Beyond my kitchen window, grey skies
crumble like clinker over empty fields.
The scarlet willow bends in the easterly,
branches stripped naked like veins.
Crows smudge charcoal on the horizon.
Indoors, I inhale recycled air and open
my liquid crystal display. Your face bubbles
expectantly, cornered. Behind you double
doors slide shut, a TV grumbles. You hold
a Bugs Bunny mug, ‘What’s up Doc?’
These found poems are based on the real letters of Annie Mackay. She spent her brief life working the small family croft in a remote area of the Highlands. Sadly, she developed cancer and died at the age of 21 in 1957. Her orphaned six month baby boy was left to be raised by an aged uncle. At the time illegitimate children were considered social outcasts. No-one ever discovered the identity of the baby’s father which might be hinted at in these letters. They were written to Annie’s married sister Violet who had moved to Edinburgh. I love these letters because they are full of joy and humor even though Annie was already aware of her illness. They also paint a picture of the preoccupations of a country girl and life in the 1950s.
I sold eighteen turkeys
so we can have a night
out in the pub,
going from bad to worse (puff).
Ronald says Ray is a born lunatic,
that was his opinion when he saw
the photos and then the blue jersey.
Your hair looked very nice,
is that a new dress you had on?
I hope it’s nylon
I’m not in favor of wool.
Lots of love and kisses,
I can tell you about it. There was turkey for dinner, then at 3 o’clock tea.
I had my cake with 21 candles. All the family were there listening to Lux
and singing The Railroad Runs Through the Middle of the House.
I think its super, don’t you? Lena brought the record Walking in the Rain.
I like it do you?
Jesse gave me £5 and Connie £2 and Grandad two aprons and Mary a nylon underset
and Margaret a necklace, sparkles all colors and Donald a mohair scarf (awfully warm)
and Sheena nylons and Jane a cameo brooch and Granny a Terrylene blouse.
I’m not in favor of blue.
And from Julie a ‘Le Page’ compact and from Johnny, Black Rose perfume,
very good of him and from Lynn a Coty lipstick, nearly ruby and from Alan a purse.
What a present, not much use with no money and then of course, your presents.
Johnny stayed till midnight… everyone else went off at six.
Lots of love and kisses,
PSA Separate Special Instalment for your Eyes Only:-
BURN AFTER READING
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.
In Medieval times gossip was considered a serious crime in Britain. Perpetrators were physically punished and humiliated, forced to wear a mask of shame called a scold’s bridle and paraded through the town on a leash. The scold’s bridle was an iron muzzle enclosed in a framework that surrounded the head of the accused. The device prevented the person from talking by a bridle-bit which was put in the woman’s mouth and pressed upon the tongue. Sometimes a spike was attached to the bridle-bit, so that the movement of the tongue would cause wounds. Christianity viewed gossip as a sin. Islam, Judaism and the Bahai faith took a similar stance.
I believe it is natural and healthy to take an interest in other people but there is a big difference between negative, malicious gossip and neutral gossip. Passing on factual information is one thing, but twisting the facts and inventing sordid tales to create a frisson of excitement is another.
For example, neutral gossip – Mrs Smith says to her neighbour:- “I saw Susan in the Post Office this morning. She’d just had her hair done and was wearing a new coat.”
Negative gossip:- “I saw Susan in the Post Office this morning. She’d just had her hair done. Pink hair and a leopard print coat at her age – talk about mutton dressed as lamb!” Followed by mutual laughter.
Unfortunately, most gossip tends to be malicious and is carried out by ignorant people with low self-esteem to make themselves seem more interesting. Gossip is akin to an act of violence. It can cause huge damage to the lives of others. Very often the victims of gossip are marked out as different or vulnerable in some way, eg single women, people with mental health problems or those from ethnic minorities.
The old English proverb states, “sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you”. Not true. Words are powerful. Physical wounds will heal over time whereas emotional damage may last forever. In my local village there have been cases of marriages breaking up, people losing jobs or forced to move away and even suicide due to malicious gossip. It seems small rural communities enjoy gossip and relish the stigmatisation of minorities. However, gossip happens in all types of enclosed communities including schools and workplaces where it is particularly dangerous. Gossip is a form of bullying and with the advent of social media it is a growing problem throughout the world.
