Friday, July 21, 2006

An American Tontine

If anyone were putting odds on which American would last, I think I would have been the longest odds. If our marriage is the indication of having survived the tontine, then Morris and I have won this round at any rate. Caithness is a hard place to live. If the wind and the cold don't erode your spirit, then the chronic greyness and the long dark will join in. If your spirit survives that, there is the coup de grace--the isolation. The same stark contrasts of rock and sea and broad moors that are so beautiful can also feel desperately empty. It is a long way from one place to any other. The 10 miles into town for the one movie theatre can be daunting in poor weather or pointless when the films are American blockbusters that are jarringly out of place over here.

The first American whose departure I noted was the author of a journal about her experiences in the highlands. I did not want to read the book because I did not want to be influenced by it, I said, in the writing of my own. However, when I read about her book in the local paper I was relieved not to have read it. After 5 years on an estate near Arbroath, she wrote most unkindly about it. A list of all the things wrong with her new life would have been another burden in my own struggle. Her comments made so much news, I think, because there is an underlying ambivalence between Americans and Scots--the ones who left and the ones who stayed. When an American comes back, it is a mixed celebration--on the one hand, an affirmation for those who stayed; on the other hand, a resentment for the success of the Americans who have more of everything, including the choice to come or to go, or so it sometimes seems.

My friend Sally has not been back this summer, so in my mind she is the second American victim of the cold, the grey, the isolation. I miss her. She was another midwesterner, so we knew some of the same places and things. Not that either of us actively sought to recreate a little America over here, but the familiarity was warming: our conversations were not like treading water to keep up. Sally is an artist and there are several Caithness women artists. It was a joy to talk with her about color and ideas and books. Her house was beautiful but remote. "Are you really happy up here?" she had asked earnestly and now she is not here.

We met Malcolm Saturday at an event and asked about his wife, another American. Malcolm and his wife had been married just shortly before we had. I had been jealous when I heard about how she was picking out furniture and decorating the house to make it her own. Malcolm told us that in 10 days they will be in court and that will be the end of it. "She was never going to live over here, and we tried going back and forth's the best decision for both of us." My heart sank. It seemed such a truncated end to what should have been a better narrative. "I wish I'd known," I said, I would have talked to her." I meant it with my whole heart, but as soon as the words fell softly on to the quarry floor, we both knew that words are not enough but neither one of us could say what is enough to hold any of us here in this almost invisible part of the world.

In the first few months, I struggled to get through each day. If it were not homesickness or the pervasiveness of living in someone else's house with my few worldy belongings in the corner of an unused room, then it was the cold or the grey. When I met people, they always asked how I was "getting on in Caithness". I chose to talk about the weather. It seemed safe. The conversation would then bounce amiably into comfortable territory: "Oh, aye, the weather takes some getting used to, right enough." Sometimes I got valuable tips on how to manage in the weather: wear shoe boots so you can still look sort of dressed but keep your feet warm and wear wool next to you skin were two lifesaving tips. Only once did a woman sniff a reply, "Hmm. It's usually the isolation." The mention of the taboo resulted in a conversational gap in which I felt every inch of the distance between me and everything familiar.

I thought then that perhaps the bookie, or "tout" as they call it here, was offering odds not only on how long this American would make it but also which of the many foes would be responsible for my farewell. Her money must have been on "isolation" and "not even one winter." I have made it through one winter, albeit we spent two months of it in New Zealand and Australia where I could soak up enough light and heat to sustain me, barely, through the dark, wet spring. I have learned basic cattle management and struggled through Byzantine farm paperwork. I have learned that the tax year is different and almost understand some of the tax issues. I have half a driving license and know the difference between a toucan crossing and a zebra crossing--neither one of which has anything to do with the namesake animals. I have a kitchen garden that this year actually looks a little like what I had hoped for and I have ideas and experience to make it better next year.

More importantly, I have friends who can cut through the isolation. A woman who loves the feeling of yarn and colors and textures as much as I do is only 20 miles away. I am a welcomed addition to the Busy Bees Sewing Club--a lively group that meets first Tuesday and sometimes third Thursday at the Murkle WRI--about 15 miles from here. As the leader's husband described it, "the stitch and bitch" group. I have been invited to the Murkle and the Forss WRIs and I am a member of the Caithness Agricultural Society with a badge to prove it. At the local newcomers to Caithness coffee morning, I am sometimes able to answer more questions than I ask.

I am beginning to feel a part of a "large and complex family" as my brother in law described it at the wedding reception. I have a "grandma cabinet" stocked with toys for the occasional visit of the youngest of the grandchildren, and I have met all but one of my husband's six siblings. The youngest has become my new big brother. We recently toured his farm with my friend Amy and I was pleasantly surprised to see how much I have learned about cattle but more importantly how much I enjoy looking at them and thinking about them. Since there are more cattle than people in Caithness, it is very important to be able to enjoy their company.

Sundays I can share a pew with a sister of my husband and her husband whose company I enjoy very much. Although the church is very different from the African-American baptist church I attended in Indiana, the spirit is the same. Perhaps soon I'll be on the equivalent of the Social Concerns Committee of this church. The name will certainly be different, but the spirit will be the same. Having learned how to see beyond the differences, the days are beginning to have a pattern and a rhythm, a safety net below the gap between the swings of the trapeze into which I have leaped. I am not sure the odds against leaving will ever go to zero, but if there were a transporter for the occasional quick trip back for a black bean burrito from Qdoba or green tea with ginseng or my grandson asking me to play one of his computer games, then the odds would be so close to zero that all bets would be off.


At 12:01 AM, Anonymous D. Swain said...

What's in your garden, Landgirl? Mine has 5 kinds of tomatoes (more than I usually plant, but this wasn't a usual kind of year), 4 kinds of peppers, cukes, and black beans (an experiment). Earlier, I had sugar snap peas and onions (the former also an experiment), but they're harvested now. My herb garden is looking A-OK, too!
I just found out what a tontine was last Friday. Never heard of it before then. How odd to come across the word twice in a week! has all the details, if you're interested.

At 8:46 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

I do have some tomatoes but they are in a mini-greenhouse to give them the heat they need. Cukes and peppers would require a real greenhouse up here or maybe a polytunnel would do the job. I have lots and lots of calendula (pot marigold) and tagetes (more usual marigolds). They are good for the garden but mostly I love them for the color and will probably use them for some natural dyestuff projects with my friend Angela. I also have brussels sprouts, leeks, cut and come again lettuce, Swiss chard, and some spinach still lingers but the best of it has finished. I have zucchini (courgettes as they call them up here) in a raised bed and hope the season is long enough for them. So far they have yet to blossom but look healthy. I have dill in the garden and other herbs in pots on the patio area by the back door--oh, also a few onions. Volunteer potatoes from last year swallowed up my pea and bean crop. I'll try them again next year, but will start them earlier. I love black beans. Let me know how easy they are to grow. That is quite a coincidence with "tontine"--I assoicate the word with a MASH episode where Colonel Potter gets the bottle as the last of his group. At first he keeps the bottle and its raison d'etre to himself but finally Hawkeye and the others get the story out of him and they have a lovely toast to all the others in his tontine. Even now recalling that scene makes me sad-happy. I will check out straight dope and get more connotations to wrap around it because it is a big enough word that it can use several layers.


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