A super blood wolf moon passes silently over still waters

At the start of the year I came across a fascinating little calendar, made up of snippets of Eastern wisdom wisdom and spirituality. One leaf of paper for each day of the year, each one with its own insight or wisdom for the day. As I peel off a new one at the start of the day, I take a few moments to reflect upon the words there. I pause and let the saying sink into my thoughts and promise myself I will remember it. Of course, I never do. The words are soon forgotten, shredded by my feeble short term memory. Until, that is, one saying comes along which resonates so powerfully that it takes a hold and whispers in my ear at moments when it brings meaning.

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It is so true that we wait for important things to happen to us – the perfect job, a relationship, even a lottery win. We focus on looking out for the thing we seek rather than making sure that we are in the right place to embrace what we are looking for. Or sometimes we are looking so hard, it passes us by without us even realising it. But we are like stars or planets, and alignment has to be right for both elements. If we want to be in the right space to engage with what we are seeking, we must be ready. We must focus on digging that pond, because otherwise the moon will pass overhead repeatedly and the pond contains no water. We will see no reflection or evidence of the moon. If we forget about the moon, and make sure the pond is ready, then the moon will come on its own. We have to be ready, and we have to be patient.

I have long been enthralled by the stars, the planets and the infinite cosmos. A young child, I remember hiding under the bedclothes one night almost fifty years ago now, with a torch, a notebook and listening intently to the radio. I noted down each magical detail and update, including those words which would forever capture the moment which made history “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Even at my young age, I knew that this was momentous.

We had no television in the remote part of Scotland where I was brought up, there was no signal or reception. More significantly, we had no electricity as the power line had been laid along the other side of the loch, where the old railway had run. We relied on our old battery powered radio, for news and information, and I grew up on a diet of the Archers, Desert Island Discs, Just a Minute with its rule of talking on a topic without hesitation, repetition or deviation”. The voices of Roy Plomley, Clement Freud, Derek Nimmo and many other household names were as familiar as family. Thus, on that memorable night, while it felt as if the rest of the world was watching the moon landing live on TV as it was beamed around the world, I could only imagine what it looked like as I strained to listen through the crackling and hissing to each incredible development. A little research this evening thanks to Professor Google advises me that, surprisingly, these events took place late in the evening US time, and in the middle of the night in the UK. I remember the thrill of knowing that this was a truly historical moment, and this added to the knowledge that I would be in huge trouble if my parents had any idea that I was wide awake under the bedcovers in my bedroom. Somehow, my misdemeanour was either not properly noticed or there was a recognition that my witnessing the first steps on the moon was not in fact a serious transgression. I kept that notebook with all of my scribbles, largely illegible, for many years.

Just a couple of years earlier I had visited the Planetarium in London. This was an important moment in my childhood as it brought the night skies to life in a way that sparked a fierce interest in the planets. I stared at the dome of the Planetarium during the whole performance as wonder after wonder was revealed. I was intrigued by the spectacle, unclear as to whether this was the actual sky or some impossibly sophisticated sleight of theatre which brought the skies to life. It was largely immaterial as it turned out. The main result was that I came out of the Planetarium impatient to explore the night sky for myself, an interest which I was to maitain. One major advantage of living in a remote rural location during my childhood, was the lack of light pollution right outside our door. On a clear night I would gaze upwards identifying Orion’s Belt, the North Star and waiting patiently for shooting stars. I always yearned to have a proper telescope so that I could see the stars and planets more clearly, but that dream has not yet come true.

It was many years later, almost three decades to the day after the lunar landing, that I was travelling by train from Moscow to Beijing to mark my own journey of forty years around the earth. We stopped in Mongolia for a few days and spent time out of the city in a national park, sleeping in a traditional ger. One night I had to get up to for a bathroom visit. The wash facilities were a short walk from the steps of the ger, in the dark, out in the massive expanse of the steppe. I opened the door and stepped nervously outside, ready to navigate my way slowly with a small pen torch. To my astonishment, I could see clearly across the landscape, the sweeping hills silhouetted against a sky opaque not with clouds, but with stars. The torch shone needlessly towards my feet. The arid climate of Mongolia and its label of land of eternal blue sky means that the night sky there is very special. The sky was overflowing with stars, the Milky Way distinct as it trailed lazily across the sky. Those stars were fascinating in their variety, some were little silver pinpoints, others were chubbier and of a more yellowish colour. Some clustered in families and others seemed to be jostling to join in an infinite number of groups and gatherings. That image stays with me to this day, and although I have since occasionally witnessed night skies of almost equal spectacle, that night was spellbinding.

