Calum McSwiggan

Archive for the ‘Love’ Category

Summer In The City

In Eat, Gay, Love on August 25, 2013 at 11:31 am

Alexandra Palace

‘So I put my faith in something unknown, I’m living on such sweet nothing.’

– Calvin Harris 

The screams deafened me as I peered through the heaving crowd and up at some of my biggest inspirations, I couldn’t believe that these people who I had watched and read in solitude were now here in front of me being idolised by thousands. I had the same feeling of excitement that other people must feel when they see their favourite musicians perform, watch their favourite actress, or cheer on their favourite sports team.

I listened to their words intently, taking mental notes to drive my own inspirations, hanging on their every word, and then catching the eye of one of them and smiling. Lost in a crowd of hardcore fans you never expect them to acknowledge you, and so when you see them smiling back, you look around frantically, convinced that they’re looking at someone else.

I’d come here to be inspired, I’d only just moved to London when I heard that this global YouTube event was taking place right on my doorstep, and I just had to be a part of it. International writers, film makers, and vloggers were flying in from all over the world to give talks, run seminars, and to meet with their fans. There was absolutely nowhere in the world I would have rather been.

I had been getting despondent with my creativity, with boxing myself into a career path that wasn’t giving me the same enjoyment it once did, battling self enforced deadlines, and ending up necking a bottle of wine instead of getting anything done. This event was the push I needed to branch out and try something new, inject the life back into my work, and finally bring that big project into fruition.

It was incredible to be able to briefly shake the hands of the people that inspire me, to thank them for their work, and get them to sign a good luck card for a like-minded friend about to take on the biggest change in his life. It was thrilling to tick meet one of my idols off my bucket list for 2013, but what was really unbelievable was what was about to happen next.

After meeting so many of my aspirations, there was just one more person I wanted to meet, the person I’d stared up at from the crowd, the person I’d followed religiously for as long as I could remember. I rushed across the room just in time for his meet and greet to find a two-thousand strong queue already snaking across the hall and outside. I very nearly walked away and went to sit another seminar, but just as I caught his eye again for a split moment, I decided to hop on the end of the line and join the monstrous queue.

I waited for so long that when I was finally rushed forward and instructed to snap a photo and move along, I was flustered and couldn’t get my words out. I wanted to talk to him, pick his brain, and ask him a thousand questions, but instead I whispered a quiet compliment, asked him to sign my friend’s card, and was swiftly hurried along. How can I find you? he called after me as the security guard took my arm and hurried through the next person. Tweet me, I said, @CalumMcSwiggan.

I can’t think of a name more difficult to spell or remember, and that was just one of the reasons that I never expected to hear from him again. He took to the stage again later that day and when I heard the screams of thousands echoing his name, I knew that of course he wasn’t going to contact me. I tried to catch his eye again but I was lost in a sea of people, I’d been fortunate enough to meet a handful of my idols, and to expect anything more was delusional.

Just meeting these amazing people and taking part in their workshops filled me with such creative energy and passion that it began to revitalise my dwindling creative spirit. I’ve not been taking my work seriously, and this was exactly the boost I needed to really start working towards everything I want to achieve.

I wanted to try something new, and meeting these people gave me that push. Not only did I want to start vlogging myself, I wanted to try my hand at photography, take up a dance class, complete a marathon, pose for that life drawing class, and track down my saxophone and piano and relearn my love for music. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know how to do all of these things just as long as I took the leap and got started.

It’s been no secret that I’ve been finding it difficult settling into life in a big city, but all of a sudden I felt like I suddenly fit in, like I was part of something. I understand the importance of building a strong network of friends in the real world, and that’s why I’ve finally settled down and chosen a home, but there’s also a real thriving online community that I’ve been teetering on the outskirts of, and now I really want to throw myself into the centre of it.

I let the last few inspirational words wash over me as the last of my idols waved goodbye and disappeared backstage. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and got ready to leave when my phone buzzed in my pocket and there was a message from him. He wanted to see me again, and even though I only got to see him for the briefest of moments, my heart somersaulted in knowing that he’d chosen to contact me out of the thousands of people who’d queued to meet him.

I never expected to hear from him again as I hugged him goodbye and tumbled down the hillside with a handful of new friends. It was a pleasure to have met him, he was no longer a person inside my computer screen, but he was now a real person and that was enough. I never would have thought I’d have been so lucky to stay in touch with him, that he’d go on to read my work, and become somebody that I could call a friend.

I had wondered if I had made the right decision in moving here into the big city, knowing that I could instead be off island hopping and setting off on my next voyage, but meeting so many of my inspirations changed this. This time last year I was alone in Ibiza in the middle of a whirlwind adventure, but I wouldn’t swap any amount of Mediterranean sunsets for what I have now. I’m just beginning to start this new life, and I couldn’t be happier to spend the last of the summer in the city.

Paint Your Life

In Eat, Gay, Love on August 16, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Hyde Park

 ‘I like it in the city where the air is so thick and opaque, I love to see everybody in short skirts, shorts, and shades.’

– Adele

It only took two days to find a place, to move off my best friend’s sofa, and cart my suitcase through the streets of London and into my new home. The wheels buckled as I dragged the weight of my entire life behind me, and as block by block I approached my new front door, my wheels fell off and the seams of my suitcase began to tear as my belongings toppled and fell out into the street.

This suitcase and I had travelled together for a year and a half, we’d visited countless countries and had countless adventures together, and yet somehow, on the day that I’d finally decided to come back to my own country, it’d given up and was falling apart. It was as if it was telling me that it’d had enough and wanted to stay in one place.

