Past the Point of Nostalgia

I knew it was time to go when the posters came down.  Tipping point on a Thursday morning: the day before, stormy with sunshine, the building to myself, Thank You for Smoking on the projector.  The walls are bare.  Nothing left but Taoist blocks and boxes.

Six years in this classroom.  Nine years in this school.  Seventeen years in this career.  Another move, and it’s about time.  In any move you pass the point of nostalgia, where packing and sifting and trashing puts your fingers on items long forgotten, tucked away for rainy days that didn’t need those umbrellas:  half used reams of paper, CD’s of old computer files.  And then at some point, the nostalgia begins a slow fade.  The best memories have been packed or discarded to make room for the new.  The old and familiar becomes colorless white walls, void of meaning, primed for demolition.

If you’ve ever moved, you know the moment I mean.  Moving, like grief, has its stages.  For years, I’ve been hearing they’re tearing this building down–with its glorious windows and thriving cockroach population–and for years I’ve denied it would ever happen.  But the boxes came, and with them a six-month flurry of email instructions contradicting the previous ones.  I put off packing for another day.

But the building is up, and the date to abandon these old walls has come.  There are only these brief hours to stand–as Thoreau once said–on the brink of these two infinities.

Gone to the waste or recycled are old papers I once felt important.  Old student projects. Resources used rarely if at all.  Books that went from workshop to shelf, never to be cracked again.  Two LCD projectors and fracked, fifty-foot cables that I used to drag my classroom’s 20th century ethos into a 21st century digital technology through one dusty, misplaced internet port.

The future is new, clean, technological.  The past is faded bricks, large windows–beautiful light and vistas with horrible energy efficiency.  A two-tiered HVAC that roasts or freezes.  Tall ceilings.  Wood paneled walls.  Ceiling tiles where a yearly battle against the mold is waged.  Cockroaches and dead mice. Pat’s face.   There is no room for these beautiful inefficiencies, in the new and modern world.

As we move into new space, there is an attempt to bring continuity from the old.  Perhaps the water is the same, if just in a different container, one with newer pipes that I’m not so leery to drink from.  There are still lessons on rhetoric, discussions on dualism, viewings of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  There are essays submitted in the old building that will be returned in the new, passed out and cringed over on new and shiny desks, devoid of drawings, ongoing interclass conversations and “Thug Life” etchings.  Behold the old become new.

Inevitably the last purge comes, where the wheat and the chaff, the necessary and extraneous are divided.  A roll of white bulletin board border.  On the surface?  Valuable.  But as I drag it from the recesses of my wardrobe, four adult cockroaches scurry up my arm and shoulder, angry I have disturbed their ancestral home.  I’m fuming.  I’ve lost all  nostalgia.  I want to strike a match and walk away. But I must push through the anger and revulsion. There are more decisions to make.  The cardboard guitar–a gentle exchange among friends, changing hands for over fifteen years.  It goes down with the ship, standing proud stop the bow until the bitter end.  

 And then I find the jewels, tucked away in the top left drawer of my desk.  My secret stash.  A treasure trove of cards and messages from student’s past:  Hannah’s philosophy puns, Shelby’s stick figure cartoons, a grad invitation to the Kumars, Anna’s get well soon from my bout with pneumonia, my department’s sympathy card when Dad died, a newspaper article that Nic submitted after our wedding, thanks and thanks for letters of rec.  So many moments frozen in time, snapshots of full-fledged adults, many now graduates of college or nearly there.  I see them online in their current iterations, but here our interactions, our moments of dynamic learning, sit memorialized.  It’s not the lessons you teach, it’s the people you touch, and who touch you.


Monday. Move in day.  Everything is a flurry.  Old teachers come in to wish one last good buy and marvel at the new ivory tower.  We work all day to make a new conducive environment for our current crop.  Tuesday comes, we meet once more for twenty minutes to give our students new marching orders.  Then the building clears.  One more trip to the governor’s mansion.  There’s no space for Pat in the bright new future.  We say one last glance of good-bye. The building is locked.  The east sun now rises through a hermetically sealed window in my room.  The dawn of a new day, acceptance of the present day, looking oddly askance at the infinities beyond.

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This is what democracy looks like

The sky over Charlotte as I drove home Thursday evening was a molten pastiche of pinks, oranges, golden rays behind clouds, and gray.  On many nights, I might marvel at the beauty, but tonight I think of how Emerson claimed that nature reflects our heart back to us.  My head has been swirling with thoughts all day, and my heart has been heavy.  The sky seems an appropriate blanket of sorrow and confusion for this night.

Five nights ago, the sun set on my city as I danced among orange-clad drummers at the Festival of India.  Tonight, I watch those same streets clogged with riot police, protesters, tear gas. Chaos of a different order.

Fortunately in the world of social media, everyone seems to have an easy solution.  I probably should have put myself in a media sequester.  But watching events unfold, I found myself in conversations with half a dozen people and curating the stream of opinions online.  And while some of my friends’ opinions were predictable, I also watched people who often agree on most political issues arguing about the community reaction to the recent police shooting.

Yup.  Everyone’s got a solution.  If people would just ________, everything would be cool.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s not going to be that easy this time, that it’s not going to be easy for a while.  

These are the voices I hear in conversation over this unrest.  My own rhetorical voice tells me that “unrest” is too euphemistic, but I fail to codify it otherwise.  So, I turn to another voice for help.  John Steinbeck.  Writing about the swirling winds and currents that brought the Great Depression, he watched the downtrodden, driven off their land,  turn “I” into “We”, the revolutionary step.  “…if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive.”  Throw BLM and these protests into that list.  Street protests and civil unrest is often the “after” of a chain of events, not the beginning.

I’m not trying to absolve anyone’s moral culpability for violence, but watching these protests from the comfort of my couch, flipping from the news to the Bosox and back, I feel that all the armchair quarterbacks suggesting “what they ought to do or not do” could use some of Steinbeck’s insight.  One policeman shooting a citizen would not bring people into the street.  But put into the larger web events, and we have people compelled to take the streets to stand up for their lives.  Social media and video technology have allowed what were once the “isolated incidents” of a “few bad apples” to aggregate into data.  People read this narrative and integrate their own experiences, their own run-ins with the cops, their own frustrations.  Keith Lamont Scott dies at the hands of police.  People stand in solidarity with each other.  People clash.  These things are results, not causes.

It’s easy to ignore these webs of causality, these warning signs, sometimes, especially when we don’t want to see them.  Every time a new story fits this narrative of police mistreatment of African Americans, we dissect the facts of the case to judge culpability.  We evaluate the prior record of the victim to see if they deserved to die.  We evaluate statistics to see if discrimination and judgment the victims claim is true.  I’m all for truth and empirical data, but it doesn’t always tell the story of the experience of individuals, frustrating experiences that when ignored fester and boil over.  The facts are still in dispute in this case.  The ambiguity fuels the frustration, the mistrust.  And even if the facts absolve the police, we are likely to see more protests, more civil disobedience.  And again, people will blandly ask if we can’t just all get along, move along.

But the signals have been there.  A few weeks ago, I kept thinking the Colin Kaepernick story was a media grab for ratings, a non-issue, a sensationalist celebrity debate meant to draw eyeballs and mouse clicks.  But now I look at how that story became about the honor of soldiers and the patriotic obligations of football players and whether millionaires have the right to stand up for the underprivileged and whether or not you can criticize America and still have the right to stay here.  But it ignored what Kaepernick and activists have been trying to articulate:  there is discontent with justice that is not always impartial and color-blind in this country, no matter how much we want it to be, no matter how much we want there to be peace without having to deal with the underlying causes of the disruption.  And when we refuse to deal with people when they protest calmly and rationally, we invite them to turn up the volume so they can be heard.

