Old Dirty Rocks

While I was in London I stayed with Amy, a friend of Sean’s from prior years. While I stayed at her house, I helped her out by reading through a thesis she was writing about how sexual deviancy ought to be considered as performance art, if it’s framed right. The thesis was sprinkled liberally with examples from her own life and people she knows well, people with names like Rough Mercies or Red Sarah. The second night, we went together to an art exhibition that people she knew were going to. I came out of the Tube and walked through a popular district with bars and clubs—straight through, to the other side of it, coming out in a dark, vaguely industrial district, with the feeling that I’d just walked around to the back of a building where the dumpsters and power meters are kept. I opened a forbiddingly metal-framed glass door and gave my name to someone with a guest book, and walked into a shallow room lit with a dim reddish glow that didn’t seem to come from any particular place. On the wall were paintings of pallid naked bodies hybridized surreally with indefinite machines or syringes, or of lovingly rendered stinging insects. This was the art of Valentina Bardazzi, and the crowning piece of the night was a blanket suspended from the wall next to the door, onto which was projected a film of a body lying motionless under a blanket. The blanket in the film rippled as if it were the water of a milky pond, and the effect was to make the real blanket look unsettlingly like it was moving. All the while there was a heavy, oppressive bass beat playing over the sounds of indistinct, distant chatter. At the end, the chatter got suddenly much more high-pitched and panicked, like a whole colony of ants drowning and able to shout out for help, and the blanket unraveled from the top down into blackness, taking the body with it, and when the body disappeared, the sound was silenced. Amy loved the whole exhibition, and congratulated the artist, and socialized with a bunch of other freaky people who were there. They talked gaily about previous pieces of performance that they’d watched or taken part in, at places called Torture Garden and such. While she was there, Amy was casually wearing white face paint with comet-tails of black heading backward from her eyes onto her bald head. Just kind of had it on like it was a little lipstick—this is just what I put on to go out at night, do you find something so strange about that? But she was terrifically friendly and hospitable, for all that; it’s just that she happens to like impalement and standing stock-still in public while topless and wearing a pig snout.

So this was who I went to Stonehenge with. I was going to go with Sean and Natalie, but they found out too late that the solstice happened a day earlier than they’d planned, and they couldn’t go. Instead they said goodbye to me at the New Milton train station, and we all promised to meet each other again as often as we could, whenever we happen to be in the same general area of the globe, and then I rode off to meet Amy at her mom’s house. Her mom was pleasant and cooked me a hamburger and taught an old man how to use a scroll wheel so he could proofread the newsletter she’d written for their local chapter of a disability support group. Her high-school-age sister was there too, with her boyfriend, doing things that high schoolers in love do when adults are around.

We left at midnight. The idea behind the Stonehenge gathering was to see the sunrise. So we drove there in the dark with a friend of Amy’s who told us about how she’d recently discovered her natural talent for archery. Stonehenge was about two hours away, and I knew I probably wouldn’t sleep while I was there, so I tried to nap a little on the way. I mostly failed, but succeeded enough to be disoriented when the car slowed down and we were suddenly on a little country road. There didn’t seem to be a highway for miles, though there definitely were some enormous floodlights. Police in high-viz, which Amy assured me were a new installment like the floodlights, pointed us down a gravel road that crossed our paved one. It took us a few hundred yards to find a parking place to pack the car into among all the cars, vans, microbuses, and live-in trailers that lined both sides, and by the time we did, we were back into almost total darkness. Except for a pair or two of far-off headlights, and dim campfires here and there, it was like untampered night. Cold and dark. Amy’s sharpshooting friend had work sometime the next day and needed to sleep, but neither of us particularly did, so she shut herself in and we wandered the lane in all the warm clothes we had.

