Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Helm Winds, Gorse and Gold

Spring begins here when the winds shift to come out of the north east. If you are a farmer, you call these drying winds and you look hopefully to the fields and check the ratio of green grass to mud. How soon can we put cattle out on that grass and how long will the hay last and will the two meet in a happy middle ground. The old names for these winds, however, is "helm winds" because the Vikings sailed out of Norway for the new season of exploration and acquisition when these winds could fill their sails.

The first year I was here, we had no summer. In June it was so cold that I wore my long underwear and my heavy parka for the massed pipe bands festival. My brother and sister in law came to visit me in my new home and probably were so frozen that they will never return. This year has been, unless it has one more trick up its sleeve, the year without a winter. We left for the worst part of the long dark, but all reports have been that there has been no hard frost. There has been no snow. As happy as I am to have missed that, it worries me. I like the seasons. I am a midwesterner and Christmas spent in Florida or New Zealand is not really Christmas. I like raking leaves --well, a few leaves at any rate. I am prepared to mark the seasons with different plants or other markers, but I am not prepared to abandon them altogether.

Morris told me about the helm winds as we drove south to Inverness. Gorse can always be found somewhere with at least one outrageously yellow blossom on it no matter what the weather, but along the roads here and much more down south, the gorse is ready to bloom in its massed chorus spring song. And it is not yet February. I have heard birds in the garden--the first pioneers coming out of their safe havens or returning from faraway places--and it is not yet February.

Today the winds are blowing harder, but the first signs of the earth soaking up the longer sun are making themselves apparent all around us. The hills, which had seemed to shrink in on themselves as they huddled against the cold, are now stretching out to embrace the sun. The sere browns of the dried bracken and heather are warming into purple tones, and the heather, mere grey sticks in the winter, now spreads like close-cropped velvet across the shoulders of the hills. Clustered around the foot of the hills, the yellow buds of the gorse wait impatiently for their cue to burst forth.

On the way home last night, we took the single-track road the last part of the way home. That is the most direct route by which to arrive at our local pub, where they were having some country dancing. A single track road in the north in this time of year means we saw many sheep, a few deer, one unidentified scurrying creature running acros the road, and two cars and a pick up truck as we traveled through the back country. As the sun set slowly, the broad horizons so characteristic of the highlands were compressed into silhouetted mountains and a ribbon-road curving along the silvered river. The flat light of the half moon and sleepy sun made the fast running stream seem to stand still. The road winds past a gold rush that temporarily put Kildonan on the map. You can still pan for gold at Baille an Or with about as much success as any other form of gambling.

Shortly after passing Kildonan we passed through Forsinard--a train station and visitor center mark the beginning of peatlands now called flow country for the secret reviers that wind through it. It is a treasure house of birds and creatures that like wet, cold, organic-rich wide open spaces. There were two cars and one light in front of the Forsinard Hotel. It is a quiet time of year up here, but fishermen will be coming in March. Some come up here faithfully year after year for decades. The right to fishing spots--called beats--is managed carefully.

Around the last bend of the road we catch the lights of the parking lot of the Halladale Inn and it looks like a city after the dark road. The fire was on, Ian and his wife were there, and a handful of people collected from the surrounding area settled in to learn how to dance Bernardo's waltz, a progressive gay gordon, and a Circassian circle, and then back out into the dark.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Civilizing the Impossible and the Grotesque

I have always struggled at fitting myself easily in the boxes of someone else's forms. Some not too small voice inside me starts screaming like Prufrock, "How shall I begin to spit out all the butt ends of my days and ways?" At the same time, the logical, rationalizing voice that likes making systems and classifications (I actually visited Linnaeus's garden in Uppsala as a kind of shrine to a durable classification system), is caviling about their having the wrong boxes or the wrong language for their intended purpose and audience. My tech writer pals and any former students reading that last phrase may feel obliged to stand up and salute. "Purpose and audience" is the rallying cry for a lot of us very fond of writing that makes sense and gets the job done. On top of it all, British English sometimes sounds funny to my American ear.

All these voices were screaming in my head as I struggled to fill out the Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) application. I cannot fill it out more than 28 days before my 2 years allotted on my spousal visa expires, but it takes them 4 -6 weeks to process the application. This sounds OK until you appreciate that the application must include my passport (original), Morris's passport (original), my driving license (again only the original will do), marriage license and then at least 20 original documents addressed to us jointly at this address over the 2 year span of the visa, from at least 5 different official sources. There are more wrinkles and variations, but you get the idea.

