Island Blog – A Smile to Share

Over the past few days I have been in a bit of a flummox.  My eyes decided they didn’t want to look very hard at anything much and closed their curtains to the world.  It wasn’t an infection, more a rather irritating refusal to open wide enough to read, to write or to fix a new washer on a chair for the disabled, one which was necessary, but which required nimble fingers and good strong eyesight. This morning I achieved all three.  However, the Wifi here is still revolting, leaving us both abandoned on the shores of the island with no steady flow of power through which to communicate, and the discipline required to accept this limitation requires us to dig very deep.  We have watched TV in patchy spurts, sent emails that never arrived despite them flying the nest, been unable to respond immediately, or at all, to any Whatsapp message from family, and only heard a few minutes of an interesting and dynamic radio programme, the speaker stopping suddenly as if they had been shot. 

The frustration is immense, but we endeavour not to let it rise like bile.  As we all know, everything man-made is sortable, from washers to Wifi.  All we must do is persist in our attempts to locate the right person for each job and to lure them in.  This takes time, their time, and their time is not our time.  I believe the problem arose when we had to plug more things into the router.  The Fall Alarm Machine and the Pacemaker Machine.  It looks like a labrynth to me although I am a fool around such complex technology (another frustration) and therefore dependant on a.n.other for their easy understanding and their ability to pull a few things out, fiddle about with the wiring and then to stick said wires into the right holes in the right order.  According to those who know about the alarms, there should be no problem.  They have never encountered this before, this issue, the one that tells me there is too much demand on too low a power source. After many calls to our service provider, there is now a replacement router on its way.  We shall see what comes of that.

I could do without this extra problem and so could himself.  After all, a good Wifi connection is a simple ask, you might think, and so very much depends on its continuous flow. I agree that it is a lovely thing, no connection to the stratosphere if I am away on holiday in a place that just doesn’t need it, nor want it, but at home this is not the case.  At home it is a continual upset and my heart sinks as the cry goes up from the outside of Woman’s Hour, from a discussion that is interesting to himself and one that suddenly stops dead in its tracks. His peace is my peace and the disruption of that peace feels almost like a personal attack.  I discipline myself to remain calm as the frustration makes him lash out, not with his arms but with his words.  It isn’t my fault.  Or is it?  Did I make enough calls to the service provider?  If they say they are sending a new router, will they?  And when is whatshisname coming to plug it all in?  Will he come at all? 

I feed the birds and listen to their chatter on the fence.  I watch the sky burgeon into a cloud fest, the heralds of imminent rain, closing over the blue.  I look as the tide pulls in her skirts so that I can see her underpinnings of kelp and rocks.  Mist swirls over the hilltops like smoke and the trees stand stock still, waiting for whatever happens next.  The Wifi light flashes on the router.  You’re on your way out, mate, I tell it. My eyes feel grainy, but better than they did a week ago.  Everything passes after all.  My head is full of what will happen when I go away next weekend if this Wifi thing is not sorted, if the alarm machines cannot be plugged in.  I read a poem by Mary Oliver, a chapter by Pema Chodron, an essay on being calm by Rebecca Solnit and I silently thank them all for their experiential wisdom.  This day will bring what this day will bring.  Frustrations and moments of laughter, calm and inner uprisings, successes and failures however much I long to arrive at a sustainable place of acceptance.  But I am only human.  Able to rise to a situation and unable to, at different times.  Caught up in responses to familiar upsets and the voice of calm and reason. I believe in order, but I can find my way through chaos.  Life is not about one or the other.  If it were so, we would all be deadly boring, inflexible, astonished on a regular basis at anything out of order.  We would be caught up in expectation, based on our own perceptions and, in my experience, expectation always leads to disappointment.  Hope, on the other had is free gratis.  Hope is a wonderful thing.  Hope is how I approach this day with dodgy Wifi and grainy eyes.  Hope looks me outside of my box, myself, my little life.  Hope tells me all will be well.  All that is required of me is that I keep moving through whatever lands on my shoulders, from bird droppings to a colourful lei, and to always remember the power of a shared smile.

Island Blog – Chaos and a Butterfly

It seems to me that this life is a lot more about letting go than it ever is about holding on. And, yet, holding on is exactly what we do. Not only to our ‘things’ like our home, our job, our kitchen utensils and our mother’s jewellery, but to our fear and our addictions, our habits and opinions. We are enraged at any suggestion of letting any of those go. Why should we? They are ours, after all, hard won and precious. They have become a part of my identity, my shape and form and the biggest settlement of that belief lies in my mind. In truth, I could do with considerably less of everything. So what keeps me holding on?

Fear, that’s what. Some of us remember a painful time of lack; a period when we could barely sleep at the thought of another month of household bills, of our weekly shop for essentials, of new school requirements for our children. It was a deeply distressing time and we are glad it is behind us now. For many, unfortunately, there is nothing ‘behind’ about such anxieties for they are all around right now, and they have teeth and claws. They dominate us. We can think of little else. We can barely breathe.

