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.

Island Blog – On the Cusp

There are some wonderful words out there for the plucking and Cusp is one of them. In the dictionary it is explained thus;- ‘a pointed end where two curves meet, e.g. the horn of a crescent moon.’ Now that sounds like a fun place to be! I remember a picture of the man on the moon hanging by one buttock on just such a cusp. The image thinks me of many of us in many different situations, hanging there, not fully in one place, nor the other, but still, somehow, there at all.

Days seem to decide on themselves as they dawn. I have found that one day I am barely hanging on, and, the next, feeling like there is a whole moon beneath my tired old butt. I am high up there and looking down on a scurrying world. Today is such a day and I have no words to explain the difference. It doesn’t seem to be up to me, up to what I do or what I don’t do. It just is different. My thoughts are lighter, brighter and not because of me. No horrid nightmare played out whilst the dark surrounded me, only a sense of peace and acceptance, awakening refreshed and with a zoom in my heart. I no longer think ‘I can do this, or I can’t do this’. I don’t think at all. I just am.

Gentle music plays and the pangs of yesterday, the ‘what do I do with all these seedlings’ angst is now a shoulder shrug. There is time enough for seedlings yet. It’s still cold out there, and the garden will do what gardens do, whether or not I fret. In answer to the question ‘why do you have nightmares?’ I reply that caring is exhausting. He looks blank. How can he know what life is like for me, after all? He cannot know, and none of this is his fault. Yesterday I took myself back to the days of passion and laughter. I walked myself into memories that were the truth. I remember the thrill of seeing him framed in a doorway, the sound of his voice calling out my name. I remember longing to be with him, just us, away somewhere. I can still hear the sound of the land rover arriving in the yard and that huge sense of relief. All will be well, now, because of him, because he is back here, with me, with us.

I will not quibble with the way I feel today. I will not ferret about for explanations, nor will I make a plan to hold on to such a day, for it will escape me once more, as it always does. But, I will remember the moon and the cusp of a new one and the memories of what was, and be so very thankful that I have had what many never have.

And I will keep hanging on to the cusp.

Island Blog – Storm and Calm

I swing between the two every day. The scream inside is loud, but only to me. Outside of me the birds sing most singingly and the grass lies calmly flat (and in need of cutting). The sky is peaceful with blobs of cloud. There is no anger nor angst up there this morning, no sharp dashes of white against the blue. I check the new seedlings, having forgotten what on earth they are and they look back at me. We’re fine, they say, as they rise gently up from their boxed in royal mail squash of yesterday. All flop and drought they were then, but, after a goodly drink of rainwater from the barrel, they have relocated their perk.

I search for my own. Perk, that is. In spite of a recent two days away from the daily grind of caring, I am not as easily revived as my nameless seedlings. I, like them, feel the chill in the air, but unlike them, water is not enough. I book a week away in a remote cottage on a cliff. At first, once I have pressed play on such a commitment, I am euphoric. A whole week with just me, the sea, the sky and nature, books and watching and walking. No caring. Then, as my decision sinks its teeth into me, I feel the rise of guilt. How do I speak out this decision? I am greedy, yes, that’s what it is, restless, unable to complete my task without sprinting for the hills. How weak. How pathetic. What is WRONG with me? And, while we are at it, define ‘grind’.

I struggle to. The bright and breezy carers come in a few times a day. They sort what I no longer have to sort, to a degree. I have a weekly cleaner and someone to cut the grass. I am very privileged. But, what nobody knows, nobody, that is, who is not caring for a partner or parent full time, is what goes on inside a carer’s head, and that is where all the storms rage on. Guilt, frustration, sadness, panic, all wear running shoes with leaden soles. Living with someone who is slowly (very slowly) leaving the planet is a massive strain. We carers are taught by well-meaning advisors to learn how to inhabit the world of the one with dementia. We must practice until perfect the art of separating the person from the illness. All well and good, but nobody tells me how to sustain this tippytoe way of living for decades. As the cared for one declines, I must rack up my caring skills, even if I am exhausted, frustrated, sad and panicky; even if my fed is thoroughly up; even if I wake to another day of clearing up, sorting out and mending everything cracked or broken; even if I am exhausted and my brain, once sharp as a needle is now blunted into submission. I forget words, people’s names, where my car is parked and there is absolutely no end in sight.

