Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Finishing School

I have a penchant for new things, especially new ideas and new books. Oddly enough, at the same time, I have an almost stodgy love of the familiar. I find it very comforting to be able to close my eyes and know where everything is.

At first I thought this longing for the familiar was because I was in the midst of so many new things, but it has been a part of me since the days I was old enough to ride a bike on my own. I lived in a time and a place where I could hop on my bike and be gone all day exploring a creek near our house or roads that wandered through neighborhoods with their own patches of yard and trees and dogs without raising any alarms. I hope somewhere kids can still do that.

A favorite game on my bike riding adventures was to follow a road to its very absolute end. This could get pretty tricky when roads veed or, worse, still, wound round in circles in the developments where roads were meant to look less like they were part of a development. Neither houses nor flwoer beds can ever quite accomplish the insouciance of nature, so I often had to go round in quasi circles and ellipses to follow a road to its end.

The exploring part of the adventuring always ended as the sun got lower in the sky. The last part of the trip was to race home before the last light was gone. As I pedald past the houses whose lights were just coming on in the windows, I wondered briefly about the people behind them, but, after exploring, I craved the familiarity of home. The bike adventure always contained both a beginning and a finishing.

Unfortunately, many of my current adventures do not have a built-in conclusion. I have several short stories in draft, several knitting projects that are in various stages of almost done, a flower bed that has been cleared but not replanted, and the rooms in the house that I had targeted for the first wave of refurbinshing are still sitting not quite done. All this un-done was tasking my energy, so I sent myself to finishing school--not the posh how to walk gracefully and set an elegant table kind of school--the buckle down and don't stop til it's over school.

I started with my leg warmers. I did not quite get them done in a day, but I got them done before I did anything else. I finished my sea weed scarf. OK, again not a big project, but all things are created equal I decided in my finishing school. Ironically, this post languished a day or two in my dashboard, but, now, it too, will see the light of day. I will probably never graduate from finishing school, but I will move on to larger projects. As the days stretch into a reasonable balance of light and non-light, I feel a hopefulness returning.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


Equinoctial gales are part of the normal give and take of the climate here on the edge of the Pentland Firth, but my patience for the normal give and take of the weather here is at its end. The wind is heaving and soughing; wintry precipitation--a meteorologist's euphemism for dirty, icy, projectiles--hide behind clouds to launch themselves on me on those rare moments I venture out thinking I have only to worry about keeping my footing in the face of gusts of 50-60 miles per hour. Yesterday the wind was so unrelenting that even the wood pigeons chose to sit in the pasture rather than on the tree branches or the wires.

I am not a weather sissy. I offer as testimonial that I am in my fourth year here (many lose heart altogether after the first winter or become seasonal migrants for the long golden days of summer). I offer as further testimonial that I grew up in Indiana where snow shovels, wind chill factor, and a frost that extended nearly three feet below ground are certainly evidence of a winter-hardened character. As a child I frolicked in the snow days that closed schools and ice skated on the little pond that froze solid enough for weeks of hockey and crack the whip before the tell tale signs of warming weakened the ice.

My love of outdoor sports even took me to the top of a ski slope in New Hampshire when most others were safely tucked inside with hot drinks watching the skiers go by. The lift lines were certainly shorter when the wind chill was at -30 F. and the trees along the slope with great hunks of snow on their branches were picture postcard beautiful.

My down-filled parka, silk long johns, and other armamentaria of midwestern winters, however, have been defeated by this Caithness cold. After three years, I have become culturally aware enough to discover one of the secrets to surviving here. Chilprufe.

If I had not been with a friend who was looking on that shelf of underwear and pajamas in the store where I just buy yarn and buttons and fabric, I would perhaps never have discovered it or been able to translate the label. I became the proud owner of my very first Chilprufe Classics Built Up Shoulder Vest.

