Sharing Territory

When I was on Raasay in October I had a couple of close-ish encounters with a sea eagle.  We  passed each other crossing the island a few times and I was able to stop right on the road, get out and watch her flight with an entire island lying at my feet and no traffic jam to beep me on or throw exasperated arms in the air wondering what the hell I was doing.  As I left Arnish in Raasay’s North for the last time, I turned a corner and there she was, this time perched just metres off the road, watching me then watching Skye and the sea, letting me stop, get out to lean on the car and admire the scale of her so much better with less air between us.  I had breathed in deeply through my nose so my chest filled and puffed.  I chucked my camera back in the car.  All the better to see her with.  Then I realised her chest was the way of mine too but she was staying and I was leaving.

I’ve been thinking a lot about territory recently, from various vantage points of my own.  Maybe my experiences with the eagle were the real start of it – the consideration of what it is to move into a space and share it, without asking permission of the other inhabitants.  The knowing what it is to be at the top of the food chain and the beginnings of an appreciation for the fact that I can choose to respect or exploit that.   The overlap in all of that with human experience; what it is to live with someone you don’t normally live with, what it is to live alone, what the formulas are for positivity and co-operation as a group while still ensuring enough space for everyone to test their wings regularly too.

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My husband and son became vegan last year and their decisions have brought awareness of animal welfare closer to my streams of thought.  Husband made the change to reduce his cholesterol – he’s naturally on the high side of those readings so self-help is prudent.  My son, on the other hand, choose veganism because the more he reads about philosophy and psychology the less he can reconcile eating animals.  And of course when one person in a habitat makes a change, everyone else in the same space kinda does too; a human choice eco-system at work; one which, in this case, has had me considering what I eat and, in even greater quantities of airtime, before we changed an animal’s name to meat or poultry, what was its story on the way to my hands?  The words territory, autonomy, captivity, economy and empathy keep bobbing around in my thought soup.  Part of me wants to push a stick-blender in with them and make it all something that’s easier to swallow while the other part doesn’t trust that that act wouldn’t be a murder of it’s own kind.  So I’m letting it be for now, knowing my brain is working on it while I dream of bizarre things in the nights.

The starting thoughts on territory were backed up by dealings with stags on the same Raasay trip  – and quieter hinds – the latter seen only briefly here and there, darting eyes a jangle of nerves at every footfall, their opportunities to eat in peace apparently never without a readiness to bolt, fast.  Such was the season.

When I arrived at Arnish back in October there were just one and a half hours of usable daylight left in front for a wander into the unknown.  Joining the blissful audio feeds of bird song and seashore were the inelegant, part-beligerent and part-desperate calls of rutting stags.

‘How nearby?’, I’d asked the owners of the Airbnb cottage I was renting.

‘Difficult to say’, they’d said, looking at the trees and rock on the other side of their deer fence.  ‘One’s definitely just up there and the other’s probably within half a K’.

Near, then.

My deaf dog sniffed at the air then checked my bearings and in the moment we agreed an adventure.  We’d leave the unpacking to a job with the head torch later on.  We’d walk outside the fence before dark and take our chances on what we might find and what might find us while we could do it without me stumbling.  The drive had been long and beautiful and I had just five nights to wring everything out of the experience that I could.  So we set off and didn’t come eye to eye with anything other than our own reflections in the glass of old croft house windows.  But the trepidation of every grunt and testosterone laden throat gargle belonging to the antlered ushers around us quickened my heart and dropped lines from my face like no wrinkle cream has ever managed.

There is nothing better for kickstarting the soul than surviving a shared adventure and having the iPhone photos to prove it.

Yesterday I went to the zoo.  The thought to go and see animals arrived in the night and beckoned for exploration, memories of the stags and the eagle calling me back to a limitless place inside myself, probably triggered by spring sunlight pushing its way around everyday spaces, making me smile without thinking.  But of course you don’t find limitlessness at zoos.  At zoos you find talk of research and preservation and squirrels who’ve worked out how to break in to enclosures to pinch food from animals whose instincts for handling vast territories have been forced to recalibrate to restriction, concrete under earth and discreet electric fencing as ever present, non-communicative company.

