Island Blog – Fog and Fire

Someone has pinched the outlands this morning. Looking out through the smurry rain it seems they have been lifted from the sea. I can still see a horizon but it is just a line where the ocean and the sky meet, quite without the lift and thrust of ancient rock, of the sgurr, the rounding and the stretch of other lands. Last night I watched the reassuring flash of two lights, their individual pulsing both hope and warning into a darkling canopy. No stars, no moon, no chance for sailors to find their way around this dangerous shore, the well-hidden cuts of solid basalt revealing only the tips of their noses, like someone you don’t know well, one who only reveals a little of who they are. The alarming bit is well concealed below their surface and you only know of it when your boat hits. Sometimes that hit is fatal, for a rock mountain has the upper hand. Unlike you, it remains steadfast and barely scratched. What you do about you is up to you.

The sea is vast and grey-flecked. White ruffs surround the rocks as each wave meets it and erupts in a mini tantrum. The ripples fall away to nothing, becoming a compliant part of the whole once again. As dawn rose like an eastern queen I heard a lorry, or thought I did. Yesterday was the ‘gathering’, for this is the time when lambs are stolen from their mothers and sent to market. And the noise they make about it can keep whole families awake. I remember, at Tapselteerie, feeling a huge weight of guilt, just knowing that the ones who had rented the farm cottages would get no sleep at all. The mothers, bereft as long as they can hear the frantic calling of their lambs, will be led out to another pasture and, by the time a few days have passed and their milk dried, their memories will be whitewashed. Such is the way of sheep.

Gulls fly snow white against the greys as the fog holds tight to the horizon. It’s a living dream, a daylight one, this fantasy before me. I know it isn’t the truth, but it looks pretty truthful to me right now.And, therein would lie my disaster were I to be a sailor out there believing that fog is the truth. It thinks me of friends, of my tribe. I thought that friends were my tribe but this is not necessarily true. Some are, some are not. This learning is freeing me and, from the response I have had re The Great Sadness blog, there are many who might want to find such a freedom. Although we may be continents apart, we know each other. We navigate the fog and the rocks of our lives like all good women do but deep deep inside the belly core of our bodies we know we don’t fit. It feels deeply uncomfortable, this scary knowledge, especially if we have travelled many miles, weary and footsore in search of our own tribe, not really believing in such otherworldly nonsense, but propelled forward nonetheless. At times we even laugh at ourselves, turning back into the safety of what and who we know. This should be enough…..well, shouldn’t it?

No. It isn’t, not for those of us who quest like explorers and who just can’t accept the fog. There are outlands beyond that veil. And the only way to see them, to make land, is to cast off. To set out alone in a small and sinkable boat and to point to the horizon, vigilant for rocks, believing no whitewash and, above all, trusting in the fire of that belly core.

And we can do all of this whilst remaining exactly where we are. For now.

Island Blog – The Great Sadness

I have no other name for it. Nor can I explain it, although I have tried, many times over the decades of my long life. In the search for meaning, for an explanation, we are forgiven our walks up blind alleys. It is only human to want an answer. As a child I felt it. It would suddenly invade my mind when I was most definitely looking the other way. Suddenly, even in a gathering of family or peers, in what seemed to be a happy moment, it would hit me full whack. At a young age I had no way of understanding it. I just thought that it was because Angela had pink flashing socks and mine were ordinary white, albeit with a Daz sparkle. Or that Mary had a hamster.

Later, as a supposedly intelligent and educated young women it still hit me. At a party, for which I had taken about five hours to dress, and surrounded by friends and music and a short term freedom, or walking down the town on a Saturday morning with money to spend on something ridiculous like shiny hot pants or chain-rattling tough girl boots, the Great Sadness would punch me in the gut and stumble me. it would leave me completely alone in a huge crowd, like a girl on a raft mid Pacific. Sometimes someone would spot the change and ask a kindly question, but I soon lost them as I explained what a weirdo I was. I think they were scared they might catch something dodgy. I find the same now, in the evening of my life. The only people who don’t run for the next bus are intuits, counsellors or very close friends. Friend, actually. She gets me, even if she does also consider me a weirdo.