Amy pointed out to me which direction the henge was in, but all I could see was darkness, maybe with a fuzzy intimation of a horizon if I squinted. I’d have to wait for sunrise. Meanwhile Amy needed to find all the people she knew. She had a method worked out for doing this: she walked along the lane, and wherever there were people, she shouted out, “Happy Yuletide!” and waited for someone to ramble back, “Hey, I know you!” It turned out to be slim pickings for Yule friends. There were only a few campfires, and they were mostly circled by people who were too intoxicated to understand the concept of the outside world. I guess I might have known that the epitome of paganism and Earth-worship, solstice at Stonehenge, would be picked up on by hippies and trippies who think they understand it and also believe that the true way to commune with the rising sun and the natural world is to be out of your mind with bizarre chemicals. We paused around one campfire where a man was smacking his really large white dog for no apparent reason except that he (the man) was drunk to a level that, logically, should have meant that he’d already passed out from alcohol poisoning. As we watched, the dog finally decided it had had enough, and bit the guy’s face. He didn’t even notice. The other people around the fire had to point out to him with alarmed gestures that he was bleeding freely. “Am I?” he muttered disinterestedly, and smacked the dog again, until the other people, some of whom might even have been sober, revoked his privilege to control that dog and leashed it somewhere far away from him.

On the other hand, there were upsides; we passed a huge boxy green van, and were invited inside by an animated guy with long hair who just wanted to have some Bailey’s with us. So we went inside and it seemed like a kind of nice place to live mobilely, complete with a bed, bench, and kitchen with liquor cupboard. We three passed the bottle around and talked about living on the road. He told us he doesn’t have much in the way of plans, besides just keep moving around every once in a while. I think he might have been one of the longtimers. Some of the people camped out there weren’t around just for the solstice. They’d been parked on that little gravel road for months, and might stay there for months more. What an idyllic life, wouldn’t it be? Wake up each morning looking at Stonehenge and, in all other directions, peaceful grassy fields. The perfect place to seclude yourself and write a novel, with the opportunity to trade fascinating conversation about the deeper workings of the world with the other free spirits congregating at this ancient monument. At least, that’s how it should be, but most of these people were almost certainly utterly wasting the opportunity by just getting high or smashed or any number of other states every night.

Eventually we got to the road we’d come in by, and crossed it to the other half of the camp lane, and there was Mad Alan. He’s the guy who gave Amy her first and (as of then, maybe still) only tattoo, a design she saw while she was meditating—an eye turned sideways with a spiral pupil, inscribed in an equilateral triangle. I’d say he’s definitely qualified to give tattoos. I couldn’t see him very well, but I could tell that there didn’t seem to be any inch of him that wasn’t covered in ink, and keep in mind that the only thing I could see of him in cold-weather clothes was his bald head—it was filled with flowers and Tibetan writing, and he’d even managed to get the whites of his eyes tattooed black and green. Strangely enough, he was fairly lucid, at least at this point, possibly because he’d just been driving. And he was mad, in the sort of way where he doesn’t care about what anyone else says or thinks, he’s just going to madly do his own thing and let it land him where it may. It was an admirable sort of madness, though I don’t think I can set it for something to aspire to, myself. He had brought along a few friends, with whom I had awkward conversations full of unshared references. Then I retired to the fire across the lane where some people had emptied a bunch of cans of beef stew into a pot and were giving it away for free.

I wandered around without much to keep me in one place for very long except the warmth of fires. I couldn’t relate much to most of the people there, especially in their current states, and on top of that I was getting into a sleep-deprivation zombie state. So it’s a good thing that the hours of the night drained away fairly quickly.

The drone of the crowd slowly rose as the sky in the southeast started getting lighter. Once it was just barely light enough to see where you were going, I suddenly noticed that everyone had stood up and was heading in one direction. The fence around the henge’s vast backyard had just been opened—it’s not meant to be opened, so a security guard actually had to undo the wires and bend it back—and everyone was funneling onto the grounds of the ancients. (For a few fleeting, magical moments in that bottleneck, everyone expressed how it felt to herd by saying the same thing: “Mmma-a-a-a-ah.” It felt so right.)

