Sunday, December 28, 2008

Under a Kindly Sky

The sun shone today with such conviction that I could believe that it is slowly making its way back to us. It bounced its rays off clouds for a marvelous show of pastels and shades of grey and lingered for a sunset that lasted until nearly 4pm. I do believe, I do believe.

We woke to grass frozen stiff in individual ice jackets and the laundry left on the line frozen at attention like soldiers on alert within the walled garden.

The sun warmed the grass and the clothes on the line and the windshields and our spirits. As we drove out under the midday sun, my husband proclaimed it a kindly sky. And so it was.

The sun has gone to her bed now and the sharp chill (a high over southern Iceland is leaving a stable but cold weather system so my Shipping Forecast explained to me) is returning. Tomorrow we can expect the same frozen grass but we can also hope for another kindly sky and a few more minutes of the fickle sun.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

My First Boxing Day

Christmas always seems to me to pass too quickly, so an extra day of eating and celebrating seemed a great addition to the holiday. Boxing Day, apparently, began sometime from the middle ages. Most sites suggest it is related to the tradition of giving tradesmen their annual wages in goods that were boxed. One suggested it might also refer to monks opening the poor boxes to give to the needy.

December 26th is also associated with St. Stephen, the patron saint of horses, and the Stephen in the first line (the only one I know) of the carol, "Good King Wencelas went out on the feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about deep and smooth and even." This morning on the radio I heard a bit more about what Wencelas was doing. He was, in keeping with the tradition, giving things to people who needed them. I hope he did so with a glad heart even though he might have had cold feet in all that snow.

I celebrated my first Boxing Day with my new extended family and a couple far flung friends here in the north. Coming from a small family myself, it is an adventure to discover anew the complex, multi generational threads that make up a fuller family. Seeing siblings as adults allows me to imagine what they were like as youngsters, a part of their life that happened while I was half a world away sitting in a classroom in Indiana. Story by story we put together enough of the past to give the present its colour and the future an outline.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

On a Foolscap Errand

Women who write and men who go down to the sea in ships are both drawn to a dangerous vocation. Success can be very lucrative but many many more toilers are tossed on a wave or swallowed by the enormity of it all.

My daughter is a writer. She has imagination, discipline, and craft. She has a wee novel now afloat on the seas via the internet. It has been scunnered on a sharp rock named "not commercial." A lot of good books and stories have foundered on that reef. If I were ever to be stranded on a desert island, I'd like something to eat and a place to sleep and then for it to be down stream of this reef of non commercial writing. I'd let the tides bring me --as it chose them--all those wonderful stories.

Now I like to think that I am not a language snob (Yes, yes of course no snob ever admits it, do they?), but I feel that those who hold themselves up as an arbiter of what should be published should have the highest standards for language themselves. From the reviews I read on authonomy, I got an unnerving image of Fagin with the purloined handkerchiefs assessing their quality or of the mother superior in Kate Chopin's story who allegedly knew what things cost.

Whose character was it that so coveted the little red rosette in his lapel ? Oh, that is the kind of thing my daughter knows. She reads, she remembers, and she can make those connections between precise language (those who give the rosette are the same arbiters of the correct use of the French language) and characters and characterization. We live in complex times and we need writers and writing that can help us make those connections.

We don't need the sleeked down narratives that move through our brains like a river in spate. We don't need books that follow lock step the same formula for success of the latest blockbuster. We don't need language that is prepackaged to be easily digestible. And sadly that is what we are getting.

It is Christmas Eve day. If you have one more present to buy, make it a book. A real book, not a celebrity bio, or a rehash of a movie, or a scandal revealed. And if you are lucky enough to have a real bookstore close by where you live, buy your book from them.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Howling Gale

A Howling Gale. Yes, I know it has been used in a play on words for a Gaelic band, and is often used as hyperbole for any big wind, but now having met one, I want to set the record straight.

