Tuesday, November 28

Spring break (i) | a great letting go

'This song is about a great letting go,' said Sam Herring of Future Islands at their second show in London's Brixton Academy last week, before launching into an anguished Long Flight.

this is the way that it all falls / this is how I feel / this is what I need

You see, spring break is about a great letting go, and a great opening up.

For weeks afterwards, I hold those days on the road tight to my heart. All the time I am worried that life might never again feel so full, so bold, that the colours will cease to leap up in front of my eyes. (I'm wrong of course; I guess the biggest satisfaction from writing months after the fact is knowing that this trip was only the first indication that a deeper, canyon-like change had occurred inside me.) On the road, in Yosemite, Sequoia, Death Valley, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Los Angeles, I've never felt farther from the limited safe life of my past self. The days tangle in the type of mad rush I normally tend to avoid. Everything at once. And it is okay - more than.

In the aftermath of spring break, that quiet past self returns, tries to pick up and examine every fragment of the trip, and arrange them in some orderly fashion, like repairing a torn up map. She is confident no experience will ever be as good, and terrified of forgetting even a second of it.

Yet something stops me from writing out the trip immediately, and so, inevitably, I do forget things. And by the end of the year abroad, when I've seen and experienced more than my memory can handle, I learn a painful but important lesson: some details will always be lost. You're not supposed to remember it all, to possess a seamless and unabridged recording of the past. And if you truly want an accurate chronicle, you write as you go. It's just sometimes life is too fast for the pen.

'See enough and write it down,' Joan Didion tells herself at the end of the recent documentary about her life and work, The Center Will Not Hold. 'And then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder,' she continues, 'some day when I'm going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write, on that bankrupt morning, I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest. Paid passage back to the world out there. It all comes back. Remember what it is to be me. That is always the point.'

I see enough, record the bare bones, and leave the rest for time to erode: the passing weeks and months will gnaw at this overwhelming mass, excavating to leave behind memories as bright and enduring as crystal. I have forgotten, conveniently, the times I felt tired, stale, fed up of living out of a backpack and an overloaded car. But I will never forget the waterfall rainbow in Yosemite, hearing a bear growl in Sequoia, the feel of my first desert, drinking Blue Moon by torchlight in a Vegas hostel room as a dust storm howls outside, the Grand Canyon's snowy top and sunny bottom, or driving round LA at 3am singing along to David Bowie. You just don't forget those kinds of things, even when they happen all at once.

'You'll never make it,' I am told every time I describe our spring break plans to American classmates and friends. Their faces a perfect blend of aghast and pity-for-the-naive-visitor, they proceed to tell me that our itinerary is too complex, that we'll run out of time, that we'll be driving for too long. When an American tells you that your drive is too long, you should probably pay attention. But a bunch of study abroad kids with limited funds and time - and a whole damn continent to see - were never going to listen. And we saw it all, and we stayed on track, and we used the long distances to sleep and share music. And it was the craziest week of my life.

It remains difficult to write about. Not just because I'm so far from that life now - scuttling about cold grey London, deficient in vitamin D and decent bagels, having swapped Californian freedom and handsome poetry professors for dissertation confusion, life responsibilities, and the big stressful what's-next - but because to write about spring break is to cope with an awful lot of content crammed into a short space of time. Others have waxed lyrical about Yosemite in long academic essays, turned LA into novels about hardboiled detectives and frustrated women and freeways, conjured songs out of Vegas glitter, and shot feature-length films in the desert. We swallowed all of that in a single week. I want to talk about the land, the cities, and the travelling in between. It's going to take some time.

Tuesday, October 17

California, month eight (i) | tidefall

Full force happiness now. If I spent fall semester slowly wandering campus and Berkeley's peripheries, stunned that such sunlit joy can exist, that it is laid out here, for me, then I spend all of spring semester putting that love to practical use. You can see it in the careful construction of my fall semester posts compared to the compiled-months-after-the-fact jumble of spring.

Berkeley's rain sodden winter months, along with a doubled study load, daily French classes, regular seven am work shifts, and half-marathon training, should surely force a collapse, a retreat into my well-worn shell of routine loneliness. But I am rarely alone now. There's always somebody to spend the next hour with, to study with, to dance with; an inverse correlation between alcoholic intake and hours of sleep; a continuous battle between over-caffeination and under-caffeination; a head too full with things to process; and I have never felt this happy before.

Full force happiness: a gale so wild I have to correct my previous understanding of the concept of 'happy', readjust the scale to fit these new feelings in.

Early one Saturday morning in March we stand outside our apartment building, backpacks on the kerb, looking out for a car. It's so foggy we can't see beyond our block, let alone down to the bay. As Camille drives us north towards Marin County, though, the haze disperses, replaced by the clear Californian visibility that bewitched me last semester. Winter is beginning to drift away from these northern coastlines. 

