit of peak experience. Freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine remembering, she writes, and I inch along my 150 feet of paper, agreeing. I am free from worry, full of thought. Held by language.

The scrolls surprise strong feeling in others. A woman, shaken, writes: ‘Your simplicity was profoundly affecting. I imagined you from a more ancient time, focussed on something important.’ After years of practice, my words unfurl without resistance, and this too delights and unsettles. How do I know what to say? What will I do with it? 

It has become a novelty I realise, with sadness, then hope: This ancient, simple means of being both self- contained and open to experience. Fully awake to our lives and times.

Here is a pen, I say, and paper. Use them. Write me how it feels.

First published in Oh Comely, Issue 32, Strong Women Speaking Freely edition (August 2016). Reproduced with permission.

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