Island Blog – From Four Stone Walls to Wild Places

I have been too scared to go anywhere beyond the safe confines of the little village. Most days I spend right here within my four stone walls (best song ever, in my opinion, by Capercaillie) or out there in the out there-ness of a wild place. I can walk a whole walk and meet nobody. Well, nobody with two legs and coated in either lycra, weather permitting, or waterproofs. I meet plenty of other-legged creatures of course. Spiders spinning, deer bolting, rabbits wiggling noses, an otter or two and plenty seabirds. I chat with the trees, imagine their long strong roots and know they help keep each other up, much as we humans could do if we just understood the power of it, instead of jousting at windmills.

I am mostly content with my life, the island wife without a husband. Mostly. Some days are black as the soot in my flue, some days bright as a lighthouse and I never know what will be which. It doesn’t matter what I do or do not do the day before the soot day, it dogs me like the shadow of a giant and no matter how fast I move, I am always in the dark of it. I have spent over a year searching for an answer to this upsy-downsy nonsense and find no answer at all and this is why. It is not a question with one answer at the other end of it. ‘Why’ is never a good question. ‘Why’ is a journey within, a quiet and solo traipse across a mind, not one to be voiced because any answer will fall short of the mark. The voiced question invites opinions. The one who receives this Why question can never respond with a solution. Not never. No other person in the whole wide world, across a zillion continents across all those wild oceans tossing stories and songs into the air, through the air that blows around the globe, can ever know the answer for someone else, because each one of us, like snowflakes and zebra stripes, is unique and therefore alone. So don’t bother with a ‘Why.’

I digress.

I am fearful, yes we got that. I am mostly content, yes, yes. Where is this leading? Ah, thank you. It leads to a phone call from one of my marvellous sons, one of the skippers, the skipper who skippers right here. Would you come on a cruise mama, a loch cruise for four nights on board? We have had a cancellation. My heart takes off but I catch it before it makes a hole in the conservatory roof. I hesitate, visualising massive waves, those ones I remember in a small bouncy thing of a boat crossing to Coll in a hooligan, the ones that, when they rose up like my swimming teacher in a furious mood with her eyes on me, blocked out the light. Then the fall, the slow slip down the other side in the sure knowledge that we would just keep on going down all the way to Atlantis. Or Hell. I breathe. Yes, I say. Yes. And then I twist to look at myself in horror.

I have days to organise things. How many things, I ask myself, noticing my endless pacing and the 2 pages of A4 lists. Well, not much in truth. Just some loving person to look after Poppy dog and my four stone walls. At short notice. A text to friends, a link, a number and she is found. Yes she can come, yes no worries, yes yes and yes. Committed now and planning my approaches, my frockstock, my beanie, socks (never wear socks) my underpinnings, enough for 4 nights. I wait for the fear to giant-shadow me. Nothing. I wait for indigestion, doubt, sheer terror, nights dense with 40ft waves and not a mermaid in sight. Nothing. Momentarily I wonder if I am finally going the way of the senile, that time I remember with Himself when nothing really mattered beyond his clear traverse up to bed. No, I am not there yet. But this is odd, this is strange, strange and rather wonderful.

On the day, Susie arrives, Sunshine Susie and she beams just like the sun which is a timely reminder that there is one at all, a sun I mean. I had quite forgot inside all these days of endless rain and cloud cover. I depart and manage the ferry thing just fine, staying outside the minute I board and arriving on familiar concrete, knowing my way. I keep my new mask firmly affixed to my face but find I am struggling to breathe, so efficient is it in keeping out all breaths, coughs and sneezes including my own. I walk around the harbour, among the visitors, along to the North Pier where the boats will meet and greet us. There are two boats ready for us this wet afternoon. The company is Hebrides Cruises and I recommend an online check. We, the guests, gather atop the pontoon and begin to introduce ourselves to each other. Some have travelled the length of the country for this cruise and me? Oh, me. Well I live over there, I tell them, waving my arm towards the island. I can tell they are amused, interested and disappointed all at the same time. I notice this and turn the conversation back to them, their tales of train changes, delays and clogs on the motorway. I just stepped on and off the ferry after all, did I not? They, on the other hand have much to say and much to share and I listen in pleasure because other peoples’ stories are always a fascination to me. They live a life I just don’t remember, one of limitations, of traffic, of timelines, of restrictions and rules whereas I am always free. Leaning against some metal thing that appears to have no reason to be there, I listen and watch and wonder. These lives, a glimpse. Just a glimpse. Faces, eyes, body language, baggage, all of it a wonderment to me.

Then the metal walkway rattles and we all turn. The skippers are rising like gods from the pontoon, together with the guides and the squeaky baggage trolleys that nobody ever bothers to oil. Relieved of our cases, we walk down the narrow ramps, back in our own thoughts, moving ever closer to the shining bellies of the boats that will be our home for the next 4 nights. They gleam, the superstructure white and all aglow. Our confidence rises yet again although it did already once we met the skippers. This one for you, that one for me. We separate on the floating pontoon and turn to the steps that will lead us all in to an adventure. I don’t know who is scared, who is dealing with something sad, who is hoping that this time will teach them something new, open a new window, show an escape. But as I wave goodbye to those on the other ship and move into the arms and the safety of my son, I know I made the right decision. To go or not to go? Always, always go.