As a child I was considered strange, difficult, obtuse etc. I could be brilliant, and I was, supreming at music, writing and insight, but the latter threw even the most open-hearted guides. I was too young, too confounded by the Sadness and, thus, too much of a threat to my peers who seemed not to ever think beyond hamsters or pink flashing socks. I felt alienated and had no idea why. This huge thing I still cannot explain shows me much. I have now learned to welcome it and to walk beside it, even if it really hurts. I used to hang it on pegs. Must be this thing, this person, this event, this fear. Not now. As I grow a stronger connection to nature and to the wildness around me, I accept the Great Sadness as an integral part of the whole point of things, of life and not just this one but the millions of lives already lived to the end. I consider myself privileged to have been visited by it from childhood, even if it did cause a tapselteerie; even if it did label me a weirdo; even if my friends’ mothers shook their heads and scuttled their daughters away; even if my own mum looked at me as she might look at ET.

There are times when I cannot lift my mental boots out of the mud. It is not that I am depressed. There are days when I imagine flying off a cliff. I do not plan to. I am just the honoured host for the Great Sadness, one that shows me all the pain in the world. I hear the cries, feel, intensely, the agony of struggle and cruelty, feel the joy and the happiness too. It’s like being in balance. I can hold the pain and the joy inside me at the same time without having to explain or justify a thing. Nor does it fear me. It gives me a real good look into the truth. And that is something most of us avoid. We would rather push it away when it hurts, buy something, plan a holiday, phone a friend, turn on the TV. But to sit with it when it comes in is not for the faint hearted. It is uncomfortable at best, and this visitor stays just as long as they like.

I am still a student. for over 60 years I have run from the Great Sadness, but it won’t go away, no matter what I do. I think when a person is very creative, the Great Sadness comes too. I see it in art and writing and music that gasps me. Oh, I think, there it is. It won’t be explained, nor justified, nor hung on a peg. It makes its choice. The key is to let it in, like a visitor you don’t much want, who has arrived at the most inconvenient time, and who has no plans to leave for a while. It will not be rebuked, nor thrown out. I am only sad I didn’t read the Great Sadness manual aged six.

Might have been just a bit further on by now.

Island Blog – A Duck, A Snow Goose and Me

There is a duck on a pond beside my cottage-for-a-week. I know the pond. It was constructed some years ago for the snow geese to find, when they travelled away from their island without people. The weed is growing and I can only see a small amount of spring-fed pond now. But there is enough of it for one duck to land in each evening when she knows the night raiders are waking up. The pond is her safety as the cloak of night covers our land like a great big eyepatch.

She shouldn’t be alone, however. She has mislaid her mate somewhere along the way and, as ducks mate for life, I am sad for her. Now she must be super vigilant because nobody has her back and there is always danger for a duck whether up in the sky or down here in the pond. I watch a hooded crow dive at her, taunting, and she plunges her head into the water and throws it up at him, once, twice, when he returns to taunt some more. As the night slows in I watch her watching, her head tipping and turning as she paddles away from the edge to circle the midwater, the safer bit.

In the early morning, she lifts and flies to wherever she flies to. In search of food perhaps; in search of her mate, perhaps. I wonder how long she has been alone. Did she raise ducklings this year, teach them how to quack, to swim, to nuzzle their beaks in the grass, or in the water, for a tasty stalk of green? And did they all survive? Have they flown into their own futures now? I will never know for I don’t speak duck, and, besides, I could never get near enough to enjoy a shared conversation. She is understandably way too jumpy to trust anyone.

I don’t see a snow goose here and there used to be plenty of them. Big proud geese, paper white and rare, threatened, shot at for trophy or Christmas lunch. I remember one, once, flew in on a spring breeze, all alone, to land in the sea-loch below our house. It stood out a mile against the resident greylags and their tiny fluffball goslings. Bereaved, like the duck, he made friends with the greylags and became a sort of big brother to them. When they all decided to cross the loch beneath a scatter of hungry blackback gulls, who would happily pluck a gosling mid paddle, the snow goose led them like a fatherly general. Solicitous and watchful, he set forth as five or six familial lines followed him. He made the apex as the triangle of parents and young traversed the expanse of saltwater. From time to time the snow goose would turn back to tidy up a sprachling family, nudging them once again into formation. Tipping his head to the sky, he watched for danger. I saw him repeat this journey a few times until strong flight feathers cobbled the gosling bodies and the blackbacks left in search of a softer snack. Come Autumn and he was gone. The young geese had gone, the rich green grass had gone and the old folks who remained snuggled into the lee of the bay for shelter.