A "gale" is a wind stronger than a breeze. According to a system set up by an Admiral in 1805, the Beaufort scale, a gale is a wind of between 34-40 knots per hour, or about 39-46 miles per hour. A severe gale, the civilized English admiralty equivalent of a howler, weighs in at about 47 miles per hour. As you would expect from an admiral, his description is from the perspective of the sea.
Gale -- Moderately high waves of greater length;
edges of crests begin to break into spindrift.
The foam is blown in well-marked streaks along the
direction of the wind.

Severe Gale --High waves. Dense streaks of foam along
the direction of the wind. Crests of waves begin to topple,
tumble and roll over. Spray may affect visibility.

(Thanks to for the above definitions.)

As the gale was brewing, I took a look at the ocean, but when it starts in with high waves and spindrift--a charming name for an unnerving phenomenon of Mother Nature breaking the truce between sea and air and land--I prefer to look at it from a safe haven and distance.

The ships at sea and I had been listening to our faithful friend, The Shipping Forecast. They were pulling into harbour to wait it out and I was heading home. The evening news graphically displayed what was coming with isobars of high and low pressure morphing and shape changing like a lava lamp on speed. We all knew it was going to be a doozy.

The cattle are in; the cats have shelter and hidey holes. We have new windows where the leakiest windows used to be and the roof has been seriously looked over since the last gale two years ago unsettled us. We have candles and flashlights/torches and matches and I brought in groceries. I was not too much bothered. And my insouciance clearly had to be paid for.

The wind howled. Imagine the sound of a radio show parody of radio shows with fake storm effects. Now imagine that sound goes on and on and on. I tried knitting in front of the television, but the sound of the wind made it hard to hear either the television or background conversation.

The wind drove rain through the cracks in the seals around the windows not yet repaired. At first it was a faint layer of moisture, no more than a few beads of sweat on an anxious brow. I put down a towel and still did not properly appreciate this wind trying to make my acquaintance.
And so she upped the ante by changing direction--the window that she had been pushing on she was now pulling. The doors that had been chattering in one direction now shuddered in the other.

As I sat on the sofa still trying to knit but finding very little relaxation in it, my husband asked, "Is the garage door open?" "How on earth can I know that from the sofa?" I ask peevishly, hoping that I do not have to go out into this furious wind to see. This perverse ambassador from the wind-water revolutionary forces uppped the ante again by sending an unnerving thumpety thump into her musical mix. My husband went out and discovered the garge door is open and the wind is playing with the garage roof--lifting it up and down and down and up. He manages to close the door. The thumping subsides, but we can only hope for the best.

No sooner inside from the garage than we hear a clutter, chatter, and crash as shingles are thrown off the roof and shattered on the close just outside the back door in a pique of temper much too close for comfort. The power goes off and struggles back on only to go off again. We shut down sensistive electrical stuff and I prepare for the inevitable power loss.

The power goes off for good just as we settle into bed with the glow of the electric heater taking the chill off the room. Without the heater or the assistance of the central heating, the room quickly succumbs to the mini gale force currents blowing through the window. I add socks, a sweater, and a hat to my flannel PJs and snuggle under 2 comforters and a blanket and hope for a better day.

I opened my eyes at 8:30am to discover both the sun and the moon in clear blue sky keeping company with a slight breeze and a very tame sea curling peacefully into and out of shore with the steady roll of a paper party blower.

But the damage of last night's excesses was all too apparent. The garge roof was still there, but several tiles were missing. All the cats answered roll call for breakfast, but they were edgy and cautious as if they might still see the sky fall in on them. All the windows have salt spray on them. And the power was still off. As we headed into town, we noticed that the lead flashing on the back of the house was standing upright like a young man's crew cut rather than lying flat against the tiles.

And so, I'll add my own descriptions to augment Admiral Beaufort's scale. Insert "howling gale" between severe gale and storm.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Shipping Forecast

At first the shipping forecast put me to sleep because I heard it at 5am and because it mystified me. I thought about the character who comes back to his childhood home on the coast in Nova Scotia and becomes a reporter for the local paper. I need to figure out what the words mean. The literal and the metaphoric.

Gradually the mystery began to take shape. First, comes the wind--never far from our minds up here. The direction and the speed. Then visibility, including any obvious precipitation, and a barometric reading. An icon for those who go down to the sea in ships.

