Lessons From London
I’m not supposed to be here right now.
At the time of this writing, I was meant to be somewhere over the middle of the country; perhaps the midwest, perhaps my old, ill-fated home of Texas, getting ready to touch down in North Carolina. I was supposed to be going on a week-long women’s retreat, doing yoga, day-tripping and drinking beer in Asheville. I decided at the very last minute not to go, despite paying a high and non-refundable premium for the experience I would no longer have.
I’m sure there would have been some good times, had I gone. And there may yet be a moment or two of regret. But for once, I know and feel in my gut that staying behind was the right decision. I’m constantly being presented with lessons for my personal life through my spiritual work and healing journey. Sometimes I listen. I don’t often at first. So this time, I’m trying something different. I’m actually learning from a lesson I received on my last major trip.
My return to London.
It’s never a bad decision to go to London. It’s one of the very best cities in the world. I had an incredible experience with the history, the culture, the food, as I always do; I got some much-needed time to myself to write, read, reflect and just walk, as I rarely do. I got to see one of my oldest and dearest friends. For those reasons, I’m glad I went. But if I had it all to do over, I might just listen more closely: to my body being so tired; to the fact that I am constantly moving, and rarely take the chance to just slow down.
I live for international travel, so had I been presented with London again, let’s be honest; I probably would have still gone. But North Carolina was a different decision, with some of the same themes. I’d been go-go-going harder than ever after quitting my job and diving headfirst into starting my own business. Work was busy right from the get-go; I already had several clients, one of which was in my new professional niche of the food and beverage industry, and I was about to have my first big story published about the Seattle craft beer scene.
I didn’t want to be in the mountains, on the other side of the country, when this momentous occasion took place. I didn’t want to miss the big client meetings I’d been working so hard to secure, even if it only meant delaying them a week. And I didn’t want to run all over the place going on excursions. For once, I wanted to stop moving. To slow down. For once, I didn’t feel like I had anything to escape.
I’ve been running my whole life. I don’t need to do it anymore.
Now, I can travel mindfully, instead of barreling either away from or in search of something. I know how and when to refresh and recharge so that I can make the most of every minute when I go somewhere. But learning to really listen to myself was both the biggest and the hardest lesson I learned from London in July 2018.
The trip took place mere weeks after returning from the incredible adventure in Paris I had with my mom. No sooner had I gotten home, gotten back to work and adjusted to the time difference than it was time to leave again. I learned that when I travel abroad next, I need to rest beforehand, and allow myself the time while there to do it right.
I am learning to be present. To be here now, wherever “here” may be. To inhabit the space and time; to breathe in all life has to offer; to truly experience it. To be an active participant in my own life instead of a spectator.
It’s taken a while to get this published, and now even the intro to this post is months out of date — but, partially transcribed from my journal and partially translated through the decoder ring of time, here are the lessons I learned from London.
The Epiphany Is That There Is None
Maybe the great epiphany is that there isn’t going to be one.
I stumbled into the Epiphany Chapel at the start of my trip: a tiny room in a beautiful little cathedral off the aptly named Church Street in Stoke Newington. I was in dire need of an epiphany. I felt lost. I had been looking for the path, only roughly perceiving it under the filtered moonlight as I stumbled through the dark. I knew I didn’t like my job. I was reasonably happy with my social life; I was making time for family and friends and activities; I was at least feeling more open to dating again. But I didn’t know what my Next Big Move was supposed to be.
So I sat in the Epiphany Chapel, and rubbed my palms together, and said my kundalini prayers to the Universe, and asked for the answer to come. And I waited.
For days, I looked for signs and symbols, searching for divine guidance.
Days later, it came, but from an unexpected source: a podcast that my stepdad shared with me at the perfect time, when I was in the midst of a panic. I had taken all this time, spent all this money and felt I had not been using any of to its planned potential; I’d missed every one of my self-imposed deadlines; I’d squandered every opportunity to write and edit and post. And then the divine podcaster’s voice came down from the cloud and through the wires running into my head, and said this type of thinking is the death of creativity, and it cut me to the core. If you spend all your time planning, he said, you spend none of it doing. Creation doesn’t happen until you actually sit down and put pen to paper.
