Monday, July 30, 2007

Adrift on an Inland Sea

Word has come to us indirectly that a family in the village has a loved one who had to be taken to Inverness for a crisis in the invisible universe of their mind. If you have never experienced this with a friend or family member yourself, then take a moment to be grateful. If you have, then your heart has already sent a sympathy card to them and wrapped a scarf around your shoulders to keep away the chill of the memory.

The crisis that means the secret pain has burst the familial walls often comes quickly, but that no longer secret pain has revealed itself in sly ways like an unusual wave on an otherwise calm surface or a rock that might be a seal off shore. We only ever have brief glimpses of our loved one's inland sea. If they choose to sail away from us on that sea, then we can only hope that the weather stays fair, their harbors are safe, and that they may some day come back to us.

"Just because someone is lost to you does not mean that they are lost." I run these words through my mind like worry beads through my fingers. They calm me but they cannot ease the grief of the memories of all those in my own life who have drifted out on their own inland seas. Some have come back. I am doubly grateful for their return, but for those still adrift I breathe another prayer of peacefulness and try to calm the white caps on my own inland sea.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Venison, Vampires, and Chocolate

Four years ago I was a vegetarian. Tonight I dithered between the venison or the lamb on the menu at our regular without skipping a beat. We have not been to our regular or any of our other haunts for many weeks. Morris and I have spent the last six days picking up the threads of our regular routine. It feels a bit like waking up from a nap or returning all the colour in a landscape that had gone sepia toned. I am glad to feel the colour and the shape of our life returning.

Conversation over the venison includes pieces of his trip to Helmsdale to see Alex Salmond dedicate a statue to emigrants, my day in town, and my current assignment from writing group: vampires. I did not read the Lestat series, but I was belatedly hooked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and my childhood knowledge includes all the Dracula films. Even so, I might have balked at the assignment if I had not been emboldened by a draft of a novel from my daughter. I enjoyed reading it immensely and allowed it to loosen the hinges of my writerly gates. I managed 1500 words in a single session this morning, but I knew that only chocolate could give me the energy to keep it going.

Red wine and chocolate sustained me for 6 weeks of writing a long, complex proposal for the money to keep open the doors of the high tech start up where I was working. I wonder briefly if I could keep that pace again? So much has changed since those days. But for tonight the chocolate needs only fuel my muse sufficiently to get Doris of the living dead on to her next adventure.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

My Own Tell Tale Heart

I have not been spending much time with the cattle lately. Especially since it is such a new skill for me, I need the practice. Spending time with the cattle means that you know them and they know you a bit more. This mutual understanding can make things a bit easier when you have to ask them to move. The familiarity for me also means that my nerves are a bit more accustomed to the size of the cattle and the steady gaze in which they decide whether to go as you have suggested or to run over or through you.

Cattle, like Bartleby the Scrivener or any of your favorite cats, still do only what it is they really want to do. The trick, as always, is to make them believe that they want to do what you want them to do.

Nine cattle are going off today. While the steading is still in the quiet early morning waking up period, the call comes that the lorry is on the way. Morris and I are alone on the farm. "Do you want me to boot up?" I ask over porridge, willing to help but heart sinking fast at the prospect.


My heart sinks even lower and I look for warm socks to put inside my boots: another aspect of the magical thinking that has been a near constant companion for the past several months. If only I have warm socks, then everything will be fine.

As if I needed to be reminded what the mass of a beast in motion can do, Morris points out the remnants of a steel gate that apparently came between a cattle beast and his ambition to be elsewhere. The cattle come willingly into the large, airy room of the big barn and stay there despite the remnants of the gate behind them and the little human fencerow of Morris and myself behind them. I know it is important to look confident and to stand close enough to dissuade them from going back, but by this time my heart is pounding so loudly that I am sure that they can hear it and know that I am just a flimsy excuse for a fencepost between them and the sunshine outside.