Clutching the keys to my new place in hand, I pushed open the front door and pulled the suitcase up each flight of stairs, breathing in the fragrant flowers nestled in the window boxes, and stepping over the threshold of my new room. I dropped my case to the floor and let all of my worldly possessions spill out, opened the window to the fire escape, and let in the song of a pair of singers duetting in the dusk.

I had more space than I could fill with my few dwindling possessions, and even after mounting my Buddhist tapestry, plastering the walls with several dozen photos, and hanging my gay pride flag, it still seemed terribly empty. I was still missing friends.

I’m so fortunate to now have my best friend living around the corner, but we’ve always operated independently. Like a functioning married couple, we live our own lives so we always have something to talk about when we sit down to dinner. I didn’t want to piggy-back upon her friendships, I wanted to build my own, and that’s why I was so overjoyed when the doorbell finally rang.

Leaping down the stairs three at a time, I pulled open the door and dived into the arms of the American standing there. She was from Ohio, we’d worked together in Italy, and now she was here standing outside my London apartment. It was hard to believe it was really her, and with our combined knowledge of the city totalling nothing, we ventured out together to explore.

This was the life I had wanted when I chose to move here, and in those few days that she was with me, I experienced it all in a snapshot. Just as quickly and as rapidly as she’d come, though, it was soon time for her to disappear on a train and leave me wanting more. It was a scene so familiar to me, except this time it wasn’t me going somewhere new and exciting, it was somebody else, and I was the one being left behind. I might have been living in one of the world’s hubs with people endlessly coming and going, but I still felt very much alone.

 It was a letter from a friend that really made me feel solitary. He said that I was an inspiration for uprooting my life and coming here, and he brazenly played with words like brave and courageous. It was the most flattering letter I’d ever received in my life, but every word stung because I felt like my friendless self was a complete and utter fraud.

I knew then that it was time to stop pretending and to actually start building this life for real. It was time to paint a life that suited me, and so I began trying to make friends in whatever way I could. Scrolling through endless Grindr profiles by day, and bar hopping by night, I talked to anyone and everyone in search of someone I might call a friend, but it seemed everyone just wanted benefits. A topless man would ask me for a fuck, my inbox would flood with pictures of penises, and somebody would take me aside and request to pay me generously for my services.

Making friends as an adult is hard, I never seem to have trouble when on the road, but when I finally come back to my home country it seems impossible. Perhaps being the mysterious guy who arrives on a train and then leaves on a plane is easy, but being a new permanent addition to somebody else’s city is hard. I’d make fleeting friendships by chatting to the girls in the ice-cream shop, getting drunk in somebody’s kitchen, falling asleep in a stranger’s bed, but by the time I’d get home, these people couldn’t even remember my name and I’d probably never see them again.

The people I’d pass as I wandered through my local plot of green frustrated me, I was so jealous of them as they laughed with their friends and lapped up the last bit of the summer sunshine. Laid out on their picnic blankets, wrapped up in their happiness, they had everything I craved but were oblivious to me and the rest of the world around them. They’d found their lives, and it was time for me to find mine.

Everything I wanted was here, I just had to be patient enough to let it happen. Trawling bars and casual sex apps was not going to find me the friends that I wanted, and as soon as I started looking, I began to notice the people I’d shut my eyes to before. A girl sat reading a book alone beneath the boughs of a shady tree, a boy sat on the curb with headphones pushed into his ears, and somebody who smiles with such genuine intentions that you know that they’re just as lonely as you.

Like my visiting friend from Ohio, people come and go from this city every single day, but just as people leave, new people arrive, and those people are all looking for the very same thing. They’re looking for a life that isn’t handed to them on a plate, a life they have to work for, a life they can design from scratch. I may not be able to snap my fingers and have everything I want come shooting out from them, but in time it will all come. Yes it’s lonely, yes it’s scary, but more than anything I’m just grateful that I’m able to sit here and paint my life with whichever colours I so choose.

A Beautiful Disaster

In Eat, Love on July 29, 2013 at 2:35 pm

London Skyline

‘And maybe, just maybe, I’ll come home.’

– Ben Howard

It was our last night in the temple, and as we sat atop the skywalk, lighting our bonfire and watching the tigers prowling below us in the darkness, we began to pen our wishes. Armed with a dozen candles, a flashlight, and a notepad, we wrote down all of the things we wanted for ourselves and for each other, and prepared to ceremoniously toss them into the fire.

Living in a Buddhist Temple was making me begin to believe in all things spiritual, but as I scrawled down the specifics of my each and every wish, I could see my friend worriedly watching me before she finally reached out and stopped me. Are you sure these are the things you really want? I looked at the items on the list, the things I would go on to make happen for myself in the following weeks, and nodded. She wasn’t convinced, though, she told me to be less specific and was adamant that I had absolutely no idea what it was that I wanted.

It felt like an attack on me personally, but I knew it was just an acceptance that absolutely nobody really knows exactly what it is that they want, and that you should be extremely careful with what you wish for. She had given me two life-changing tarot card readings in the month that we had spent together, and for that reason, I trusted her with all things spiritual.

I had those readings in mind when I began rewriting my wishes. The first had been about my love life, and the second about my career, and although she stipulated that there’s no such thing as magic beforehand, they really helped me understand the things most important to me.

I asked for love, happiness, friends, and a home before tossing the wishes into the lit bonfire and watching them crackle and burn. It was this moment I thought of as I sat alone in my new Spanish apartment, watching a single candle flickering on the windowsill, having all of the things I’d originally wanted to wish for, and yet being debilitating unhappy. She had been right.

