Thursday, January 31, 2008

Portskerra Photos

The day I took these photos, the wind was cold and blowing hard, but the sea was relatively calm and the sun was bright, so the colours were more clearly differentiated. On duller days, the subtle variations of pink gray green brown blue and tints without names are obscured. Even in drab, however, the site is beautiful.
My friend who introduced me to Portkskerra Harbour walk called again and asked if it would be all right for me to pick her up and we could walk to the top and then go to our local and have coffee and a little knit-in. It was just what I needed.
The wind had abated, but the sea was more violent. We walked to the top of the hill above the harbour following what was little more than a sheep track. Sheep may not look all that clever, but they know how to pick out the best paths for climbing hills--provided you have four feet. We made our way to the top and stopped just to breathe in the air and watch the panorama of the sea below.
In the shelter of a ravine between two hills we stopped to watch the waves surging through the rocks which in the photo above seem so calm. As each wave clashed onto the rocks and up into a spout of water and foam, we "oohed and ahed" like spectators at a fireworks display. We watched the waves growing out in the open sea and tried to predict when a big wave would come. We failed, but each wave was spectacular in its own right and created just for us. Not even sheep were there to share the pleasure of the sea with us.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"Under a Kinder Sky"

The sky up here is the face of the weather. It has been cold and grey or rainy, cold and grey or windy and grey with intermittent showers for several days now, and that grey is in the brief interlude where the sun might be expected to shine up here. Everyone's spirits are grey and threatening to unravel.

Yesterday I looked to a lightening in the sky between showers and wanted to read in that face a lightening of the weather. After so many grey damp days, my ambitions for a clear day had dwindled to looking forward to cleaning the algae off the stones by the back door. As we drove home, I asked my husband if we would have a dry day. He looked pensively at the sky and said that it was a kinder sky but he would not say that it was going to be dry.

I was contented to think of it as a kinder sky. The algae will wait.

Today we walked out under that kinder sky. In the morning we walked into one of the fields to look for a water leak and checked on the willow that may soon offer up its catkins. We waded through the mud and noted the greening of the fields here and there and talked with a neighbor. On the way back we stopped in to look at the cattle. All that was possible only because of a kinder sky.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Visionaries and Others

I live in a breathtakingly beautiful part of the world. Alas, the tradeoff in this case for that wonderful scenery is that it can be very hard to make a living here.

I had lunch with the visionary woman who put me to work in the energy efficiency project that she stitched together from different organizations and different funding sources. As a result of her vision and a handful of people who were willing to believe in her, there is a team of 4 people trained specifically in how to address issues of fuel poverty--how to be more energy efficient in the home, how to read meters, understand utility bills, make better consumer and environmental choices, and take charge of their lives or a little part of them. More than 100 homes had been visited when I left the team last year. I imagine by now that has doubled.

In addition to homes helped and 4 jobs created, several volunteers have been trained and given experience to help them into employment either with the project as it expands or in areas of their choosing. Volunteering gave them skills, experience, and confidence both in themselves and in possibilities here. Invaluable gifts.

By contrast, I heard today about two people who are going back south because they or their partners cannot find work up here. It is all too common an occurrence.

I have a deep and abiding fondness for visionaries. I have been described as a hope-full person and one who can see connections that others might not put together. Those are two traits that I share with my friend who created the Energy Project. I have the capacity to believe in the possibilities that they can envision. I recently heard just the end of a folk tale on the radio recently while driving home. The story came to the required happy ending because "a fool had listened to a story that might be true." The wise fool, one of my favorite character types, seems often to be missing up here. There are visionaries here but not enough people to listen to the stories that might be true and so make them come true.

I recently attended a highland council meeting specifically to look at a story that might be true. Many years of planning and research had gone into proposed siting for a wind farm. Despite having been approved by the council's own planning officer, the meeting looked more like an episode from Judge Roy Bean's court than a meeting. Speaker after speaker lined up to say that the wind farm would detract from tourism, cause a decline in property values, forever ruin the landscape and so on. All speculative (for all my visionary leanings, I do require a good argument) and not to the point of the meeting. No one seemed to notice. No one was listening to the story that might be true.