Many people in the hope for a cessation of turmoil and unrest have invoked MLK. He wouldn’t want this, they say.  He would want people to protest peacefully, they say.  It’s a nice thought, but it is inaccurate, as Clemson Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika accurately noted to Coach Dabo Sweeny when he invoked MLK over the Kaepernick issue.  While King did advocate non-violent protest, he did not do so without qualification.  “Obnoxious negative peace” is where people simply accept injustice in the name of order, simply the absence of tension.  “Positive peace”, however, respects the dignity of all humans, built on the principles of justice.  Simply wishing for order without justice, without real change in our heads, our hearts, our social inequities is only asking for the problems–the distrust, the violence–to rear its head and the next catalyzing death.  As King smartly predicted, failing to deal with injustice can boil over into violence.

Late Wednesday night, I was unable to pull away from CNN in the center of my city.  It’s two nights later and I’m still glued.  Late Wednesday night, William Barber came on with Anderson Cooper.  Barber, who has been instrumental in Moral Mondays, rattled of a litany of cases he was pursuing, instances of injustice broad and specific that have fed the distrust many Aftican Americans feel.  Later, the street reporter caught a public defender who had been on the front lines all night  and tried to pin him down to condemn the violence.  He refused to give a simple answer.  He could not separate the actions of the protesters from the actions of the police.  He was there to protest, too, “to keep my brothers safe”, he said, a statement with so many layers.  

He spoke with a clarity of vision I could not match.  As I watched late into the night–the news, the running superficial commentary–I wanted to say or do something meaningful, but A quick Facebook post seemed too shallow to hold the complexity of my confusion.  So, I tried to sleep with all my these cloudy impressions.  The next morning, I wanted to curl up with my laptop and write and write until I figured out this swirl of thoughts weighing on my heart.  I wasn’t going uptown.  What was I going to do to bring positive peace in my community?

But duty called before I had an answer.  I had to be there for my students, my school.  I had to engage with people, teenagers and adults.  By six I was out the door, but lessons about Descartes, Tim Burton, and argumentative writing seemed hollow, not quick enough, pertinent enough for the needs of my community.  In the brief spaces of contemplation, I’ve spent the rest of the week trying to figure it out.

I teach King’s “Letter” every year, usually in context of other essayists who discuss issues of justice.  A couple of weeks ago, before Charlotte erupted in protest, some colleagues and I started kicking around some new ideas with these texts in the context of this national conversation.  Somehow, I feel a new urgency rising within me, an impulse that I feel will inform my teaching and my interaction with with my students for some time.  For better or worse, my city has been awakened in a way it can no longer ignore.  Sitting back, lobbing abstract ideas on social media or yelling at the television are insufficient for the changes we need.  These are not abstract ideas.  These are the issues we still grapple with, the ideals we should still strive for, the problems we must solve to have that “positive peace” that respects justice for all.  And if we want positive peace, hopefully my talents can be used to help give that change a push, even if I don’t know what that looks like today.

At the end of his sometimes ranting poem “America“, Ginsberg, after calling out the litany of injustice he saw, claimed patriotically and calmly “I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.”  So, this morning, maybe in this blog post–where I usually try to remain as apolitical as possible–I’m putting my white shoulder to the wheel.  It’s inconclusive.  It doesn’t solve anything.  But words are the work I know and use to try to push us in the right direction.  I don’t know what else that work will be, but we all have a responsibility in bending our community to a more just place for all to live.  This is what democracy looks like.

1 down, 179 to go…

Monday’s got me in a weird place…an out-of-body experience.  I look at my hand, moving across the page in a foreign way.  What are you doing?  What is this strange motion you are under taking?

Oh.  Right.  Grading student essays.  I almost forgot how this felt.

After stepping off a plane two weeks ago and moving right into a three-day PD workshop, I haven’t really had time for the typical bemoaning of the end of summer.  No ritualistic last day celebrations.  No symbolic funerals for the summer sun.  Just the quick passing of one phase of life for another.

This is probably best for me.  Teachers can be downright cranky about the end of the summer, worse than the students sometimes.  At least students can claim the excuse of compulsion.  Legal or parental, they will argue, this is not their choice.  The argument from necessity.

Teachers try this trick sometimes.  We have to go back.  And sure, in contrast to a whirlwind vacation, honeymoons, or even lying on the couch binging Bob’s Burgers, rising before the ass-crack of dawn, putting on “real shoes”, and being conversant and authoritative over teenagers can seem something of a drudgery.   So, up we rise, if somewhat resignedly, to face our destiny.  Sometimes, you just gotta get up to make the doughnuts–our own argument from necessity.

These were the type of arguments that used to piss Sartre off before he became a full-blown Marxist.  Acting from “bad faith”.  Acting like you have no choice.  Making excuses so you can bemoan you life.  What a slow, sludging march the grave.  I know.  Sounds depressing.  But too many days where you get up and go to work because you have to eventually leads to a life that you meet begrudgingly, morning after morning.

But I can’t say I don’t embrace necessity at some point.  When I was twenty, I had accepted a NC Teaching Fellows (May it Rest in Peace) to school, but was still unsure that this is the path my life would take.  And somewhere in a dark night, after drinking entirely too much coffee, after reading entirely too much 17th century British Literature, I knew that my life would somehow serve in the vein of transmitting knowledge to the younger generation.

At different points in my life, I’ve fought this idea that this was my place in life.  Other friends have left the profession for more lucrative or at least less stressful occupations.  What can seem like daunting futility in trying to reach an unwilling audience can breed a special spark of soul-crushing nihilism.  Sometimes the flashy cars you’ll never drive and the jet-set life you’ll never live becomes more confrontational than you’d like.  And if you’ve put in the years, the thought of jumping ship and starting a career anew sounds like a poor financial decision on top of a daunting existential one.

So, resignation becomes a weird form of gallows humor, a sarcastic protection against the struggle.  Teachers know how many years they have to retirement on command (13, in case you’re wondering).  We can get cagey against change because the old and familiar is so…well…old and familiar.   After all, we’ve got all the lessons down, so why do more work?

For me, however, I suppose I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where teaching still fulfills my intellectual curiosity.  Sunday morning before the first day of school, I lay down in yoga class, and the last thoughts on my mind before it emptied for a bit were all the strands of thought and idea that I had for my class this year, brimming with possibility, busy  but not anxious.   That evening, I took my kayak out to paddle on the waters in a bit of solitude.  Not because it was the “last day of summer”, but I wanted some time and silence to prepare my mind for the next day.  When Monday rolled around, I woke excitedly.  (I can’t say I’ll still be doing that in November, or even next week for that matter).  And by 8:00, I thought about what I was going to get to talk about for the next four hours.  Theorizing about democracy in Philosophy.  Analyzing Speilberg in film.  Discussing rhetoric and speech in English.  God, I’m such a dork, but this sounded exciting to me at 9 in the morning.  Say what you will about this job, but it is rarely monotonous.

 

I don’t want to get preachy and say we should relish our opportunities or that our day is what we make of it or attitude makes all the difference.  Because that’s the kind of stuff that makes up cheesy affirmational yoga blogs, the kind of talk that makes people want to punch you in the grill, especially if you pull it before they’ve had their morning coffee.  But for all the crappy back to school ads, for all the late sleeping in the middle of the week that I won’t see until next summer, for all the blog posts postponed two weeks and completed only after two hours of grading essays, I’m trying to embrace the ups and downs of the struggle, in all its absurd glory.  At the least embracing this life in all its foibles is worth a good chuckle at least once a day.

