At Water's Edge | Karen Kao

Abandon the shoes that had brought you here right at water’s edge
This line comes from a magnificent poem called Finisterre. It was written by David Whyte, a poet, speaker, and healer of souls. I met him not long after I had abandoned my own shoes.

Finisterre is about pilgrimage: the ancient road to Santiago de Compostelo and the village that lies beyond, perched at the end of the world. It’s a poem about journeys, impossibilities and redemption. You, too, can come to the end of the earth and walk on water.

on the road

All writers start out on the same road. For some, the writing alone is enough. Writing is good. It cleans the blood and opens the pores. You can feel more when you write.

For years, I wrote and then I stopped. I felt too much. The moth emerges from its chrysalis to become a butterfly; I only wanted to crawl back inside and hide.

It’s easy to do. You fill your calendar with things to do, right away, more and more and more. Doing is easier than feeling. Doing makes you tired at night. It makes you tumble into bed and fall into a black sleep. No dreams. No writing.

None of us can live for long like that. You have to break out of that chrysalis or it will crush you. It almost happened to me. But I was lucky to escape the golden bonds that I had woven around myself. I began to write once more.


Silence is the theme that haunts me. The inability to speak, the shame of being heard. It’s a theme that crops up in all my writing, consciously or not. And still I struggle every day to speak, to say something meaningful, words that could only come from my heart.

I have an out-sized bulletin board that serves as my mind map. It’s an actual map of Shanghai, blown up many times over. I use it to follow my characters through the streets of Shanghai for the interlocking novels I hope will someday comprise The Shanghai Quartet. My mind map bristles with photos, old and new, newspaper clippings and bits of artwork. Anything that sparked my imagination when I first saw the city of my dreams and might again.

There's also a copy of Finisterre on my bulletin board. It's there to remind me to let go. To dare to walk on water.
not because you had given up but because now, you would find a different way to tread
Finisterre is from the collection Pilgrim by David Whyte.

Kurashiki, Japan. Photo credit: Karen Kao

This blog post originally appeared 2 November 2016 at Shanghai Noir. It was one of the first I ever wrote. Since this piece is about beginnings, it seems like the right time to share it here. Happy New Year!


julia jones said…
I've just looked it up. It's a great poem and I'm going to do what it says "to empty your bags; to sort this and to leave that" - a perfect New Year opening. Thank you for pointing in this direction
Umberto Tosi said…
What a joy to wake up and make steamy tea in the silence of 4 a.m., sip and stare at my screen wondering over the solution to yesterday's tangled knot of prose. And then seeking merciful distraction, I read your post and find such inspiring reflection and writerly kinship. Thank you, Karen.

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