He returned twice more over two more Springs to repeat his payitforward kindness. He may have lost his mate but not his instinct to protect. I haven’t seen him for years now but I will never forget how I felt as I watched him lead like a kindly light, strong in the face of danger. I remember whispering….This is a quality I want to find in myself.

Island Blog – Change Afoot

It may seem like I have way too much to say out here on this clifftop. And it is true, I do. Out here I can think a whole thought all the way through, chew it over, shift it a bit this way or that, develop it without a single otherly demand or call for action to trip me up. Of course, I know this will not be sustainable, not once this week of freedom draws to a close. I will return to duty as I always do, eventually. We all do. Life is not a long holiday from Life. Life is a casserole of colour and texture, full of soft sweetness and tough chewy bits and not an always-full glass of champagne. Trust me, that would be unpleasant in the end. Hangover, indigestion, hunger for something solid inside an ordinary belly will always have us move towards the fridge and the oven and, besides, after one or two glasses of bubbly it turns to acid inside a mouth, melts the lippy, taints the breath and falls you over.

However whenever I am away, alone with my developing thoughts and no trip ups, I often discover a new ingredient for the casserole of Life. Aha! I say to myself. That’s IT! This is the little something I can take home with me, this Aha that will change everything. And it does for the few days I remember it as IT. But, in a short while, this amazing answer to everything loses its centre stage talent and slips back into the chorus line. Even though I know this will happen, I always hope it won’t, that this time I finally get it, got it. I know enough now to smile at that. I know enough to be able to seek, find, employ, feel the hope, the epiphanal excitement, and to let it be what it will be. After all, playing Capercaillie and listening to that angel voice of Karen Mathieson on a loop for hours and hours will drive himself crazy within a short time. Can you turn that down? Can you wear headphones? Yes, yes, yes.

But how do I say those yesses? Do they spoke out like knives into the distance between us or do they float from my smiling mouth like butterflies? Well, both, actually. It depends on how I am feeling at the time and there’s the key. If I decide how I am feeling then I am free to smile out butterflies. Sometimes, though, in the face of the rising fretful demands from a person with dementia, I can flick a knife with astonishing accuracy. Something snaps in me and I appear to be at the mercy of it in the way I respond. But, I remind myself, I am human and tired of all this walking on broken glass and, besides, how hard is it to say I’m Sorry for Stabbing You? It isn’t hard at all.

It thinks me of the times in my life when I believed I had found The Solution to Everything only to discover it was just one and could not stand alone – not in a life of change, and Life is on a right bender of change just now, more than it ever was. Instead I take this great idea as one colour in my tapestry, one ingredient in the casserole, that extra little something that effects enough change to lift the whole thing. It is no longer bland with too much grey and not enough pzazz. I just pzazzed it. And, next time I get to inhabit a solo space, could be a week, could be a walk, could be a moment or two, I will work quickly. My fingers will rummage, my mind will open, my eyes, ears, and I will wait for another ‘it’ to appear like magic, like a sudden butterfly, like a red sun just before the sea snuffs it out, the one that pinks my window and has me hurtling, in a gasp to the door. This is my best shot. And, when I go back into the sad fretful frustration of dementia I will take it with me to add to our conjoined life.

And it will make all the difference.

Island Blog – Women and Salt

I’m watching the ocean. There is a load of it to watch, even if I am only seeing a big bowl of salty soup with brushstroke islands in the distance. Some of them long and flat with the odd bump and others rising like fists into the tissue paper sky. Like a punch. Around their edges the moontide shoves water up their basalt/granite flanks and their flanks shove it back like a Get off Me woman thing. Over and over again this goes on as if it is a war between the ultimate limits, old rocks and old sea. Both are dangerous when roused. But, as neither wins, the war just repeats like a treadwynd, an endless cyclical process, circle circle circle, until we both dizzy.

I see the tipple grasses list this way and that as the clouds have no idea where to go next. I watched the same ones this morning, as dawn yawned and lit her lamp and they were going that way. Now, they’re going this way. Must be exhausting to be a cloud unless you get the chance to off your load over someone just lighting up their barby. That could be fun, if you like that sort of thing. The whatsit reeds are going brown at the tips, as is the bracken, but nobody minds that happening. It’s been weeks since I could walk to the fairy woods because the bracken is my height and loaded with ticks and I am so not bothering with that. Besides, it is rather discombobulating to be placing my feet into such a darkness. Although I know the path, this confoundment of bracken creates a jungle that has my imagination spiralling loops.

