Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The Hills, the Views and the Cats

The sun rising over the hill lights up the snowy landscape making it gleam like a mirror. I'm reminded of our last Christmas, a White Christmas and the last time that Mama was here at Cottarton. We were eleven around the Christmas Eve table; luckily the snow didn't keep anyone away. One morning, while she lay in her bed, she saw Cocia Renia (Cocia means Aunt in Polish), walk by on her way to the bathroom.
Mama asked , “Who’s that old woman I saw?”

“Cocia Renia.”

“Oh, then I must look old, like that.”

These days unfortunately we can no longer have such a fluent conversation. Her stroke has affected her ability to form words. But we do communicate. She's always overjoyed when Amber or I appear in the ward room. Amber introduces herself as, "Your best Presbyterian daughter in law." Mama always asks where we came from, as if we'd dropped from the moon. She'll say a word or two that I can make out; her eyes ask the question. Often she has to try a couple of tries before I understand.

“You’re asking where I live?”

She nods.

“Cottarton --- you’ve been there.”

Her eyes look puzzled; they ask me to explain.

“It’s the house in the hills, with the beautiful views and the cats.”

Her smile indicates that she’s made the connection. She asks again, trying to form a couple of words. At first I don't reply but she can tell from my look that I don’t understand. After a couple more attempts, I realize that she’s asking about Johanna and Natalia. Do I have any news from them? I begin by recapping that they live in London and about what they do for a living. Natalia has an upcoming concert of Handel’s Messiah. Johanna is enjoying her work at the British Library. She has a boyfriend. The girls call often to ask about their grandmother.

Mama smiles, a crooked smile where the right side is lower than the left but quite endearing. Her broadest smile is reserved for Natasha, when she runs into the room and flings her arms around her Cocia’s neck. The past five years Agata and her daughter, Natasha have lived with Mama and cared for her The three have grown close as blood family. Twice a day, at mealtimes, Agata is at the hospital. Yesterday she trudged for two hours through kneehigh snow to get there. She feeds Mama, spoon by spoon, a process that sometimes takes two hours. Mama must be reminded what to do with each bite. That it must be swallowed. The process doesn’t always work, and for Mama it's often exhausting. But it’s the only way to feed her.

That's on a good day. Last week when I was there, Mama slept the entire time, a deep comatose sleep that lasted 48 hours. But when I held her hand, her fingers tightened about mine. For two days she was out. Phones buzzed between Cottarton, Scone and Edinburgh. We waited. Wondered if her turn meant that she was in a terminal process. Then Mama woke up and asked for breakfast. She greeted Agata and Natasha with a smile, then asked what the fuss was all about. Can’t she go home yet? Why not? Her Consultant (the doctor who takes care of her) shakes his head, telling us he doesn’t know what to make of Mama’s condition. Her brain, shot through with Alzheimers has only limited regenerative ability to deal with the effects of the stroke. She may never speak as before, or be able to feed herself. But he admits that he doesn’t have a prognosis.

Mama has surprised us before. Like many women who lived through the war years in Poland, she emerged tough as nails. She’s not about to give up. Over the past couple of years she received the Last Rites at least ten times. Every time we think we’re about to lose her, she’s back, asking for breakfast.

A few days after her last stroke, I told her that Amber, presently in the States, was coming home early to be with her. Mama laughed. She mumbled out more clearly than usual: “Does she think I’m about to keel over?”

Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Day after Tomorrow

So, there’s this action movie playing in the neighborhood, where the Atlantic freezes over as a result of climate change, the Statue of Liberty is encased in ice, and Scotland disappears under a mountain of snow. Unfortunately the theatre where it’s playing, is our back yard. The first sprinkle was on November 22, then came Apocalypse Now . A dump like this, in November, hasn’t been seen for 20 years.

Just in case some of you try to accuse me of fraud, of using snow pictures from last year create a sensational blog that will make a lot of money, I'm including a picture of our garage. The green doors were painted last summer. So Amber and I are back in our snow routine. The car, with its snow tyres is parked at the end of our access road. The fridge is stocked. Anticipating this show, I planted long garden stakes to mark where to dig up carrots, leeks, turnips and parsnips. No more digging exploratory trenches to look for vegetables, thank you very much. I’ve also inserted a post in the garage to shore up the roof.