Our attitudes to gossip have been moulded by language. Many metaphors used to describe gossip have associations with food or drink, eg spilling the beans, tempting, scuttlebutt, a water cooler moment, grapevine, juicy, delicious, delectable, tidbits, morsels. It’s as if gossip is something to be devoured, digested, a form of nourishment. The writer, David Rakoff complained about the negativity of these expressions as they imply that the pleasures of gossip are those of schadenfreude: that is, one person’s enjoyment at the expense of someone else’s pain. The word ‘gossip’ originated in the Old English ‘godsibb’; god sibling, the godparent of one’s child and usually a close friend. Shakespeare’s uses of the noun were derogatory: “Shall she live to betray this guilt of ours—A long-tongued babbling gossip?”
If you become the victim of malicious gossip you may feel upset, violated and helpless as rumours and untruths circulate. Challenging or arguing with the instigator is not to be recommended. It is demeaning and only adds fuel to the fire. The best policy, although it can be difficult, is to ignore the whisperers, raise your head up high and pretend you don’t care. When you are forced to meet your accusers be polite but indifferent. Build up your confidence and nurture your self-esteem by treating yourself kindly. Remember your achievements and that you are a strong person. Surround yourself with friends and supporters as much as possible. Do activities that you enjoy. Show the gossips that you don’t need their approval or validation to survive and be happy. Remind yourself that the people who gossip are sad individuals with empty lives. Defamation is the only way they can get their kicks. They are not the type of people you would choose as friends. But do not indulge in gossip yourself. Let others find out for themselves where the truth lies.
I recently bought the small ornament pictured below as a reminder that gossips are insignificant. It is only what you think about yourself that matters.
I went out yesterday for the first time in ten days. It’s not that I’m anti-social, anxious or have an aversion to people, it’s just that I no longer feel the need to go out unless it’s for essentials. Almost everything that makes me happy is now centred in my home so why venture away? Anyway, I needed a haircut and much as I’ve embraced the hermit lifestyle I’ve not abandoned my need to maintain appearances. This begs the question how much having fashionable hair is to make myself feel good or to impress other people? There are negative connotations to women who ‘let themselves go’. It’s seen as the brink of personal Armageddon to stop checking yourself continuously in the mirror, stop conforming to social expectations, stop trying to look younger but just be natural and unadorned. Women who fail to invest energy in self grooming also fail to exist as social and sexual beings. They descend into the swamp of undesirables, drunken bag ladies sleeping in doorways, dirty fat women wearing shell suits who smoke themselves to death, emaciated junkies selling themselves on street corners. These are the negative stereotypes we associate with a neglected appearance. ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’ and ‘your body is a temple’ are deeply ingrained concepts in our psyche. Our mothers taught us the value of a clean and proper body. We are judged and labelled by how we look.
Traditional hermits were men with wild hair and flowing beards living in remote caves. Their unkempt hair was seen as a mark of their wisdom and status as spiritual beings as they dedicated their lives to prayer or nature. No one minded if they stank a bit. But it’s different for women. The modern female hermit is more likely to pursue a solitary life in an anonymous city apartment with the luxury of central heating and broadband or in a country cottage with a vegetable garden and a cat for company. She still has to engage with the world to some degree; to shop for groceries, to earn a living, to repair the leaking roof or get medicine. How alone can we actually be in the modern world? Did Greta Garbo still get her hair done after she became a recluse? Did she stop looking in the mirror?
I did not enjoy having my hair cut. In the old days I would have left the salon floating on air and feeling great. Now I just think, that was a waste of two hours and fifty quid. I feel tired afterwards. No, it was not my hair-do that made my trip worthwhile, it was the little things that I never noticed before that feel precious because I spend so much time alone. Small interactions with other people are now more meaningful. I love watching people. Their everyday gestures can seem beautiful. Just the way someone smiles and hands me my change in a shop or the way the hairdresser bends to a small child and gently asks “what’s your name sweetie?” The way a woman carefully buttons up her coat before going out into the rain or the school boy enthusiastically chatting about his day while he has his hair cut or the stylist’s rainbow hair reflected in the salon’s mirrors as she flits like a bird of paradise. They all feel like special moments when I can appreciate the humanity and vulnerability of others. It’s the little things that matter. We all have a light inside us and we are all privileged to be alive on this amazing planet.