Morris indicates that I should move forward. I take the kind of cautious step that we used when we played "Red Light Green Light" on the playground. I watch the leader of this little bunch, a wily red steer that can easily persuade the group to turn or to stay, even more closely than I watched the leader on the playground. Red Steer looks at me and at Morris and then back at me. While doing my best to convince Red Steer that I am a sturdy fencepost, I am also keeping one eye on the heifer lingering in an awkward spot in the angle of a gate. When the bunch decides to go through the narrow opening in front of them, which I sincerely hope they will decide to do very soon, this heifer will have to back up to join them. I have to be in a spot close enough to keep her going forward but far enough way for her to feel comfortable backing up.

Red Steer looks once more over his shoulder and pivots in a kind of pirouette and then pushes his way through the narrow gate. The others follow him as if they were beads on a string. The heifer backs up and quickly joins them.

Now the cattle are on the slats where there are gates and better still someone else has arrived. I fade back into the house and realize that the pounding in my ears has subsided enough that I can hear again.

Friday, July 20, 2007

A Real Book Store

Mallaig, a fishing village that has survived the decline of the herring industry, is nestled into the hill around the sea on the western edge of Scotland. You can reach it by train ---either a resurrected steam train or a regular train through some breathtaking scenery. We drove from Ft. William and enjoyed the same scenery as the train riders and a CD given to us by one of Morris's new friends.

I liked the eclectic mix of people in Mallaig: "walkers, yachties, trampers, et cet." as the billboard implies. There were also visitors there from Scandinavia and England and other parts of Europe. Most folks there were hiking or yachting or biking, so it had a healthy outdoorsy feel to it, but it also had a great little book store.

I am not a book snob, but the quasi books in the hospital gift shops left me cold. They were glossy-covered, air bulked pages that seem to me to have the same relationship to books as Twinkies have to food. (For British readers: Twinkies are vaguely akin to a cream-filled sponge except that it is not really cream nor really a sponge).

So, real books are an important part of what makes a proper book store, but you also need to have people there who like books and the ideas in them and the people who read them and write them. The large chain bookstores of my old neighborhood in Indiana could manage some of the ingredients but never all of them, so I often went to the bookstore and got a good coffee and conversation but left empty handed because in all the sea of books they did not have any real books.

This scrufty converted shed or former vehicle had the makings of a real book store first for the books, of course. On my first visit, I had found a new book by Alexander McCall Smith, part of the Canongate series on myths. I had read Margaret Atwood's retelling of the Ulysses story, so this was a double treat--a favorite author and an intriguing project. Smith was retelling a Celtic myth--Dream Angus. It was such a great read that I had finished it in a day and had come back to see what other treasures the store held. As I dawdled in a corner looking for short stories and finding other things--unfamiliar names and titles among the more usual collections of essays and biographies and guides for the walkers, I overheard a man checking out with a book that had been his second choice. "Is this a good one?" he asked the store manager. "Well," the manager replied, "for what it's worth, Americans like it." "Yeah, for what it's worth," the man replied.

Like most ex pats, I do not actively seek out fellow countrymen. Frankly, sometimes I am embarrassed at the things Americans say or do. Sometimes I just prefer to melt into the crowd when I hear American accents, but for some reason this time I did neither of those. From the back of the book store--not even stopping to feel awkwardly self conscious of speaking loudly or directly, I said "Some of us actually like literature." I emerged from the shadows to discover that the bookstore manager, the customer, and his son were all blushing. "And we actually do read." The customer pulled his book out of the bag as if in a peace offering, "So what do you think of this, then?" He revealed Alexander Mcall Smith's now very famous Ladies No.1 Detective Agency. "Brilliant, " I said. "My daughter bought the first two for me, but later volumes were published first over here, so I made myself a hero by buying them here and taking them to the States for all my friends." He was smiling now but still seemed too embarrassed at having been caught out to join into a real conversation about books.