The weathermen point to their charts, incomprehensible except to the expert. They reckon that the Atlantic Jet Stream somehow lost its way, and doesn’t know where to find it. And so the frigid weather in Poland and Scandinavia has wandered over to the UK, to help find the lost Jet Stream. Actually, last April, Professor Lockwood, a climatologist at Reading University published a paper in which he warned us that this would happen. That it is linked with a period of very low sunspot activity. Here's the article.
Low solar activity link to cold UK winters
Climatologists have long recognized that the solar cycle affects our climate. Sceptics of man made global warming seized on this factoid like pit-bulls and won’t let it go, saying, "Our climate change is all the sun's doing, so tighten up folks and keep driving your cars." However solar variability cannot explain the Earth’s temperature --- still rising, or Greenland's melting glaciers. What Lockwood and others showed is that the solar cycle can explain changes in local weather patterns, such as the position of the Jet Stream. So, while Scotland shivers, the Spanish and Italians are baking. Even places in Greenland today have highs of 8 Celcius. Looks like the Scots drew the short straw of global warming effects.

Because of the sun’s role in our climate, I regularly check out solar activity. The website Spaceweather.com shows the latest pictures of sunspots, solar flares, and spectacular movies of the Northern Lights.Even comets. Lately solar activity is picking up and the sun is putting on a show for anyone who is looking. This also gives me hope that, if Lockwood is right, the coming winters won’t be as severe as last winter. But we may have to plough through one more.

As Mark Twain remarked, “Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it.” So what next, now that the Day After Tomorrow is here?

We keep the house warm, the fire roaring in the fireplace and look out over our austere landscape. And we write, without the distraction of shopping or joy riding in the outer world. I like to take snow walks down our road. We rarely meet any vehicles. The white landscape contains an unearthly silence that belongs to another order than ours. Years ago on a business trip to Calgary, I tried to capture the sensation in this poem.


Is not information.
Information is time, knowledge, the computer.
Our information age of
Where, what, why, how and when.
Words we value most.

But whiteness is the other.
It blinds your earthly eyes.
Buries under its cloak
All knowledge, information and memories.
And in its silence you discover
Earth and the deep sky’s ornament.
Certainty - and a vision of how things are.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

A Scottish Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving: Messy, Complicated, Forgiving, Sentimental and Pecan Pie with loads of Whipped Cream.

While I celebrate my fifth year wedding anniversary in Scotland, Americans dish up turkey and dressing, sweet potato pie and green bean casserole. This is Thanksgiving week. A harvest festival: a week to be grateful for family and friends, football, Black Friday and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Even those who are less fortunate can queue up at the local shelter and enjoy a meal fit for a king. But in the average American kitchen this week, you can count on sheer pandemonium. Men and women who normally microwave their supper will wake before sunrise, to chop endless piles of onions and celery for cornbread stuffing, oyster stuffing, sage stuffing, chestnut stuffing; it depends on what part of the country you boast before happily getting on to the next project of more endless piles of chopping for yet another Thanksgiving favorite. Do you stuff the turkey, bag the turkey, baste the turkey, deep fry the turkey or simply order it from Central Market (if your roots are Houstonian)? There is much to organize on this popular American holiday, from how many pies to prepare to what time the feast is served to who will drive Aunt Jess and Uncle Nick home.

It’s not always easy being affluent. It has its shadow side, like loneliness and families who are fractured and so deeply wounded they must have two Thanksgiving feasts because of a history of pride and poor choices. (As is the case in my family: sadly, it's what we, the older generation, bequeathed to our children, my son, my nieces and nephews; it's their legacy).

I think it’s important to remember these ugly bits about the holidays because it gives such potency, such poetry to gratitude. Most of you reading this blog already know my family history and its unflattering tales and most of you will remember that in spite of this my mother and I and my son, Zach, actually managed some very pleasant, in fact memorable Thanksgiving moments together. Of course, on the other side of town were the rest of her family, her son and his wife and their children, her grandchildren celebrating without us; the shadow of Thanksgiving.

We simply gorge ourselves on this feast and even take another plate from the table to the den to watch football, when not far from this bounty, more food than is found in some small, under developed villages more than their population could consume in a week is the awareness that we eat and they eat less.

These are the polarities of life, the light and the dark, the old and the young, the sick and the healthy, the happy and the sad, the wounded and the new born of all our lives that bring us together in concert at Thanksgiving.