So, of course I am justified in taking a week off in May, to myself, and another in June. That is as far as my courage has taken me so far. July can hang on a bit, but I know it is important, nay, critical, that I do meet up with July to discuss a mutual plan. Look after yourself, the well-meaners say, but without a word on how I do that. In Tapseteerie days I told myself I had to keep going. That’s what the world expected of me, ditto my husband, mother and mother in law. It’s what they all did after all, through wars and hungry days, crazy demands and no internet. Any show of weakness was, therefore, unacceptable, to me, to everyone. Besides, if I went down, then so did Tapselteerie. I reflect on what that staunch, well-booted up attitude cost me, and it was a lot. So.….duh….? Ah, but it is so easy to spout logic from a place of inexperience, returning, as the well-meaners do, to that safe place back home, where there is some sort of order and a week ahead to map out with confidence, a place miles away from the house of dementia.

To all of you who care in this way, or who ever have, I salute you. Actually, the very thought that you are out there at all makes my feet want to skip, not because I wish this on any living soul but because it means I am not alone. I can learn from you, the way you accept and smile and keep going. Perhaps this keeping going thing is what makes it all worthwhile, lifts the drudge and calms the storms?

Ok, I’ll buy it. Again.


Island Blog – Time Standing

Some days Time stands still here. There are four old clocks tic-tocking away, all saying different things, but I am used to that. Old clocks and Time have a personal relationship of which I know nothing. They are of another century, and we all know how indulging we are around those of another century. One of them shoots off into the next hour without any guilt, clutching on to youth perhaps, whereas another holds back and arrives with a ding dong ages after the hour has passed. I used to faff and fiddle about correcting them, like, this is Wednesday and Wind Up day and you are almost a day behind/ahead…………but, now, I don’t bother. They are free to do what they like. I like their perception of Time. And, it is, to be truthful, only ever a perception. God thinks in gazillions of centuries and we ferrety little mortals who imagine that our life is THE life, get our panties in a knot over minutes, even seconds. Late for work = nil points; early for a first date = overly keen. Always a negative judgement in there somewhere.

Anyway, back to me. The mornings are busy tiddley-pom with washing and wiping and firing up and laying out, not the dead, but the ship-shape plan for the day. Easy. Done. Then comes lunch and that’s when Time gets weary, and, sometimes stops. I crawl on till 2pm and when we get there, me and Time, I wonder if 2pm isn’t a dividing line between Everything’s Fine and Oh Crumbs! I think it is. I recognise it from Babyhood, not from my own, but around my many children, that lapse in the day when a 6 am start, parked light years in the past reached out to meet the afternoon/evening/night demands that felt like an oncoming army of Borg, with me in their sights. Resistance, as they say, is futile. And then there was me in the middle, confounded by Time, ruled by it, defeated and then elevated by it in equal measure, because, of course, once Time says It’s time, I am up and running like a sleekit cat across the hills of resistance and on, on, on, into the necessary.

However, now that I am a carer and the days are s l o w m o v i n g, I find 2pm a right pain in the aspidistra. I think, Oh Golly, there are many hours between this and bedtime and the afternoon yawns in agreement. Well thanks for that. I do a bit of this and a bit of that. I re-pot, plant out, bring in washing, sweep a floor, go upstairs to come downstairs, wipe something, read a bit, knit……Oh KNIT! Well, this knit thing has become my saviour. Between Yawning 2pm and Thank Goodness Bedtime at 8.30, I have discovered knitting. I have no idea what this length of knit-ness is, but what I do know is that is soothes me into the marvellous. All my troubles seem so far away whilst I knit a load of nonsense in the colours of the sea. It’s like I am knitting my own ocean and the feel of it in my hands is wild, when I think like that. The l o n g hours between 2pm and bedtime are fooled. Ha! I tell them. Do Your Worst. I have found a way around your irritating yawning and indolence. I a m b u s y knitting an ocean and I bet you have never managed to do that, you over there playing games with Time and thinking you are in control…..the pair of you…..one upstairs, still in yesterday, and you, half way up like Christopher Robin, lurching step by step into tomorrow……….

Well I am in Today. It is all I have, and it is my best shot at living. I know that. Everybody knows that.