Island Blog – Shrews and Smiles

Yesterday, as I sat in my garage, a shrew scooted along the wall and into a hole. This is not new, neither me sitting in the garage, nor an encounter with a shrew. I sit here because I can hide from anyone walking by whilst enjoying a wonderful view of sea-loch and faraway hills through the open maw of the garage. And, it’s usually raining. It also gets me out of the house for a minute or two, away from the cares of dementia, its insistent demands and worries whilst I sip my coffee and consider life, both specific and general. I can go into my imagination out here among the plant pots and the rusting implements, the fishing rods, long seized up, and the tins of old paint.

The shrew slinks at speed across the expanse of concrete floor. Hallo, I say quietly, so as not to blow its eardrums. It isn’t alone this time. A second shrew crosses the line. Aha, I say, you have a mate! This would explain the stripped leaves on my gladioli and those unearthed and nibbled hyacinth bulbs. Can we have a word about that, please? I don’t mind you living beside me but shouldn’t there be, even roughly drawn, a code of mannerly respect between us?

Nothing happens for a few seconds and then two more shrews appear. These two are smaller, less afeared of my presence and they are playful. I watch with a wide smile on my face as these two shrewlets gambol and chase each other, rising on their hind legs to bat at each other, then tumbling together just like exuberant children. I hardly breathe, wanting to see more, to feel the heart lift that bursts up like a surprise, something rare and precious, a few seconds of pure delight with the power to change my face from furrowed to as wide as a sunshine sky as my worries turn to dust.

It thinks me of what is important in life. They say it takes more muscles to frown than to smile and yet, how easy it is to choose the harder workout. Furrowed by whatever stuff goes on inside someone’s head, it is ‘normal’ for a face in repose to give out the wrong message. How many times have I commented on the faces of doom inside a passing car. Watching other faces in a queue or in a cafe, mouths downturned, eyebrows pulled into a single line, eyes fishlike, throats empty of laughter, I consciously lift my own features into just enough of a smile so as not to look like an escaped crazy and to remind myself to feel playful.

I think it is simples, the reason why we look so miserable half the time and it is all to do with the pictures inside our heads. If and when we allow all those things that tie us down to take charge, they will move in with the speed of a shrew, set up camp and start a family. You can revisit that head from time to time and wonder who turned the lights off. Well, you did. I did. The trick is to live with all the worries as just worries, all of which need putting on a list. Once listed and numbered each one can be addressed and marked “done’. Those that can’t be fixed should be let loose into a force 8 gale, preferably one that has no plans to change direction. These worries are too big for me to deal with and if I can’t deal with them through my own power then I have to accept and let go. As the list gets smaller, whilst I berate myself for not taking action sooner considering how simple it was to turn one all-consuming worry into a situation sorted, I find a smile. All that time wasted when I could have been in the garage talking to shrews or making conversation with the face of misery in a cafe, or even giving a huge grin to the faces of doom inside that passing car. It is amazing how dramatic a change can be initiated by the gift of a smile, and, once I have given that gift and returned to my worries, I find them hiding under the sofa, blinded by the new light inside my mind.

When I was a child, I thought like a child. Now I am a woman who still thinks like a child. I recommend it. It doesn’t solve all of the problems but it sure does give those facial muscles a rest.

Island Blog – Soup

Yonks ago I made a big pot of soup. Sweet Potato and Red Pepper. My old ma made it once when she came to stay, saying, what can I DO? This to a woman, her daughter, who copies her parrot fashion when anyone offers to help.

Nothing Ma, I said gently, removing the bread knife she waved about herself, the tea towel in her other hand. She wasn’t having any of it. Despite my response, she took herself off to the fridge for a rummage, returning with the ingredients she needed, and she set to work. By the time tummies rumbled, the soup was ready, gently simmered and whizzed to death. There was a happy warm joy around the kitchen table that lunchtime when the outside of things were mostly wet and windy.

The pot I had made was far too much to keep in the fridge, to keep from a fermentation process, one that has always driven me wild with fury. Quietly, and without a word of warning, something delicious just turns like a season. From salival anticipation to an olfactory recoil overnight. Everything does it, eventually. Even us. So, I froze it, the whole caboosh and forgot about it. This lunchtime I managed to finish it with help from a friend or two and felt like I had outsmarted it. Ha! I actually said to the bright orange mixture after a smell check today. Gotcha! I did, momentarily, wonder at the excitement levels in my life, recognising that to feel such elation, to do that little dance in front of my fridge, to thrill that I had won one over on a pot of soup probably means I don’t get out enough.