Fear doesn’t just take over when our physical lives are under attack. It will infiltrate the strongest of minds, attacking us at our very source, that fountain of living water that sustains both mind and body, that keeps us refreshed and rejuvenated whatever life sends our way. We end up with the Nothing. Defeat, in short, leading to apathy, listlessness and the slow death of an imagination. It never starts that big. It begins with a few knocks, a burglary, a loss of something we valued once and still do; sickness, a failed job application, a cruel comment, overheard. And in the dark silence of our minds, it grows. We all know it. None of us are immune.

We all meet chaos every day in some shape or form. How tempting it is and how easy to fly off the handle into blame and rage! It isn’t my fault, obviously, that this person let me down or this thing didn’t arrive on time. On that I will agree. However, if I teach myself to let go of the things over which I have no control, then I will find that gentle state of a calm letting go. I will be free of the Nothing. I am not defeated, not weak. In letting go, I can only ever gain. Not things, not answers to all my questions, not assured success in work, family, love and health, but in that which is unseen. I can begin, over time, to allow myself to feel all the emotions, to let my thoughts flow through my mind, going nowhere and with no ‘correct’ place to land; I can observe whatever happens this day, uncluttered by an old belief system. I can let the weeds and the flowers grow together in the garden of my mind and I can practice the art of simply being me.

Letting go may sound like giving up and yet, it is quite the opposite. When I let go of some old belief, that led me to an old conclusion that, in turn decided my behaviour, my actions, my very way of being me, I free myself from the chains. I remember, once, when asking my husband if he would consider changing the way he did something or said something, something that hurt me, he responded thus:- ‘Why on earth would I want to change? I’m fine the way I am.’ At the time I was crushed. I could feel the Nothing gather her skirts and begin towards me. Now I chuckle because I can see from the distant hilltop of my life that inner change is the key to everything, but I didn’t always think that way. The very thought of me changing my own fixed opinions and beliefs was anathema. Why should I? It isn’t me who needs changing. Now I get it. If I can let an old and outdated belief fly away in the breeze, and if I can let go of my desire to control what happens next, then I am open to transition. And life is transitory, every minute, every second, life is changing. What presents as chaos in a big thing or small is really life in a cocoon state and there is beautiful opportunity just around the corner.

And in those moments of peaceful clarity, even if I have no idea what lies ahead, even in chaos, I can see a butterfly open her wings to a new sunlight.

Island Blog – Changeling

On the road to change it is sometimes tempting to look only ahead, eyes focused on each twist and turn in the road. Every corner promises an end, or, at least, a something good, and then, when it’s just a corner with the usual rounding and straightening, there is a lift of disappointment. But, consider this……consider pausing from time to time, slowing down the pace, tightening the oncoming breeze till your face calms back into itself, and standing still. Now, turn around. Can you see base camp from where you are now? Can you see the chaos you left some time ago or is it just a noisy image in your mind? Can you even remember which blocks went where, when you were busy stacking them into a fortress of resistance, rage and rigid stuckness?

Probably not. Now, see how far you have already come. Golly gosh……it’s miles! I had no idea I had travelled so far and so quickly. Then, I sit and reflect. I feel my body and I finger, gently, through the trappings of my mind. Those things that tied me up in enough knots to confound the best student in Sailor School seem so far away right now. Where did they go? That anger I felt at a slight or an unfair expectation, or that moment of public humiliation are well behind me, because in spite of not really believing there actually is a road to change, I stepped onto it and began to walk.

However, this doesn’t mean I was wrong to let them hurt me, oh no indeed. What I felt was what I felt and my feelings do not lie to me. They may come unbidden, as a surprise at times, but they are my feelings and that makes them very real. But out here, not there yet, nor back in the chaos, I am in a place of privilege. Because I am alone and undisturbed I have the chance to consider and re-evaluate those feelings, to translate them into any language I choose, any shape, colour and form. I could build on them, but that would take me in one big scoot back into the chaos. I don’t want that. But how to settle them in a place of peace whilst not beating myself up for getting so upset is, at the moment, a mystery. My reaction to pretty much everything is filtered through my own experience, my familial and historical teachings and observations. Add a large dose, in my case, of a vivid imagination and there’s a story written just for me. Even if others shared it with me, they would be forgiven for wondering if we ever met. Perception is everything. It is the bedrock for war or it is the way towards compassion, empathy and peace.

All I need to know, for now, is that I want someone to change. I used to think that someone was everyone else in my life. It’s quite normal to think that way, that I am right and you are not right, at best. I can change you. That’s what I thought, but decades have been wasted in that arrogant thinking and that’s why I am out here, alone in the wild on a road that looks like it goes to Nowhere and taking an inordinate length of time to get there. The someone that needs to change is me. I can’t tell you how long my righteous indignation has filled my boots with lead on that one. The ‘why should I?’ whine was always ready in my mouth, still is, at times. But when Fed Up meets Righteous Indignation there is, at the very least, a skirmish, and I am sick and tired of their sabre rattling.

So, boots on (sans lead) and with no map, no idea of where this changeling will end up, I am offski, on a journey whilst remaining right where I am. And, in letting go of the angst, I can feel a lift. It isn’t magic, nor an easy path and there are rocks and goblins along the way, but if this life is to mean anything at all to me then I want change without self-immolation or self-aggrandisement and without my sticky fingers on any of it.