In the far northeast of Scotland last week, where the gale force winds hold you sideways and the sky casts a muted light, Adam, my nephew, came to visit. We didn’t celebrate a national holiday together, we just celebrated being with each other. We cooked and laughed and engaged in polite debate: the British way. Nothing escaped us, not religion, abortion, spirituality, psychology, the dying and the newly born, our immediate family members and their children and our respective trips back to the States, we covered much ground.

Adam and Paul played music to entertain the chef by and I must say we ate like Royalty, maybe better than. In this pre-Anniversary week, I was completely conscious of the goodness at the table here at Cottarton: the goodness of the people, their kindness and their generosity, the spirited conversations and the unreserved laughter – it was all here and yet…

I know what loneliness is: I know loneliness in a most intimate way and because I know, my gratitude for the family I do have and for the loving relationships active in my life, I am so very thankful this Thanksgiving season.

To paraphrase Joseph Campbell: “It doesn’t matter what seat I’m in at the opera, I’m just so grateful to see the show.”

At this American Thanksgiving Table, this season, don’t forget to pass a little shadow along with the cranberry sauce.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Kinnoull Hill

Kinnoull Hill has been part of my life since early childhood. Its tall cliff face surmounted by a small tower looks over the River Tay, and dominates the Perth skyline. The first time I climbed to the top, my father held onto me, as I was determined to walk right up to the sheer edge and watch the world drop away into nothingness. The winter of 1963 Munia, Jim and I sledded down the slope facing Perth. Though not a sheer drop, the slope is steep enough to generate enough speed to bring your heart into your mouth.

Whenever Amber and I visit the old nest in Scone, we try to fit in a walk up the Hill. There’s something unearthly about the place. It feels like a temple, a place of magical power, more majestic than anything built by human hands. Though the Hill is not a tall mountain, it makes you feel small, coming face to face with something vast; not unlike the sensation that may arise when you stand at the foot of a Giant Sequoia. There’s rarely a time after a climb up the hill when I don’t feel refreshed and ready to take on the world. On the Hill daily troubles and concerns retreat to where they appear paltry.

On the summit, there’s no barrier to prevent anyone from jumping over the cliff, and some people have. There’s only a wooden sign that reads, “Dangerous Cliffs.” Unlike the United State, Scotland doesn’t have serious litigation problems. If you want to take your life, nobody is going to stop you.

I’ve long felt that such a place has many stories to tell, and I set myself the task of uncovering them. The small tower, known as the Folly, was erected in the 19th century by the fifth Earl of Kinnoull, who wanted replicate the castles he saw overlooking the Rhine. Built as a ruin the tower never had any other practical purpose. According to some sources the hill was the site of an earlier castle, long gone by the twelfth century, however the site has never been excavated.

Less generally known are the early legends, about a dragon that, back in the sixth century, had his lair in a cave below the summit. True to his nature, he slaughtered cattle and abducted beautiful girls. Supposedly he was slain by the Christian saint. St. Serf. I say supposedly, because what’s more telling is that the dragon was consecrated to Belinus, the Celtic sun god. The great festival of Belinus is Beltane that is celebrated on May 1, one of the two main Celtic festivals, the other being Samhain --- or Halloween. On Beltane, people celebrated the birth of the sun, with fires, dances and debauchery. Even all marriage vows were suspended for one day. Beltane was celebrated on Kinnoull in a small hollow below the summit called Windy Cowl, a place reputed to have of multiple echoes and eerie sounds. Finally in the sixteenth century the Scottish Kirk, declaring Beltane to be mostly frequented by papist monks and other unsavoury characters, put an end to the fun.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that a dragon is associated with the Hill, as the dragon appears frequently in British mythology. He’s often called “The worm”. Many places whose names contain the phrase “worm” or “orm” are named after a local dragon.

The following site, Mysterious Britain, contains links to many British dragon stories.

I suspect that the dragon’s legendary wickedness is as undeserved as the big bad wolf’s rapacious reputation, and is more a result of the attempts of monks and priests to Christianise the old religion of Britain. In China, where there was no attempt to suppress the early beliefs, the dragon is a benign force --- celebrated with song and dance. The great worm appears to represent overwhelming power that we have no control over, often disruptive like a gale storm or earthquake that periodically changes our lives. If we're religous or spiritual, we might attribute that power to a deity or deities. Long ago that power was believed to reside in prominent physical features of the land: mountains, caves, or a stone circle such as Stonehenge.