As I walked the small dog this afternoon just before yet another gale blasts the holy crunch out of our already sodden island in the middle of somewhere, I considered soup. I let the strands of a soup thinking process spread their fingers across all of life, never being the sort of woman who can just think one thought, like a soup one, and leave it at that. I walked alongside a friend for a bit, then off and up and away into the woods and along the shore line. The wind was already snatching at the trees, pulling off those already turned, and flighting them into a sky dance, trembling the grasses and pushing the bracken down across the path like an unruly fringe. I thought of all the different ingredients in a soup and in nature, in a season, in the turn of all seasons, inside a human heart, a person’s life. Each individual addition is of importance. Without one, the whole is compromised and, very possibly, rendered tasteless. A rotten red pepper in the soup or a lack of salt, of herbs, of pepper would change everything.

In my life, each decision, each choice, each direction or directive I select changes everything. A harsh word is like a rotten pepper. A bland face, set stoney with a mouth as downturned as a boiled prawn affects not only my soup but everyone else’s. Be careful what you say and how you say it, a wise old woman once said to me from inside my head, which is where she has made her home. She can really irritate me sometimes but no matter how I try to bash her on the head with my internal broom she has no intention of leaving. If I am experiencing a poor relationship with one day, she gives me no leeway for projecting blame, on anyone, of anything. She demands a perfect soup, made with love and without a rotten red pepper in sight. Before I even make the first journey downstairs of a morning, she requires me to check my credentials. By the time I reach the bottom I am usually in shape. During the day, someone else’s rotten pepper may be thrown in my face, but even then retaliation is disallowed. She is way too perfect for me to be honest and I do retaliate but she has taught me there are ok ways and not ok ways for such.

Once, way back as a young and angry wife, I lost it, completely. Himself had said something so utterly outrageous and in such a mocking and dismissive tone and with such authority and arrogance that, without a sensible thought in my head, I picked up the boiling soup pot, affixing the lid firmly with my trembling thumbs to throw it at him across the room. As I tipped the pot back over my head, hot soup burned my back. This didn’t stop me. I wanted him to feel this pain too. I hurled with all my strength and the result was spectacular. He dodged it, of course, but the far wall got the lot. Soup ran down in runnels. The table was coated in it, the vase of flowers re-coloured in an instant, all ornaments, cutlery, paperwork, chairs, stools and flooring ran red as if a giant had been stabbed right there in my kitchen and was bleeding out. He laughed at me (Himself, not the dying giant) and left the room. It took me days, weeks, to clear it up from the sprachle of it. I still don’t find it funny but my action did teach me the value of, not only soup (there was no lunch that day), but also that I seriously needed to practice my aim.

Island Blog – In the Wild

This afternoon I walked. The rain has finally stopped, for now, and the sun is warm beyond the cool wind. In pockets of windlessness I stop and stand. Just stand, and whilst I do this just standing thing, I look around me. This rock, upon which I live, drains easily, our blessing at times of extreme wet when, in other places, flash floods bulge against the feeble boundaries of our homeland, compromising good folk at the very least, rendering them homeless at worst.

I notice cornflowers in what used to be a dank, dark, confinement of poultry, the ground as black as a bog in a bad mood and about as useful a member of the eco system. The land, now cleared by new owners, has light enough to revive it and there has been a whole summer for this process to evolve. Cornflowers! I remember way back in Tapselteerie days, a snail mail bit of information coming to me. It could have been the newspaper, or perhaps conveyed over the CB radio (Lady Q, Lady Q, are you there?). I forget. But I do remember a heart slump when I heard that corncrakes need cornflowers and that cornflowers, like so many other wild species, are threatened by those who buy plots in romantic places, on a whim whilst on holiday, and then divorce.

There are two, no three plants. There are others there too, ones I cannot name, but these flowers must have hidden beneath the poultry bog for decades, just waiting for someone to lift the scrub and get shot of the birds and their flodden shelters and wire cages. I wanted to laugh out loud, and would have, had I not noticed the nice lads arrive back from their day out at the, now, holiday cottage with a view to die for. I waved instead and kept going. Along my walk I looked down at fallen birches, lady trees, exhausted after rainfall and foolishly light rooted. Allowing for the fact that these birches have grown spindly as starving models for some years, hooked only talon deep on a rocky hillside, I thanked them for growing at all. They are brave, plucky, and will have offered some bird a nest and the chance to fledge her young. Now, they will be dragged and chopped and stacked to warm the owners of the estate, perhaps telling stories, as they spit and flame up in the last throes of dying, to anyone with ears to hear. Knowing the owners and their intuitive little family, I have hope.