To come to the understanding that this little bit of finely knitted wool was a charm to ward off the evil cold spirit, I needed to know
  • that a vest is worn under clothes here, not over as in the US (Sleeveless garments worn on the outiside can be called waistcoats or body warmers when they refer to those padded garments used for outerwear)
  • that "built up shoulder" meant only wider straps not some kind of padding
  • that only wool can keep the chill from sinking through all your outer clothes into your very bones

With my Chilprufe, which extends to the top of my legs, I dared to wear a skirt (OK, long skirt over tights, but that was quite liberating after jeans or other long trouser). After just one or two wearing, I went back to the store and bought another Chilprufe. How have I lived without them?

These equinoctial gales, however, have been the Kyrptonite to the superman of my Chilprufe. As I climbed over gates last night to check on the expectant cows, and the wind whisked up the inside of my jacket and through the slight openings between hood and parka, my Chilprufe struggled mightily but managed only to hold off the worst of the cold.

Today, when my husband told me it was even colder than yesterday, I rummaged through my sweater (or "jumper" as they say here) drawer for a sweater that had been too warm for the United States. It's time had come. A hand knit wool sweater from Nepal with the symbol of crossed Dorjiis on the front (it is supposed to ward off evil, I think) would surely do the trick.

And so it does. My middle section is comfortably warm, allowing me to walk into the corridor and even briefly outside without impending hypothermia. My feet and legs, however, are now calling out for similar protection. How fast can I knit a pair of leg warmers? I think I am about to find out.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Long Distance Voting

For all my alien ways and the odd words creeping into my vocabulary--such as muttering "bl**dy hell" about some nincompoopery or the other today, I just registered to vote by absentee ballot in the upcoming US presidential election and I feel as chuffed as I did when at 21 (yup, I had to wait til 21 to vote that's how long ago it was!) I registered for the first time.

I have always intended to vote, but as with so many things in this new world, I did not know where or how to do it. Well, thanks to the internet, I found a form and some guidelines and except for struggling to find my Indiana driver's license and remember my zip code, it was a snap. Now I need to mail it back to Hamilton County, Indiana to get an absentee ballot sent to me. Once again, I'll be watching the mail closely for an official looking envelope.

I just read Barack Obama's speech, which was created ostensibly to reclaim his campaign from the negative reaction of Rev. Wright's sermon denouncing America, but Obama's speech was so much more than that. It is one of the clearest, quietest, strongest calls to America to get on with the best that it can be that I have ever read. I know it will not be easy to do, but I really want to give him the opportunity to try to make that happen.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

World Famous Pluto Water Fountain

Having spoken yesterday about the clutter of characters in my mind, I think it a good idea to lay this one to rest. She has been in the back of my mind since I went to the spa in French Lick, Indiana last December.

As part of our trip back, Morris and I were discovering Indiana. As we drove through Southern Indiana--basement houses, trailers, rusting cars and skinny dogs punctuated by Jesus Loves You Repent Now billboards along the road, I was filled with a growing desolation. Surprisingly, Morris saw the beauty in the large trees and sparse population. It was my turn to see the countryside through a different set of eyes.

Part of our discovery trip was an anniversary visit to New Harmony, where we were married. We were also bound for French Lick, a former spa famous for its Pluto waters.

As you have no doubt already surmised, Indiana sometimes surprises you with things tucked away among the farmland, such as a monastery and archabbey and site of two utopian societies. I'll get to those in other posts, today I want to explain as best I can French Lick. The name dates from the time that French trappers and missionaries were paddling around the Indiana wilderness. Not even many Indians lived here. They used it as a hunting grounds or occasioanl camping, but it was not a very people-friendly place.

The latterly world famous Pluto waters were originally just a place where animals came to get some minerals with their water--a kind of spa for wild critters. Hence, the name, Lick for obvious reasons, and French since it was the French trappers who first made it famous, or at least gave it a name that Europeans could understand.

Around that humble beginning grew an enormous health spa industry drinking Pluto water and bathing in it and variations on that. Despite its catchy name and health benefits, in time Pluto water fell out of favor.

I grew up thinking of French Lick as a relic of past glory, but a friend told me it had been beautifully restored and was worth a visit. We went for the adventure and also because my husband knew that the stresses of worrying over my family had left me flatter than a pancake. The adventure might waken my spirit. If not, there was always the spa to try plumping me up --metaphorically--from the outside in.