We're heading to California's Point Reyes National Seashore, to hike to Alamere Falls. Sweeping and rolling straight into the sea, Alamere is technically a 'tidefall', and I adopt that term as noun or verb to describe how spring semester feels. A tidefall of events and emotions and faces and feelings, of everything I'd suppressed behind canal gates for so long. There are only six of these ocean-bound coastal waterfalls in North America, twenty-five in the whole world. Tidefalls are rare. Both the geographical kind, and my kind.

After tracing wide open cliff tops for a while, a makeshift sign of white pebbles laid on the ground indicates a narrow path ducking left into woodland and eventually opening out on the edge of the land, closer to sea level. To get down to the cliffs and beach Alamere Falls calls home, though, requires a precarious scramble. Jump (or slide) down a sandy coloured rock face: vault, before the eyes of all other waiting visitors, a gushing stream that's too wide for even the longest pair of legs: propel yourself over deep gaps in the cliff face. It's a tall order for some visitors. Flip flops just won't cut it. Not everybody makes it across the stream.

Granted, this is no Appalachian trail, and I can't compare one short hike to weeks of fell-walking in the UK's Lake District, but already I'm struck by the differences in hiking culture in America. For example, flip flops aside, people play music out loud as they walk, and while I'm no stranger to the joys of a bluetooth speaker, there's a time and a place. Maybe I'm too schooled in Wordsworth and Whitman, but the whole point of getting out 'into nature' (whatever that phrase means) is that you're away from nature's opposite, the noise and metal of the built environment. I can't identify birds from their chatter, but I can hear how a breeze sounds different near water, or notice that in a landscape left to its own song the pace of visual and aural stimulation slows, and your own mind adjusts accordingly. The change in speed and perspective feels like a relief and a newness. It's no place for Bieber, or even Bruce.

Down on the beach you can walk right up to the tidefall, let it bellow in your ears, stand in its spray. The Pacific beats in and out fast, and catches my Converse unawares. My feet dry quickly on the rocks, but the sneakers stay stiff with salt and sand all summer.

I fall asleep as we drive back south, across the Golden Gate Bridge and through San Francisco, tracing its ups and downs. Waking up, through the rear window I watch the streets curl up to meet the sky and the dipping sun. Don't make me go home, I think for the thousandth time. I am so happy here. I couldn't be happier.

I'm wrong, though: tomorrow, Sunday, I will read Faulkner on the sand at Half Moon Bay in the first wave of summer warmth, nothing but sand and ocean and words. In two weeks one of my oldest friends will fly halfway across the world to visit me. Before the month is out I'll be midway through the first of two once-in-a-lifetime style road trips, the kind you get notions about from Kerouac and summer movies, travelling with a bunch of once-in-a-lifetime style people. I will spend the rest of spring semester mooning over the first road trip, and the rest of the year mooning over the second.

Andrew arrives one afternoon the week before spring break. All of a sudden he materialises on this continent, standing casually outside downtown McDonalds waiting to cross University & Shattuck as if he'd been living in Berkeley for years. It is a rare thing to have a friend willing and able to make the five thousand mile journey west to see you; it's even rarer to have a friend who puts up with your dribble of a shower, your endless supply of vegan meatballs, and who gets up at four am to stand in a dark chilly park without complaint and watch you run a half-marathon. Rarest of all is the friend who bakes croissants for the party you throw on the first evening of spring break.

On the days I have too much school, Andrew walks around San Francisco, visiting all the places I still haven't got round to seeing. He acquires a tote bag straining with poetry books, and boots that give him blisters. We hang out on campus in the sun and in the rain. I take him to my English lecture and he falls in love with the professor's hands.

It is once again odd to see a face from home here; even odder that it is not one of my family, who have seen me everywhere I've been in life. Andrew knew me as a shy oversensitive fifteen year old, and it is nice that he will also know me as I am in Berkeley, twenty-four and insanely happy. He will know, if transiently, the rooms of my apartment, my favourite bars and streets, the feel of Californian rain, the faces of my friends.

If I had to pick the happiest day of the year so far, poised as I am at the end of March, it might be this one: Sunday the twenty-sixth, leaving the apartment gut-wrenchingly early to stand in a pitch black Golden Gate Park with a bunch of other sleepy runners; taking in thirteen and a bit miles around the city; running over the Golden Gate Bridge and back, Bruce's 1978 San Francisco show in my ears; the waves and shouts of Bea, Connie, and Andrew propelling me along those final metres; crying at the finish line.

And the day doesn't end there. From the finish line at Civic Centre we ride an Uber back to Berkeley to pick up the car that's going to take us on next week's adventures. There's a mad tangle of sleeping bags and tent poles and jumpers, and suddenly we're jammed into the car, six of us, duvets and crisps and all, and we're away, all of the west at our feet.