When pursuing a creative endeavor, at the end of the day, none of it matters if you aren’t actually making anything. To quote a catchphrase of great value co-opted by an unfortunate source: Just do it. If you’re feeling blocked, or like there’s not enough time, instead of trying to plan or force or figure out when to do it all, just grab the moments you have. Do what you can, when you can. The rest will follow. Go for what you want; what your heart desires; what your soul cries out for. Don’t wait. Create. Make the art and the life you want for yourself.
After all, as I keep learning, the harder you push, the more resistance you will find. It was time for me join the head and the heart, and let the divine flow of creative feminine energy enter in. It was time to stop trying to THINK my way out of everything, and to just FEEL. To re-member, and remember that I am already made of light. To be here now.
Maybe it’s not about trusting the process. Maybe the answer is the process.
So I put my journal in my bag and struck out into the world. I threw myself into the present moment, and let the thoughts for my next writing begin to swirl around in my head as I spent time in the quiet; the ambient noise of day-to-day life. Walking. Headphones-free. Trusting that when the time came to create, I would be ready, and I would seize the moment.
You Are Very Welcome Here
In London, I continued the tradition my mom and I had started in France: See a church, go inside. Every chapel and cathedral I wandered into on my solo adventures across the pond had a sign out front or at the entrance stating: You Are Very Welcome Here.
I smiled every time I saw one of these signs. They were a soul-soothing reminder of another lesson that has been presented to me over and over again. The Universe wants me and you and everyone to know that no matter who you are, what you believe, what you practice, who you love, where you live, how many mistakes you make, one thing is clear:
You are already at the party.
You are loved and held and supported and accepted for exactly who you are, simply because you exist.
Maybe this is why, as I sat in the Evensong service one night at St. Paul’s Cathedral (no pictures allowed), I felt what at the time was an inexplicable force and power washing over me.
Tears came to my eyes during the service. I’m not sure why. The music was lovely, but typical. The sermon had relevance, but it felt severe, parental, traditional: heightened by the accented delivery. Maybe it was because being back in churches —but on my terms, as just energy in the Universe, not as a prisoner of the Christian G-O-D — felt like coming home, only to a home more loving and welcoming than I’d ever known before.
You are very welcome here. I really feel that now. Wherever you go, you are home, and you are welcome. We’re all in this together.
I Think You Should Just Go For It
The message of “just create” continued to ricochet and resonate around and about and inside me throughout my whole trip. Wherever I went, I encountered artists who just went out and made shit, regardless of the outcome or the odds.
For example: The Picasso exhibit at the Tate; telling the tale of how he retreated from the public eye after much critical scrutiny, went back to the source and came back better than ever to prove them all wrong; came back more sensual, more courageous, more inventive. Then there was the exhibit at the British Museum showing the works of some author whose name I never recall, but who left me with a deep soul impression; his hand-scrawled notebooks and colored-pencil sketches, detailing adventures abroad in Greece and Italy. And there were the countless independent painters and photographers I saw in galleries I strolled past or ducked into. There were artisans in their stalls at Spittalfields and Borough Market.
But more on all of that later. This particular lesson was best embodied in my encounter with the masters of “just make it” art: the street artists.
One blazing afternoon, I braved the light and heat bearing down on the brick and pavement to take a walking street art tour of the Shoreditch neighborhood. It was one of the biggest highlights of my trip. It caused me to look at the city a little closer; to notice the beauty and magnificence that would have otherwise faded into the background, hiding down alleyways, on top of signposts and scrawled above doorways. It was inspiring, seeing the works of artists so compelled by the immediacy of the need to create that they went out and seized the very cityscape as their canvas.
I also felt a soul connection to the tour leader: an adorable, feisty female wielder of the spray can. As we walked, craning our necks ever-upward, she slipped into mini-rants against gentrification and commercialism, getting in jabs at hipsters and the generic graffiti artists she didn’t care for; showing us her favorite pieces, whether or not they tended to jive with the mood of the crowd. She, in black leotard and painters’ pants; saucy, sassy, confident and cool, shoulders bare and bronzed from hours leading sun-dazed tourists through narrow cobblestoned streets. I could just picture her striding out under cover of darkness, throwing up the hood of her sweatshirt, shaking cans and sticking it to the man.
