I met her casually in a youth hostel one morning in the coastal Mexican town of Puerto Escondido, a couple of days before I was due to fly back to the UK. Maria possessed another-worldly quality that was halfway between grace, as Simone Weil once defined it, and New Age assumptions that she hadn't yet quite worked through. The Weil aspect, that she invoked without acknowledgement for she had never read the French theological philosopher, was the idea that the world is basically gravity and it constantly pulls us down, and the only thing that can elevate us is the presence of grace in our lives. I can say that while everyone else I had met in my two months travelling around Mexico seemed heavy with boredom, fatigue, fret or irritation, she was the one person who appeared without weight.
Perhaps it was what I so immediately noticed about her because I believed it was more than the rucksack that had been weighing me down over the last weeks of the trip, as one person after another convinced me in their behaviour, though no one dared construct it as an argument, that travelling was an absurd, pointless waste of everybody's time, and the planet's natural resources. As I travelled from Mexico City to Oaxaca, from Oaxaca to San Cristobal, and from San Cristobal to Puerto, I noticed while I was moving at a slower pace than most of the people who in the same period as me had been to three or four times more destinations, I was still moving too fast to generate, I suppose, a certain grace in my life. How I would have attempted to define this sense of grace no doubt owed a great deal to the philosopher mentioned above, but I also knew my fumbling attempt to make sense of it came out of the travel experience.
I embarked on the trip though I wasn't much for travelling; some years before on losing my job and with a relationship coming to an inevitable end, about a year after university, I bought a Euro-rail card and after a week of exhausting movement that took in Paris (where I visited a friend), Rome and Madrid, I arrived in Barcelona, booked into a youth hostel and announced that I wanted to stay for three weeks - the remainder of the European trip. Each morning I would wake early and take breakfast at a caf about fifteen minutes away from the hostel, and not far from the Picasso museum. From there I would read and sometimes look up from my book for many minutes and watch people as they passed by. In the afternoons I would walk the streets until hungry or exhausted, and usually by around nine at night I would be tired enough to go to bed. I went to no clubs, had no significant conversations with anyone in the hostel or elsewhere, and while in the first week in the city I would feel small anxiety attacks of social pressure, moments where I thought I should really be using my time more productively and seeing more of the great sights of Europe, in the last fortnight of my stay I was surprised at my earlier doubts about remaining in one place. What I possessed in those two weeks was a lightness of spirit that seemed to need so little, and when I thought of the previous week and the moments of anxiety that I felt, I believed it was an interstitial tension. This was a tension created, I assumed, out of neither enough movement nor enough inactivity.
Though I've been lucky enough never to be unemployed, I supposed that such a state must be awful; that to be caught between inactivity and activity, to want to work but have no employment, must be to live this state of anxiety on a daily basis. Indeed, an older friend I talked to after coming back from that Euro-rail trip, a friend in Inverness who had been unemployed for many years and would spend his days reading in libraries, going for long walks, and writing poetry he occasionally published, said that he was not against working; he was against the anxiety of waiting to work. If someone had offered him a job that he could do, then he wouldn't have turned it down, and he would sometimes do gardening work and tree-cutting in the summer, but he had always promised himself he wouldn't be caught in the anticipation of work, the condition in which he believed the state captured millions of people, and destroyed their nervous systems in the process. He was happy not to work; but that didn't mean he was unhappy to do so.
We talked about this within a month of my getting back to the Highlands, and it was around this time that I started to make my living as a handyman. Though I'd studied politics, and had finished the degree before travelling round Europe, for a couple of years before university I had helped my uncle who worked as a handyman in Inverness, doing anything from painting to carpentry to electrical work. I went to college for a year in the Highland capital, got the necessary qualifications, and moved to Aviemore, where I succeeded in getting a mortgage on a flat with some money that my grandmother had left me, and managed initially to find work though contacts my uncle had in the area. Indeed, quite often when he was offered work in and around Aviemore he would pass it on to me.
It's clear then that though I had the urge to be a self-made man, if it wasn't for my grandmother and my uncle it would have been impossible. But it wasn't especially that I wanted to be independent, it was more that I didn't want to be dependent. I possessed no self-aggrandized feeling out of this independence; but one of relief at escaping dependency.
So I worked as a handyman for the eight or so years between that first trip round Europe, and that second trip to Mexico a few months ago, and finally passed the firm, such as it was, on to someone who would often with work me when I needed assistance. I believed that over the eight years I had been accumulating not freedom but a certain type of weight, and wondered whether if I went travelling for several months I might be able to alleviate it.