Kinnoull Hill is such a place. Its dragon also bore the distinguishing feature of a stone in the centre of its forehead. Whoever possessed the stone would himself have the power of the dragon, including the gift of invisibility. Back in the seventeenth century a certain James Keddie found the stone in the cave. For a while he enjoyed being invisible; playing pranks on his friends, but he eventually lost the stone, and it hasn’t surfaced since. Perhaps it’s in a cave, waiting for Bilbo Baggins to drop by.

Today we inhabit a different world. Dragons and magical stones of invisibility belong to the world of fable; we’re most comfortable relegating fables to Halloween or Harry Potter movies. Ours is a rational world that values working a job, no matter how humdrum, and making money. We imagine that we’re in control and that we don’t need to propitiate any deities. I’m not sure that we are in control. Life has its way of dealing us the unexpected. Nor can we dismiss what the dragon stands for --- an awesome power that makes itself felt in our psyche, whether we invite it or not.

Take a climb up the hill and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Wayside Cafe

Off the A96, a few miles from Inverurie you’ll find the quintessential Scottish honky-tonk housed in a single-decker bus parked permanently in a small lay-by. There are always several cars parked there, testifying that people do frequent the bus. Whenever Amber and I whizzed down the road from Aberdeen toward Cottarton, we’d notice an official road sign pointing right, saying, “Hot Food”. As if this was the last chance to eat before you headed off into the bare hills, where the only residents are sheep. We’re not great fans of local eating establishments. They're genuine but sparse. In a Huntly cafe, if you inadvisedly order a cappuccino, they serve you a cup of --- get it, “instant cappuccino.” To make the coffee appear Italian, the waiter cups a hand about his lips and makes fake cappuccino sounds. In an Inverurie café, the waiter froths your milk, then adds drip coffee to it, and calls it a cappuccino. Toto, somehow I don’t think we’re in Italy any more. So, when we stopped by Roy’s Bus, as it’s locally known, we didn’t try to order cappuccino. Amber had just got off a transatlantic flight from Houston. Her nerves were shot. She doesn’t pretend to be anything but the most nervous flyer. We were looking for something to help her feel the ground under her feet.

The Bus, analogous to Doctor Who’s Tardis, is a bus on the outside and a café on the inside with two rows of tables and chairs. Space is distorted so that the bus’s inside feels much larger than its outside. Several other customers were there; the waitress moved rapidly taking orders and delivering them. We ordered coffee --- no European funny business please --- and she brought us a cup of hearty, brewed coffee. Couldn’t have tasted better. Jerked us both awake. Then came the Scottish Breakfast, comprising of fried eggs, bacon, ham sausage, black pudding, baked beans and a fried tomato. Perhaps in such a charming place with windows on every side,giving us a 360 degree view, the food tasted especially good. I savoured every bite. The Scots are unpretentious about their food. They don’t try to compete with chefs from other countries. What they cook, they cook well, whether haggis, soups, breakfast, savoury pies, stovies or fish and chips. Scots are good with simple meat dishes. If you want healthy, organic meat or fish, there’s plenty of it here. Local butchers will sell you meat, derived from animals and farms that they know well. In Aberdeen you can buy fish that comes straight from the docks. For most people, eating out is not as common as in the States. Home cooking is preferred, partly because restaurants tend to be expensive, and most people feel that their home cooking tastes better. Plus, there’s the ambiance of a warm home, and the home table that’s special.

Roy’s Bus is special, a true wayside café for travellers on their way somewhere else, and who want something more than to gulp down a pre-packaged sandwich and a bag of potato crisps, all the time with one hand on the wheel. It’s definitely a place to relax, and to hang out. Local kids call the bus, “The Hangover Bus” because it’s a good first stop on Sunday mornings, to cure the hangover from a Saturday night blow-out. One local said he liked to sit there with his coffee and do research. Others study for exams. I can’t think of a better place to write. You’ll meet every character you might want to put into a story. I think I’ll start my next novel there.

Saturday, 13 November 2010


Do you ever fly in your dreams? Like the woman in the picture? Like Superman with your arms stretched out? It’s good to find that ability when, in the midst of a nightmare, you’re in a tight spot, pursued by baddies or demons. In such situations your legs are usually not much use, so the only way to escape is to fly away. Sometimes you just skim the surface of the land, and at other times you soar above the trees. It depends on the lightness or weight of your heart. The places you visit are likely to be unfamiliar as a temple in Papua New Guinea, or a shanty town in an unnamed country. Curiously, on your journey you meet people you hadn’t seen for a while, but who know you very well.

