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 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.

Island Blog – Divide and Separate

One of the many horrible-awfuls around one family member with dementia is the way it can threaten to divide the rest. I watched it happen, or threaten to happen with my own siblings over mum. What is best for her? How do we get her to see, from behind those rose-tinted glasses of hers, that what we plan, we plan out of love for her? All she can see is loss and a removal van, one she never ordered and never wanted. How does anyone explain (that word laughs me in this scenario) to someone who sincerely believes they live in the same world as the rest of us, that they need more care than is currently available; that the primary carer is worn down from an oak tree to a toothpick; that they need to be in a place that isn’t home, that never will be, and for the rest of their days? Explain, indeed. It is like expecting a Japanese dog to understand Gaelic. You get my point.

And, yet, here we are. It was always coming, but aways coming sounds far off until it stands in front of you looking expectant. Those in the know urge early investigation and research but nobody listens to that. It’s just fear-mongering. Isn’t it? After all, we are just in the early stages. No need for that nonsense. And Time wanders by, taking little steps, in a hoodwink dance. We turn away from the situation, we cope, we rant, we muddle through until all of a sudden we know something has to change. Not yet, not this minute, but the process must begin. That’s when the emotional charge is set. That is when the ticking begins and everyone hears it however much ear-blocking goes on. The fuse is lit.

There is nothing easy about a care home conversation, not with anyone in the family. Each child (and we all become the child at such a time) has varying degrees of emotional attachment to the one with dementia, the shared history, opinions, fears, regrets and anger. It is pure agony for some, a practical decision for others. The swings from this is right to THIS IS WRONG are exhausting, for all of us. How do we do this? Where does he/she go? Will they, as some feel, last about a week, a month, maybe more, when they are taken from all that they know and have loved for decades? Will this be the end for them? Of them? There is always another option, one might say to the other. They might thrive, might love it, might feel relief, but this is the Japan/Gaelic conundrum, so neither understand fully what the other is saying. Every sentence is flush with emotive energy, powerful, red raw energy, enough to rise a desert into a tornado. The damage such a tornado can do is Armageddon. Nobody survives without scars that may go on itching and bleeding for years to come.

In my conversations with other primary carers whose families divided, however short-term, I have learned that the inevitable is the inevitable. There is no right or wrong way, presuming, that is, that all decision makers involved are acting from a place of love and respect. The end is the same for all poor souls who contract this wicked invasion of self. How did you manage to hold together? I asked one such carer. We didn’t, she said, not all the way through. But we are okay now.

Okay…….now. I don’t need to ask about the lead up to okay or now because I just know it will have felt like a hundred years. A hundred years of doubt and internal battles, of resistance and tears, of family arguments and of grasping on to something, anything that says We are Fine For Now. Go away care home brochures, go away doctors and social services and occupational therapists, Go Away. We are managing.

And then, we aren’t. We can see the lights, and it is an oncoming train. But, and this is what I tell myself, when we have stepped aside and the train has passed us by, the sky is wide once more. Once the smoke and noise and scream of the tracks has become a memory, we are just us, standing alone in the middle of nowhere, the flowers still blooming around us, the birds flying above our heads and, beneath our feet, Mother Earth is rock solid. And, over there, all along that telegraph wire, the swallows fall into line, waiting for just the right breeze that will lift them into a together flight back to the sun.

Island Blog – Fish, Kites and Happiness

I had forgotten how crazy a life can be in a young family. Although at Tapselteerie I knew it well, inhabited the chaos and the strive for order and changed my clothing accordingly, I no longer have that huge wardrobe selection. I hear the elevations and the sudden cries of despair, the raised parental voices, the velvet sound of a loving moment, and I wonder where all my energy has gone. I can find some, for sure, but in spurts only. Then I need to take myself off to my room so that my mind and body can recover. Such is life for this sexagenarian.

Everything and everyone moves like lightening. Even the dishwasher is on repeat. School clothes on, snack boxes filled, breakfast down the hatch and all completed in less time than it takes for me to brush my teeth. Even the cat is fed. Words spin by my ears in a tumble of letters and inflections, orders given and, with a tiny reluctance, obeyed. Encouragements and affirmations met with a warm, eye lighting smile. Then Daddy is gone, after hugs and kisses and now, Mummy too, grabbing the hair-brushed girls and affixing them firmly into their car seats. I am alone here inside the silence, one that feels like a vacuum and the only sound is the bathroom fan and the distant blaa of the cows up there on the hill. I watch a lone goose being chased enthusiastically by a calf. It makes me smile. The goose had wandered a bit too close to its mother.

With hindsight I remember my time as a young and frazzled mum, dazed most of the time, puzzled too, certain occasionally. There is no rule book after all. Letting go and holding on fought with each other all of the time. See-sawing from one to the other, exhausting. And, yet, the days keep coming and there is no choice but to jump on board. Notwithstanding the changes in culture or the distance between wealth and poverty, all parents want the best for their children, want their children to be the best they can be, want happiness for all. Just as we did so long ago. Did we achieve it for them, for ourselves? I think so. A healthy balance between discipline and loving respectful encouragement is the key. One minute this child is caught like a fish and reeled in for instruction and correction, the next let go like a kite to fly higher than I will ever fly. Okay, I’m still holding the string, but it isn’t me up there whoo-hooing to the migrating geese, but my child, one I do not plan to let go of, not yet. That day will come but it isn’t this day, and letting go completely is a big ask of any loving parent, even if it must be done for their own well-being.

I hear the teachings of these young parents and I remember teaching my children the same. I remember hearing the same from my own parents. The basics of what is right and what is not, of when to speak and when to stay quiet, of kindness, compassion, of sharing even when there isn’t much left to share; of being sensitive and polite and of speaking out against injustice and cruelty. It isn’t all about not running in corridors which, if I am honest, is exactly what I want to do whenever I find myself in one, but about the deep core values of being human and of individual importance to the whole race. We fear poor connections between our child and that child. We worry about a bad influence, fear a slow poisoning of all we are teaching the only one we can teach. I remember that, too. However I discovered that the very child I never wanted around my own was their absolute favourite mate. Such irony, and such a chance to let go, because everything good happens all by itself, exponentially, as long as my worries are kept under raps. As it did. Every single time.

Happiness is something we feel in moments. When asked that ridiculous question “Are you happy?’ I have never met a single soul who answered yes without a bit of oom and aah unless they had just fallen in love, got a first class honours degree or found a lost treasure down the side of the sofa. These are all just moments. The time is takes to answer ‘yes, I am happy’ is the time it takes to take a mental scoot back across the planes of a life lived, and to stand the good against the bad to see who’s tallest. However, it isn’t just logic nor a positive decision that brings an answer. How I feel about that comparison brings the balanced response. In the end, it doesn’t matter which is tallest because that will change every time we measure. It will depend on our mood that day, within that moment. if someone asks me Am I Happy when I have just dropped a whole cup of cold coffee on the dog, when the rain came in last night because I didn’t close the window or when the Aga has gone out because I forgot to order oil, chances are I will not respond in the affirmative. On other days, in other moments when the lapwings delight and the sun sparkles the water diamonds and my coffee is hot and the dog quite safely curled up on my knee, I will beam and say Yes Absolutely. See how fickle we are? or is it simply that as soft, loving, vulnerable humans our feelings about who, how, why and what mean so much more than we realise?

I leave you with this:-

Piglet: How do you spell Happiness, Pooh?

Pooh: You don’t spell it. You feel it.