Much of what I've mentioned above I offered to Maria that first night in the hostel when we talked about living with heaviness or lightness. She told me she was surprised that I saw lightness in her; for only a month ago she had left her job and left her long-term boyfriend in Chicago. We supposed such changes in our lives can work either way: do we feel light through leaving, or heavy with memories of what we no longer have? She was pleased I saw lightness; she felt, especially over the last couple of weeks travelling round Mexico alone, heavy with memory.
Much of the conversation came from discussions in the hostel over breakfast and after it, and also from talking over lunch as we met in a caf not far from the hostel. It was only then that I asked her why she was specifically in Puerto, and she said that she wanted to see the sun set in Mazunte. Friends had told her she must go; and so she asked if I wanted to do so now. I looked up at a clock and saw that it was two thirty. I asked how long it would take to get there; she said not much more than an hour. We finished our coffees, grabbed a couple of things from the hostel, and were on a bus within forty minutes.
After arriving I couldn't see where we might see the sun set and she said we would probably have to clamber over some rocks, and go round to the cliffs by the other side. In the meantime, in the warm late afternoon sun, Maria lay on the beach sunbathing, while I threw my self at the waves and then started swimming beyond them. I felt refreshed coming out of the water forty minutes later, for I knew, before swimming, that if I were to see the most stunning sunset in my life, I didn't want to view it with a sluggish body. It was the constant activity of the body that I so enjoyed about my work back in Aviemore, and its absence in much of travelling. Working back home I would usually rise at seven and be at work for eight, still feeling fatigued and bored with the repetitive work ahead of me, but by around ten o'clock almost whistling as I did it. As I fixed a window frame, mended the plumbing, or rewired a flat, it was always a problem to be solved, and a problem that usually required both the body and the mind. I may sometimes have yearned for more varied work, but many people I knew from university had gone into white collar jobs that weren't much more stimulating than mine, and where the body was passive as they did it. Swimming every day for up to an hour while I was in Puerto, running several times a week in the evening as the sun would set, took care of the body, while reading for a couple of hours each day took care of the mind: I'd managed to remove much of that travel sluggishness. After I came out of the water, I asked Maria why she hadn't swam. She said she was scared of the water; she could swim but only in pools. I asked if she would feel safe if swimming with someone else; she said perhaps, and I lay down on the sun-lounger next to hers and allowed the sun to dry me off. Fifteen minutes later Maria said that she would like to try and swim if I would go with her. She was a strong swimmer, and once we were beyond the waves that threw her back on the shore several times, we swam to the end of the beach and back again.
After getting out of the sea we dried ourselves in the now weakening sun, and ordered some tea from a caf by the beach, near the sun lounger. I mentioned that I was glad we swam before seeing the sunset: hopefully we had earned it. After twenty minutes we decided it was time to try and find the best spot for viewing the setting sun.
As we walked along and up craggy rocks, often jagged to the point of pain and possible skin puncture, I felt we really were earning this sunset, and watched as she nimbly negotiated the terrain, no matter the potential awkwardness of the bag she was carrying which was not, like mine, a small rucksack, but a shoulder one. I tried several times to say that I would carry it, but she insisted that I might be robbing her of the pleasure to be had out of the difficulties that preceded the view: hadn't I said we have to earn our pleasures? It took us more than twenty minutes to reach the spot, and when we came over the rocks, we were hit by a blustering wind and a sun set that left a stunning shadow of light on the sea for what seemed like many miles. This is an important moment in my life, she said, though she didn't know why; perhaps for many reasons, or for only one.
After the sun sank behind the horizon, we noticed people walking back along a path rather than along by the rocks the way we had come, and we laughed as we walked along the same path and fifteen minutes later found ourselves back in the centre of this small village, amused we had chosen the most difficult possible way of seeing the sun set, and relieved we had found an easier way back.
That evening, we got a bus to Puerto, ate in a restaurant on a beach strip called Zicatela, afterwards returned to the hostel, and went up to my room where we lay on the bed, talking and drowsing. I had mentioned the previous day to her that I would be leaving the following evening, that I had a night bus to catch back to Mexico City, and we had a subdued breakfast together before going to what was called the staircase beach, a beach a couple of miles from the town, and within walking distance for the none too idle. At the beach she said there was indeed a specific reason why she had come to Puerto. She was thinking of buying a plot of land in Mazunte, and starting her own health retreat there. She had saved twenty thousand dollars, had a friend in Mexico City whom she had known in Chicago, and a third friend in New York, who also had some savings. Their Mexican friend would oversee everything, but the two of them would be the main investors. She had come to see if it was the amazing place she had heard about.
