Saturday, 28 February 2015

Notes on Leaving

One unremarkable day in November, during one of my zero-hours shifts at the hostel, I suddenly knew with absolute clarity: I'm ready to leave Rum now. 

From that moment, and especially for the last two months, my time on the island has been imbued with a profound melancholic longing, an acute awareness of the impermanence of everything - of life itself.  My last visit to Harris, to Kilmory, to Bloodstone Hill; my last community meeting, my last night as a resident on the island.  I wonder if this is how I would feel were I was told I'd only a certain amount of time left to live.  Sad, but intensely appreciative of each moment.  Rum has become so bound up in my sense of self, that I'm afraid I won't know who I am any more when I'm no longer here.

This is going to be a year of departures for the island; another 7 people are due to leave this year, after me, taking the adult population down to 20.  My own leaving seems like the end of a long line of goodbyes; 22 people have left since I arrived here in June 2011.  Of course new people have come, and will come after me, but it’s difficult to maintain a sense of continuity and development in a community with such an impermanent population.

Will the new residents be welcomed; new customers for the shop, more freight on the ferry, more rent in the pocket of the Community Trust?  Or will they be sneered at behind their backs, as belonging to “them”, working for Scottish Natural Heritage, as though SNH employees are not a part of the community.  I won’t miss that sneering, that stupid them & us-ness.  It only comes from a few people, but their voices are loud enough and carry far enough for it to feel oppressive to everyone.

There are so many things I will miss, though, not least the Rum-ness of the place.  This crazy, maddening, wonderful island.  I love the sense that Rum belongs to me, to all of us here; we are the guardians of something special.  What is it about this island which  affects so many people so deeply?  Rum remains, regardless of who comes and goes, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to live here. 

Rum is a place of seductive potential – there is so much possibility, and yet everything is so much more difficult than it needs to be.  Even simple things, like storing the community-owned tractor in the community-owned boatshed, seem impossible.  When I took the Development Officer job, I imagined I’d be part of a tight-knit community of like-minded people working towards a shared goal.  The reality feels more like a disparate group of individuals each trying to do their own thing with no real idea of where they’re going. 

And yet...  Everyone gets along, more or less.

And the goldfish-bowl of village life is only one tiny part of the island.  So when mainland life stops being novel and becomes dull and routine again, maybe I’ll hop on the ferry to remind myself of a few of my favourite things:

The view into Atlantic Corrie, after working my way up Corrie Dubh and over the bealach

The grassy top of Hallival in April sunshine, with Eigg looking impossibly small and the weird grumbling of a shearwater in its burrow beneath my feet
The sparkle and shimmer of Harris bay as you come down from the watershed past Loch MacIvor, when the view opens up like a vision of heaven
The lovely old pony path to Bloodstone Hill, beneath Orval's gloomy crags, a place where you seem to slip outside of time, into another reality

All the corries and glens and random rock formations that maybe nobody has walked over in a hundred years
So I'm off in search of new adventures on the mainland.  My lovely house is packed up, and as hollow and echoing as the day I moved in, three and a half years ago.  There is no question of regret - I want to go.  I also want to stay.  The sadness will pass: Rum will never leave me.

Friday, 12 September 2014

On Creativity

I'm experiencing Lost Time again - is it just me or is time actually speeding up?  I began this blog post in early July, and somehow it's already mid-September.  Leaves are turning brown and dropping from the trees, the sun is beginning to droop in the sky (my garden will be shaded for most of the day now until all the leaves are gone) - yet we're having a spell of warm, dry weather that makes it feel as though it's still summer.

My Gran's funeral in June was a lovely one, as funerals go - there was a strong sense of love; both her love for us and ours for her.  It was good to see the family again - second cousins who were babies the last time I saw them are now sitting thier GCSEs.  Funerals are at least good for putting things in perspective again.  There is still a sense of sadness; of loss, I suppose, deep inside, but it's less raw, less painful, more thoughtful.  I think of her often.  I think I always will.

I've been using my wonderful abundance of leisure time to write short stories, something I've dabbled with on and off for years as a way of expressing myself creatively.  I write because I have something I want to show others, in the manner of a friend sitting beside you going; "Hey, this is cool, look over there."  It's been interesting to watch the creative process unfold; sometimes I get stuck on a story, can't find the right voice - who is telling this story?  Sometimes I'm not even sure what a story is about until it's written.  They start with an image, or a scenario, or a "what-if"; sometimes they're driven by a character who pops into my head fully formed.

Who are these people who come out of my imagination, and where exactly is it that they come from?

