Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Always Beautiful Not Always Easy

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It is beautiful here today. Luscious yellow flowers atop a rich green crop out one window, the ever changing Greenland Moss in front of me, and the sun viewed through the fringe of the willow trees is turning the horizon a purply grey red pink as she comes onstage. None of which bears any resemblance to the photo above.

I took that photo while scrambling around on a rocky foreshore near the Gills Bay ferry. I was there not only because I like scrabbling around on rocky beaches but also because I was waiting for the flyover of a little airplane to commemorate the anniversary of the first air mail flight to this part of the world. Fresson was a pioneer aviator and his son was putting together several events to try to get people to remember that effort and his father's accomplishment.

The airplane is going to fly over this spot in deference to another pioneer whose house is nearby. In a while we'll get on the ferry and go to some of the events commemorating this--a reception with conversations and a book signing and opening of a special exhibit in the local museum. My husband is there because when he was a school boy he flew on the airplane.

When I took the photo of the bones and the rocks and the sea weed in what is, to me, a pleasing yin yang rhythm, I thought "always beautiful but not always easy". The phrase fits not only the photo or the beach but also the larger context and the reason that for all its beauty there are comparatively few people here. Although it would be hard to have a drinks reception on the shingly beach and not many people would find the photo attractive, nonetheless I think it is a fitting tribute to the spirit of those like Fresson who made their lives here.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


How is it our own personal earthquake zones are so apparent to folks who thunder on and around us? And how is it that after more than 6 decades on this planet I am still so surprised by my own vulnerability? Years ago my daughter told me in the absolutist way that adolescents do that there were several things I was no longer allowed to be surprised about--I don't know if being hurt by the comments of other people was on the list.

I had no doubt that I was talked about and assessed and no doubt found lacking in many respects for the first few months of my bumbling along as a stranger in a strange land. I resolved that if I did not actually hear it--as I was not likely to--I would not have to react to it. And so I kept myself cocooned and made friends and got invovled and began to feel as if I just might belong here.

The price of that hard won confidence was to hear some of the ugly things said about me. I was devastated by the comments, by my naivete, and mostly by the power of half baked rumours to persist. I have written previously about the rumour mill in Caithness ("The Virtue of Doubt"), but yesterday as I reeled from the pain of being vicitmized by it, I tried to analyze it.

It occurred to me that personal attacks--delivered anonymously, of course--have many of the hallmarks of urban legends--those bizarre stories that persist despite frequent challenges to their logic or street hustles.

When I was tasked with teaching the rhetoric of persuasive writing to reluctant students, I told them that the best examples of identifying the reader's needs could be found in street hustlers. There are several articles and boks on that--both learned and more street savvy studies, but the point I want to make here is that all cons have a great talent for identifying a person's vulnerabilities--"what will make this person buy snake oil?"

And rumour mongers also have that knack. What will catch someone's attention and make them, like the seeds of sticky willie, carry it on to fertile territory?

And why are we all --despite being the victim in this instance I include myself in this rubric--so willing to carry those seeds?

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Goodbye, Miss Anne

Posted by PicasaAll day yesterday she was on my mind. I kept wishing I could take her hand in mine for just a moment. When I last saw her, diminished as we all are by the starched white sheets and odd angles of a mechanized hospital bed, I was afraid to take her hand because it looked so small and frail. I didn't want to be there saying goodbye for the last time in a hospital room overlooking the flat roof of a parking garage, and I didn't want to leave.

We all knew then--we suspect Miss Anne had already sussed it before the CAT scans and the blood tests and Xrays told us that the cancer had already won the war for her life. Her family took her home for in home hospice--a modern day version of how we used to die if we had a choice, at home surrounded by our loved ones.

Home was important to Miss Anne--not that it was a castle or had all the latest gizmos or the newest colours on the wall or the biggest TV. Not that kind of home. A home where she made people genuinely welcome. Hospitality. It is a word like so many that has been jargonized. Hospitality has become an industry--a commodity that can be produced and sold and enhanced and re-valued. But the simple virtue of being open to people cannot be commoditized and rebranded and repurposed.

To be accepting of oneself, and, thus, of others, is a great act of grace. There was a world of faith and love in a pot of Miss Anne's collard greens. She welcomed me into her home on nothing more than the fact that her daughter had befriended me. I stood awkwardly at first in her living room--neither of us knowing quite what to say or do but within minutes that unease had begun to be replaced by an understanding followed by a genuine affection.

I remember fondly the many meals around her table and I am pleased to say that at least once she came to my house. It was a stretch. In America there is a world of difference between neighbourhoods. It was easier for me to go into hers than for her to come to mine. I was honoured. I wish there could have been more times. But she reached out even when I was away. Once she believed me when I said how much I loved her greens, she never let me leave without a plate of greens and corn bread and whatever meat she had cooked. It was a pleasure beyond the food to come home late at night after a hard working day and see that plate in my fridge.

And she came to my wedding, which was even more of a stretch than my neighborhood on the north side of the city where we both lived. My wedding was in southern Indiana, which, for a black person, connotes more danger and exclusion than I even care to think about let alone to describe here. Suffice it to say, she came and I was very glad to see her.