In particular I thought about that today because the wind farm would create 5 full time jobs. If the council had listened, then those folks might not be going back south now.

If you are a visionary, take heart. There are wise fools willing to listen to you. Just keep looking.

If you are not a visionary, then do the world a favor and call up a friend or colleague who tends to be a bit wild eyed for your taste and have a cuppa and just listen as if the story is true. You might decide to believe it and if not, you have at least had a nice cup of coffee.

Burns Night Truths

It is Burns Supper time, so haggis has been on my mind. Haggis, for any of you new to Scottish things, is not an animal. A local butcher likes to have on display in his shop window: "Freshly Shot Haggis" but I think even the few tourists who make their way here know it is a joke.

Haggis these days is not made with the more frugal animal parts as in the past. It tastes more like a meat loaf or the kind of corned beef hash that my mother used to get out of a can sometimes although afficionados may try to say otherwise. That is, advocates for either haggis or corned beef hash are free to tell me that I do not have a subtle enough palate. As a former vegetarian, I had every intention of avoiding it. But I had an unavoidable encounter with haggis on my second trip to Scotland while touring the Highlands with my host who later became my husband.

We were staying in a lovely little hotel whose dining room was limited to the guests staying there. The only item on the menu was--chicken breast with haggis stuffing. I was caught between haggis-avoidance and causing offence to my Scottish host and the hotelier. I was cornered. Fortunately the haggis was quite civilized and tasted much like any other stuffing. I had reached a detente with haggis.

Now when they have a toast to the haggis as part of a Burns night supper, I can cheerfully join in the salute to this admirable little food item and cultural icon, and then eat something else.

I can also confirm, however, that gales do have teeth. The wind gnawed away last night at a loose strand of guttering and the last bit of corrugated iron on the roof top of an old shed. Solomon, the stalwart sergeant of the tabbies clan of farm cats manages to get himself into the house out of the storm. He was sitting on the dining room floor safe and warm and out of the wind. Alas, the rules are clear--no cats in the house, so I bundled him into my coat to protect him from the rain and the teeth of the gale and carried him safely into the dairy maid's cottage.

All five of the tabbies tumbled out of the relative warmth of the garage--a haven halfway between house and cottage where they can wait for me to come out with breakfast for them. The gale has gnawed itself into a relative calm, but I think there will be no venturing far from the house or the cottage today.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

It All Comes Out in the Waltz

After a hectic day with some unexpected events, I was almost too tired to go to our local for the Scottish dancing lessons, but I had promised my friend that I would be there and I am eager to get back the rhythms of this life here, so I took a quick nap and then tried to borrow some energy by listening to the lively upbeat music of my old band, Dog Talk.

The mini nap and the music gave me enough energy to get out the door into the cold and dark for the 6 miles to Halladale Inn. The gracefully winding road has to be traveled especially slowly now because the deer are frequent visitors and they have decided that at night they own the road. A Volvo is no match for a deer, so I accede to their territorial rights and move slowly, watchfully through the night.

The dancing is already in motion when I arrive, but only a few people are there, including my friend. Both she and the dance instructor are happy to welcome me back. The first dance is Bernard's waltz. I vaguely remember the name, but I have never been good at remembering steps, so it is starting all over again. Because I am tired, the connection from feet to brain works even more slowly than usual. The man who is my partner is an experienced dancer and a very graceful teacher: "Take small steps" "When you step forward put your foot here..." and other advice help me into a semblance of the dance but a little two-beat interlude of rising on your toes and dropping your heels eludes me. I am either going up when others are on their way down or missing it altogether and then fretting so that I miss the step to the side. Very quickly all his good advice about small steps and where to put my feet has been lost somewhere between feet and brain.

The next dance is a progressive Gay Gordon, which is bascially a circle dance that allows each person to get a new partner. The steps to that one are relatively simple and it has the virtue that if you mess it up, you can move on before your partner is too exasperated with you.

The third dance is remarkably like square dancing although more fun than it ever was in grade school gym class. I know my do si do's. The next dance, however, Erin's Pride (or is it Ireland's Pride or???) is more complicated and my success with the do si dos is quickly done in by the step first on your outside leg and then swing your inside leg and step back. And then some lovely cross stepping and tapping one time and clapping the next and then back to back turns and then more inside leg kicking. When it is done right, it is quite lovely. On the odd occasion when I got it right, it also feels good.