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Island Blog – Song Not Gone

So, yesterday was Saturday and my leaving of that lovely wild cottage – ( I cleaned with eco cleaners, polished with eco polish and hoovered with Henry. I stripped my cotton bedcovers, took out the rubbish in recyclable bags, left some wood and kindling for the next lucky tenants and forgot to lay the fire. Then I drove very slowly away down the little track, noticing every flower and grass, the sliding sea and with my window open to hear the birds. I saw birds there that I never see here and that was gaspish.

Then the night came and it thinked me of all those girls in hardly anything and squealing with cocktail excitement, ready and stoked for a pavement/pub/club fumble and tumble in the mistaken belief that love is awaiting them this night. The bogfug of it all will be in their heads this morning. The questions, the memories of feeling horribly alone in a big and noisy crowd, out of kilter, out of money, out of themselves. Not all of them, of course, but oh so many. They will tell themselves, after a few Panadol and a Berocca that it was great fun and absolutely worth it because what else will a girl say when she feels a right twit, once again? I remember going to the Pony Club dance with hair set like plastic and enough make up on to send me into a face plant at the slightest push from behind. I remember feeling cold and lonely and riddled with regret as I stood, wallflower straight against the side wall, whilst the man of my dreams dance with everyone but me.

Mrs Beeton in her heyday would, I feel sure, have had plenty to say about gels like us, the wild ones who climbed out of windows to get away from home, who pretended it was fun because to admit the truth would have made us very vulnerable indeed. She would have tsked a lot. Nice girls, after all, never went out half naked into the streets. Those sorts of girls were asking for it, whatever it was and, to be honest, most of us have no idea of the reality of ‘it’ beyond the romantic lie of the Hollywood love story. Nice girls are supposed, for most of a Saturday night, looking wistfully up from their sewing and out of their bedroom windows as the world squeals itself along crowded pavements, flickering with sparkles and in scanty clothing 3 sizes too small.

That outdated style of thinking is not as outdated as it possibly should be. On the other hand, no mother or father wants to think of their daughter lying face down on a cold pavement, throwing up at 4 am. But this desperate need to strut our stuff is just the surface of a very deep emptiness that can last long enough to have us running into marriage without really thinking it through. We can discover, way too late, that the confines from which we ran have travelled with us. The Saturday night ache comes back on a weekly basis. I felt it last night, that longing to be swept off my feet and out to a buzzing Italian restaurant, full of people and music and excitement. Sewing and peering out of windows just doesn’t cut the mustard.

We are older now, I tell myself. You and me both. We shouldn’t hanker for such nonsense, but, instead make our antimacassars the envy of our peers and perfect our art of high rise buns, iced, of course. We must find our joy in our children and in their children, deeming it the height of delight to be asked, on a regular basis, to babysit for nobody wants a stranger getting anywhere near their little darlings who refuse to go to their beds no matter how much granny wheedles and readles. It is not ladylike to want that which is no longer available and, besides, once over 65, it is not the thing to prance about in sauncy boots, leggings and a tunic.

See how the outdated system travels with us? Deferring to men is as well in place as it was a hundred years ago. When the Ideal Wives come by 3 times a day, I can see that himself is in heaven. The carers (Ideal Wives) are there to serve and serve they do. I watch them almost curtsey. By comparison I am a veritable troublemaker, a fallen wife, for I will challenge and I will disagree and I will not jump to arms on an order. Actually, it is quite a laugh between himself and I, but, behind the airy laughter there is the solid castle of belief that I am, in fact, a fallen wife. Traditional men can be of any age. If they have absorbed the benefits to them of living in a patriarchal society, then why on earth would they want to shake that up? Talking women down, making them stay home, expecting a lifetime of sacrifice and dedication to him and his progeny without ‘allowing’ them ever to escape the sewing and to join the scantily clad pavement squealers, metaphorically speaking, is a rule book that should have been burned a log time ago. And, yet, it is still on the shelves of manhood. I see it even in the young men. The difference now is that, to a degree, the young women will not tolerate confinement by any living soul. Most of them have no interest whatsoever in any pavement embarrassment of a Saturday night, but at least they can decide for themselves.

Of course the Saturday night ache is gone by Sunday morning, but the thinks of it have not. In this life of caring, confinements abound for obvious reasons. I have a song to sing and yet I cannot sing it. A koan, indeed. An Ideal Wife would swat any such thoughts of self away, sweep them up from the floors of her mind and chuck them in the wheelie, closing the lid tight. There! That’s you gone! But, she would be wrong. The volume may be turned down for a while, but songs don’t just disappear, not when it is birthed in a woman’s heart; not when it has sung for her at times when her own voice fell silent; not when she knows that if she doesn’t sing it soon, she will explode into a million quaver and crochets, semi-quavers, minims and semibreves, the phrasing completely shot and the base notes all over the ground, like rubble.

However, the good news is good news. Songs can be rebuilt with self-compassion and a deal of letting go. For change to come about, there must be change. It isn’t, as many women think, only available on leaving the confines of the castle walls. It is available right here and right now.

All I have to do is open my mouth and let it fly.