Her artistic taste was right up my alley (pun not intended): intricate black-and-whites that juxtaposed man with nature; delicate studies on coral reefs; what looked like Catalonian pirates catching fish and building a village on stilts in the treetops of the urban jungle.
She was an inspiration to me: an independent woman, an artist who just couldn’t help heeding the call to create, regardless of little details like the law, or the inherently transient nature of her chosen medium. She had created sprawling murals and carefully crafted labors of love, all of which had been wiped out or covered up almost immediately. She didn’t even seem to care — in fact, she reveled in the fact that the only “showing” she would ever have would be on a building’s crumbling facade in some dark alleyway for one night only, or perhaps erased before it was even completed, taken off display by an arrest, or the cops tearing it down, or by some other punk compulsively driven to create covering it up.
The overarching lesson, therefore, is this:
Life Is to be Enjoyed
London is an interesting place. So many things like home; so many things so very different. If you make yourself unnoticeable, walk with purpose, know your Underground stop and run or briskly walk through the tube station, confident and determined, you can blend in; at least, until you open your American mouth.
After the street art tour, in a quaint pub our guide had recommended as one of the last bastions of “the real Shoreditch” — before the hipsters moved in and overran it with condos and barbershops for perfectly coiffing their man-buns and ironic mustaches — I heeded the call, and I wrote about what I had observed thus far.
The pub’s patrons were considerably older than I, and seemed so quintessentially English, sitting in a dark, wood-paneled hole on a brilliant, sunny summer’s day. Yet their overheard tales were universal, and I eavesdropped with a fond appreciation that we really are all one, and all the same, everywhere.
They talked of going home with the wrong person last night; of having an annoying run-in at the pub with that narcissistic, selfie-bombing twat we all know and loathe; of how their children were squandering their educations and potential in dead-end jobs and crummy bachelor pads; of just how old they were feeling, in the midst of this fast-moving social media-driven technoverse. Same shit, different continent.
While there are similarities between bar cultures just about anywhere in the world, the London pub culture does have its own unique flavor. Like the French, the Londoners seem to like spending their weeknights out in the world. However, the French seem to do so more through a lens of observation and study, while the Brits appear a bit more… spirited. They are people who love other people, all the same; who will pack like sardines into a frigid or sweltering alley to share a pint and unwind with friends and colleagues; but in London, it seems more about occupying space, claiming the streets because nobody wants to go home just yet, than it does about blending seamlessly into the background to watch it all go by.
Both are beautiful and valid and are things I experience on a weekly basis. Just an observation.
What I love about the bar culture in both Paris and London is the celebration of community; the tradition of scraping off the day with friends, food and drink. Sure, we have this at home, but it feels so different: the way we sit at tables facing one another, rather than looking out onto the street; the way we stay within our own personal space, trying not to step on toes. The way we tend to need a purpose: a date, a “girl’s night out,” a celebration, rather than just because it’s Tuesday.
In America, we sit and stare at tiny screens, even in a room full of people. We default to solitary rather than social, no matter where we are. We don’t go out to just be in the world; to read a book, or to simply sit and observe our surroundings. While our bodies occupy space at one planned and orchestrated event, our minds are already scrolling through Facebook and our mental calendars, planning the next thing.
In London, it’s about showing up just as you are, with the detritus of the day all about you, to talk about work and life with your friends and colleagues; to share space together, and catch up on one another’s lives. It’s about one more round, because this is home even more than the place with your address. It’s about building community, one pint at a time, and sharing real moments with the family that you choose.
Of course, I realize that’s a bit of a rosy, tourist’s-eye-view of things — and it occurs to me that a not-insignificant factor in this culture’s thriving nature may be the fact that emotional repression is alive and well in the U.K. A few pints are necessary to either let those pent-up feelings flow, or to keep them shoved deep, deep down, where they can quietly fester into cancerous growths of the body and soul, while the corners of your face press outwards in a plaster mask of platitudes.
Maybe this is why the lads so quickly get loud; why the sense that a brawl could break out at any minute is not an infrequent feeling. All that energy has to go somewhere.
