Monday, June 30, 2008

Books and Roses

One of the good outcomes of the writing class will be a book group. I like reading widely and recommendations from others are often the best way to learn both about the books and about another book-person.

I recently read my first Ian Rankin, one of the Inspector Rebus series that are quite famous. Deservedly so, I think, after reading The Falls. I am not a book snob, but many best sellers ldisappointme. The Falls, with all the requisite nods to the genre, manages to have an interesting, suspenseful story of some depth. Even if I did not like the tough-guy, alienated, semi self destructive hero with a heart of gold cop genre, I would have liked that story.

In contrast, a collection of stories from his early years: Beggar's Feast, was disappointing. It was like reading my own friends' works--good but not yet deft. When I returned the short stories to the charity shop, I found two of the Rebus series, including Knots and Crosses, his first Rebus book. (The charity shops up here operate as an extension of the library for many readers.) Reading Knots and Crosses was my treat for my post-writing holiday. It was a very good read. I can recommend it, but, again, it was not as complex or smoothly crafted as The Falls.

I find that cheering for two reasons. First, even Ian Rankin had to practice and continue to study his craft. Second, within a genre there is room to grow.

I love short stories. As a reader, a good one is like eavesdropping with both initmacy and a safe distance. As a writer, I like --well, now that I am not actively doing it, I can say that I like it, making something complete in a very short space. A character limned in a few words is as much a pleasure to execute as a perfect drop shot and both, apparently, take a lot of practice.

Many times I have wriggled under the question of listing favorite books. I usually dodge that by saying that it is the latest ones that I have read or that there are too many. I don't recall anyone asking what are your favorite short stories? Well, here are a couple favorites of mine:

Anything by O. Henry
"Smeddum" by Louis Grassic Gibbon (If you are an American reader you'll need a Scots dictionary for this one but it is not too hard for dialect and worth it, I think).
Kate Chopin's stories

I am reading a Margaret Oliphant story right now. I think it will probably make the list, but I'll suspend judgment til I have read it all the way through.

Roses. I like roses. As with books, stories, cats and people, I prefer the sturdier ones. Sturdy means self-reliant. Roses that need trimming and de-bugging and mineral spas for their roots have never been my cup of tea. I have admired roses from afar as I planted calendula and marigolds and half-wild prairie flowers and bulbs that will come back again for years asking nothing more of me than the occasional dividing.

And so the roses that linger after the roof of the cottage is gone and the doors and the windows are empty frames, meet the sturdy criterion. I admire them for that. But for all that they make me sad. They seem now to be remembering something that everyone else has forgotten: This house once had a woman who had a birthday and I was planted for that occasion or when the young couple moved in here, I was a house warming present. Relic roses are a story that I can't quite hear.

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Midsummer Miscellany

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My main project, a short story submitted for a competition, is away in a shudder of electrons, so now all the ancillary things come out of the corners. I am a queen of multi-tasking. I once had to report to a woman who frequently shouted at me: "single-threaded focus" as if this were the only way to think or to work.

This morning the writing was meant to come first, but then the cats had to be fed.

In feeding them I discovered that Button has moved her kittens again. From the relative convenience of the garage--convenient for her and for me-- she could feed them and keep them warm and I could begin socializing them and finding homes for them. Now she has them in an out building with half a roof and a jumble of timbers. It seems for all the world like a post apocalypse film set with barbed wire and fencing wire making a defensive perimeter.

I was onto page 4 of my story when there was an opportunity to help out with the calves. I could have said no, but I was into my boiler suit and out the door so fast that I nearly riffled the pages off the table.

Out of my boiler suit and wellies and back to the story. By this time my coffee is cold and I'm hungry, so there was a kitchen interlude. And then shortly before midday I got down to the business at hand. In less than an hour I had fretted and re read and edited as much as could be done. I submitted it and checked that it had gone where I thought it had.

I won't hear about the story until October, so I cannot sustain a fret for that long. Into the comparative serenity of post-short story push swirled: grocery shopping, recycling, picking up the pieces of the latest house project, picking up and microwave-drying rose petals for one of my art projects, and a walk in between rain showers to the end of the farm road and back.

As I head toward the first bend in the road, I note a pair of tiny furred ears near the top of the junk heap in the out building--at least one of the kittens is in the penthouse suite.

The first field of cattle show no interest in me.

Round the bend of the road, passing the old cottage I notice the rose bush that was once someone's pride is awash with pink roses. I collect the petals from one of the roses that has blossomed and is about ready to fall to earth.

The next field of cattle are watching me with intense curiosity as I walk toward the end of the road along the slight uphill straightaway. As I get closer, they divide--the anxious half run away; the curious ones come closer and parallel me as I walk up the road. The cautious ones circle back to join them and then they all stretch out loping across the field much like children on the playground running in mock terror for the sake of the run.

I stretch my legs into the walk and breathe in the well-scrubbed air. If not for the breeze, it would be almost warm. Even so, a good time for a walk: An interlude between showers. I reach the end of the farm road, where it meets the A836. On a Sunday late afternoon it is quiet. I could stand for some minutes before a car would go by, but I have no interest in that.

I turn and start the downhill part of the walk. On my left the cattle are knotted into the corner waiting for me to get closer so they can run again. On my right is the barley almost ready to "shoot"--to have the awns turn golden and add their sussuration to the breeze. They make a gentle sigh now. In a day or two they will start maturing into a harder seed and begin the progression from green-gold to golden to the soft brown at the back end of the season.

I have given myself a day of reading before I pick up my own pen again.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Thanks and Whew

Last night was the last night of the Creative Writing Class. As always, fewer people finished than had started. This is not a nanny nanny boo boo on them. This is a thank you to all the folks who helped get me through this class and a whew because I made it. I have often landed somewhere along the wayside in one thing or another. Sometimes for good reasons; sometimes just because I lost my nerve. As I get older I find celebrating successes and paying attention to my own business much more important than fretting about others.