Island Blog – Music and Brilliant Rebels

Today is my last day in this wee cottage on the cliffs (or near them).  Skylarks sing all day, random dots with tails overhead, like quavers in some divine music score.  Pipits twitter on fence posts, alert for the nest-stealing cuckoo, she (or he) that I hear all around me, but never see.  Covert little tinkers.  Every walk shows me new wildflowers.  Sorrel, vetches, worts, bluebells, primroses, orchids, daffodils and so much more.  I could bore anyone for hours on wildflowers, wild birds, wild anything.  I meet a couple with a walking map and cannot resist interfering.  They are looking for the Whisky Cave, an old illicit still made of stone within its mouth, well hidden from the drink police. I’ve never been.  I just know where it is and that, my dears, is to my shame.  For 20 odd years I waved guests off in different directions with absolute confidence, and never said I had never heard the music myself, nor absorbed the majesty through my own lookingness. When you work in a place, you never go anywhere else but that place, not when it’s a 24/7 job plus infants and working collies, a milk cow, dinner to cook and a husband who is always at sea, even when his backside is on a kitchen chair.

The land rises and falls.  The cliffs are falling away, eversoslowly, but falling nonetheless. The endless percussive push of the waves has carved out new caves, or they will be caves in a couple of hundred years.  For now, they look like a perfect semicircle of smooth basalt elbowed into the larval rock. The burns are dry.  No rain for six weeks and that isn’t good for the milk.  Lambs need milk, ewes need grass, grass needs water.  Simples.  There’s a wee concerto in there somewhere.  Let’s call it Synergy.  Or let’s not.  I can hear it whether, or no, we name it and, despite the sunshine on backs and faces, it plays out in a minor key.  A, I think. 

I startle a Meadow Pipit drinking from a puddle of mountain rescue, spring water from way up there where the sky begins, that will bubble up from the deep and sonorous ground as it has for centuries, and spill from the open lips of a rock that is now stuck with the job.  All other rocks kept their lips sealed. At the source I can hear the bubbling and the timpani and the tune and the rhythm.  Bog plants surround it, Kingcups too, Creeping Jenny, Yellow Pimpernel and Water Avens.  The colours would take yonks to mix on a palette and I still wouldn’t get there. I’d need endless mediums to help me compose a rapture, and they’ve all dried up from lack of use.

Sunrise this morning #4am was stunning.  I can see both from here, the rise and the fall into the sea.  That’s what happens, seriously.  The sun sinks, reddens, fires up the sky, sinks, reddens some more and then slides into the Atlantic in complete silence.  We are silent too.  There are no words for this.  Only music.  D, I think, major, but with an Elton John twist which means you never really know what base chords to play.  I have spent hours working out some of his musical texture on my wee piano and have decided he is a god.

Sometimes in life, there is only music.  When words are just jibber jabber, or not enough, or contrived, or used in defence or for control or to facilitate abuse, music is always faithful.  I listened, open minded but wary, once, to Disturbed singing The Sound of Silence.  I thought, Silence?  Disturbed?  No chance.  But I listened and what I heard made me gasp in awe.  That big tattooed man festooned with earrings and other rings in other places sang with such gentle power that I almost forgot Simon and Garfunkel. It was almost, no, it was, that I heard the words for the first time.  ‘And the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls.’  Ouch.  They still are. When I think about going home to caring, I blanche (B Minor) but it is what I will do.  And it is honest and true and my life and shut up about it.  Although my break in this beautiful and loved swathe of clifftop madness has felt too short, it may not be.  My encounters with the music of the land, in my reading, in my sewing, all ‘withoutus interruptus’ has been quite marvellous, but none of us can play forever.  Life is boots and buttoning up and old songs and a storyline that needs music to bring it back to life.  Could be Bach, could be Disturbed. I’ll take both home with me.

I met a young friend recently and she with a life full of work and two little girls told me she had forgotten music, its power in her life and her need for it.  I know those times, when we let ourselves drift into the functional, thinking that if we do it better tomorrow then we will feel good again, but we never do, no matter how much bettering we bring to bear. If we go faster, plan more concisely, answer texts quicker, get to the shop earlier and so on and so on, then we will get a gold star.  Sounds like a Prokofiev violin to me.  It has no nourishing provenance, that thinking, and yet we think it, nonetheless.

I watched two kayaks move through the sea.  One of the men is a friend.  He had told me of this voyage from Glasgow to the island and that it would take a week, best guess. The chance of me taking a clifftop walk at exactly the moment they were passing is music.  I watched what I thought at first was a lunatic white bird diving over and over again.  I have seen this, to be fair to me, way out there when seabirds find a bait ball, aka, a huge ball of sand eel, terrified into a circular pack because the dolphins are herding them up from below.  The birds see it and in they dive.  Over and over, and it does look like they are all jumping on a salty trampoline, from a distance.  Anyway, this was too regular, so I looked harder.  One white paddle. One black, two kayaks.  I stayed to watch them round the point.  I chuckled as I considered this.  Men rounding the point.  I know plenty like that.

