Island Blog – The Other Side of Things

Walking, I know Spring is coming. She is right behind me and before me and that is quite an achievement. For the last few days I have walked in a different way. Slower, more present, less turbulented by inner thoughts, thoughts that were back there, at home; thoughts of what this and what that and where is this thing and do I care? I realise as I walk that the natural world is able to spirit itself into my senses, alerting them and altering them. My feet and my body are both discombobulated, momentarily. You can tell I love long words. Oftentimes I must needs dash to my dictionary in order to explain the word that came to me, unbidden, unbound, as a challenge. Ok, it says, you dragged me up from the depths as I slept, as I have done for many years and now you must define me, explain, make me fit into your sentence. The last time I breathed air I was with Dickens, Samuel Pickwick, the Brontes or some other dudes who fashioned long words into marvellousness.

Walking, I notice my boots. They are fur lined even if the fur bit is a tad thin. I bought them in Shetland in the best shop ever, many years ago. I had gone there because my son asked me to join him. Oh such a beckoning. Who could refuse such a welcome. He was training fish farmers on their boat licences and he asked me. Me. Me. Whilst he trained in February waters in the wildest of seas, I wandered the streets and found this boot shop. My thing. I turned in and met an open warm space and just me with two boot assistants. The lighting was warm, the space open and in I went. They are still my favourite boots even after all this time and despite a random dog pinching one whilst I was respectfully barefoot in house and chewing its peripheries, I still walk with them. I tell them, you were born in Shetland and you think this walk is difficult? And we continue.

Beneath the trees I hear spring birdsong and the wind, the wind sings me a different song. All winter I have heard the fierce ice winds burning the skeletal trees with a stripping menace in their various voices, mostly north and east, but this song is different. It is softer, a bit. Today I don’t hear the snip clack of broad leave wind blow. No. I hear the soft wave pulse of wind in the pine needles. There are no leaves yet to snip or clack, but they are coming and I feel it today. I see kill on the track, a dove I think and I pause. You were here, I said, you and the hawk that took you down. Life and death, my favourite cycle. Sunshine dapples the spreads of space, spreads that will soon enough be taken over by bracken. Let us love it, this space, this looking beyond whilst we can. I see the sea-loch. I think of the oyster farmer down there, the fishermen out there and beyond ‘out there’, who now cannot find a buyer for their catches and who are flipping scared.

I see an old fallen beech. You’ve been down a while my friend, I say. You fell like a starburst and I remember when you did. We were still at Tapselteerie. You fell five limb wide, and so politely. In the night. You could have taken out a whole village with that spread but you didn’t. Such is the kindness of nature. And, now, you may well warm new hearths, or you may melt back down into the earth that birthed you. Its is no longer in my hands to decide that for you. But I do see the wild honeysuckle that winds her tendrils over you broken body and she smiles me. Your skin is silver and pocked and so very wide. You stood for hundreds of years. Salut, my friend and thank you.

It thinks me of death and dying politely, of Popz who did exactly that, and I know that this evening will be a tough one for the missing that will overwhelm me on my return home. And here it comes like a sledgehammer. No amount of thinking happy thoughts, or of dragging up those upbeat wisdoms stops the tsunami. Well, if they can’t then nor can I. Best go with it. I eat something whilst listening to dancey music and try to bop but my legs refuse to engage. I drink one too many glasses of Ribena and just know I have made things worse. My sleep is poor and sketchy and I wake at 4 am with a lead balloon in my belly. No point turning over you stupid idiot for sleep has left the building. It is dark as soot out there and there are many miles to go before morning opens her eyes. I shower, dress, make strong black coffee and sit with my slit eyes and my lead belly and my regrets. I don’t cry, cannot cry, for there are no tears left after last night’s flood. I miss you, I say, you old goat, you stubborn, immovable, controlling so-and-so. And I have so many questions I will never get answers to such as What is this thing with a plug at one end and a doo-hic at the other? Why are there three drawers of wires that look up at me, dazed when I pull them open? Who the hell are you? That’s what they ask me. I close the drawers and can hear them muttering to each other, the yellow ones, the black ones, the grey ones and that single pink one which is probably the only girl in the camp. Good luck to you, I call over my shoulder as I leave the room, and, I continue, just for the record, I shall be throwing the lot of you into the wheelie soon enough.