Behind the tissue paper, the lamp is lit so that sun glow pervades the grey and startles it into a canopy of white hope. I am wishing the clouds, now One Cloud (probably conceding defeat with all this cantering across the sky for hours) would just relax and let go. That might mean I could watch Sky instead of all these shades of grey. Fingers of rather lovely resistance frond across the earthly ceiling, linking fingers as the bullying wind goes off to bother someone else. It thinks me of women. Women and their ocean tears. Women who send a son off to war; Women who care for sickness within the family, the street, the community; Women who fight for bread in a daylong queue; Women who sing their rebellion, write it, demand it, walk for it, run for it, sew it into stories that might hang on walls, might not. Women who seek red, the blood of red, the call and the fist of red, a woman’s colour for her whole life. She had to grow to love it because, once, she was princess pink, if she was lucky. Or, is it lucky?

I watch the softening sky, the grey fingers interlaced, the distant blue of the land so many miles away. I watch the ocean and I wonder……how much of this salt is your own, Ocean, and how much of it are the tears of women?

Island Blog – Porticos and Whispers

Sometimes, no, often, words come to me and I can find no obvious reason, nor a tangible link to the thoughts I was thoughting just before the random word shot into my head. This word has such a powerful thrust that I just have to whisper it out of my mouth. At other times, when I am alone as opposed to standing in an always silent supermarket queue, I may speak it out, shout it even. If I am in the middle of Somewhere, like on a cliff or at the very edge of a spit of rock, when the next step would drown me in minutes, I can blast out the word and watch it scoot away on the wind or into the ever-open beak of a Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Of course, I am crazy. Or genius. I flit between the two depending on whom is in charge of me at the time, angel or harpy. However, if I was genius, surely I would know why this word cometh unbidden, and be able to fit it neatly into the order inside my head? I am already chuckling at the ‘order’ word. Obviously there is more chaos than order and much as I might wish I had the same brain as my old ma who would refuse a cup of coffee if it was proffered before 11 o’clock on the dot, I do not.

When I find a portico I feel an urge to go through it and into the whispers. There is something wonderful about a doorway that isn’t because there is no door. No chance to get shut in, or out, nor to shut another in or out. There is no privacy, no Go Away, only an open welcome, often a lot more than one welcome for porticos tend to stand together, unlike the singularity of doors, or a door. We all have a few, but they don’t line up like sentries and are usually placed where walls run out of puff, allowing access or denial of access. They are also great for a tantrum slam, unlike porticos where slamming is not an option. Considerably more complex than a portico and sharply delineated, a door is not an open mouth. I prefer the roundness of the arch, the come hither of such a gentle shape and I love walking into the whispers.

In life without winged words, sentences are thrown together to oblige, deny, accommodate, order, comply and for myriad other ordinary usage. Would you like coffee? for example. Not till 11 o’clock. But that’s five minutes away! I know that. Well you can make your own then. Charming!

But my winged words open up new worlds, even if they do cometh unbidden, unsought. They think me, lead me over there instead of down the usual plodpath. Some say my subconscious is working all the time, some say I’m plain bonkers. The truth is I am both and at the same time but, and but again, if these random words are a gift to me then they are asking to be spoken out. They want a story, a point, the chance to get a breath of air and to fly awhile, even if J Livingston S gets them first. So much of life is loud and noisome, so little room for the whispers from the past, from the future to be really heard. When I went to a city recently and battled my way through a station crowd, feeling like a cow as I followed the arrows and fitted in between the barriers with all the other obedient cattle, I couldn’t hear a single thing from inside my head. Outside of me it was either high volume tannoy information that nobody heard anyway and which needed a considerably more efficient sound system, or a people shouting at each other via their mobile phones. How can they live like this, I wondered, such noise pollution and every single day? I would rather step into the Atlantic with lead boots. I doubt anyone can find an original word inside that chaos, settling, instead for a repeat of what someone else said, preferably on TV or wrote in some magazine, preferably a glossy about half-dressed celebrities. And, yet, there are brilliant authors who do just that, and they can find words and make them fly a whole lot better than I ever could. Must be a mental yogic thing, that ability to shut out the noise from the inside of it. People, it seems, can find the porticos and the whispers among the flashing lights, the going nowhere rush and the complete lack of still silence that makes a city life.