I’m listening, now, to ‘that greatest of all love affairs, a violin and a human body’ (Mary Oliver).  Joshua Bell.  To my mind he is the best.  Although he plays the notes long written down, the quavers, crochets and the ones without stalks, he adds his gypsy self.  He plays games with phrasing, squishes them up and then pulls them out like soft toffee.  I chuckle whenever I recognise his naughtiness come through a piece I have heard a zillion times, and he lifts me into a closer listening.  Actually, I want to dance.  I want to shout Yes!  A brilliant rebel!  I love brilliant rebels, perhaps because I am one myself, (and we are thin on the ground) although I have often wondered what I am rebelling against.  My mother asked me that once – no, many times.  At first, I listed the usual.  Rules, Domination, A Government that’s all fur coat and no nickers, Radio Four, School, Lack of Choice, Oppression, Hypocrisy, Allbran, Semolina, and so on.  Latterly I would just be honest.  No idea Mum, and she would roll her eyes, turn away and sip her drink but with, I noticed, a little smile curling her mouth into an African upside-down moon.  There was music in that too.

I walk the mile to the Wifi Hut, and, as I arrive at the steadings through an open gate. I hear music piping through the metal posts. The score lifts and luffs on the back of the wind, hitching a ride to the other side of nowhere but deviating through a man-made hole, like a brilliant rebel, to sing a few notes just for me.

Island Blog – A Drinking Bird

I want to write about awe.  There’s not enough awe going around these days.  That natural uplift of a heart on seeing something gaspish.  Gaspish is an unmeasured thing.  Not all of us gasp at the same thing, and some of us have learned not to gasp at all, but this could be something to do with the lack of teachers in the art of awe.  Everyone needs one of those.  Could be mother, could be father, grandmother, grandfather, friend, even foe.  Awesome, on the other hand, is a well and truly overused word, and words like that, when navigating the world through the mouths of a culture, often lose their strength, for a while at least, through such overuse.  ‘Cool’ was one, once, but the days of cool being cool are long gone unless from the lips of grannies who have only just caught up with the trend.  In our day ‘cool’ related to things in the fridge, a chilly morning or a nice G and T of a summer’s evening.

Awe comes unbidden.  It isn’t contrived or staged.  It just bombs the bejabers out of you when you are looking the other way, or, as in the case of almost everyone between the ages of ten and 40, at your mobile phone.  It stuns for a moment.  Something you never expected has just happened.  It could be the distant hills turning blue in jacklight, or a heron flying backwards or someone at your door with flowers.  The thing about awe is that it’s the result of something you never saw coming.  Like waking up to sunshine or waking up at all.  It could be knowing that someone is thinking of you just when you thought the world had finally self-destructed and you were the only one left in it with no wellies or torch and your laptop out of juice.  It could be an act of random kindness on a train, in a street or from behind a Costa counter when you are one penny short of a macchiato. It could be anything.  The key is to feel it, and there might lie the rub, whatever that means. 

I know that the wise writers and teachers of this world urge us to practice.  To recognise awe and to honour it with a gasp, that outing of breath the colour of respect.  We listen, we read about it, we forget.  Our lives are sooooooo busy, after all, what with the domestic off sick and the bins needing a controlled roll down the hill because tomorrow is Monday and our day for the green one.  Time is of the essence.  Yes, it is, but Time moves on whether we watch it or not.  Time will never be lost, but we can be if we don’t remember awe and gasping.  I watched a fulmar cant in a luff of Atlantic wind.  I watched it soar, steady itself, float and soar some more.  I felt tears.  How can this beautiful creature do that, as if doing that was as simple as me buttering toast?  How does it see anything from up there, let alone everything?  Where are its young, its mate, and how does it pick fish from the sea when fish are moving and tiny and all I can see is a fishless flat ocean?  I follow a bumble bee as it tries to relocate its burrow.  Do bumble bees forget where home is?  It looks that way to me.  There is a lot of buzzing intent, and I can almost hear the sigh of relief when it finally scuttles down a finger sized hole. 

I see my grown children, my handsome sons, my beautiful daughter, smile into my inbuilt camera.  They are mine and yet they are not mine at all, but I am in awe of who they are and what they have done.  Perhaps only I know parts of their stories, the tough bits, and felt their pain soothed under mother hands.  Perhaps.  As I walk, I hear a thrush.  I’ve heard her before, and she is bothered with my walking.  I am too near her nest.  She flies out beyond and calls to me.  Not there, she says, you silly twit.  My nest is not there, not where you are looking.  She knows how to do this go away thing……but how? I remember a new born peering up at me through half blind eyes because I was the one, the protector, the woman whose trashed-up womb nourished and held him close whilst he silently grew into life. That awe never leaves a mother, no matter what happens as he fights his brave way through childhood, past awe-less teachers and cruel playground taunts and on into trainers big enough for me to lie down in. Even the taste of coffee can gasp me, and not because it’s hot.  And that gasp, that awe is connected tightly to the absolute certainty that there are millions of people, women, men, children, who are lucky if they get the cool dregs, let alone a new hot cup all to themselves.

Awe.  Gasp.  Notice.  Remember this.  Remember it when you are knee deep in grubby sheets daily, discarded crusts of bread and other detritus that hit the floor and stayed there. Remember this when you can’t find your glasses in order to read an email, or the phone as it rings and rings and rings until it stops somewhere in the depths of a sofa cushion, bits of old bolognaise stuck to it forevermore.  Remember this when life feels like a great big stone around your ankles, too heavy to move, too limiting to ignore.  Remember and be thankful.  For I have watched a fulmar cant in a luff of Atlantic wind, way out there where rocks are really faraway islands, where the sea stretches right up to the skyline and where old stories hover like gulls overhead, just begging to be pulled down and told again in a new voice. Remember, when the BT engineer doesn’t come nor the builder, nor the friend who said she would.  Because if we allow apathy to become our friend, caught up in all that is overwhelming, real and right here right now, we may forget too much.

