It’s not been a year of major transformative life events. There have been many good times, no major crises and a lot of very hard work. Yet as I look back over it, four very specific moments keep repeating on me.
Snow in February. Climbing high above the village with a local sheep-farmer to help her establish if any have been lost after a week of white-out. Crossing the high down in a blizzard, trying to count the white lumps as they shake themselves from the landscape and form an orderly line moving away from us. Our heads seemingly brushing the low snow-clouds. The spacious, curving form of the valley below suddenly made vivid, its emptiness and limits defined cup-like by a billion falling points of white.
Beijing in March. Cycling back from the Starbucks in the Golden Resources Shopping Centre, where I had enjoyed putting together a talk about medieval Ripon surrounded by the comings-and-goings of twenty-first century China. The ride home should have taken 20 minutes, but with every turn of the gearless pedals, Fighting a Cold matured more certainly into Having a Cold, and the low particulate haze of a Beijing Spring revealed itself to be a serious rainstorm in disguise. And where I was meant to cross the Fourth Ring Road I got lost, and instead of being home in ten minutes I found myself in a time warp, a seemingly endless suburb of potholes and mud and decaying one-storey brick shacks and people living their lives in public: China 1985, just a kilometre away from China 2025. And I had no idea where I was, was damp from head to feet, and well on the way to being ill. Yet somehow I loved it.
The Indiana/Michigan borders. No place-shock has ever been more deep or more profound than my first experience of America. Never have I known a more bewildering, compelling and almost-terrifying combination of factors: the apparently virgin landscape, ancient woodland with lakes and clearings, as if the Saxons had just started clearing the primeval forest. The school-less, shop-less villages and hamlets with their little clapboard houses and handsome red-painted identikit barns. The radio dial, which revealed a world without News as I recognise it; in which the only music is country or country rock or Christian rock, and the only spoken opinions – rare in themselves – assert without hesitation a world view that makes the Taliban sound progressive. The reality and recentness of creation. The human landscape: Amish villages, the grid suddenly petering out into dirt roads, an Indian reservation, Vietnam vets proclaiming their identity from the verandah. All this 3 hours from Chicago, cosmopolitan, connected: nowehere in my country can a three-hour drive render you into a world so shockingly strange and beguiling.
Walsingham realisation Three days in Walsingham, which I found to be a very, very odd place. Somehow coming up for the first time against a brick wall in my dilettante spirituality: uncertainty is not provisional; it is fundamental. I will never believe these things. Driving to Binham and on to the coast with Van Morrison singing of ‘tales of mystery and imagination’ as if the tale-telling, unknowing and imagining were themselves the deepest and bestest we can expect. And then a drive home that felt like a drive to heaven: Walpole St Peter, West Walton: luminous barn-churches in the strong summer light. The glorious broken poetry of Crowland baking in the sun in the middle of the fen; then west an hour, to Wing as the light fell, silent and bathing. Like poems whispered by a cracked angel.