Saturday, June 30, 2007

"He'll be fair missed."

My husband was in Inverness when the funeral took place. I did not think it was right to go alone, nor, to tell the truth, did I quite have the courage. And so two days after the funeral we are in the living room where I had several good conversations with her husband and herself. We talk briefly about the last days and reminisce a bit, but that brings too much sadness into the room. We have come to help fill the empty places where her husband used to be. Her daughter arrives and I listen to the stories of growing up on the farm. She lives down south now with her husband. He is in town with friends when we arrive but joins us later.

The grandaughter teeters between curiosity and retreat in the face of so many strange adults. She conquers shyness, at her mother's urging, to come into the room and make a proper greeting and then she hovers within sound but of sight for most of the conversation.

Her son, his father's namesake comes with his wife. He has his father's love of politics. We talk about the war. As with all Scots, he begins tentatively out of respect for my accent but once I make my allegiances clear, he settles into a shared lament over the war and the sad refrain of one hopeless war after another. "Why didn't more people of my generation speak up? We should have remembered," I sadly shake my head. Two young Scots soldiers were coming home in coffins as I offered up this lament.

By now there are no chairs left in her small sitting room. The warm room has gotten even warmer with all the people and the conversation. We are startled to disocver when we leave that it is nearly 11 o'clock. Very late for calling and very late for us to be out, but it has given comfort and chased the silence out of the corners of the room for now.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Crossing the Literary Rubicon

I have crossed my personal literary Rubicon by sending an article to a writing competition. It is, after all, only 2000 words. But then the Rubicon was a very small stream. It is not, I would argue, the size of the crossing but the fact of the crossing.

Caesar (the first one, Julius, the general formerly known as Octavian) crossed the Rubicon with an army. In so doing, he doomed thousands of years of school children to his bad grammar. His famous Gallia est omnis divisa est in tres partes was bad Latin to describe an attempt about as ill-fated as the partitioning of subsequent countries to isolate good guys and bad guys. His crossing also meant the end of a republic, or at least so we were told in Latin class, and we all know to beware the ides of March ("Cave ides martium") except the calendar has changed so much since then that no one remembers exactly when the Ides of March occur.

I certainly have no such grand expectations for my humble crossing, but it did take an army to get me across the stream. My daughter, a real writer, gave me wonderful comments about which piece to work on in the way some daughters might help pick a dress for a big night out along with boundless encouragement. My husband offered good suggestions, too, and solicited comments from passersby. Blog pals, the discipline of writing (nearly) every day, and a writer's group meeting around a table on a Wednesday night all helped bring me to the Rubicon. With all this behind me, I took the plunge and managed to get 2000 words safely confined on a page and looking good enough to send out into the world, or at least to the judges who can look at my anonymous submission.

Now having had a cast of characters get me this far, it looked as if the whole campaign was to be scunnered by a sudden 24 hour postal strike just at the time of the deadline. Once again, my army rallied behind me. I emailed the article to my husband who happened to be in Inverness. He got a friend to print it out and then he hand delivered it to the address in Inverness and paid the entrance fee of £5. This last fact is worth noting because my husband, being a Scot, must have thought it daft to pay someone to read your writing, but as a good soldier, he did it without question.

This much ado about 2000 words is to say thanks to everyone (even those who did so unwittingly) who helped get me to the Rubicon and to explain why the blog posts have been a bit sparse lately.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Return of the Prodigal Cat

It was just a lucky glance that I caught Gnomie out of the corner of my eye three days ago. I had already given Solomon and Sheba their dinner, but the sight of Gnomie sent me out to bring fresh robes and roast the fatted calf, or the farm cat equivalent of that. It was lucky that I was there because apparently Sheba has been watching Meerkat Manor and felt the need to tell Gnomie that she had strayed from the group. A quick jab to the head and a little snarling was almost enough to send Gnomie off again, but I persisted and so she stayed.

I explained to Sheba that, like the prodigal's older brother, she had always had my affection and all the cat food she could eat. The lesson, I fear, was lost on her, but then the prodigal son is a difficult lesson for us all.

The three cats swirled one into each other again as in the old days-head tail tail head tail tangling and untangling and sometimes twining my legs into the midst. The pieces of dry cat food rattled into the empty griddle pan used as their feeding dish, and Gnomie was all business for a bite or two, but then bobbing her head anxiously to look up at me and then sidewise to Sheba. Solomon did not seem to factor into her worries at all.