And the list goes right around the coast--it starts with names that I have not yet been able to register, but I join in on the chorus of "and Outer Hebrides". Every time I hear it I wonder why it is you never hear about the Inner Hebrides. Another mystery to explore.

Now that I know they are names, I have started trying to follow them around the coast. Some day--it may take several days, which will be fine, I want to go around the coast and see and tip my hat to all those names that have graced my dream time. Some I know are just lighthouses now run remotely by computer, but I can tip my hat to German Bight and maybe just maybe there is a plaque that says how it got its name or a wee museum cobbled together by the kind of person who wants us to remember some part of history--theirs and ours.

When I first came to Scotland as a tourist I was on a ferry between islands in the Orkneys. I met a young man going from Westray (I think) to Roussay to do some work on heavy equipment. I asked him if things were very different from island to island. It was my curiosity overflowing and meant as a conversational opener. He was silent for so long that I thought perhaps I had broken a conversational rule or he had not heard me. In time he replied, "Oh, island life is island life, isn't it?" It was one of those exchanges where I was meant to nod and shrug and thus bring the conversation to an amicable end, and so I did but at the same time I was left baffled. I had no idea what island life was like. I am sure he would have been as baffled as I was if I had said as casually, "Oh, life on the prairie is life on the prairie."

And if this young man and I had had more conversational time we could have built together an understanding of a metaphoric island in which we all live. Like the shipping forecast, the ferry ride went by too quickly for that.

The revelation from today's early morning listen of the shipping forecast was the sudden but gentle and thorough awareness that I live on an island. Now those of you more tuned in to geography or the practical things of this world than I am--which would include almost everyone--would think that four years is a very long time to come to this conclusion. One look at a map would be enough for most people.

I have seen two episodes of the BBC coast program, which has taken me via television around the coast. I have sat on a committee to help create a coastal walk here in my own neighborhood. But until I have walked the coastal walk and tipped my hat to the lighthouses and read the plaques and seen the museums in all the abandoned lighthouse stations, my brain will still be shaped by the prairie oceans of my childhood. Sometimes as I fall back to sleep with the sound of the forecast in my head, I merge the images of Strathy Point lighthouse and the wind through the tall grass of the long flat lands of my childhood.

I am looking forward to a New Year with my book club. Of the dozens of books suggested for our selection, I opted to put my dibs in on only two--one about the shipping forecast--I don't know if it is fiction or non-fiction, I'll look forward to reading it and seeing what someone else makes of the forecast. And another one by a local author--set on and around Cromarty--one of the names I recognize from the shipping forecast.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Waiting on the Sun

Living in a very new place allows you to discover the conventions so deeply ingrained you never otherwise notice them. Just now I am struggling with my idea that daytime means sun--not the great unblinking pumpkin sun of childhood pictures, not even the bright smiley face sun of a summer day, just enough light that bedside lamps are not required to tell the difference between my watch and my glasses on the side table.

When I write it out, it sounds so simple: if it is morning, then I can see without the bedside lamp. If I have to turn on the light, ergo, it is not morning.

Yesterday the sun shone brightly for perhaps an entire two hours. I was driving into town with the sun, an unabashed globe of warm golden light bereft of clouds, on my right. I rolled down my window in the irrational belief/hope that I could feel the warmth on my face. It was a tease, but even with its cold affection, I relished that light. I walked with just a bit of a spring in my step. I talked with a colleague in her office. We had a cuppa and when I went to leave (only 4pm, mind you), the sun had gone.

Gone. Not dawdling behind a fleecy cloud or swaddled in a bank of clouds, but swallowed whole by the sun-eating monster that lives beyond the edge of the horizon.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Almost a Storm

Place names here tend to have an inherent poetry, even when the translation indicates a mundane approach to their naming: "slope down to the sea" or "river valley" or "Inge's farm." Likewise, weather words are both poetic and descriptive, their very sounds as if sent from the weather itself--smoor, haar, and mizzle for forms of precipitation; and soughing, hurrying, harvest, or helm for winds. "Gale force" has no poetry in it. It is a wind that means business.

