Island Blog – A Letter

Ten days since you died my husband. One week till your hillside funeral. All of your family think of you every minute, probably more often than even that. Memories come back, moments resurrect and stand tall, blocking our path. And yet we move on, doing normal things with an abnormal head on and a heart all flapdoodle but still beating. Mine feels like wings, as if there’s a bird trapped behind my ribcage unable to escape.

This morning I cleaned your room, now that all the hospital kit has gone. I took my palette knife and some white filler for all the many holes left in the walls, holes that remind me of hand rails and other attractive supports, no longer needed. Neither are the holes. There is a big enough one in me and in our little island home, even if I can move about more freely. The furniture is not pinned to the edges any more for easier wheelchair access. Actually, I did think you were a bit over the top in that particular demand. A wheelchair isn’t that wide, after all. Then I realised you had lost your innate spacial awareness and the evidence of that loss is scraped along doors and lintels and walls. You were pretty nippy in that chair, nonetheless, turning on a sixpence, making U turns and scoots forward when space allowed, and even lurching at great speed down the ghastly yellow ramp which is now looking for a new home.

The leaves are beginning to turn now. Conkers (we always looked for them didn’t we?) are landing on the track but I haven’t found a big one yet. You told me you always won conker battles and you also told me that you soaked them in vinegar overnight, making them like concrete. Scabious peppers the grassy banks finding the best sunshine spots. I saw 6 kittiwakes the other day, your favourite bird, flying seaward up the loch. I don’t think I have ever seen them here before. They came just for you.

The garden is looking a tad tatterlicious and the sweet peas gave up fighting the last big wind, but even broke-backed they bloom and their scent keeps wafting indoors, reminding me how much you loved them. I pick them for the house but soon they will be over for the year. Season rolls into season. You knew the sound of each one, its taste, its demands and its gifts. As one thing dies, another begins to live and that is how you saw life and death – the same circle, a never-ending story.

I am so happy that your dying was peaceful. No fight at all, no panic, no fear, just a soft leaving. And you wanted to go, you said so, to anybody who was listening. And so it is and was and ever will be when someone who cherished every second of a long adventurous life finds the living just too much. We didn’t want you to go but knew you did. We also knew that your living state was very compromised. But even at the last, your humour shone through those cloudy old eyes. Even knowing that the Great Beyond was calling you, hands held out in welcome, you whispered to me ‘ I don’t want to leave you.’

And then, you did.

Island Blog – Flapping at Clouds

Yesterday was a day of long hours, the end game of a week during which I wasted much energy flapping at the clouds with a tea towel and expecting them to move on, metaphorically speaking. I don’t know why such times come, nor when they will, but I know everyone has days like these. I used to scrabble about for reasons why, most of which required me to beat myself into scars with a bendy switch. I don’t bother now. Now I am well aware that there are forces at large who are invisible, all knowing and with the big picture in mind, unlike me down here inside my little life. I let them play with my mood and my mind and just wait for them to go, which they always do in the end. But oh my, it’s uncomfortable. My body feels like I swallowed a hippo and my brain is a peat bog after heavy rains. I have to make myself do the ordinary tasks and cannot settle to anything creative. I stare out at nothing and wish the hours away. There is no reason for this; nothing has drastically changed; it is, as if, punishment is due for some heinous crime, one I have no recollection committing, or, worse, that I am sick. Long experience of this scoffs that nonsense away. It is just as it is.

I know these discomforts have come to learn me something; that I will, after the air settles back around me like a soft blanket, understand something that wasn’t on my radar before. It’s a shake up, a wake up, a take a look up thingy. Oft times it is easy to keep on going on without noticing the whole. Sometimes ‘noticing’ the whole, through the eyes of my own limited vision, is merely me circling through the same precepts, the same thoughts, opinions and ‘absolute truths’ until the goodly wise decide on action to stop me eating my own tail. I’m glad of it, once the discomfort has passed, because even if it takes me a while to learn the new learning, the new way to do an old thing, or, even, to relegate said old thing to the compost heap and to reach for a new thing, I am curious by nature and well aware that stuckness is death in life. Lack of motion and the refusal to allow new ways to infiltrate my old ways would kill me off inside a month. Maybe that’s just me. I know that some of my ancients were very happy to be stuck in old ways. We is all different and some more different than most. I know this too, but being stuck is not my nature, even if I can become so without any trouble at all. I always have my eyes on a better me. However, I cannot do this alone. How could I? I am the one who folds into little life without a second thought, scrabbling on through the tall grasses with the odd tea-towel flap at clouds, should they irritate me. I need those goodly spirits with vision, the high flyers, the ones who already know me better than I will ever know myself; who understand and who are kindly-meant. I need to lean into the storm in order to feel the vital force of it.