But as I have also learned, nothing is black and white, and the beauty of life is in the in-between, and so this dark underbelly of pub life is part and parcel of its lighter side. It both eases the pain and perpetuates the problem. One side cannot exist without the other, and there is some light and life that comes with the shadow.
For example: This stoicism and suffering undoubtedly helps breed Britain’s distinctively dry humor, which I so adore; their liberal use of expletives; the socio-politically liberal worldview held by so many I encounter; and a healthy degree of skepticism, reality-checking the Disnified attitudes of so many of my fellow Americans.
I often feel more at home in places such as this, amongst those with attitudes such as these. It helps shape who I am and define the life I want. Exploring. Adventuring. Tables full of wine and fresh food and good company in all corners of the world. Setting the table; bringing good people together around it; engaging in soul-deepening conversations that are either simply enjoyed or captured in writing, drawing or recording. Laughter. Insight. Sun. Beauty. The bounty of life lived to its fullest. Sharing insights and experiences that transcend cultures, reflecting the magic and the inspiration that I see everywhere.
As someone wise recently told me: Life is to be enjoyed.
I still don’t know exactly how that enjoyment will be defined. And maybe that definition is meant to be ever-changing. But I have images, feelings, places, people and activities to work with, and that’s enough for now. I have soul memories that have always been with me.
These memories are most truly expressed in Europe, but I will also carry them home, and share them with my loved ones there. I will set the table, and fill the seats and the plates and the cups where all are lacking. This is my gift to others.. I will make time stop for a night or an afternoon. I will transport people to other times and places with food and experiences and storytelling.
And this, too, is the nature of the Great Abroad. It’s where time and space lose form and definition, yet gain true meaning. It’s where senses are heightened; colors and brighter; tastes are bolder; drink is more animating; art is more ecstatic; music follows you everywhere; emotions soar; everything is somehow both turned up to maximum volume and completely frozen at the same time.
Lesson: Stop trying to squint down the road to the destination, and simply enjoy the ride.
I did this expertly one day in London when, on a meandering walk through Hackney, I stumbled upon a magical, hidden pop-up market.
From my journal:
I’m sitting on a rooftop terrace where a live DJ is spinning vinyl, and I’m eating the most beautiful and delicious cake: light and fluffy, unbelievably moist, topped with melt-in-your-mouth honey-butter clouds, standing in perfect peaks that starkly contrast the saccharine-sweetness of commercial icing. The cake itself is a subtle vanilla flavor made with thick flakes of coconut, giving it just enough texture to balance the smooth, creamy frosting between each layer. Real apricot slices add a touch of tart-sweetness.
This is one of those moments I will remember for the rest of my life: the simple beauty of a stolen afternoon, perfectly encapsulating the spirit of spontaneity and adventure. This is why I travel, and it is why I will always champion my independence: for the opportunity to explore a new neighborhood in a foreign land, with nobody knowing where I am or where I’m going; just taking in the sights and sounds and smells. For the freedom to duck down a random street in the middle of the afternoon and be decadent; to sip wine and eat cake and write and enjoy life with the buttery tones of vinyl soul wafting on the breeze.
A couple of too-young Brits hit on me after I asked them to watch my stuff. They offered me ice for my wine as the stifling heat crawled up the building to our rooftop oasis. The attention was nice and they were adorable, polishing off two bottles of rosé with the gusto of twenty-somethings with nothing to lose and their whole lives ahead of them. Eventually I got up and resumed my wanderings; I wonder where they ended up that day.
Lesson: I need to make time and free up mental and emotional bandwidth when at home for moments of discovery such as these. I need to release my death grip on structure and schedule and allow enough space and freedom to wander and explore in my own backyard. To flex and bend and flow.
Lesson: I need to come abroad for at least one consecutive month. Maybe longer. I can do this on a tourist visa and live out of a shared Airbnb. I can do this regardless of my job. This is where my personal writing flows and my art flourishes.
Lesson: I must carry a notebook at all times, at home and abroad. I need to learn to publish that post unfinished. Write in chunks instead of one big rambling burst of babble. There is no finished whole with my life’s work. It is ongoing.
