June 6, 2011
Of families and nations…
First a photo of my brother-in-law Andy, Bill and their Dad:
It looks like the first shot of an independent film, doesn’t it? ‘The Scots’ or something like that. They are on a bench overlooking Port Patrick, which is where their dad, Willie, moved when he was a boy, when his father moved the family away from Shotts, a depressing-in-photos-looking mining town to the sea. Willie fell in love with the sea and became a member of the merchant navy when only 15 and 5'1", saying he'd prove his worth and he did. He worked his way up from cabin boy to engineer over his years with the merchant navy, which is a really long ascent. His boys have all done very well, Andy and Alan in high-paying jobs, Andy also an accomplished violinist, Bill with a PhD and a career as an internationally touring performance artist. These are the accomplishments of a time in Britain when a certain kind of aspiration was possible, and there is a sense now that these times may have passed, as the gap between rich and poor widens and the class structure seems to re-calcify.
Also interesting, as Bill’s family is so firmly British – meaning his mother and father were born and raised in Scotland while he and his brothers were born and raised in Portsmouth, England, so they are neither ‘English’ nor ‘Scottish’ but in fact British – is the coming balkanization of Britain, as the Scottish National Party gains in power and the possibility of devolution eventually meaning separation is now much greater. Scotland discovered oil off their North Sea coast and feels much less dependent on England now, runs its devolved parliament quite differently and many want to separate. There are Scottish national flags everywhere and whenever the England football team plays, go into any pub in Scotland and they will be routing for ABE – anyone but England. The Scottish tennis player Andy Murray made the mistake of saying as much on his ascent into the top tier of the game so his reception at Wimbledon is still frosty. Here, however, they are passionate about him.
My mother’s side of the family is mostly Scottish, so I identify quite strongly with this place, though my sense of identification seems much deeper than even that explains. I love the dry humor, the crankiness and deep intelligence I find here. Not everywhere of course, but the people I seem to meet follow this pattern.
See below Elizabeth and Barbara, these are relatives of Bill’s deceased mother, Barbara:
Bill's mother was named after the soon-to-be-93 year old Barbara on the right. Now, if you look at this picture and think – oh what a sweet little old lady, you would be right in the fact she is kind, but she is also razor sharp and as with most older folks, if you stop talking to them like they are ‘nice older folks’, you will learn how smart and tough they are. You don’t get that old by being a push over. I remember vividly meeting her in 2003, in my first tour through Scotland with Bill. I was brand new and could barely understand anything anyone was saying at first, but Barbara I did understand. I don’t know how we started the conversation, but it turned to Iraq and the stupid war – then relatively new (Gulf War II was new anyway) – and I don’t think I had yet begun spitting my usual venom about American foreign policy, when Barbara leaned in to me, those eyes – look at them closely – narrowing to look even more intelligent than they already do, and said ‘You know, it’s all about the oil.’ And I agreed, and we then went on to decimate Gulf War I as well. She would have been 85 then.
When I saw her yesterday, I was about to introduce myself and she looked at me again with those eyes and said ‘I know who you are’ and I was fairly sure she remembered our conversations, but then she also said ‘I don’t remember your name’ and I laughed, because I have the same moments with people at age 47, remembering some facet or interaction with a person but not their name. There was much banter as it was a family occasion, and she laughed when Rachel said it was great that she was 92 – a laugh I took to mean, yes it’s great I’m alive but no it’s not great being 92. All in a gentle lilting (but ironic) laugh.
We bonded again over education issues and the inability of young people to read and write properly here due to education ‘reforms’ a while back when it was considered better to somehow get to the ‘essence’ of things without worrying about stuff like oh grammar, spelling or how to read. A bad plan, the benefits of which I reap every term I teach university and read badly constructed to incomprehensible essays written by students who somehow pass their secondary school qualifications without being able to do so. Apparently all the tests are multiple choice, so these basic skills are considered unnecessary when ‘teaching to the test.’ I could rant on about this for ages, but will desist. The main thing is Barbara and I had a nice mutual rant about it, which meant I got the benefit of her full attention, those eyes and her warmth.
Elizabeth is her daughter, and is also quite funny and very smart. She was a head teacher and no fan of education reform herself, having had to implement ideas she thought were absurd. Another time we visited, perhaps it was 2003 or another time, I can’t quite remember, Elizabeth raced Bill and I around in her car determined we would see the sun set from a certain point, which we did in the nick of time – the last bit of a bright red-orange sun sinking below the horizon of the sea. Her determination that We Would see the sunset reminded me of my mother and the whole matrilineal determination gene that runs through my family. Knowing Elizabeth and Barbara makes me wish very much that Bill’s mother had not died when he was 17 so I could have met her. These women just delight me.
Last night we were in the caravan with Uncle Harry and his wife Betty. Harry (pictured in last post next to ‘Elvis’) tells stories, and is very good at it. They start usually with ‘and this is as true as I’m sitting here’ and he’ll cock his head over to Betty – who was sitting a little further away as she was determined that we would all sit together and any attempt to shift the seating arrangements, she would make sure we stayed squished on one side together with her on the other side of the caravan, smiling and listening to the story. And she will either assent to what he’s saying, or add in a place, if he starts a story with, we were in…. or disagree and say ‘oh no’ (the oooo rising in a Scottish nooooo – which sounds like a disagreement and a song at the same time). And eventually they will agree between them the story. I could only see her head above a counter, so the effect was like watching a Beckett play, with Harry’s long stories punctuated with Betty’s affirmations, denials, hoots of gentle derision or offering of forgotten details. She was like the bass player to Harry’s wild guitar riffs. They have lived together for close to 60 years. The rain pounded on the caravan as we talked but the warmth they generate made us all feel cozy and protected. I wonder will people like that still be around when I am that age? Will we ever be like that? Or are we all too scattered, self-involved, internet-driven ADD to be able to sit around and tell stories, provide a place for family to gather outside of the wind and the rain, and know that there is something called human, family, kindness, stories and…well…continuity?
