Island Blog – Rag paper and Wednesday

There is a new toy in our house. I notice that, as dementia claims more of himself, thus abandoning him to yet more difficulties, a new toy always seems to help for a while until the gleam of the new and exciting dulls and blunts. I feel the same way on purchasing a new item of clothing. This, for me, will surely bring the transformation I so desire. In fact, once inside this new, tissue-wrapped piece of kit I will be someone else altogether. The old me is abandoned beside the track and good riddance to her. Unfortunately the old me is also the new me so that all the mees merge in lumps and bumps, scars still visible, after a comparatively short step in time. On Monday I was new for a whole day and then, on Wednesday it rained. Such is a rap paper life and it isn’t just me who lives one of those. We all do.

As a youngster I liked nothing more than to read. I was often in trouble for it, for my passion, my slipping away to find a quiet corner which didn’t stay a corner for long. Soon I was climbing the Faraway Tree or camping with the Secret Seven or bashing one of the Amazons over the head with my Swallow paddle. I was free of all corners for the short and glorious foray into other worlds, other’s worlds, all more exciting than my own. In short, I was and still am transported into timelessness where everything that is possible is possible. I was un-me-ed and that suited me better than any item of clothing. I was bare skinned, free, a part of, not just of the leafy road on which I lived, but of the whole universe. In under two pages, I became integral to the story. I was there, me, cornered me, and I was important.

I have no idea how anyone can possibly live without reading, and reading avidly and regularly. Not forced, like in school, to drag weary and resistant limbs through tomes of impossible math but just because it is all I want to do. I have dipped into somewhere else and those who live there are talking to me, telling me things that take me over completely. I learn of despair turned into powerful action, of hunger and loss, of beauty and fire and huge waves and laughter shared. I feel everything. Even the people I don’t much like teach me. And, as I drift back into the corner, I return to the rag paper life all covered in words and feelings as if I had walked through an enormous spider web. I can feel the tickle of them on my skin, but I cannot see them.

And from my books I find a way forward. Some might say that living in other’s worlds is not realistic, but I would counter that. Without my daily dose of otherness I would wonder why the transforming powers of a new article of clothing didn’t last the week. I would look at this new electric wheelchair, take in the size of our home, the layout of the furniture, the width of doorways and the tumble of disability aids already fixed firmly to the ground of my rag paper life, and I would despair. In books, in other’s stories, I gain perspective, something no newspaper or glossy magazine showing how low a red-carpet celebrity’s dress can go, will ever do. In books I trust. In stories woven and coloured, shaped and distilled, I see all my own bumps and scars and they are beautiful to behold. This, after all, is me, new kit or no, the chaos of motorised aids or no, and me is doing just fine.

I don’t want glossy. I want rag paper stories, words that lift and separate me from introversion, from my destructive or whining thoughts. If she, this woman who travelled alone across countries in search of safety and freedom, terrified at ever step, can make it, then so can I. If this young woman can take on a mighty all-male army and win, then so can I. A well crafted tale has the power to change me.

And it lasts well beyond Wednesday.

Island Blog – Turnstone

I hear them, see them on the rocky shoreline. Members of the Sandpiper family, they have strong necks for the task of lifting stones, some as big as their own body size, in search of invertebrate snacks. They pipe and trill, their voices lifting into a frantic warble at the threat of danger. Danger like me plodding along the slippy rocks, my feet bending around the tips and ridges of the most ancient of story-tellers. Kelp-grease works to upend me which would be both painful and undignified and the extra rain adds to the odds. In rainlight, everything looks brighter, the yellow lichen spins gold over black and the seaweed shines as if polished for hours. Rock pools form and then, over time, turn to what looks like an oil spill but smelling much worse. Inside the pools, tiny creatures make the best of such a high and transient landing place. I watch them busy about, feelers waggling, tentacles floating like silken fingers. And all of them blind, or so I imagine. They don’t know, as I do, that the clouds have fallen in, smoky shapes of sky, ever changing and moving on.

In a journey, there are always stones, many of which need turning. Sometimes, these stones offer protection for walking feet, lining the track shoulder to shoulder, a sure defence against falling into the underworld. At other times, a stone may block the path. It may prevent, rather than allow, safe passage and such a stone needs turning at the very least. But be careful, for every one of them is offering a hiding place for something. I know it when I pull one up to discover a colony of frantic ants, all of a dither now that I let the sky in. They scurry to safety down the trannels, the precious egg futures clasped between strong pincers, all of them working as a team. It always gasps me, this silent life of a nation living just beneath my everyday. And I knew it not, thought about it not. Until now, until I see for myself. I gently replace the stone as exactly as possible, even though, I surmise, it is not possible at all. For all my care, I am clumsy and something will be crushed by the returning weight just a fraction out of line with the earth around it.