I was the only woman of the 5 who started who finished the scuba diving class. In addition to the sense of satisfaction it meant that a whole world was open to me. I am sorry they missed the opportunity to swim with an Eagle ray or chase a turtle over a reef full of anemones and soft corals. They may have picked it up again sometime. We never know with the little slices of people's lives that we see. And so with this class, the ones who dropped by the side may have gotten what they needed out of it. They may have gone as far as their nerves could take them this time, but the next time they will get a bit further down the road.

When I was teaching freshman composition--a rite of passage for students and teachers alike, I had a student who was enroling for the 13th time. I had the hubris to think that I would be the one to pull him through. I cried when I signed his form to drop out of the class. I had both my own sense of failure as well as his to contend with. I like to think that he came back and finished in style--perhaps even helping a fledgling teacher through the early parts of the class that he will know nearly by heart by then.

It felt a bit odd to be on the other side of a writing classroom. Because I am on the other side of the world, it was another facet of my looking glass life. After a little vertigo, I settled in and set myself two goals: decide whether my blog posts can be made into something more and what it will take to do that and finish a short story. I met my goals. Along the way I learned a bit more about the craft of writing, a bit more about myself as a writer (and finisher), and made some new friends--also writers or writer wannabes. So this is my little celebration.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Another Caithness Story

I heard this tonight just outside the pub where we went for dinner. It is a very Caithness kind of story. I have made up names because the person telling me the story said it was a true story.

Mrs. M. came from a large family and she had several bairns herself. Unlike others in her family, she insisted that all her children get jobs. And they all got jobs of one kind or another. One of her bairns was a bit slow "Everything was there, but just, a bit backwards". He got a job pushing a broom and trash cans. He did it well and worked hard and was admired for his work. One day he met a neighbor who had some fresh crabs in a bag.

"Hello, Sandy McNabb,"

"Hello, Chimmy."

"What do ye have in the bag there?"


"I have never had crabs."

"Oh surely you have."

"No, no one ever gave them to me before."

So his neighbor gave him the crabs and told him "Just put them in the tattie pan and boil them."

A few weeks later they met up again. Sandy asked Chimmy, "How did you like those crabs?"

"Oh, don't give me any more, they were no good."

"No good? What do you mean?"

"Oh, we boiled them for 12 hours and even so we could not get a fork into them."

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Castle Sinclair Girnigoe

I have a cold and a convalescing cat, so I'll offer these photos of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe and a few words with a promise of longer posts soon.

The best news is that the Castle has been sufficiently excavated and stabilized that you can now actually walk into it. Five years ago that was not possible. More information about the ongoing excavation may be available at

The photos, hopefully, show that the castle has sandstone elements around the windows, which give it some colour, and that the castle is right on the water. Access was probably via the sea. There is an internal moat that could be flooded or drained apparently as a defensive maneuver.

The birds choose to nest not only nearby but also in the castle. Fulmars have a habit of vomiting forth a stinky oily glob if anyone gets too close. For the time being, we left them in exclusive if not permanent residence of the castle.Posted by Picasa

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Dunes in the Clouds

We had some rain yesterday. Normally that would not be unusual in this part of the world, but we have had an uncommon dry spell. The grass is looking the worse for it. Gardens are needing watering. The heavy cloud that hovered above the ground was a welcome promise of some rain.

After pottering around the house all morning, the prospect of a walk on a beach with my friend who introduced me to Portskerra was irresistible. The chores would wait. The mist, neither oppressively heavy nor thick enough to obscure things altogether, tempered the normally searing light into pastels and damped sound as well.

We headed west, which means even wider open spaces. The sun shone palely through some thinner spots in the low hanging cloud At the tops of the hills that begin in earnest on the other side of the village of Reay, the sun shone palely through thinner spots in the low hanging cloud.

The road to Melvich beach, as with so many of the stunning sites up here, is marked only by a simple black and white metal sign "Melvich Beach" pointing to a road that looks unlike a road. It is easy to overlook or to turn back when you encounter the dangerously high middle of the road between deep, well-worn grooves made by tyres of working vehicles--tractors, front loaders, or trailers carrying heavy steel hay feeder rings. Today the road is deserted as we lurch and bounce over the ruts, jangle over the cattle grid, and finally pull into the graveled, widened area that serves as a parking place in the shadow of giant sand dunes.

I hear the sound of water, but it is so soft that I think that it is the rippling of a burn just out of sight. As we approach the enormous swells of sand dunes, cowslips and tiny blue forget me nots give way to marrom grass. Each step is effortful in the loose sand as we walk up the first dune. We then slide more like otters than sensible adults down the steep slope to the beach--a long flat expanse of pinkish sand decorated with a necklace of rounded stones at the high tide mark. Beyond the stones another flat expanse of beach offers larger stones and a variety of shells.

The ocean is so calm, blanketed by the heavy air, the normally rambunctious sound of the long low waves seems as soft as the chattering of a burn.

The line between sky and sea on the horizon is even more blurred than usual with the pastelled hues within the mist. We walk along the beach until driven back by dive bombing nesting birds. We have no need to trespass on their part of the beach.

We climb back up the dunes and linger to catch our breath and to take in the views. A house which was visible from the beach is now only a vague outline on the horizon. We sit on a bench at the crest of a hill and take in sounds usually relegated to background. Through the quiet I hear my first cuckoo. The sound was undeniably that of a cuckoo. It sounded very much like the clocks. I laugh as I lean into the wind to hear it again. As I listen harder I make out the sounds of wood pigeons and songbirds whose names I do not know yet but above it all, the cuckoo.

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