In 2018 just before New Year, I went for a favourite, repeated walk in the Cairngorms, which weaves up between Creagan Gorm and Meall a’ Bhuachaille. We went nearly to the ridge, headed left to Creagan Gorm, where I tried to take a picture and my phone went from 65% to 0% in a minute with the cold. Then we surfed the ridge and headed up Meall a’ Bhuachaille. This is the walk brought to mind another winter journey up this hill and it’s this walk that anchors the entrance to my manuscript, microbursts, which is an inter-medial collection of lyric essays exploring hybrid forms, crisis, illness, creativity and grief.
This collection - full of the language, tensions and narratives of illness and elegy - is an enaction of a lot of my thinking about these charged ‘between places ‘ (sometimes quietly so) that so many of us inhabit at different times in our lives and in the creative work we write and make. It’s an intimate book that intends to offer up individual experience that might be, nonetheless, shared.
It has also been a tricky book to get published. Numerous individual essays and related pieces have found brilliant homes in The Essay Press, Kenyon Review online, PN Review, LUNE, Lighthouse Literary Journal and elsewhere. And on this subject, I might write a bit later. But here, I want to offer a small section of a book that is as much about creativity and form as it is about the subjects that help define its focus. That is essential. As I write essays/blogs here, occasionally, they will dig around in the process by which we write or make things, and offer up some primary creative work too - because as much as I like talking about writing and editing, and hope my take might be useful to others in some ways - I am still in love with the primary text, the work that speaks as itself to us as readers (and writers).
at the top of meall a’ bhuachaille | between places
On the cusp of this new year, the blue of cold clings to the trees as hoar frost and in weak sun crystals sparkle but do not melt. I start to walk the steep ascent and am grumpy until I clear the treeline and head onto the bare shoulder. Here the Cairngorms fall into place around me: miniatured trees, black-grey rock and mirrored lochs. I unravel my scarf from around my neck, tie it to my pack, and breathe the sharp, nearly frozen air. At the top, squat reindeer have antlers like broken twigs and they nudge stones on the tundra to get to food; their slow chewing progression brings with it the clicking of small rocks, tendons over bones. I look in all directions: to the blue sky, to the clicking clattering ground and then, to the east, where the winter heather starts to take hold, there’s a dog barking and pulling at his lead to be among the beasts. The wind blows, the sun is bright and weak, and just emerging from the brow of the hill appears a figure with wool layers and ruddy cheeks and I walk towards her and the dog pulling, pulling at his lead. When we hug we compress layers and layers of clothes, and the air, between us.
There are words for the kinds of spaces that exist between other places and a lot of them are about landscape like littoral, ecotone, twilight. In between places there is something solid, a traveler, crossing over. The very details noticed in the midst of travel or shock or bewilderment can hold us fast; lost becomes found, the strange settles into a familiar. In the Black Cuillins of Skye, north of where I live, a compass will not work because the magnetic hills disrupt the heart of this simple object that gives direction.
In February 2010, I take notes even when I’m too tired. With my computer on my lap I video a note of each day. My hair is up or down, glasses on or perched, and my eyes are sleep-filled. The last recording, just past midnight and into the nineteenth, is grainy, like an old film, filmed in the dark of his room. The small light on top of the bureau is not up to the job of illuminating. I whisper and sometimes in the background dad can be heard. This is all I will write of this night: how we listen.
In October 2013, the conversation with my mom lasts only three minutes. By evening she’s unable to speak and the meds they give her over the next few days are quickly noted and point only towards one thing.
Here in these places between lost and found I witness in silence and in deafening chaos and I make up stories that will be memories. Walking upon terra incognita love becomes grief and essay, poem. Each memory forges a new path and this writing acts like a magnet pressed to the face of my compass.
This is the first blog post in what will be an occasional essay into writing, reading, and other related topics.