I went back into the house and let the cats sort themselves out. Shortly after that I saw Gnomie in the hedge in front of the house with Solomon behind her. Perhaps she has kittens stashed in the hedge. As secretive as she is, I will see them only by invitation.

The next night Gnomie came to the window to tell me she was ready for dinner. I leapt up and all three cats followed me to the dairy maid's cottage. Tonight I must confess I lingered downstairs in the hopes of seeing her in the window. I was delighted to leave the evening news behind when Gnomie showed up.

I struggled to understand the parable of the prodigal son. It did seem reasonable for the elder brother to be resentful of his young brother's apparent rewards for bad behavior. A marvelous book by Henri Nouwen about the prodigal son and Gnomie helped me understand it as the joy of finding that which has been lost.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Consolation of Good Intentions

"You really don't have to try to keep one more crow," he said with the patience in his voice barely covering the disdain for crow. My husband has a more clearly defined distinction between good guys and bad guys. Crows are unequivocally on the bad guy side. They will peck the eyes out of newborn lambs and eat their tongues. They will clog chimneys and infest the stockpile of grain. I know all this, but the dramatis personae on the farm is not as clear cut for me.

"I wasn't trying to save it," I vainly explain, "I just didn't think it was fair play to have two, well-fed cats hunting a lame crow." I was on shaky ground with this explanation because he is still only half convinced that feeding the cats is acceptable, but he is patient with me and protective as well. Farm life on the edge of the Pentland Firth often leaves me dangerously short of energy. I can see my husband watching me protectively out of the corner of his eye and more actively chiding me, "Where are your gloves? Your hands are as cold as ice." Once energy is lost either through a broken heart or too much cold and grey, it is difficult to get it back again.

All that played in the back of my mind as I gardened with my two rescued cats inside the walled garden. I checked the newly planted trees against the backdrop of the aging sycamore and ash trees. I waged a desultory war gainst nettles and bishop's weed and stood for a moment taking in the peppery sweet fragrance of lupins mixed with the soft sweet odor of stock. I noticed first that Sheba went stiff and hunkered down and then brother Solomon joined her in that hunting stance. This was not the play hunting they often occupy themselves with while I garden. Instead of mock battle with weed stalks and clumps of dirt, this posture was in earnest.

I followed the line of their gaze and heard the flutter of wings beneath the aging trees in the darkest corner of the walled garden. Having seen the cats destroy a house martin in a few moments, I, too sprang into action now. "Sheba, no." Cats are never very good at coming when called, and half-wild Sheba knows her food comes as much from her own efforts as from my feeding her. She does not even hear me let alone think whether to respond. I don't even try with Solomon, now crouching close behind his sister, but I try vainly to distract them both by interposing myself between the flutter and the hunting pair. By now I am close enough to see that is the same hopping crow that I had seen by the barn a few days ago. The crow had made it to the comparative safety of the trees and the walled garden. It didn't seem right for this crow to lose his fierce struggle for life.

I picked up a dry remnant of a branch to interpose between cat and crow. The crow just needed a little more time. He was cornered but managed to get up the wall. In a mad flurry of ambition his weakened wings took him to the top of the wall. Sheba was over the branch and nearly onto the crow. They both tumbled over the wall and I began resigning myself to the inevitable as I walked back out from under the trees.

On the other side of the wall was an ear splitting clatter of wings and cawing as Sheba was mobbed by all the crows within hearing of the lame crow's distress call. My sense of victim began to shift. Sheba shot back over the wall with nothing in her mouth and her tail slung low. She hurried back into the protection of the walled garden and her brother and me. I collected her and calmed her down and noticed a tiny beak-sized scratch dangerously near her eye. In a few breaths, we settled into our more usual routine and the crow and the epic battle on the wall was forgotten.

The next morning Solomon was at the back door to greet me. Sheba joined him and we all went to the cottage for their breakfast of store-bought cat food. When I came back, I saw the crow. I have no doubt it was the same one. At first I was struck by the glossy black beauty of the feathers. Because it was still I could see them in detail. It was lying upside down with tail and outspread wings against the wall of the house, head and chest on the damp ground of the close, its body making an awkward angle that only death could impose. In the middle of the shiny black chest was a single spot of red where the inside of the bird was revealed. It conjured in my mind those sacred heart of Jesus pictures.