While we may claim the mantle back home, London lays original claim to being the proverbial melting pot, bringing so many disparate peoples and traditions together in a one-stop shop of culture. While much of what I love about France seems inherently French, I may love London most for its ability to take you around the world and back in one several-block radius.
Take the food, for example. Real Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Greek and Indian cuisine: halloumi at the corner store for £2.50, when it’s $12 for a tiny chunk in the U.S. Falafel and bright red pepper paste; huge pieces of pillowy naan; overstuffed dolmas and supple, jade-colored Castronello olives; chunky feta and crisp cucumber sprinkled with feathery dill fronds. Creamy, burnt-orange perfumed curries; direct from sunny Spain; buttery shrimp balanced with the bright acidity of pan con tomáte — all of this readily available on practically every high street.
And the drink. I love the sessionable cask ales the pubs carry, with their rich malts, bitter bite, amber hue and almost non-existent hop character. These brews are meant for enjoying over a long afternoon of shooting the shit with your mates, watching the game or getting some writing or reading done. Just as much, I enjoy the remarkably affordable pours of French Côte du Rhone wine and Irish whiskey available at many local watering holes. London gin is also a treasure to behold, with G&Ts a veritable way of life.
And the museums. O! The museums. Stuffed to the brim with plundered Old-World treasures: the opulent bounty of colonialism; the prizes ripped from the hands of the conquered.
The British Museum, if you can tune out the mental narrative about the means of acquisition, is my happy place. I go at least once on every trip, wandering aimlessly, allowing myself to travel through time and space. I travel to the ruins of an ancient Mayan temple, shrouded by mist and the lush green of the rainforest canopy. To a shrine in India, the granite tributes to the gods surrounded by perfumed blossoms and the curling smoke of burning incense. To classical Greece, where some of civilization’s greatest artists made marble odes to the heavens and the equally divine perfection of the human form, sitting atop what’s left of a colossal palace. To pharaonic Egypt, where I see my guides everywhere; Isis and Ra and Anubis and Horus in all of their two-dimensional, limited-palette glory.
I look at the actual bones of some long-dead hunter-gathers, lying in the position where they fell; the humerus and radius and carpal and metacarpals of one still wrapped across the rib cage of another. Seeing this, human life has never been so real and present and totally insignificant all at once: we are a mere blip on the radar of the history of the Universe, and yet made of the same stuff as the stars. I am the bones and the bones are me. From dust we come and to dust we return.
But I digress.
I do love modern British contributions to classical and contemporary literature and music, TV, film and comedy. I love the street and alternative art scene. The theatre culture, past and present, obviously. The preservation of the street market, which was and remains hugely thriving. I love London. But it’s just interesting. It would be a good starting and ending place if I pursue my grand vision, with the familiarity, the people I know and the lack of language barrier. But I definitely want to branch out, as well.
As mentioned, one afternoon, I wandered into an exhibit at the British Museum about an author and artist who left home to wander the world, spending a great deal of time in Greece. In many ways, Greece is the polar opposite of London. Bright colors. Shining sun and crystal-blue waters. Blinding white stucco houses with bursts of pinks and corals and yellows mixed in. Green cyprus and olive trees dotting the landscape. Loud, expressive language and the frantic music of a celebratory people. Those ruins, ancient, cutting through time and towering above it all. The food, so fresh, bright, herbal, bursting with flavor from simple ingredients, olives and feta and sweet peppers and zucchini and flaky white fish and grape leaves and puffed pita bread. An abundance of wine. It seems like a paradise, were one to only visit and not have to face the daily reality of political turmoil and economic upheaval.
I don’t think most of my favorite pieces at the Tate Modern are domestically produced, either. I wander through the Picasso exhibit and, though I’ve always loved the medium, have never been so moved by modern art before. The artist’s pain and sorrow and love and lust and passion and torment are so immediate and apparent in these pieces. His detractors said he was done for; washed up; a has-been — and then he retreated to his fortress of solitude, and came back stronger than ever, and blew them all away with his tremendous works of the heart.