One of my friends has suggested that I start a short story blog so that other people can read them, and so this is what I've done.  If you'd like to keep following me, I suggest you turn your attention to writing and not-writing.

I've long been a fan of the American short story writer, Raymond Carver,  whose stories are brief, sparse, and utterly memorable.  His tombstone reads:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.'

~ Isn't this all that any of us want?

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

What will survive of us is love

My Gran has died, aged 97.  For the past year or so she has shown a stubborn refusal to leave us, in spite of her failing health.  When I went to see her in October I thought we both understood that I'd gone to say goodbye, but as I was leaving she said "Come back soon."  In February I did go back, and was shocked by the brutality of old age and the long slow process of dying.  When I saw her in October I jokingly pointed out that she only had 3 more years to go and she'd make it to a hundred and get a telegram from the Queen.  She gave me a look of such despair and exhaustion.  If only life had an "off" switch you could flip when you'd had enough of it.

I know she wasn't perfect, that she could be annoying and old-womanish, that her views were old-fashioned, and that she maintained an intense dislike of anything German (don't mention the war!).  She was sure that I'd be attacked or murdered while hillwalking on my own, or that I'd fall off a mountain and die.  But my adventurous nature is partly down to her; she entertained me as a child with her tales of travelling across London and up to Edinburgh in blackouts and air-raids during the war, to visit my Grandad stationed at Rossyth.  Grandparents don't carry the same baggage that your frazzled parents do; they're one step removed, and so the things that would annoy you about your parents are just funny idiosyncracies in your Gran.  She was small but so determined, and so generous.  I always felt loved by her; as a child and as an adult.  She loved me, and that's why the sadness sits in my chest now like a stone.  Someone who loved me and looked out for me is gone from the world.

Another marker of time passing; the third of June was my third anniversary of moving to Rum.  On my first anniversary I celebrated with fizzy wine down at the shop, but since then the day has passed unremarked.  Even after three years I still have a sense of impermanence, as though I could up and leave at any moment, as if I don't really belong here.  My relationship with the island has gone from blind infatuation to absolute disillusionment, and has recently levelled out into an uneasy contentment.  Uneasy because it wouldn't take much to make me want to chuck it all in and go somewhere less challenging.  A thoughtless comment, a person's chronic inability to finish a job, the general lack of collective or personal responsibility for anything.

I've been looking for reasons to stay here, and re-make myself as the resident formerly known as Development Officer, but maybe it's time to start looking at reasons to leave.


Friday, 16 May 2014

Home is where...?

I'm rekindling my love affair with the philosopher and writer Alain de Botton - he doesn't know about it and I'd forgotten how much I admired him until recently.  I've just read his book "How to Think More About Sex", which has made me laugh aloud and also think very deeply about past relationships and how I might approach things differenly in future ones.  In one of his TED talks, he exhortats us to ensure that our ideas are our own, to own our ideas, and this struck a chord with me.

He says; "it's bad enough not getting what you want, but it's even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and to find out at the end of the journey that it isn't in fact what you wanted all along".  When I came to Rum I was full of hope and trepidation, and joy - I'd landed my dream job and couldn't quite believe it was really happening.  Now the Trust has recruited a new Development Officer, and he talks about the job with such enthusiasm and positivity that I'm reminded of myself, back then.

Somewhere along the way it stopped being a dream job, and became kind of a chore.  I think it's important for me to work out what happened - was it the place, the people, my own unrealistic expectations?  If it was just down to the nature of the job I've been doing, then I need to find something different to do.

In the meantime, I've been pulling together content for the new Rum Guidebook which hasn't felt like work at all.  This is my goal for all my future jobs; things I'd do anyway for free, but for which payment is a nice bonus.  It's also made me fall in love with the island all over again.  I'm terrible at being idle, and spent a whole day procrastinating this week - only to realise that there's nothing actually that I needed to be doing / avoiding.  This sudden desire to be "busy" is sometimes an attempt to drown out something which is desperately trying to make itself into my consciousness, and I ought to be better at sitting quietly and hearing it out.  At the moment there is a low hum of anxiety which I think is generally about having no "proper" job and very little income, but which if I'm not careful will spin out to become an existential angst that I still haven't figured out what my ultimate purpose in life is.

It's an immense relief to step out of everything here on the island - all the politics, the things that go wrong, the sudden crises that we just don't have the resources to deal with.  Yet I'm acutely aware that by staying here I'm becoming part of the problem.  I occupy a three-bedroom house because it was the only one available when I came here; it's my home.  I've provided accommodation to 6 people in the nearly three years I've been here, but right now I'm enjoying having my own space and I'm reluctant to give it up.  Our bunkhouse is going to be finished soon, we'll need to recruit a manager for it, I'm not interested in the job and there are not enough houses for all the people who already live here, let alone the ones we want to attract.  Nothing is easy.


