Saturday, February 28, 2009

Speed Bumps

If you live long enough, you have a lot of failures along the way--not necessarily the colossal kind that alters your life irrevocably, but the awkward, the expensive, the disappointing: speed bumps rather than road blocks as my brother used to say. When I lived a life more fraught with that kind of failure, I became adept at dodging, slowing down, gritting my teeth or some combination of above. When I worked as a pawn in a corporation with too many leaders and too little leadership, I became a modern day artful dodger with my evasive manoeuvres. When I reflected with a coworker on a pretty dismal 5 years of this, he said that just to have survived was an achievement. Sometimes it is hard to find the success in so much dodging, but the experience was helpful.

Oddly enough, after a patch of too much success I had neglected that practice of scanning for speed bumps. Perhaps I had grown to think that I was immune. At any rate, when the speed bump came up I just did not pay enough attention.

So now I am collecting myself after the bumps and bruises of my own misguided inattention. I have no one else to blame. The media love a scapegoat, and it can be seductive but it can be the road block after the speed bump, if you let it. Having jounced over many a speed bump, I am now getting back into the drill. Reflecting, reinventing, salvaging what can be reused and sweeping up the damage as tidily as I can.

Last night was two glasses of red wine and just now sitting and typing--or trying to--with my favourite cat Solomon wiggling and squiggling in my lap and over the keyboard.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Driving Home in a Howling Gale

I know 'howling gale' is not an official designation on the Beaufort scale, but Beaufort was an admiral, so he would not use such alarmist language. The truth is, a gale does howl above a certain frequency. I don't know what frequency that is or what velocity of wind that it represents--sometimes physics does take second place to descriptive language. The bottom line is, whatever the speed of the wind, you don't want to be out in it.

At 5:15 this am, I was alerted to the possibility of gales by my faithful shipping forecast. My schedule was set, so I knew I would be out late--well, late relative to my normal bucolic schedule. The question was not whether the gale would come our way but whether it would get here before I got home. It did.

The 10 miles home meant wind and rain wind and freezing rain and wind and hail and then just wind--the howling wind.

Despite a bit of white knuckle driving, the weather suited my mood. I felt like howling, so I sang along with the wind and felt much better for it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Children of the Grey Coast

We are all children of the sea up here, George Gunn said that in one of his poems or his conversations. The import has stuck although the words tend these days to jump around a bit more chaotically in my mind. It is one of those things that I will rattle around in the back of my head for some time because it can mean so many different things. Poetry is like that.

Today I am thinking that it refers to the pull the ocean has to us all. A new favourite eating place overlooks the ocean as it comes tumbling into Thurso bay. On either side of the bay, somewhat like outstretched arms, are Dunnet Head--about 5 miles away, and Holborn Head, about a mile from the restaurant. Earlier this week, surfers were out catching the rolling grey green waves. Fishing boats are often seen, the ferry moves across twice a day--except in bad weather, and there is an occasional ocean liner.

But Sunday there was a helicopter making its way slowly back and forth across the harbour. "They do exercises sometimes on a Sunday," my husband says. I nod. I am glad they practice for the times when they are needed. As children of the sea, we need to study her ways and know how to live with her.

The helicopter kept its slow flying in a regular pattern long after needed for a drill. Doubts began to grow stronger as we drove past the Coast Guard station and saw cars and people, including a police car.

Today came the sad news that a woman's body had been recovered from the sea. I do not know the woman or her family, so I will not intrude on their grief.

From the moment I saw the helicopter in the air, this piece that I wrote some time ago to describe Peter Brueghel's painting of Daedlaus and Icarus came to my mind. People anywhere can too easily fall out of the frame, so I want to take just a moment to mark the passing of one of the daughters of the Grey Coast.

A Tale Within a Tale: Pieter Brueghel's Fall of Icarus

The story that we know lies almost entirely outside the frame of the picture just as Daedalus and Icarus in defying the conventions put themselves outside the reach of the everyday.
The farmer at his plough, the shepherd in the field, the fisherman on the shore all fail to notice the fall of Icarus or even to suspect the grief of the father still in the sky searching in vain for his lost son. Daedalus made their wings and taught Icarus how to use them to escape the tower where they were held captive. More importantly, Daedalus taught Icarus how not to use them. “Fly neither too high, lest the sun melt the wax, nor too low lest the sea make the wings too heavy for flight.”

The surge of his wings heavenward was too much for young Icarus. Too late he felt the warm sun on his back. As he plummeted downward spiralling into an unforgiving sea only then did he recall his father's words.

Beyond the land and the safety of the ship at sea, beyond his father's arts, Icarus slips unnoticed into the sea. His father searches in vain, beyond the help of the farmer, the shepherd, the fishermen, and all the men at sea. An ancient Humpty Dumpty whose intemperance led to his own downfall, Icarus has given us his name as a parable of the sin of hubris, of overreaching.