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I thought about my territory yesterday too.  It’s mainly Edinburgh with frequent stretches across to Glasgow and down to East Lothian.  Less frequently I venture up to Aberdeen and Deeside and, at least once a year, if I was fitted with a tracking device, you’d see me on a screen heading north-west and stopping on an island to meander there for a week or so before winging back across Perthshire and the Forth.   Maybe once every 18 months I go to another country altogether, taking wing in a steel tube and marvelling at real time maps through tiny windows.  My territory, over my lifetime, is pretty enormous, especially compared to some of the chimps who’ve been at Edinburgh Zoo longer than the 42 years I’ve been alive.

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I thought about how if I shrunk my territory in the same way as a Zoo meerkat’s is shrunk,  I’d be allowed a range that just about allowed me to peek at Linlithgow, I reckon, or Eddieston to the south.  Not enough.  Not enough for me by far.

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So the sea eagle and I have something else in common, apart from our sometimes puffed chests.  We have relative freedom – but me much more so than her.  Sea Eagles were reintroduced to Scotland in 1975 after being hunted to death in 1916.  I’m not sure it’s fair to say they’re thriving yet – perhaps tentative optimism is brave enough for now.  Secrecy is, after all, unbelievably still required about the bird’s nesting sites in order to protect them from humans who wish them harm through their own pursuits for trophies.

The bird I met on Raasay has family with datelines that intersect with my own life.  One of her relatives was around the skies over west Scotland that same hot summer of 1976 I arrived in a nearby part of the world.  We’re connected, albeit tenuously.  I find that comforting.  And while I’m absolutely still pondering territory, I’m definitely done with zoos.

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Pouncing Pressure, Hidden Hijack

I’ve been re-listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons Podcasts this week, to ready me for five nights away on my own to catch up on writing my novel a little, with the novelty of no interruptions.  The thought of the time away is really a big deal when you’re a woman, a mother and a writer who works at home.  The first, second and last descriptors there are, in my experience, extremely difficult to manage alongside the act of writing a big piece rather than dipping in and out of smaller ones.  An excellent article in Harper’s Bazaar covers the issues I’m nodding at here and I suggest anyone navigating an unapologetically modern relationship or considering the messages they’re giving younger generations about gender roles reads the piece for comfort and fire-stoking.  It’s an absolute cracker.

But back to the Magic Lessons.  Every single episode feels freshly relevant.  Yesterday I did my own version of a homework task Gilbert sets a podcast guest in order to help balance an internal dialogue which often poleaxed ambition.  You can listen to the podcast here.  Reflecting on the task of stepping aside from the locked mind to exchange letters with both Fear and Curiosity, I was prompted to shine a light on my own fears because they’re currently presenting the biggest hurdle to productivity during my time away.

As a sidenote, a horrible irony here is that I really didn’t feel the weight of these fears until I booked some time away.  The act of booking the time, hell, the audaciousness of booking the time in some folks’ eyes, set off an epic domino chain in my head about pressure.  I didn’t realise the domino chain was happening until it was halfway through and heading towards an elaborate helter-skelter set of turns before stretching into middle distance further than my terrified eyes could see.  Think the domino chain in Collateral Beauty scaled up by a hundred and you’re there.dchtbc 2016 1

In a nutshell, the pressure-fear, wee darling that it is, has pretty much been whispering  self-loathing into my lugholes since I got my Airbnb e-receipt.  Here’s a fragment for your delectation;

‘Five nights away, huh?  That’s brave.  Or stupid.  Especially as you’ve had some really shit feedback on the novel recently.  Do you not think if you were going to have finished the novel you’d have done it by now?  I mean, you don’t even really have a good story, do you?  And you keep changing direction.  And you’re still not doing it the way you want it to, are you?  Because that way is shit and you know it. Your blindspot’s massive.  But yeah.  Have a great week away.’

Swim, swim, swimming I went.  Swimming into a pool of mindcrap.

That’s the thing about creativity.  It makes light and dark and balance must be imposed.

Despite the mindcrap, there was another voice in my head, quite possibly it’s the voice of leftover drugs from my teens but I guess that’s valid too.