I saw the stones for the first time. Of course, you know what Stonehenge looks like. Totally alien—yet somehow as if it’s been there since time began. But from far away, you might almost as well be looking at a picture of Stonehenge, give or take a feeling of crunchiness underfoot from frozen grass. To get to know the stones, you have to get closer. If you can, you have to do what I got to do—you have to get up close, up among them. By the time I reached the circumference, the circle was already packed tight with people. There was a little room left for me inside, but I stopped for a moment before I went in, because I had shoes on, and it just seemed indefensible to wear those inside. I carried them in. My feet got cold. But warm bodies were packed in around me. I couldn’t see very far, but I could see the stones spiking up above my head and enfolding all the thousands of people who had come today. If they started out with sharp edges ever, there are none left now. All the curves are as soft as a loaf of bread. And when you look up, to the parts of the stone that are out of human reach, there’s thick, shaggy, green moss with strands inches long. Some of it may have been growing there since the henge was built. No one touches up there.

In the center of the circle, standing on top of a stone that probably wasn’t originally for that purpose, was a druid high priest. With no microphone, he had to rely on everyone to be silent so he could be heard even shouting. But almost everyone did—and even the ones who couldn’t help themselves were shouting out things like “LOOOOVE!” and “I LOVE EVERYONE HERE!!” I didn’t hear a lot of what he said, since I was just too far away and the ancient druids didn’t have an eye toward acoustics when they designed this shrine. But after he’d made a point, he would usually lead everyone in chanting with a unified voice: “Aaaaaaaaaaaay… Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee… Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii….” These three vowels held symbolic value. I couldn’t hear what the value was, but I do believe I could feel it when that note bloomed through the crowd, and resolved itself into silence as people used up their breath, and then led into the next note. We also all managed to stay together when we said new-style old-style prayers, asking for those in power to respect the environment, to stop its destruction, to feel, as we entered a new Mayan b’akt’un for the first time in five thousand years, the force of love that was present here today—so mote it be.

I kept listening, but began to walk around and feel the stones. They had a tremendous cold bulk. I pressed my hand against each one in turn, all the way around the outer circle and inner circles. I retreated into my own space, and felt like it was just me and the stones breathing. I don’t know what the ancient druids used this site place for exactly. But I don’t think I’m disingenuous if I say I felt their presence and their energy, even if only in a vague, misinterpreted way. It’s a powerful place, even more so when you’re surrounded by thousands of chanting pagans.

The sky was getting very light, but the sun still hadn’t risen, and we’d been watching for it for at least half an hour. Few people knew exactly what minute it was supposed to crest the horizon. I certainly didn’t. I just had to stare at the rim of the sky where it seemed lightest, and wait. The light got brighter and brighter, but the sun didn’t come. It started to feel like it just never would—the sun would bypass England today, and we would just get dim oblique light all day. But when we started seeing the light of the exact point where it would rise, the subconscious pessimism vanished and the air felt like it was throwing off sparks. Everyone held in their last cold breath of the previous solar year.

And the light cracked forth out of the bosom of the horizon, unbelievably brilliant, feeling like the first sunrise that ever happened. Involuntarily we cheered. Strangers hugged each other and wished each other happy Yuletide. The whole crowd felt like the prisoner suddenly freed, like the parched traveler plunging into an oasis, like the woman whose beloved spends years away and finally appears around the corner of her street. I leaned against a stone and refused to part with it for a long time.