Like the watching of a drinking bird, balanced on a rock, dipping for a drop and tipping for a swallow, one, two, three times against a wide sky, vulnerable, on edge, and then lifting into space, like it can live in two worlds at the same time.

Island Blog – Spatial Freedom

The cottage sits on craggy ground, a couple of miles from anywhere else.  The peace of the wilderness surrounds it, and, for 6 days, me too.  A black house, once, the walls are 3 foot thick and built with old stone, for stone is always old.  Full of stories too.  Whoever lived here in a time when the greatest intelligence was inside the brain instead of fleeing about upsetting migrating birds and the natural development of children knew how to protect his family against the bonkers west coast weather, the cold and the long dark winters.  He might have been a fisherman and his wife might have trekked down the cliffs for seaweed, dragging her salty burden back up to the potato patch, to lay it down over the precious earth, hopeful of a good feed for the following autumn and beyond.  Children would have walked miles to school along narrow tracks, over boulders, through rushing burns and grasses thick with orchids and all the worts.  The fisherman had a boat, but no engine.  He had his intelligence and his experience only to guide him.  Life was tough but life was enough back then. More than.

I feel the underfloor heating warm the soles of my feet.  I hear the strains of Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair emanating from the CD player, reminding me that once, when I was a young mother with long chestnut tresses and a girlish hope in my heart, an old man gave me that title.  He was a woodworker, fashioning tables and stools from old ship’s timbers.  I still have the hexagonal side table he made for me from solid oak with my initials carved on the top.  I remember him with his huge battered overcoat, worn in all weathers and secured around his midships with a length of orange binder twine, the flourish of a sailor’s knot dead centre. Broken boots he wore on his feet and his fingernails were always black, and, on his head, a pork pie hat, one he said he found on a bit of wasteland and rather fancied.  It was too small, but he bothered not about that. 

Outside the grasses tremble in the breeze.  They are too short to do more than tremble.  I Don’t recognise them.  A few miles away, where I live in an equally sturdy old stone house, though not as old as this one, we don’t have these grasses.  We have manicured gardens.  We have pulled out all that looks weed-ish and arranged our stones in pretty lines or curves, just so.  Out here where there is almost endless space, the end being the Atlantic Ocean, there is room for all growing things, some indigenous, some imported from exotic locations by previous owners of the estate.  The current young keepers of this land are more clued up about climate change and the dangers to wildlife of manicured gardens, as they are about recycling, migrating bird protection, eco friendly washing products and the waste of energy.  I applaud them, for it is so much harder to sustain enthusiasm for mindful attention to the weakening cries of our planet than it is to have the TV running all day and to throw out yesterday’s left-overs just because they’re yesterday’s, or to whack up the heating instead of knitting a big jumper made from sheep and then putting it on.

Geese graze the hillside, one that is bedecked with mothers and their lambs, for this is lambing time.  Ewes call for their recalcitrant young.  They’re over there, I tell them, in that big tumble of little white ones, running together, leaping and racing across the sunshine grass and paying absolutely no attention to the yelling of their mothers.  Much like my own children when I mistakenly tried to summon them from whatever exciting game they were involved in.  Mothers and timing do not make good partners.  Everyone knows that.  A Pied Wagtail bobs on a fence post and the air is a chirrup of Goldfinches.  There must be hundreds here.  Strange looking black flying insects with legs hanging down cluster around the wild fushia but never land.  I have no idea of their mission but, as they are there all day, I guess they do.  I sit on a driftwood bench and lean my back against the old stone wall.  It’s warm and there’s a heartbeat.  I can feel it and it calms me.  All the angst of arranging a 6 day break drains away as my own heart matches the beat.  The food plan, the carer plan, the wifi plan, the dog food plan, the this plan and the that plan seem a lot more than 7 miles and one day away.  I can see the point of land on which I live over there in the distance, between where I stand and the blue hills of Rhum, Eigg and Muck.  To my left after a walk I see Gunna, Coll and the Treshnish Islands which will now be alive with nesting puffins, shearwater, guillemots and shags.  Chaos, or it sounds like it as the boat nears the islands, an ear-splitting sound, or many sounds from many beaks and they all seem to be able to hear the call of a mate.  It amazeballs me. The cliffs, the scary high cliffs will have a nest on every ledge and the guano spills will turn the stone white ere long.  Puffins, the frock coated gentlemen of the bird world arrive with beakfuls of sand eels and scurry with a grunt down their respective burrows, making us all laugh at their comedic faces. 