I was so flat that my imagination, usually in overdrive, had shut down. It was unusually quiet inside my head, but it wasn't peaceful.

After selecting a bevy of treatments, I slipped into a comfy white robe and little slippers, leaving my clothes in a lovely little wooden locker. The restoration of the hotel was a lovely blend of what decorators call "original features" such as the little wooden lockers and modern sleek surfaces and minimal decoration.

The decoration includes photographs of people from the heyday of Pluto Water. As I sat swaddled in my robe and slippers sipping non-Pluto water I studied the photographs. One in particular caught my eye.

A young woman--late teens, I think, posing on the edge of the Pluto Water fountain. She was wearing striped socks--not dainty, demure strips, but broad barber pole stripes around her slender legs. I decided that she liked the socks but was a bit self-conscious or perhaps just overall demure in nature, with her knees tucked close together, ankles crossed pressed gently against the concrete wall of the famous--World Famous-- fountain.

I decided her name was Juliet, but she was Jules to friends. She was too smart, too bookish to be attractive to boys. This fact made her father happy, but worried her mother. The photo was taken on a day trip to French Lick with her friend Margaret.

Juliet's socks were striped with pink.

Margaret and Juliet had lunch in the hotel that day and perhaps they bought a bottle of water to take home as a souvenier, but they did not take the waters.

In between that day and this, she had a life. She is either a great grandmother in a nursing home in Evansville, Indiana with a pink blanket on her knees made by her grandaughter just for her, or she died in France as an ambulance driver and her grave is visited by a white haired man in a wheel chair now who brings her one pink rose. He has already made his granddaughter promise to continue with the roses when he can no longer keep his appointment. She has readily agreed although she never met this Juliet for whom her grandfather still mourns.

Wherever she is, I know that at least one man read Romeo's speech to her and, although she laughed about it with Margaret afterwards, she cherished that moment.

I looked down at my fruit-flavored water, swirled the lemon in the bottom of the glass, and raised it in a silent salute to Juliet, wherever she was. The next day I went down to the remnants of the World Famous Pluto Water Fountain and had my picture taken.

Character, Characters, and a Clement Day

I have had too many demi posts swirling in my mind. A blogpal (Curmudgeon of www.secondeffort.blogspot.com) posited a kind of traffic jam of ideas as a better way of describing writer's block and that helped me find the courage to wade into my mind with my traffic gloves on, sort things out, and have a little conversation in blogosphere.

The title for this post came as my head was swirling with the fictional characters that had come to my attention: my own, my daughter's, and a friend from writing group. I am one of those people for whom the people in stories live in my head. I don't think I am certifiable, but if a character is real enough for a story to be credible, then that character is real enough to have existed before and after the frame of the story.

For many years now my sister in law and I have enjoyed the Tony Hillerman books and the character of Joe Leaphorn. When she announced that there was a new one, she said quietly to me, "You'll be pleased to know that he has gotten over the death of his wife," just as if we were discussing a neighbor or a work mate. She had spoken quietly, hopefully intended for my ears only, because my brother hoots outrageously whenever he hears us talk about fiction that way. He's my big brother, so most of my life has been spent subjected to his disapproval for such nonsense as the way I could not learn a proper box step or that I screamed and ran from a snake he was holding to show me the difference between a poisonous and a non-poisonous one. Thus I was not chagrined by his disapproval both for the long habit of his disapprovals and also because I would not want to close a book and leave the characters behind.

It can, however, be very distracting.

As I was wondering how I could get just one episode that would characterize my character's life, my great grandson was born. Although there is none of my genetic material in his little person, I take great joy in watching the discovery of such things as the fact that he appears to have a shape of ear that harkens back to his great great grandfather. What sort of things I wondered will shape his life, "the content of his character."