In the end, the euphoria wore off, and I had to attend to other matters. I needed to get to London tonight, and I also needed to figure out a place to stay there. This was the sort of place where I felt fine just asking around: “Are you driving back to London? Do you have a couch I could crash on for one night before my flight back to the US?” I would have expected way more Londoners. Maybe I started asking too late, after most of them had already left so they could get back almost on time for their jobs. A few had full cars. Sean and I had determined while we planned this out that hitchhiking back from Stonehenge would be the easiest possible hitchhiking situation imaginable. I guess that led me to approach the task with a heavy dose of nonchalance, and by the time I realized that there were not nearly as many Londoners as I’d expected (and most of them weren’t in cars), I’d already messed around long enough that half of everyone had gone home, and people were still draining away fast. I walked up and down the gravel lane asking people if they were headed to London. A few were headed out to other places, but soon I was starting to scrape bottom—it was only the longtimers left. I considered heading out to the highway—one does exist there, but the landscaping is cleverly done so that it’s always out of view when you’re at the stones—but it was a far walk and I didn’t know how much more luck I’d find there.

I found a carload full of vivacious young people who had a flat tire but also a friend who was coming later and could take me. Good enough for me. While they waited for him to show up, I slept in the back of their car, which they’d converted into a bed. I got a good two hours of sleep to offset some of the entire night I’d just missed. When they woke me up, it was with the all too predictable news that their friend couldn’t actually come after all. By now it was mid afternoon and the henge had for hours been closed off to solstice pilgrims so that paying tourists could come by and walk on the paved paths and be forbidden to touch the stones. I was back much further than square one, maybe back to square negative six.

I was sitting behind a trailer eating some vegan soup that an older couple hadn’t succeeded in completely giving away when George1 appeared, a 67-year-old with a good beard. So I needed a ride to London, did I? Well, he was going that way soon. He just had to take care of a personal errand first, at about 4:00. I thanked him so very much, and lost track of him for a while, but eventually he found me again and I sat in his car at four while he took care of what he needed to do.

He needed to spread his mother’s ashes. He’d had her in an urn for nine years, waiting for the right time to be able to come here and put the ashes where they needed to finally be. Today, the day of the end of the world, seemed like the time. While she was alive she lived someplace that put Stonehenge halfway between her and George’s place in London. So whenever one came to visit the other, they would stop at Stonehenge on the way, and sometimes they would go together. I don’t know how many decades they did that. But they could call Stonehenge their place, in a way that not many people can claim a place.

A few minutes before sunset—about four o’clock—he left me in his car listening to Sibelius while he inconspicuously climbed over the fence and walked toward the stones, in silhouette. I lost track of him when he got close, but a few minutes later he reappeared coming back toward the car. He climbed back over the fence and got in. Finished. “It’s not sunset yet, but she always did like to be early,” he said. “The security guard did stop and talk me, but by then the ashes were already all over the ground, so he couldn’t well ask me to pick them up.” He said the guard was pretty polite about the whole thing. I suppose I would be too.

We drove to London—quietly at first, but then we got talking and agreeing with almost everything the other said about how ate-up the system is from the bottom up. It was a shame that we only had the two hours from Stonehenge to London together. He dropped me off at Victoria Station and we both toasted each other with parting shots of whisky.

So I’d gotten to London. I’d used George’s phone to call two people who said they might be able to put me up while I was asking around in the morning. One guy could but only after midnight. The other guy might be able to, but he’d have to ask his housemates, and for the moment he was busy, but why didn’t I come to where he was to wait? He was at the Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel. He didn’t mention what he was doing there, and I could barely begin to guess. As I stepped over the doorstep of the gate, though, I found a piece of paper inviting me to the Onetaste Solstice Celebration, inside. Aha.

Behind the heavy wooden front door, I found a floor with no pews or chairs; about thirty people were sitting silently in a circle, with another circle inside it made of candles and unidentifiable spiritual-looking items. A man who was lying down by the coatrack put my coat and backpack somewhere for me, silently, and I stared. Directly, a gangly guy with a face covered in white and blue paint came up to me and, sotto voce, asked if I’d like to be smudged with sage smoke to clean off my aura before I sat down. What the heck, I figured, and he lit a bundle of sage on fire, then blew it out and used a big feather to fan the smoke onto me while circling around me with a deeply contemplative expression.