The other voice says go and write.  And go and enjoy.  And lighten up, sweetheart.  You’re doing great.  Oh, and, most importantly….?  For the love of fuck write the book you want, the way you want it written, because evidently you care so much more about that than anyone else’s feedback.  How do I know that?  I know that because when you think about the book you want to write, you smile.  And that’s the thing.  Write a smiling book that you one-day-kinda-soon finish and to fuck with whether it ever gets published, read or respected by anyone else.  It’s either that or you’re carrying that baby everywhere while you try to write one that your heart isn’t in and one day realising the one you love isn’t there anymore – it just turned to regret.  It waited too long.

Writing that, I can hear the other voice more clearly.  It doesn’t belong to 16 year old me at a rave in Arbroath on MDMA.  It belongs to me AND Liz Gilbert, one of the woman in the USA right now making the world a better place against all the odds.  I dare say she’s scared and brave all at the same time.  How inspiring.

#FuckDominos

Good Company

I’m proud to be a Dangerous Woman.

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The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh are asking what being a dangerous woman means and providing a myriad of answers, one per day, over the 365 days between International Women’s Day 2016 and International Women’s Day 2017.

My piece, entitled The Business of Incantations is here.

 

52and40/1 The Importance of Good Lighting

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Autumn has arrived and keeps inviting summer back onto the stage for another bow and enthusiastic applause.  My thoughts are turning to putting the garden to bed for winter and revving up for draft 2 of my big writing project; editing workshops await (yay!)

We moseyed with friends in Glasgow at the weekend, lightly hungover and wondering what aliens would make of museums.  Subjectivity’s a theme I keep coming back to when considering what’s gross or what’s fascinating, necessary or enlightening.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my milestone birthday. Nothing to fear here, at forty.

Read more about 52and40 here.

We Need To Talk About Clearing

Well, I do.

In this year of turning to salute and wink at my forties as the fresh new chapter, I’ve been telling you about all the metaphysical things I’ve cleared and neglecting to tell you about all the literal stuff that’s been leaving the bodily grasp, too.

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So, in order of colossal effort to nae bother, this year I/we have;

  1. cleared out the garage
  2. cleared out the lean-to-porch-cum-boot room
  3. had two chimneys removed
  4. cleared out 80% of my crafting hoard
  5. shredded ca. four tons of historical paperwork (possibly less)
  6. Cleared the crap from the edges of the garden left by the old owner – piles of tiles, slabs, mounds of chuckies and, bizarrely, planks of wood woven into the hedges.  It’s so good to see these areas breathing now.
  7. Unsubscribed the email lists which collectively overwhelm me with ads, reminders and useless brain noise.  Newsflash: the information you actually need always gets to you.  Bonus: an uncluttered inbox is a thing of calm and productivity.

When I see it like that it doesn’t look like enough but alongside normal life it has felt like being in the domestic trenches, at times.

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In getting rid of material schizz I have realised – with an often fascinated, semi-detached cringe – a lot of the stuff I held onto was soaked with trauma.  Thinking back on that now – as recent as it is – I’m gobsmacked. What a thing to do.

Marie Kondo is right (and I’m going to swearily paraphrase here) – if you don’t hold something and feel joy, WHY the ever loving fuck are you keeping it?  In my case I think I’ve been hanging onto some things as evidence of my side of the story.  That realisation has lead me to really explore why I often live with a sense of waiting to be put on emotional trial.  It’s a weird burden  I see many women bear – this sense of being emotionally responsible for so much, absorbing shame and responsibility as if we were a mop and they were a spill, then never carefully freeing ourselves from the added weight.  I’m a firm believer that men and women are not very different creatures at all but I also follow that idea closely with acknowledgement of the social contexts of gender causing us to move through the world quite differently.  It’s not uncommon for us to place our feet, often unquestioningly,in the familiar prints of people who came before us and then to wonder how we got to destinations we’d have preferred to avoid.

The more I talk to friends the more stunned I am about what women in particular have gone through and are living with and surviving, often without expert support that would be justified a million times over, were case notes written up.  For all that’s good and joyful, we really should question where our ideas and the stuff in our homes comes from and whether we feel truly at ease and joyful holding any of them.