And Daedalus is forever the grieving parent: clever enough to free his son but not clever enough to protect him from his own foolishness. Does he regret his wings? Would he return to the labyrinth if in so doing he could reclaim his son? Has Daedalus brought this pain upon himself because he dared to defy the simple life of land or sea? The ploughman and his horse, both with heads bowed, move along the familiar curves of the earth. It is a companionable relationship of man and plough and horse and earth. Likewise the shepherd and his flock hug the shore and face inwards, away from the perils of sea or sky. The fisherman and the sailors are all secure in a familiar relationship with the elements and their place in the world.

Daedalus challenged these familiar patterns. In so doing he put himself and Icarus out of reach not only of the Minotaur and King Minos but also of the safety of human patterns. Because he tempered his use of the wings, Daedalus was able to get himself safely back to Earth but at a price he was loath to pay. Daedalus and Icarus slipped out of the frame of any of these safer relationships and so out of the frame of the artist's and our vision. The artist tells a tale of loss, of absence, of hubris.

Outside the frame forever circling just beyond the clouds in the sky, Daedalus is a parable of the limits of parental affection, the tragic impossibility of keeping those we love safe from the consequences of the choices that we set in motion for them. Both Daedalus and Icarus are reminders of the hubris the Greeks feared—daring to tempt the boundaries and outwit the Gods brings fearful consequences.

It is a reminder too of the limits of our individual lives. Icarus falls unnoticed into the ocean and is lost without a glance from any of the others in the picture.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Social Networks and Messages

I signed up for Facebook mostly because I was curious. Now I am also part of a felting social network page. For a shy person, these social networks are a blessing. Nice, carefully controlled conversations. For people in remote areas or those far from friends and family, they are a great resource for keeping in touch. They are a bit of a challenge for me though in that there are so many people to talk to. I don;t want to hurt anyone's feelings or push the wrong button--literally.

When I first moved here I lived in stark terror of offending someone. I walked about with a chronic smile in case someone saw me that I did not recognize in time or greet appropriately. Now the folks who know me know that I may be designing ganseys n my head and pass them on the street with best of intentions bt an absent brain. They tell me about it the next time they see me. We laugh.

Also when I first moved here, as I have often commented, I was befuddled by the language. Even when I understood the words, I could not always take in their import. "Messages" was one of those words. Messages can mean either messages as in someone called and left a message or it can mean lists of things to get at the grocery or other errands. This seemed an unusual meaning to tack on to the word until I knew enough people to appreciate that going into town to do errands and buy groceries was also a way of collecting the news and connecting with people.

I have no idea if that is how the word came into being, but it seems apt. Last week between the bank and the grocery store, I caught up with half a dozen friends-acquaintances. One daughter ws jus thome on a break from school in Inverness; another had her hair done; another was on her way to thus and such event. In each case, the meeting involved exchanging the news --messages.

Ok just a quick post. Need to get to town and get the messages.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Snowball in the Sea

Despite the fact that it feels so cold up here from time to time that my feet go numb up to the knees, the temperature is moderated by the water. Frost is occasional and short-lived; snow is limited to a light dusting. Usually. We had snow on the ground when down south (that more prosperous city cousin, which is sometimes referred to up here generically as "Englandshire" ) was overwhelmed with snow followed by rain that has led to flooding and other serious weather concerns.

In my new life, which involves often lunching with friends (well, I did a fair bit of that in my old life, too) I spent a part of Monday looking at great lumps of snow piled likes cakes by the side of the Thurso river. The white cakes contrasted sharply with the dark brown shore, but to my eyes-- much accustomed to seeing large lumps of snow heaps in February--not too remarkable. My friend, with eyes more attuned to Caithness seasons, wondered how so much snow could get accummulated into that shape. It was a good question. No more than an inch or so had fallen on any given spot, so how had these self-rolling snowman bases come into being?

Tuesday I was lunching with another friend. She had managed to find a new restaurant overlooking the ocean from my somewhat vague directions--black and gold statue, the next road down from M's house, right over the ocean. The snow started before we put in our order--large flakes, hurrying one after the other as if racing to the ground. The warmer pavement swept them back into water and cast them, aside until it was outnumbered. "If it sitcks," I say and behind those words I have a database of facts and lore about driving in snow. By the time we were at coffee, the snow had depositedf itself about an inch thick on the cars, pavement, railings overlooking the sea, and was still coming fast. Pedestrians with their dogs carried umbrellas, which are never used for the rain up here--rain is either soft enough to be ignored or so pervasive that it cannot be thwarted. The snow curled softly around the tops of the umbrellas and unprotected shoulders. Even the dogs who liked the snow were hurrying to get back to the warmth of home. If I could have ignored the snowscape, I, too, would have lingered by the fire in the cafe, but this snow was not one to be ignored.