A couple of months before, while she was in Chicago, she had asked her friend in Mexico City to look at the land, and he went to Mazunte with his father. She added that perhaps it would be never more than dream, and then, hugging me, said that maybe in some way the dream had already been fulfilled: she had seen the most beautiful sun set in the world, with someone whom she barely knew but would never forget.
I think in this hug and her lovely comment I understood her lightness, her capacity not to feel weighed down by the world. Here I was soon to be leaving, and instead of thinking about my imminent absence, she was thinking lovingly of the previous evening together.
A few months later I was still not quite sure what I wanted to do with my immediate and not so immediate life. I was still living in Aviemore, and helping the person I had passed the company onto, working maybe fifteen to twenty hours a week, and reading on various subjects, thinking I might do a PhD in philosophy or politics. Maria and I were still in e-mail contact, sometimes several times a week, and I proposed to her that if she had time off she could come and visit me. She said she had got no further in developing the Mazunte project, and didn't know whether she would. She was doing temping work in Chicago, and was under no obligation to stay. She said she was thinking of coming to Europe anyway, and had relatives in France and Spain.
She came and stayed with me for a couple of weeks before she went on to visit family, friends and sights in other parts of Europe. During those two weeks we became intimate, and she was an unobtrusive presence around the flat, as she would often wake earlier than me and prepare the breakfast, and do the dishes after I'd made dinner in the evening. Many visitors had managed after a few days to eradicate any hint of spiritual well-being and replace it with a material clumsiness, a physical presence that got heavier and heavier with each passing moment. Initially when guests arrived they were often full of energy and expectation, and after three days lethargic and resistant, waiting to go home. But she seemed to become lighter the more time she was there; as if understanding with each day that passed more about the way I occupied this familiar space, and how with each moment she became better at negotiating it for herself as well.
One might have assumed that she wanted to move in, that she wanted to share her life with me and so accommodated herself to my needs, and made herself fit in with them. But I didn't think so; indeed when she said she was booking a train to London, and then getting a Eurostar to Paris, I asked if she would like to stay on for another week, and she insisted that she wanted to move on. I could of course join her at any stage - but obviously she knew of my reluctance to travel and said if I really didn't want to, then she would love to come back to Aviemore near the end the trip. She wasn't due to fly back to Chicago for another two months, and obviously didn't want to eat into her savings staying for weeks in hostels and hotels. She laughed as she said this; and I knew that her generosity was beyond doubt, for she had tried to pay for almost everything since she had arrived in the village. Perhaps we could meet in Paris, I proposed, maybe a friend from university might be persuaded to do a swap.
I e-mailed the friend a few days after and he loved the idea, and suggested a swap in around three weeks' time: he said he would be coming with his new girlfriend, and perhaps the four of us could spend an evening together in Paris before they came to Scotland or maybe we could join them in Aviemore shortly before the end of their trip. I thought the latter would be the better idea, and though Thierry and I were good friends at university (he was there for an exchange year), and that he had visited me several times over the last few years, and I once visited him (he was the person I stayed with when visiting Paris during my Euro-Rail trip), nevertheless there was always an aspect of his character that clashed with mine - though we were both, I suppose, too affable ever to make it an issue of contention. He would always say he wished he could have argued so agreeably with his father, whom he fell out with a couple of years before his death, when Thierry was twenty one, and whom he talked to again only when his father was dying in hospital.
However, I was aware that Maria appealed to the very aspects of my personality that annoyed Thierry, for I knew Thierry was a man who lived for gravity over grace, for material reality over abstractions and the spiritual. He started his own company shortly after leaving university, and, unlike mine, its purpose was to make money rather than win him time for his own self-exploration. He was I supposed by now a millionaire, and the new girlfriend was one of many as he insisted on playing around when not working fourteen hour days. What would he have in common with a woman who was all grace: who even believed the business she might one day start needn't be any more than an idea in her head generating well-being? If they were to meet at all it would be best to arrange it for the end of Thierry's Scottish trip.
