The Stag and the Swan





Last night the stags kept me awake.  I can’t see them, way over there across the sea-loch in the darkness, but I can take myself there in my mind.  There’s an old boy, calling through ragged throat, his call raspy as sandpaper, his message clear.  This is my territory, my harem, my life on the line!  Defiance is in his tone and many years of experience and fight in his urgent delivery.  The night is as startled as I am when he lifts his head and shatters the dark.  She stops, holds till he is quiet, and moves on.  I wait for the response and here it comes – a youngster, brimming with fire and testosterone and moving in.

Yesterday I heard shots, rifle shots, big rifle shots.  I wondered, then, if tonight will come without the old stag; if his days are done, if he is bloodied and broken in a way he never saw coming.  I tell myself this way might be kinder but it still catches my breath, the thought of that sudden death.  Somehow the last fight seems more natural, although it surely would take a whole lot longer to come to a conclusion.  And the wounded, limping away of it makes me want to run up the hill with a bandage.

As I almost drifted off to sleep, I heard swans.  Now, swans at night will always bring me to my window in the vain hope that there will be a full moon, clear skies and a grand sighting of those almost silent wings of grace.  No such luck, but I still stood and watched the night and listened to that soft and gentle piping sound until it faded into someone else’s sky.  I wondered how they fly at night.  I wondered where they go and how long it will take.  I wondered many things but one thing I knew.  They communicate in ways we could all learn by and nobody ever gets left behind.  Like geese, if the lead swan tires, he will tell them and another from further back will take his place.  I have watched it happen and it smiled me for the rest of the day, that team spirit, that respect for each individual, that lack of judgement.

There are days when I wake barely able to say good morning.  There are days when I am filled with beans and good mornings.  Sometimes the weight of caring feels like a mountain on my back, my blood cooling fudge in my veins, and then there are times when I feel light as a kite with an equal sense of fun and laughter.  Some days the thought of what lies ahead, the washing and cleaning, the picking up of dropped things, the mopping of spills, or mud shuffled in twist my stomach into a reef knot.  Others, I sing my way through it all and feel no angst at all.  Cooking soft foods every single day can be a living nightmare or just cooking soft foods.  Encouraging a shower or a change of clothing can be just too much, or just too easy.  Reminding, repeating, reassuring is an irritating chore or a dance with compassion. And all of these states of mind are down to me.  I know this, but when the body is weary, so is the mind, as it appears they work together, like swans.  I can decide to choose my attitude but fail through lack of sleep.  And then guilt moves in.  I know nothing can be done to change things and that the only thing I can control is myself.  I know I need to keep myself healthy and exercised and fed well, but half the time, yes, half the time, I can’t be bothered.  That is when guilt trembles in the wings, glitter-eyed, rubbing her hands together in glee, for here it comes…….that sharp word, that unfair remark, that look, that sigh, that refusal to go here or collect that.  Now she is centre-stage and I am on my knees with remorse.

Accepting the pendulum swing of life as a carer is not easy.  I want to do this the right way, the perfect way, but there is no such thing as perfect, however much we may aspire to it.  Besides, ‘perfect’ is rigid, glossy, immovable, unbendable, finite.  Not human at all. The others in a similar role to mine tell me that I encourage them by writing my truth.  Although this will never be a private blog where all the sharps and all the messes are revealed in safety, I do believe that there is far too much whispering around dementia, too much hidden from a world that really ought to know, because dementia is racing into our lives at an alarming speed.

So I’m going to stand firm on my hillside, and roar my aging roar, whilst also flying with the swans and learning, on a daily basis, from both.


moving to Mull


40 years ago, this very day, we moved from the flatlands to the island.  I can hardly believe I have been here most of my life, as have my children.  Arriving full of excitement and terror, with a large heavy horse, two dogs, two cats and two weans, and minus the lime spreader I had ditched about a mile from the farm, we turned into the village street.   I had never driven such a long distance before in the land rover, let alone towed anything at all.  The faith placed in me was, well, let’s just say, nothing short of ridiculous, and I knew it at the first layby.  Driving in tandem is all very well in theory, but keeping up becomes IT.  I found it very hard to focus on what I should have been focusing on, ie the road and the traffic, my neck stretched out like a goose, eyes peeled for the horsebox up ahead.

Since that day we have dug our roots and even those who no longer live here call it home.  The solitude and space, the big skies, the rain, sun and wind, all sing my song, or I sing theirs.  The rhythm of life is a slow and steady beat, a rolling in and out of the tides, the moon, the seasons.  I have little desire to visit the mainland, especially as it is now so easy to buy most things online, barring explosive materials or liquids, of which I have little need, even if it is mildly annoying not to be able to order a wee bottle of essential oil for my essentials.