My boots squeeked as I stepped on to the snow. That sound evoked the residual child that lurks in all of us, and I thought of snow angels, snow men, and--just to confirm what that tell tale squeek of the snow had hinted at, a proper snowball. As I set about clearing the car, I took a handful of snow--casually, analytically--compressed it into the vaguely spherical shape and did my best imitation of throw all the way back to home plate from the outfield. The foreshortening of the horizon because of the snow made it possible for me to imagine that it flew all the way down the shore and rolled into the sea. It was a lovely moment.

The wiper blades whirring a losing battle with the snow brought me back to adulthood in Caithness with 10 miles of snowy roads with drivers not accustomed to driving on snow in front of me. The roads were problematic. The gritters (sand trucks) could not keep pace with the snow. In heavily trafficked areas, the snow melted, refroze and was covered again by loose snow. I edged into the local farm supply store and asked for the required armaments for snow days--snow shovel, salt and sand mix. I used to use cat litter, but thought that was too unconventional to mention. With these in my boot (trunk), I started for home.

The thick snow was like driving through sand. Slow and steady was all that was required. I appreciated that I have a stick shift car; it seems to give me more choice about speed and the connection between wheels and engine--perhaps I'm naive, but I kept going when other folks spun out or stalled. My heart sank when I had to stop on an incline at a red light. I began inching forward nicely in control when I became aware that the bus next to me was struggling. The front wheels were turning slowly, predictably forward; the rear wheels were hysterical. And then the rear of the bus slid into the building on its left with a thud and a shudder of plastic bits crashing and falling silently onto the snow-covered pavement. No passengers, no injuries, just a typical snow day traffic kerfluffle.

Up that little hill, around the bend, through the next light and soon through the town. I miss the ocean. Neither sight nor sound of it is possible through the snowfall. The ocean had swallowed my snowball and now that snow has had its revenge on the ocean.

I crawl along at no more than 20 mph because the back end of my car tends to get twitchy at anything more adventurous than that. The example of the bus is still clearly in my mind's eye so I slow down to ensure that all 4 wheels are in agreement about which way we are going.

About three miles before home, the snow stops, the sky clears, the pavement has only remnants of snow. I accelerate all the way to 30 and prepare myself for the last little shock of the trip home. As I had suspected, the farm road--the last 1/2 mile home-- is deep in soft white snow. There is one set of tracks --much too wide for my car to follow, so I plow through the snow, hearing the lowest part of the undercarriage conversing amiably enough with the snow. And then the beast that must have made the tracks comes back and starts heading toward me. I stop. Even on a clear day, the few wider spots in the farm road that allow for another vehicle to pass are not very wide. I sit and wait as the huge red thing lumbers forward. He pulls up alongside me with no hesitation and I discover that the rear wheels are large enough that he might almost have been able to go over my car. I am grateful that he didn't. We exchange a few weather words and then he is away and I trundle the last of the way home and slide smoothly into the driveway with the wheels making that lovely squeek.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Paid by the Weight of the Word

I managed to squeeze out a little more than 1,000 words yesterday for my newspaper article. I don't know why the muse was dragging her heels. Part of the reason is that I live in this town where folks read it and I need to be able to face them knowing I have done a creditable job, of course, but that comes with the territory of writing. We hope and pray someone will read it and then die a thousand deaths when they do.

After finishing--with more than usual paragraph re arranging and stalking around the room for the right word "I know I saw it here somewhere..." I was worn out. A friend rang just after I had finished it and wondered what was wrong--"just tired," I explain. I could not say I was worn out from wrestling with 1,000 words--some of which were quite agreeable about taking their place in line.

My husband, reading my article said, "Oh it must be getting easier." I looked at him perhaps the way women all do after labour. He quickly added "because it sounds so smooth."

Funny, I had the opposite interpretation reading my daughter's draft of her novel. It is the second draft for about half of it. The opening moved like polished stone--smooth, warming in your hand. I was through it without realizing it. I knew she must have worked very hard to make it so easy.

That was when I hit on the notion of how to pay writers properly--the old by the word or by the page or project was suddenly passe--a ratio based on the weight of the word--weight both in its import and also in the effort to get it to stick to the page.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

A Parade of Paper Boats

Every time I get together with folks making things on a general theme or using the same materials, I marvel at the variety in their expression. I just visited Joanne's paper boat site: and was amazed and amused. The tropical folks have some excellent exotic materials--Gambi fibre and fermented persimmon juice--who knew?