The evening Gabriella Nissen invited us to her photographic studio in the Heights had its special magic, because we found ourselves surrounded by friends we hadn’t seen in three years --- Quin and Gabriella, Chris, Pat and Jim. Shirley had just flown in from LA to see us. I met Quin over twenty years earlier. We canoed together and worked with a group that was trying to establish a Waldorf School in Houston. We picked up conversations where we’d left off, as if no time had passed. We drank dark beer and ate the mythological Star Pizza. Gabriella’s images added to the dreamlike quality of the evening. They contain movement, often dramatic and expressing deep emotion, such as the photos of Dominic Walsch from the Houston Ballet. Some recent images were for fashion magazines, such as the flying woman; she had mastered the force of gravity; the watery element too. There she is sleeping underwater. The studio also contains Quin’s wood art, such as the bench carved out of a single cedar. Every whorl and knot in the grain stands out, emphasizing that this is an object carved out of a living thing.

What did we talk about? Things we all felt passionate about. Our art, as many of us are artists, whether we use images, words or wood. Politics cast its shadow too. With election not far off, the Country stood at the edge of a precipice. We felt that many opportunities had been missed because of fear. Fear is the force of gravity that prevents us from flying. Adds weight to our hearts. Despite the insanity of politicians, bankers and the powers that be, we knew that we had each other, our lives and our vision. If we allowed ourselves, we could fly like the woman in Gabriella’s picture.

The real world broke in --- the watch, that pocket dictator, told Amber and I that we had to drive off soon so we would reach Tomball before our friends went to bed. And so, awkwardly we had to get up, say our good-byes, at least for now. We might see each other again, but that moment in the studio was over. Walking back to our car felt like coming down to Earth, landing, the inevitable waking that follows any dream.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Wolf Talk

Perhaps you’ve seen wolves, in a sanctuary or at least on a TV documentary. But did you ever hear them talk? The wolves we saw at the St. Francis sanctuary in Montgomery, Texas, appeared at first to be large dogs, but upon a closer look their eyes were nothing like a dog’s. You sensed an intelligence behind them, that the wolf studied you closely, reading your mood and your character. It knew more about your feelings and impulses than you knew yourself.

They talk to each other. Listening closely to their howling, you soon realize that there’s an elaborate conversation going on. Each cry contains, words, vowels and consonants strung together in a way that’s not haphazard. As in our conversations, the wolves aren’t talking at once. First one calls out, a long drawn howl modulated; more like a song with words. Another wolf responds, but using different words and then a third. You’d swear that they’re having an elaborate conversation. No doubt you’ve heard a dog howl at the moon, but not like this. Unfortunately we've no Rosetta Stone to help us understand that the animals are saying. We can only surmise.

I’ve known Jean LeFevre for almost twenty years. She and her husband John settled on the rolling hills near Montgomery about the time I moved to Houston. They built a church and a retreat centre there. Also a wildlife sanctuary to take care of sick or wounded wild animals that people brought to them. Among their patients, there soon appeared several wolves, brought often by police or rangers. Now that they are in the sanctuary, the wolves can no longer be released into the wild. But --- do they have a bad life being fed and cared for by Jean and her volunteers? Click on the link for a look at the cast of characters.

St Francis Sanctuary

I last saw the wolves five years ago and since then they’ve been one of my passions, to the extent that I recently wrote an entire novel around their lives. On this visit to Texas, while Amber reconnected with her family, I needed to reconnect with the wolves.

Duchess wasn’t happy to see Jean that day. I’ve no idea why Duchess was so displeased, but the moment that Jean drew close to her cage, the wolf bared her teeth and threw herself against the wire. Not only did she utter a medley of snarls, typical of a mad dog, but she spoke to Jean in a dark voice, words that only a magician could decipher, telling Jean precisely why she was angry with her. The antics didn’t fluster Jean in the slightest. She placed her hand on the chain link fence, inserted a couple of fingers and wagged them in Duchess's face, not only to try to calm her down, but to demonstrate that she wasn’t afraid. Anyone else would have ended up minus a couple of fingers. Placing her lips close to the wolf’s head, Jean spoke in English, telling Duchess that she was sorry for the misunderstanding, and that she would always take care of her. Duchess snorted, pushed away from the fence to land on fours and trotted off. A minute later she had forgotten the episode. I surmised that her anger was specifically directed at Jean because when I whistled to her she smiled at me. I wanted to greet her. She was barely a pup when I met her on my earlier visit and she had been extremely friendly to me then. I told her I was pleased to see her again. She walked over to me, looked me over closely and said she was happy to see me too.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Earth's Curvature