This morning I don’t need my tea-towel. This morning I know they have moved on. I can tell because my belly is not kicking up a storm and my heart is more Beethoven’s Pastorale, less Def Lepard. I also know that something will dawn on me soon enough and I will add that to my very long list of Aha’s, taking whatever I learn into myself so that I can inch a little further forward in this journey of life. I am certain all of us know these times. We are human, after all, grounded and unaware of so very much. Oh, we read the news, know the science, understand the proven truths, but we have no explanation for the Mystery. We can try. We can argue points, choose different names, fix on gods or God or no gods at all, but we cannot fully explain any of it. And there is something wonderful about that.

All I know is this. As I quest through this amazing life, grounded among the tall grasses of this beautiful and broken world, my mind is free to roam and, in being vulnerable, I know I am fully alive.

Island Blog – A Crescendo of Growth

I can see it coming. The new shoots pushing through cold ground, like babies being born. One minute, safe, warm and dark, and suddenly thrust into the light, sharp, blinding. Flipped by the wind (or the midwife), smacked by the rain (ditto) and cold, so cold. It is understandable, the heartfelt desire to return to B4, but that option has been taken away for ever. Moving onto A1 is what Mother Nature insists we do, all growing things. If she is always moving on, then so must we. Instinct drives, timing is life or death. We must comply.

This, sadly, also goes for bodily hair. I think we women will all look like scarecrows with moustaches and caterpillar eyebrows by the end of this enforced lockdown. Unless we have a family member who can offer us smooth passage and who happens to own salon scissors. Ah…….there may not be many of those who inhabit such fortunacity. My word. But sticking to the subject, I wonder how we will grow through this time. The people I have talked to on Skype, messenger, WhatsApp and the Alexander Bell are all thinking we will grow better. I am with them on that. I know folk who have faced down death and returned to live a stronger, more focussed, more sensitive life, letting more unimportant stuff go and ferreting around for the things that really matter, but felt like ordinary and uninteresting. Before this. In a way we are all facing down death right now and it will teach us many things.

As I come down the stairs to see the moon face to face instead of letting her think that her sneak through the cracks in my curtains will ever be enough, I am thankful for the stairs holding up. There was a time when holding up caught a fever and wobbled a lot, requiring skilled assistance to de-wobble. I am thankful for my washing machine, car, ability to scrub the inside of those flaming mugs that will not let go of tea tannin, go for walks with my frocks always at odds with the capricious snatches of the west coast wind. I watch primroses push out more colour, a siskin or a goldfinch on the nicer seed feeder, the way my dwarf willow dances flamenco on the hilly back garden. I am thankful for the postmistress #suchacrazytitle delivering mail in her disposable gloves, smiling and joking with me through the window as I stand on the laundry basket from Nincompoo Laundry, Calcutta. I’m thankful for that too.

My finger nails have never been this clean. Neither has my husband. What I am learning in this time is what really matters, such as looking after him myself. I am cooking good food once more having absented myself from any meaningful connection with pots, pans, process and palavers. For what seems a long time I have served him one of his ready meals (good quality) from the microwave and then boiled myself pasta, added pesto and salad. One of my granddaughters was horrified, not about her grandfather’s ready meal thingy, but my pasta on repeat thingy. Granny… she admonished. This is not like you! But it was like me, back then. Now I am purposed up, my extra busy imagination coming up with all sorts of marvellousness just as I did when cooking for five hungry kids plus hangers on. There were always plenty of those, and nobody on this island ever sends anyone home without something in their bellies. It just isn’t done.

