Island Blog – Alone and Together

This morning I see one bushbuck, one giraffe, one warthog. The bushbuck, nervous, ears twitching for sounds of danger comes to the water hole. He has probably been tossed out of the family group, the herd, if, indeed, there is a herd, and is alone in this vast terrain. He will be seeking another group, a mate, the chance to clack antlers with a rival in order to earn his place. The giraffe looked at first like a movement of tree trunks as I could only see his legs but as he slowly wandered onto the track he was caught in silhouette against the rise of the African sun. He looked back at me through velvet eyes as I looked at him, then turned to lope away, all speckles and sand and alone. The warthog is a grumpy old bugger. Yesterday, as I walked the pup around the house, he started forward and I took off like lightening. Nobody wants to meet the front end of one of those horned-up wild pigs. His vision is poor but his temper is rich and his sense of smell very strong. It was the pup he didn’t like, being a natural wimp around humans, for which I am always grateful. I lifted the pup over the rails of the stoep and arrived shortly after in what must have looked like a very ungraceful half-somersault, my dress up around my ears and my sandals all wonky-chops.

It thinks me of wandering alone. Although I know full well how precious are community, family, friends and other social encounters and relationships, I also know we all walk alone through this life. Each one of is an intricate tangle of nature, nurture, experience, choices, personality and character. We also all look different, which if you think about it is quite a miraculous feat of engineering. Even as one of identical twins, the word identical is an overstatement. Deep inside both will have an unique pattern, no matter how the outside is designed. One can sing, the other can’t hold middle C without slippage; one finds this joke hilarious, the other puzzles to find more than a polite smile; one loves eggs done this way, the other, that. And so on.

When we were five young children and travelling north for our Scottish summer break, our mum had us knitted and kitted in matching jumpers. We could choose the style but not the colour. Yellow, one year, blue the next and so on, always in bright primary colours. We had to wear them for the journey. Mum said that it was so she could find us in places like York Station or on Princes St, Edinburgh as we skittered like excited monkeys through the crowds of moving feet, eyes level with a thousand navels and worse, even more handbags that could deliver a mighty head clonk if we weren’t paying attention. I don’t think we looked after each other much, being intent on our own agendas and deeply fed up of being One Of Five. Although I didn’t visit the same knitted uniform on my kids I do remember those wild times such as boarding the right train intact as a family, or shopping in a mall where, quite frankly, havoc could be wrought at any moment and always by One Of My Five.

I see that the world thinks in terms of numbers now. We are number this on a plane, at work, in school, in a theatre, the tube, the office and it saddens me because we are not numbers, we are individual people, no two alike. We are Just One among many other Just Ones, linked through culture, our job, our street, out village, our church, our market, our orchestra, our singing group and more. But I is not always We. Paying attention to the ‘I’ is something we may have forgotten altogether, such is the pressure of group thinking. We may also have forgotten how to nurture and nourish and listen to the I. In this fast moving world of apps and social media, advertising, subliminal or overt, competition, addiction, poverty growing disproportionate to wealth, corruption and the general malaise of apathy and defeat around Big Brother and his Nanny State, we (no, I) must remember what it is to be unique among millions. I must stop running and think for myself. This might take a while because, if I am honest, it is easier to go with current worldly thinking, which has a strong and powerfully persuasive voice but which is really relieving us, ever so slowly, of our own unique voices. I might wonder what it is I do think. I might come up blank, at first. I might not know where to begin following my own inner voice, once I can hear it again. I might find myself stopping to talk with a street beggar and feeling deeply conspicuous. (it gets easier with practice). I always wanted to, to give, to show respect, but none of my friends do and if I have ever faltered beside such a sad picture of a human life, I would feel a firm hand on my elbow, guiding me away, and a bright schoolmarm voice in my ear suggesting ‘Coffee?’

We travel alone, and yet together. We need each other for friendship and so much more……..but it is our prime duty to respect our own unique individuality, to relocate that inner guiding voice and then to take appropriate action, because every single one of us is here for a purpose, one purpose per living soul. It is our job to work that one out. Alone.