Somewhere between Erin's Pride and the other dances, I discovered the key to a kind of equanimity. Nearly every one of the segments in these dances is defined by a waltz turn (or two or three). So, worst case, I could simply stand still, arms up like a toddler asking to be carried and eventually, I would join all the others in the right time at least for as long as the turns lasted.

Having discovered this marvelous bit of wisdom, I retired from the dance floor to sit by the fire with the old pub dog, Floyd, until it was time to head home again. Next week I'll dance more and worry less.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Seeing through the Cold

With the moon slightly higher in the sky than the sun at three o'clock in the afternoon, it is a struggle to believe that the days are getting longer. I made this observation in the parking lot of our regular in the company of a good friend. She reminded me that it had been worse. More importantly, she reminded me that even though the sun is slow to rise and stays low in the sky, the unmistakable signs of spring are making themselves felt. The colors of the hills and the moors are casting off their ice blue shadows and warming themselves into redder browns and lusher greens. Even the lochans have shifted from an impenetrable black blue to a warmer watery hue. It is quiet, subtle but unmistakable shift into spring.

She wanted to show me a favorite walk she has discovered. Although the cold wind blustered and sent needles of cold through two layers of clothing so that we could not walk the length of it, nonetheless it was a great treasure rolled out in front of me. The tiny village of Portskerra looks like a scattering of houses from the road, but following the road down to the harbor reveals many more houses clustered amiably together closer to the sea out of sight from the main road. The tiny sign that says simply, "Portskerra Harbour" is a marvel of understatement.

The ambiguous sun of this season of transition illuminated the rocks on the near shore with such intensity that the pink and blue and green of the sandstone stood out against the brown grey stone. The water danced amicably with the wind today rather than fighting, so the waves rolled onto the rocks and over them in graceful billows and sprays with the white of the edge more like lace than angry froth. I would not like to be here on a day less amicable. Portskerra is infamous for two particularly tragic disasters at sea.

We struggle with the wind long enough to climb a sheep-made track to the top of a hill and watch the sea dancing below on the rocks. To our right we see back to our own neighborhood. We are only about 6 miles from home, but it is a different world.

She explains that when she first moved here a man who lives in Portskerra had told her about this treasure. He told her that in winter when things are cold and grim and you wonder why you came here, come to this place and remember.

It was a good gift from him to my friend and then on to me. And now I share it with you.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Back on the Left Hand Side of the Road

I have been back in Caithness for nearly a week now. The first few days were like sleepwalking. Gradually I picked up pieces of my left-side of the road life and shrugged off the jet lag. After two days I decided it was time to drive again both to get my brain back into left-side thinking and to enjoy the country that I love.

Fortunately we had a sunny day and an excuse to go out into the countryside. I soon discovered that positional-cues helped me remember where to drive, and the how followed with the where. I was glad to discover that my sheep-avoiding behaviors were still well in place and I am sure the ewes seeking a bit of fresh green grass would have been grateful, too, if they had that sort of a brain.

I met with my knitting pals around a friend's kitchen table and stitched myself back into the conversation. It was remarkably easy to pick up the threads. And today I went down to the sea with a new friend and her dog. There is nothing the equal of a dog for the sheer joy of being in the world. Cats are marvelous for inquisitiveness and comfort and resourcefulness, but a dog bounding along with a stick in his mouth epitomizes glee.

Hugo chased sea birds and played fetch with large strands of sea weed and managed to find a dead rabbit, a dead fish, and a large sea bird--also dead. He found pleasure in these treasures, too. Admirable, at least from a safe distance.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Auld Lang Syne

"Auld Lang Syne" was just a song at the end of the holiday songbook until the night of my wedding. It was a tradition to sing it at New year, but the sing song melody and the unfamiliar words meant that it was sung just because it was there.