Sorting through his effects, that’s what brought this flood thing on. I have been sorting all week and it seemed like a good idea to clear, organise, clean, label, name as best I can, and then to divide the mementos by five children, five more who know about the missing. But in handling what he held in his own hands has risen up many memories, many feelings in my heart, confusing emotions, doubts and anxieties as I worked. Feeling guilty for he never shared his ‘things’ when alive, I keep going. I remind him of the times I asked him to share and I remember that rigid look on his face. No, he would say (or shout), these are MY THINGS! Not any more old man. Not any more, and I am almost done, bar that huge collection of shirts and tees, jumpers and sweats. I have no idea what to do with them, not yet. One day I will.

Today will be a slow one and I will stick on my smile, brighten my face with make up and tell myself the game is on once again. One day at a time, don’t think too much, just keep moving. It works even if it is all pretend at times. I think of others who ride this roller coaster with me. Hallo to you. We’ve got this, you know. We may fall but we get up again. Spring is coming, the light brightening, the pandemic losing its power over us and we have so many reasons to be grateful and happy even if somedays it takes a miners’ headlamp to find a single one. Keep going friends. Never stop long enough for the doubts, fears and anxieties to catch up. Fight them off and laugh at how easy it is. Laughing, just one guffaw, can send them all into space, such is the mph of laughter. Try it. I plan to.

Island Blog – The Missing

I’ve been thinking about the Missing. A lot. Like all day long and deep into the nights, nights that no longer call me from my bed about 4 times to give assistance to a dying man. In conversations with my kids and through old and resurrected conversations with my late mum (she was never late btw) I can see how the rose-tinted specs get pushed on to a widowed face.

Who would want to remember the bad times? That’s where I got to. There were plenty. Aren’t there always, in a long marriage, or even a short one, come to think of it? During the years of demise, 10 in my case, when dementia (no capital D for it) slam dunks a wild and living soul, I remembered the bad times too often. I was never sure if the behaviour was what it had always been, or was, now, compromised into something I was required to allow. I still don’t know. What we are as young, we become more so, as old. I have heard that, read it and believed it as I watched my dad demise, my mum and my granny who smiled her lovely smile as her last breath left her body.

However, notwithstanding and by the way, my husband who had been a grumpy so-and-so, at times, over the years, mellowed into the man I first met. Now, I know, perfectly well, that once the prize melts into strong arms, she is both cherished and compromised. Her own identity struggles to breathe at times and I was no different. However, at first I was IT, the Golden Girl, the Answer to All Problems, the Filler of the Black Hole in him and, latterly, I walked with that crown upon my white head. Oh, there you are, I told him, and he smiled like he knew what I was talking about. And, maybe he did.

Over time, life trashes us, or does her best to do so. The world and all her demands, chips away at our ideals and our dreams. We are lost, confused and angry and the one person who gets the gut punch is the one closest. I was always the closest. It is, was, puzzling. In a perfect scenario, that person would be unpunched for decades, but this is not how it works.

Notice that I give both Life and the World the ‘she’. I don’t do that by mistake. She’s can be manipulators, dividers, hoodwinkers. I know I was and it was survival, although I am not overly proud of such a tactic. Women come from a place of caring, of protecting, of surviving in a world that is still (for goodness sake) a man’s world. Men forage, hunt, grunt and fight for their space, oft clumsily, oft without the depth of human understanding that their women have. I have no idea who thought this was a good plan. If you believe that God made Eve from Adam’s rib, then she is already sunk, like for over 2000 years for she can never really be herself, joined as she is by history and an idealistic plan.

So, the remembering and the missing. I choose to focus on all the wonderfulness of my life with this exhausting pioneer, as did my mum. I know who he was. I have the scars. But without him, I would have been a nothing in particular and thus I am proud and glad to have known him. In the last days, when he came down for breakfast, me having washed and dressed him and scooted down ahead of his extremely slow chair lift, my arms full of bed sheets and so on, he would always coracle through in his wheelchair, all rosy-cheeked and looking like a little boy, and say Good Morning, with all the enthusiasm of one who loved every single day of his long life.

And that is the Missing.

