When I begin to feel lost, that magnetic compass that lives deep in my bones always guides me to the home of water--to open expanses that somehow allow me perspective and distance, as well as memory, and yet, always connects me to the flowing energy of everything in the only thing there is, which is the here and now. That compass within is irrepressibly magnetized toward the northern shores of Lake Michigan. The three short years I lived two-hundred feet from those shores as a child, and heard the Great Lake's waves or the subtle movements and cracks of the ice outside my window, are an internalized rhythm sure as heartbeat. They are steadfast and root my spirituality--my faith in the Earth and all that is.
Today, I awoke to aches in my neck and shoulders--the result of internalizing stress, heartache about life, and the guilt that I could possibly have heartache about life when all around me life shines and breathes grace. My plan for the day was dull: to clean, to tidy, to prepare for a guest coming on Friday, to grocery-shop (I've hardly eaten since Kwok left for Thailand two days ago). I thought I'd play the guitar, build more of my callouses. Maybe sing at the piano. Try to convince the new chickens that I am not the enemy. While there is goodness in all these things--even vacuuming (the blessing of having pets that create a carpet of fur)--I felt malaise.
And then in a moment of grace, I was reminded that I am of the smallest fraction in this world--that I am a woman with means to move freely. I contemplated surfing Llangennith, calling the dogwalker to see to the dogs. I sent a text to my surf instructor in Wales--no luck, his surf van is in the shop for its MOT. No problem: the next thought--and why didn't I think of it sooner?--take the dogs for a day at the sea. With new zeal, I clean the cat litter boxes; I clean the chicken coop (and avoid being bitten by the new hens while shooing them out into the sun). I feed the cats, make the bed, change my clothes, feel nice in my new dress, recognize how much I wear red, wonder what, if anything, that means. I pack the dog food, bowls and water... and then I am off to the Gower--the closest thing to home I have in this country and mainly because it is Kwok's home, where his heart seems to beat steady and convinced.
It is a three-hour drive to the Gower and I left at noon. My guess is that most British would scoff. Three hours is so long... when you're not from Michigan. I felt renewed as Janie sat shotgun, occasionally smiling and panting, but mostly snoring. Elu tolerated the ride, though he never loves the car... and Benji remained that most insufferable kind of travel companion--the equivalent to the child that bounces around and repeatedly asks, "Are we there yet?". Not only did he refuse to lay down for the first two hours, he refused to sit down. He remained on all-fours, strapped to the seat belt for two hours... at nearly eighteen years of age. Every five minutes of those two hours, he let out a high-pitched whine, sometimes so high that the sound was inaudible, only a hiss from his tense vocal chords.
My iphone played a random shuffle of all songs I have on it.... "Life's a big game so you gotta play it with a big heart." Thank you, Coolio. I needed to hear that today.
When I arrive at Rhossili, I park at the small stone church (free parking, one of the only times I find myself gladly donating to a church--still embittered by the harsh and so often judgmental Christianity with which I was raised). I manage to back into a space via an awkward L-shaped path and I am proud of the ways I have learned to be British--to manoeuvre into small spaces. I love my little Prius and feel grateful that a dream I've had since I was a teenager is being fulfilled this day--driving to a shoreline with a Boston Terrier in the passenger seat. (I'm reminded to visualize all those other things I desire in this life.)
The dogs and I take the coastal path toward the house I have always admired--the one that sits overlooking Rhossili Bay, and has a small barn and space for horses, other farm animals. (Note to self: visualize living there.) The dogs and I trek down deep slopes and I recall the burning of my knees after running downhill in San Francisco seven years ago. We take a trail that leads us to, not a cliff face, but a cliff face's younger cousin. We trek back up the hill until we find a trail that takes us to the proper coastal path (I hadn't realized I wasn't on it). My heart pounds and the dogs pant.
Eventually, we make it to the sea and Elu runs from me; his spirit bounds toward the water. This is one of the greatest gifts I have ever given to the dogs and myself. We spend three hours walking from Rhossili to the end of Llangennith and then back again. All three dogs have freedom--go off-lead (though Benji occasionally has to be put back on). Elu interacts with children and I, having lived in southern England too long, feel nervous, apologetic. Fortunately, Elu seems to distinguish Welsh children from non-Welsh children and the kids smile, pet him, encourage him to join in their fun.... He is so convinced that this world is all for him that he begins destroying a giant sandcastle built by two boys and their father. I am mortified. The father laughs--calls him a vandal--as Elu destroys one of four towers of their giant fortress. He then digs through the mote and into the castle walls. The boys laugh. The father laughs. I breathe sighs of relief... until Elu bounds over to two other boys near an inflatable raft. He jumps inside of it and begins digging. I make a mental note that I have indulged my dog child too much.
Eventually we sit and take photographs--let Benji have a break.
I sit with thoughts about my life and let them drift in and out with the tide.
Slowly, we begin to move back toward Rhossili again. I am painfully aware that I may have pushed Benji too far today. The walk back is slow, but likely not slow enough. My father never stopped or slowed for me as a child--I was always running to keep up, once losing a toy in the middle of a busy road (Dizzly, the magenta and pink raccoon). When I managed to escape his hand, I ran back, into traffic to retrieve my beloved friend. My parents nearly died at the sight of my four-year-old body, my bouncing curls, leaving their side to move to the yellow lines in the middle of the road. But he still never slowed down. When my legs grew enough (though still too short to keep up naturally), I learned to glide quickly--something noted by a tall boyfriend I once had--that I was the only girl who ever kept up with him (and looking back, it was only in stride). I struggle now to walk slowly.