Despite this fascination in the skies it was only four years ago that I saw my first eclipse. I had tried on various occasions to witness one, but been sabotaged scuppered by either cloud cover or timezones. Even a promising total solar eclipse scheduled for my birthday the year I lived in Sri Lanka failed to produce any sight of the magic, as unseasonal thick cloud hid the sun hiding behind our shadow. I hadn’t realised that an eclipse was happening as I was on my home from work in Yangon, in 2015 when I was spooked by what looked like a new moon only a day after an almost full moon. That was my first proper eclipse and I watched it until the light brought the moon back to its proper waxing status.

Just a few weeks ago, there was a great deal more anticipation about the bizarrely named “super blood wolf moon” which would be totally eclipsed, AND visible in Scotland. My expectations were not high. The totality would last for some time, but with Scottish weather and no idea where in the sky the moon might be and whether I would have the wherewithal to remember to open my shutters and eyes in the middle of the night, I did not expect to see much more than everyone else’s photos in the morning. I was however, impressed by the number of friends announcing on social media that they were wishing for clear skies and setting their alarm clocks for the wee small hours. I decided to just wait and see. I would undoubtedly be up a couple of times for my regular night time backroom visits, so would just see what time those happened and whether the sky might be clear or not.

As it turned out, my first awakening was just before 3 am and my reliable friend “timeanddate.com” informed me that this just happened to be at the start of the penumbral eclipse. This is when Earth’s penumbra starts touching the Moon’s face. penumbra. All that was visible was a glowing full moon, in a clear sky. I sensed a promise of a sighting of this rare lunar eclipse.

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It was over an hour later when I woke again, and roused myself enough to head again to the window. The promise held good, and I was treated to a clear view of our terrestrial shadow creeping across the surface of the moon.

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I gradually removed myself from the window, shivering in the cold and snuggled again to doze a little while. This eclipse was making the most of the clear sky and its performance would last. Even totality would last for an hour. I must have had some kind of lunar sleeping sense programmed as the next time I roused from my light sleep it was ten minutes into totality. The shutters were open, the bright glow of the full moon had dimmed and there was that supernatural deep red light. The super blood wolf moon was hanging in the distance, a rich, warm red colour. In the January cold it resisted the advances of my camera even through the open window and this was the typical of the images I captured.

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However, my memory has much clearer images, consistent with the numerous far better photographs online such as this one  on Wiki Blogs

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Photo credit – WikiBlog

As the clock moved slowly towards 6 am, the red colour had darkened and a tiny sliver of light appeared at the very edge of the moon as totality slipped away. My camera was more comfortable with this and the following images captured the transition from full eclipse to the full moon.

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I returned to my bed as the light spilled in through the open shutters, my heart warmed with gratitude that the skies were so clear, and that my sleep patterns had allowed such a perfect viewing of the path of the eclipse. I was less thankful when the alarm’s shrill call woke me soon after as the working day was not prepared to wait until I was better rested.

I have now seen two lunar eclipses, and each time been enthralled. Apart from being completely in awe of the amazing calculations that are done to work out when these celestial events happen – and get it right, I feel such a sense of my own, and indeed mankind’s insignificance.

And moreover, I am keenly aware that throughout this fascination in astronomy from an early age, I have waited until these relatively advanced years to be able to watch this marvel. It seems that many years have been spent digging that pond, and now I am able to enjoy the moments when the moon indeed comes along by itself and shines brightly on those still waters.

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A grandmother, a rusty old key, a missing suitcase and the winding lanes and souqs of Marrakech

I am not quite sure what brought me to Marrakech. But somehow, there I was, two nights before Christmas, in a peaceful haven in the the midst of the old medina, sipping mint tea and lamenting the loss of my belongings.

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Escaping the dark and cold of the Scottish winter had been undeniably attractive. Over the previous weeks, I had been harbouring a nasty seasonal lurgey which was refusing to shift, and the thought of a day which provided a full three hours more of daylight than the short days and long nights of Scotland’s winter was irresistible. Add to that mix, a friend who owns a magical riad in the city and a short haul journey it seems that a decision was made without my even knowing it. Christmas in Marrakech. A healing, creative time of retreat and restoration. Indeed, impossible to resist.

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It was only that morning that I had closed the door behind me in Scotland a good three hours before sunrise to head to the airport. The snow capped high Atlas mountains were already turning a deep shade of pink from the sun low in the sky, when I landed much later that day in Morocco. I was eager for this break, and keen to become acquainted with Marrakech and settle in the Riad which would be my home for the coming days.

Immigration was smooth, and I waited patiently for my familiar suitcase at the carousel so that I could step into the Morrocan air and meet a new country. I became less patient as grandmother’s suitcase failed to appear. The minutes ticked past until eventually the carousel emptied. I was alone at the belt, and clearly would remain so as grandmother’s suitcase was nowhere to be seen. As I reported my missing belongings, I found it rather concerning that the baggage handlers were not able to clarify what had happened to the case and there was no indication in the system of where on earth, quite literally, it might be.