I turned into the house. I would bury it later. I did not have the heart to face it just now. I was glad my husband was not there to see my disappointment. I accept nature red in tooth and claw and I cannot mourn long for one less crow in this world, but neither could I have stood impassive. If I had not saved Solomon and Sheba when their mother was taken from them--perhaps by a crow--then that crow might still be flapping about under the trees waiting for his feathers to grow back so that he could fly again. It is a cherished notion that we set in motion chains of causality with us at the center. We need to think that from time to time we are in charge. But cats, crows, lupins, and calves all slip in and out of our hands and all we can offer or aspire to is our intentions. I meant well with the crow in the garden and the kittens in the barn and that has to be enough.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Grass Mountain and Shooting Barley

My heart was a bit heavier than usual and sank further when the morning emails brought disheartening news about people I care about. Not devastating, OhmyGod altogether unexpected news but, as a friend used to say when our work world went to hell in a handbasket--"sub optimal."

I looked for cheer from the cats, but they were nowhere to be found. The sermon at church was perfectly fine, but did not manage to lift my heart appreciably, but the newfound rhythms of the farm helped me get my equilibrium back.

This is the silage season. Because the cattle cannot be in the field with the grass in the winter, we bring the grass to them. Because cattle eat a lot of grass, this means collecting the bounty of the green fields in June and making a mountain of grass. This mountain is kept under plastic tarps that are weighted down with tires to keep the grass away from air and moisture.
Building the mountain is an art form and a competition and a race against time. If the grass is not in the right condition when it is stored, there is a risk that it will develop mold or harmful bacteria. It can get too hot and smolder and burn. Getting in the silage is both labor and equipment intensive, so there is competition for resources. There is also compettion for bragging rights, although my husband would balk at the idea that well-mannered farmers ever boast. "Got your silage done yet?" is a classic opener in the butcher's shop or at the post office.
And of course we are always watching the weather.
The silage got cut yesterday. The rain held off. Today they lifted the cut grass in a choreography of "nose to tail": .trucks move alongside the giant vacuum cleaner so that as soon as one truck is full, it tears away to the mountain site while the other truck pulls up so that vacuum cleaner does not miss a beat on its tour around the field. The speed at which these truck (lorry) loads move belies the volume until the mountain manifests itself.
The first time I watched this mountain creation with fascination. I rode into the fields with my husband and he explained it to me. Now I take comfort in its familiar rhythms as I hear the trucks outside racing up and down the farm road while we are safely tucked inside.
On the way home from church my husband pointed out the barley is shooting--creating the seed heads that make the grain for the cattle to eat. The sight of the barley bursting out from its green waves and the steady pounding of the lorries comforted me. Tomorrow I'll walk through the fields and let the bristly awns brush against my hand on my way down to the sea.Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Another Caithness Story

I promised in my opening post to try to capture the lifestyle of this place where fortune has landed me. Today I characterized living in Caithness as like a marriage--the very things that attracted you can also be the very things that annoy you the most. On a good day, I love the fact that I can walk into a Woolworths and buy an Everly brothers CD. On a bad day, the fact that one of the largest stores in town is a Woolworths with many things reminiscent of the 1950s is acutely frustrating.

I was having this conversation with the woman who owns the bike store over my purchase of a bike pump. That is another thing in Caithness that you have to love or to hate. Shopping can rarely be done in a hurry because each purchase involves at least a little conversation. Today's conversation offered a particular treasure.

When I mentioned that I was going next door to the Whats It shop (its real name) for a basket to use while shopping, I got this wonderful story about Caithness. Years ago when there were many Americans here and Woolworths was younger, a woman lived above Woolworths with her American serviceman husband. This woman loved baskets and rabbits. She was "mad as a taffy apple" and loved to take her rabbits riding on her bike in their specially made baskets. Neither my friend nor her husband could recall the woman's name, but they missed her when she moved on as so many of the wives of American servicemen did. I hope that the people of Cleveland or Dubuque or wherever she landed cherished her and her rabbits as much as they did here.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Fog on the Windowsill

I have seen fog slide over the shore and collect in the low spots of the hills, but now I have seen fog creep all the way up to the windowsill. It feels animate and solid as if I might open the window and pat it on its head. It has, after all, followed me around the steading.

When I called the cats back from their wanderings to the cottage for their dinner, it was there swirling above the roof, coy, I thought, out of reach of teeth and claws. It seemed even to have dampened the chorus of crows and swallowed the pesky gull that often hovers above the garden walls.