With this application, Morris and I have to prove (for the lebenty-ith time) that we are who we say we are, that we are in fact married, and the trickiest of them all--that we are living as a couple. When I first read that, my eyebrows went up, and my eyebrows are a lot like Groucho Marx's so they went way up. All I could think was that they wanted to look at the sheets. I shook that vulgar notion from my head until I read that some of the suggested evidence we could provide was records of visits from a midwife or an antenatal clinic. Then the latent feminist joined the ranks of the other voices in my head--am I only part of a couple if I am reproducing? Biology apparently still determines destiny in the UK if you are an alien presuming to live in the country.

All this gnashing of teeth slowed me down considerably. I finally calmed the voices--at least long enough to complete the application--by imagining that this was a client who had asked me to put together a presentation to satisfy these constraints. My friend who used this ploy on me successfully to get me to complete my thesis doesn't read my blog, so she will not recognize herself here. At any rate thanks to her then and now, I managed to compile something passable.

The guidelines for the section on proving that we "do not have recourse to public funds"--meaning we can pay our own way, comprise only one brief note on one page. If, however, you wonder how to complete the boxes for whether you have committed genocide, crimes against humanity, or have been accused of either, there is an entire page of guidelines and references to web pages to help you.

Along the way to completing it, I noticed something that struck me at first as ironic. I could not imagine someone lingering over those boxes wondering--"Did I really commit genocide or was it all just a misunderstanding?" Or then, if I checked the box, Yes, what would I write by way of an explanation. I did not have the heart or the curiosity to read the page about rehabilitation if you checked Yes to any of those boxes. Afterwards, the ideas and the images lingered with me in the way that reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness lingers-- like the aftermath of a bad dream.

On the other hand, those clerks trying to classify and sort the impossible (have they lived as a couple) and the grotesque (how many murders constitute genocide) perhaps are champions of civilizing. In a time when genocide, crimes against humanity, and people charged with such crimes but still walking freely among us have become almost commonplace should we be indebted to the civil administrators for their efforts to classify it or repelled by their legitimizing of it.

I would like to hear what you'all think about this. The application for the ILR (SETM) and the guidelines can be found on the Home Office web page.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Little More Daylight

When I left Scotland for the USA, the temperature was hovering above freezing the sky was grey, and there was intermittent drizzle. The greenfields made a pleasant contrast with the grey stones of the miles of dykes, and a few sheep grazed in the fields. A month later I have returned and the temperature is hovering above freezing, the sky is grey, and there was intermittent drizzle. The fields are still green and contrasting with the grey stones of the miles of dykes and a few sheep are grazing in the fields. Mirabile dictu, however, now there is just a little more daylight. When I left the sun was keeping banker's hours. Now it lingered in the sky until nearly 5 o'clock. It is still slow to get out of bed in the morning, but it is beginning to rise a bit higher in the sky, and each increase in that arc lifts my spirit just a bit higher.

The most unusual thing about coming back this time is that it did not feel odd. I picked up my old life like picking up the necklace that I bought at a friend's party and putting it around my neck. As if with the clothes and the colors of here, I pick up the left handed driving and the grey stones and listening to the sounds of the cattle and discerning a Glaswegian accent from an Orkney accent.

Ironically, I am now in the position of having to prove that I have lived here for two years, that I have lived with my husband, and that I deserve to be granted an Indefinite Leave to Remain, which is the new, security-conscious name for what was formerly known as "permanent residence." The oddments of this case to the Home Office bear little resemblance to what I would like to see as evidence. I can compile quite a stack of paper to say that I have received mail here, that I am employed here, that I have represented myself as a married person to various official bodies, that I have a bank account, a national insurance number, a dentist (no small feat in the Highlands), an NHS-assigned doctor, and a library card. But what defines a life in a new country?

I'd like to propose a cultural competency test of a short essay analyzing the humor in one of three jokes. The essay should be evaluated both for demonstrated understanding, ability to describe the humour, and correct use of British orthography in at least 50% of the words.

The next part of the test should be a cross cultural analysis of words that are to be matched or contrasted. For example, "Identify theAmerican counterpart of fairy cakes, white pudding, and water biscuit." Or "Contrast fruit cake with black bun or Christmas pudding in 25 words or less."

More challenging is a fair assessment of married-ness. I think a timeline of fights and their evolution over the course of the relationship. This should be a multimedia presentation.

I think my approach is infinitely more interesting and valid than the paper stack the Home Office requires. I will do my best to comply but, even for an American, I am not good at following orders and slotting myself into little boxes on standardized forms. I sit now in my third floor (or second floor, depending on which side of the pond you are on) "little America zone". There is a transformer in the corner so that my old CD player can hum away. I have bright cheerful photos of a garden from my old town right by my keyboard, many yarn stashes for various craft projects, and now stacks of paper that will be transformed tomorrow into a compelling description of my life as a married woman in Scotland.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Dreams of Healing

Thanks to you all for your comments about Daniel. He is doing better and now his family has asked for prayers to help guide his dreams to those of healing. I believe in the power of dreams and imagining to help us in our waking world. Just before I went under anesthesia for surgery, the nurse commented about my tan lines and got me to think about a recent vacation to offset the effects of anesthesia that can give you dreams that make Stephen King plots seem pale.