In the midst of all this thinking, I lay in bed for the golden thinking time of the morning and half listened to the weather forecast. Above the usual refrains there rose a lovely phrase, "a clement day." And today promises to be just such a day--a day of golden sunshine between storms, of gentle winds and domesticity ofr the hard working birds whose nests they have created in the face of the early March winds.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Back into the Walled Garden

The remnants of the snow have retreated to the tops of Beinn Ratha for their last stand of the season. The wind is whipping across the land as if in a gale, but even it has lost its sting. It is a warmer wind that will not stop thought or chores. As the snowdrops themselves begin to fade, the crocus are joined by daffodil leaves in their rich dark spring green leaf and the stalwart tips of tulips that I planted last year in the corner of the walled garden previously ruled by nettles. The nettles may come back, but I will be ready for them this time. When the first tender shoots appear, I will harvest them for the soup pot. Perhaps that threat is enough to keep them tucked underground and running into secret corners. I doubt it. I will not underestimate either the nettles or the bishop's weed.

The overgrown bishop's weed also appears to be in submission for now. The newspapers and the carpeting that starved them after I ripped out root and leaf are ceding to bare, dark earth. I will be diligent there as well to see that the territory so dearly won is not lost again.

I have been strong enough to walk in the garden these past few days, usually in the company of my favorite cat and jester, Solomon, aptly named for his wise fool nature. Yesterday I was strong enough to work in the garden. Only someone who had not been able to do as she wished could find such pleasure in raking away the dead stalks of last year's lupins. The stiff rake caught the dry stalks and tumbled them into a pick up sticks jumble that moved easily into the deep well of the wheel barrow. Sometimes the bright green of moss caught in the teeth of the rake and jumbled into a living tapestry of straw yellow, bright dark green and the iron rust of the rake's teeth.

Each wheel barrow full of this tapestry left behind a more regular setting--more like a garden, albeit not a formal one. Unlike the skeleton of the garden recovered with my first efforts, these beds are beginning to reflect my own efforts not just at the clearing away but also in the planting. I hope the poppies will be back. I spread enough seed to ensure that, I think, but the birds and the other creatures who visit here may have had their way with them. If so, I will call on Mr. Fothergill again for more seeds or the real people that I know well enough now to ask for seeds or cuttings.

As I wheeled the last of the barrow loads to the compost bin, I saw my first bed out of the corner of my eye. The notion that I need to clean up the stalks from the dianthus coexists quite contentedly with the pride in seeing how well they have grown and spread beneath the flowering currants who have lived there for many years. The entire bed is given to pink and fragrant flowers, except for a spark of yellow--she was included because she has pink-red leaves and because not even in my wildest moment could I give in to an entirely pink corner. The yellow spikes also give some contrast to the low growing dianthus, heathers and creeping thyme. More importantly, they are a memento of visits to Langwell Gardens, where after strolling the gardens and making sketches and notes of ideas to bring home I had tea and conversations with friends.

As I rake and weed and dead head, I find more and more of myself in the garden and that adds to the joy of being able once again to dig and delve.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Crocus in the Snow

I recall that my mother was always intrigued by the imagery of crocus blooming in the snow. It may well be a kind of real-world inkblot. Is the crocus in the snow a sign of optimism or of despair? I suspect it is both and neither.

As I looked out onto the snow dusted on the ground and in the pot where the crocus bloomed only yesterday, I must confess my first reaction was a sigh and a shiver, but I managed to put on another layer of clothes and find a sunspot (my cats have trained me well). As I passed by the window again, I found the same brave little crocus looking back at me and cheering me on with their smiling, stalwart faces. OK, the snow will melt and tomorrow it will be warmer. I do believe, I do believe.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Virtue of Doubt

Yesterday I was talking with a friend with whom I can talk BIG Things. Oh, we talk knit stitches and her dog and my cats and husbands and such like. No one can talk Big Ideas all the time. She told me a story about how a family feud got started. The people here are very accepting, but if they are outraged, then they can withdraw affection and all social connection. It can be like being shunned in those Amish or other close-knit communities when they literally turn their backs on a person and make them invisible.