Here’s to the new year, fellow teachers:  11 down, 169 to go.

 

 

Surfing the Seas of PD

It’s a bike challenge.  District-wide PD is at a school close enough to my house that I can pedal there in under 15 minutes.  But predictably, I’m still late, and I scoot in near the back corner a little sweaty to an already-begun presentation on writing revision.

Yay.

The axiom “teachers are the worst students” is proven true every year.  There’s a faux TED banner in the front lobby, but there’s one notable difference here:  TED bans tech use in the lecture hall.  Not here.  From my perch in the back, almost everyone has at least one screen going, maybe two.  We all think we’ve got lots to do, and could all justify individual work over being here.  But the book looks good.  It has good resources and ideas.  I’m going to try to be good.  Try to pay attention.  Try to learn something I can use in my classroom.

But the ladies behind me are having a riveting discussion, re-capping word-for-word a conversation someone had in church last week.  So, I’ve got the presenter through the left ear and “So I told her…” through the right.  The struggle to pay attention has begun.

The presenter is reading a children’s book about Pablo Neruda, while a friend sends me a Sporcle game.  I’m drowning.  Throw me a life jacket.  I’m trying to suppress my snarky urge, but it’s threatening to overwhelm me.  I decide that blogging this one out might be my saving grace.  If everyone else can multi-task, why can’t I?  If this is about writing revision, is blogging about it meta-learning?  I grasping for a raft anywhere I can.

9:05:  We’re into some pop-neuro-biology:  playing music, being nice to your students, lighting candles release dopamine.  Think of ways to release dopamine in your classroom.  That could get dangerous.

9:10:  First clever teaching acronym of the day.  Think about the TOE.  T is for talk.  I’ll tell you about the other toes later.  Just stick your toe in the water.

9:15:  I give into the Sporcle urge and fail.  I can only name one RedSox 3rd Baseman from the last decade.  My right ear is a PowerSchool conversation and student gossip.  So, at least it’s kind of work.  But Little Pablo has been put to bed; there’s some playing with student stereotypes and boilerplate inspiration.

9:20:  The waves of cynicism subside as I begin to see some value.  I start to get into this.  I start seeing how this can fill a need in my classroom.  My kids often fall down at revising sentences.  I mean…revising sentences often befuddles them.  I stop blogging and start using my phone to shoot these seeds of beautiful lessons to my colleagues.  This is called “back channeling”.  Instead of snarky ways to release dopamine, my brain is creating masterful syntactical mini-lessons.

9:40 Attrition has begun.  I see the first person leave with all their gear.  In my right ear, somebody’s on Prozac.  I think it’s a dog…or at least a child who goes through a bag of food every three weeks.  I don’t know.  I’ve started closing my right ear to amazing efficacy, and one of my Park homies sends an authoritative “Shh” and stank eye across the bow.  The harpies lower their cackles to a grating whisper.

9:50:  We have a quiet free write based on a passage the speaker has read.  He’s done some neat things with books.  I write about invisibility.  I’m not sure I can see where I’m going with this, but I let it roll with the current, not looking for a reason to hate this.

10:00: Break 15 minutes.  Lots of people pick up all their stuff and swim off under the cover of temporary exodus.  I walk and get sunshine.  Streams of teachers to the parking lot like rivers to the ocean.​


This school has great rain barrels and gardens.  I walk around and meet a guy who used to teach with me, now here.  Learn lots just by talking for five minutes or so.


10:20ish?:  I’m really bad at coming back from break on time.  But by the time I dive back in, it’s clear how many people have jumped ship.  Thankfully, the harpies behind my backpack  are among them.  I sit down and we’re re-arranging syntax on our pre-break freewrite.  This is a pretty good activity, and I feel like my treading water all day, resisting the urge to bail, to swim away, to hide in a well of sarcasm has been rewarded by some boon.  I start recording lesson ideas and collaborating on anti-plagiarism seminars at the same time.

I don’t want to act like I’m walking on water, but the room has become more productive.  People volunteer.  Somehow, everyone who couldn’t make it through seems to have left, and the people who have bobbed along this long have begun to see some value.  This is no small feat.  Most teachers see early year PD with a mix of dread and revulsion, and can often react with grudging contempt or outright rebellion.  Lots of times, you can’t blame them: presenters often affix new buzzwords to old strategies presenting the new and improved wheel.  And in our system, there have been epic fails–the presenter who led off to an auditorium full of English teachers with “we’re not teaching novels ’cause no one reads them” comes to mind.  

Teachers aren’t perfect in PD, either.  This cynicism–often well-placed–can make us miss some valuable tools as well. Luckily, mine didn’t capsize my boat, and I made it to safe port after all.

11:20:  He ends early.  No sense in drawing this out.  The crowd is generally satisfied.  I find some former colleagues and catch up–the only time I see some of them all year.  My buddy and I walk out, bullshitting about Ryan Lochte and how his idiocy is  likely to drown out his success in the pool.  Pedal home.  Surprise the dogs.  A good morning that included District Wide PD?  It’s a miracle.

Epilogue: On our Brexit and Wanderlust

We began our own personal Brexit early on a Monday morning.  Big hugs, thanks for coming, and thanks for having us–all exchanged as the Uber drove to take us from corner of Arlington and Denbigh for the last time.  The corner flat that had been our home for 19 days began to recede in the distance as we made our way through Ealing to Heathrow.

The flight home to the Promised Land was a tale unto itself.  While we were in line to check our luggage, a family queued behind us, and their three year old went into full Linda Blair meltdown mode when their six year old wouldn’t relinquish his suitcase to his little brother’s whim.  “Hate to be on that kid’s flight,” we said.  In London security, I lost a jar of English Mustard and Horseradish respectively.  Apparently, I didn’t figure out they were liquids.  Also, I forgot to switch my knife from my backpack to my suitcase.  So, while I am down one knife, at least they didn’t think I was a terrorist and give me the full cavity search.  

The plane was full, and I hoped to get some sleep, as Nic noted that I was barely awake as I was walking through the airport.  I even began eyeing the full empty row of seats to my left as a crash spot.  But as the doors closed, Nic said, “Ooooh…. Fuuuuuudge.”  It could only be one thing.  The terror slid right in beside me.  So, long story short, I caught two movies on the international flight along with two complimentary Goose Island IPA’s.  Back to American brew.  The mom was not so lucky.  Her precious little darling threw her wine on the floor, so she had little succor as he bit and hit her and repeatedly kicked the seat in front–seven and a half hours.  Sweetheart, would you please stop?  Here’s a better question.  Where’s a Benadryl Blow Dart when you need one?

In Newark, our turn around from one plane to the next was under two hours.  We had to grab our luggage, check it back in about 200 hundred yards (not meters–back in the States) further.  We had to go outside one terminal to get to another to make our connecting flight, which got us caught on a train with some very confused and oblivioius French girls with large suitcases, so Nic pulled out the teacher voice to move them, much to the pilots’ mirth.  But that gave us little special status, as we had to go through security again, which means the water you put in your water bottle on the plane from London is no longer safe to board on the plane to Charlotte.  The guy thought he was doing me a solid by letting me back in at the front of the line to empty my pockets again after I poured the water out–and I guess he was–but I’ve still to travel through an airport security in any city that has not make me think of the term “security theater.”  Down, down, down, all the way to the anus of the C concourse in Newark.  We had to hurry cause in twenty minutes we’d be boarding at the terminal gate.  Somebody help me get outta New Jersey, just help me get to Queen City town.  The flight just long enough for pretzels and a cup of ginger ale.  Swing low chariot, come down easy.  The flight was over, and we had or bags soon.  Kristen met us at the front and took us immediately for Mexican food and Mojitos with Drew.  Nic’s chips and salsa reserves had been depleted and she needed a re-up stat!  In fact, two days later we went and re-upped just to make sure she didn’t lapse.