He and his son disappeared to catch their train. I put my own purchase (The Scots Quair) down for the bookstore manager and noticed that he too was still blushing. I make a Monty Python reference, which I think translates well on both sides of the Atlantic, "Just like the Spanish inquisition, no one ever expects an American.."

"Well, I didn't say anything too bad about Americans," he seems really worried, but I am much too eager to talk about books to notice. I tell him about McCall Smith's other books--Dream Angus and the three humorous novels that I read while waiting for another in the series of the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency and add that I never got quite interested enough to read his books on forensic medicine.

By this time he has recovered enough to talk a little bit about books, but it was not the kind of conversation in a book store that I would have hoped for.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Pink Sneakers, Heathered Hope and Uphill Walking

I found these shoes in Inverness on a sale rack for £5. Although I am not usually a pink person, I found them irrestible. Their sturdy rubber soles and matter of fact laces were just like the Keds of my childhood. When I wore my Keds, I felt invincible. I was convinced that I could climb any hill or outrun any of the boys on the block. Even after I knew better, I still believed in the magic of such shoes to lighten spirits and steps, and I have been much in need of both spirit and step lightening. I'll explain a bit more about that in some other posts. I am running behind time because the weight of things had flattened me so that I could not write or knit--two of the things that almost always help me get my rhythm back. It goes without saying that I was not eating or sleeping very well either.

When I confided to a friend back in Indiana that I felt as if I had been on an uphill climb for a long, long time, she assured me that I was a great one for uphill walking. She cited examples of things we had done together as evidence of that. The things she mentioned had not felt like uphill walking because I had not been alone back then. Even so, my friend has the heart of a lion and the faith to will herself back to walking when MS tried to slow her down. No matter how I felt, I did not want to disappoint her, so I found the courage to keep putting one foot in front of the other, which sometimes is enough. That led me to the pink Keds.

Morris has this uncanny knack of finding friends wherever he goes. I met 'the other Morris' as he was known and Roddy and radiography technicians. Roddy, the two Morrises, and I talked about Steinbeck and The Scots Quair, which I had just bought in a marvelous little bookstore in a quirky corner of Scotland (more about that, too, in another post), while they waited their turns for treatment: a brief respite to remember more than the vagaries of our physical selves.

In between treatments and conversations with his newfound friends, Morris and I had a weekend together in the open air. We had not been for a run in the country for more than two months, and the weather obliged us. We went to Mallaig and then over to the Isle of Skye on a ferry. The heather was in full bloom and punctuated the broad green-brown-grey hills with its purple smile. I managed to get not only a reasonable photo of heather in bloom but also to have words come flowing back into my head along with the scent of the heather. An entire story flew into the window and has lingered with me. Even if I do not write it down, I am gratified to have words back dancing in my head.

Before I left for Inverness, I had a phone call from the library here in town. I still struggle to understand phone conversations, so I had only the gist to go on: "library", "book you might be interested in". I was so delighted to be thought of that I thanked her and looked forward to the book no matter what it was. Today I picked it up and discovered that it is a truly inspiring knitting book, so I expect to be back at my needles, too.

Posted by Picasa

Monday, July 09, 2007

Exploring the Mysteries of the 3-Point Turn

I have learned how to drive on the wrong side of the road. It still feels a bit awkward some times, but I no longer make errors. However, due to the vagaries of the bureaucracy in a more Euro-centric UK, I can no longer simply exchange my US license for a UK one. That would not seem irritating except that the only provision for licenses other than ones you simply exchange are for non drivers, particularly 17 year olds.

That oversight sets up the paradox that I could drive here legally with my US license for at least a year, but the minute that I got my Provisional License, the first rung on the ladder to becoming a fully licensed UK driver, I could no longer drive solo. I have been riding with husband or friends or colleagues in tow. When that was not feasible, I have resorted to my bike and walking and a quixotic schedule of buses.

