Home in the Highlands
The highlands of Scotland loom large in the imaginations of writers and members of the diaspora. For those who are curious, here is a perspective on life on the edge of the North from an American from the heartlands.
Sunday, January 04, 2015
Tuesday, December 09, 2014
Homeopathy for Christmas Blues
Ex pat syndrome can hit any time. I should have been on guard, but it is sneaky and will find you in the best of times as well as the worst. 'White Christmas' did it for me this time. I was having a great time in the loft of a beautiful Methodist chapel in Grassington the first time it hit me. The bell ringers were good and bells are well suited to most of my favourite Christmas music and the acoustics in the loft in the shadow of the stained glass windows were perfect. I sang along to 'O Come O Come Emmanuel' enjoying the sounds of our earnest but amateur ad hoc choir. And then singing 'White Christmas' and I was fine until that line, 'Just like the Christmas I used to know..' I had to pretend to cough the tears came on so quickly.
Now ex pat syndrome is both more and less than homesickness. That's what makes it so tricky to deal with. I miss my family and the smell of Christmas trees and lights--even the gaudy outrageous over the top ones-- because those lights represent the best of the human spirit in all its pagan nonsensicalness--my fairy lights will bring back the sun is what we all are really saying. My little Celtic soul loves the irony and the magic of it. If it were just homesickness, I could hop on a plane or string lights around the house or Skype home or any of the other things large and small that keep us connected.
Ex pat syndrome--as I've said before and others have said better than I can-- is missing something that never really was. Christmas was never like in the songs. Rarely white, often frantic, and lights were expensive and difficult to put up and trees were awkward and prickly and hard to dispose of and came with a sense of guilt about cutting a live tree or the hassle of trying to keep a tree safe and cool enough til spring for planting out. I know all that even in the moment that White Christmas stops me in my tracks, but knowing it and holding it at bay are a world apart.
I have a good life and good friends. The second time 'White Christmas' got me I was stopped mid step in the pedestrian precinct of Thurso on Fun Day. Before I was even aware of it, my friends had folded me into their arms. It didn't matter what made me sad. Their response was automatic, unqualified. That is the gift of Christmas now and always. My antidote for my ex pat syndrome is to fill the house with Christmas music, starting with Joan Baez and I knew I was on the mend when I heard 'I wonder as I wander how our dear saviour died for ordinary folk like you and like me.' OK. I may cry again at 'White Christmas' but I have Christmas in my heart now. To celebrate, to honour the gift of that unconditional love.
And perhaps a few fairy lights.
Tuesday, September 02, 2014
Secret Decisions and Stolen Tomatoes
After my optimism three posts back in the shift of the rhetoric about the decision on routine arming of police in the Highlands, I have again lost heart. The first of the independent reviews seems only to have netted folks who said 'we never had any authority anyway, so what do you think we can do?'. Time is on the side of the people in power. If they can stall and stonewall, then they can wear down the reviewers and the reporters and the weary watchers. The news of the referendum will crowd the issue off the pages of the press; the minister and the chief constable--through their spokeswoman--will repeat their only 2% shrug of the shoulders line as if that were the issue, but as a retired judge recently wrote in the paper, it is the secret decision that is the issue. Or should be.
I am like the geese on the Capitoline--they sounded the alarm for those who would have attacked Rome, sneaking over the hill in the dark, or so the story goes. It is a good metaphor for the defense that ordinary creatures make at things that go on in the dark that should not. Neither the Justice Minister nor the Chief Constable must get past the last hill by stealth. Keep squawking.
And what about the stolen tomatoes? In a community garden in Chicago, someone has been coming by night to steal tomatoes and other produce. How we behave when we think we can get away with it is one of those markers of character--both individually and collectively. Our leaders are supposed to set an example not only in their decisions but also by their character. That erosion of decisionmaking and their apparent character paves the way for that slowly sagging into anarachy that is always the real enemy behind any of these rough spots in governing ourselves.
We need to work that much harder now that many of the things we take for granted are under threat to ensure that we behave by day and by night with regard for old fashioned civility. Don't take things that aren't yours. Take your ethical role in the community--whether as minister or unemployed student-- more seriously than you take your ego or your power or your image.
Sunday, August 24, 2014
So what can we do in the face of such travail?
One of my favourite snatches of poetry recalled is from Bertolt Brecht. 'Even anger against injustice makes the voice grow harsh.' I realise that my creating arguments is not only hard work but also gets in the way of seeing things that aren't broken.
As I was constructing a letter to the editor of the Herald in my mind, I took some time to browse among my garden.
The fennel flowers (good for butterflies and collecting their seeds) are beautiful in their own right. The sea holly has now grown way beyond the bed where he was put temporaily some time ago. They are neighbours in my garden, so I put them together and brought them inside. I think they look great and they smell wonderful, with the licorice-y scent of the fennel. Now I have to write that letter to the editor.