Now I am about to start finding out how to make face masks. This should be interesting. I wonder if I will be able to stick with the J Cloth plus ribbons rule? What…..no macrame flowers or beads and bobbles? Abso- flipping-lutely NOT. Rats. I am also knitting dog blankets for our dog. She is currently the lucky owner of 3 colourful/wool and easy wash blended reaches of bonkers colour. The easy wash part washes, well, easy. The wool part is obviously sulking and retreating into itself, so that a part of the blanket looks more like a ploughed field, but Poppy doesn’t seem bothered all that much. She just turns a few circles and flops down on the easy wash, resting her delightful black nose on the ploughed field, so she can see out all the better.

I am daily delighted by all the entrepreneurial posts on social media. People are doing things they probably always wanted to do, but didn’t consider their work to be of notable value. Now it definitely is and this is what the human race is all about. I remember, as you will, the oldies saying that what the world needs is a jolly good war. Although there is nothing jolly about any sort of war, they had a point, one that now makes sense to me. What they meant is that, during wartime, a family, a community, a village, a city, a country, the world has to pull together, as we are all now doing. How does it feel to you? I think it is marvellous partisan excellent quiddity. In fact, I am quite astir just thinking about how wonderful folk are. We are learning to care outside of our boxes and demonstrating that care in ways that fulfil and nourish the givers as much as it does the receivers. In short, we are finding a new currency.

Hats off to all of you doing whatever you are doing for others. I am just waiting for that balmy summer evening inside a city when all those musicians, isolated in their own homes, communicate with each other, fix on a song or a piece of music and open their windows to delight a whole street, to lift, just for a short while, the anxiety and the fear, turning them into birds and butterflies and telling us all that together, we will grow through this.

Island Blog – Tribute

Yesterday at 0600 we set off for a day in Kruger Park. This vast expanse of wild bush covering over one million hectares is the home of the Big Five. Lion, Leopard, Buffalo, Rhino and Elephant. However, there are many more species living in symbiosis. The Ground Snail (size of my clenched fist), Leopard Tortoise (the only one who can swim) Golden Orb spiders whose webs are as wide as I can throw my arms, Giraffe, Zebra, Wild Dog, Jackals, Vultures, Fish Eagle, Warthog, Hyena, myriad birds of spectacular colour and size and so much more. My eyeballs threatened to fall out with all that looking. Just a tiny movement through the thorn trees could mean, well, anything and it is so easy to miss a sighting. Camouflage is everything. Although we didn’t manage to find Lion or Leopard, we saw many species just doing their thing over the course of nine hours, including a newborn elephant beside his dauntingly huge mama. A gaggle of parked cars meant ‘something’ and so we stopped too, to look. Refreshment stops en route kept us sustained and it made me see how easy life is for us in comparison to all those creatures who must always be on the hunt for their next meal.

As I sat in back of the truck I thought about that. I also thought about the driver, the guide, our protector, my son. He, who has lived a long time surrounded by wild animals and the ways of Africa, marvels me. All my children do. I observe their traverse through adulthood. I watch them deal with daily thingumabobs and disappointments, news both good and bad, ups and downs, people, animals and things, horizons foreshortened and expanded, and, most tricksy of all, unforeseen changes to their inner maps. Although their innate goodness and respect of all life may have had something to do with the way their father and I guided them through childhood, they have each developed their own set of rules, grown their own characters, chosen their own considered paths and set out to walk them down. They have moved on a long way since those days of learning values from us, and now they are parents themselves, teaching values to their own children, probably as clueless as we were, stumbling in the darkness of inexperience, their lights always in need of a re-charge in order to keep the momentum up and the noise down.

But it is their core selves that lift my heart. How did you become so strong and wonderfully good? I whisper that to myself, for I fear they would not have an answer to that. Not one of them is a ‘product’ of their parents. They have become themselves, each one different to the rest and yet with a set of principles that sing in harmony. I admire them beyond admiration and observe their daily ordinariness with a smile. I have also learned #amstilllearning to observe without comment at times when I can see things going a bit diplodocus, for my own words can only come from my own experience and there’s the limitation spelled out for you. It doesn’t mean I can’t be of use at times of trouble and strife but go canny old girl and keep quiet unless asked for help. That’s what I whisper to myself. This is their life now.