Penny drove us all the way from Fredricksburg out into West Texas. The roll of the land settled and the horizon grew in all directions. Near Big Spring, a town that boasted of having its own symphony orchestra, we saw a few open ponds, but otherwise the ubiquitous scrubby plants and dry river beds spoke of the lack of water. Wind generators, perched on the tops of mesas turned slowly. Not many people live out there. Once it had been a land of ranches but we didn’t see any cattle. The only inhabitants dotted throughout the landscape were the oil pumps, nodding their heads rhythmically. Some were no longer operating. My eye was drawn to the sky that with every mile grew overhead to where it encompassed the land. The horizon where Earth and Sky met was not flat but curved as you often see from an aeroplane. From that curvature you can tell that you're on planet Earth. A globe. If you're mathematical, you can even work out the Earth's circumference. The feeling of vast space left me breathless. Amber and I have our home among the Scottish mountains, a place of outstanding beauty. A beautiful view means vertical relief. I never expected beauty in a land that was so flat. Perhaps the feeling of expanse, or space , evoked in me the feeling of the numinous.

While driving, Penny related to us in great detail many stories of her mother's family --- the eleven brothers and sisters from Crane Texas, the youngest two being Edith whom we were about to meet and Joyce, Amber and Penny’s mother.

Several single houses each surrounded by bright green lawns, announced our arrival into Andrews. We pulled into one of the first driveways. Entering the kitchen we found Aunt Edith sitting by the table waiting for us. She greeted us with a broad smile. Her eyes, clear as an eagle's, looked at us through her large spectacles, seeing more detail than you could imagine. Her warmest smile was for Amber whom she hadn’t seen for many years. Aged 94, Edith still lived alone. The elegant furnishings and carefully chosen colour combinations spoke of a proud heritage --- the West Texas landed gentry. Every day Graciella cooked for her. Graciella spoke no English and Edith spoke no Spanish, yet their relationship was more than 30 years old. Anna would also stop by, pick up bills and handle the finances.

No sooner had we sat down at table when a Texas sized ham roast as large as a Thanksgiving turkey appeared from the oven. While we took bites of ham and roasted potatoes Edith asked us so many questions that we were left bewildered. She wanted to know everything about us. All our life stories. At first I could barely hear her over the blaring television --- tuned apparently all day to the Money Channel. I muted the sound. Edith didn’t appear to notice the difference. I suspect the TV was on only for background sound. Responding to her questions I talked about how I arrived in California almost forty years earlier, my astronomical research, teaching in elementary school, and of the odyssey that brought me to Texas. She listened carefully, interrupting if something I said wasn’t clear to her.

Amber pressed her aunt for stories about Joyce, but Edith did not want to talk about her. I suspected that Joyce’s mental illness cast a long shadow on the family. Neither did she want to talk much about her own past, which disappointed us as we hoped to learn some family history and scandals. We tried to force the issue by requesting to look at some family pictures. With one hand on a walker, Edith rummaged through various files in a closet, produced a few scrapbooks but only a handful of pictures.

“What do you think of Obama?” she asked me out of the blue.

She’d already sized me up as a liberal and wanted to hear my piece. I protested that living in Scotland, I wasn’t interested in the actions of the US President --- as long as he didn’t go off and start another war that involved Europeans. I pointed out that very few wars since 1945 ended in anything but stalemate. That remark ended our political discussion.

After lunch Edith retired to her bedroom for her afternoon rest but she asked us to sit with her. Hanging opposite her bed was an oil painting of a villa amid arid hills that reminded me of the Tuscan villa where Amber and I had spent last summer. Later, I asked Edith about the picture.

“Which one?”

“The one that looks like Italy.”

“A New Mexico painter did it.” After a short pause she added. “It’s yours. I want you to have it after I'm gone.”

I protested that this offer was extravagant, but Edith was not to be dissuaded. Once her mind was made up, that was that.