The journey is over.  There’s lots of weight and implications in those four worlds.  Back home.  Laundry in process.  My backpack has switched from travel to toting books.  Back to work tomorrow.

Wanderlust sated?  Not bloody likely.  Inevitably, you can get roped into the “next time we come here” conversation, imagining how you would do it differently.  Inevitably, you begin to realize all thing things you didn’t get time to do or see, things you didn’t even know you could do or see until you got here.  And then there’s the “where do you want to go next” conversation, which for Nic and me began at some point over the Atlantic on our London to Newark flight.

To put an even more modern twist on this, by penning these epistles the last few weeks, I’ve connected to others in the online community who do the same: travel, write, photograph, document, share.  From reading these tales, I’ve begun to daydream about other out of the way places where my boots and backpack may take me in the future.  You fellow bloggers have read this blog as it chronicled our travels, and I have read yours.  I imagine your wonder and hope you’ve enjoyed us sharing ours.

But for now, our world traveling is on pause.  Soon (after our end-of-trip awards–coming soon!!!), this blog will become a bit less travel-centric for a while.  I’ll still be taking camping trips on the east coast, and Nic and I will continue to find new adventures, but the mind that churned the UK over the last three weeks, looking for ways to piece it together in this written space, will now turn back to the classroom, the students with whom I engage everyday.  My blog posts will turn back to the mundane and domestic–to school stuff and philosophy and yoga and race training and everyday life.  The memories, preserved here in these words and in Nic’s amazing photography, will be catalogued here and in my mind, but my imagination will run wild in a slightly different direction for a while, still trying to piece it all together one day, one post at a time.

Memories that are so vivid today–being swarmed by minges at the Fairy Pools, nearly being blown off the mountain over Edinburgh, a late night Roti with Gary and Ash–are all so vivid now, but as time passes they will become a bit more shadowy.  Even in re-reading, I recognize all the small details that were left on the cutting room floor, moments not caught in picture or writing–like the old man dancing on the street at Camden market, conversations over drinks at the Robbie Burns pub (“I hear all people from Texas are crazy…but good crazy”) or Nic’s proclivity for making people laugh on the Underground (“But really, thanks again for that laugh.”).  At the same time, the seeds that found root in our journey will continue to blossom over time–like improving my repertoire of Scottish folk songs from 0 to 2 (so maybe I can play along next time, though Nic will surely punch me if I pursue my dream of writing one about the Jalpeno Pasta at Pizza Paradise), or learning how to turn around blog posts, not letting them sit in the draft folder unfinished.  Hopefully, these fruits continue to bloom.

It would be easy to lament this change and worry that soon these beautiful days will grow dusty on the shelf in their disuse, but doing so would undermine the gratitude I feel for having this experience.  For the sacrifices we both made to make it happen.  For the opportunity to travel.  For Gary and Ashely’s warm hospitality, their kindness, their love, their laughter, their honest conversation in quiet moments.  For having the great fortune of landing serendipitously in Chelsea’s flat.  For people along the way (the old man at the castle, Alex from Aberdeen via Latvia, the Dutch teachers) who gave us memorable community in our travels.



Gratitude is often easier to cultivate in extraordinary situations.  In travel (as Blanche du Bois once noted) “the kindness of strangers” becomes an amazing gift.  You put yourself into the strange and unfamiliar and you often prove that not only can you do amazing things, but that other people are capable of amazing acts of kindness. large and small.  One of the political speeches I heard at the RNC before I left characterized the world as a dark and scary place, and sometimes in our country we often view the rest of the world with suspicion.  Fortunately in the pocket of the world we just traveled, that turned out not to be so.  People were kind and conversant everywhere we went.  But now as we slide back into the familiar, the known, it becomes easier to take for granted our everyday opportunities, our potential, and also the small contributions people make in our lives both large and small.

It’s inevitable, I guess, to see your own culture through the lens of the one you just left.   And the comparison goes much closer to the skin than which side of the road is correct or the difference between trousers and pants and underwear.   Our roads are wider and we drive more.  We don’t have 70 degree summer days.  We don’t have screeching fox roaming our neighborhoods at night.  We don’t have venison or cider as readily available.  We do have free refills on soda in most place and thunderstorms, as well as fairly accessible public restrooms.  Not everyone has to be like us, and we surely don’t have to be like everyone else, but seeing how it’s done differently can both give you gratitude for what you do have and give you a reality check for what you could really do without.

Hopefully, that drama will play out on another stage for us soon.  I remember the day we walked into Blackwell’s in Edinburgh and thought of all the books I had yet to read.  Traveling, it seems, is having the same effect.  Taking one trip fills me with wonder and happiness, but it also makes me aware of all the many glories on this Earth left for me to explore.   Perhaps temporarily satisfied, the wanderlust, the daydreams of seeing things, observing customs, and meeting people I’ve never seen before will still hold sway in my mind.  Where next?  Belize? Prague?  Bali?  Kilimanjaro?  I guess we’ll see what happens when our paths take us there.

Day 16 and 17: Sometimes, You Get what you Need

Weekends are for relaxing.  Leisure.  Late day pajamas, Hanging on a Saturday Evening date, doing the Sunday puzzle, seeing if you can find all the hidden clues.    21 in total, I think.

Our turnaround day left us much more exhausted than anticipated.  Although we got sleep on the overnight, by the time we fell into sleep after Roti around midnight, night-day-night of being Midnight Ramblers left us exhausted.  So, we decided for the next day to wake up slowly without plans–a leisurely weekend for the last days of our vacation.  Gary cooked breakfast (not “proper English,” because nobody in this house needs baked beans with their eggs) while we showered, folded laundry, and read leisurely.  Around noon or so, we made our way to the Underground.  Our goal–the Saatchi gallery.  More art for the day, it seems.  However, our plans were foiled as the regular exhibit had been shunned to the side like a bunch of dead flowers.  Well, I guess you can’t always get what you want.  In its stead was a pay exhibit–Rolling Stones: Exhibitionism.  While I love the Stones, the Saatchi was not about to pry £20 from my sticky fingers.  We were trying to play it cheap and easy for the last two days, and parting with more of our money can’t get us no satisfaction.  So, we walked around the market outside the Duke of York square with all the other men of wealth and taste before we hopped back on the Tube to hit Tower Hill.

With no set schedule, Time was on our side.  We passed back by the tower and over the Tower Bridge–rated the most popular selfie spot in London–to get to Tower Centre, where we would find a public viewing venue for Team GB in the Olympics  We got some food and found front row seats.  While Olympic fever may have had London under its thumb in 2012, the crowd seemed more a light afternoon party rather than a frenzied sports crowd.  No dancing in the streets.  No one stood to save the Queen when the music played.  After eats and a Pimm’s Lemonade (a great summer drink), we wandered back down the Thames bank, down an back river alley where we stumbled into a bridal shoot.  Nothing to see, we made our way back to the bridge.

There, a facsimile Mississippi riverboat-dredging water deep from the Delta across the Thames–made the Tower Bridge rise, so we had to wait.  Foot traffic slowed to a halt.  Across the bridge, the bridal shoot party had caught up with us and posed under the tower.  A tourist mom asked if her children could take a photo with the bride.  The bridge lowered.  