Island Blog 158 A Missing Mountain

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Yesterday the top of the mountain was missing.  Cloud cover was low, thick as my mother’s whipped egg whites.  I sat watching it, missing, for quite some time; a whole mug of coffee, to be precise and it thinked me of how my eye is drawn to something that was there, always there, and now, is not.  Sometimes, as I scan the morning, spreading out in fingers of light across the grass and down to the sealoch, I know something has changed but, for a while, I can’t say what.  Perhaps the greylags are grazing, blending perfectly into the willow scrub and the stands of wiry old grass, and, then, one of them moves.  All I am aware of is change.  Walking along the Tapselteerie tracks, my attention is drawn uphill, to where the tall pines wave their arms at the sky, their bodies a shining deep red, wet still from the rain last night.  I look and look but they are all there……ah. no. One is missing a rib.

As I walk on, move on into the day, I consider how easy it would have been for me to miss this change or that.  All I have to be is slave to my to-do list, my plan for the day, the caterwaulings of my mind, the pressures I feel I am under to achieve. My alert button is on mute.  Knowing, deep within that I want to stop and notice missing mountains, I keep going.  The mountain will either return or it won’t, isn’t that right?  What is it to me either way when there is shopping to be shopped for, admin to complete, emails to respond to, rooms to be cleaned, washing to be washed?

Well, I’ll tell you what it is to me.  It is something mysterious, something beyond myself and my piddling little life, and it begs consideration.  When life teeters off balance, which it always does just when I think I have it all levelled up nicely, I need the acceptance of mystery to carry me onwards, because that acceptance brings in new game players, hope and faith.  If my life is all about lists and control then I am set up for a fall.  There are books and essays, wisdoms, poems, short stories, plays, documentaries, novels and memoirs all addressing the bizarre human failing to celebrate the unknown, the unfathomable, the unexplainable.  Even if I know there are geese grazing, or tops of mountains lost in cloud, and I study those subjects in intricate detail so that I beome an expert, something will take them a step further without me, for everything is changing all of the time, with or without our involvement.  And yet, and yet, we fight, daily, to control all of life, not just our own.  We justify and explain as much as we possibly can, and those things we just can’t, we dismiss – even if we agree that there has always been ‘imbalance’ in nature, chaos in nature.  We call it the natural world, and behave around it as if it were completely unnatural to us.

And still we long for it.  There is inside every one of us a deep connection to the wild places, to the mysteries of life, to the impossible, the unbelievable. People sigh with green envy just hearing me speak of the view from my window, the wild all around me, but you don’t need to live in the wild to know that it is all around you.  I believe that, although we fight to be in charge, the desire not to be in control of everything is strong.  Besides, if we are really in control of it all, then what a mess we have made, together, or alone, for nobody is really smug about getting everything right.  You can think you love your children without judgement but they will still feel judged at some point.  You can think you are the perfect boss, until someone hands in their notice because you expect too much. You can think all sorts of things for years and be oh so horribly wrong.

Most of us are taught to find our best way to walk through our own lives, to know our enemy, to keep our house in order, and yet overnight, however strong the walls, however well-kempt, that house can be whipped away from us, metaphorically and literally speaking. We can have money in the bank and lose it all.  We can think we are well and find, in one moment, we are far from that. When we root ourselves in what we can control, can organise into a perfect order, we are looking at the wrong things. I hear people tell me they have no choice about their lives, and I always challenge that, for it is not the truth.  We all have the choice, nobody controls that but our own selves.

My question is what have we done to ensure personal inner strength, in order to cope with disaster?  Have we read good books, watched mountains re-appear, paid attention to what our loved ones don’t say? Have we watched a whole sunset, or just taken a quick look and said ‘Oh Wow’ and gone back to the email telling Mr Whatnot just what we’d like to do with him? I am not saying we should loaf about waiting for mountains to disappear or for suns to set, but I am saying that we don’t give the mystery and wonder of these sights the time they deserve.  What happens when really watching, really engaging with nature working her magic, is that it changes my thinking.  It lifts my thoughts beyond my piddling little lists and into a greater mindfulness. If I spend time each day watching, noticing, stopping the car, walking down a country lane, I will begin to feel differently about the balance of important/not important inside my life.  If I really stop to really watch a pair of cherry-breasted bullfinches in scatterwood, or really listen to the sound of the wind making music in the branches of an old beech tree, or stop to chat with an old man on a bench, then trust me, I will be a much gentler person on my return to my ordinary, explainable, controllable day.

I think we need to pay serious attention, and right now, because  balance, as the hapless world teaches it, is not balance at all.