A walker, lost and looking for her husband plus dogs. He has gone in search of an otter sighting. I guide her to the two possible places, having established, first, the description of his journey to her. I know this place so well. Any landmark, once questioned and developed, will tell me where a visitor might have gone. Over 40 years loving this rocky peninsular, I may not have learned the google map or satellite or even the ordinance survey location of this quarry or that pier but if someone tells me of the place they really want to find, I can guide them. Dogwood, ceps, foxgloves, wild thyme, cicely, giant hogweed, scabious, thistle, harebells, campion, mountain arens, bog myrtle and heather all rise to say hallo and I say it back. Soon, but not yet, the cold will snatch. The snipe will lie in fallows of brushwood, the owls will hoot through the night and the light will fight the dark.

But not yet, not yet. Mother Nature will fold her skirts slowly. And, for now, I can enjoy brambles thrusting through pretty much everything with barbed fingers offering sweet delight; I can laugh at cornflowers that have found light after so much darkness; I can find a late poppy, red as blood and fragile as a woman’s heart and I can stand and watch them all, breathe them in as new breath, marvelling, once again, at the beauty of this gifted life.

Island Blog – Stories make a Difference

Home alone, for another few days. To be home alone is always something full of space and the freedom to move any way I choose. I can play music through all the speakers, eat lunch at 11 am, stand at the window for as long as I choose and all without having to explain or justify. I can go off in the car all of a sudden and in any direction. I can write in peace, move furniture around, read all day long, if I so choose. Without the demands of caring, and, in my own little home, I can breathe freely. There are no hip hop happy carers bursting through the door to scatter pebbles of question and joke into the still waters of my thoughts. I hear no calls for help. I feel no sighs of resignation rise in my gut. I can think something all the way through to a conclusion, take action, complete the task, survey my handiwork, and all in silence.

It has taken gargantuan effort and the wisdom of the Dali Lama to arrange this week of Me. A natural resistance is just the beginning, but when someone really doesn’t either get that I need a break and not one that requires money and a packed up car, nor feel there is anything good at all about being deposited in a care home in the first place, gargantuan effort is required. I had honestly thought he would refuse last minute, but he didn’t, despite his obvious confusion around why any of this was happening at all. I remember reading, and being advised way back, that the only way to manage life as an unpaid dementia carer was to find a way to inhabit his world. I took it seriously, back then, and have worked hard to accommodate the lapses in memory, the rise of anger and frustration and resistance, projected at me, but having lived this way for almost a decade now, I have a little cynical goblin inside my head. He says this:- just hang on a minute, what about your world? What about your life? Are they saying that you no longer matter – that you need to bend your old body into an impossible shape, and for how much longer, hmmm?

He has a good point. It is a huge ask to vacate your own life for an unknown period of years. What happens to it once you have left it beside the path? Does someone else pinch it? Will you ever be able to find it again, remember the landmarks, the big old tree in whose shade you hid it? Of course the gurus of this world, and the hip hop happy carers and the cheery fixit friends you meet in the village will reassure you with the smooth chocolate of positive thinking, that all will be well in the end. I like to hear that and, even if, at times, I don’t believe it, I receive it. It tastes good for a few moments. But I know, as they do not, that I am changing too. Sometimes I fear that this change in me will grow roots like ground ivy, impossible to eradicate. Other times I eat the chocolate very slowly savouring it on my tongue and refusing to brush my teeth for hours afterwards. The swingle of it all is an emotional rollercoaster that keeps on going as if it has forgotten the way back to base. There has to be some damage and, at the very least, someone gets sick.

In the time I have to myself, I read, work my tapestry, and have just finished listening to a talking book, not through headphones that have to come off at every call for help or grab for my attention but free flow through all the speakers so that wherever I go, I remain inside the story. The book that has drawn me into a fantastic tale of True North and the people of the Sami with all their snow-covered history, their deep spirituality and respect for the spirits of the ancients is The Eye of the Reindeer by Eva Weaver and read by Anna Bentinck. A stunner of a story and one Anna reads so beautifully. I must confess, I will look for Anna as reader even before I check the book she is reading, so gifted is she at voices, emotion, of taking my hand to lead me deep into another world. For days I lost myself in the world of the Reindeer People, moving with them across the vast tundra and into the snowfields of Lapland. I sat around the fire each evening with them, my body tense, as the hungry wolf pack circled the corral. I sighed with relief when the herd arrived safely down from the high mountains, down to the shelter-woods, young calves at foot, as the bite of winter nipped at their ankles, or laughing with happiness when, at the first whiff of spring, the nomadic herders felt the drumbeat of a thousand hooves, the reindeer returning from their migration. I even tried reindeer cheese. Yuck, I thought, but then realised that in the face of no alternative, I would gain a taste for it. My heart lifted at joyous moments and cried at the cruelties man bestows on man or woman on woman.