The next morning Amber asked Edith where we could stretch our legs before our long drive back to Frericksburg. Edith directed us to a small lake, but advised us to bring bread for the ducks, advice we should have taken. Arriving at the lake we found several ill-tempered geese that pursued us. Amber crossed the street to give the geese a large berth. They evidently felt cheated because we hadn’t brought food.

As we prepared to leave Amber found a cookbook on Edith’s bookshelf, a cookbook long out of print and which contained the Four Seasons Hotel recipe for “Stuffed shrimp in mustard fruit.” Vincent Price, because he was a celebrity, had been able to filch the recipe from the chef. I copied it down, but not fast enough before Edith spotted me and asked what I was doing. She demanded to see the book. After looking it over, she presented it to Amber, saying, “Take it home.” Amber protested that the book was valuable --- online copies sold for a few hundred dollars. Surely Edith’s daughter who loved to cook aught to have it. As with the picture on the bedroom wall, Amber’s protestations fell on deaf ears. Edith wanted Amber to take the book away immediately. Amber felt she’d been given the keys to the Kingdom.

We said our good-byes. Several of them, and then left. Soon we were once again out in the open land with the sky above dotted by fluffy clouds, and the curved horizon before us.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010


I’m a tactile person --- I like to touch others and like to be touched. Not everyone is like that. No doubt the cynics have various names for me such as “touchee-feelie” but what the hell. Touching is a primitive, non-verbal communication that conveys a lot. Much more than casual words. Words will often lie. We aren’t always truthful when we speak, but our touch never lies. It’s direct, and expresses our feelings precisely. It’s the way we communicate with our natural environment, with animals and with those closest to us. Sometimes it’s the only form of communication with them.

So it was with Mama who had a stroke three days ago that deprived her of her ability to speak. Also to understand what was being said to her. Sitting across the dinner table from her, I saw it happen, though for several minutes I wasn’t sure what had happened. For several minutes Agata and I tried to elicit a response, then called for an ambulance. Mama’s eyes, half closed suggested she wasn’t aware of us, at least not visually.

In hospital, we saw no great change. She didn't respond to our presence, or to our words. As if she had drifted off to a place where we could no longer reach her. Then she lifted her left arm, moved her fingers as if searching with it for something. She wanted someone to take it and hold it. I took it; the fingers didn’t respond to my touch but there was a slight pressure. The face, frozen by the effects of the stroke didn’t reveal any expression but her eyes awakened slightly. She was there --- I was sure of it. What’s more, she knew that I was there. She also knew who I was.

The following day Mama’s eyes were open most of the time and they followed Agata and I. She moved restlessly in the bed, remained slack-jawed. Perhaps she was hungry, as she could not be fed normally. The stroke had affected her ability to swallow liquids or food. Every few minutes her eyes looked wider, a look of fear. She had to be terrified, finding herself in a place where she no longer understood what people were saying, and could not express herself. Again, taking her arm I rubbed it. No response from the arm, but the fear in her eyes appeared to recede. Agata spoke to her, telling her not to be afraid, but I had the impression that touch conveyed more than the words.

The doctor and his cortege of young assistants drifted in. After making his assessment he discussed it in a whisper with the others, before turning to us. “I think your mother has had a stroke,” he said. Not exactly breaking news. “The next few days will help us determine her recovery.” It’s all I could get out of him. I asked whether patients typically recovered the ability to swallow, but the doctor waffled so that I felt stonewalled. Later, Natasha ran in with a leaflet from the waiting room, with all the information I was seeking. That the ability to swallow often returns within weeks. I’m still not sure why the doctor’s at the very least couldn’t paraphrase to me the leaflet's contents. Why are doctors so afraid that anything they say could be used against them?

That afternoon Mama recognized our faces. She could answer our questions with a nod, or by pointing. An incremental improvement, but we were overjoyed to see it. More than anything she wanted to be held, to feel human contact and know that we were really there. That we weren’t phantasms of her imagination. The solid touch that didn’t lie was what she needed.

When the Zambian nurse, we know well from Mama's previous visits, came in, I asked her for a favour. “I know that hospital policy is that I can only visit from 3-5pm and 7-8 pm, but Mama is terrified. She needs someone there --- all the time --- holding her hand. I want permission to come at any time and to sit with her and hold her hand. I’ll get out of the way at mealtimes or if I’m in the way. The nurse was initially doubtful that such an exception could be made but she said she’d try. A few minutes later she returned and said that my request was granted.