Monday, 31 March 2014

On Vulnerability

I discovered TED talks a while ago, and watch them from time to time when I want to feel inspired.  The other day I watched this one, on vulnerability, and it occured to me that this has been a theme of the past month - my lesson from the universe, if you like.

Some things were said to me recently by one of our residents (in quite an advanced state of inebriation) which made me quite angry.  I will do anything to avoid confrontation, so at the time I said nothing, and even managed to be mindful of my breathing to keep myself grounded.  Afterwards I was furious - all the things I wished I'd said rattled around in my head like poisonous snakes.  Even though I was angry - and the more I thought about it, the more angry I got - I realised that this was a powerful opportunity for learning.  I tried feeling gratitude to the person for this opportunity, but that didn't work.  I tried sitting with my anger, accepting it, but that didn't work either.  By "work", I mean make it go away.  I was uncomfortable.  I'm generally a happy person, and this anger was causing me to suffer.

I opened my Eckhart Tolle book, Stillness Speaks, at random, and here's what he said: if you can't accept your anger as it is, then accept that you can't accept it.  This at least calmed me down.  I went for a long walk and the anger subsided, but it was still there, waiting to be rekindled.  When I got home there was a message in my inbox from the person in question, apologising and asking for forgiveness, and the anger immediately dissolved.

There is so much learning in this.

First, I learned that I can't deal with anger.  I can't deal with other people's anger, and I can't deal with my own.  I just don't know what to do with it.

Second, what was it that made the anger go away?  It wasn't just the apology - because although it takes courage to apologise, it's not so hard to apologise for things you said when you were so drunk that you don't even remember saying them.  What dissolved the anger was that the other person made herself vulnerable by asking me to forgive her.  I know about empathy.  I know that if I'd lived her life then I would behave just the way she does.  I spent most of my long walk reminding myself of these things, trying hard to feel compassionate and feeling a bit miserable about failing.  All it took was an admission of vulnerability, and all my anger crumbled.  Why?  Because I know that I'm vulnerable too.  That's where the anger came from in the first place.

Third is the more difficult lesson to learn.  I became angry because what she said to me made me feel vulnerable.  It doesn't matter if I tell myself "she was drunk, she didn't know what she was saying".  When people are drunk they say what they really think.  She made me question my self.  Am I a good person?  Am I worthy?  Am I worthy of love?  Some people have an uncanny knack of seeing your weakest point and honing straight in on it.  I usually avoid these people.  I avoid the people who wear a spiky armour to keep others at a distance, whose energy prickles and crackles and threatens to sting if you get too close.  I'm drawn to people who don't mind admitting their vulnerability, who wear their hearts on their sleves - who show courage (from the latin route coer, meaning heart; telling the story of who you are with your full heart).  I'm drawn to these people because I want to be like them; I want to be courageous, and when I'm with them I can be.  When they show me their vulnerability, I feel able to show mine, and so we connect.

If I want to grow, and become the best possible version of myself (which I do), then my homework now is to be that courageous person.  To meet pricklyness with vulnerability.  To accept that I'm afraid of being stung, but to go ahead and try to connect anyway.   This is really scary.

Monday, 10 March 2014

It's all about the journey

February was a month of travel and discovery.  I love to travel, being on trains and having nothing to do but read, or think, or just look out of the window at the scenery sweeping by.  I read Ali Smith's lovely collection of essays, "Artful", which brought me to "Sleepless Nights" by Elizabeth Hardwick.  She writes "The first thing you have to understand when you travel is that you don't exist."  That sense of being outside of time, even outside my own life, is one of the things I love about travelling - and the thing that makes me uneasy these days if I travel for too long.  A curious thing also happens on Rum when people leave; its as though they cease to exist.  It works the other way too; the island ceases to exist for me when I'm no longer on it. 

My journey was a three act play: first stop Musselburgh ("the honest toun") to visit friends, look around Edinburgh's Portrait Gallery (filled mainly with portraits of rather pompous looking plump men), and see an installation of life-size Chinese warriors made from lit up paper lanterns. 