Each day the thought of having to wake up, get dressed, and cross the Spanish border to work both exhausted and depressed me. I had once loved the picturesque walk along the shore and into town, but now it only made me want to scream.

The problem was, despite having everything I thought I’d wanted, I had absolutely nobody to share it with. Without a working internet connection I could no longer chat with my best friend on Skype, send outrageous things to my friends on Twitter, and flirt excessively with the boy I liked on Facebook. I was suddenly disconnected from my world of friends, and for the first time it became apparent that I wasn’t actually surrounded by the people I love. I was alone in an empty room.

I needed to get out and about, and so each evening I’d wander through the streets, soaking up the atmosphere, and popping in and out of tapas bars and warm vibrant cafés. I could feign perfect contentment until I’d get hit with the full emotion of seeing somebody I knew, and then I’d well and truly fall apart.

A sense of overwhelming happiness would fall over me as I’d push through the crowd to try to catch up with Liz from Ohio, Jang from Thailand, or Matteo from Rome. I was so excited to see these amazing people that I missed so much, only to be left deflated when I realised that, of course, it wasn’t them. I was in a quiet Spanish town in the middle of nowhere, and as much as I would have liked to have bumped into friends from all over the world, it was never going to happen.

I remained hopeful that people would come to visit, but as each invitation was politely refused, a date cancelled here, a friend too busy there, I realised I was sitting around waiting for friends who were never going to come. A bottle of champagne sat waiting to be uncorked, a book of vegetarian recipes sat waiting to be cooked, and mood setting candles sat waiting to be lit.

Every day that passed I began to feel more and more alone and wondering why on earth I was out here in the middle of nowhere. I had an incredible job, and family just around the corner, and yet still I craved for so much more, this just wasn’t enough. I was saving every spare penny towards that dream of moving to New York, but I couldn’t wait another second, I needed to be in a big city.

That thought really hit me as I stood in the supermarket looking at frying pans and ready to fall apart. The same excitement I felt when kitting out my spider-infested room in Thailand was somehow lost, and as I walked out of the shop empty handed, I felt something snap. How I had gone from playing with tigers to shopping for cooking utensils at such a short turn around was beyond me. Somewhere something had gone wrong.

I sat at my desk that afternoon and talked to my friends profusely about how exhausted and bored I was of living in Spain, and then as each friend independently revealed to me that they didn’t understand why I was still there, I felt something spark inside of me. It was nothing more than a glimmering idea of what if, but by the time I got home that evening, it had snowballed into so much more.

I paced up and down in my apartment, shaking with excitement and nervousness as I rang my best friend over and over again. I paced for almost an hour waiting for her to finish work and pick up, and when she finally did, I told her that I was going to quit my job and move to London.

To me, this was the most ridiculously spontaneous thing I had ever done, but I was deadly serious and couldn’t think of a single reason not to do it. I lost an absolute fortune on an apartment I’d only lived in for two weeks, and I was wrestling with the idea of losing a well-paid job that I loved, but somehow none of that seemed to matter. I knew that something had to change, and before I could even begin to fathom the consequences, I was packing my bags, negotiating with my boss, booking my flights, and getting on a plane.

I had never been so sure of anything in my life, and yet I could have so easily talked myself out of it. The choice to move into an apartment in Spain was a catastrophic mistake that turned out to be a beautiful disaster, but without taking that leap, I never would have made it here, to my best friend’s East London apartment, filled with all the hope and happiness in the world.

I know that I made the right decision. It’s scary to take such a drastic u-turn, to sever commitments and ties, and accept that you’ve made a massive mistake, but sometimes that’s just exactly what you have to do. It was undoubtedly the craziest choice I’d ever made in my life, but already, as I sleep in the familiar warm of my best friend’s sofa, I’m already beginning to feel like I’ve finally come home.

The Year of The Tiger

In Eat, Gay, Love on July 19, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Tiger Temple, Kanchanaburi

‘We ditch the whole scene and end up dreaming instead of sleeping.’

– Taylor Swift

The mosquitoes buzzed noisily in the moonlight as I crept through the forest and began to climb the temple steps. Birthdays have always been like New Year to me, I’ve never wanted to be asleep when the clock strikes midnight, and with everyone else already in bed, I sat myself down in the temple and readied myself to embrace the change of a new year, and the beginning of new beginnings.

A single birthday card sat in my lap as I looked at my watch, breathed in the cool night air, and thought about how quickly the years were starting to pass. I was terrified to age another year, I still felt like a teenager, and yet already my twenties were escaping me.

What seemed like only days ago I’d just turned twenty and was celebrating the last day of my magazine internship; it seemed like only yesterday when my long-term boyfriend had gotten down on one knee and proposed on my twenty-first birthday; and it seemed like only moments ago that I’d quietly escaped my twenty-second birthday by packing my broken heart into a bag and leaving it all behind.

On that birthday I could have never imagined the things that would have happened in the year that followed. How packing those bags would lead me here, atop a Buddhist Temple in Thailand, having done all the things I’d done. It was only when I started adding things up that I truly realised exactly how much had happened.

I’d minced my way through Morocco, had a Vietnamese child find my dildo, fell for a stranger in Ibiza, and was bitten by a tiger in Thailand. I’d crushed on a Spanish student, was stood up on a date in Rome, had a sensational night in Frankfurt, and chased a boy to Berlin. I’d been left for dead on the Indian motorway, seen bandits tear apart cars, I’d written love letters to Juliet, and drank in Swiss and Austrian bars. I’d gotten into a fight in Budapest, watched a hurricane tear through New York, accidentally took a train to Russia, and had a boy stop my heart.