Reluctantly, with the “lost baggage” paperwork completed, I moved through into the arrivals halls and out to the night air and the transport to the riad. The Marrakech air was cool, but not cold and I looked out of the window as we drove through the streets, with curiosity for what the daylight sights would be like, while trying to stifle an underlying irritation and concern. My suitcase contained important and less important belongings – in addition to the usual clothes and toiletries I had Christmas gifts, some mince pies and items for my friend, cough and cold remedies for the lingering lurgey and a precious notebook amongst other random bits and pieces.

After a drive of around half an hour, latterly alongside the old wall of the medina, we turned into the medina itself and its narrow streets. It was only a few moments before the car stopped, and the driver opened my door. I stepped into the immediate bustle of the lanes of the old town, and my little backpack and heavy winter jacket were bundled into a handcart and the driver waved me off as the handcart and its owner trundled off into the lanes. I had to weave around people, past stalls and avoid donkeys as I tried to make sure that I kept sight of my handcart and remaining worldly goods as they continued through the lane towards a mystery destination. We soon turned into a quieter, small lane and round another couple of corners before stopping at a door, the handcart porter rattling on the door knocker. A few moments later, the door opened, my belongings handed to me and I was ushered into another world. I was immediately in the courtyard of an exquisite riad, which was welcoming me with twinkling lights, candles, large wooden doors, rose petals, the aroma of mint tea and exotic promise. I had arrived.

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My plan had been to spend a few days replenishing my health and then take a few ventures out of town – to the coast, the mountains to see more of the country as well as soak in the creative atmosphere of the riad and spend time writing and reflecting. But I found that when I arrived, I did not want to venture far. This was partly because I was more exhausted and weakened than I had realised and partly because the food was so fresh and delicious that it was easier to stay close to the riad. And on a practical level, it was also because I had to spend quite a bit of time trekking out to the airport to try and locate the suitcase, heading to the new town to buy some essentials as I had only the clothes I was standing in when I arrived and filling in forms and sending never ending messages about the lost case.

Once it became apparent that the case had no intention of coming to Marrakech and was intent on enjoying itself on its own private holiday, I found myself settling into a gentle routine. Sunrise was fairly late, which meant that breakfast also started gently. Outside my room, in the courtyard the birds would let me know when sunrise was on its way, and when I opened my tall wooden door a little tray of tea would be waiting for me.

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Soon afterwards, I would venture to the rooftop, where the sun would now be warming the terrace and encouraging the bougainvillea to bloom and where my breakfast was being prepared. This was a leisurely process, for me at least as I would feast on finely chopped seasonal fruits – strawberries, apricots, raspberries, figs, oranges and walnuts nestling on fresh yogurt. This would be followed by a Moroccan treat of a lightly spiced tomato, pepper and egg tajine (shakh-shukh), chopped avocado, omelette, or other delight. This whole process should not be rushed and could last until lunchtime as I read, reflected, chatted with and watched the bird families and slipped between shaded and sunny spots sporting a practical straw hat to protect my head and face from the sun.

At some point in the afternoon, I would prepare myself to head out to the souqs and the outside. This world outside of the riad was in complete contrast to the tranquillity of the riad. I soon learned my way through the little lanes to the main souqs, only a few minutes away.

But once I reached the maze of the covered souqs, the landscape would shift and change. Left would become right, straight would become windy and twisted and I would find myself in a completely different place to where I thought I was or planned to be. Lane after lane of little shops selling pointed baboush slippers, lanterns and candle holders, exotic fabrics, nomadic and traditional jewellery, metal signs with your profession painted onto them, carpets and more carpets, spices, tortoises, Manchester United football tops, leather goods and all manner of imaginable wares each in its own little Ali Baba’s cave with a smiling, welcoming merchant.

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When I would eventually emerge onto a wider lane, it was never where I intended to appear or thought I was, and the mystery of where I wanted to head to would appear, requiring to be solved.

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It was in one of these magical little lanes on Christmas Day that I happened upon a tiny shop with a jumble of objects under a glass topped shelf. I spotted a rusty old key and asked the shopkeeper if I could look at it. As he reached into the case, through a little curtain, he drew out a few old keys and invited me to rummage and look for more. There were all manner of random objects, including keys and I scrambled around to see what I could find. I ended up with a selection of very rusty old keys, and began haggling with the owner without looking too keen to own what was essentially a worthless piece of metal. We finally agreed on a price for one of the old keys, and I had my Christmas present to myself. This key was symbolic, and had been an image which I was drawn to a couple of months earlier while on the mindfulness and writing retreat. That key embodies a great deal – hope and promise of a future, unlocking thoughts of optimism and hope, releasing those negative thoughts and feelings which I have found difficult to shed and locking them in the past in order to move forward. The shopkeeper hid any puzzlement he might have had about my interest in such a strange object, but given he had them in his tiny shop there must have been some idea that one day an eccentric grandmother would come along and be taken with his keys.