Read Rhian Sasseen’s excellent article on the history of the female hermit at
The term ‘loner’ is rarely meant as a compliment. It carries negative connotations. Its what neighbours always say on the TV news about murderers….”he kept himself to himself, he was a loner’. It’s assumed there must be something wrong with a person who chooses not to run with the pack. Someone who prefers solitude must be a psychopath, a potential serial killer, sex pervert or antisocial. There is even more stigma attached to women who want to be alone. They are seen as a threat to the natural order of things, called derogatory names such as ‘spinster’, ‘hag’, ‘selfish’ or ‘whore’. Even in this supposed age of gender equality the perceived role of women is domestic, safely contained within a family group where their own needs are secondary to those of children, partners, and parents. Women are seen as too weak and powerless to survive apart from the familiar, to stray into the unknown. Anyone who does so is labelled as ‘selfish’ or ‘crazy’. Single women are still presumed to be unattractive rejects, sterile and sexless. Not that long ago women who lived apart from the mainstream were burned alive or drowned as witches. Today they are denigrated in more subtle but equally damaging ways.
I’ll never forget the negative reactions I had from all my family and friends when I announced my intention to break from city life, to move to a remote area in the Far North and build my own home. Not one person said, “wow, that’s so exciting and brave. Go for it while you can and good luck”. The messages I received from others were that I must be having a nervous breakdown, I didn’t know what I was doing, I was irresponsible and selfish for abandoning my elderly parents (parents who had, in reality, rejected and abused me my entire life). They all thought me delusional. I must be “running away from something”. When I replied that I was running towards a more meaningful, peaceful life, to be closer to the landscape and nature where I would be free to pursue my creativity, everyone scoffed. My house build project was bound to be a disaster. What did I know about house building, they said, after all I was just a foolish disabled woman. Even when my lovely little home by the sea was complete and I sent photographs to my former critics not one of them said “congratulations” or “your house is fab”. There was just an uncomfortable silence.
Unfortunately there was also a negative reaction to my single status in the small rural community I moved into. This was something I had never anticipated. I had hoped to be welcomed with open arms and home baking not viewed with suspicion and animosity. I had wanted, in my own way, to contribute to the community. I have many useful skills in art and education. The hostility I received was and still is, sadly, the worst from other women who continue to see me as a threat, competition for their husbands and jobs, an alien with her fancy clothes and strange ways. Even after ten years I don’t feel welcomed by the locals. During the first few years I experienced sexual harrassment from men who assumed I was easy meat and sexually available to all and sundry. Now, they know better, they keep away. I have few visitors. I ignore the whispers in the Post Office and stay focussed on what is important to me. After all, I moved here to be alone, to be the real me.
This morning I was up early to let my cat out and was transfixed by the sight of a double rainbow over the back field. I doubt this moment would have been any more intense if someone had been here to share it with me (cats seem to be immune to rainbows but not to moonlight or sunshine or flowers). Its very likely any human companion might have spoiled the moment by complaining about breakfast or being woken early. Unless one is lucky enough to share life with a real soulmate who appreciates the same things then solitude can only enhance happiness. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We do not feel and see in the same way. I remember taking a couple of city friends from my old life to Dunnet Head, mainland Britain’s most northerly point. It was a glorious April day with azure skies and racing white clouds. There is a viewpoint at the end of the track by the ruined WW2 radar station with one of the most spectacular sights in the country, a 360 degree panorama. It’s like being on top of the world, a god looking down on his/her creation but all my friends could say was grumble about the cold wind. A quick blast of the northern wind makes me feel more alive, blows the stale thoughts from my mind. I was sad my friends’ hearts and eyes were closed.