We have lacked little and found everything we need.  I do remember the times of yearning amongst the children as they moved awkwardly into the teenage years, and had I been a teenager, I would have felt the same.  A dance in the village hall is so not the same as a rave.  But I guess they made their own raves for they all bounce like Tigger even now, now they have their own children, who also love an island visit.  There is something so wholesome in this island life, but don’t confuse wholesome with dull or boring.  The real islanders, those born here, their parents from here, have the most spontaneous and wicked sense of humour, an eye for the fun in pretty much everything, even the dullest of tasks.  I’ve had more fun here than I ever did in the flatlands, been laughed at and kidded on and hoodwinked; been the butt of all the anti English jokes, teased for being posh, and celebrated as a friend, and I have loved it.  How strange it is to up sticks and to move to a completely different world, and yet to find the cap fits as it did right from the start.  I had no prior experience of the West Coast or the folk who scatter themselves across the wild places, of village life, of community spirit, of real hard work, until I came here.

I wrote my book because there was, and still is, so much to say about island life.  It is not for the faint-hearted and that’s for sure.  It is inconvenient, demanding and wet.  Things don’t work, don’t arrive at all, don’t turn up on due dates, get rusty, rot, are mouse-damaged, break down, blow over or disappear completely in high winds, can’t sail, sink, fall over, lose their sump in a pothole deep enough for the vicar of Dibley and, yet, it has the heartbeat of home.  These things can go wrong in all lives, but, here, we can’t just replace the broken immediately.  We have to find a way around a whole load of problems and I am glad to have learned resourcefulness, something an easy life in a convenient place would never have taught me.  I have learned to be independent, inventive and accepting.  Oh it makes me swear when things go wrong, of course it does, but I have that inner core of can-do that only living here has taught me.

I don’t wish for another 40 years, for I would be over 100 and that doesn’t sound like much fun, but I am so thankful that, on that mad day in 1978 we decided to drive up to ‘look’ at a place for sale.  9 hours on the road, with two little ones in the back seat, and absolutely no idea that this whim would manifest itself into a shared life of fun and challenges I had never imagined existed, of learning and of learning some more; of spontaneous musical ceilidhs and of


no locked doors.  With not one jot of experience between us, no idea of how to run a hotel, a hill farm, a whale-watching business or a recording studio, we dived right in with childlike enthusiasm.  There were many pitfalls to come, many mistakes to make, many sadnesses to experience, but this is the truth of Life for anyone who has the courage to let go of what isn’t working and to take a huge risk.

I’m so glad we did.

Rain and Leeks

Today it is not raining.  Yet.  We have enjoyed many days of heavy rain, enough to turn the seed in the bird feeders to a soggy mush, enough to soak dog walkers after a few steps forward, enough to flood the little roads around the village.  The river burst over the bridge and the school car park became a pond.  Luckily, for us, this island sloughs off water quicksharp and the ground can look like ground again in a mere day of dry.  Built on granite and super lumpy in parts, there are few of us living in a flood risk.  We just aren’t low enough for that.  What we face at times of big winds and stair rods of heavenly water is that the ferries don’t sail.  They sit fat and empty of life in their mainland dock.  We, they say, are going nowhere today.  Tough bananas if you don’t get your new sofa Missus, or your mail, or yourself to the dentist.

And so we remain at home, looking out at the blattered dahlias and the neighbour’s wheelie bin cavorting about the road in a macabre dance, spitting no end of interesting garbage into a field of startled sheep.  And we make soup.  That’s what we do, although I resisted the temptation, myself.  Soup is IT when things like ferries don’t sail and the weather takes control of our day.  I meet women, like me dressed up in crinkly damp jackets,  somewhere near the leeks and carrots and we just smile at each other.  Not one of is phased for long when we see the leek tray all but empty.  No matter, we say, I’ll just find an alternative.  And we do.

We need to find alternatives for our soups on regular occasions living on this island, and not just in the physical process of preparing a nourishing brew for lunch.  We must use our attitude to find alternatives in all areas of our lives.  And we are resourceful, rarely stultified, and I don’t think we even realise we are.  It’s only when speaking to a person who lives near all possible conveniences, with alternatives on tap, that we recognise our experiential brilliance.  Anyone who has faced Christmas Day in a power cut, cut just as the turkey was beginning to turn into dinner, knows what I mean.  Being without newspapers or milk or mail is not a national disaster.  There is always someone with milk enough to share and the mail will be just another bill, anyway.

I think what we depend on and learn to dance with is that we are a community, one that has known tragedy, loss, and deep potholes.  We may not love each other all of the time but we are never alone in trouble and the more widespread the trouble, the more we rally.  Those whose lives are superbly organised are easily confounded because Life, God bless her, is a proper little madam at times, and she can pull the carpet out from underfoot at a whim.  Prepared for such is not being fatalistic, but sensible.  Being aware that change boogies around our edges on a daily basis, change that can so easily stick out a tripping foot and bring us down, is showing respect for the forces of nature, of Life herself. It isn’t a gloomy attitude, for which there is no excuse, not ever.  If we can learn to live in the moment we are in, right now, and then in the next, when it comes, light on our mental feet and solution-oriented, then we have learned the secret of Life.  Many of us share the pearls of such wisdoms, quote them even, word perfect, but they are like dust in the wind if we cannot live by them.