Welcomed with pink champagne, cake and introductions, we heave-ho as the skipper turns the snout of the ship seawards. Into a pink cloudlight, into a blueing sky we move smooth as melting chocolate. Everyone is on the fly deck, binoculars at the ready, looking, searching, hoping for the wonderful.

And so it begins.

Island Blog 142 Back to the Sea

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I have come to a conclusion.  One I might have come to long ago but didn’t, not least because I couldn’t really explain it, should anyone ask for my ‘workings’.

Workings are what art teachers demand when they stand before a huge canvas, liberally splodged with texture, glue, sparkly bits, string, and fat brush strokes telling them absolutely nothing.  ‘Where are your workings?’  they asked me.  I had to find out first what they were talking about before answering.  Once I knew, of course, I back-dated said ‘workings’ on paper, parchment,card, board and copper plate and stuck them into my Workings Book, which I didn’t know I had till a fellow student found it stuffed into my locker – another thing I didn’t know I had.

When a painting is abstract, there is a process.  You begin with the real thing.  A duck for example, or a pot of flowers, a seascape or a human form.  You draw that bit first, kind of whizzily with a loosely held pencil or bit of charcoal or even a paintbrush if you’re jolly smart.  You might be out of doors doing it, perched on a cold stone wall in the middle of Linlithgow, or you might have hooked a buttock or two onto an old tree stump on the shore of some spectacular place, or you may just be at your desk beneath the blue light of those vile tubes.  Wherever you are, you are supposed to be capturing the thing of interest onto a bit of paper in your drawing pad.  We were for-bid-den to call it a sketch pad.  We are not sketching, class.  We are drawing.

Semantics.  It amounts to the same flipping thing, but it’s always best not to argue, when the argument is about words and what they mean to other people, especially teachers.

So, you capture this interesting thing and then you loathe it to death.  It is, at best, dreadful, and looks nothing like it should or even could and even less than nothing like the interesting thing.  If it was a naked being, then I was doomed from the outset.  I could have a deliciously formed adult male just feet away from me under the blue lights and, in a matter of one short hour, he would be reduced to a Lowrie figure with no blood pumping through his veins, nor sinewy life in his supple limbs, both of which were there until my pencil removed them.  Picasso, I kept whispering to myself, fighting back the tears of shame.  Picasso.  Gee-ed up by such thoughts I stuck one eye on his thigh and thought I’d got away with it until Miss Fineart mosied over and snorted, alerting the class to do their own spot of mosying over and snorting.  The young man in question couldn’t move, for which I was deeply grateful as he was facing away from us and stark naked.

So much time was spent on ‘workings’ for pretty much all of my pieces for End of Year Show.  In my case it was both a lottery and a farce because not one back-dated working had entered my head for a single second as I plunged headlong into the world of the abstract.  Abstract just comes first for me and that’s that.

Back to my newly drawn conclusion.

I believe without a doubt that I came from the sea.  Not as a mermaid, or silkie, or even a fish.  I am not talking about the body of me, but the spirit of me.  Whenever I am by the ocean I am at peace.  I can go there carrying tension, rage, frustration.  I can feel heavy and old and tied down and lumpish. But, when I have stayed awhile, listened to the tide roll in or out, felt the salt spray in the breeeze and tasted it on my lips, I am a new woman again.  I don’t just believe that it’s about dumping my baggage for the old tide to take away, because whatever I took down there doesn’t join me as I walk back home.  I never see it again.

When I am in busy places, far from the ocean, I can do whatever I need to do, for a while.  But after that while, which isn’t very long, I feel the old scratch I can never itch, the one that tells me I am not all that wonderful, in fact, not wonderful at all.  I feel irritations niggle at my gut, threaten to spill out of my mouth.  I feel claustrophobic and find it hard to breathe.  No, it is not a panic attack.  There is nothing my logical mind could find to panic about.  It is true that all around me is concrete, noise, people rushing here and there, traffic, lights, dirty pavements and man-made deadlines.  I know how to cross a road safely and what bus to catch.  I know where I am heading and the time arranged for me to arrive.  There is no panic in any of that.  So it’s not a panic attack.

It’s just that I am not in the right place for me.

I know the rocks on the shore.  My eyes need to see the broken mussel shells, left by geese or an otter.  They need to see thrift, purple and trembling in the salt breeze, gulls white against the sky, calling out to each other as the new tide brings in the sprats.  I watch them poppling the surface of the water, pushed up by a predator deep beneath them and out of sight to me.  I must see the kelp thrown high upon ancient rocks, the little pools left by the flood tide, the tiny shrimps stranded till the next one comes in, perhaps whilst I sleep.  I have to see sunlight on the yellow lichen, turning it to gold, to hear the popping of sea-gorse seeds, marvel at the darting of goldfinches on the barbed stalks, and hear their animated chirrups at the abundance therein.  I absolutely must watch the single snow goose leading four, no five families of greylags across the sea-loch in serried ranks cutting perfect lines across the water.   I know the state of the moon by the tides and the state of the tides by the moon. I know the sea and the sea knows me.

It’s not a fairytale.  it’s a conclusion. Mine.

So I go, as I will always go, every day of my life.  I will go to where I came from.   Back to the sea.