It had undoubtedly been the most incredible year of my life, and I was terrified that everything would be downhill now that it was all behind me. I sighed as the clock struck midnight and I opened my lonesome birthday card. A little disheartened, and totally unconvinced that this next year could live up to such high expectations, I pushed it back into its envelope and sat in silence. Totally unaware of the life-changing greeting that would await me the following morning, I climbed back down the steps and went to sleep.

The goat awoke me by kicking open the door with her hoof and bleating noisily. It was the most bizarre Happy Birthday I’d ever gotten, but as I threw on my clothes and followed her out of the room, I remembered that I’d been given the morning off work to spend time with the monks.

Birthdays are seen as a time for renewal and cleansing, and as the goat lead me down the path and towards the temple gates, I prepared myself to give my offering of pizza and menthol cigarettes. I figured that they were probably sick of rice and flowers, and my estimate paid off. My gesture was well received, and in exchange I was blessed with a year’s good luck and had the tattoo above my heart imbued with eternal protection. It was a welcomed birthday gift, but nothing compared to what was still to come.

I left the monks as the tourists began pouring in the gates, and went and found Universe in his usual resting spot above the temple. It was as I was bottle feeding him and gently stroking his fur that my favourite monk approached me and took me aside. He reached out and clutched the turtle pendant that hung around my neck, holding it close to his eyes, and asking what it was. I explained that it was a good luck charm that had been given to me by my students on the very first leg of my adventure, and had seen me through right until this very moment. He smiled and disappeared for a moment before returning with a small folded square of fabric.

This will bring new luck, he said, pushing it into my hands and watching intently as I unfolded it and revealed the Buddhist symbols and the tiger mirage inked into its surface. I admired the patterns, and just as I went to thank him, a small white object dropped out onto the floor. I bent down to pick it up, and as I held it up to the light, I realised it was the baby tooth of one of the tigers.

He tapped my turtle pendant again and told me that the year of the turtle had passed, and now it was time for the year of the tiger. I thought about what he said for a moment, and instantly knew that he was right. Like that turtle, for a year, I had kept myself protected in a shell, nursing my failures and my heartbreak, and searching for a new life, but now was the time to finally let my guard down and strike.

Wearing my new-found treasure proudly around my neck, I returned from the temple just in time for lunch. I pushed open the door to the common room and was met with smiling faces and a cake lit with twenty three candles. It was something I never expected to see in the heart of a Buddhist temple tucked away in the forest, and as my friends expressed their jealousy over my tooth, I blew out the candles and made a wish. I didn’t know it then, but that wish was about to kick start the most exciting change in my life. The Year of The Tiger had begun.

The Tiger & The Thai Girl

In Eat, Love on July 10, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Tiger Temple

‘How people treat you is their karma, how you react is yours.’

– Wayne Dyer

My shovel dropped to the ground with a clang and I broke into a run as the tiger growled ferociously and came bounding through the open gateway. Leaping onto the stone platform and blocking our exit, he bared his enormous claws and teeth, let out a snarl of ferocity, and readied himself to pounce.

I froze perfectly still, looking at the Thai girl by my side, and wondering how on earth I had wound up in such a ridiculous situation. Face to face with an enraged adult tiger that could kill me in a single swipe, I began to regret that decision to stay an extra week.

I had intended to leave the temple a week before my flight so that I could tour the islands and lay half naked on the beach, but one morning, as I dug a pond in the blistering heat, that all began to change.

I winced with pain each time I drove the spade into the sun hardened ground, swearing and complaining loudly, and just not getting the job done. My hands were sprouting with purple bruises from where Bubbles, the six month old bear, had attacked me, and even holding the shovel was agony. I peeled off my shirt in the heat, wrapped it around my blisters for protection, and watched the tiny Thai girl ploughing through the earth with gusto.

She was my favourite because she embraced any job with a refreshing positivity; whether ankle deep in a slurry of tiger diarrhoea and chicken carcasses, or cutting through overgrowth populated with deadly snakes and insects, she’d wear the same smile and remind me that all of this brought very good karma.

She wasn’t strictly Buddhist, her opinions and beliefs were as wide and diverse as my own, but like most Thai people, she believed that karma was a currency as real as pounds or dollars. It was almost as if it were a real tangible thing that could be weighed and measured, good karma was valued more than any amount of money, and bad karma was like a crippling unpaid deficit.

Everything she did was good natured, she’d escorted a poisonous centipede to a safe distance after I’d tried to cleave it in half; she’d spent hours of her time with the tigers that had left deep lacerations in her back; and she’d even held her tongue and silently spent time in prison for a crime she didn’t commit.

I admired her so much that I wanted to change my behaviours. I had already given up on obeying The Precepts after managing to drink alcohol, gamble, and kill all within my first week, but the path of karma made sense. I could break the rules as long as I was doing what I believed to be fundamentally right. I made an effort to stop bitching and whining about every little thing, and to show The Universe that I was serious, I gave up my secret island hopping adventure and opted to stay for the final week.

So there we were, me, the tiger, and the Thai girl, in this impossible situation. The steel gate lay in pieces, strewn across the yard from where the tiger had destroyed it in his fury, and now he was eyeing us as if to say you’re next. My heart thumped, my hands trembled, and I desperately waited for instruction.