I know of two brothers who have not spoken to each other for nearly 20 years now even though they live within sight of each other. They must surely see each other from time to time in town. What do they do then? What comfort can they take from the empty space where a brother used to be?

As I struggled to learn the requisite reversing maneuvers for the driving exam, I came to terms with them as a metaphor before I could manage to back my car around a corner. How many times have you wished fervently that you could take back the words that had just fallen--or in some cases been hurled--out of your mouth? How many social fender-benders could be reduced to manageable proportions with an "I'm sorry."

I am forever indebted to my Galilee congregation for the opportunity to grow into a character where it became easier to complete those social reversing maneuvers. I know better than to hope that I will ever grow into a person who never has to make such reverses. I certainly do not have that grace and I think that even the best examples of our species cannot sustain such social acrobatics all the time.

One of the strengths gained from being in a congregation is that congregants are expected to get along. Not always like each other; not even agree with each other, but find a way to harmony with each other. It is infinitely easier to reverse when you know it is expected and that you will be helped and supported to do it. As the driving manual says, if in any doubt about the safety of reversing, have someone guide you. I can get a car around a corner, but I am happy to call on help when it comes to the infinitely more complex social maneuvers of reversing.

My friend understood this well for many reasons, not least of which is that she is an elder of her church, and put it in the broader context of Christian love.

The broader community in which she and I live is one where gossip is an ongoing source of information, misinformation, amusement, and, sometimes, mischief. I learned early on that people will talk about your life whether they have facts or not. A popular description of that well-known phenomenon is, "Och aye, they dinna need to see smoke to say 'fire'."

Sometimes you can trace the source of a rumor either to a person or to a factoid that grew as it passed from person to person; most often you cannot. In its noblest form, this communication alerts neighbors and friends and distant relatives to someone who is sick or grieving or other important calls to action to help keep the community glued together. When I learned at the village shop of a friend taken ill suddenly, I passed the information to my husband who was able to visit him in the hospital. It was the last time he got to see him alive. Because of that news, he was at least able to say goodbye.

In its lowest form, gossip causes painful rifts that can take months or years to heal, if they ever heal at all.

Another friend is suffering terribly now from the bullying, malicious kind of gossip that feeds on its own power for the individual rather than for the connectedness of the community. That kind of gossip feeds on that smallest part of us that is willing to believe the worst of everything. It becomes a justification, a rationale for loosing our own personal demons.

My friend and I marveled at the power of gossip to evoke this divisiveness because we all know how unreliable the information can be. "Why," I wondered, " do people accept these conversations unexamined?" Yes, my friend responded, in this case doubt could be very valuable. Doubt could create just a moment's space to say, "Why would X want to do that? That can't be right" or "Why are you saying something like that to me?" or even "I do not want to hear such things about a friend."

We are none of us always the better self we want to be, but a moment's doubt just might provide the seed for the compassion and understanding of our better self to blossom when confronted with gossip, well intentioned or not, that threatens to tear us apart.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

"Smells Like Cullen Skink"

We walked into one of our regular lunch haunts, when we are in Wick, and I said without thinking about it, "Hmm, smells like cullen skink." Now it is just over 4 years since I had made my first tentative taste of cullen skink in Ullapool. I was a tourist with my mind and mouth tripping over the strange words and tastes and sounds of this place. Having that phrase fall out of my mouth startled me after the fact because it made me realize how even those smells that had only recently been so exotic had become normal.

Cullen skink--in case the words are new to you--is a smoked fish soup. It has a cream base, but it still is fairly light yet rich. The exact proportions or choice of fish vary from cook to cook, but it is always a great way to take the chill out of you on a cold day. My Concise Scots Dictionary does not offer much help in the way of explaining the name. Cullen is apparently derived from the name of a village in Banf, and skink has a variety of meanings none of which seem to fit with fish soup. It does tell me that Culllen skink, a fish soup, dates from the late 16th century.

If foodies or linguists want to enlighten me about this culinary delight, I'd be delighted.

I am still feeliong shingle-y, so until I recover my posts may be a bit on the thin side.