Somewhere through the years--more than 10 now of knowing her and her family--I became her other daughter. We all had a laugh about it, which is often the way of dealing with serious matters; I was her Scottish daughter. Whatever else people may have thought of it did not matter. If Miss Anne welcomed me, then that was enough. Her hospitality came from a strength of character forged through hard times and faith in better ones.

She has passed along that strength to her children and grandchildren. Losing her is softened somewhat by the knowledge that her gifts will live on in her children and grandchildren. I am honoured that I have been able to be part of their family now for many years--and hope to continue it for many more. I have struggled since I came back to think how I would honour her memory. Beyond the cards and the flowers, my gift has to be something more enduring: I need to pick up the tradition of hospitality that she shared with me. Like all gifts of the spirit, it comes without a price but at a cost.

I described hospitality as a simple virtue. It is simple in its execution, but like so many vocations, it requires practice and effort. To be open to people is to be open to the injuries they inflict on our notions of ourselves--intentionally or inadvertently--as well as to their heartsickness and missteps. That will be the challenge for me, but anything less would not be enough to honour Miss Anne.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Between Boxes

Flit is a local word for moving house. It sounds so simple. We all know it isn't, but like labour, you forget the worst bits and so I have ventured once more into the territory of

oh that's where this went
what on earth is this for?
now I have three of these
the sad truth that books are heavy, no matter how small a parcel you make of them.
The easier parts of the move have been dealt with. Not that any of it has been easy, but we have moved enough furniture to the new house that we can sort of live here. We are down now to the real nitty gritty.
Thanks to wonderful friends and family lending a hand for the hard work, we'll make it, I think. Tomorrow is Truck Day. Younger and fitter people will be loading things onto a truck. I'll be packing and cleaning and trying not to be too sad or too distracted. When I moved into Isauld, I thought I would never move again. Five years in one place is a long time for me, but Isauld needs more people in it and more time and energy invested in bringing her back to life. I hope she gets it.
Meantime, after a load in each of our cars and some dismantling of furniture in preparation for the move, we took a little time off to rest for the big event and to enjoy the new neighbourhood. We went for an ice cream from the convenience store in Castletown, took the long way home--past the traveler's house--and watched the sun disappear behind a hill leaving its red orange rose pink silver behind it like a long veil.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Haiku for a Quiet Woman

A boisterous wind skirls
consoling hymns drift skyward
one voice laid to rest
I didn't even know my friend had been diagnosed with cancer, so the news of her death hit me hard. Her death came more quickly than anyone had anticipated and she was young--by today's standards--only a few years older than I am.
My last interaction with her was working on a cobweb gauze scarf at Castlehill. We were down on our hands and knees laughing and working with the soft wool. She wanted her scarf to be all one colour. I was suggesting she could add colours, but she insisted on the one colour. She knew what she wanted, and, when done, it was breathtakingly beautiful. The pleasure of it made her glow. I thought to myself I look forward to getting to know her better. And then the email saying she was dead.
I sang as well as I could for the second hymn, "All things bright and beautiful," as my best goodbye to Christine. I'll bring flowers to Castlehill in the colour of that scarf.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Pink Lady Moss

Today in bright light--we may not get heat up here, but the light is very intense--the heather on the moss looks more pink and the lochan is a blue smile.

The flit is intense and so time today for only a haiku

Small birds dive, chatter
the heron watches and waits
above still water

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Morning on the Moss

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Still jet lagged and not sure what day it is, but now I know I am definitely back in Scotland: nettle stings on my fingers, a grey sky with soft, sticky rain, and my first walk along the Greenland Moss--my new neighbourhood.

She has been lying just out of reach for months now. We have passed her in the car, admired her from the windows of the house, talked about getting to know her, and today was my first brief introduction. The grey skies enhanced the purple-lavender-red of the heather and the reeds and the thistles. The rain softened the sounds. The only creature stirring was the large draft horse tethered on the grass. He watches my approach, studying me to see if I might have a carrot for him--poised between his desire and his caution, he stands still until I am close enough that he can see that I am neither a threat nor a carrot-bearer and so he turns his heavy head back to grazing.

The grass near the edge oozes with the accumulation of recent rains and I am reminded that this peat-soil is a dynamic blending of earth and water. My shoes are soaked before I have ventured very far beyond the edge. There are large cuts where the peat has been removed for hearth fires. They are a bit too wide for a step or a leap and the water is visible in the bottom. As always, the water visible belies the water below. I could easily step into it and be in soft damp earth up to my knee. I need to have my boots and my walking sticks to venture further.

I nod to the heathers just out of reach and return to the paved road. Familiarity with wildness has to be earned. I walk with my head turned firmly to the side like a soldier on parade but the parade is in the colours and the texture sliding into one another as I walk along. My scrutiny reveals a lochan in the midst just beyond what I could have seen from a car window or from the house. The first of what I hope will be many moods, many secrets revealed through closer acquaintance with this new neighbour.

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