The next morning our communication was different. I still held her, but now that I could use words to reach her, I sensed that she no longer needed or wanted to be touched. She even found it embarassing. Her eyes were awake, conscious of me, the sunlight on the window, my watch. She smiled, a crooked smile typical of a stroke victim. I explained what had happened to her and she nodded to indicate she understood. I was amazed at her rapid progress and hope that she’ll continue to develop the ability to swallow, and to speak. She has a fighting spirit that’s enviable.

Though I was delighted to be able to use language again, somehow I felt a loss of intimacy such as we shared earlier when touch was our only means of communication. Touch is reciprocal in that you cannot touch someone without experiencing touch. It takes a great deal of trust because with touch there aren’t any barriers. The boundaries between you are blurred. You’re with each other and whether you like it or not, you can affect each other deeply.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Halloween Tree

By Halloween --- “sicht a night” as Robbie Burns called it in his poem, “Halloween”, the Rowan tree’s leaves are changing. The red berries that hung in large clusters have morphed into withered, white berries. The morning sun rising at a low angle lights up the tree with so many colours that you stand in awe. Most Scottish homes have one or two Rowan trees --- what in America is known as the Mountain Ash, planted not far from the main doorway. It’s there to protect the home and the inhabitants from ghoulies and bogies. And Scotland has plenty of those. Perhaps it’s the damp Scottish climate that produces ghosts, so legendary throughout the world. I’m sure it isn’t only the Scottish imagination; wild though it may be. People I meet in the pub are quite happy to talk about football, the economy,girls, getting drunk or the like. Not about ghosts. Certainly not about fairies --- unless these are fairies in the American sense of the word. But if you find yourself alone in the hills on a desolate spot, you may feel that the land is alive. That you're not necessarily alone. Even those who aren't imaginative will experience it.

In Aberdeenshire Halloween is usually celebrated with a bonfire. Some people wait until November 5, what the English call "Guy Fawkes Night." It’s an opportunity for farmers to burn scraps of wood that have accumulated over the year; often to get together with friends for a dance or a drink while watching the flames soar into the sky. It’s a very ancient festival --- the Celtic Samhain, which predates Christianity and even resisted all attempts to Christianize it. Halloween --- the eve of All Saints Day? I don’t think anyone thinks of it in those terms. Long ago the bonfire had less to do with burning scrap wood. It was more about the welcoming of the dark cycle of the year, when “nights are lang and mirk.” The fire is lit in defiance of the night, a defense against the dark and what it represents. Death.

It was also a celebration of night, of the shadow --- all those forbidden impulses, the things we’d secretly like to do but for social reasons we don’t dare. Long ago the kids took over that part with their Halloween “tricks.” They used to stuff a neighbour’s chimney with peat, or tie a string to a row of turnips and pull on the string, so that the farmer sees his turnips marching across the field. Another favorite was to knock loudly on a neighbour’s window, at the same time smash a bottle against the wall. That gives the old geezer a start! Dressing up as ghouls was also part of the fun --- guising as it’s known here. That’s the past. Today in our present age of commerce, some chocolate manufacturer invented “trick or treat.’So out comes the big bag that must be filled with sweets. You see it in the cities here, but certainly not on the scale that it exists in the US.

The game of “dooking for apples” that children know worldwide as a Halloween game, may have its origin in a forgotten ritual of a trial by water, where the Celtic initiate had to go through water to reach the apples of immortality. A lesser known game, one I used to play with the kids when they were young, is the trial by fire. You attach a candle to a small board, balance it with an apple on the opposite end, and hang it six feet above your kitchen floor. With the candle lit, and the apple dangling on the other end, you spin the board. Jumping up you try to take a bite of the apple and avoid singing your hair. Again, there's the message that the gift of immortality is not cheap. You have to go through fire and water to attain it.

Halloween is a night for divination, so get out your Tarot cards, Horoscope, I Ching or whatever you use to take a peek at the future. Find out what fortune may come your way. Traditionally you'd make mashed potatoes with turnips and bury a ring, penny, a silver coin, a button. Depending on what lands in your mouth, you’ll either find marriage, poverty, riches or remain single. Or, you may also lose a tooth that year.

As for ghosts? I’ve never seen any but I know some who have. Later I’ll post a few stories that demonstrate that in Scotland the barrier between our world and the other is very thin.