Earlier this month I wrote about the fact that I had not been writing much, despite my pledge to focus on my own work for a year. Well since that time I haven’t been reading much either, but I have been busy with writing related activity and, fortunately, I have more work written earlier in the year that I am now able to share.
Today my contributor’s copy of the latest edition of the elegant and engaging Seagull Books Catalogue arrived. I have only just begun to glance through it—this 428-page masterpiece begs to be savoured slowly and carefully—and, for the second year, I am honoured to have a piece of writing included.
My brief prose poem/essay, “The Cost of Words,” was written upon my return from the trip I made to central Australia in May of this year, to participate in a charity walk on the Larapinta Trail west of Alice Springs. Thank you, as ever, to Naveen Kishore and the entire team at Seagull Books for this beautiful creation and for once again inviting me to take part.
It starts, not with a shout, but with a whisper, a tightening at the back of the throat.
Sadness was an opened door, an invitation, across the globe, to an ancient place where, for a time, the world might stop swaying, where I could focus on the moment, freightless after years of pushing against this cage of flesh and bone. Traverse a vast terrain of sound and sand and stone. I arrived empty, expectant. In my head, I had fashioned a journey of healing, imagined an ordeal to open a conduit to choked and buried grief. I longed to release the words that had ceased to flow. Unleash emotions untold.
Nature defies a narrative directive; life sets its own course. Streams flood, rivers run dry. We are not what we think we are. We are whole, we are broken. Fragile and durable in turns.
On my first day out, my head closed in, my voice grew strained and raw. Over rockbound passages, rising ridges, jagged ground, I began to fear that a different script was being dreamed for me. My challenge would be to submit. I fought it, pressing against weakness and illness and fatigue until one day I dropped from the trail into a circle of needles and stone.
The wisdom of the desert holds you humble. Reminds you when failure, not triumph, will unleash the tears you cannot cry. Water is precious. A gift not easily spared.
In the end, I will never know, how long I could have walked in perfect health. Whether heat or blisters or skeletal complaints would have slowed me all the same. But I do know that the outback is not just rock and rust-red dust and sand. It is explosive greens, the pallid beauty of the ghost gum, the sacred promise of the waterhole, and the wisdom of the women whose ancestors walked this land for millennia.
And the possibility of redemption from ruin. Again and again.
The cost of writing is not simply the loneliness and isolation a writer’s life affords; it is the cost of the life lived, the pain, wreckage, and devastation endured to be able write at all. Words are not free.
What might a perfect life dream forth? Nothing worth the ink that blood can bear. I am not what I think I am. I am broken, I am whole. I seek the words, the notes that bind this song I write. In my heart, after two weeks in the desert, I have carried it home. How long can this self-sufficient refrain echo before it fades to hollow silence?
Long enough if one remembers the cost of words and is prepared to pay the price.