I reckon I am blest beyond blessings. In ignorance I helped to grow these remarkable human beings. Each one has gone through a big load of trouble on their journeys and from that trouble, they have grown strong and light. Their ability to see the fun in life, their attention to detail, their love of and respect for all living things and the way not one of them ever gives up marvels me. And now, they teach me too. They tell me that life will always go on, that hope is full of beans and goodness will never be out of fashion.

And, yesterday, traversing Kruger Park, I thought about all of that, as my youngest guided us through one of the last reaches of natural, unspoiled, raw beauty; where life and death walk hand in hand and where very few live to tell their tale.

Island Blog – The Ambience of Time

‘Ambience – the quality or character given to a sound recording by the space in which the sound occurs.’

That’s just one meaning of the word but one I like, on consideration. Quality, Character, Space In Which The Sound Occurs. In other words, the Moment. Life is but a series of moments, so many missed, wished away, ignored, rejected in a lunatic hurtle to either a new beginning or to the end of it. In a quest for happiness we can miss it all. No wonder so many lie on their bed of death in a cloud of regret, not, perhaps at their whole life but at those moments missed, ones that now take on the aspect and the voice of the Final Jury.

Ah, foolish man, foolish woman. There is enough well-crafted literature out there for us all to become professional livers of life, words gifted to those with eyes to read, ears to hear, minds to learn and feet to stay grounded in each moment, turning up for every one of them. It is easy to understand the rightness of such thinking, such a way of being but the world is loud as a bully and equally as daunting. Although we know that a bully is all fur coat and no nickers once ignored as we might a persistent bluebottle, the daunt is still there like an overwhelming fear, and it can confound the best of us.

However, knowing something is for the logic brain. Feelings, by contrast, riddle our minds, our hearts, our choices and our definition of self, like bullets from a machine gun. It’s spaghetti junction inside, a tangle of ups and downs, rounds and backs again, and appears beyond our control, as indeed feelings are. But here we have a choice. My choice is to say ‘Okay, I hear you all. All the feelings, all the logic learned from others way wiser than I and nothing makes a jot of sense. There is no flipshot way I can sort this tangle out. None of you agree for a kick-off and I am down here, little me in my frock and wellies wondering how deep the puddles will be today, bothering about my piddling worries, the state of the world and whether the battery on my phone will last until I get home again. So here’s the plan. You carry on disagreeing and tangling and arguing with each other and I am going to spend this day watching the moments as they come to me. I’m going to notice each one, be thankful for them all as they come and go and when this day is done I might check in on you bickering brats, or I might not. I know you are a gift. I know that all you feelings and all you counteractive logicians are, and have been, wonderful guides throughout my life, barring the times you meet each other across the valley of my mind with staves and spears, guns and a lot of yelling, but this day you are too much for me. There is a life down here being lived and it is I who am living it. So I choose to ignore you and to settle like a fatling hen upon her eggs for this day alone’.

I only have today. So do you. So does every living soul, regardless of status (perceived or real), colour, creed, race, history, size, plans and wealth. Just today. How will I live it? How will you? Will we hurtle in our steely rockets, slicing the moments into forgettable fractions or will we stop and share a smile, buy a beggar a burger and mug of hot tea, ask a colleague how they really are, phone mum, write an encouraging letter or email, study the pidgeon on the window ledge until we really see it?

There will always be a tangle within. We are humans with tangles. But if we forget to live our lives moment by moment, our life will still be lived without us being a part of it. Letting go of the tangles won’t bother them much, at first, but in choosing to notice everything and by some magical and out-there process, this tangle is no match for a person who lets go and who lives just this day as it is, who simply turns up, curious and wild at heart.

I leave you with a wisdom from Sarah Manguso:-

‘Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments – an inability to accept life as on-going.’ and, in her writing about keeping a journal…..

‘I just wanted to retain the whole memory of my life, to control the itinerary of my visitations, to forget what I wanted to forget.

Good luck with that, whispered the dead.’

Island Blog 107 A Change in Time

Park_in_autumn

 

 

Well here we are on a Friday again and it seems like yesterday is was last Friday.