Here I can read all day if I choose, or walk or sleep or write.  I don’t have to make space for myself for space is already here and free for the taking.  I inhabit it and in turn, it inhabits me.  Troubled thoughts come, of course they do for I cannot wipe my mind that quickly, but the anxious self- questioning is becoming a very small whisper, like a wee puff of smoke that soon dissipates in the wind. I know that in my experience of a shared life I was not allotted much space.  Agreed I didn’t fight for it, thinking in a traditional sort of way that a wife comes second and has no chance of overtaking.  However, I have pondered long on this subject and never wanted to be first, as in beating someone else to the prize.  I just wanted enough space to be whoever I turned out to be instead of turning into a woman who is the direct result of being confined inside her life by another or others.  It wasn’t on offer however and it is only just now that I can see how simple it is (and indeed might have been back then) to make space for myself by myself and without a single angry demand or noisome whine. 

I will end with a quote from the book I am reading again and loving all over again.  Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, by Peter Hoeg, in Miss Smilla’s voice:-

‘I feel the same way about my spatial freedom as, I’ve noticed, men feel about their testicles.  I cradle it like a baby, and worship it like a goddess.’

Island Blog – Respite, Care and Side-lines

In this land of caring, I often find myself too tired for toffees. Although I am on the case, the case itself scoots off in random directions at a second’s notice. Needs are immediate in the mind of one with dementia and, I confess, the schoolmarm in me comes to the fore if I am busy doing what was in the original plan for the morning, or the afternoon, or the evening. It thinks me of times when I could sit for four hours writing my book, undisturbed (but only as the result of a strongly voiced back-off), or settle down to read a few chapters of some fine book, or, even, to lay down the rolls of paper for a Christmas wrap-up. Those days are long gone now in the blast of immediate needs.

Being the only one now who greets a door knocker, or answers the phone, or speaks with a carer on what to do this day, to name but 3 of hundreds of additions to my daily job, is exhausting. Physically, I am fit and agile, strong and versatile in a most practical way, but mentally, emotionally I am often scunnered. Someone once said, I think as a compliment, that he could hardly believe I could sustain consistent cheerfulness over long periods of time, like years. I understood what he meant. Part of this cheerfulness is innate. Part learned behaviour. Part sewn in to the pattern that is I, or is it me? I observe carefully others who rise above their own desire to run, or to murder, or to just turn the world off, even for a blessed hour or two, and then I work out how to achieve that for myself, inside my own set of circumstances. It isn’t just stamina, it’s stamina with a positive attitude and that is quite a different thing.

Living in someone else’s life was never my plan, although I do concede that any marriage requires a personal sacrifice to some degree or other. I feared, oh, many times, that I would turn into pretty wallpaper, lose my voice, my dreams, myself, and, to a degree, I have, but only to a degree and the great news is that these losses are all rebuildable, like cells in a body. Like the body, the mind can regenerate as long as it stays open. So, how to stay open when the denial of self reads as an absolute? I keep writing, for one. I keep reading for two. I create fantasy landscapes on tapestry canvas for three and for the rest, all the way up to ten, I have my children and grandchildren to keep the Tigger in me bouncy, bouncy, bouncy.

And…..I think sideways. Laterally, is the correct word for this way of thinking. If forward looks like a train wreck and backwards looks like a load of bad decisions, then sideways it is. There are hundreds of people, hundreds of opportunities in the side-lines, just waiting for a nod from me. Step forward, you! And they do. It thinks me of a long line of us all moving forward, but not alone. We don’t have to make eye contact. We just have to hold another’s warm hand as we face the wilderness together, feet marching to our own drums, and ready to lift anyone or anything that falters or falls, together. The way our culture seems to choose to live is alone, each one of us striving to achieve whatever is in our storyline, regardless of others. I believe this is a big error of judgement, for we are all linked by that single thread, and in moving together, we can create an fire unachievable by our own little candle held up against the hurricanes of our world.

Caring is sharing. So cheesy, but true. And, not only the ice cream but the sad stuff too, the mess and chaos of life, the demands and rejections, the rage and pain and suffering. Of course we all need time alone (thank God for respite breaks) but to think we can walk a rocky path alone however consistently cheerful we manage to be, is madness. I’ve tried it, determined that I should be able to do this all by myself. Should. One of my BIN words, along with Ought. Well blow that for a bunch of monkeys. I walk with my sideways friends, their gentle kindly thoughts, their spark and sparkle. Some lift out from the pages of a book, some from a movie, some as door knockers, and I welcome them all for they lift me out of my tired old boots and tell me that, just because I am not covered in feathers doesn’t mean I cannot fly, and, if I can fly, then so can they.

Island Blog – The Colour of Good

It is, I confess, hard to write of anything much after the death of a dear friend. It almost feels as if my words might read as tiddleypom against the Nothing; as if no word is important enough to lay down upon a page. And yet, write I must, for my soul needs it, and all words matter.

There is cloud shadow on the hills. Rain fell and stayed fallen, softening the earth, plumping it with moisture enough to nourish the dried old ground. Little seedlings, in a growth spurt, grabbed their chance to bid for the sky. Watching this heals a heart. A Greenfinch, rare visitor, checks me out from his wobble on the fence wire, and is gone. Children chatter and run from the school line, one glorious pink girl flying into my arms, wrapping her legs around my waist, excited and ready for a lollipop. I feed the little dog her supper and fill up the log basket for it is cold, yet, at night. Today is my eldest son’s birthday. He is 46 and yet, as mothers do, I remember his arrival as if it was yesterday, his toddling-hood, his O-levels and his marriage, the birth of his daughters. And the way he can go from A to Z without the rest of the alphabet knowing. Life, it seems, flies by. We have the understanding to measure time to within a billionth of a second and yet we have no idea what will happen in the next. It is a puckered life.