Oh silly tiger! she cried out lovingly, pointing at the destroyed gate and shaking her head like a displeased mother. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, this snarling beast had his six inch teeth prepped and ready to tear us apart, but this five foot Thai girl was entirely unfazed. To her, this was just an ordinary day of work. Just like having a baby tiger nibble on your ears, or listening to the sound of an adult tiger’s heartbeat, these things amazed and astonished us temporary volunteers, but the long term staff weren’t fazed in the slightest.

Don’t worry, she said as the tiger growled fiercely, slinked off his platform, and began to circle us. He’s just being silly. Petrified, I watched as she leaned her head to one side, smiled, and reached down to stroke his back. He jolted suddenly and just as I thought she was going to lose her arm, he retracted his claws and playfully nuzzled into her side.

Had she been aggressive or defensive, I’m pretty sure that both of us would have been floored and ripped apart. It was her loving attitude that allowed her to see past his snarling maw and ultimately save our lives. Unbelievably, she was right, the tiger was just being silly.

I may not have been showered with riches and virgins for my hard work and good deeds, but I knew that The Universe was looking out for me. I’d made the right decision in staying that extra week, and the fact that I was able to walk out of the gates with all of my limbs firmly attached was more than repayment enough.

Atop The Forest Temple

In Eat, Love on July 4, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Tiger Temple Thailand

‘If we taught all eight year olds to meditate, we would eliminate all violence from the world within one generation’ 

– Dalai Lama

We lay on the floor in the stifling afternoon heat, listening to the peaceful silence in the forest canopy, and awaiting the dreaded sound of the chorus of chanting monks. We groaned in unison as their peaceful verse began, stripping out of our filthy work clothes and throwing on our meditation robes with displeasure.

It wasn’t that we didn’t want to go to meditation, it was just that we were exhausted from a day of hard labour. Learning Buddhist Meditation was one of the top items on my bucket list for 2013, I’d even had my robes hand tailored in the heart of New Delhi for the occasion, but now that I was here, my gusto was rapidly waning.

Dressed entirely in white, I’d accompany my fellow volunteers across the forest floor, and we’d complain and drag our feet as we climbed barefoot to the temple. Despite my dying enthusiasm, though, I still made an effort at each and every session.

Snatching up a meditation mat and dancing across the wooden floor in perfect silence, I’d sit and try to imitate the posture of the monks who sat above me on their sacred platform. Focusing my energies on the towering golden Buddha statue as the evening sun glinted over its surface, I’d shut my eyes and let in a whole new world of sound and bothersome thoughts.

Atop the forest temple, rested amongst the treetops, this was the perfect environment for serene meditation. The branches lulled lazily in the wind, and the peaceful chatter of the birds perfectly complimented the dulcet tones of The Abbot’s soft voice. If I listened carefully, I could hear the break of a twig as a deer pranced through the forest, the ferocious roar of a nearby lion, or the restless growl of a tiger pacing below. Everything was perfect, and yet still I hated every moment.

This was not the spiritual experience I had hoped for, I shuffled uncomfortably, folding and unfolding my hands, and trying to straighten my aching back. I tried everything to engage, focusing on my breathing, and trying to adopt perfect stillness. I refused to move an inch despite the sweat that trickled down my forehead, the insects that relentlessly plagued my open wounds, and the twisting knots in my stomach from the Indian poison that refused to leave my system. I tried to embrace the discomfort and bend the pain into something comforting, but my whole body was on fire, and every moment was a living hell.

The same verse was spoken over and over again, and despite my best efforts to learn, I never did understand any of it. I treated the whole thing as a game, counting each breath to try to eradicate each and every thought from my mind, and trying to see how long I could sit perfectly still for. The problem was, that sometimes meditation went on for hours, and one time I even found myself awaking suddenly after having fallen asleep for the entire session.

After weeks of frustration, I approached my favourite monk and asked him for guidance, and only barely overcoming the language barrier, he gave me some poignant advice. He advised me to embrace my inner peace and then share that with somebody I love, somebody I hate, and somebody I was indifferent to.

Finding somebody I loved was easy, I cycled through all of the important people in my life, students, friends, and lovers, and wished them all pure happiness. The same was true for indifference; I wished peace to strangers I’d passed in the street, tourists and taxi drivers, and any unknown face that popped into my mind. Finding somebody I hated, however, was far more difficult.

There’s not a lot of hatred inside of me, but there are a few names that strike a dark chord in my soul. I tried first focusing my energies on my ex and his new fiancé, and wishing them a happy life together, but that dark period of my life had passed, and it was so easy that it felt like that didn’t count. There was nobody I harboured negativity for, absolutely no one, that was until a new staff member arrived and gave me the perfect outlet for my hatred.

He’s a homophobic sexist prick, I said, throwing down the chicken carcass I was de-boning and sighing with exasperation. What happened to your Zen meditation regime? My friend said as she stopped cleaning the tiger cage to mock me. That twat doesn’t deserve my positive thoughts, I grumbled, tearing chunks from the chicken’s breast and letting the six week old tigers eat it from my fingertips. That’s the whole point, though, isn’t it?

She was right, and I knew it. I doubled my efforts and although it was truly agonising to sit and calmly wish this man happiness, my blood boiling as I pictured his face, it took so much of my attention that the rest of my mind fell quiet. The people who mean the most to me would then flutter in and out of my mind, and everyone regardless of love, hatred or indifference would receive the same kind wishes, until all of the negativity was exiled from my mind.

It became so routine that it all happened like clockwork and my mind began to feel lighter. The only person you hurt by harbouring negative thoughts is yourself, and only then did I realise the importance of truly letting go. Eventually those foreign words in the background began to make sense, contorting themselves into something I could understand. It was almost like I had fallen asleep, only this time I was aware of it, and with my eyes shut and my mind emptied, it was as if they were telling me a story.

