A Monstrous Ball of Yarn

All text and photos 2007 Peter Newbury.

This isn’t a travel epic in the usual sense.  This is an epic of thought, an Alice in Wonderland, if you will.  Red pill, blue pill…

Spontaneous travel has a myriad of pleasures.  The last minute rush of finding suitable transport, wondering where (if?) to sleep, or just trying to identify with a distant time zone.  The excitement of stepping out to another world.  The relaxation of exchanging the densely interwoven demands of daily life and work for simpler needs of shelter, food, water.  I had the pleasure of a spontaneous jaunt to the UK in February, squeezed between projects and deadlines – London, north to Derby, south by southwest to Bristol, east by northeast to London.  I know I've said this before, but travel has a way of resetting, rejustifying, reformatting.  I stepped onto the plane, camera firmly in hand and computer left behind.  Reset.  Flew in daylight over the snow-dusted mid-west -- flying at 600 miles per hour over gridlocked farms makes the incredible expanse of the American heartland visceral.  Re-justify.  Past New York’s twinkling Long Island at night and almost directly over my grandmother's house on Cape Cod, eventually finding land in London at 6am.  Re-format.

San Francisco sunshine is kneading its warmth into me.  Blue skies splay overhead.  Vibrant greens dance and flourish in March's slowly warming winds.  Boisterous pockets of daffodils and tulips exuberantly chant colour into the air.  A pure calalily indicates the heavens, awaiting fulfillment.  The air smells of spring, and that makes me grin.  I’ve been sick too often of late.  Nothing bad, just head colds, fevers.  Persistent enough, though, to dull the wit and leave me hoarding energy, forgoing my usual mockery of healthy suggestions -- don’t sleep too little, don’t forget to eat, don’t forget to drink lots of water, don’t forget to walk out the kinks.  Yesterday morning, in final frustration with my dulled senses, I shaved my head.  It seems my body took the hint and shook off all but the last vestiges of the most recent cold and cough.  Between the subtle clearing of internal cobwebs and shedding the half-wild external cobwebs, everything seems clearer, cleaner.  My internal monologue re-appeared and kept me awake for a while last night.  Amusingly, I realized I had missed it.  Welcome back, my fickle friend, welcome back.

I had hoped I could make it all the way to Greenwich to watch the sunrise.  As I dashed towards downtown, I was checking my watch, checking the frosty view outside the train window, my watch, the sky, my watch.  Nope.  I was welcomed by the sun when I arrived in London proper.  The crisp sunshine cleaved into the foggy residue left in my head from the long flight.  Ahhh.  Wonderful!  The previous months in Seattle had been long, grey, wet and short on real sunshine.  Welcome back, my fickle friend, welcome back.

While I was sick, safety thoughts kicked in – I should take it easy; I can keep doing my job for a long while; I should buy a house in Seattle; I should really focus on slowing down for a while; I should think about a regular, ‘real’ job.  But now, gazing over the hills of San Francisco from the wide stone steps of Grace Cathedral and feeling the return of a ‘clear’ head, those shreds of wisdom are being brushed aside -- don’t stop, right now isn’t the time to stop.  I would hazard that I would be best served by listening to both wisdoms, but it can be difficult, once trained, to get off the train.

Walk left, look right, stay with the flow, thank goodness it's all in English, where do I get that train ticket to Greenwhich!?  I was the traveller, wrinkled, roughshod, baggage-bound, blundering my way through slick iPod-graced commuter angels.  Eventually, I found my way to Greenwich, its famed observatory and the prime meridian.  In the open space of the surrounding park, I settled my head, donned extra layers against the chill and enjoyed a morning wander.  A quick breakfast snack gave me the energy to face returning downtown to find the Tate Modern.  With not enough time to truly explore the Tate, I wandered, exploring the sinuous, jumbled avenues of noise before eventually resigning myself to a northbound train.  Snooze, watch, snooze, watch, whoa, this is Derby, get off the train!

Years ago, I wasn’t sure I really believed in (or maybe understood) phases of life.  My experiences formed an unbroken string, one long streak of colour extending far into the past and forward to a monstrous ball of yarn about to be swiped at again by my playful paws.  Today, the San Francisco sun is illuminating a different story.  Now I can discern knots and places where the yarn is a little(!) shredded, changes colour, or disappears into a corner for a stretch.  And, I can see that the monstrous ball of yarn is no longer monstrous.  I’ve come to believe that life isn’t necessarily about being overly sensitive to the passage of time, but rather to be more sensitive to the procession of experiences that occur during that passage of time.  This doesn’t mean to ignore time, to ignore birthdays and seasons, but to be more intent on life’s decisions, resolutions and realizations, those defining shifts that create phases.  The days will pass unchecked; it is the content of those days you can choose.  As with any resource, as it becomes ever scarcer, awareness about its use grows less scarce.  I can only hope to be wise about the years ahead of me.