I know that as we get older we find time passing more quickly, but even young and sprightly things tell me they find it’s the same for them.  We have endless encouragement through the wise sayings of Deep Thinkers to make the very most of every minute, and we all nod, because we believe in such a truth and then carry on rushing past precious moments and precious people.

As a young mother I would decline all offers of a ‘quick cup of tea’ because I always had to be somewhere ten minutes ago, and calmly so.  I left, rushed, arriving way too early in a bright pink fluster, having no doubt remonstrated with one, or a few, of my children at the top of my tension, parked badly and banged my knee as I cornered too fast.

Why did I do that?  And worse, why did I keep doing it?  To arrive anywhere with my chest calm, my heart softly beating, my blood moving steadily and freely was a very rare and tea-less occurrence.

I can still say no to a cuppa and leave wondering why.  If I have said yes, and sat my butt on a stranger’s chair, patted another person’s dog, looked around another’s room, I have come away, not necessarily with the best cup of tea ever slopping inside my belly, but with my heart and head completely changed.  It was the encounter that mattered and the pleasure I gave and received by just saying yes, and giving myself to another soul.

The conversation can be wild, can be funny, can be informative and is sometimes astonishing.  The things on the inside of us never see the light of day in a shopping queue.  It is only when we sit and share something as ordinary as a cup of tea, that a person opens their heart.

‘Life is short’ is one of those immensely irritating cliches that makes me want to scream.  The reason I want to, but don’t, of course, is that saying these well known throwaway words make absolutely no difference to either the person saying it, or the person hearing it, for all the smiling and nodding that goes on.  However, it is the truth.  Over one single day, I know of people fighting for their very lives, when last Friday they were full of healthy bounce.  When they recover, they will truly know that Life is Short and both will change their lives, and the one area that will enjoy their total focus will be that of relationships.

All those terribly worldy concerns will melt away into a dirty puddle.  Suddenly, and it is sudden, the choice of family over work is easy.  Suddenly, it no longer matters if there is an immovable stain on the carpet, or the cooker stops working.  It no longer matters that our mother/sister/neighbour/cousin said something or did something to let us down, either yesterday or when we were six.  The familial baggage we lug through our healthy years, we can lay down and walk beyond.  Just like that.

What matters is the happiness within the home, the smiles we can bring to the faces of our loved ones, by forgetting Things and putting Them first.  There will never again be a chance that we would say yes to the boss, and call to cancel dinner out.

Nothing travels beyond the coffin, but the spirit of a person.  All else becomes dust.

We, who are still bouncing this Friday and not fighting for a second chance at life.. we who can change everything right now……. might pause for thought.

Island Blog 100 – Life, Death and Other Animals

2013-07-18 15.19.21

 

 

I did wonder, as Island Blog 100 moved closer, what I would choose to write about – where my fingers would take me, what tale I would give life to. It seemed such a big number and worth due attention.

Then the subject chose itself and not in a way I would have guessed, nor wanted.

But, my dear, I tell myself, in that gentle motherly tone, such is life.

Or death.

One moment Sula is running along beside me, or, more likely, way out front, or miles behind and busy being her completely independent self, and the next, broken in the road.  I wasn’t sure if I would go into that bit, and yet, I cannot, nor will I, hide from the truth of anything.  As a……now, what’s that word they use to describe me in reviews of Island Wife…….?  ah, yes, ‘cosseted’……. young woman, I saw little of the nasty side of life or death, for my parents protected me, protected all of us from things unsightly, the stuff of nightmares.  I would have done the same for my own children, given half a chance and with no access to the blood and guts of hill farming, but that is not how it was for them, and, because I was there too, with eyes open for the looking, I saw it as well.

With hindsight, I am glad they did see it, for the alternative is not the truth, not balanced, not real and it just makes the inevitable, inevitable.  One day, they will see, we all do, and the earlier the circle of life and death and life again is accepted, the better our hearts and minds can deal with it.

The response to pictures and words about Sula on Facebook pages, the messages by card, letter and phone, words of compassion and genuine sadness – all those mouths full of memories spilling into our ears, are helping a great deal.  We don’t know until something crashes into our lives and breaks it, what any of it meant to those we meet on our journey.