Act two: Kent, catching up with uncles and cousins and visiting my Gran, now in a nursing home but still with us - just.  She's 60 years older than me and it makes me dizzy to think about how much has changed in her lifetime.  She's so thin and frail and tired, can't see or hear very well, or eat properly.  She has to have thickening powder in her drink otherwise she chokes when she swallows, but complains that it tastes horrible so she can't even enjoy a cup of tea any more.  It breaks my heart to see her like this; old age is brutal.  The visit has got me thinking about my own death and how many more years I can feasibly expect to live.  Have I already passed half-way?  I can think about it in a relaxed way because I'm assuming I'll live to at least 80, in which case I have more than half my life still to go.  It's probably best not to know.

 The final act: happy times in Weymouth - a lot of water down south - an anti-valentine's dinner
with two of my single friends and a storm overnight to rival the ones I'm used to on Rum.  We talked about our relationships, their failure, and our general experience of incompetent men - all the competent ones were of course snapped up years ago by more sensible women than us, and are now married with children.  Are they all incompetent though, or do we just have unrealistic expectations of them?  We didn't manage to reach a consensus, despite the generous application of West Country cider.

On my last day in Dorset I set out to visit Bridport, home of the Bridport Short Story Prize.  My bus from Dorchester got caught in a huge long tailback caused by a fallen tree which was going to take at least two hours to clear, so I hopped off the bus and flagged down a motorist who'd turned round and was heading back the way.  Would she mind giving me a lift to Dorchester?  She would not mind at all.  She'd been visiting her boyfriend and was on her way home to Exeter where she was about to hand in her notice at work and embark on a qualification in nursery teaching.  On the way back into town we passed through Poundbury, the new town designed by Prince Charles, which has a creepy, unreal feel to it.  Like a movie set, or a town  evacuated following the outbreak of some horrible disease... I love the random things that happen on holiday.

Another train journey and a night in London, where it occured to me there that Rum is the exact opposite of London.  In the time it took to get from the British Museum to my friend's aunt's house, I was exhausted by the noise, the constant press of people, the signs, instructions, and notices, but most of all by the noise.  I strive for mindfulness in each moment, but in London there's so much noise and activity that it becomes overwhelming.  My friend assures me that for all the stress and hustle there are pockets of kindness shown by one stranger to another - indeed, a nice chap offered to carry my suitcase down the stairs to the underground - but I know for certain that I couldn't live there, not for anything.  It was a relief to get on the train and flee north again, to leave all that behind and return to my quiet island life.  

The other day one of my Rum friends pressed me for the reason why I'm still here.  I could have gone for a number of other jobs by now, but have chosen not to.  She said I'm not the kind of person who does things for no reason, and asked what it is that's keeping me here.  I told her I feel as though I'm waiting for one final thing to fall into place and then I'll know what I'm doing, where I'm going.  I don't know what that one thing is, but I sense that it's worth waiting for.  I'm also feeling really happy.  I like not working and being able to arrange my time exactly as I please.  It's spring; the birds are full of song, there are buds on trees and the floor of the wood is turning green as the bluebells push up out of the earth.  It's a time for planting seeds and setting down roots, not for moving on.  Not yet.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

What to D.O. next?

The Bunkhouse begins
A month into the new year, but only a few days since I finally finished my job.  January was supposed to be about handing over the bunkhouse project (done) and recruiting the new me (not done) but as often happens on Rum, it didn't quite go to plan!

None of the very fine candidates who applied for the job were quite what we were looking for so we've readvertised and I've stepped out of the game because I'm going off on holiday.  It's been over a year since I spent more than 10 days away from the island, so the next two and a half weeks will be a good opportunity to recharge and reassess where I am.

How am I feeling about being jobless?  Surprisingly upbeat!  I have a lot to think about, and so many possibilities.  I'm going to take this time to revisit my values and principles, work out what I'm good at and what I actually enjoy doing - and then find something to do that meets all my needs, not just the need to pay my rent.  Being the Development Officer in such a small and isolated community was challenging and rewarding, but very intense, and I'm not sure that I want to jump straight into another similar role just yet.

I've asked my housemate to move out, which has caused a rash of gossiping; one of the nice things about Rum is that although people will talk about you freely behind your back, they'll rarely tell you what they think to your face.  Actually, that's also one of the not-so-nice things about Rum.  I'm tired of sharing my space and I want to put myself first for a while, for a change: so there.  I'm putting up a metaphysical "Do not disturb" sign on my door.  I don't even feel that bad about doing it - after all, I'm not the only one in the village with spare rooms.

Rum in perspective
So far I'm not feeling as purpose-less as I feared I would.  In fact, quite the opposite.  Rum has become such a core part of my identity that I'm not sure who I'd be if I left.  Just another ordinary Joe living on the  mainland.  Does island life itself meet one of my needs - the need to feel special, to stand out in some small and not too noticeable way?  Another of the things I need to figure out...