Stones hold stories, stories we can learn from, if we are mindful. In our culture it is quite ‘normal’ to order crushed stone for our driveways or planters or fish ponds, but do we think of the stories, now fractured and split into bits of history that may make no sense however mindfully we might study our newly spread gravel? In a walk anywhere on this old island, one that used to hold over 10,000 souls before the landed gentry decided sheep were a more cost effective tenant, I find tumbles of stone. Some are obviously the remains of a dwelling, a fank, or a boundary. Some are just tumbles lying among scurvy grass or half sunk in a peat bog. Hallo, I say to them. Tell me about you. If I sit long enough, I can hear in my imagination the laughter of children or the clack of granny’s needles as she sits outside to watch them play. I can smell the broth or skinny stew that bubbles above the fireplace, and somewhere in the distance I hear music. Pipe and whistle tunes float across the moor along with birdsong and the trill of the coastal waders, a diver’s eerie warble, the screech of an eagle. This is the story of the stones, and they will still be telling tales of courage and loss, of new birth and the endless turning of the seasons long after I head for the underworld. For those who care to listen, they will tell of moontide and sunrise, of hunger and of feasting, of community and family bonds; of selkies and mermaids, of fishermen lost and fishermen saved, of the titanic power of the ocean, of her stormy rages and of her balmy kindness.

Turn a stone along a journey and that journey becomes so much more than it seemed at the outset. I have 10 minutes for a quick walk before I have to diddle about with something very small in my life. I might say that. But if I just walk, just look around, turn a stone or sit on one, and wait for the story, I will return to the diddle in a very changed frame of mind. I might not diddle at all.

My own story I know so well it bores me. However there are stones out there just waiting for me. They have a new story to tell and all they need is me to help them set the words free.

Island Blog – Eloquence

Two jock blackbirds argue from somewhere underneath the quad bike. I sit inside the garage, the morning mist and rain framed like a painting by the wide mouth of the open door. The birds are wetbacks, bedraggled and hungry and in no mood, either of them, for negotiation. I had obviously dropped some seed yesterday as I dove deep into the seed barrel with my plastic jug and these two are sparring for first dibs. Earlier I watched a sparrow hawk strike, the frenzied chase as one of them hit the window and recovered, the subsequent lift of hawk with empty talons, and the out breath of relief from my mouth.

Two gulls fly overhead, rising from the tall pines that flank the sea-loch like old seamen looking out. One dips and lifts, drawing wide circles in the smoky sky whilst the follower cuts a straight line through the air, closing the distance between them. I have no idea if this is a friendly or the opposite. I don’t speak ‘gull’. It is so much easier to follow, is it not? I say out loud. And it thinks me.

So many times I don’t say what I want to say. This, I accept, is learned behaviour, learned through the narrow corridor (in which I must never run) of parental, marital and societal design, the walls of it confining and defining me. Or so it might appear from the outside. Inside, however, there could be a fire raging. In the face of such duality, the tension and frustration can lead to minor, or major bodily manifestations. A headache, for example, or a nagging back pain, indigestion and sleeplessness. And those are the minor ones. I wonder why any of us keep doing it, denying the truth, too scared to speak out for fear of ‘public’ opinion. I have done it brilliantly, burying my voice in deep ground leaving only a squeak to push through, too late for the season past, the words losing all relevance of memory in anyone’s head. What are you talking about? I might be asked, when the squeak produces a wimpy flower, brave but pointless and dull of hue. As I disseminate, I watch the flower grasped by a new wind and tossed in sprawling tatters across the lawn of today. Too late now, for that speke to vocalise itself. Stupid me. I should have said it at the time. But I didn’t.

As I grow older and inhibit my voice less, I can encourage others to find their voice, develop it, practise congruence and honest talk, no matter what or who flaps them down. To practice eloquence. Knock down those corridors, I tell them, or find your way back into the light, your own light, not theirs. But, I don’t know what the response will be, they reply. So? That is their problem, not yours, no matter who they are. Finding a voice is one thing. Tempering your choice of words, your tone, your body language, well, that takes practice. Lashing out in anger may feel great at first but it will often result in guilt and remorse, not because of what you say, but of how you say it. And practice is just what it says it is, a repetitive process, over time, with intelligent attention to detail. It is not cutting through the air. It is drawing circles in the sky, of feeling the lift and luff of greater forces, of noticing a slip of change and of responding to it.