Connected with my reflections on his early years, is a thread of my own childhood. As newly orphaned child of the world, even at 66, it matters. There was a gap left by my dad two decades ago but mum strode on until she didn’t. Now I am flanked by nobody, and I can really feel it. Walking myself back towards the days of white socks and lollipops, I find a memory.

I remember when the sky changed, when it flew in through Dad’s open window, full of salt and excitement. The first to see the sea, to shriek her name out always won that precious gift of a father’s Well Done! At the house, piling out, all five of us. We stretched our little legs and, with our childish arms, pushed out the old home-spun boundaries as far as we dared. This was the start of 3 weeks of sand between our toes among strangers who knew nothing of our past mistakes or misdemeanours. The old picnic box, not seen for a whole year, opened to show a whole lunchtime in pale and darker green, each piece held tightly in place with leather straps and brass poppers. Wine glasses clamped to the lid threw rainbows as they caught the sun and laughed back. Unpacked, and having found our beds, laid down our teddies and our flowery summer nighties, we pulled on shorts and tees, threw our white sox of travel aside and pushed our brave toes into jelly shoes, lining up for the beach.

Everyone ready?? Hold hands now! And we were off, a string of excited children, learning how to walk anew and desperate to run towards the stall that sold spun sugar in pink clouds. The beach stretched for miles both ways and would lay down obligingly flat for us every single glorious day, just waiting for little hands to raise a fortress.

Island Blog – A Single Thread

In the morning there is light. At night, there is dark. A natural process and, obvious to us all. No surprises there. As the world turns we lose and then we gain the burning light from our sun. The tides ebb and flow on a regular basis, pulled by the moon; we have breakfast on waking and supper before sleep. Beyond the odd deviation, such as a son-in-law who can eat reheated lasagne instead of cornflakes of a morning, we tend to stick to patterns long written down with a deferential nod to the historical family ‘bible’. Some of us break out, deciding not to continue such a dull and predictable daily plan, but, over time, many of us revert to type. We continue doing what we always did, what our parents did, seeing through a learned perspective a world we can understand and accept. Others may do it another way, but that is not for us. Let them eat cake, if cake is what they know and understand. Me? I prefer lasagne, and what they do is fine, as long as they do it over there on the other side of my garden gate.

Then something huge happens. It comes from nowhere. I never saw it coming at all. Suddenly, my landscape is a barren grey field of burning broken-ness. Suddenly, and it is always thus, I am stopped dead in my tracks. I have no idea what to do with this, nor myself. I am completely banjaxed. Such is a life when death comes like a thief. Not, this time, in my own life, but in that of a dear friend. One moment she is waving him goodbye-see-you-later-I’ll-cook-tonight, and the next she is opening the door to the bringer of the worst news ever. How can this be?

Her landscape, now, this light bright morning, is anything but light and bright. For her, this is darkness in the daytime. For her, there is no way forward, no view she has ever seen before, nor one she can understand at all. From the trench in which she now stands, knee deep in freezing water and scurrying with rats, she sees a war zone. Hopelessness. Burning. Cries of pain. I cannot imagine it. No shoes are right for this, no clothing warm enough, no words of consolation enough to separate her from the sure knowledge that she will never have to cook for him again.

I just listened to a Ted Talk (recommend them highly) on Grief. The speaker lost a baby, her father and her husband in the same year and she has made it her life’s work to study and then to teach about grief. Not moving on from it, but moving on with it. We say, at terrible times in another’s life that our own sadness palls into insignificance beside the terrible time, and, it does, but it doesn’t mean we should move on either. Whatever is a fallen field in our own lives, matters. Turning from the sadness doesn’t, unfortunately, make it go away. It simply buries it in the ashes of what once was vibrant with flowers. But, as we know, the earth moves and as she does, she thrusts up the long-buried bones of that sadness, that loss, that guilt, that shame, so that we are forced to face it all over again, and just when we thought we ran clear.

We can encompass so much if we look at life, our own life, other’s lives, the state of the world, all of it, as strands of the same thread, not opposing forces. Extreme grief can be felt for something in one life, that is like mist in the hurricane of another’s, and, yet, both matter. Grief over rejection, bullying, homophobic judgment, lack of success in business, a broken relationship, and so much more, can feel like the end of the world to the fly in the metaphorical web. It can dominate every single second of thought, change behaviour, choices, direction. It can kill.

I have not faced the ultimate grief, the sudden death of a beloved one, the shock of it. I can say nothing on the matter. My words would be as sickening platitudes were I to speak at all. So I won’t. But, I will say that in this world there are millions of grievers and every single grief matters. Moving on with that grief changes landscapes, breaks historical patterns and there is nothing wrong with that. Moving on, with the joy and with the grief that comes to every life, brings out a creativity in all of us, one that would never be tapped, nor developed had we never stood before the fallen field; had we never felt so very lost, so unequipped, so cold and weary and so broken.

The thread is one thread. Many strands, but one thread. Multicoloured, but one thread, and this one thread, this one chance of life, links us all together.