Everything became as clear as that golden Buddha that burned with fiery brightness just beyond my eyelids, and as time dragged on, it felt like only a very short time had passed. When I finally opened my eyes, I found myself surrounded by darkness, the orange robes of the monks fluttering in the cool night breeze, and the golden Buddha extinguished by the blanket of the night sky. I quietly rose to my feet, followed the other volunteers back down the steps and across the forest as if nothing had happened at all, and then readied myself to complain again when the next session rolled around.

The Whole Universe

In Eat, Love on June 29, 2013 at 8:59 am

Tiger Markings

‘The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature, with nature.”

– Joseph Campbell

The morning sun had just begun to rise as I sleepily wandered out into the tiger yard and watched the cubs come bounding out of their cage. Aged six to twelve months, they were still considered babies, and yet when fully stretched out they were easily taller than me. With their monstrous paws they could effortlessly floor you in a single well-timed pounce- I’d seen the damage those claws and teeth could do in the grievous wounds of my fellow volunteers- but fortunately, I hadn’t been injured just yet.

I had barely been working at the temple a week, and was still struggling with remember all ten of the cubs’ names. I watched them closely, matching their sizes, markings, and personalities to the names I had scattered in my mind. I spotted Jupiter first, wrestling in the water with Orion, and then noticed Apollo, Gemini, and Venus playfully rolling around atop the hill.

I found it so difficult to place them, when they moved they just looked like dazzling black and orange blurs, but each of them was different, and with time and patience their names continued to come. I knew Mercy by his shaggy matted fur as he rolled around in the dirt, panting goofily as he soaked up the sun; Solo crouched low as she began stalking her prey, creeping up slowly behind one of the volunteers, before Neptune bound into action and pulled her to the floor; and Galaxy was last out of his cage, looking around with those familiar sleepy eyes before slowly plodding out into the yard.

That was all of them, I thought, mentally adding up the number of the tigers I’d accounted for. I doubled back to ensure I hadn’t missed any, and just when I had myself convinced that that was all ten, the ground shook beneath me and the last tiger sank his teeth into my leg. He pulled me to the ground and tore at the flesh, refusing to let go until I gently smacked him away and watched the blood pour down my leg.

I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and aside from my secret desire to get bitten by a tiger to have a cool scar to show off, this bite was the start of something incredible. For every terrible thing that happens in life, I believe that The Universe has a plan, and that everything works out for the best. Getting bitten by a tiger was no different.

Who was that? I said, knowing I’d accounted for nine of the tigers but couldn’t seem to place the last one’s name. I climbed to my feet and  pointed at the tiger which now slinked away to the back of the yard magnificently as if nothing had happened at all. Universe, one of the staff told me, he never usually bites. I looked at the eight puncture marks from where his enormous teeth had sank into my flesh, and knew that this was no coincidence. The Universe was trying to tell me something, and what better way than taking a chunk out of my leg.

I wanted to get to know this tiger immediately, and he quickly became my favourite. I’d snatch up a dog lead every morning and pick him out of the bunch by the fascinating markings on his face, snapping him up and out of the yard and letting him walk me to the temple. He’d pull the same tricks every morning, walking peacefully until he saw something he wanted, and then dragging me around like a rag doll until he had it.

I was prepared every single day when we climbed the temple steps, anticipating the rush that would follow as soon as the sacred monk platform came into view. I have absolutely no idea what his fascination with it was, but stepping up was forbidden, and I’m pretty sure he just wanted to get me into trouble. With every ounce of strength I could muster, I’d wrap my arms around his heaving galumphing chest and try to drag him to his resting spot beside Mercy. He’d put up a fight for a few minutes, and then eventually settle down with his companion, and the two of them would look out over the forest and fantasize about killing the roaming wildlife.

Apart from his shenanigans and the fact that he took a bite out of my leg as a way of introducing himself, he was the calmest and most trustworthy tiger there was. You could place your head between his humongous paws, wrap your finger around one of his canines, or take a nap on his colossal hulking chest.

He’d let you do anything you wanted, provided you had good intentions, and he’d calmly stare at you with the fondness of a house cat, chuffing affectionately, removing all the hair from your arm with his enormous sandpaper tongue, and playfully swiping for that bottle of milk that he knows you have in your back pocket.

I loved spending time with him, a small part of me was beginning to understand the idea of karma, and I believed that everything I did for this tiger was a repayment to The Universe. Every religion has its deity, Buddhists have The Buddha image, Catholics have Jesus on the cross, and I had Universe, this wonderful living breathing creature.

As the weeks passed by, the wound on my leg began to heal and fade, disappointingly not leaving the impressive scar I’d secretly hoped would remind me of Universe forever. I looked down at him as he lay in my lap lazily, and I knew that the next time I saw him again after I left, he’d be twice the size and able to kill a man with a single swipe, but he’d still have those exact same markings on his face. I gently stroked them with my fingertips, and without having to think about it, I knew immediately that I was going to have them tattooed to my chest.

Getting bitten by Universe was the perfect metaphor for everything I believe in, and every time I look down and see my tattoo, I don’t feel like I just have the markings of a tiger imprinted on my chest, I feel like I have the whole universe engraved above my heart- a permanent reminder that everything does happen for a reason. A terrible break up lead to a new found freedom; a cancelled trip to America lead to a life changing decision; and getting my leg ripped apart by a tiger lead to a friendship that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Viva Forever

In Eat, Gay, Love on April 25, 2013 at 8:38 pm

Gay Barcelona

‘Viva Forever, I’ll be waiting, everlasting, like the sun.’