We get nowhere suddenly, not if the destination is worth the journey. And if the destination is being true to self, then it’s a long walk to such a freedom. However, just one step, just one in the direction of congruence will give a new lightness to the heaviest of feet. Walking along someone else’s corridor is not living a healthy life. Eventually the mind will dull along with dreams, hopes and aspirations. Our own song will forget how to sing itself. Too many comply in order not to upset others, deeming it acceptable to upset ourselves instead, as if self doesn’t matter at all. This headache, this indigestion, this itchy skin, this nagging pain is fine, I’m fine.

And we all know the acronym of ‘Fine’.

Island Blog – The Still

The air smells of sweetpeas and change. Unlike yesterday’s crazy dance, the troupe is at rest. Yesterday there was enough bluff and bluster to lift a woman’s skirts right over her head, as the wind forced the flowers to bend and twist at his behest. But there was sun on the back of that wind when this morning there is no sign. The silence is eerie beneath a milk sky. We are all waiting in the space that wind created as he blew on to other lands. Straight from the Sahara, someone said, warm and crackling with desert stories. I could feel them, as I walked the Tapselteerie track, touching my skin, wanting in. I hear you, I tell them, even if your language is not mine, even if I cannot translate your words, I hear you. And I wanted to walk further, just to hear more.

In the space, we wait, me, you, the flowers, the trees, the songbirds. The sound of bird carries easy inside a space like this instead of being flung at my ears in a luffing staccato. A bit of Robin, no, wren, ah, no, blackbird, well, just the black of it to be honest as the rest of it rode off on the wind. As I worked in the garden, I noticed again how the flowers move with it. I, on the other hand give myself a hard time pushing against it, forcing my way through, dividing the punch of it into fingers. I pulled out stalks of this or that, now tired of life and turning yellow and watched them skitter across the grass as the wind played mischief. Unrooted, they are as fair game to a bully. I also noticed how, within the natural confines of this little island garden, the wind has to round on himself in order to keep momentum. Out walking in the wide-open, he can get up some speed, chunnelling along the track with only the odd corner to interrupt his fun. Further on, further out, he will meet the sea and then he will be free to lift and swirl and somersault his way for hundreds of miles, his finger plucking at the waves, making them fractious.

I consider spaces, like the one out there today. How easy it is to miss them in our rush for the next thing. Waiting for the forecasted rain, we bring things inside for protection, close car windows, carry down the washing from the green. In short, we fill the space without standing in it at all, without watching the silence of it or hearing its voice. And yet this space, this silence, this sense of waiting, if noticed and considered, is soul food. Life cannot be all wind and noise. There must be calm or we would all be deaf, our bodies exhausted from pushing against the blast, our metaphorical skirts up around our ears. We would hear nothing of the silence, nor understand the space it affords us in order to still our minds, bodies and souls.

I meet a young man on holiday. Attached to his right ear is a mobile phone. At last he has reception and can sort out the glitch in his business back home. Waiting patiently his lovely wife sits nearby. Not so patiently their small son jukes and scoots around the space, longing for action. But dad’s glitch needs immediate attention, then he’ll be done. It thinks me of my own life spent waiting patiently for family time uninterrupted. It happened, but rarely, and it seems the same, if not worse, is the truth today. Work comes before anything, holiday or no. I can see it is the way of life, but I also see it sizzling with danger. In my own experience I could never understand why everyone but family got the best attention. There was never a NO in the mouth of the man should business call, no matter how inconveniently. But there were plenty of NOs for me and the children.

I had rather hoped that would change in a new generation, but it has not. There is little room for spaces, it seems, let alone the time to stand inside them, to still the mental jibber-jabber and to wait for the outside calm to gentle in. Like a garden, stilled, between the windfire and the rain.

Island Blog – In Song I Sing

I wake at 4.30 to the keen of gulls and the wish-wash rhythm of sea meeting harbour walls. Boats of all shapes and sizes pepper the fractious surface as they bob and shift like restless birds, their mastheads singing spooky in the wind. Somewhere beyond my view, the big engines of a cruise ship keep a steady bass line as they have night-long. Below my second floor window a lone council worker in luminous green safety gear picks litter with a long grab. He works slowly, moving along the pavement, one cigarette butt at a time, sometimes at first try, sometimes after two or three attempts. I want to ask if if he bends in the middle; if it wouldn’t be quicker to use his regulation gloved hands, but I keep my silence. The ways of council are quite beyond my ken.

