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 140 Larks and Kate

 

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Singing is a lark don’t you think?

I feel like singing a lot of the time and sometimes in the wrong places such as the dentist’s waiting room or in a queue at the airport.  In my imagination I play out what would happen if I did sing.  That old lady over there would probably smile.  The kids would gawp and wonder if they had stepped into a movie and all the rest would study me from top to toe and think me bonkers.  None of that would matter if I could guarantee sounding good, which is never a given.  I would have to be travelling alone because being with someone else puts me in a situation of being One of Two, giving Two the right to an opinion and to take preventative action, neither of which boost conifdence.  I can feel very sure about a spontaneous decision and very unsure indeed about that same decision in the flip of one second when I am One of Two.  No, I need to be One of One if I plan to orchestrate my own flashmob without the mob.  I suspect this leaves me ‘flash’ and all my minders will roll their eyes and nod their heads at that association.

What, I wonder, is so wrong about bursting into song all alone whilst completely sober just because other people are around?  Other people are always around.  I would have to wander a desert or fly to the moon to find no people around.  It isn’t the same singing in the shower, or the car or when the house is empty and I don’t know why but it just isn’t.  There’s a sudden joy that pre-empts a desire to sing which I just don’t feel in the shower or the car or when the house is empty.  There is something about being out in the world, being among fellow humans, being alone among the crowds;  a sort of devilment, a pixie sense of fun, a frisson of excitement at absolutely nothing.  This is when I want to jump over the railings or tightrope walk a garden wall; when pavement squares threaten bears and, in their less dangerous moments, hopscotch.  I like sitting on the pavement and I do if I feel tired of the concrete seeping into my legs but rarely, if ever, has anyone joined me.  Why do we hate to stand out in a crowd when we so long to be individual and recognised as such?  It’s about looking foolish isn’t it. (not a question)

The thing is this.  We are a long time dead.  A boarding school best friend, lost over the years and found again quite recently has just contracted a wasting disease and died within months.  She was the same age as me.  When we unwillingly schooled together, we recognised a fellow scallywag immediately.  She didn’t want to knuckle down to ancient scratchy-knickered traditions any more than I did.  We found many ways to make life fun, and to make fun of everyone else.  She was wiry and fizzing with energy and always up for a lark.  And now she’s gone. But I did know her and I am remembering her and that time we hooked up in London and shared lunch and memories.  Our lives had been different and neither one a merry breeze but we were resilient, strong, feisty women who ‘sung’ our hearts out at every opportunity whether it sounded good or not.  If I had Kate behind me as my foolish imagination began to propel me into a flashmob without the mob, she would have joined me, not having a clue what to do but looking all enthusiastic about it anyway.  Perhaps we are born bonkers and perhaps this bonkerness is so deep within us that no man nor beast nor disaster nor catastrophe can even dent, never mind eradicate.  Well YAHOOO! to that is what I say.

When we talked, Kate and I about the other girls there, we discovered she had kept up with them whereas I had not.  She knew bits and pieces about each girl’s life and had met up with a few of them, even returning once to an old school reunion which I most definitely didn’t, not least because by that time I had 65 children and lived on the moon.  I wonder about their lives lived – what they really dreamed of.  We never talked that way at boarding school.  We talked about netball and ghastly cheese pie and who had fallen out with who, and why.  Most girls kept in line. The risk of being punished was way too great for any out-of-line-stepping.  It was all about the ‘Team spirit gels!’ – a team spirit structured by Them for Us, regardless of allergies or differences of opinion on the ‘how and why’ of such a structure.  Clomping to church in galoshes on a dry morning did little to encourage this team spirit and a whole lot for my inventive imagination.  In fact, I think it may well be precisely because I was grown in Boot Camp and then, at my most difficult stage, packaged off to Corntonvale au Sud, that I learned singing at all.  I don’t mean this literally, although I was a choir member and I did take my pianoforte exams, but more the sort of singing that comes from a deep place, one that won’t be stopped, one that doesn’t mind how it sounds when allowed to escape;  that singing that lifts and separates better than any playtex living bra; when one of two is suddenly one in a million and forever fixed in 999999999 minds, with adjectives various affixed; that singing you meet in another’s eyes, the one that tells you it’s ok now. There are two scallywags in this convent.

Singing is a lark.  Kate was a lark.  Therefore Kate was Singing.

Island Blog 125 Wind in the rigging

 

 

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When we sail, the rigging is something we attend to at each shift of the wind.  The sails may be full-blown, wide and tall, blocking the sun and catching bellies-full of breeze to take us all the way from A to Z.  Sometimes, the wind luffs or fizzles out, causing the canvas to flap noisily, unsure of what to do next.  A good sailor will see it coming and adjust the rigging accordingly, winching in the sails, tightening them, or going about, which is the time I always duck, never sure when that big ass boom is going to take my head off.  We always had to sail close to the wind.  That point where we could jibe and lose a mast (slight exaggeration) or, at the very least, lose someone overboard.

Me.