Last night the wind huffed and puffed and whirled and complained around the house. It sneaked through the windows and rattled the doors. It was not the consistent one-note plaint of a soughing wind nor the fierce torrent or air that betokens a gale. It sawed at my nerves like a soughing wind and could not be ignored. "What do you call that wind?" I asked my husband with more than a hint of peevishness in my voice as if it were somehow his fault.

After a long while of searching, he said, "Almost a storm."

No poetry but precision. The temperature had dropped, the clouds were thickening, and the cats were all tucked up safely out of sight--I usually have at least one close by the back door. It was almost a storm weather.

I was reading last night the latest book of poems from a local author, George Gunn. Among the poems was one entitle Blue and he took on the challenge (and succeeded, I think) in describing the changing colours of blue in the sea without being either sentimental or overly precise. In the honour of that challenge, I am going to endeavour to put a little poetry into this wind with no name.

Almost a Storm knocked at the back door
then ran to the front
as if she had forgotten her keys.
She rattled the windows
She clattered the downspouts
She shoogled the bushes and ransacked the hedge
then settled herself into her bed
and pulled up the clouds and slept.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Season of Rushing

I don't know how things can get so busy this time of year when so many things get suspended until "after Christmas" or "after the New Year."

It is that funny time between times--I've started carrying my 2009 date book as if to say that these in between days are already somehow suspended.

I am making up new Christmas traditions because Christimas without little ones is, by definition, different. And credit crunch and with families spread world wide it just gets very complicated very fast. I am trying to simplify things but little presents seem to take BIG time. I am in danger of losing the fun of knitting as I try to put my languid knitting pace into overdrive. I just ordered a present that may not be here in time. I teetered on the edge of frenzy and then recalled my resolve to simplify things and whatever else, to enjoy this time.

My best wishes to you all that the common sense we seem to cast side so often and so easily will stay with you and let you enjoy the spirit of the times.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Limits of Email

Email is my lifeline to friends and family on the other side of the pond. I am techno savvy enough to be able to include photos from time to time and perhaps next year I'll (finally) get VOIP set up and a web cam. I know I am behind times, but sometimes with approximations the better it is the worse it can be.

I had an email from a friend whose mother is ill. My friend and I are of an age where our parents are the ones who need looking after. My friend doesn't need me to help her arrange transport or find a doctor or find a place for her mom when she comes out of hospital. My friend and her mom are well looked after in that regard, but I think she needs me to be there and do nothing with her. I might pull out my knitting and she could tell me stories about her mother or I could cook a meal and when she came home from visiting her mom, she could have something warm to eat. She could pick at it or just shake her head and say No thanks, but she would have a choice.

We might walk. I can imagine the little prairie spot in a remnant woods not far from where I used to live where we have walked before. The last time we walked it was warm--late summer fading into Autumn. Some flowers were still blooming, but many had seed heads dozing in the sunshine. I can imagine we are walking there now. My friend is walking fast because she likes to walk fast when she has things on her mind. I understand it is a bit like being chased, but chased by something from the inside. I smile and wave her on. I'll catch up with her in the deepest part of the woods. I am slow because I want to hear the snow crunch beneath my feet. I want to look at the pattern of my tread in the snow, where the bright winter light makes blue shadows. I may even try to capture the snow on seed heads with my camera. I will struggle to remember the difference in light. Winter in Indiana can offer up a bright white light, so unlike the lazy summer light of here in the North.

I will walk slowly to listen to the stream that runs lightly under the little wooden bridge. It is a creek, not a burn, I will remind myself and maybe even say "crick" the way some folks in Indiana do and laugh at how my mother would disdain such pronunciations. What would she think of my living on a farm? She had been so eager to leave behind country life. I am sure she would make a romance of it. That was how she reconciled everything. I cannot help but remember my mother now but she has been gone for more than a decade.

Now it is my turn to feel chased. I shake off the reverie, tuck my camera into my pocket, and hurry to catch up with my friend among the big trees.