This is the Life after the Death.

The first Life bit we take for granted.  However thankful we may be on a daily basis for the gifts we are given, the lovers, friends, partners, children, pets, we don’t spend a lot of time second-guessing their life span.  We just live it out, honestly, realistically, focusing on the little add-ons such as what to put in a child’s pack lunch and whether or not the gym kit is clean for Tuesday.  We can be careless with our goodbye’s and our hallos.  We can be snappy and regret it, but not say so.  We are caught up with concerns over our own footwork on the hamster wheel, and we can miss times we should never miss.  But, we are human.  We are frail.  We get it wrong, we get it right, but mostly we fall somewhere in the middle and we do okay, although it often takes someone else to remind us of that, so filled we are with self-doubt.

I know I looked after her that day, as I always did when the sailor went to sea, you see, and left her in my care.  Yes, at times I moaned about being tied.  Yes, I was raging with her when she climbed out the car window, because it was too hot, or took off in a different direction, costing me time and emptying me of puff;  when she refused to come to my whistle, and sat down in the middle of the road, her favourite place to sit.  Yes I snapped at her when she followed me around the house, up the stairs, down again, into the kitchen, out again, and all because a bluebottle had flown overhead.   One slight buzz and she was off, pushing through any number of garden barricades and out onto the road, where, oddly, she felt quite safe once more and all the drivers passing by had to stop because she would not step aside for any size of vehicle.

Then the inevitable happened.  I knew she was dead immediately and held her, talking softly, even though she could hear nothing by then.  I lifted her through the gate and cleaned up the road and the sun shone and nobody came, no drivers, no walkers as if everyone knew this was our time to be alone.  There was not a mark on her body, not even a graze.  I closed her eyes, and covered her with a sheet, and then I sat for a while looking out across the sea-loch, where the gulls wheeled and cried above a jagged line of spume and kelp, the markers of a new tide bringing new life.

Island Blog 63 – Silver Girl

Silver Girl

 

On June 1st Jenny  died.

We have been friends for over 4o years, the same as my years of marriage.

Our children knew each other as little ones and those children now have little ones of their own.  We had a bet going, she and I that her daughter-in-law would give birth before my own did.  The due dates hold hands, they’re so close.  I will see my new grandchild, but she won’t see hers.

Over the years, our roads travelled in different directions, but we kept in touch.  When she first got breast cancer, she was completely herself about the whole thing.  No time for this, she said, need to sort out treatment and keep moving.  She went sailing after that, for 7 months, she and her man, in a yacht to beat all other yachts with big-ass sails and comfort below deck, every comfort, and the wind in her hair and salt on her tongue, whilst I became an Island Wife.  But women who connect at a wild and deep level, who recognise each other’s spirit and love it, never lose touch, even if the contact is once a year.

We sailed with them once, meeting them on a Greek island.  We all wondered how it would work, four of us converging where Two Roads meet, after 30 years apart, and living in close quarters for a couple of weeks.

I could have been a big pain in the ass, I said.

You are.  She replied and handed me a beer.

In the evenings, moored in a little warm harbour, we would cook, eat and make music.  They taught me songs, and I them, and there was something magical about the candlelight, the warm nights, the laughter and song.

She did much with her life and was never still.  She was the second woman ever to command a Royal Navy warship.  A transatlantic skipper, a magistrate, a wife, mother grandmother, although that title sounds way too old for her.  She adored her family, and actively showed it.  She was feisty, impossible, decisive and noisy and there is a big hole left now she is gone.

But what will stay with me for ever, and this may sound selfish, is what she gave to me.  She never faltered and when I did, she whooped my butt.  I’m not saying, or even imagining, that she had life sussed, because I know she didn’t think that at all.  I saw, at times, such sadness in her big eyes, and she might tell me, briefly, or she might not.  When she knew she had only time left, she would still pick up if I called, or answer a text with humour.  She came to my book launch down south in a bright pink wig after aggressive chemo.  It was our last hug.

I salute her.  She is a woman who challenged me to be the best I could be, just as she challenged herself.

Sail on Silver Girl.