As the days passed, the daily routine established itself comfortably and I felt my strength return. The lurgey was finally easing, without doubt thanks to the rest, warmth, healing environment and wholesome fresh food.

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As we crossed from the old year into the new, I realised that I would soon need to gather my strange assortment of new belongings, buy a little bag for them, and prepare to return to Scotland. The break had been incredibly gentle, and provided a chance to truly disengage with the stresses and intensity of the previous months, although it would have been nice not to have been caught up in the worry about grandmother’s suitcase and its wellbeing.

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My return to Scotland saw me in a far healthier state, both physically and emotionally and when I close my eyes I can imagine myself back in the riad, sipping tea and reading, or wandering through the souqs in the lengthening shadows of the later afternoon.

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And I remember how, no matter how many times I became lost, and wandered through these lanes seeking to find my way again, I would pass many familiar shops. The merchants would call out to me, remembering my meanderings of another afternoon and try to tempt me to buy their lamps, their spices or pottery. However, I never did happen upon the little shop with the keys again. I still have the key though, so I know it did exist. At least it did on the very day that I was seeking a sign of hope and optimism.

Unlocking the door into 2019 with a three word mantra

As I look into my well-thumbed notebook where I have kept a note of the sets of 3-word mantras over the years, I realise that this is the tenth time that I am embarking on this exercise. It is a bit of a puzzle since it is only nine years since my diagnosis but that is the mystery of numbers and one which I will not pretend to understand.

This past year has been one of continued transition, with major tasks to work on to help me to settle. It has involved a great deal of searching and energy, guided by my mantra of Search, settle and weave. The searching has seen me find a renewed purpose, closely connected to my overseas work and an area which inspires and motivates me. I feel connected again. I am considerably more settled. Thus there has been considerable progress and the various threads of my life are slowly weaving together. A picture is gradually emerging even if the tapestry is still to reveal its full picture.

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And as the year comes to an end, and I attempt to rest and heal after many weeks of intensity and poor health, my mind has been quietly working away to clarify the best words to guide my path ahead.

In the final hours of 2019, I put my current words gently in their place in my notebook, alongside their predecessors. As I look at each set, I can identify each year clearly through each mantra,

The year I discovered this practice was Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) of 2009. Looking back, “recovery, discovery and laughter” firmly tells me “yes, that was 2010.” That was the year I moved through the months of chemotherapy, radiation and follow up with those guiding words and their reminder that a sense of humour is an extremely useful tool during times of challenge. “Harmony, vitality and adventure” and my quest to gain strength, confidence and healthy and balanced life very accurately tells me that was my 2011, and the mantra “focus, treasure and design” tells me immediately that I approached 2013 knowing that the year would be a tough one as my father’s health failed. Indeed, that year as we said goodbye to him was indeed one with cherished moments and heartache to hold on to. The last three years have been characterised by enormous change and upheaval in every area of my life – professionally and personally. “Reorient, nurture and crystalize” tells me of the guide I had set out for moving on from so many years in Asia and says “2016”. Just as clearly, my mantra for the past year “search, settle and weave” whispers “ah, that was 2018,” to me. When I first saw the prompt in the final hours of 2009 that shaped my first 3-word mantra, I had no idea that this would become such an important part of my emotional and spiritual essence.

I always approach the final weeks of the year with a touch of trepidation, unsure as to whether I will find the right words for the coming year. Each year, I reflect, think ahead, look at the areas I want and need to shape most and somehow the words come. I seem to be more finely tuned to the meanings of words at this time, often picking up on a word I read or hear as it is spoken, and draw it into my evolving thoughts. This year has been no different. In my notebook, I have ideas, priorities and thoughts, jotted down, linked together and explored.

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And from this jumble of letters and scribbles, incredibly the 3-word mantra for the year ahead has emerged.

As I sit on a warm rooftop terrace, on a sunny New Year’s day far from Edinburgh, it is time to put my new mantra into the world, and set out my intentions for 2019:

“Script, nestle and nourish”.

These are the words which will inspire, motivate and guide me through the coming year.

Script

Script is an important word with several meanings for me. I love different scripts, and in Mongolia was especially fascinated by the sweeping, curved pen strokes which would start from the top of the page and work downwards.

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I was able to read modern Mongolian as Cyrillic is now used, with a couple of extra letters, my days studying Russian at university providing me with the key to at least sound out the Mongolian words, but with little or no comprehension of their meaning. In fact, in all of the Asian countries I lived and worked in, there were different scripts (Devanagiri in Nepal, Tamil in the part of India where I worked, Singhala and Tamil in Sri Lanka and the beautiful circles of Burmese script in Myanmar.