I arrived in Paris the morning before Maria was due to get into the city from Barcelona, and in the afternoon I went shopping and bought some items for my own dinner and breakfast, and a selection for when she arrived. Thierry's flat was on the top floor and near La Republique, and would prove well within walking distance to the Seine, the Left Bank, the Sorbonne and the Pompidou Centre. It was a modest flat: Thierry bought it shortly after leaving university and when he started to make money he spent most of it on a farmhouse it took years converting in the South of France: most of his free time he would go down and work on the house, saying he wanted to claim responsibility for every piece of labour himself. I'd never visited the place partly due to my reluctance to travel, but I always liked the way he would talk about working on it as a hobby - it made my own job as a handyman seem casual and easy, an idea that didn't so much hammer my ego as assuage my sense of self.
Over the next week or so Maria and I would get up late, take a long breakfast and rarely leave the flat before one in the afternoon. We would cycle or walk throughout the city, sometimes stopping for a film - if we knew it didn't have much dialogue or was in English - frequently to visit a gallery, always stopping for a coffee. Everything seemed meaningful yet nothing was planned, and there was something in those ten days that vindicated my belief that living life forwards yet understanding its meaning only after the event, meant that contingencies were more important than plans.
It was after the first week that Maria was checking her e-mails and I said I would meet her in about twenty minutes as there was a second-hand book store nearby that I wanted to visit. When I returned half an hour later she was furiously typing whilst at the same time crying. She kept repeating that he is dead and that she couldn't believe it. I asked who had died, and she said her friend, her friend in Mexico. She was writing to her friend's wife, writing rapidly in a language she knew only moderately well, and afterwards turned to me and asked me to hold her. I paid the concerned looking person behind the counter and said to them that she had lost a good friend. Over the next few days she would cry a lot, and yet she insisted that somehow she felt calm, that Guillermo was safe - that he had made peace with this world and would be happy in the next.
She never really explained what she meant by this until a few days later, until, in fact, we were back in Aviemore and having dinner with Thierry and his girlfriend. We had arrived late the previous evening, and had a light supper and went to bed, but the following day the four of us walked out by a loch, and around the three mile path that circled it. We had probably walked about fifteen miles that day, and in the evening we ate at a restaurant that we had passed during our walk. The food was nourishing, the wine smooth and the conversation not as fraught as I expected it might be, given Thierry's rational concerns and Maria's interest in the spirit.
That evening we were talking about loss in our lives and inevitably Guillermo's death came into the conversation. She insisted she knew within hours of his death that he was okay, that she might not quite believe in heaven or reincarnation, though she didn't rule them out, but she really believed he was at peace with himself. She even wondered whether her day-dreaming idea of starting a centre in Mazunte might have contributed to her sense that Guillermo would be okay. We all wondered why, and she said that several months before going to Mazunte herself she had asked Guillermo to look over the site. She knew he had barely enough money to cover the basics at home, and offered him five hundred dollars to make the trip, and he said he could go only for a weekend; he didn't want to take time off work.
What he decided to do though was also take his father, who was in his seventies, and who, like Guillermo himself, though the latter had lived for a while in the States, nevertheless, had never seen the sea. They had driven down the coast, and during this long, eight hour drive they had for the first time in their lives talked to each other. In a long e-mail to her after they got back, Guillermo said that he felt that it wasn't so much the first stages of a business venture, but a curious pilgrimage. Not only had neither of them ever seen the sea; neither of them really knew anything about each other either. They were father and son like millions of others; afterwards they felt like they had earned the terms. He believed this might have been the last chance he would have to be so completely in his father's company, though it was also the first. He thought his father, who hadn't been in good health for several years, might not live to see the retreat. Of course, Maria now said it would be the other way round. If she were to start the retreat, the first visitor to it should be Guillermo's father.
As she finished talking I looked around the table and saw that Thierry's girlfriend was moved as she rubbed Maria's arm in a gesture of tender friendship that only the story and nothing preceding it had elicited. Maria's face was benign, as though talking about Guillermo took her off into another dimension. However it was Thierry's face that surprised me, as he seemed not only to be holding back tears, but waves of emotion that he may never have quite accessed before. As he said this was a venture he would very much like to be involved with, it was as if gravity had given way to grace, and I could see a business coming out of a wealth of feeling; just as not so many months before a casual business idea, no more than an elaborate daydream, had created the space for deep emotion in both Maria and me. Thierry and I started talking avidly about the sort of wood that we should use, the stone required, the roofing, the windows and even the plumbing. We were all quickly absorbed in the practicalities, but contained within them was, I believed, a sure feeling of grace. I had a sense that the trip we might all soon take to Mazunte would be full of the meaning and purpose I often thought absent from so much of people's travels. I also thought of the idea of Thierry meeting Guillermo's dad: a son without a father meeting a father without a son.
© Tony McKibbin