Songs: month eight

Portions For Foxes / Rilo Kiley
Stolen Dance / Milky Chance
American Boy / Estelle
I Melt With You / Modern English
Leave Before The Lights Come On / Arctic Monkeys
Racing in the Street [live from San Francisco, 1978] / Bruce Springsteen

Wednesday, July 26

California, month seven / liner notes 05 | moving real fine

1. W E A T H E R

At seven am the world always feels like it's ending.
We sit under the canopy drinking coffee in the pouring rain and the sun glows through the wet.
Three degrees, uncharacteristically cold, a cruel lean wind.
With E by the fountain in afternoon sun, squinting like lizards.
A postcard from L in Cuba. She describes the mango trees and how she is wearing all of the summer clothes I left behind in Baltimore.

2. R U N N I N G

Zig zag hill training runs.
Eight and a half miles north to Indian Rock Park, weaving a figure eight back south to Elmwood. The psychology of longer distances, how easy it is to adapt to a different scale.
How are things on the west coast / I hear you're moving real fine

3. M U S I C  +  L A N D

Fifties teen culture and coffin songs, doo wop, mixtapes, Skip James.
Writing about John Henry in a cafe when the electronica soundtrack turns to the folk tune Doin' My Time: 'you can hear my hammer, you can hear my song.'
A slightly tipsy 1am Ebay purchase of eight vintage music publications for 99c turns out to be a very good decision. They all feature Bruce Springsteen on the front cover.
The American landscape as discovered from the west, Malcolm Gladwell on sneakers, small American country towns, and 1930s squatters camps.
Academic approval to write about the industrial landscape of Bruce Springsteen songs and seventies roadside all-night diners.

4. T A K E  M E  O U T  T O N I G H T

A sort-of-frat party that ends just after midnight, because everything in America ends hilariously early. So we tumble down to a basement for beer and cheez-its, and get to bed at five am.
A Berkeley co-op party where each room has a theme. We crawl through cushions into a dark room where we're fed 'worm slime' (sour worms soaked in an unidentifiable spirit) and one of us has to 'do the worm'. In another room there are three kinds of disco light and a screen endlessly repeating dank memes. In another, rosewater punch.
Let loose on a dive bar jukebox. Springsteen, The Clash, Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield, Pixies. Free bottomless popcorn. And to think we didn't feel like going out. E says, 'that is the happiest face I've ever seen in a bar!'

5. ' E V E R Y  D A Y ,  O N C E  A  D A Y . . . '

Late night toast, imported marmite and expensive cheddar, Twin Peaks, food pantry hauls (Barbara's Oat Crunch, organic peanut butter, endless oats, alfredo sauce, Acme sourdough, frozen spinach: Berkeley food is expensive, and the pantry keeps us from starving), Trader Joe's trips for samples and the eighties playlist, iced coffee with milk and honey, frozen yoghurt trips, too much sleep, not enough sleep, rainstorms, nine-grain bagels.
'Harry, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don't plan it. Don't wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men's store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.'

6. S U N S E T S

One: walk through campus - watch the bridge and the dusky sky - realise how much I'll miss these California sunsets - feel happy and sad and happy. I wait a while under the campanile where the air stretches out to meet the Golden Gate Bridge and the western hills, and see the sun, and a delicate slip of moon.
Two: every night brings a sunset as beautiful as the last, but always a little bit different. Tonight, dark orange and indigo and the hills and the city glittering in the fiery depths of the sky.
Three: walk home from j-class across campus as the sun sets and the warmth fades, pass under palm trees and through the heavy scent of bark and eucalyptus. Californian spring assaults all my senses in the best possible way. This is the happiest I've ever felt.
Four: a glowing, opaque veil that presses down hard into the edges of streets and buildings, the light reaching along telephone wires and illuminating the rigid lines of tennis courts and parking lots.

7. T H E  H E A R T

Yesterday was a long drag, a lingering blink, that gut-howling misery of the alarm going off at 6.30am, brain cogs too tired and squelchy to turn, pointless hours in the library and the cafe, head scratching until late, falling into bed feeling like I hadn't achieved anything at all -
But I am on the west coast, and I am moving real fine.

To a girl born in and shaped by London, California does not seem a real place, but it is a damn happy interlude.

This world, this world right here, this world is for you.

Songs: month seven

John Lee Hooker For President  /  Ry Cooder
Romeo and Juliet  /  Dire Straits
Tumbling Dice  /  The Gaslight Anthem
A Little Faith  /  The National
Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard  /  Paul Simon
Like Crying  /  Fleetwood Mac
Try A Little Tenderness  /  Otis Redding
Twisting the Night Away  /  Sam Cooke
Only the Lonely  /  Roy Orbison
The Heinrich Maneuver  /  Interpol
Headbutt  /  The King Blues