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I am fascinated by the relationship between these configurations, their pronunciation and their meanings. I would need to live for many centuries to begin to unravel some of these amazing puzzles.

Script also obviously relates to the practice of writing, and is important to me because it has been a neglected area of my life for too long as I have been working through practical tasks. This will remind me to set aside time and energy for writing, and to be courageous and regain confidence. I need to follow through the various writing goals I have set before they wither. I will find a creative space which will remind and encourage me to write.

There is another, important meaning to this word though. I am conscious that over the past months and more, I have been reacting to events which have happened. My work finishing earlier than planned, a return to Scotland which was abrupt in the grand scheme of things, and health glitches – these are all things which need to be dealt with. Of course I cannot change what happens, but I can take control of how I deal with it. I want to script my own story, to manage the various practical tasks in a constructive and appropriate way so that the tapestry is one which I believe in and own.

Nestle

This is taking forward the idea of settling from 2018. After so many years on the move, and with life plans changing, a priority is to find a place where I can nestle down and be cosy, where I can unpack my weird and wonderful bits and pieces from my life in so many corners of the globe. I want to find a little space where I can plant some seeds and watch them sprout, and where I can put a little bird feeder for the Scottish birds I am getting to know again. Where I can make tea and build a hearth to welcome family and friends. Where I can “coorie down”, – a wonderful Scottish expression for tucking yourself in, making yourself cosy and protecting yourself from the cold and outside troubles. It is linked in my mind to nesting which is also an important part of what I am eager to do. The long term fallout of cancer and divorce play mayhem with previosuly established long-term plans and bring a sense of uncertainty and vulnerability. Nestling seems to be the perfect way to create a sense of belonging.

Nourish

My third word for 2019 is “nourish”. This is also a word which encapsulates many meanings. The most obvious relates to a nourishing approach to maintaining and rebuilding health. I miss the seasonal and fresh foods of recent years, with local markets and variety. This winter and a persistent bout of seasonal ill health remind me of the importance of eating nourishing foods and natural resilience. I am also reminded to nourish the soul as I have access now to sources of reading, writing and inspiration on my doorstep. In Yangon, I had developed over the seven years, a lively creative life with a writing group, book club, photography club and regular film nights. Focusing on this area will strengthen my sense of belonging and connectedness as well as nourishing the creative self. This will help me to nestle as I also nourish those little birds, and seeds to establish a peaceful and inspiring space around me.

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As I gently place my 3-word mantra into the big wide world, I reflect especially on a weekend in early October. I was fortunate to be able to join like and inspiring minds on a mindfulness and writing retreat, run by friend and fellow blogess Audrey and poet and writer Helen. We were welcomed to the perfect space, tranquil and surrounded by a lifetime of gathered treasures and mementos, trees changing and shedding their leaves and a busy woodpecker. Far distant from the chaos of the outside world, set right in the outdoors. At the start of the retreat, we were asked to select a picture from a number of available images. I was immediately drawn to a key, which spoke to me of a childhood fascination of old keys as well as the notion of unlocking doors to the future. As the weekend drew to an end, we all made a pledge for the future. My own pledge featured an old rusty key and a box, to lay to rest my anxieties and harboured tenderness from the unexpected transition and encourage me to move forward in a positive space.

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As I move forward, I know that I have many untold stories which I am eager to script. Stories of the singing fishermen of Lake Kivu, of trailing my little travel bag around the Galapagos and of humming birds under the shadow of Mount Tunguruhua with its rumbling Strombolian promises of fire, tales of Rwandan weddings, African sunsets and safaris and many other adventures.

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And perhaps first, will be the tale of a little Scottish grandmother, trailing around the souqs of Marrakesh, haggling over the purchase of a rusty old key with absolutely no practical use, yet with enormous personal significance and optimism…

Tip Toe Tapestry

Many weeks have passed since the chattering pebbles of Findhorn beach whispered on these pages. Months have slipped by, and have seen the short wintry days gradually stretch into one of the hottest summers Scotland has known under long, light days. Time keeps its steady march forward and another autumnal equinox has passed. The days smartly shorten as the pace towards winter gathers speed, hewing daylight minutes daily until those times when the working day starts and finishes in darkness, and we see little of our neighbours.

And still the pages have been empty, my writing soul not yet ready to pick up the pen.

The longer the silence continues, the more deafening it becomes. Venturing back onto this space means I must tread softly and gently, testing the firmness of the ground as I timidly move forward.

At the start of the year, I set out my three word mantra. Search. Settle. Weave. And over the past months I have been pushing forward with a long search. I have been nurturing my soul and seeking to encourage the growth of roots ready to settle, slowly drawing out the threads to weave the tapestry of what is my new and different life.