I am also taking driving lessons. Why am I taking driving lessons if I can drive? Well, first of all to learn the proper British way of doing things--do not cross over your hands on the steering wheel. Do not shift down through the gears to slow your car down. Do not signal if there is no one to see your signal unless you are at an intersection in which case you signal regardless of whether anyone can see--a bit like Plato's tree in the woods, I think. Oh, and make sure you are checking your mirrors every 10-15 seconds and that you are "covering your clutch"--keeping your foot poised on it but without putting any weight on it. All those years of my brother telling me to keep my foot away from the clutch are hard to break, especially since my brother would frequently rap me on my head if my foot got as close as that.

The piece de resistance of the driving test, however, is the three-point turn or, in the coded message I have been told the examiner will give me, "Park here. Turn the car so that it is facing in the other direction." Without the insights from my instructor I would not have known that I must proceed using only the clutch to advance at a crawling speed--"not a walking speed" my instructor emphasizes, "a crawling speed." I must steer only when the car is moving-crawling-- along and of course I do not signal.

Today in my lesson I got two "goods" written into my book for my TIRs--turn in the road. I have made a lot of 'K' turns, as Americans call them, in my many years as a driver. I don't recall crawling with any of them. I also struggle to know exactly when I will use this skill. Even my instructor conceded that the reason for including this was hard for him to understand, but as in so many things, he is teaching to the test, which is the other reason that I am taking lessons. I want to pass the practical exam.

Just to put the lie to the notion that there is no merit in practicing these TIRs, however, I had the pleasure of executing a supremely fine example with the ride-on mower in the garage. I urged it forward at a crawl, turned the steering wheel to its fullest, carefully checked around me, and began reversing and steering. She responded with all the grace of a wide-bodied, slow moving tortoise but she flirted up to the garbage can without touching, rolled to the edge of the paint can without even a slight touch and then out onto the patio-like area known here as the close and up the sagging plywood ramp into the former tennis lawn. Now if only I could figure out how to lower the blades, I could actually do something with all that skill and knowledge.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Dancing Like I Belong

After yesterday's carry on I am feeling fragile. I have not slept well. BBC News 24 provides neither white noise or intellectual engagement. I wander through a cold, too empty house hemmed in by fog and heavy damp air that seems to make every breath a challenge. In this state, I know only too well that I am prone to acute homesickness, but even with my sensors on, it hits me hard when I read a friend's blog about cicadas. The cicadas have had their 17-year cycle and in that reading I develop a crick in my neck as I lean in to hear the annoying whine-whir of their frantic lifespan. I ache to feel the heat of a summer evening rolling up from the baked pavement as I walk to a coffee shop or bookstore.

In the vacuum of that ache comes the question: what am I doing here so far from cicadas and coffee shops and bookstores and sun baked sidewalks and corn stalks rattling in the moonlight?

"Connect to those things that first attracted you" to this new life comes the antidote voice.

I pop a CD of lively Scottish music purchased from a fresh-faced young Orkney girl who explained that she is part of the school group whose music I heard in the tourist shop. As I purchase the CD, I promise to listen especially to the violin, her instrument. The CD had been lost in the car which is being traded in. Like the prodigal cat and the would-be errant laptop case, this CD has come back to me just in time.

The first chords galvanize my fragmented self: a faint smile unites my rising spirit and my feet move with a bit more animation. I can now face the dishes in the sink and the laundry that needs shifting. Although the house is still a desperate case, the music bouncing out of the little pink CD player from Woolies in the corner of the kitchen is a lifeline, an umbilical cord, a unifying theme for the little girl with brown eyes who became the weekend folk dancer as a teenager and a dance gypsy later in life and then a Scottish dancer.

Dancing is an integral part of life up here. Ceilidhs ("kay lees") can be social occasions without music or without dancing, but a ceildih dance is fairly common. Some of the dances, like some of the words, were almost familiar as I struggled to learn the new steps. I also struggled to remember how to dance with a partner. Dancing with a partner, for me, is an act of faith. I once loved a man with whom I created beautiful waltzes. When that waltzing ended, I never expected to dance that way again. Stray cats hiss when good things happen to them either because they can't believe that something good is happening, or, that it will last. Apparently I had felt more like a stray cat than I wanted to admit.