Friday, August 22, 2014
Rhetorical Shifts in Armed Police Debate and a Personal Note
In today's Press and Journal I noted a shift in the rhetoric. MacAskill, after stonewalling about the decision is now part of a who knew what when debate--in the face of 2 independent reviews of the decision to have armed police on routine patrols. I welcome this shift in the rhetoric because it implies that they already accept that the decision was a bad one and they are distancing themselves from it. Good, but not quite good enough because this decision is only the symptom of a larger problem. The problem is a shift in how the police--or their leadership at any rate--perceives their role. I alluded to this in one of my Courier articles. When House said that the police needed to be armed because of the number of guns per capita in the Highlands, this only made sense if the police perceived the community as enemies or as is so often used these days 'potential threats.' Between the Glocks in Inverness and Ferguson police in camouflage and county sheriffs in armoured vehicles, some big shifts had to take place, but they did not come all at once. That is why we need to listen now carefully and stop the first step down that irrecoverbally slippery slope.
I leave it to people more savvy than I am to chart the steps but I lay a few out here for the sake of those who would say 'that could never happen here..'
I suggest the militarization of the police has at least some of its roots in declaring war on domestic things. In America we had first the war on poverty, then drugs, then anti-terrorism. These wars were never won (and hence never over). Such long lasting failures and the attendant escalation of violence dehumanizes us all.
Blaming the military industrial complex is too obvious, so I will include it here only in passing. If you have armoured vehicles, then someone will find a use for them.
But the rhetoric is what we are watching here--pay no attention to that tank rolling by the window.
One of my friends in the States sent me this snippet from a blog she reads:
The italics in that last phrase are mine. I urge my readers on the Highland side of the pond to note them because we have an opportunity now to make an important change in those stepping stones to Ferguson. Tell the police and the independent reviewers, we are not the enemy and you are not the enforcer. You are still a public servant and we are the public. We are on the same side. Put away your guns....the militarization of police, which has its roots both in the drug war and the post-9/11 terror-industrial complex. As my former colleague Radley Balko, now at The Washington Post, has documented for years... “The buzz phrase in policing today is officer safety. You’ll also hear lots of references to preserving order, and fighting wars, be it on crime, drugs, or terrorism. Those are all concepts that emphasize confrontation. It’s a view that pits the officers as the enforcer, and the public as the entity upon which laws and policies and procedures are to be enforced.”
And now the personal note. Yesterday would have been my brother's birthday. I miss him all the time. Sometimes I feel it more than others. Yesterday was one of those days, but I am in the fray now because, like my brother, I never liked bullies, and he was always the one to insist on taking up the cudgels for what was right. OK, Mike, I'm on the job.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Why we need to keep guns off our police
Most people understand why I am so passionate about not having police walking casually around Highland streets wearing Glocks. It is not just Glocks and the attitude they engender toward problem solving, but also how the decision was made. One man, the chief constable, decided to make this drastic change with no regard for public consultation--or even alerting the Highland Council to what he was doing. Since the arbitrary decsion, we have had armed police visit the council (shades of Caesar crossing the Rubicon), and nonsense explanations one after another. First, it would take too long to put on their guns (a demonstration had them gear up in 2 minutes); there are only 2% armed; it is a response to too many guns in the Highlands; or worst of all, the chief constable had 'intelligence' indicating the possibility of a potential future threat. That last excuse brought back the long dark shadows of Iraq and the suicide of a misquoted advisor.
And then there is the way the public reaction has been handled.
The Chief Constable said that critics were mishief makers and working to a different agenda. The Justice Minister said arming police was an operational decision and within the remit of the chief constable. He tried to disavow any responsibility for the decision and continued that the police needed to be free of 'politics', which by all accounts translated as free of accountability. When did armed police own the streets free of any accountability in a civil society? When did they stop being public servants?
Now while this storm is blowing up over here, the tragic death of a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri comes along like the spectre of policing future. If any one has wondered why I was so passionate about this issue, please take a look at this link that my daughter sent me to a British ex pat in America taking a look at the issue.
Here is an English expat comedian on the issue of police in Ferguson, which I daresay is a wake up call to us here in the Highlands.
We should be proud of the fact that we in the Highlands are seen to be leading the objections to routine arming of police. Write to your paper, email your representative, do not let this issue be ignored or crowded out by referendum issues. This is an issue for where we live right here, right now.
Thursday, July 31, 2014
I don't think any of us can explain what makes us go Ooh or ahh despite being effortful or complicated or time consuming. That feeling, however, is contagious. Although I do not aspire to have the knowledge of Ken Butler our botanist in residence ( I forget his real titles but the queen noted his contributions a couple years ago so he has intials behind his name), I can enjoy sharing his marvellous passion and the accumulated knowledge that seems now to come so effortlessly. I enjoyed his wisdom and the transformation in him --and us--as we wandered over the hill in search of tiny orchids and the rare purple oxytropis on a recent walk with the field club.
Both botanists and poets can make us appreciate the very grass beneath our feet.
Oh, for those who might be curious. The tiny, yellow, four-petaled flower is tormentil. Allegedly the name comes from the idea that it could be used to ease the pain of tootache. i dont think anyone now remembers if that were true or how it was used, but the name lingers.