My husband asked the Scottish band, Hogeye Navvy, to play "Auld Lang Syne" to conclude the wedding reception. He told them to play it in dirge time and I heard it then for the first time with all the pain of leaving and letting go. No doubt the feeling was compounded by the enormity of my decision to leave family, friends, home, country and career behind for an unknown life in a foreign place. I realized that I would never see again many of the friends there that night.

Even those closest to me for whom not even an ocean would be too big an obstacle must feel the separation, the distance, the difference. I remember the feel of the wool shoulder of the jacket as the tears of fatigue and the weight of the distance bore down on me. Now I can never hear the song without feeling it to my very bones.

As I prepare to go back again after two months here, I realize that it does not get any easier saying goodbye no matter how much I practice it. Nor should it get easier. So I busy myself with packing and the trivia of leave taking as the lines come into my head, "we'll take a cup of kindness here for auld lang syne." So pull out the old song book and sing it to yourself but very very slowly and then when you've really heard the words, give an old friend a call and hug the ones closest to you.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Seasonably Cold in Chicago

January in Chicago is winter. That can mean a variety of weather even within the span of a week: cold, wet winds off the lake or moderate temperatures under benign skies that let you stroll in a park with just a light jacket. It can also offer the American equivalent of a howling gale as the winds are channeled through the artificial canyons created by the skyscrapers that make lovely picture post cards but play havoc with the workaday people when the wind goes wild.

Today is none of those extremes. Seasonably cold in January on the first day after welcoming in the New Year meant a temperature hovering in the teens but dropping toward zero. It is, however, an insouciant cold. It does not have the urgency of the winds behind it. Although an occasional flake of snow makes its way from the greyness above to the already snowed sidewalk, the air is also dry.

After 6 weeks back in my native Midwest, I marvel at the things I had known so well that I had not had to take particular notice of them, like breathing through a scarf when the temperature plummets.

“I dreamed about Caithness last night,” I say to my husband as I tuck my feet into fleece slippers before they lose the warmth of the bed. After three years in Caithness, I have lost the habit of bare feet on a floor even for a moment.

“Oh,” he says in the conversational code of a married couple. In a single syllable he acknowledges hearing, expresses interest, and indicates the patience to wait for the story to unfold in its own time.

“If we go out today, it will have to be seriously bundled up with scarves over nose and mouth.”

This statement falls unclaimed into the conversational zone and lies there waiting to be collected.

Over breakfast, I try again. “If the temperature is 14 here, what is that in Celsius?”

I can convert it myself. My husband knows that and he knows that this is the follow on to the scarves on the nose sentence, but his curiosity carries him along.

“About -10,” he says and shivers involuntarily.

I remember the world of difference between the text book and my own discovery of cold in Caithness. “The actual temperature,” I explain when Americans ask how cold it is so far north, “is warmer than here because of the nearness to water, but it feels colder than anything I have ever felt in my life.”

Now the roles are reversed. I am trying to explain a lifetime of winters and the difference between the fact and the feeling where the workaday world takes place.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

Did you make any?

Have you broken any already?

I out loud resolved not to write any more important things on the backs of little pieces of paper that I invariably lose. OK, it was easy, but who said they have to be hard.

To myself I resolved to actively pursue writing opportunities. I submitted two children's stories for a competition/oportunity. Today when I got a reminder of a short story competition, I set myself to the task of writing it.

I say this to you to encourage me to keep going, to say thanks to all of you who have encouraged me in my writing, and to explain why I may be a bit quiet here for the next few days.

Lastly, a question.

Does anyone have any tips on how to avoid the inner turmoil that comes from writing cover notes or descriptions of yourself? I have always disliked doing that, so any tips on how to deal with it would be very much appreciated. Those cover letters sometimes take longer than writing the stories themselves.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Knitting in the New Year

It is a joy to be old enough or free enough to enjoy the holidays in the way that you like best.

I sent two picture story manuscripts off to a competition. After fretting over the submission package more than I ever did with the stories themselves, I am joyfully knitting and pottering and sharing doing not much at all with my husband and my daughter. We have champagne in the fridge which we may or may not drink tonight. We may or may not stay up until midnight.

In between the doing or not doing, I'll knit and purl a few more rows.

May you ring in the New Year doing what you like best.

Happy New Year