Two events which really feed #Clearing40 thoughts for me are emptying my Mum’s house after her death and, years later, working in a charity shop and processing other people’s old things.  Both experiences rammed home the reality that stuff is stuff – nothing more and nothing less.  We imbue all sorts of meaning into a thing and then there it is, in some stranger’s hands, cleansed of the past previously projected onto it.  What a gift.

We collect, I think, to document our journey or weight our value and we inadvertently give ourselves a lot of things to dust along the way.  As the time in front of me seems to move more quickly I repeatedly assess whether I want to be doing or dusting and, by fuck, I am so much more compelled to laughs, or the top of a mountain, or to sit and write than I am to get down and sweaty with the Dyson or feel guilty at the sight of an old rucksack and the myriad difficult memories it stirs.  I think that particularly for those of us who’ve lived through trauma, we need to make our homes an easy place to be – a place where we smile frequently and don’t reinforce things that drag our energy down.  In short, we need to maximise joy.  Because we deserve it too.  Everyone does.

I totally understand why people who’ve retired are increasingly downsizing and ditching, swapping older houses for new builds with light, clean-lines furniture and one minimal ornament. I didn’t get it before.  I thought they were mad, these people hemorrhaging stuff and deciding radical things like their one good colander is more relevant than their 3 shitey ones.  Now, simpler living beckons me seductively closer each year. I get high on seeing space where once there was clutter.

In short, here’s the  quantum metaphysical maths;

Space = Time and Light.

Time and Light = Possibilities.

Possibilities = Joy.

Can’t argue with science, right?

 

 

 

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I put filters on photos all the time.  Some folk think it’s cheating.  Others couldn’t give a flying fuck.  Others still say it’s about creating your own reality and that’s an everyday essential (and sometimes radical) act.

I’ve realised it’s time to put filters on things I hear, too.

I’ve realised there are times I’m going to have to use small-talk and unsmiling eyes to get through conversations.  I’ve realised that people who don’t speak to me with their heart; people who instead speak with fear, agenda or negative conditioning, those people need me to adhere to their script in order for things to play out.

I’ve learned that some people can’t cope with my truth and that’s OK, because I have no intention of coping with theirs.

Those people are happier with, ‘It’s all downhill from here’, and, ‘out running to try to hold back the years?’ Or, the ever dreaded and deep as a puddle in a summertime piazza, ‘life’s a bitch, then you die…’

For them, among other things, ageing is binary.  It’s either good or bad.  At a push for nuance, it’s ugly.

My truth?  I’m not dreading being forty.  The only strong feeling I have about it is that I’m genuinely glad to still be alive.  I have much to do.  I run and eat well most of the time so I can get to fifty, sixty, seventy, eight and ninety; not so I can look thirty again.  I’ve known several people who died far too young.  Scared to be forty?  Scared to be any age?  Computer says no. Heart says no. Head says no.  Logic and experience say ageing is a privilege.  Nothing less. And wrinkles? Not half as scary as the thought of living life in the shadows of inevitability and shame drenched dogma.

Sometimes, I have learned, my mouth is going to have to laugh and my eyes are going to have to roll in jest.  Because we can’t change other folk can we?  And we can’t be on guard, all the time.  We can only change ourselves.  If I spend any more of my time getting exasperated about the negativity other people choose to direct towards me, I’m not going to have time or energy to do all the wonderful and necessary stuff.   So, I’m applying a filter.  Some words can get in my ears and hang around for a moment and then, pop, as soon as they’re gone, they’re gone. The filter eliminates them.  I no longer permit them an echo.

And the people who talk to me about life and clearly love it, maybe not every second but most of the time?  They get my heart.  They get my laughter lines and my genuine smile.  They get my time.  They get me to put down my pen, lean in and let their words decorate my thoughts.  They get echo and reverb and bass.  They’re few and far between, but those privilege-aware people who don’t need me or themselves scared?  The folk I can turn all filters off with?  Turns out they’re the best birthday gift at every age.