It very kindly concealed the remnants of the kitchen garden that make me sigh with their incompleteness every time I walk past. It swaddled the new trees planted in the garden struggling in the shadows of their senescent kin. The aspen now has a few green leaves large enough to quake in the protected winds within the walled garden. The anonymous Acer (some form of maple) that I brought home in a styrofoam cup from the stoop of the charity shop has one leaf waving like a miniature Canadian flag in the soft still moist air of the perennial bed it shares with the peonies, lupins, and nettles. The horse chestnut and the alder, too, are holding their own within the protecting walls of the garden--both the walls of stone and of soft moist air.

As with the blanketing fog, I am learning to live with nettles. I have much in common with their nolo tangere attitude, their love of rich dark earth, and their usefulness once you have won through their sting.

Unlike T.S. Eliot's yellow fog for Prufrock*, this fog is the gift of the sea and the lochs and the lochans and the secret rivers of the peat bogs. And so it, too, must be treasured.

*From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot. I got this stanza from I have admired this poem and this metaphor since I first met up with it in Miss Bush's English class in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Tea Kettles and Blue Shoes

Sunday the air was so filled with moisture that it had the effect of living under a blanket tent. For a while it was comforting but all too soon it began to cloy. Monday the sky lifted a bit but I wandered bumping against the edges of a too large, too cold, too dark, too empty house. I filled my day with tasks and chores and trundled on with my spirit clattering along somewhere behind me.

Today despite a lowering sky, I took myself out of the house and immediately began to feel better. As I walked purposefully to the shopping precinct in town with tea kettle, halogen bulbs and anything to help organize the house on my mind, a pair of red and blue shoes with flowers on them caught my eye.

I dropped off two bags of miscellaneous household goods at the local charity shop and then rewarded myself with a cup of coffee and a leisurely read of the weekly local paper in a corner cafe. My eye landed on an obituary--not the kind of notice published by the family but an article about a woman who had recently died. My heart thumped because I did not want to believe that the woman whose funeral had been a celebration of her life was the woman I knew. I read the article twice and knew finally what my eyes had known as soon as they stopped to admire the blues shoes in the window.

I never knew her last name. To me she was "May, you know the artist", or "Denise's mom". Denise is a friend of my husband's. We called on them one afternoon when I had been here not too long. Denise showed me her mother's studio and the colors struck me right away. Her studio and bedroom overlooked the garden and the ocean but the colors inside were a garden unto themselves. I smile even now recalling it.

May was out walking the dogs and then joined us for coffee when she came back. She was trim and erect and had the pent up energy of a much much younger person. At the time I met her, she was 90 years old and wearing a pair of jeans and sandals. She had managed to avoid the perils of all those years with grace and energy. I met her again once or twice. She and Denise and I chatted one day over coffee. We always spoke of getting together but somehow it never happened, but whenever we ran into each other we enjoyed a bit of conversation.

May fell one night. She took a tumble down the stairs from her studio and landed hard. Her collarbone was broken and she had a massive shiner, but the worst part of the fall for her was that she could not do her work. During her convalescence, I knitted a red and blue scarf that I thought she could use to help with the weight of her cast. It was the colors I had seen in her studio. Her arm healed. She was able to work again and to get around, but unbeknownst to any of us, the colors in her had leaked out through the broken places. Even if we had known, I don't think we could have done anything about it. Where the colors leaked out, age rushed in.

The last time I saw May, her daughter had left her briefly in a local bookstore while she hastily did a couple errands. Her mother could no longer do things on her own she explained as she hurried off. I rearranged my own errands to detour to say hello to May. She did not recognize me at first though she was happy to see me. I reminded her about the red and blue scarf. The colors connected us. She smiled, we talked, her daughter returned and they were off. When I read the notice today I consoled myself about missing her funeral with the memory of that last brief meeting. May had seemed fine then, but she spoke of her inability to do things and clearly that limited perspective chafed. Her bright world had gone lackluster.

The newspaper article said that May had taught the Queen Mother how to dance a progressive Gay Gordon, a social dance where partners move around in a circle for an opportunity to dance with new people-- a kind of ice breaker. I like to see that in my mind's eye--the homey dowager queen and the artist twirling in the living room at the Castle of Mey.

Art and color and our hunger for them in our lives stay nicely tucked into the bottom of our hierarchy of needs--below shelter, food, and tea kettles until we no longer have them. Today I got my tea kettle and I will get those blue shoes and dance at least one Gay Gordon in memory of May.