Lesson: The life of the artist, of the mystic, of those who tap into the transcendent, is often a lonely one. To really dive in, to get to the core of it all, you just might have to go it alone. Can we really be connected to the Source, can we truly access the Divine Mystery, when we’re worried about an earthly connection? Can we fully enter into relationship with another person when we’re already going steady with the Universe? This question may not have an answer. Or maybe we all just don’t want to admit that the answer is no. Or maybe, just maybe, if you can find those right people who are cut from the same soul cloth as you are, this connection IS the connection with the Universe, and brings you closer, because you are it and it is you.
Wherever you go, there you are. And maybe wherever you are, therefore are you. The more places I visit, the more different cultures and people and sights and sounds I experience, the more I expand my mind and my perspective, and the more it all becomes a little part of who I am. The further I wanter, the more I will draw those scattered soul-family members from places apart into my orbit, and the more of my own insight and vision I will have to share with the world. Go outward. Go inward. Grow your cognitive map and expand your mind, and who knows who you can become — and what you can create.
I want to do what I love. I don’t want another job. I need to go abroad often. I need to share it with my soul family. I need to create life, love and magic. I need partners who encourage and inspire and help create this. I need to make art and food and conversation and words and love and life, and to surround myself with the same.
This is my life’s work. Writing and drawing with a pen and paper on the steps of a cathedral in London. Planning a life I can already see, sun-kissed and free, with history and culture and people and wine and bread and beer and cheese all over this great and beautiful Earth.
The Foundation of Life
Borough: How I love thee.
The scent of wood smoke and truffles in the air.
The roar of hungry crowds clamoring for a bite, dull and undulating in the background.
The merchants hawking their wares. Every vendor claiming to be the best in London, or in the UK, or in all of Europe, and all of them being right.
Ancient. Tribal. A market of early Mesopotamia, or classical Rome, or 1800s England just as easily as now.
Hey, we all gotta eat.
These are places where the age-old trades of selling fresh provisions meet the art and craft of choosing ingredients for a meal, or selecting a lunch, of pairing food and drink to create something beautiful: where the table becomes art, and art unites and animates us all, however we choose to express it.
Colors are brighter here. Flavors are bolder. A simple ball of mozzarella smushed between two thick, hearty slices of rustic bread is more mind-blowing than a five-star meal at the finest restaurant, and I eat it perched on a dirty window ledge with the clamor of the market all around me, and I just look around and take it all in, and I have never tasted something better or been happier than I am right in that moment.
This is home. This is life. The herbs, the spices, the fresh and glorious technicolor produce spilling out of baskets and off of stands everywhere you look. The decadent pastries and rich wines and fresh-roasted coffee. An opulent display, an overflowing cornucopia, of all the riches of life.
This is what it is to be human. This is how civilization began.
These are also the building blocks of community. The things I love most about London are all about a coming-together. The pubs. The market. The food. The ales. The places where people and cultures intersect. Where fellow men and women gather to share food and drink and life, to talk and gossip and unload and unwind. Where sparks turn into flames. Where relationships start and end. Where the whole cycle of life and death and joy and pain can take place over a single round. The markets, the pubs, are the essence of life itself. Sensory overload. Loud conversation. Passions and tastes and highs and lows.
In a way, the process of creating and consuming food and beverages represents the whole cycle of life and death. The markets that make it all possible are an ecosystem like the body or the environment. The acts of creating, preparing and serving the beverages and meals have as much heart and soul going into them as consuming them does.
The farmers and gardeners grow the ingredients. The purveyors kill them with the harvest. They are reborn when the chefs and brewers and bartenders and bakers turn them into something new and beautiful for the feast. And we kill them when we consume them, but even this act in itself is a form of new life. We experience them with all of our senses, we talk about them, we create an experience in the consumption that is something entirely new and life-giving unto itself. Then the consumers come down, and are full and drunk and stumble home, and it all dies again, the next day to be reborn. Creation. Destruction. Resurrection.
And so I left London more inspired, more motivated to make change and to get out there and create; more determined to manifest the life I wanted; wiser; worldlier; better for the experience. I will be back in Europe before I know it, and will chart even more new ground. But I will start and end in the place where so many adventures have for me.
Til next time, my foggy, familiar friend; cheerio.