Foot traffic began again, and soon were were on the Tube back to Tottenham Court where we could renew a weekend tradition British style–bookstore date.  Only this time instead of our local B&N, we plopped at the 6-story Foyles In Westminster.  To be fair, one floor is a meeting space and one is a full cafe’; nevertheless, it’s a pretty monstrous store. In our haste to find shoes, we had walked right by it on Day 1.  It was not to be missed today.

We agreed to work our way down and meet on the ground floor.  Nic gushed at the seven shelves of drama.  She nearly wept at the sight.  I started in on the fourth floor–esoteric knowledge–and worked my way down to history and politics.  Nic found a number of humor writers making mint off Donald Trump’s expense.  I moved over to philosophy to hear a dad and daughter discussing Camus while their mom tried to muscle in with a book about tidy living.  They seemed to get the absurdity of it all.  I then moved to the music-racks and racks and racks of Jazz, Blues, Avant-Garde, and Americana.  Under a tapestry of Sarah Vaughn, I flipped through the names:  Dylan, Cash, Waits, Davis, Coltrane, so, so many live Monk shows.

I made my way out with two discs and wandered under the traipsing voice to the film section, plopped on the floor and enjoyed the show.  Soon, Nic was wondering “Has anybody seen my baby?  We reconnected and eschewed the night life, reading the map without having to shine a light on it, heading back on the tube before the sun fell of the horizon.

 There have been days where we felt like we had to see it all, when wild horses couldn’t drag us back home.  But today, we were glad to have a slow day and an relaxing evening back in Ealing where we could get some shelter.

Sunday flowed at a similarly leisurely pace.  We left the house around 11, starting at St. James Park wand working our way park.  The park abuts Buckingham Palace, where we passed hundreds of tourists, huddled in queue to enter the building.  Outside the gates, people waited turns to have their pics snapped in front of the large insignias.  Not our cup of tea, so we made our way over to the Victorian Monument, also festooned with people tourists and Sunday morning park goers alike.  We decided to make it a nice Sunday, grab some ice cream and amble through the park like it was our own lazy Sunday afternoon.


Signs are clearly posted throughout the park to not feed the birds, but far be that from an impediment to some tourists. You can asks them to have some courtesy, have some sympathy, and some taste.  But polite signs are oblivious to some little devils.  Two young boys caused a traffic jam on one path by bringing an entire bag of uncooked rice to feed pigeons, drawing about thirty of them to fly at and away from every pedestrian who walked by.  We crossed the bridge where the Eye could be seen over the river.  Our walk took us near the parade grounds, near the back of Parliament, past the Churchill War Rooms.  On the south side of the park, we found to boys playing “Pull the Bread from a family of swans.  One pulled so hard that he lost balance and fell on his roly-poly behind, and I got the vibe that some people walking by were pulling for the swans to pull away his fingers  But otherwise, morning was uneventful in its beautiful simplicity.  From the park, we made our way to Earl’s court for a very specific purpose–to see the TARDIS.  That moment in time accomplished, we got back into the station when a mysterious Inspector Sams was paged repeatedly, for a brief moment like it’s own surreal Dr. Who episode, we expected chaos to come.  But none did, and the train took us away–right on time.


Our last stop of the day was the Notting Hill neighborhood and the Portobello Market.  Known to most Yanks for a Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts rom-com (and yes, you can buy the t-shrit),  Notting Hill was a photo destination for Nic, its pastoral rainbow row houses basking in the afternoon sun.  The market held the streets with open air antique, clothing, jewelry, and knick-knack dealers.  Knock-off pocket watches interspersed with fine China.  Cat and Dog Pillow covers.  Art prints (not the cheap Chinese crap copies, the stall assured us).  A beer mug of Churchill’s head (Would I love it? Yes, but not for £250)  The uniquely and stereotypically British to the strangely ubiquitous (it seems you can buy a poop emoji anywhere on earth, even a rainbow one like the Squatty Potty ads).  Among it all, crepe makers raked at their discs of dough with the tranquility of sand in a Zen garden.  We grabbed lunch at a deli, then hit the “Unofficial Banksy Shop”–pretty sure there’s not an official one, so I hope he got a cut of my quid–and caught the Central line–our last tube ride–to Shepherd’s Bush to meet Gary and Ashley at their church.

Later that evening, we settled down to watch the Olympics.  Curious to how Britain–Ealing specifically–would be watching the Andy Murray gold medal match, I walked up to the corner store to get a beer, but stopped in at the Drayton Arms.  The match was on, but there seemed little interest.  There was a guy challenging some Honky-Tonk Woman–some bar-room Queen from Memphis–to her first Jaeger shot.  Otherwise, the pub was tame.  Apparently, gold medal tennis doesn’t inspire the same sort of street fighting man as football or rugby does.  I walked back to Gary and Ashley’s house, staying up into the wee hours of the morning to watch Bolt win the semis and Murray take the gold.  “Hope your boss is a sports fan tomorrow,” said the British announcer.

It’s now 10:30.  I’ve been up since 6, which is 1 a.m. at home, where I’ll be in a few hours.  We’re on the plane, but a bit behind the take off time, but hopefully I’ll get some sleep to start changing the jet lag clock.  Time to close my eyes and paint it black for a bit.

 

Day 14 and 15: Trains, Turnarounds, and Tunnels:  new twists on old paths.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once quipped, “You never step in the same river twice.”  The same is true for traveling.  Whether you or the path or both, the return journey always differs.  Largely, when you have reached the turning point, when the vector of your journey points home, you’re more prone to think about the comforts of a familiar bed and the exuberant welcome of your pets.

Our turn point started on the Lochalsh to Inverness line.  What was once exciting.  What was exciting as hurtled northwest toward Skye was shrouded in rain and travel stress on the return.  Inverness itself was cold and rainy.  We tried to make a go of exploring, but we were so spent that when we entered a giant book store in the shell of a 16th century church, Nic came over to me and said, “I can’t even…I’m so overwhelmed.”  Yes.  You read that right.  Nic turned down a two-story book store.

We were happy to find that the Caldonia Sleeper, the overnight train from Inverness to London, had a complimentary lounge where Nic entertained the Scottish host by regailing her with descriptions of Moon Pies.  We crossed the street to have dinner at the Ash Hotel.  Back in the lounge, we availed ourselves to the free beer and tea, rested, and waited for departure.

Several sites I read claimed the sleeper train, which left Inverness at 8:48 and arrived in London at 7:15 the next morning, was the way to go.  Let me add my support to this notion. We saved an entire day of travel, though we certainly learned a new meaning of “close quarters.”  Our suitcases took up half the available floor room, but it was a relief to get out of our boots and clothes that we had been wearing since we’d been soaked at Elgog, damply clinging to us all day.  Newly shod, we settled into the lounge car for a drink–she a cider, me a Glenlivet—and quiet reading.  A British couple next to us kept trying to name the station, while Nic briefly chatted the girl at our table about her book.  Her cider finished, she headed back to her bunk while I finished my whisky.

That done, I order a Bailey’s and Hot Chocolate.  Train sleeping, I assume, will be like camping sleeping: wear yourself out and add a stiff drink or two and you can sleep through damn near anything. My nightcap combo intrigued my British neighbor, who has been talking to a Scottish man at the table behind me about the stops.  He joins my table and I find out why.  They rented a car in Dalwhinnie (a whisky destination to drive to Inverness only to have the train drive back through Dalwhinnie–there and back and there again. We all share the tales of our travel, and the Scottish fellow starts spinning a yarn of his friend who “hunts Nessie”‘and charters boat tours on Loch Ness: they haven’t had a sighting in a decade, and–according to his friend–they could use one soon to keep the Yen rolling in.  I laugh, and they move into local references that are lost to me.  I finish my night cap and his them a good night.  I climbed into the top bunk, donned my complimentary mask and ear plugs, and slept through pretty much everything, including the switching of locomotives in Edinburgh.