It doesn’t mean being insistently upbeat all of the time.  That’s just an act and I can see right through it when I meet it.  But, to be open as a child, ready to jump in the flood puddles and to fall over and to laugh all the way home, to be able to make soup without leeks when necessary, well, now, that is really living.

And, in really living, whatever comes our way, whatever our past mistakes and regrets, however blattered are the dahlias, if we have eyes to see the rainbows, a pair of wellie boots and a hand to hold, this, surely is more than enough.  And, it is the only way to change the past.

By making a new one.

The meaning of words



Talking with a friend the other evening, we discussed the meaning of words, how we each see and hear a word differently according to our experience of using a word in context.  Both of us might have liked to take the conversation deeper, but as we were at a celebration, it was never going to happen.  Happy people, all saying hallo, moving around the room, laughing, joking, having fun, sharing words that require no inner Googling.

We are taught in all the good books to accept, that acceptance is half the battle, half of any battle within a relationship, whether in work, school, home or community.  To accept that we are different, not just on the outside, not just in the way we see colours or moods or situations, but deep inside and based on childhood learning, familial teaching, experiences and lifestyle.  How on this good earth can we ever expect that to work?  It presupposes that whatever subject arises between us is never going to land in a soft place, unless, of course, we can accept our differences and just enjoy the chat.  I have a friend who is colour blind.  He sees everything in shades of grey.  I can wax as lyrical as I like about the Autumn colours and he will just chuckle.  I imagine for a moment not being able to describe anything at all in terms of colour.  Well, I can’t imagine that, and yet, he, who has never seen red or green or anything in between is barely phased at all.

That particular example is pretty easy to accept, but there are many others, millions of others where we can potentially butt heads.  I want white walls and you hate white.  White reminds you of hospital waiting rooms.  I attempt to change your mind because white, for me, is cloud, ice cream, frost on winter branches, school socks, Persil.  But I cannot change your experience of white any more than you can change mine.  One of us has to accept.

Or, is that resignation?

My friend at the party did have a moment of two to think deeper whilst I yelled my return hallos into a very noisy room.  He has always been good at that, being a deep thinker and on his feet regardless of noise.  He first thought that resignation sounded like giving in, like a weakness, a washing of hands, but, then he found a different way to understand that word.  Resignation is pro-active, not necessarily reactive.  ‘I resign’ sounds powerful, autonomous, in control of self, of my own mind.  It’s also a very good way to hold onto dignity should I come to the realisation that I am about to be fired.

Back home, I know that I have consciously chosen both those words to explain how I am managing my role as carer.  I accept that I have been gifted a role in this new production.  It isn’t the lead role, nor the one I would have auditioned for, but it is the one assigned to me.  On a minute to minute basis I get to choose how well I play my part.  When I meet bad temper, does it cause me to react like for like?  Yes, sometimes, when I am tired or when I take my childhood understanding of those words, the way they fit together, the way they sound and let them hurt me.  To him, they mean nothing much.  He was just grumpy, that’s all, and once the words are out, five minutes later, he is cheery and chatty and asking me if I slept well.  I was seeing, at that vulnerable moment, colours he never painted. Those words, projected like a fireball, were aimed nowhere in particular and rooted in frustration and fear.  I get that when I am not tired or low or feeling sad.

Then, there is resignation.  I am resigned to the fact that I am here, right now, and for the long haul. Does this make me feel weak?  Am I giving in?

Absolutely not.  In choosing that word I take control, not of the situation, not of him, but of myself.  I resign myself to the fact that this will not get better, nor will it go away.  I resign myself to no end in sight, to more bad temper, more of everything.  And I learn, bit by bit, inch by inch, that if I watch the words carefully, seeing them in my colours and yet understanding that he may well only see in shades of grey, then I can accept that words are just words.  It’s in the interpretation of those words where lies their power.

If I sound like your mother when ticking you off about not picking up your socks, you will scoot straight back to childhood and respond accordingly. You will probably whine and then sulk.  I undoubtedly do sound like a mother, but it will be my own peeking through those words because she is the one who taught me the inflection and tone and colour of a ticking off.  I do it her way without a second’s thought, and, as all mothers around dropped socks sound much the same, I could easily sound like your own.  I try a different tone, a different choice of word assemblage floating towards you on a fluffy cloud, but the message still stands.  ‘Pick up your fricking socks will you!!!!’  And the response doesn’t change.  Nobody responds with a ‘Of course I will, I’m so sorry, it will never happen again’ (aka an adult response) do they?

So, if none of us have really ever grown up at all, then how do we manage to look and sound like adults right up to the point when words blast us back to the playground?  We may be suited up and sensible but if we don’t begin to understand that words mean different things to different people, and then to consciously work on our childhood bungees, learning how to release them, to become the adults we purport to be, then wars really will never end.

If dementia had not come knocking, I would never have travelled this journey of learning, of inner Googling.  It is humbling, oh yes indeed, uncomfortable, yes, angry making and very frustrating at times, but the lessons I am learning tell me that whatever circumstances any of us live in, we can always go deeper, become stronger, wiser, more aware, more compassionate, more ready for fun.

More likely to wear the Unicorn Hat.