Losing myself in a story of another life, one I will never lead and can only sneak inside using my imagination, I return changed. Back into my own home, my own life, standing on my own floors or sitting at my own fireside, I find a different way of seeing things. I hold this difference close to my heart for I know it is a kindly thing and one that will keep me safe. Maybe I can’t explain it. Maybe I can’t tell you exactly what or how this different way of seeing things will manifest in my life, but, then I don’t need to. It is just for me after all and, besides, words mean little if they end with a full stop. They need to become something that lives, a new song, a new drumbeat. Looking for answers to all those cried-out questions in a landscape I already know as well as I know my own garden is not going to take me anywhere. I can look till my eyes turn gibbous. I can read every word on how to care for dementia, aka, how to become a saint, and learn nothing more than that which I already know.

But, walking into a story, now that is quite a different thing. I don’t know how it works but it does. Learning of another life, one of hardship and friendship, of hopes dashed and dreams fulfilled, I can take stock. I can remind myself that there are as many ways to live as there are people in the world and that the one thing I can do, regardless of my circumstances, is to make a difference. To himself, to myself, to everyone I meet. I can go back for my bundle in the shade of the big old tree before anyone notices I am gone. Then, with a lighter foot, I can rejoin them, changed. I might look the same and sound the same, but I am neither. In my mind I am watching the silence of snowflake fall even thought the path I walk may be dry and dusty. I am staring deep into the eye of the reindeer and seeing the Sami people making rope from birch bark or clearing new snow so that their herd can eat the buried lichen and moss. I am here and not here at the same time.

And it is good to know that there is another book out there, just waiting for me to walk into and out again, bringing with me all the ingredients I need to make all the difference.

Island Blog – Flaps, Frets and Freefall

In the early hours of the morning, I often wake in a flap. All those things on that long list of to-do’s explode into my sleepy head. From sleepy head to sheer panic takes about ten seconds. The list stands before me like a bunch of druids with malicious intent. Maybe it’s more Klu Klux than druid but all I know is that they are chanting judgement and wearing shapeless floaty kit.

Once I come completely to, they begin to fade. Actually, I fade them with similar intent, equally forceful. I won’t tell you what words I speak out into this imaginary crowd of spooky gangsters as they aren’t ladylike. And I have learned that polite requests are like blowing into a hurricane, so I push through the cloaked rabble, silencing them actively and noisily. My initial desire to hide is thwarted, by me. Hiding just seems to give them permission to move in closer and they are quite close enough.

Going downstairs loses me most of them, and by the time coffee is brewing and I can inhale the sharp I-am-here smell, there are only whispers left. Now I can take action in the light of perspective, the light of morning. Someone once wrote that morning voices are very different to evening/night voices, and I agree. For starters, even I cannot stop the rain, the rain that, in turn, is stopping the guy coming to build a new base for my oil tank. This, in turn, is stopping me ordering a fill of oil, which, in turn, stops me lighting the range. This prevents the washing from drying overnight, which now takes four damp days to get anywhere near dry. This fret frets me a lot. I am due to leave for the African continent at the end of this month. What if it rains all through the days so that there will be no homely warm heartbeat in my little kitchen, that warmth that lifts into the bedrooms, that dries the washing, that offers an all day cuddle to us both?

Fret Two is that big load of wood sitting outside absorbing all this rain. I could tog up and barrow it into shelter but I am tired of being wet all the time. I feel like a frog. Boots are soaked and the rain is dissolving the garden into a mud bath. Fret Three is that garden. I had planned to have all the Autumn clearing done before I go. All those sick-to-the core-of-rain summer blooms flop wonkychops across the grass, bowed in defeat, their petals torn. The planters are paddling pools, the flowers floating now.

What makes me imagine that it will never stop raining, that the garden will look like a mangrove swamp by the time I get home again, that himself will freeze without the range, that his trousers and shirts will sprout mushrooms and that the faulty conservatory gutter will fall off from exhaustion? Well, they do. The Klu Klux Druid brotherhood, that’s who. Shall I listen to them, take them seriously? Or, shall I shut out the whispers, denounce them as fears without perspective or gravitas and just freefall into the nothing?

The nothing can be a good mate. And, all it requires is a shrug; that so-what that lifts me into a confidence in nothing at all. In shrugging, I accept the rain without fear. In short, I let go. I freefall. Practically, I can do quite a few things about the frets. I can consider, intelligently, backlit by morning thinking and sans the upstairs judges, a new list. If this month does have to swim to the end of itself, then I will make plans for alternative warmth. If the gutter does fall off, so what? If the washing won’t dry I will find another way. There are many who would give their right arm for my life, for whom my frets are hilarious nonsense.

I smile at that, shift my perspective into touch, and freefall.