By 6:30, we awoke.  Our breakfast arrived.  I’m eating smoked salmon and eggs sitting in my bunk: for the third straight Friday, we’re waking up in London.  Off the train at Euston Station, we are walking into the teeth of London morning rush hour.  After our Scottish excursion, we feel a bit out of place.  While we are still dressed for Scottish wind and rain, people in London are clean, perfumed, wearing shirts and skirts. We, by comparison, are crunchy.  I haven’t wanted a shower this bad in some time, and we still have to get on the sardine-packed Central line back to Ealing before we can be clean.

By 11, we are back out.  We meet Gary for lunch and head to the Tate Modern.  We still had a weekend in London, and even with all the time we’ve had, it’s impossible to see it all.  Today was going to be an Art day.  The Tate sits on the banks of the Thames, a former power station with several floors of both rotating and free exhibitions.  We had passed it on the way to the Globe last week, its festivity adding to our walk.  Today, we entering the festivity, contributing to the huge crowd by entering.

Here, dear reader, it would be easy to slide into a “what is art?” discussion.  And with a wide array of art–abstract shapes to portraits to political statements; paintings, sculptures, audio and video installations; traditional, trippy, and bizarre, such as a giant room filled with what looks like overgrown potato sacks–this could be an appropriate discussion

Perhaps another time.  Perhaps what was just as interesting was the hordes of people and how they interacted in the space.  Photography was allowed, but not flash, which meant some people still used flash.  Every time  people spied a Dali, Matisse, or Picasso, they leapt to have their pic snapped or take an exuberant selfie, regardless of the mod of the actual work.  Not trying to be judgy:  I grabbed a few pics myself.  There was a girl who went old school–plopping beside the pond of abyss of her journal in the middle of the floor, penning a reflection on Dali’s Metamorphisis of Narcissus.  Parents wrangled their kids to get just the right shot.  Perhaps most entertaining were the girls taking goofy-faces selfies in front of photographs of genocide and torture.  Funzies!!!


Ashley joined us at the Tate, and we enjoyed a leisurely cup on the terrace.  Friday afternoon turned into 5 o’clock here.  The crowds grew.  The pubs swelled.  The walk beside the Thames grew busy as the after-work crowd met the tourist crowd.  We passed trees petitioned to stand, a skate park, a statue of Olivier, then cut left between Jubilee Gardens and the eye for a different type of artistic experience.

Leak Street Tunnel has Has been closed off from the main road for seemingly some time, so it has become a de facto museum of street art.  A little-known underbelly of London but to photographers and street artists and a handful of innovate tour guides, much art is every bit as worth as the Tate without the ropes, security, or reverence.  Paint a beautiful mural and see it replaced with the mundane.  The tunnel has all the feel of entering into a seedy underworld, but after the madness of the Tate, the quiet, dank tunnel was something of a welcome relief.  We saw a couple of artists in action, one who traveled from Greece and was making his way around Europe tagging in major cities, but his tag bled into the hundreds of artists who have painted and re-painted these hallowed halls beneath the city.  As we exited the tunnel, a taxi exited a blind garage like it just got a GTA paint job fix up.  Three streams of city-bike tours flew past us, one lady precariously driving with her selfie stick in hand.  “Five bucks says she eats it in the next mile.”




Back in the sunlight, we cross the bridge in front of Parliament, always slammed with tourists, entering the Underground at Westminster, always graced with street buskers.  A long tunnel from Kennsington turns directly ito the Victorian Albert Museum, open late and free on a Friday night–12.5 acres of exhibits.  We caught the Renaissance European Artifacts–desks, instruments, guns, swords, wood panels, paintings, etc.–in the basement before making our way to the Asian artifacts collection, or as one visitor quipped, “Where we can see what they stole from everyone else.”  In both religious ideas and design, however, the line of appropriate is a bit less clear.  As we move through the Middle East with heavy influence on geometry (including an ancient rug lit only twice an hour to preserve its colour–British spelling, sorry) to India to Southeast Asia, we see cultures both distinct and continuous.


There really is too much to see and ponder in this city.  As Gary said, “If you’re bored with this City, you’re bored of life.”  We noticed that there was an underwear exhibit  (Note: pants= underwear  and trousers=pants), but we were too tired to dig into our trouser pockets and go that close to the bare naked human experience.  After such a whirlwind 36 hours–from Elgog through rush-hour London and back out in the city–we had logged over nine miles walking for the day, exhausted to the core.

We made our way back to Ealing, our familiar path home every night in London, to grab some dinner at Gary and Ashley’s local pub–The Drayton House.  We arrived about 9:55 and mulled over the menu for about seven minutes before Gary went to the bar to order and have them tell him the kitchen closes exactly at 10.  The hangry anxiety began to set in.  We went to a fish and chips/Chinese joint that was still open, but they were cash only.  Again fail.  Rotisserie Chicken and egg rolls had sounded mighty tasty.  Gary said he thought we could find one more place and he led us onward.

There, for the first time, we found Roti, a Trinidadian dish that is about twice the size of your average burrito, rolled in dough, cooked, filled, and cooked again.  Julian–who had also lived in California, Colorado and Massachusetts–was about to close shop, but he saw us roll up in despair and agreed to stay open long enough to feed us.   As we were the only patrons, he was giving with his time and knowledge. The spice palette was uniquely Carribean, and Julian swears this is pared down to have more mass appeal.  The slaw, the chickpeas each had their own specific heat, as did the mango chutney and the pepper jelly.  Gary broke out in a sweat and I gulped my bottle of water halfway through the Roti.  Nic and Ashely swore of the hotter additions.  But we were all satisfied and grateful, a new twist, a new stop on our path home, one that Gary and Ash agreed to visit again.  As we left, Julian wished us safe travels back to the states.

The turn around travel from Skye to London was probably the most frenetic day on our tripBy the time midnight came ’round, we literally fell into sleep and agreed to take it easy the next day.

 

Day 14:  How to be a Chump Yank Tourist without even trying.

Nic wanted to check out a jewelry store before we left Skye.  Right outside of Broadford–for a tiny shop, it had a large car park.  I pulled out the key and we entered the shop.

She bought the Celtic rune stud earrings.  She’d lost the back of one of her pearls, and her lobes had felt naked ever since.

I suggest we cross the street to the cafe’.  It’s still raining , and I could use something warm before the last 10 miles to Lochalsh.  Luxury Dark Hot Chocolate and a dried fruit scone.  We cross back to the car, ready to leave the island, eat a leisurely lunch at Lochalsh, and take the train home.

I get in.  Turn the ignition.  Nothing.  We look at each other.  I try again.  Again, nothing.

I go back in the store and ask the guy at Remax if he has any jumper cables.  “Leads,” they’re called here.  Never thought I’d have to learn that one.

“I don’t, but I can call a guy.” He does. “The guy wants to charge £20.”

“That’s okay,” I say.  “Thanks.” The rental car company, among many things, said that if we had any problems to give them a call.  If I can’t find anybody with “leads,” they should do it for free.  Nic calls them, they would, but they can’t right now.  They can send a guy–for £20–if it needs to be soon.  It does.  Our train leaves in under two hours.

I feel like an idiot.  I probably left the light on one too many times.  The lights turn off when the car does, so I assumed it was cool.  Guess I was wrong.

Because here we are, waiting in a parking lot, stranded on Skye, Train clock ticking down.