Tapestry – The Tree of Life

As the year began, I knew that I had a long and deep search ahead. I had been looking for meaningful work, but not quite sure in which direction I was headed. My age definitely counted against me, and experience which seemed not to match needs back in my home country made it difficult to find clarity around a professional role. Oh, and the winter which swept through with a rare ferocity which kept us in a grip of unusual cold and deep snow over a number of weeks making it hard to move forward. A meeting of like minds and a timely opening brought some interesting tasks my way and the opening of a meaningful role which I have been delighted to take up. Slowly my search for purpose has found a path and direction. With this stability, I am extending my search for a place to call “home”. These things take time, and energy which I need to muster as the threads of this part of the woven picture emerges. I look towards the end of the year with hope and optimism that I will have a clearer sense of where this search might lead me. Thus, when I look back to my first post of the year, I am encouraged to see that my searching has brought me a renewed sense of purpose, greater clarity and stability.

I have been longing to settle. The past three years have seen such enormous change in every area of my life and now gradually I feel that the turbulence is calming. Search and settle are intertwined and almost interdependent. Settling relies to an extent on the searching leading to finding. But not entirely. Stability through work, as well as processing the various painful elements of being lone again and moving towards a more healing place, combine to lead to a more settled state. Settle is a comforting, healing goal to aim towards. I am gradually settling and the threads of this part of life are also beginning to form an image.

My third word brings the other two words together figuratively as well as literally. They provide the necessary foundations for the third word – weave. Those threads of my life which were loose, cut or unravelled are all becoming apparent. I feel now as if the weaving has begun, the different strands are emerging, growing and moving into place ready to weave a picture which has strength, stability, clarity and which can shape into an image of beauty and inspiration.

I am ready to move gingerly forward, tip-toeing softly as the tapestry of my future begins to form. There are many images in that tapestry to define as that process of weaving begins to move forwards.

The Chattering, Chuckling Pebbles of Findhorn Beach

It is a day to snuggle inside, as the laden skies continue to spill endless drifts of snow across the country. They tell us it is a “Red Alert”, the first one ever in this area apparently. This is something new to me, this system of weather warnings. Schools are closed, people are advised not to travel, and nor even to venture outdoors. The snow is way over the tops of my little boots, and the shapes of the steps in the garden have disappeared.

This first Scottish winter has been a long one, with many magical wintry Scottish landscapes and scenes. My train journey down from Inverness at the start of the year felt like a trip through Narnia with the snowscapes and wintry lighting.

During my break in the north, I visited a number of places new to me. On the second day of the New Year, my friend suggested a drive to Findhorn Beach. “It’s a pebbly beach“, she told us.

I had no particular expectations, other than an unremarkable pebbly beach. When we arrived, we stepped into a bracing sea breeze and a very high tide. There was very little beach. But there was a fascinating sound. I am sure those pebbles have a life of their own. As the sea rolled in, it would push the pebbles together, and when the seawater withdrew those little stones made the most unusual sound. They appeared to chuckle and chatter as they were shaken around in the waves. The sound and motion were mesmerising. I am surprised I had the presence of mind to preserve some moments  in this here and  here.

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I have no idea how long I stood at the shore, listening and watching. Those little pebbles chittered and chattered, muttering and chuckling with each tickling of the seawater.

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This walk along the beach proved to be incredibly grounding and cleansing, with its combination of the pristine little stones underfoot, the fresh breeze, pastel beach huts and the gentle winter sunlight.

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A day very different to this one, yet equally Scottish in nature. As the evening settles here, the snow flurries thicken yet again in hypnotic, swirling patterns over deserted roads and streets. It will be an early night to bed, with a book and listening to the memories replaying in my mind, of those chuckling pebbles on Findhorn Beach.

Three words for 2018

Good evening” I nodded as I passed a well wrapped up couple walking their dog on the shorefront.

Evening,” they responded, kindly faces pinched in the chill wind.

I glanced at my watch a few steps onwards, and realised it was only a few minutes after 3 o’clock. In northern Scotland the days are short and in those twilight days between Christmas and New Year the sun nudges above the hills just for a short while before resting again below the horizon. It would soon be dark, another cosy night ahead.

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Such evenings are perfect to reflect back on the year. Long evenings to review what the year brought, as well as preparing for the New Year. This time last year, I was in Ecuador. To be precise, I had been in the Galapagos Islands on those very twixtmas days, absorbing the unique setting I was in and oblivious to the surprises which 2017 was to bring. I was crafting my 2017 words: “Emerge, explore and intend”. I was ready for what the year would bring.

Or so I thought.

My process of identifying my 3 words combines a foundation of “givens” for the year with the direction, strength and tools to absorb “unexpecteds”. The words were tested to their limit by the past year as the “givens” almost all disappeared.