– Spice Girls

A booming voice sounded over the loudspeaker as I began stripping out of my work clothes and scrubbing the oil and dirt off my body in the airport bathroom. I had left work early to make sure I arrived on time, but after breaking down in the mud, I had done everything but.

The last call for Barcelona sounded again as I threw on freshly creased clothes and tried to fix my dishevelled hair. It was only as I ran for the departure gate with an overnight bag slung over one shoulder that it dawned on me- this is now how I get ready for a night out.

Long gone are the student days where my friends would come around to pre-drink as we complimented each other’s outfits and fixed each other’s hair before lazily sauntering out of the front door and into the nightclub across the street. To see my friends now, I have to get on a plane.

The sun had long since set when the plane touched down at midnight and I greeted one of my oldest friends. We’d agreed to meet in Barcelona and hadn’t worried about making plans in advance, forgetting to book a hotel, and not bothering to figure out in which direction we were going. It didn’t feel like we were meeting up in one of the clubbing capitals of the world, it was all so familiar, as if we’d jumped into a taxi for a night out in our home town.

It wasn’t until he pointed it out that it struck me that we hadn’t seen one another for almost two years. The last time we got drunk together very well may have been when we were eighteen years old and stumbling down some private golf course, howling The Spice Girls’ greatest hits after escaping our senior prom.

Life has started to move ridiculously fast, so fast that six months seems to disappear between sips of coffee, and the dream of the future begins to fade into the memory of the past. I saw my sixteen year old friend turn into a confident young twenty-something as he confronted a pick pocketer who tried to swipe his phone; we relived old house parties as we unashamedly taught the locals to slut drop in some underground basement club; and then as we counted back the years of what seemed like a new friendship we both said at once, Fuck, that was seven years ago.

It wasn’t memories of my last trip to Barcelona that danced through my mind as we wound through the once vibrant streets and the now deserted markets, it was memories of the last seven years. It takes seeing an old friend to truly realise how much has changed- the friend who was late for music class everyday because he was making another tea; the friend who brought a house warming gift when I moved in with my ex; the friend who told me he wasn’t worth it anyway when it all fell apart; the friend who text me from Scotland to tell me that he was going to live in China; the friend who was now lay out in the sun beside as me as we nursed our hangovers and rubber necked at all the gorgeous topless men.

The streets were alive with fire eating and sword fighting but I was almost far too busy laughing to even notice. We shared stories of our shared and separate pasts, making fun of our old teachers as we gorged ourselves on food and wine, and sharing stories of recent romances as we watched gay couples holding hands against the backdrop of roaring waves and sun-kissed sands.

He gasped as I told him about the student I had a crush on in Germany, about the Vietnamese child who found my dildo, and about the boy who gave me the lovebite that still lingered on my neck, and then I howled with laughter, throwing my head back to the blazing sun, as he told me stories that were equally as scandalous.

I do miss my old lifestyle, I do miss partying every single night, and I do miss having all of my friends at my fingertips, but still I wouldn’t change it for what I have now. Sustaining and pursuing friendships and romance is so much harder but in exchange I know that every day brings new adventure.

It’s never hard to say goodbye to any of my friends scattered around the globe because I always know that it isn’t the last time we’ll meet. I don’t know where either of us will be when we see each other again, but I do know that there will be wine. Hasta manana my friend, I’ll see you again soon.

The Lovebite

In Eat, Gay, Love on April 2, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Boys kissing

‘Keep your head up, keep your heart strong. Keep your mind set, keep your hair long.’

– Ben Howard

I pushed through the crowded Brick Lane curry house and sat down with the entirety of my best friend’s immediate family. I was desperate to disguise the enormous lovebite protruding from the neckline of my low cut shirt, and so when they asked me where I was last night, I clapped one hand over my neck and fumbled my words as I tried to change the subject.

Nobody had taken any notice, and yet still it burned with the same intense heat of the Indian spices, as if everyone were staring at it. My cheeks flushed and I nervously shuffled back and fourth in my seat, only relaxing when I caught my best friend’s eye across the table. She knew exactly where I was last night, and probably knew that the carousel in the back of my mind was skimming over and over the events of that morning.

The tube bustled noisily in the underground, and was so overcrowded that my body was pressed up firmly against my date’s. I grazed his fingertips out of sight of the commuters and looked longingly into his syrupy brown eyes. He was trying to tell me something in his ever so slightly Essex accent, but I wasn’t really listening. I was too busy counting down the stops until we’d have to part ways.

I’d been in this situation so many times before, and knew I was about to make the same mistake I’d made time and time again. The train’s doors would open and I would leave without a proper goodbye and then probably never see him again.

More and more people left the train, and our bodies were no longer forced together as the carriage began to empty. We gradually grew further and further apart and all I could think about was how I’d let my last date slip away without a goodnight kiss; how I let fear get in the way of me kissing that boy in Berlin; and how badly I wanted to kiss this boy right here and now.

A voice inside my head was screaming itself blue, commanding me to not let another boy disappear on a train, imploring me over and over to just kiss him, but for whatever reason, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

See ya then, I spluttered to my date. I knew I’d let myself down, but as I turned to hop off the train, I felt his lips catch mine, and if only for a second, my soul caught light and I was lifted off my feet. Nobody had ever kissed me in public before, and it gave me the kind of rush I’d wanted from the boy who stood me up in Rome, the kind of rush the boy in Frankfurt failed to give me, the kind of rush that I was searching for when I penned find a boy who gives me butterflies on my list of goals for 2013.