I can’t sit still, so I pace the parking lot. I try to play the “It Could Always Be Worse” game.  It could’ve happened in Elgol, a more remote part of the island.  I could’ve wrecked the car, like the one we saw last night.  None of this brings comfort.

Two ladies who were in the jewelry store came out and I asked them if they have  jumper cables.  They do!  Great!  They pull beside me, and I pop the hood. Batteries have more protective plastic in the UK, but I manage to squeeze the leads on.  I turn the key.  Everything works, but the engine still does nothing.  I thank them.  They tell me where there’s good coffee up the road while I wait and wish me good luck.

I’ll admit, I’m not the most mechanically inclined person, but I’m baffled.  Nic guesses it’s the alternator. She is dealing with the stress of this better than I am.  She has been checking train times and calling the rental company. More bad news. They now say that since I let someone “uncertified” work on it that I am liable for all the damages.

Now I start playing the “Worst Case Scenario” game.  We’re gonna miss the train.  We’ll have to rebook our overnight to London and find a place to stay in Inverness tonight.  They’re going to tow the car and charge me the full deductible.  Even when Nic calls bullshit on this after reading the rental contract, this sounds like a long protracted battle against a Scottish rental company from 3000 miles away.  I pace. I check my watch.  I stretch.  I walk down to the street to look for the truck.  Nic calls back to remind them that we have a 1:30 train.  They’re not sure why the mechanic hasn’t left, but they say they’ll  double check.

Finally, he arrives.  He gets the battery pack.  He asks for the keys, sticks his head in the door. Makes one click.  Turns the key.  Starts right up.  WHAT THE HELL? Is this some secret Scottish trick?  A racket for local mechanics?  He looks at me dryly and solemnly as he pulls his head out of the car.

“Usually, it has to be in park for it to start.”

I laugh at my own stupidity.  All my worry for a stupid, easy fix.  At home, I do this all the time–try to pull the key out in drive–but my car won’t let me.  Luxury has spoiled my good sense.  I have made the dumbest and most simplest of mistakes.  

“They told me I’m supposed to ask you for £20.”  I sheepishly handed over the quid.  

In playing the “Worst Case Scenario” game, humiliation and being the butt end of a dumb Yank tourist story at the pub never occurred to me.  And while it wins the “It Could’ve Been Worse” game.  It’s still little consolation.

“I’m going to laugh about this at some point, but it sure as hell isn’t now.”

“Too close to my side,” she says.

We make the train with time to spare

But probably more harried than we would like.  The Guiness Amber in my bag goes to good work as soon as I get a cup from the trolley.  I write.  Nic lolls off to sleep.  Here’s to letting someone else take care of the driving.

Day 14:  Soft Beach, Hard Beach

Beaches–idyllic vacation spots the world over.  Something about where the water meets the shore–entrancing.  With a morning left on our stay on Skye, we set out for the tiny town of Elgol, a dot on the map at the end of a B road on a southern peninsula.

First, a note about our lodging before we leave.  While Nic will struggle with what to say on the AirBnB site, I’ll put it like this.  Our lodging was at a 17th century Scottish Manor, and it is a unique site.  I’ve enjoyed our stay: we’ve met four other lodgers from the Netherlands and one lady from the Bay Area who is convinced the economy is going to tank before the American election, so she’s spending her money traveling before the shit hits the fan.  We are right on a sound across from Ramasay in the north of Skye.  But there is a certain vibe about this place.  When Nic and I first got I our room on Tuesday, we barely spoke above a whisper.  There was something creepy, vaguely haunted house, Watcher in the Woods-type vibe.  Not enough to scare is off.  Just enough to keep it interesting.  

The overcast skies certainly led to that vibe.  It also kept us from even nominal hike on Thursday. With only a few hours before we left the island we quickly left the A87 for a single lane.  Google maps estimated we could be there in 33 minutes, but Google Maps has been underestimating the length of our drives all week.  For one, Google Maps never accounts the number of sheep and/or cows that are likely to be using the road.  Next, it also underestimated how many times you have to pull off the road to let the other cars slide by.  Also, it neglects the times you might take a wrong the at Albequerque and end up in someone’s yard.

But it also neglects the time you’ll slow down to take in the view.  To be honest, when I compare my driving to sue I first got behind the left-handed wheel, I’m kind of driving like a rally car driver. That is until I reach the shores of Loch Eishort, where intrepid campers had brough theirs tents shoreside on slivers of land to wake up to the water, setting me daydreaming about car camping and kayaking on this seemingly infinite surface.  I slowly round the corner to take it all in.

Soon the road headed back over the mountain.  Nic began to worry that we were never going to get there.  The rain continued.  Then, we passed a lone gift shop and took a ninety degree turn to the left that went strait down the hill.  There, we found the village of Elgol.  

By village, I mean a dock where boat rentals take off into the sea, a primary school, and as many houses as I can count on my hand, and a roaring stream–swollen on two days of constant rain–dumping into the ocean.  

​ I pull into the parking lot and turn off the car.  “Where are you going?” Nic asks.

“Over there,” I say, somewhat simplistically.  After all, you don’t come all the way to the beach to sit in the car.

I get her trepidation, though.  “Over there” his a daunting cliff hanging over the water over a field of rocks.  And it’s still raining.  But she gives in and follows me.

When you say to your wife, “let’s go to the beach,” you usually think lolling in the sun, drink in hand, toes in the sand.  There was none of that.  Instead I brought her to slick rocks and cold rain–not exactly your romantic getaway.

But there’s something about this that speaks to me, and fortunately Nic indulges this.   The rocks are massive, worn bythe ocean.  And rather than a soft in-and-out of waves, the collision of water on rock is harsh and violent.  As a child, I my beaches were the Cape Cod and Prince Edward Island, neither of which are your stereotypical resort beaches.  There’s no docile lull or nap to be had.

Nic asks me to climb on some rocks to take a picture, and it unleashes my childish whimsy, climbing, skipping, staring at the crashing waves with wonder.

Don’t get me wrong:  I love relaxing beaches, too.  But there is something majestic and contemplative in this solitude, something adventurous about keeping balance skipping across the rocks that you don’t get on a soft beach.  Camus once wrote

“At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise.  The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face across the millenia.”

Soft beaches can lure us into comfort.  Hard beaches never allow us to forget our precarious footing.  For me, soft beaches are Isle of Palms, Buxton, the Bahamas, Florida, St. Lucia–lolling days of playfulness. Hard beaches are where my brother was stung by a jellyfish at PEI, where I slipped and fell on wet rocks after running down to the Pacific in Lima, where I learned to walk on unsteady rocks at the Cape.


I walk past where the salt water wind has torn into the cliff face and place a couple of stones.  Nic has begun to make her way to the car.  I take one long last listen to the crashing waves and head back. 

Back on the road, I drive more slowly. People politely let each other go by, there’s only so much safe land, and we all have to share it.  We are drenched, but despite the less than optimal weather, I am entranced by this remote North Atlantic island, and hope my journeys bring me back one day. 

Day 13:  A Scottish Act of Faith

We rise in the morning to an island drenched in last night’s rain.  Such is the conundrum of booking a place like Skye to vacation.  You book months in advance–knowing you come here to be outdoors.  Kayak, camp, bike, boat, whale watch–people don’t come here for the theater.

But there is always the real possibility of rain.  And today’s weather map makes that an almost certainty.  Based on accuweather predictions, it seems like our best window is between 2 to 5, so we plan our day on an act of faith that we will see enough dryness to hike the Quiraing in that window.