As I stepped into 2017, I had been living in Africa just a few months and was settling in to this new and inspiring place. A whole new continent and world away from the Asia I had lived and worked in for the previous decade and a half. My 3 word mantra was in place to guide me move forward. Emerge, explore and intend. I was all set to build my confidence and establish my place in my new environment. I was eager to explore my new surroundings. And I set out to approach life intentionally. However, 2017 had a few surprises to put in my path. Serious ill health from early in the year, a long recovery time and a change in the world of work saw me return to Scotland in the middle of the year, ill prepared for the adjustment which repatriation and professional redirection requires. It is not yet timely to detail those changes as there is still work to do to find my feet in a world which has changed significantly since I left in 2000. Writing an article for CABLE, Scotland’s new online international affairs magazine about my return to Scotland, provided a useful opportunity for me to think more deeply on the scale and depth of this readjustment.

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This is a transition at all levels, professional, personal and physical. And a transition which was not planned or chosen, but necessitated by a set of external factors beyond my control. To move forward, I need 3 words which are strong and which will guide me to keep moving forward, ensuring I do not flag.

This is the first time in my life when I have not been working (or studying full time). I have been taken aback to realise that I feel stripped of my sense of purpose without the role which work provided. I am still the same person, with the same beliefs and values yet the vehicle to challenge inequity and inspire change was very much bound up in my professional role. This has led me to my first word – search. I need to search to find my place, to find a way to play my part in the world. I want to define and refine my sense of purpose. Searching is also a very practical need. I need to search to find where I can play a role in the Scottish workforce, in a country which has changed so much in the time I was away. I must search for a long term place to call “home”, as my circumstances now are very different. These are important individually, and almost overwhelming when put together. And there is no shortcut, searching and researching are processes in themselves and need time, energy and careful consideration.

And that leads me to my second word. After such change and turbulence, I yearn to “settle”. I have revelled in the variety of places I have lived, without doubt. I had no idea that I would spend so many years overseas and in so many different countries when I left Scotland 17 years ago. Yet, no matter how much I felt “at home” and enjoyed the homes I settled in, I always knew that no matter how long I would stay in a country, it would not be permanent and that leaves a psychological niggle deep down. After so many years of different, long term yet temporary homes, I am warmed by the prospect of a home where I can finally unpack all the elements of my life and truly settle. Indeed, I have experienced uncertainty and upheaval in all areas of my life these past months and I want to focus on seeing that all settle in 2018. These are also not quick or simple processes, but I would like to see at least clarity and stability. I want the dust to settle, and to see the way ahead in my longer term future.

My final word is one which leans on and follows on from the previous two. The various threads of my life are currently loose and straggled. These need to be sorted and brought to some kind of order. I want to begin to “weave” my new life from these various dimensions. Threads are thin, fragile and quick to be blown away when they are single, but when they are brought together, with ideas and direction, they can be woven into a fabric of meaning, strength and beauty. These strands woven together can form stability, clarity and can grow and evolve as time moves forward. Having so many loose strands may be daunting, but this is also liberating. I have enormous freedom to weave the life and future which is right for me. I am eager to for that to take shape and to see what the picture will look like.

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As we move through January, these northern days will slowly lengthen alongside the promise of spring and regrowth as nature’s cycles move forward. I have my first Scottish spring in almost 2 decades to look forward to. I welcome a reacquaintance with snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils, as the trees begin to bud and the evenings become lighter.

This is the nurturing backdrop for my 2018 mantra “Search, settle and weave”

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‘Twas the night before Christmas…

I spent most of yesterday on buses, heading out of town to a west coast haven to escape the bustle of the season. I stepped off the third and final bus into the blustery darkness to the sense that it was late in the evening, whereas in fact it was barely 5pm. It had already been dark for almost 2 hours. However, I had departed before sunrise.

00DB69B2-41A2-4281-9EE9-1EC0C11D75BCA chance conversation has led me here. A “you wouldn’t happen to know of..” question which brought the perfect answer. A little place to pause, reflect, walk, gently explore, read, write and exercise my rested camera.

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And the most apt place to rest my head. This is a place where the rooms have no TV, but have a bookshelf with selection of carefully chosen books, and a radio beside the bed. There is a lounge with a writing desk, views of the hills and loch, kindred spirits and plenty of space to be.

In the lounge yesterday evening, I overheard a short conversation between two of the other guests. Both seemed to be visiting alone, but to know each other a little. Each seemed to be a seasonal visitor here and they exchanged pleasantries about their travel, the weather and such like. This took me unexpectedly and rapidly back a decade and a half, to a Christmas in the distant past and in a far away land, in the hills of Darjeeling, north eastern India.