I was so dizzied that I could barely make out his silhouette as I stepped off the train, re-gathered my senses, and watched him disappear into the blackness of the tunnel. I had to stop for a moment to catch my breath, and as if his lips had been sweet amphetamines, my heart rate began to steady and the butterflies in my stomach soared into my chest and propelled me and my feet off of the ground.

I had all but lost sight of finding a boy who gives me butterflies until that unexpected kiss. The passion that lead to the lovebite on my neck meant nothing in comparison to the intensity of that moment, and it was that memory that left me wordless as I scanned the table of friendly faces in the curry house. I knew that I would soon be departing back to a life of work and stress, a life of responsibility and pressure, a life away from the warmth of familiar company and the pleasure of sweet lips, but now things suddenly didn’t seem so bad.

In the company of good food and good friends, everything seemed perfect. A little kick of warmth and acceptance rose from the pit of my stomach and I relaxed and dropped my hand from my neck. I was secretly quite proud as I raised my head up and caught sight of the lovebite in my reflection across the room, because for now, if only for a moment, it was a reminder of both the adventures in my past, and the adventures yet to come.

The Dating Game

In Eat, Gay, Love on February 17, 2013 at 5:54 pm

Gay Piggy Back

‘I hear the birds on the summer breeze, I drive fast, I am alone in the night. Been trying hard not to get into trouble but I’ve got a war in my mind.’

– Lana Del Rey

I stepped out of the blood clinic and made my way across London to meet one of my closest friends. By legally donating blood after a year without sex, I had ticked one item off my list of goals for 2013. The truth, though, was that I had a secondary motive for my short time in England. There was another goal I wanted to accomplish.

Everything was beginning to shape up exactly how I’d planned it would. I’d had to dodge a few curve-balls and make a few last minute decisions but it seemed like I was on the right track to ticking off every item on my list. Lessons were being learned, travel arrangements had been made, and I was making bold steps in terms of my writing and my career.

There was only one goal that was being left in the dust. The pursuit of romance was being forgotten about amidst the other exciting steps I was taking, and it was seeming less and less likely that I would find that man who’d give me butterflies.

Living in Spain, an hour’s drive from the nearest gay bar, makes dating seem almost unfathomable. In England I could open Grindr to find that the nearest suitor was a few metres away, but here it’s a couple of miles. I’d like to be able to go down to one of the local bars and flirt precariously with a hot stranger but my fear holds me back.

The language barrier doesn’t worry me, that never stopped me before, but it’s terrifying to hit on a man knowing that they’re most likely straight and you don’t know how they’ll react. Some gay men have the confidence to do it without first loading up on liquor, but memories of past homophobia prevent me. Even when I catch the eye of a stranger and offer them a friendly smile, I’ve a constant fear that they might react violently to even my most subtle advances. I rarely make a move on anyone outside the safety of gay friendly establishments.

The internet is one way I can pursue boys that I like. There’s hundreds of good looking boys I could taken on a date if only they were on my doorstep. I regularly flirt with gorgeous Italians, cute Scotts, and stunning Americans, but without taking time off work and splashing out on an expensive flight, they’re way out of my reach.

So, knowing that I was flying back to England just before Valentine’s Day, I knew that it would be the best shot I’d have at romance until I finally moved to New York. I decided that I’d donate my pint of blood and then spend an evening wining and dining somebody special to celebrate, and all I had to do was find them.

With time ticking away, I had to act quickly. My fingers tapped on every gay dating app available, scrolling through thousands of gay men’s profiles, trying to find the small handful of people that jumped out at me. Plucking a few London based suitors from the masses, I set about laying the usual groundwork. Finding out about their interests, showering them with compliments, and building myself up to the big question of asking them on a date.

It really highlighted how bizarre the concept of dating really is. If we like somebody, instead of showing them how incredible we are, we bombard them with praise and tell them how incredible they are. It’s so far removed from every other aspect of our lives. Dating should be more like a job interview, that’s something I understand. We should be able to unashamedly boast about our personality and our best traits, exaggerate about what a compassionate partner we would be and how good we are in bed, and then give them a list of references from our ex-partners.

Instead, we do the equivalent of walking into a job interview and showering the interviewer with praise. We tell our potential employer that we think they’re amazing, tell them how gorgeous they are, and then without sharing with them any of our best qualities, we awkwardly ask them for a job.

It’s all backwards. It’s a game where the majority of us end up making complete fools of ourselves and yet we continue to play because we want the end prize so badly. I always make the mistake of coming on too strong, finding a gay man I’m attracted to comes so rarely that I get way ahead of myself and start planning our third date before we’ve had the first.

I played the dating game to the very best of my ability, but when the moment came to strike with my offer of dinner and a show, I was met with tumble-weed on each and every occasion. So I resigned myself to the fact that romance just wasn’t something I could force. I can plan and make arrangements for everything I want to achieve this year, but when it comes to romance, I’m well and truly blind.

I did what I should have done in the first place and offered to take one of my closest friends out instead. I had such a good time that I almost forgot about my search for romance, and when a cute Londoner invited me to come for a drink, I passed up his offer and stuck with my friend. As much as I loathe to admit it, it really is true what they say. You can’t go looking for love, you have to wait for it to find you.

There’s an on going war in my mind between me and my inner control freak, it’s hard to sit by and just let fate guide me towards romance, but I know kicking and screaming won’t help. Sometimes you’ve just got to sit back and enjoy the ride.