Meanwhile, I created my first fabric boat last night (old pajama fabric--not so exotic as whatever Gambi is) and looked for starch in the grocery store. How long has it been since you starched anything? Personally, I think it was 1968 when I stopped spraying starch on the button and buttonhole parts of shirts and cuffs. These days, of course, I am mostly swaddled in wool.

I aspire to make a boat that will actually float--not just look pretty. I am worrying in my head over leftover yogurt containers--there are some peedie ones--that might act as hulls, but the starch was a way of joining them to fabric and making the fabric --at least briefly--sea worthy.

As we trolled the grocery aisles yesterday, my friend suggested a trusty margarine tub--that looks a fine hull, I must admit.

All this thinking about paper boats is a nice diversion from the snow and the cold. The original ship, whose anniversary we are celebrating, the Westland, traveled to New Zealand. Yesterday I went to the funeral of the last surviving member of the Broch Home Guard. My best ship will be named for him. I'll blog more about that soon but the sadness is still too heavy, so I'll putter with paper boats and knitting and my heart will mend itself.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Snow Days

It is beautiful to look at. The air is crisp and clear. The sun is shining through the office window all the brighter for bouncing off the dusting of snow. Despite the dusting of snow, the sun lets me know that spring is coming. It was harder to believe in that spring yesterday. The wind howled, the power went out in desperately cold weather leaving everything cold and alone. It felt as if the very centre of the earth had grown icy.

Although it has not been an especially hard winter, there have been chest infections--the classic "just a cold, but" that has landed on people with a particular virulence. It seems to have hit some older people particularly hard. And pneumonia is a concern up here to cattle and people alike.

So while I was basking in the warm sun and being grateful to be home out of the snow that has closed the road that we passed last night just one step ahead of the snow, I felt secure, productive. I was working on projects long past due. I don't know what prompted me to check email. Just one of those feelings.

The father of a friend passed away somewhere/when in that slurry of snow and cold. It was brief and, my friend assures me--not uncomfortable, for which of course I can be glad, but this man was a friend of mine, too, so I grieve for his wife and family and for my friend and for me, too. Although I feel guilty about presuming myself into his life on such short acquaintance, nonetheless, I feel his absence.

One of the many gifts of my life in this new country is the welcome I have received from ordinary people in ordinary places. People who had no reason to know me welcomed me into their kitchens or living rooms and then offered me not only coffee or tea (or sometimes a dram) but also their stories, their recollections--none of which were ordinary.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Down to the Sea in Ships, or well, Boats Anyway

"Down to the Sea in Ships" has such a lovely ring to it, but it is just that looking for the BIG tone that has led me into such dire straits these past few days.

You know how you have those dreams--nightmares, where you are doing something stupid and you know it is stupid and even your dream self knows it is stupid and they do it anyway?

Well, this failure to stop or reverse when I went careening down the path of foolishness started with my own little contribution to Joanne's boats. It started because, as in those dreams, I did not want to look stupid. I was told that Joanne needed folks to come and be filmed making paper boats. Because I did not want to look like the spatially challenged person that I am, I practised and practised and got tutoring for the last little folds. I had a little flotilla of paper hats (nope, even if my camera were working, I would not give you a photo of them. Have you seen the hats the real artists are making for Joanne?)

And then to make it worse, they didn't really need folks to be there. So I was not only not needed, I was in the way. It was like the day when I was thirteen years old and I broke 5 --yes, 5--of those heavy glass half gallon jugs of milk that had those precarious plastic handles. I think the milk that soaked into the patio beside the back door might still be there just to remind me if I ever dared step there again.

This inability to mesh smoothly with the external universe has been dogging my steps since then. When I was 13, I had adolescence and a sudden growth spurt as an excuse. These days, well, I don't like to think about old age as an excuse. I don't like to think about it at all, to tell you the truth.

It was our last day at the Bull Sale in Perth. I had managed for two days not to say or do anything outrageous--anything to give away the fact that I was impersonating someone who belonged there. I should have just kept smiling and nodding, but, instead, that perverse alignment of some naughty planets led me to try to say things in a crowded bar where I only heard about half of what was said and understood about half of that. As soon as I saw the look on the faces of the folks around me, I should have said--"Oh, whatever you think was not what I meant. I am trying to fit in and have made a gaffe, but I am really just a well-meaning, doofus." But nothing came out of my mouth.

So then I tossed and turned all night fretting about what could have or should have been said and what might happen when next I met those people and whether the earth could just swallow me up, but of course it didn't. As with Pandora's last gift out of that pesky box, I was not sure whether that was the good news or not.

OK, so now having made my mea culpa, I am hoping that I can get back to my customary acceptance of myself as a well-meaning fool and move a bit more smoothly into the rhythms of the world.