Yesterday afternoon I drove the switchback to get here, here being the local town that almost sinks with the weight of tourists in the summer. As I came down the hill and saw the street paved with cars, cheek to jowl, bumper to snout with barely room between for a cat to sleek through, my heart sank. I just knew there would be no space for me, and if a gap appeared I would need to do something terrifying like go into reverse; to snake my mini into an impossible unspace whilst holding up a line of critical drivers. I always think the whole town stops to watch me cock it up, which I generally do. I abandon my car wonkychops but safe enough and check into the hotel, for I am here purposefully. I have come to see the singer sing me a lift, and I am not disappointed.

It’s over 30 years since she and her band, Capercaillie came to us for a ten day first recording of their album Delirium. I remember the excitement I felt, the panic that sent me checking and re-checking their rooms, picking flowers for every surface and cooking delicious meals. It was a happy time and the band so easy to be with. Music spun its magic throughout Tapselteerie over those days and nights of change and development, of repeat after repeat, of a single instrument making its own voice heard and then folding like velvet into the cut and colour of the finished garment. And above it all the singer soared like a bird, canting on the breeze, sunlight on her rainbow wings.

Age has not fallen her. Her voice is exquisite. But what impacted me most last evening was how she throws her whole self into the melodies and the words. Taking songs from way back in history, songs from all across the world, songs of waulking, grieving, loss, joy and hope, she gifted them to us. Even not understanding a word of Gaelic, I knew about what she sang. She showed me with her face, her body, her hands describing the air around her, and the music beneath her voice was no less emotive. Lifting and rounding, punching and raging, weeping and sighing, the instruments in sensitive and dynamic composition gave flesh to the bones as she sang them all, one by one, calling them by name.

When it was over we talked. It thought me of our different paths over 3 decades, our lives lived out in very different circumstances and, yet, we have a bond, like a stave of music, solid and strong no matter how long away or how far. I walked down the hill beneath a darkling sky, the town silent as midnight moved closer. I am so very glad I came because there is a new song in me this early morning and it sings out clear and strong.

As I drive home, back into the ordinary, the song comes with me. I can feel it like a bird, right here beneath my ribs, just waiting for its time to fly.

Island Blog – The True Story

In Greek mythology there was a goddess. Actually, there were quite a few of them, but this one rose into my mind just yesterday from the lines of a book. Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Daughter of Uranus (heaven) and Gaia (earth) and mother herself of the nine muses thanks to Zeus. Quite a goddess. She is the one, I am guessing, that you prayed to when you had lost something. Your kingdom for instance, or a battle, or your marbles.

On another shore of the heavenly endless spaces a very different goddess was breathing first life. Lethe, the goddess of forgetting, of oblivion. She, according to mythology was the daughter of Eris, meaning Strife and was named for one of the five underworld rivers in Hades. Anyone who drank from the waters of Lethe forgot everything – their whole life just gone, both the good and the bad.

There is a theory that these two were actually twins. Two fathers, one mother they grew facing each other in the womb. Obviously, Mnemosyne was born first. It would be hard to forget everything without a memory being there in the first place, after all.

This idea thinks me. I know that in a tough life, or in a life where terrible awful things have happened, it is natural to want to forget the terrible awful, to let it float away on the waters of Lethe, for ever gone from memory. But, as is always the case in this life, things are not that simple. In order to forget the terrible awful I must forget all of the rest, all those joyous memories, the history, the experience, the sharing of a metaphorical sandwich on the trudge road.

Well, I don’t want to do that. Just imagine beginning all over again with not a footprint recognised as I look back, not even my own. No thanks. So, how do I, or does anyone, manage the rough with the smooth, make it one shape, a shape that works for me, that takes me forward in joy and hope and not in dread?

I think it is a mistake to seek oblivion, despite wishing, often, it was not. If I consign the terrible awful (and mine is nothing compared to so many terrible awfuls) to oblivion, what has it taught me? Nothing, it would seem. But in denying the existence of it, I achieve but a short term lift. In a hunt for memories without the awfuls getting in the way, I paint an untruth. This happy memory is just a cupcake, a cameo. It doesn’t feel real and that’s because it isn’t real. Real is both joy and awful and within any given scenario, we must have both or we just don’t believe it. It becomes a child’s fairytale, one in which everything is quite marvellous and leaves us with furred teeth from too much sugar. However much we might want that sugar, it will never be enough. The awfuls must be interlaced through the whole picture or we simply tire of the story long before it ends.