It was a Christmas break, back then, during the time I was working in Nepal, and my leave included a week or so in the Darjeeling hills. There were a few nights in a modest hotel, with a heater in the middle of the room attempting to defrost the chilly air, a bucket of hot water delivered in the morning for showering and views of the Himal and Kanchenjunga at sunrise if you peeked out the window on tippie toe.

Darjeeling had surprised me. I had imagined a hamlet, nestling on top of the middle hills. The Darjeeling I arrived in was much greater, a large town perched precariously on a number of hills, buildings constructed in layers on top of each other defying gravity and challenging the hills to hold them.

Travel plans changed however, and with an extra day to spend in the town, I needed to find a room for the additional night. Preferably a room which was a little warmer and more comfortable. It just so happened that the night was Christmas Eve.

Although many places were booked up, I discovered that there was space in a lovely, quaint old place. However, they would not allow a Christmas Eve booking for one night only. You had to stay two nights, and check out on Boxing Day. Conversations ensued and eventually, the booking for two nights was confirmed.

The Windamere was not any old hotel, it had a standing which it worked hard to maintain. This was a place full of character and charm, with a music room, afternoon teas served in a drawing room, a labyrinth of rooms crammed with antiques and period pieces of furniture, kept warm by heavy brocade curtains and with walls filled with old photographs and artworks. I later learned that part of its reputation was due to its Christmas festivities. As I checked in, I began an experience which combined Christmas with a quirky Himalayan colonial character.

There was an atmosphere of building excitement and anticipation as guests greeted each other that Christmas Eve – familiar faces from many Christmases past. Not only did guests come from afar, but they seemingly came year after year. This was like a family get together. I had also not known that the reputation of the Windamere went far beyond Darjeeling. Guests of many nationalities arrived from near and far, including Hong Kong and Europe and were welcomed by an elderly Jackie Chan lookalike with a clipped English accent and his charismatic wife, to the Christmas festivities.

As the sun set over Mount Kanchenjunga on that Christmas Eve, the programme of entertainment and activities began. There were class cabaret acts from London, Sydney and even a dancer who had regularly performed can-can at the Moulin Rouge. We would sit in one of the drawing rooms in upright seats only a few feet away as the performers went through their repertoires. Conversations between the guests compared previous years entertainment, always favourably, and congratulated the hosts on putting together another excellent programme. I learned that many of the guests had been living overseas and no matter where they were now based, they would always travel back to the Windamere for Christmas. I imagine it would feel a bit like “home” without returning to the weather and frenzy of Christmas in the UK or elsewhere. Apparently the Windamere has been hosting a Christmas programme since 1939.

That Christmas Eve evening packed with entertainment, chit chat and a mix of Indian, Nepali and western cuisine ended at a respectable hour and everyone retired for the night. Darjeeling is cold in the winter, and there were real fires in hearths of the rooms, lit by the staff while guests were at dinner choosing between their preferred options. It was important to get to sleep while the embers were still glowing, so that you would not be too cold.

I was wakened on Christmas morning, abruptly by loud banging on a nearby bedroom door. Disoriented, I could not work out what was happening. Seconds later, it all became clear as hearty voices began belting out the carol “Silent Night” as loudly as they possibly could in the cold pre-dawn air, destroying the previously silence of the night. Wonderful irony! The hammering came to the next door, and then a few minutes later, to my own. A wrapped Christmas gift was thrust into my arms by one of the chorists with a cheery “Merry Christmas!” in freezing chilly air,  before she quickly moved to the next room. My chilled fingers opened the parcel to find a hand-knitted scarf inside. How apt.

A series of activities ran through Christmas Day, managed and led by our hosts, with adults and children being taken through each. I have a vague recollection of the hostess leading a line of children for their encounter with Santa Claus to receive their gifts, through the dank winter air.

That Windamere Christmas experience has rested in my memory, slightly hidden as it did not match with much of my experience of Nepali and Indian life. I would always shy away from colonial and western activities and so to engage with this had been incongruous, yet intriguing. Not forgotten but slightly out of view. Until now.

My current experience is very different. It is one of choice and while there are similarities, there are more differences. I do see that we seek out certain experiences. In the same way as it seemed that my fellow Windamere guests sought out a particular Christmas experience, I find that the same is the case here, many years and more than a continent away. However, it seems that visitors here are similarly seeking to find an escape from the frenzy and pressures of a modern Christmas, and are looking to find a place to disengage. And perhaps engage with like minds and similar souls. I have enjoyed gentle conversations this past day where although strangers, we have a great deal in common.

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It is warming that the landscape of north western Scotland reminds me of days in the hills of Darjeeling where in both places people seek out like minds. It is a powerful reminder that we are fortunate to be able to do this in the most humbling and inspiring of natural surroundings and company.