Island Blog 134 Reality Check

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This morning the air is still on the island.  Nobody is about, except for the birds playing out their dramas.  The doves, including Dave,  whose mate was nabbed by a sparrowhawk a couple of years back, and who will always be a gooseberry, turn up to feed, their beaks tapping out a syncopated rythm on the wooden base of the bird table.  We found the remains of the kill on the track outside the house, and Dave stumbling about lopsided and scared. Not a lucky dove, we said.  After a week or so inside a box, fed and watered each day, he managed a wonky lift from the ground, straightened up and flew right onto the telephone wire.  We hadn’t fixed anything, weren’t sure how to, but perhaps the combination of love and his own will to survive did their work.  Now, however many pairs line the wire, sometimes up to 15 in the winter months, he is the uneven number, but always faithful, staying close to home, when the others loop away across the hills to build nests, raise young, complete the yearly circle once again.

A pair of swallows have taken the nest we fixed at the back of the garage years ago.  Each spring, they check it out, and each spring, they reject it.  Perhaps this is because we are constantly in and out of the garage, for it offers the only access to the hill garden at the back, where the bee hives nestle in the wild grass, their faces towards the sun.  Every day each community, numbering thousands apiece, fly out to find pollen. The scouts communicate directions to the others in waggle dances, performed on the front step and taken seriously by the other worker bees, all women of course, who might be dithering about which way to go.  The hive mind is an extraordinary thing and one that never sleeps, for even when the bees don’t fly, we know that if we lifted the lid (which is not for the faint-hearted) we would not see one single bee loafing about with a vacant look in her eye.  Every single one is busily employed, going about her business mindfully, intelligently, continuously.  Any loafers would be thrown out.

Trouble is, the swallows number three.  I don’t suppose this works, a menage a trois, in the swallow world, but the three of them dive in and out of the garage each early morning and evening.  On the wire, they have words.  No violence is employed, but you can tell, from the tone, that it’s not friendly.  Perhaps, like doves, and swans, swallows mate for life.  Perhaps this lone one lost its mate on that huge journey back from Africa.  We watched them gathering on wires, rooftops, swirling like a dark cloud over Capetown, when we were there in March, preparing for their flight across the globe, and we marvelled.  How they manage to find their old nest sites year after year beggars belief.  We would need maps, charts, radar, provisions, a transport vehicle, confidence, determination and periodic rests in soft beds with cotton sheets and a spacious en suite.  They just fly.

In honour of their unusual tryst, together with the excitement at their final acceptance of the Garden Centre nest, (buy one, get a House Martin one free) I have fixed signs, one on the inside of the door, so we remember not to dive out and head butt a swallow, and one for anyone coming through the little gate who needs guiding to the other door.  If we need to access the hill garden, we must open the garage door slowly, peeking gingerly out, to see if our new friends are around.  Sometimes they wobble on the inside washing line.  We need an inside washing line on the island, as the outside one is often long-term unemployed.  The concrete floor is already guano-ed up and this situation won’t change, as long as they decide, finally, to lay their eggs, which they still may not, given the human comings and goings.

As I walked Miss Poppy around Tapselteerie yesterday, she made me laugh at some antic and, in response to my voice breaking the silence of the afternoon, a well-hidden nest of young tits leapt into action, their collective cheeping floating out from one of the dark holes in the old dry stone wall.  The mother, behind me on a branch, yelled at them to shutup, but they were having none of it.  I didn’t stay around to worry her, but the experience lifted my heart, just to have been allowed to witness that moment, and to fix the knowledge of it into my ordinary day.  I call that an ‘internal shunt’, for It changes me, even though nothing has changed.  My usual list of miniature disasters is still there; the demands on my time, my patience, my purse, stay in place; nothing is certain, nothing really safe and nothing I can do to make it any different.  I could lose a loved one in a nanosecond and there is little I can do to stop it happening.  I can fall ill, a silent enemy moving in to establish victory whilst I dash through my daily list, unaware until too late.  But it does me no good to focus on what may or may not happen, in fact, it will falter my step, weaken me, make me dull at parties.  What I need to do, mindfully and intelligently, is to learn from the birds, from the natural world, of which I am a part.  I am at the top of the food chain, yes.  I can think and reason, yes.  And these gifts are not given to be wasted.  They are gifts of sight, gifts of power, not over others as we seem to believe, but over myself, the choice to get real, like the birds.

How does that song go………oh yes…..

‘Hey, you know what paradise is? It’s a lie
A fantasy we create about people and places as we’d like them to be
But you know what truth is?
It’s that little baby you’re holding, and it’s that man you fought with this morning
The same one you’re going to make love with tonight. That’s truth, that’s love.

I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me.’