I followed him back to the circle. Just as we got there, someone with a microphone had started playing the part of “the voice inside your head”. This voice inside our heads said: “I just feel like standing up. I’m going to look at the person next to me… I think I’ll just lock eyes with them and smile.” The person next to me was Karim, the guy I’d met. “Okay, now it’s time to dance with that person a moment. Ah, this is nice. I like some nice goofy dancing. Alright, now I’m going to put my hand up and just barely touch fingers with their hand.” After a while of getting to know each other without any words, the voice in our heads stopped talking and we sat down for a break.

His housemates didn’t want to host a random stranger, and who can blame them, but, he pointed out, this was the sort of place where I could definitely make an announcement at some point during the night asking if anyone had a spare place to sleep for one night. In fact, during the break I talked to a few people, and succeeded in finding a place in a warehouse. Then I found an even better place—the warehouse guy told his friend Felix that it’d probably be more convenient for me if I could stay with Felix, and Felix agreed. Felix was none other than the guy who smudged me. It was looking like the night would only continue to be extraordinary.

The whole event was about fostering a sense of togetherness with each other and the world. It was done in various fun ways. They had some food, which always brings people together, and also some singing. And also there was a guy named Paradox who told his life story, about how he got a job early on for 70,000 pounds, but discovered that his life felt completely meaningless when he went to the office every day, so he quit and gave up his house and his possessions and just started living in the park and selling magazines. He had the gift of gab, so he sold magazines at an unheard-of speed, and started loving everyone, because there were so many people who would do an obviously homeless man a favor. One day, when he felt spectacular from the get-go, he slipped into an uncharted magical territory of human ability, where he would start to pitch his magazine but before he could even tell people why it was so great, they would just hand him tenners or twenties with a glowing smile and not even ask for a magazine. People came from across the street to do this and then hurried back over to where they were originally heading. Through force of will and belief he had determined that there was nothing he couldn’t accomplish.

The night wound down with a long song and some communal cleaning up of the place, and then I rode home with Felix, his tall girlfriend Diahann, and Paradox, who happened to be staying with them. Diahann turned out to be a recreational chocolatier, and gave me the most delicious chocolate I’ve ever tasted. They gave me a spot to lay out my bedroll, and I slept peacefully.

The next day was meant to be when I packed in all the London stuff I’d missed, but it was raining so there was no Changing of the Guards, and the museums were so big that I didn’t have time to appreciate them all. Oh well: it’s not like I had a boring time in the UK. That night I slept in Gatwick Airport, and after one more night’s sleep I was back home—finally, finally.

  1. Note: This probably isn’t his name. I forget it at the moment and I don’t have my journal at hand. I’ll look it up as soon as I do and fix this. 

File under: Year of Adventure, interesting people · Places: England

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Wow. The existential wanderings of lost pagans. You paint a wonderfully bleak picture.

The New Paganism is no longer new, and it never at any time bore the smallest resemblance to Paganism. The ideas about the ancient civilization which it has left loose in the public mind are certainly extraordinary enough. The term "pagan" is continually used in fiction and light literature as meaning a man without any religion, whereas a pagan was generally a man with about half a dozen. The pagans, according to this notion, were continually crowning themselves with flowers and dancing about in an irresponsible state, whereas, if there were two things that the best pagan civilization did honestly believe in, they were a rather too rigid dignity and a much too rigid responsibility. Pagans are depicted as above all things inebriate and lawless, whereas they were above all things reasonable and respectable. They are praised as disobedient when they had only one great virtue–civic obedience. They are envied and admired as shamelessly happy when they had only one great sin–despair. GK Chesterton


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As always, I'm in awe of the breadth of your experiences. One after another. You MUST share these stories, as some of them are so bizarre as to be almost unbelievable. Grandma

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