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If you enjoyed this you might also enjoy a prize winning piece I wrote entitled Vitruvian Woman, for the simply wonderful Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre in Somerset.  You can download the anthology of collected work via this page.  My piece is about the friend who likes you better when you’re smaller; the kind of friend in need of dealing with via a filter, in my opinion.

Privilege as a Parrot

 

Are you sitting uncomfortably?

Good. Then I’ll begin.

It’s like that at the moment, isn’t it?  That is if you haven’t absented yourself completely from the news and are staying engaged by degrees, trying to figure out what to do to help the world.  Sometimes, things feel hopeless.

Sometimes again, you realise rock bottom’s a great place to look up from.

Sometimes – and this is the most common one for me – sometimes uncomfortable means learning.  Like remembering shit things I’ve said in the past and being embarrassed and glad not too many people heard them at points when I clearly wasn’t learning – at points when I was sitting so comfortably I actually thought my opinions were right about most things, no development, devil’s advocate or exploration required.  Pass me a tabloid and call me Sugar Tits, because that’s how the world went back then and, I was sure, no point trying to fight what you can’t change.

Being on Twitter has schooled my ass.  Suffering ante and post natal depressions schooled my ass too.

Both things have made me sit uncomfortably and, know what?  Nowadays I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Every time I learn something my world view gets bigger; my perspective gets bigger.  My appreciation gets bigger.  My relationships get deeper because my empathy grows and the universe, at the same time as feeling more chaotic, also somehow makes more sense.  Learning means you get to see the patterns in things and when you can see the patterns there’s less to shock you and the things that need to be fought for become clearer.  Learning means you have a head start on everything and are OK with saying the words, ‘I don’t know’, which, I’ve learned, are great when it comes to shaking off the fuck awful armour of attempting to know it all.  ‘I don’t know’ lets in a more realistic rhetoric of accepting I’m not all things to all people.  I’m faulted, but I’m trying really hard to understand and improve all the things I’m affecting.

   
   
Depression took me from being the one who was always first with an opinion and plonked me at the back of any crowd, desperately trying to blend with the wallpaper and muted by synapses void of any of the feel-good.  When I was depressed, I unlearned talking without thinking.  I said tiny sentences inside my head repeatedly before saying them out loud – I was that scared of getting anything wrong, upsetting anyone or drawing attention to myself.  I was least distressed and confused in bed, lapsing in and out of sleep and receiving information from the telly, the radio or my extremely nearest and dearest.  I could process life at a radically restrained speed.  Too slow to allow a two-way dialogue out loud, my thoughts would suspend anything new next to what I thought I’d known before I got ill.  Then, with largely cold emotion, I’d notice the contrasts and with the defensive emotions that had kept me closed no longer in play, I saw objectivity in practice from my zoomed out, emotionally anaesthetised stasis.

As I started to get better with medication, I’d catch myself every now and then doing talking without thinking first.  It was strange, like watching an unknown child take their first steps; I was half detached, my personality re-emerging after the unholy clamour of the internal war, proud but tentative.   I was shaky but I could manage a bit of forward motion before going bright red and replaying words in my head afterwards, retro-checking for flaws.  Now I can go whole weeks of talking without thinking but, overall, I now also think a hell of a lot more without talking too.  I doubt I’d have learned that reflective skill without being taken to its cognitive classroom by chemical force.  

As the time stretches to a decade now since I was ill, I’m beginning to look back and say that although ante and post-natal depressions robbed me of memories with my babies and almost killed me, they also gave us great gifts.  In my quiet time my soul fell though wormholes time and again but, luckily, new information and knowledge did not.  Because I couldn’t talk, I learned to listen – even when I hated what I was hearing.  I learned to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and I can tell from the calibre of the people around me nowadays, that’s a very good thing.

And Twitter?  Twitter gives me the gift of being able to follow wildly intelligent and experienced people who’ve processed faster than me and are making me uncomfortable, privately, in the comfort of my own head as I try to catch up.   Twitter keeps me accountable for knowing and owning the difference between opinion and fact.  Perhaps most importantly, Twitter ensures awareness of my privilege rides everywhere with me, like a parrot on my shoulder, squawking at me intermittently and shitting into my comfort zone.

#BlackLivesMatter 

Other voices on privilege here and here.