But how do I manage to conjoin these two as I look back down the track of my life, of my tears, fears, denials, joys and delights? The way I have learned to embrace such a big challenge is this – when an memorical awful shoots into my mind like a missile, I catch it. Stay right there, I tell it, for I am in charge here, not you, not this time. It came to me via a trigger, something said or done that shot me backwards into the awful, and because I had arrived in person, I brought breath into the lungs of it. Like doing CPR on a memory. I go into a quiet place with the awful and sit with it. I tell it that it has overly inflated itself over the decades and I am not impressed with all those feathers and bling and that fat belly. It tells me, with an impressive amount of well-flourished detail, the whole story. I, of course, play the victim. But, wait. I wasn’t a victim, oh no. I was an integral part of this awful happening, or, at the very least, of allowing it to happen by not taking action at the time. I consider this. I know that taking action at the time would have been dangerous and not just for me. I also know that I was worn down, fooled, oppressed and controlled. That all sounds very dramatic for the teensy awfuls of my own life, but not so for some who really had no power at all at the time.

However, it is not back then we are talking about here, but the right here and now. How to manage this memory. How to allow it space to be there at all. I sit some more with the awful and, as I watch it, replay whatever amount of scene I can truly remember. Soon, I feel the soft and reassuring hands of Mnemosyne on my shoulders, light as sunrise on a summer’s morning. The fat belly begins to deflate and I really want to laugh. The surprise on the face of the awful is a picture. The bling dulls and dissolves, the feathers flop until before me sits a very small awful indeed. It looks like it’s been through a 60 wash and a long fast spin.

I go back into my life. I don’t forget the awful but I no longer need to give it CPR. It has a place in my journey and it always will, but what I have learned from it, and all the others, is priceless. They made me strong and colourful, defiant and loving. They made me complete.

And the truth is that, without these awfuls, there would be no story to tell.

Island Blog – Talking Bird

When I step out to fill up the bird feeders and to sprinkle the lowground table with no-mess, no-grow seed, the garden birds hide deep inside the potentilla. Buttery blooms coat the outside leaves, their faces upturned to a tissue paper sky. There is rain up there somewhere, but this bothers not my feathered friends. I hear the chattering. Sparrows, always in a group, finches, gold, red and colours of the earth, coal blackbirds, glint of eye with orange beaks, their mates speckled breasted and altogether bigger. Not that being bigger means much in Blackbird World. The women always get second best. It’s the same for us, I tell them in my soft bird voice, as one male scoots out in angry pursuit of his hen. They eyeball me and scoot just as quickly back into shelter with a storm rise of accusation v justification. She gives as good as he, I can hear her having the last word. As I complete my round, the brave ones appear. Siskins on the sunflower hearts, goldfinches on the nijer, blackbirds still busy fighting over who gets what. I watch them through the window.

Yesterday I met a friend for lunch. We haven’t seen each other for a year so I knew our meeting would have no struggle with a word exchange or two. Add the woman who took our order and served us. Now there are three women engaging in each other’s stories, ideas and opinions. Very dynamic and enough to send all males running for the hills. Women talk too much, they mutter into their pints, returning almost immediately to that infuriating silence that tells all women men are basically not interested at all in anything beyond their work, football or the politics of the country. Certainly not in how someone is feeling. We don’t mention feelings, we men. In fact, I think you will find we don’t feel at all and we most certainly never use the word in public.

Birds Talk. Birds talk Bird Talk. In a short hour or so, we women covered more ground than Yosemite National Park and by the time it came to goodbyes, we knew a great deal about each other, about many other others, about how they must feel about this or that inside their lives. We also know how to apply the best calming oils to ageing knees, how awful it must be for so-and-so to still be waiting for the builder to come make window repairs after over a year; how to shoot rosemary through a lemon posset and where best to plant echinacea for a strong healthy crop. I learned about leaving the broken child in the past, about holidays planned and appropriate clothing purchased. I heard of loneliness and despair, of a good manicurist, of where not to go for a haircut or colour. I learned of those hurting and those healing. I heard of nature and the metaphysical world, the chances sent to all of us to connect with our otherness. And I heard and discussed so much more. In one little hour, three women, sometimes talking all at once, forged a bond that will remain in all of our minds for sometime to come. At times when we feel blue or black we will dive deep into the colours of that random connection and find new strength, particularly the one we all need so badly around our silent menfolk.

Women talk too much. Well, thank the gods for that.