Coming into harbour, my skipper would never lower the sails and motor in like every other sane person, trotting into a parking place with minimum whoosh and flip, avoiding the wide sweep required to avoid turning the smaller boats to matchwood in a heartbeat.  He didn’t mind squashing the bounce-back variety of white plastic so-called yachts, all squeezed from a giant toothpast tube onto a production line and given fast names to bely their ordinariness.  It’s not me who is the yacht snob here.  I’m just repeating what I heard from my own wooden J-Class sloop-loving skipper, he who sailed oceans beneath real canvas, hand-sewn and made just for one boat at a time, bespoke.  He who loves the creak of timber as the mast strains to stay where it was riveted with huge brass thingies that nobody could ever remove once driven into place.  Hulls laid, larch on oak or teak and varnished to a shine most winters by us with freezing fingers and miles to go before sleep.

In life we are all sailors and we all sail alone, although we can travel together through the wildest of oceans, if we so choose.  Ultimately, the set of our sails, the tension in our rigging, the way we listen to the wind’s voice, and bend to her will, working with her changes of mood, her tantrums and tempers, will decide, not whether or not we arrive at Z in the end, but how well we notice the rest of the alphabet on the way.

I speak, not of the wind that blows around the corners of our homes or bends the strong backs of our ancient trees making them squeak and groan, or call out in agony as their ribs crack and break, but of the winds of life, of time.  These winds rise and fall in every life at some time, and if we are not ready for change, we will get hit by the boom as it swings across our boat, and we may even fall overboard now and then.  All the time, each one of us is dealing with something we find we have not prepared for.  Miniature disasters come into every life, just like a little rain will fall, and if we are really ready, we will find a solution comes more quickly, for we are human and creatively agile.  We just have to tap into that inner gift and develop it into a strength.  We may not know this new set of ropes, but if we are fully engaged with taking responsibility for our own self in any situation, we will find a way to sail again, only better.

I remember learning once, that, in order to play an instrument well, we must learn the discipline of it first, before getting clever with counterpoint or spontaneous harmonies.  For me, that instrument is my voice.  If I want to ‘play’ as I sing, I must know my limits, the boundaries of the song, how my voice will sound singing it.  If I leap enthusiastically into a gritty blues number, I will sound like Snow White trying to be Eartha Kitt and just know that the audience is saying ‘Oh dear….’

But all this is a metaphor for life experience.  We are human, not ‘only’ human, as some would have us believe, and there is power and a magic to being a member of such a wonderfully well-rigged race.

Island Blog 57 – A New Song

Island Blog 57

 

There’s a young man that I know……

Well THAT’S bad grammar for a start!  It should read…….There’s a young man whom I know……..no…that sounds heavy and requires too much lip puckering. It also sounds like the plural of hummus.

I know why the songwriter chose to forfeit the English Prize – some words are really hard to sing in certain combinations, and it sounds different again when you listen back to it through a fancy recording thingummyjig.

We were writing songs, me and two professionals from Wild Biscuit, in a lovely farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.  There was a beautiful dog called Blossom, a bonkers horse with wild eyes that dashed by every now and then in a tartan blanket, ignoring any wheedles to come in for the night, and a loudly colourful pheasant from a hot country who (or is it whom?) appeared outside the kitchen door one morning and who now resides in the yard, fed on porage oats and leftovers. Swallows busied themselves with nest building and chattered me awake in the early mornings.  I watched a dipper on the pond and heard the Bark Chorus from the kennels across the valley.

Everyone knew this place already, but I didn’t.  My bed had soft white cotton coverings, and there were daffs from the garden in a little vase.  I sat down with my writings and John said Pick a line, so I did.  ‘Hey did I get here early?  I see you’re packing up the car.’  and we were off, me with my pencil and he with his guitar and recording thingummyjig.  When Mags came in to see if we wanted coffee, we already had the bones of a song in shape and my sore throat had quite forgotten itself in the excitement.

It was the same the next morning.  Only this line was ‘Sometimes I feel beautiful, easy in my skin,’ because I do sometimes, and I did that day looking out this time on sunshine and promise and that bonkers horse shooting by to interrupt my reverie.   By mid-afternoon we had two songs down, and harmonies and different instruments that rose into place with the push of a button.  I loved losing myself in the music, singing into a microphone for the first time in years, hearing the reverb and the feedback and remembering to free one ear so I could hear my voice in real time as well as the enhanced one, that sang me like a boy in a cathedral, with those high ceilings and big echoes and time standing still. There was even  Photographer Bill to capture the magic of all this creativity.  I gave him a copy of Island Wife and he said he would write his own story one day.  Shame, I said, you can’t photograph sound as I scrambled through another verse sounding like a donkey.  The next day I would be horse.

It’s a beginning, which is why we call it the ‘Imagine Sessions’. I am already writing a third song in my head and listening back to the cd I brought home of the first two, to think more on rhythm, beat, musicality, harmonies and lyrics; to practise, to lift a word clean away, or shift it, or lay down a new one altogether.  And the cough has nearly gone, for on mental tiptoe I can reach the high notes again.

A new door opens and I am stepping through.