I am just so thankful I live in the middle of Somewhere where words just appear without prior permission, flitting through the silence and into the chaos of my head, one that shuts up immediately as if royalty just walked in. I like that I can take each one and give them freedom for a little while before they fall away again back into a book, just a word in line. One day, someone else will open that book and another word will fly high into the big sky. It might land softly in a new mind and it might change something, or someone, make them rethink, make them want to wander through the gentle arch and into the whispers.

Island Blog – Heaven on a Cliff

I think that probably says a lot about heaven. The cliff thing. On the cusp, the ledge, the last bit of land, the bit that edges up to both Mother Earth and Big Sky, taking in the fall and the lift, the light and the dark, the wander and the flight. No-one can tell me different as no-one has ever come back with data. If there is one, a heaven, I mean, there are tales of dead souls watching us. I like that. Especially as they don’t seem to cast aspersions nor level judgement and there’s a whole load of that going on down here.

However, for me, heaven is right here right now, and in tiny moments of understanding, even if I have absolutely no idea what I just understood. I can feel the breath of an ‘Aha!’, the rise of it into my mind, the realness of it, but when I try, standing here in my boots and on solid ground, to follow it somewhere, it wisps away into the sky, and there I cannot follow. I just watch it fly beyond my grabbing fingers, so fleshy and so mortal and so useless when it comes to Big Sky.

Tomorrow I go to this bit of heaven, this clifftop cottage in the middle of somewhere. And nowhere. Grown from the stones that lay around, many many years ago, this cottage formed into a dwelling. I love that word. The owners have made it warm and cosy. I do not have to hike my butt up a wonky wooden ladder into a loft that sits above the cow and the goats and the hens. I don’t have to breathe in the smell of them, although, to be honest, I would love to do it just once. The sound of animals settling for the night is so, well, heavenly. Having settled a sick dairy cow, a dying horse, many chickens and sheep in my time, I know the sound that tells me they feel safe and warm and protected. They munch or cluck or baaa or diddle about for a bit, and then that aaaah comes upon them and they give in to the dark, and sleep.

I have one week. I am hoping that Jamie’s cows are friendly. I hear that they are and that is reassuring. I am ridiculous around cows but cows and me have history. There was a sick cow and calf way out on the point on Tapselteerie. It was February and calving season and these cows were Galloways. Angry at the best of times, and you would think they had ten legs the way they could go from A to B before A had even noticed they were there. I and my tiny girl, aged about 5, dressed in a red polar suit and wellied up. Me, terrified but unable to show a glimpse of it. We had to bring a sick Galloway cow, plus calf (weak) through the herd, the hungry angry herd. We found her, the tiny girl and I at the very back of the growling group. Pushing her forward, but slowly, slowly as she could barely walk, we faced into a teetering wind spitting ice. I held the tiny girl’s hand like it was my own life in my hand. Which, with hindsight, it was.

The others battered her flanks mercilessly, over and over. She went down many times whilst her stricken calf, blinded with terror, called out to her. She tried to respond, and did, in grunts as best she could. We are now mid herd and I am threatening these aggressive ten-leggers with my stick and a voice that astonishes me with its authority, even in an ice wind. It’s because I am terrified but I am also aware that my tiny girl would be no more than a tiddlewink beneath those hooves, and in seconds. Finally we got to the gate, the one that would let the sick and exhausted girl through and keep the other angry ones out. I have never been more relieved. However, that poor cow and her terrified calf had another 2 miles to walk, albeit in comparative safety. She died that night and who could blame her?

So, from tomorrow and for one week at https://treshnish.co.uk I will stand on the cusp of heaven and earth. I will be warm and cosy within the walls of ancient history in a comfortable bed with a woodburner to flame up the evenings and with views and cliff falls that astonish every single minute. I will watch the seabirds fly, follow the geese into their water landing, see the wildflowers that I have never seen anywhere else on this island. This land is not built upon, not cleared (again) for humans to control, but handled with the gentlest of caring hands. This place is, well, heaven.

And, I may even walk through Jamie’s cows. It is high time I got over my terror. Cows, by the way, have four legs, not ten. It helps to know that.