The day I received my Indefinite Leave to Remain stamped onto my passport, we were scheduled to go to a ceilidh--a dancing ceilidh. Perhaps it was the little addition to my blue passport that had the effect of Dumbo's magic feather: Dumbo could fly; I could dance. My husband and I flowed around the room and twirled in the close symmetry of couples on the tops of old-fashioned music boxes.

In between dances we talked with people that I genuinely knew. By the time the last band set up to play, the dance floor was pretty much empty. The music was one of those irrestible Irish tunes--lively to the point of manic with complex rhythms that range from fast to faster. I persuaded my husband on to the dance floor, but as the tempo picked up, he simply said, "Go for it." I demurred only for an instant and then the music took hold. I danced without thinking whether I belonged or not. When I finished, the band applauded; the people around the room applauded and our friends teased us.

All that came tumbling out of the tinny speakers of my little pink Woolies CD player to lift the heavy damp air and remind me why I was here.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

I Learn the True Meaning of 'Carry on'

The British are famous for their ability to carry on through difficult times. The tenacity of the country during the bombing is the classic example. That stiff upper lip thing.

They are also noted for some wacky humour in a series of movies with 'Carry On' titles. I have seen one. The humour is broad farce a la Benny Hill with some of the same kind of dialogue that makes Americans laugh at Airplane, no matter how many times they have seen it.

But 'carry on' also means a lot of needless bother or an annoyance or a tempest in a teapot. Today I learned that meaning.

The day started well. The weather looked promising if not good at the start. The morning news, which I watched in bed, brought no disasters--no one had rammed a flaming SUV into an airport, no more villages were flooded out, Alan Johnston was still safe and well. On top of it all, there was a possibility of good enough weather at Wimbledon to allow some matches to be played.

But then it went downhill. I have this unfortunate habit of keeping going sometimes when I should just sit down and be still. I had several of those unfortunate moments strung together so that I convinced myself that the laptop with my wallet (with passport) and cell phone and camera had been stolen. I went into a controlled meltdown. Let me just say first that I found everything. It was in the last place you look: tangled up in my blankie.

OK, am I the only pensioner with a blankie? I didn't have one as a child, but this faded yellow honeycomb mesh of acrylic provides a much needed extra layer of warmth for my American central heating spoiled bones. The comforter alone is not enough for the nights here, which, even in July, can be pretty doggone cold. When I looked for the laptop on the bed, I looked on the bed and under it and around it but not swathed in my blanket.

So losing and finding something would be a kerfluffle. To be a carry on requires first calling neighbors (tearfully) saying that laptop has been stolen and then calling police (again or still tearfully) and then cancelling bank cards (still tearfully) and then spending about two hours with the police and just shortly before the very kind officer has filled his entire notebook with my plaintive description of all the lost items and their sentimental value, discovering the lap top.

Tomorrow has got to be better.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Vikings in the Harbor

These men came from Norway to Scotland in this boat, which has no motor. If the wind wasn't blowing, they used the oars. They slept on deck. We met Hakkan, their captain, who was a very cheery person. When he heard my Scandinavian-sounding surname, he said "something or other something or other Norsk?" So I could shake my head no, assuming he asked something like 'do you speak Norwegian' or 'are you Norwegian'? If he was asking something else, I might have caused an international incident, so I made sure I smiled as I replied.

This boat was my favorite of the old time boats collecting in harbors around the north coast of Scotland as part of a flotilla that is some part of a celebration of Highland Culture 2007. We caught up with them in Lybster, which is a pictuire post card village with a very intersting museum along the harbor. I first visited the museum when I came to Scotland as a tourist. When I came again, I looked up my name in the visitor book. A year can make a big difference. And now another couple years have passed and I am chatting with friends and neighbors while I queue for a cup of tea.

Posted by Picasa