Derby sits very near the heart of the Industrial Revolution and is the happy home to a proud symbol of modern industry - Rolls Royce aircraft engines.  The original steam engine is mere hours (and decades) away, the infant beginning of the mechanized, supply-chained and digitized First World surrounding us today.  As Karen had to work during the day, I was on my own.  Camera?  Check.  Feet?  Check.  Good to go.  My days were spent walking fields or towns, helping Karen with her house project in the evening and talking to myself and with Karen.  It didn't take many steps from Karen's front door to be in open fields, enclosed by hedgerows, and only a couple kilometres away was a canal-boat waterway.  Wonderful places for contemplation.  Being distant from Seattle, both in time and space, helped me clear my head of the daily clutter.  The inner and surrounding landscape harkened to an older phase of life, one guided through hill and dale by fences, horse fields and the hedgerows ahead of me.

A wry grin floats on my lips; I will be in Santa Cruz later today.  I spent nearly three weeks in Santa Cruz after returning from Italy last summer.  It was a perfect segue, a sublime way to continue the journey from last spring’s overblown stress and frustration into Italy’s peace and into the decision that I needed to change my life or be eaten alive by it.  It’s been a long time coming.  It’s now nine months since the revelations of Italy.  And nine years since I first became embroiled in QFD.  Nine phenomenal years of ‘go big or go home’.  Grin!  I don’t regret a single day of those years -- I’ve learned a lot.  I’m somewhere I would not have envisioned nine years ago.  I am, however, somewhere I envisioned nine months ago.  QFD is shrinking, reduced to a minimal core with an eye towards making my dream of exploratory freedom come alive.  If ever there was a time to not be immobilized and over-constrained, now is that time.  So many factors go into that statement.  The obvious is that I’m not getting any younger.  Less obvious are attachments (lack thereof), world financials and politics.  Even less obvious but more important than all of the previous is the desire to experience this phase shift fully, to watch it unfold with wide open eyes.

My few days in Derby were over quickly.  I was ready to go, and yet not.  This trip was my first real exploratory outside of London, and I was thoroughly enjoying it.  At the same time I had felt anxious to move onwards, to move beyond the hedgerows of Derby.  Something had rumbled in my head.  For years I had always asked “what does the client want”, “what does the company want”, “what does he, or she, want”.  I was realizing that the shrinking of QFD was the first step to truly asking “what do I want” and the visit with Karen had only spurred the question more.  The ever calming presence of Tim beckoned from Bristol.  Even with substantial snowfall in previous days, all the trains I took were very close to 'minute-perfect', apparently a wondrous thing.  Tim took me to PTC headquarters near Bristol before dashing (there is no other way to drive on those lovely roads) home to meet his wife Helen, charming daughters Roz and Nat and the delightfully historical house they live in (they expressed a very definite element of 'caretaking' in 'owning').  Helen and Tim fed me and let me gracefully retire before I put my head into my plate - the late nights staying on pace with Seattle had finally caught me!  A morning stroll with Tim revealed a different face of England, a different phase of English life (from Derby).  Again, ready to go, and yet not, I settled onto a London-bound train and watched the view unfold with wide open eyes.

Grace Cathedral's bell is slowly tolling the hour.  The sun is shifting, as am I.  It seems that these phases are periods of time, plateaus, stairs for that matter since I sit on some, divided by spikes of change.  Time interrupted by something simple, convoluted or even catastrophic; a beautiful moment on the street, a budding realization, a heart torn asunder or a major medical moment.  Many times these crises come unbidden, forced, yet other times that moment of realization is craved, spawned by knowledge of so many stories, so many ways, so many lives.

London and the Whittinghams were as charming as always.  Especially powerful was a Sunday evening stroll with Gayle on the Thames after finally being inside the Tate Modern.  As with the rest of the trip, all too quickly came the departure.  But this time, I think I was truly ready for it, ready to continue exploring this next shift.  Once again, I was the traveller, wrinkled, roughshod, baggage-bound and part of the London morning commute.  Bicycles enforced their space, cars jostled with buses, and everybody was plugged into their life.  So many stories, so many ways, so many lives.

The paw swats, yarn streams.


Somewhere above the mid-west US

Long Island, NY, by night

A convivial bench in Greenwich park

The power of Art: The Tate Modern Art Museum - a converted power station

A reminder of the ancient Thames - an old working wharf

No trolls under the Thames south walk

The Gerkhin

The London Museum - who is inside, who is outside?

Good morning, Derby

Southwest American Indians spotted in the UK!

Tracks to the future

The morning chat

A walk with a wet ending

Floating feather

The old oak watching over the field

Windblown snow

Old powerplant southwest of Derby

pushing up

Sea of chimneys in Derby

Old stairs bending under the weight of generations

Got food?

Hm, makes sense to me

a batch of bikes in the Bristol train station

Standing under the flightpath

The Tate Modern version of DNA

Gayle swooping down

Nightime view of St Pauls Cathedral

skaters and BMXers ripping it up on the Thames walkway

more images...

Peter Newbury's Published Adventures