In truth, we need this miracle.  The two provisions every site says about the Quiraing is 1) don’t hike when it’s rainy and 2) don’t hike when the visibility is low.  On the whole, the sky in Skye portends poorly for each, but we set out on our quest regardless.

We begin our morning over oatmeal and fruit in the kitchen before the rest of the house is awake.  Soon a couple from the Netherlands joins us at the table.  They, too, are working a similar timetable, hoping to get a hike in before they return.  The hiuse’s resident Scottish Deer Hound pays us a visit at the table.  Then we hit the road.


Through the ride up the east coast to Staffin, the rain spits most of the time, but because I believe the weather will break our way, each shift in the clouds seems a good omen.  We see some pull off attractions and take our time moving up the coast:  apparently, some dinosaur fossils were found near here, and Staffin, unlike many of the lightly marked hikes on this island, have made an effort to highlight their ancient historical and geological  features on this part of the island.  Down through a valley are the ruins of an old Germanic house near the shore.  A few miles up are is Mealt Falls, which plummets straight to the sea, and Kilt rock.  We find lunch in a small cafe right near the turn.

By all accounts, we have timed this perfectly.  It’s about 2 when we make it to the car.  It’s still raining, but we have staked out day on this shift:  no turning back now.  The trail is only a short drive up a B road between Staffin and Uig.  As we begin the ascent, a ram stands sentinel against the road.  He is motionless and stoic, the gargoyle to the entrance hunched over the gates.


Our pilgrimage does not confirm our faith, unfortunately.  The further we climb, the harder it rains.  When we reach the trailhead car park, a food truck style RV is selling tea and paninis.  But the soul of the day is pea–thick, moist, and a visibility of less than 100 meters.  The rain is only seen in its splatter against the windows and the ever increasing mud puddles on the road and trail.

I get out to double check the sign.  We’re in the right place. Apparently, the ancients thought so as well. The Table, if we ever get there, is labeled as “the navel of the world,” a mythological archtype in which a culture centers them existence, perhaps even with a creation story.  In Peru three years ago, I found out that the Incas believed this about Cusco; it was their point of Genesis.  There are theories that Stonehenge served a similar purpose for an ancient culture.  And while it fascinates me that cultures accross the world create these unifying stories, it shows that they are likely effective storytelling as opposed to historical fact.  The stories are not true in an empirical sense, but the belief in the stories, at some level, guides the way a person and a civilization observe their connection to the natural world.

So far, our act of faith has proven empirically false as well.  Nic and I are sitting in the car, hoping the rain will subside so we can eventually hike.  But right now she is trying to catch up on some sleep that she lost coughing in our damp and musty AirBnB.  Perhaps, our act of faith will at least bring her that.  Even if your belief proves untrue, buffeted by the harsh, cold reality of a mountain isle, what more can you do but assess where you are and move–or don’t–from there?  Right now, we are okay in the car, which is still better than being caught outside in this storm.

In my dreams. I see the light and hear the rhythm of the rain slow, and move to get my bag to hit the trail.  But when I work to actually do this, it wakes me from a vision of the world as I wish it to be to a world as it is.  We bob in and out of sleep until about 4:30. The trailer has closed up shop.  Part of me is willing to make a go of it, but it is my very impulsive and sometimes dangerously adventure seeking part.  Maybe if it were only me, I might make a break for it, but I have Nic’s safety to think of as well.

As we drive off, I see the myriad streams, new swollen with a day’s heavy rain, wash down the mountain.  At times, these streams–that now border on rivers–threaten to take over the road.  I try to tell myself that not hiking was the best choice.  I try to use my sleep to justify that this all worked out for the best.  I try to lose myself in the beauty of the drive.  But all attempts to make it okay fail.  I’m frustrated by the missed opportunity, and as I turn down A87 toward Portee, my eyes scan the landscape that will soothe my hunger for discovery.  I even pull down to the sea, only to end up I someone’s yard.  We discuss our next move, and decide exploring Portee is sufficient for the day.


Portee is the capital, which is to say it is the largest collection of buildings on the island. It has a roundabout, a high school, pubs, hostels, hotels and gift shops.  It also has the Portee harbor, which–after a brief tour of the center of town–we turn our direction.  The restaurants and pubs are teeming with thwarted outdoor enthusiasts, but down at the harbor we find a modicum of solitude and peace.  There Nic does what she does so well, pulling beauty out of the mundane–here the rocky low-tide harbor strewn with algae and underwater fauna abandoned by the tide.  She sees things others don’t and finds a way to frame it so everyone else can see it’s beauty. This is her urge in our trip. Having sated hers in the harbour, we made our way to dinner and home, unaware how much the damp of the day had settled into our bones, until we bathe and change for bed.


The next morning comes early.  I’ve set an alarm for 6:40 to try to milk every drop of say from Skye before we have to leave the island by 1.  But the sunlight wakes me early, and by 6:15 I am up and getting dressed.  Nic looks at me like I’ve lost my mind.  She’s playing slug-a-bed, so at some point I head out to explore the property while she gets out of her PJ’s and starts packing.

I make it out to the edge of the water.  It’s low tide on the northern shore of Corry near Broadford, which means the algae Nic beautified through art yesterday now festoons the muddy ground between the trail and the rocky shore.  I cross the marshy ground and sit on the rocks, listening to the waves lick the shore, watching the submerged algae move in circles with the ebb and flow, eerily like the grass amid the fierce, swirling winds on Arthur’s seat.  I remember a story I read yesterday while waiting for the storm to pass about a local artist whose father took him out to such a stone prominitory on the shore only to have the tide roll in and strand them as the night fell.  The ocean has a beauty here, but it is a powerful and dangerous one, even more so that it has been driven by storms.

Scottish philosopher David Hume once posited that an ordered, teleological universe is but the frame of a story we place on the chaos of the world to try to make sense of it, much like my belief in the story Accuweather told me yesterday.  Walking these Scottish beaches, it is easy to see Hume’s inspiration.  From the trail, this seemed a simple walk to a flat place to observe the sea.  But every stone is its own balancing act, complicated by the slippery moss and rain.  And though my comfy room is back at the house, the tide could turn and I could be marooned on this rock.  It’s just me the wind and the waves out here.  As much as I would like to make it otherwise, the Scottish weather–and perhaps the universe itself–is in a state of unpredictable flux about which we tell stories–true or not–to grasp some meaning or glean some understanding.

This, as they say in philosophy, is where Hune began to feel the fear in his bones.  Maybe it was just the wet weather of the Scottish highlands, or it was the foggy fear that our attempts to build purpose through art or myth making or travel itineraries are all for naught.  But this means we can not experience the chaos and understand it, quantify it.  But that would make order graspable.  One of my favorite philosophers, Alan Watts, repeatedly opined that if all things worked together as they do…according to The Tao…then what we find as chaos one one level is order when seen from another.  As such, he claimed, we whole embrace chaos as an integral part of life and approach it with wonder, like a piece of music we’re hearing for the first time.

All of this rain has probably given me too much time to think.  If the weather had broke my way, I might be spinning some yarn that the aisle of Skye loved us, or that we were blessed, or that our faith had been justified. But it didn’t, so I’m not.  Instead, I’ve been watching the water flood the highlands for the last two days.  Every waterfall now glows in the distance roaring with might and power.  What is a frustrated hike on my level is the flux of the water that has shaped this land–this land i’ve become entranced by–at geological and temporal levels that I can only begin to understand.  What is it to these cosmic workings that I’ve traveled across the pond to hike for a couple of days?

My faith in the weather was but my best approximation, my ebb and flow.  Like going to Skye and back, driving to Quairaing and back. I would do again and every time, as I do with my walk to the shore and back, whether the algae can make sense of it or not.