groovy French name,
eyes cool as mud,
In teenage shade
U left your cabbage
heart 4 me,
white as paper.
in my book.
Note:- Before the age of Facebook and digital ‘likes’ adolescents used autograph books with pastel colored pages to collect signatures and messages from their friends. These often included humorous rhymes.
My lady waits in the wall
papered over by skeletal hands.
She withers lilies with one eye
and blue ivy winds her hair.
Her holy cheeks crumble
like old plaster of Paris
but not her secret vows.
Restless but unseen, she stirs
death to do our parting.
The February air is zesty with unexpected sunshine and the northern wind softened to a breeze. Spurning my faithful duffle coat I reach for the cashmere coat with a fake fur collar that I haven’t worn since leaving London. This coat has been on a long journey and in storage for two years. Its chic appeal seems incongruous in this land of anoraks and woolly hats but why not be different today? Should I wear the sheepskin gloves or the fluffy angora ones? I go with the fluffy. The dusky pink matches my suede boots.
The street is quiet, not even the builders around and no sign of my elderly neighbor who likes to feed the seagulls every morning. A battered red pick-up truck rattles down the road towards the harbor trailing an aroma of fish. I’m heading to the village shop for milk and bananas. As my clumsy fingers place the house key in my coat pocket they dislodge a crumpled piece of yellow paper from the silk lining. It flutters onto the waterlogged front lawn. The sulfur color reminds me of old moss, the sort that clings to old stone walls.
It’s not a discarded shopping list or a receipt for some long-forgotten object of desire but a couple of cinema tickets; Twenty One Grams. It’s a poignant film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu about how people’s lives intersect and fragment due to a random event. The story reveals the patterns concealed beneath the surface of everyday life. The twenty one grams refers to the amount of weight which is mysteriously lost at the moment of death.
I went to see this film on my thirtieth birthday, the first of March, many years ago now. We ate lunch in the roof top restaurant of an art gallery overlooking the Thames before going to the cinema. After the film we drank cocktails in a trendy bar in Knightsbridge. It was an enjoyable day in a faraway life. Tom and I were both in a good mood and we didn’t mind the cold wind, dodging the rain showers without an umbrella or searching for an elusive parking space. I didn’t complain about the dirty pavements, the crowds or the traffic. At that time I’d never heard of Caithness and living in Scotland was a romantic dream. I was wearing this same grey coat with a leopard fur collar. It felt like the wrong coat for a wet day.
Today I queue in the village shop while two incomers, a mother and teenage daughter stock up on junk food. They are horsey types who have adopted a feral lifestyle. The mother wears a red bandana and a dirty shredded t-shirt any eighties punk would be proud of. Her bare feet are encased in flip flops. Jagged green toenails protrude from a crust of mud. Both women exude a smell reminiscent of rotting potatoes. They spend more than twenty pounds on sweets and chocolate. As they exit the shop Elaine reaches under the counter for the air freshener and sprays it around in a protective circle.
On my way home I wonder if I’m wearing the wrong coat.
The Scots language has a perfect word to describe winter in the north highlands. ‘Dreich’ (pronounced /dri:x/) is an adjective mostly used in relation to the weather. It translates as bleak, dull, dreary, grey, comfortless, cold, overcast, miserable. At least four of these conditions must apply for a day to qualify as truly dreich. The origins of the word come from the Middle English ‘dreig, drih’ in the sense of ‘patient, long-suffering’ and correspond to the Old Norse ‘drjugr’ – enduring and lasting.
Certainly a great deal of endurance is necessary to survive a Scottish winter. The endless grey skies and lack of light can be depressing. I find my energy levels dwindle and I just want to hibernate at home, huddled by the fire. But there’s also a strange beauty in the dreich days, a potential for change. When the mist dissolves and the clouds blow away the light will be brighter than ever. Who knows what will be revealed. Something fresh is germinating but we need to be patient. It is a transition period between the old and the new, a time that can be used for self-reflection and healing.
Here are two of my favourite dreich photographs. The first shows the section of an old gate leading to an overgrown field. The second shows the windows of a disused filling station. As well as the empty shelves you can see the reflection of a minimalist landscape. If you look really hard you might see me.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I hate hearing this phrase which seems to be everywhere these days. It’s like the ultimate cop-out, a slick way to terminate any awkward conversation and is used frequently by politicians, the police, sports people, business entrepreneurs and many pop celebrities. I’ve heard it in bleak Scandi-noir TV dramas and once or twice even caught myself saying it. It’s the title of several films, songs and books. Such a pat phrase that just slips off the tongue and makes you seem cool. But why has it become popular and what does it say about our society?
To me, “it is what it is” reeks of negativity, passivity, resignation and defeat. It’s saying, ‘this is a bad situation but there’s fuck all I can do about it”. It’s saying let’s accept reality, let’s just lie down and die. The phrase suggests that reality is a fixed, immutable state and that we have no control, we are merely passengers on an uncomfortable train to hell. I don’t know about you, but that is not the way I choose to live my life. I am not a brainwashed battery hen clucking away in a cage, pretending I am free while I’m really being processed for destruction.
OK, I agree some situations may be out of our control but there’s always something we can do to improve matters. Just because it is difficult to change something doesn’t mean we should give up. We should at least try. It’s like when people shrug and say, ‘oh well there will always be wars, it’s just human nature.’ Was it human nature to profit from slavery, rape women, exterminate disabled people, participate in blood sports and send children down the mines? These are all horrors that we no longer tolerate in a civilised society. They may still happen in secret but are considered crimes. Society can and does change. People can change.
When people say ‘it is what it is’ they are implying that a situation is fixed and knowable. This is not true. Any situation, even something simple like ‘it’s raining today’ is a matter of perception, of experience, of interpretation. Reality is in a constant state of flux and so are we. It may be raining in your street but not on the other side of town. And the rain may stop at any moment. The sun may shine the next time you look out the window. We are never 100% aware of all the facts. We only have a partial view based on limited information. For example, a loved one may be diagnosed with a terminal illness, but doctors are often wrong, the body can and does mysteriously heal itself. The sick person can adapt and learn to live successfully with illness. Life is a multiplicity of greys, a misty landscape and not a row of black and white boxes.
Take this photograph as a visual metaphor. It shows a rather elegant entrance to a building which could be a hotel, a school, a conference centre, a hospital, a law court, a police station…we may speculate on what lies beyond the doors but until we pass through them we do not know. Every day in your life is like those doors. Never make assumptions about the future. Never give up on a situation.
Next time you are tempted to say ‘it is what it is’, hang fire and try to think out of the box. Change is always possible and it sometimes happens in small steps. Humans have evolved and survived as a dominant species because of our ability to adapt. We can be clever and inventive. We can be compassionate. The day we stop doing that and become resigned to an unsatisfactory fate is the day we cease to thrive.