Picture It

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It’s my son’s nineteenth birthday today. We sat on the sofa last night as he opened presents, one of which was a book of routes up Scottish mountains, and he said he’d recently stood in Glasgow bus station and felt the west coast wind rush at him, willing him to get on the waiting bus to Oban rather than home to Edinburgh, and then to walk, walk, walk….

I get it. I get it so much.

I think if you have the highlands in your heart but your feet are standing elsewhere there’s no time the signal pulling you back is stronger than in autumn. The light gets so full and so calm each morning is its own arresting wonder.

The flat my son moved into with his friend in summer has stunning high ceilings. Looking up in a new space made me reappreciate the walls in our lounge when I got home. Picture rails. Picture rails. I’d never really seen them as anything but dividing points on the wall, till then. I blame dado rails for that oversight. Dado rails seemed to be suddenly everywhere in the 80s and 90s, offering endless possibilities for combining wallpapers, paint colours, wood stains and accents. Bloody hell, when I think back on it, it was a fabulous time for B&Q and the evolution of excited domestic self-expression. How I longed for my mum to announce we too were going to get Austrian blinds and go for a pink, black and grey rag-rolled bathroom.

Anyway, back to picture rails which, thanks to hooks and gravity, come with the offer of never having to assault the walls beneath them with a hammer again.

Since we moved in here eight years ago I’ve hung so many things on walls then changed my mind, never quite getting it right, leaving scarred plaster and discontented sighs in my wake. I’ve lead a futile, ironic battle in failing to win the effortless vibe of creating little vignettes that tell our stories, as well as fitting with the flow of the house. So, working with the wisdom of Marie Kondo once more, I decided a few months ago to take every god-damn thing on a wall in the house off the wall, bringing them all together on the kitchen table to really decide what we had that sparked joy and what we had that needed to move on or change.

The answers were different for different people, of course, but we got there. We all love the prints below, the Danish one came from a charity shop in Banchory and the Picasso one was a birthday present from husband when I was thirty-one, I think. Till recently, they both had frames which had changed colour to a tense woody orange from pale pine over the years, so they got a lick of paint each and my forehead relaxed. I had no picture-hanging wire to match my new picture hooks, so I used ribbon instead, of which I have enough to wrap around the planet.

 

While all the pictures were off the walls and assembled in The Kondo Joy Assessment Zone, I took the opportunity to go on a healing mission and fill in every single hole I’d created on my crazed hanging spree with Polyfilla and then to go the full hog and touch up paint where I’d cocked that up too. It’s odd but that work shifted something big inside me. Fixing shit that’s been wrong for years feels good, as does looking after what’s in my care. It’s as simple as that, so that’s becoming a guiding focus in my thoughts too.

Giant Achillea blooms from the garden have been the outdoors/indoors stars this year. The water dried out in their vase and I didn’t notice till it was apparently too late but still, they’re perfect. A shot of mustard that brings everything else to life and sends me down a conduit of memories; lichens on Raasay rocks and Tyninghame beach tree trunks, the colour of the second walls I painted in my flat (complete with dado rail) when I was twenty-one, back in Aberdeen; the jacket I wore to my cousin’s wedding on Camusdarroch beach. A tiny velour babygro with popper buttons on the shoulders.

Nineteen years and seven hours since I kissed his forehead – warm, soft velvet – and met my son. Tea, toast and a baby swaddled in a blue cellular blanket in the lamplight of a pink delivery room. Then, a morning as clear and freshly-laundered as they come; after my first terrified post-birth venture to the toilet, I stood on tiptoes, birth day fingertips gripping layers upon layers of brittle paint on the windowsill and peered out at Banff to glimpse the beach. I felt like the world looked back and acknowledged the sweet, shrouded shift of new life beyond the pane and thick, granite walls that was ours to hold, protect and bring. 

I am hooked on yellow, hooked on my kids and their dad and the friends and places that have become home, the times together and apart that got woven into stories. Hooked on change. And October light.

 

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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52and40/40 No Brief Candle

Burning out and burning bright, my family’s in a Change Rocket, hurtling through spacetime, much outside too blurred to see.

I’ve known for years that when the kids started talking futures I’d have to already be in my next chapter, lest I helicopter-parent or self-destruct.

I’ve also seen as the kids mature they need, more than ever, emergency contacts ready for triage as well as strategy.  Sometimes that’s rotated over weeks.  Other times, it’s all in one afternoon.

The current combination’s a tall order.  It’s temporary, too.  Calm will follow.

Memories, too.

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52and40/39 Method in the Madness

I’ve been unitasking.  I like that this sounds like unicycling but actually involves zero circus fuckery.  Unitasking’s simply doing one thing at a time.  I can multitask but I make mistakes, get stressed and then there’s frustration about rushing or being a bitch to myself or some poor bystander along the way.  So, no more lunch while checking emails and walking the dog.  Now I’m just having lunch.  Then checking emails.  Then walking the dog. Hardly miraculous, but I’m certainly happier and this way feels pragmatically zen and paced for the times.

 

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52and40/38 Habit Forming

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I read thirteen books this year.  I’m happy about re-establishing reading after years of total drought.  Some say it takes twenty-one days to form a habit.  It’s taken me nearer twenty one months.  At first my concentration was so poor I had to read every paragraph repeatedly, forcing myself to put down my phone for twenty minutes at a time.  Then, slowly, I began relishing phone dumping; books morphing into pacifier and portal; a way to slow down time and accelerate perspectives.

How long does it take you to make a change?

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52and40/37 White Noise

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I love the odd day in Glasgow.  As familiarity grows, I’m beginning to link the city up with maps, memories, family folklore and reference points in the past, present and future.  I like the break from Edinburgh’s tourism too, when I’m off west.  Interactions with people and the pavement feel markedly more real and more easily connected in a context where showmanship’s less prevalent.  I trust myself and my reading of stories I’m collecting better without a backdrop of pressure on a place.  I’ve always been easily influenced; mood is infectious, too.

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52and40/36 ‘Tis The Season

My mental health’s gone off kilter recently.  As a health-conscious veteran of PMDD,  postnatal and antenatal depressions, I know when my neurochemistry’s recalibrated in an unhelpful direction.  I’m lucky SSRIs work well for me and I feel positive, mainly, about medical interventions.  I like my life in full, balanced colour.  So, while the palette reloads, I’m taking things easier.

Meanwhile, I’m heartened by the stigma around mental health honesty eroding.  I see people responding with less shock when someone owns a decline.  This rise in empathy and emotional courage really helps.

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