We cannot say what effect non-traditional, non objectively verifiable therapies have. If nothing else, it gives us something to do while we wait anxiously by a bedside. Daniel has fought the odds so far. The operations for the aneurysm in his neck and for his arm have gone well and he is now out of the drug-induced coma. He has a long way back, but he has a path back.

My friend, his sister, asked that we also keep in our thoughts the driver of the vehicle who was hurt from the inside out. He is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, the invisible wounds of war. A third person in the car was killed outright. They and their families all need to be guided to dreams of healing, to paths back into a waking world.

And if we can dare to dream big. I would like to suggest that we strive for dreams of healing for us all.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Where is Daniel Now?

Each and every one of those that has been wounded or killed in Iraq has been someone's brother, son, daughter, uncle, cousin, friend, or workmate, but not mine, until now. Statistics and photos and interviews with grieving relatives are all sad and a reminder to me of the failure of my generation to stand up and say: "We learned from Vietnam and we will not let it happen again." I will leave it to historians to explain why it is so many people were silent about this war. Muttering perhaps to themselves or a few friends but for the most part shrugging their shoulders and getting on with their lives. That is the luxury of a war fought far away.

The last time I saw Daniel he was working at Burger King. I went to see him along with his sister--his proud, older sister. We all knew that flipping burgers was not a life time career, but he was equal parts embarrassed and proud that his sister came to see him and brought me with her. I later heard that he had followed his older brother into the military. And then, with my heart in my throat, I heard that both brothers were in Iraq.

So it was a shock but not a surprise when I got 2 emails. One from a friend of a friend alerting me to the first news about Daniel and then the one from his sister. It was simple, factual, sent to many friends and family. Daniel had been hit by an IED--a tidy acronym that belies the power and the anger behind its creation. "An IED is an improvised explosive device," my daughter explains. "Why don't they just call it a bomb?" my grandson asks. Seeing the tears in my eyes, my daughter tries to deflect the question, but it is a good one and like so many others, deserves a good answer. A better one than I can give it.

Someone's brother, son, daughter, uncle, cousin, friend, or workmate applied their creativity to manufacture something to wound, maim, or kill as many other humans as possible. And Daniel in an instant was converted from a brother to a target. According to my friend's email, the IED caused damage to "his legs, shoulder, neck and head and he has been in and out of surgery for the past two days. The head injury caused him to have a small stroke. The doctors tested his ability to move arms, legs, etc. and everything seems fine. Daniel is currently in the hospital in Germany and it looks like they will be flying the family out. He is currently in a drug induced coma and is in stable condition."

She asked for prayers and to be remembered. I wholeheartedly send my prayers for Daniel and his family and friends and all the people in harm's way in that terrible conflict. Whatever comfort I had in the distance of the war has now been lost to me. Perhaps only when each and every family has been touched directly will we be able to bring them all home. I hope not.

How Terrorists Saved Amtrak

I have tried for years to support trains in the US usually with abysmal results. I was on a train that was 23 hours late, I had a friend get a concussion from the rough ride over the tracks on the supposedly successful route from New York to Philadelphia. Thus, Amtrak did not come to mind for a trek from Chicago to Indianapolis. Until the airlines went a step too far.

I am still an American. I have a blue passport. I talk midwestern standard. I move faster than Europeans and require more interpersonal distance, and so I thought I understood Americans. I thought it would be simple to flight from Chicago to Indianapolis. My blue passport, midwestern standard dialect, and American bank account were scunnered by a foreign billing address.

Travelocity, American Airlines on phone and online, and United Airlines online all refuse to accept a card that has a billing address outside the United States. After many annoying conversations and frustrating gaps in responses, I turned to Amtrak. They have an automated operator whose artificial intelligence worked better than that of the carbon-based life forms. The conversations with the carbon units reminded me of two of my most annoying phrases:

1. This is really for your protection...
2. I even asked a supervisor if there was anything we could do.
Now I could have used someone else's charge card or gone to the counter and paid in cash. But on top of not being able to cope with a foreign mailing address, the airlines required me to be at the airport an hour and a half in advance of my one-hour flight and charged me $10 extra per ticket for the privilege of talking to a human who told me my tickets were confirmed and then left me hanging in limbo waiting for e tickets that did not arrive. On top of that the tickets would have cost nearly $400.
And on Amtrak I can knitting needles on board with me.