I carry Benji the last tenth of the steps back to the top of Rhossili. I should have carried him more, though I ached so much myself I couldn't consider it. We cut through the stone church's graveyard--there is a headstone for all the lost sailors. I wonder how many from the Gower have been entombed in the sea. At the car, the dogs drink--fresh water (both boys having been stung by the taste of salt on their tongues today). I feed them their dinner on the grass behind the car.
I haven't eaten yet--not a single thing--and I'm not hungry, but I want a drink at the Worm's Head Hotel pub, a place I have been many times before; the views are staggering from the terrace. I take the dogs on tight leashes into the pub (where they are not allowed inside, but one must order at the bar, so I remain mystified as to how I can successfully do this without breaking the rules) and I have to order £10 worth so that I can pay by card. I order 1/2 a pint of their driest cider, a portion of olives and ciabatta and two orders of chips (I started with one, but my total remained £7.50). I've exhausted the vegan options. As I walk to the terrace with the dogs on their short leads, an old man says something about "the poor dogs." I'm astounded someone would ever have the audacity to think of my dogs as "poor."
I sit alone on a picnic table overlooking the bay. I take out my phone to take pictures and it has died. There is an odd relief in its temporary death.
When my food is brought to the table, I am given ketchup, malt vinegar and salt. I recall the ways in which my father always asked for malt vinegar with his fries and how at one time I despised him for this oddity--thought it was just another attempt by his ego to be unique, troublesome. I didn't know then that it was a throwback to his grandmother, my great-grandmother, the Geordie born in 1898, who died three days before my Truman interview in 2005 (a few months shy of her 107th birthday).
When I was alone, walking the dogs on a path in the local wood yesterday, a pang of loneliness and isolation struck deep into my core, and I surprisingly thought of my great-grandmother, a woman I loved and admired. Today, I imagined sitting with her--wondered what she would say about it all, me, womanhood, drinking a 1/2 a pint in Wales with three spoiled dogs. It is unlikely she ever made it to Rhossili Bay in her life... but the malt vinegar and chips would have been familiar. I think she would love me despite my faults and just marvel at life and all its mysteries, aches and complications.
The dogs eat the majority of the second portion of chips. This is the first fried food Janie and Elu have ever tasted and not one of the three dogs seems overly impressed with the chips. They much prefer pancakes, strawberries, carrots and steamed broccoli. (They are so clearly my dogs.)
When we head back to the car, I see each dog instinctively take a piss on the way. I realize I haven't peed since morning and that I am likely dehydrated. I also realize that I should probably pee before setting off too. After settling the dogs into the car, I take a look around and decide my best option is to go behind a SUV in the car park. I won't be seen by the windows of the nearby houses and I can crouch between it and the stonewall of the graveyard. Mid-stream, I hear a car moving across the clay and rock car park, moving toward my spot--they are about to use the small space next to the SUV to back into another space. I quickly pull up my underwear, feel frustrated that I couldn't finish and casually stroll to the car. As I'm about to leave, the older female of the couple from the intrusive car knocks on my driver's side window (the window that is cavalierly troublesome and refuses to shut after being opened). She asks me how to get towards Worm's Head and can she cut across the way I just came from the corner of the car park. I quickly tell her that it isn't the ideal way (in fact, there is no way, unless one wants to scale nettles and a stone wall, but I do not tell her this). I also tell her that she can go out of the car park, turn left and cut through the graveyard. She remains English and unimpressed.
On the phone with Kwok while I was at the sea--his sea, his bay--I tell him that I'm worried I won't want to return at the end of the day. He reassures me that it will be fine. He knows internally too the power of those expanses, their ability to recharge.
Kwok again is right. It is okay returning--crawling back over the hills of the Gower. Somehow, I always miss the return over the Severn--even when I've been driving--but tonight I notice. Driving the Severn to Wales is like driving the Mackinac into the Upper Peninsula--Wales and the shores of Lake Superior both feel so rooted in the essence of my being, but not yet quite my own. My bones still belong to Lake Michigan, birch groves and apple orchards on its shores.
I leave the Welsh radio station on in the car until finally, when we hit Swindon, the static becomes intolerable. For forty-five minutes, there was no music, just two men speaking to each other in Welsh. I am reminded of John Ottenhoff and the English language documentary we watched in Brit Lit--a class I was taking at the time I was diagnosed with the thyroid cancer. I recall how he told us Welsh is very similar to Old English: "It almost feels familiar, doesn't it?" And it does... and it is soothing, despite the occasional hacking sounds which remind of Arabic.
When I see the "Welcome to England," sign past the Severn, the corner of my mouth and my nose automatically scrunch like an unintentional tick. It is unlikely England will ever feel like home, despite the English line running so heavily through my blood--mixed with the Native and Irish.
Once home, I say hello to the cats--feed them some fish. I go with a flashlight to the back and collect Myfanwy (our only Welsh-named hen) from behind the compost bin. Every night, she nestles her sweet body behind the bin, under some rose vines. I gently scoop her and she allows me to hold her, to put her in the run despite her desire to sleep under the stars, not in the coop. I crave to let her do this, though I would never forgive myself if something happened to her. I refuse to take the risk.
And now I'm here... writing and writing at nearly three in the morning. The sea sustains me unlike anything else in this life. It forgives and moves; releases and brings back. I am so grateful for the tide.