Today in our holiday camp it is sunny, so we can see the Isle of Man across the way. The sun when it does show up makes the whole place seem warmer of course. I have the door open and the world can be let inside. In these moments, there is a sense of freedom.
Today we are off to see Christine, a cousin of Bill’s on his father’s side. The first day I arrived in Scotland with Bill, we landed at Christine’s house, a small place on an estate in Ayreshire. She took me by the hand, treated me like family and decoded Scottish for me, when she say I had no idea that ‘ken’ meant ‘know’ or ‘bairn’ meant children. She smokes like a chimney and works in a drycleaners, hates salad, loves a few pints down at her local pub and is in bad health consequently. However, I have rarely felt as welcomed by anyone as by Christine. I had just left NYC, packing for what I thought was a long trip that ended up turning into close to 8 years (so far) in the UK – and doing so in the blackout of August 2003, which was an amazing moment I wish I could have enjoyed with everyone out on the street, delighted that it was only an accident of the power grid and not a terrorist attack – unlike the blackouts of the 1970s in which there was crime and fear, this time in the heat, heat, heat of August in NYC, people partied on every corner. I was stuck in my apartment trying to pack with no air conditioning and no light, by candlelight in fact. As I had just gotten a laptop with a newly charged battery, I was also emailing via the phone line. Email by candlelight, a uniquely 21st century moment.
On the Supershuttle to the airport, at about 4am, a drunk man lurched in front of the van, I saw his face momentarily fearful, the driver braking just in time. This seemed like a strange omen of what might await me, and I tried not to think about it. However, it was after the plane ride, that followed that incident, being picked up by Bill at the airport and going straight to Scotland, that I met Christine. So, her warmth is what I remember most about her, as I felt delirious in every way, reeling from country to country and life to life – it is only now 8 years later I feel like I am almost catching up with myself – having hurled myself out of NYC, thinking I would be back in a year with a new show, but instead – within a month – having to fly back to California, where I had not been in ages to see my father whom I had not seen in 14 years, so I could make medical decisions for him after a stroke as I was his only living relative – and finding out while staying there with his ex-wife, her new husband and daughter – that the funding for the project I thought I was launching had fallen through. On the edge of so many abysses I did not even know which way to turn.
And we are about to leave in 5 minutes so I will stop writing here, and see what it is like now to re-meet Christine.
June 7, 2011
“When in doubt, do nought” [pronounced to rhyme with doubt] Christine’s wisdom in regard to dry cleaning fabrics she does and does not know the best way to clean, but is also a Buddhist saying. Hearing cricket news above my head on TV in cabin (‘chalet’), watching blue sky take over the rain clouds – startling light on rough sea – and getting ready to go to literary Wigton…Will attempt to post if find internet.
Some photos of Ayr below, including a natural golf course – Scotland being the place where golf was invented for obvious reasons when you see the landscape, which includes flat grass, rough areas and sandy pits. It’s more of a working person’s sport here as well, not so precious:
Below too is Bruce’s well:
According to family lore, we are related to Robert the Bruce (on my mother’s father’s side), the first king of Scotland. I always wonder if this is true or not, but it’s always good for the ego to think one is descended from noble blood, especially the Scottish version, which usually means ‘good’ as opposed to English monarchy, which means 'bad.' And it reminds me of Pascal’s quotation, which is something along the lines of ‘every man lives as if he were a deposed monarch.’
a bit later -
OK, so now I am in something like heaven – a café in Wigton that is a combination bookstore, café and with wifi. I am not sure how long I will be here though as I am somewhat at the mercy of family holiday-ness, so may upload this post now while I can.
Just a moment to say I love bookstores and cafes, they are the places I feel the safest in the world – along with it being in Scotland and called ‘Reading Lasses’ I can’t imagine a place I’d be happier frankly. The rest of the family was on the way to see a distillery, for obvious reasons not my idea of a good time, so begged off and found this little slice of paradise. However, apparently they are on their way back having missed the tour.
I meant to write more this morning but had a meltdown instead – I have these periodically – I am so used to them, I think of them as the emotional version of raining. And today it had to do with feeling not a part of this family – which I don’t think is anything anyone is doing to me quite frankly, but instead comes from being part of the whacky 4 fathers, 4 mothers, step-everything, only child routine…etc. No amount of therapy or recovery from various addictions seems to ease that one. But, now, at least I know I’m usually creating the whole hullabaloo in my own head rather than it objectively coming from the outside. I also use Bill and other friends at times as a sounding board to figure out when I have on accu-lenses versus looking in a fun house mirror. Usually, it’s a mix of both.
However, having had a the cry, which happened while it was raining, humorously enough, I now feel better and like the clearing skies. So, on this note of clearing, I will post this while I have motive and opportunity.
One last thing though, next to me this time is a feminist section of this wonderful used book store, and what a change from the argument with V.S. Naipaul. Quiet people, classical music, tapping of keyboards...wow, do I ever sound BBC4 (Americans: PBS/NPR). OK, now to post....