“Trip to Bountiful” – part 11

What I learned looking at Skye

Previously, I had recounted my experience of hiking the Quirain Ridge on the isle of Skye in Scotland. Here’s the exciting (one can only hope) conclusion…

* * * * *

What I recognized of the way here only lasted about an hour before I began to experience that hollow feeling in one’s gut that one is not where one should be. I looked ahead to a sheep gate with small steps designed to carry people up and over. I had recalled such a thing on my way here. Just not this one.

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The rugged, volcanic landscape that is the Quirain Ridge
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Views borrowed from God’s photo album

Skye 57.jpgBut there was still a trail and I was happy to be on it, so onward I went. Another hour passed and anything resembling a trail had faded into a maze of boggy grass, rivulets of water flowing down from the uplands downward to one of the many smaller bodies of water lower down. Before me was the ocean in one direction, the hills from whence I’d come in the other.

Both were equally baffling.

Did I chance the eastward march through the middle of nowhere, aiming to eventually meet up with the shoreline and hopefully, the A455? Or, did I retrace my steps back upwards and seek out the original trail? The decisive guy I am, I decided to walk in circles for another hour and a half becoming increasingly frantic in so doing.

Finally, I made one last attempt back up to the rock faces that had formed my right wing on my initial route. And I saw them. A young couple who, also lost, were so evidently besotted with each other that it mattered less to them than to me, a soaking wet, sweaty, panicking fifty something.

We introduced ourselves. Then, I proceeded to recount my sob story of late middle-aged geographic retardation and we came up with the following game plan. We could try to find the eastern trail that would lead back to the motorway where was my car. Or, we would turn the other direction and hopefully find our way back to where their car was parked on the western side of the island. One would then drive the other back to their respective vehicle.

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I successfully made the case that I had already been lost for two hours and would provide little in the way of reliable directions back to anything, let alone my car. So, the decision was made to retrace our steps with the intention of finding our way west across the island. As it turned out, over two hours later it was happily clear that this had been the right decision.

Many sheep, loose stone stairways, close-cropped trails clinging tightly to precarious cliffs, and heartbeats later and a glorious sight awaited us: the parking lot. We had made our way to something recognizable from which we could then regale others with the very tale I now tell.

How metaphoric this is of the spiritual life. Broad, open vistas at one turn, sheltered inland waterways at another, all make way for more rigorous upland turns leaving one out of breath and struggling. Our better curiosity about the intricacies of the abundant life comes with a dash of danger, and much that is unknown. But it is precisely for that reason that life’s best lessons are never served up on china or crystal but in clay pots and dirty goblets better fitted to the task.

Of all the stories I tell of our trip to bountiful, this is the one that stands out most. It represents something more than the expected stops of the run-of-the-mill tourist. There is a wildness here. A particularity of incarnational wonder peppers my experience of being lost on Skye. And now, removed from the imminent danger and fear of the event, it is the most memorable. And, dare I say, formational.

My connection to Skye was both immediate and profound. It bled me from the start, leaching itself onto my spirit with ferocity and tenderness in equal measure. She is a wild, unkempt, treeless wonder, at once spell-binding and succulent. I was hooked.

But more so, I had touched something primal within me, the place of raw, untested faith, eager for challenge. As a man not generally given to risk-taking, it was exhilarating. It was liminal in all the best ways and will provide rich fodder of burning peat fires of faith still needed for the days to come.

And after all, that’s much of the reason I came in the first place.

 

“Trip to Bountiful” – part 10

 

What I learned looking at Skye

After a dodgy night playing at sleep, I woke up Jonesing for coffee. Something I’d not considered was the amount of light this far north at 3:00 am. Its insistence had done its work keeping me at the edges of REM. Hence, without the final plunge that gifts a person with an actual readiness for anything resembling wakefulness, I make plans for the day. They included much walking.

Ever since first learning to play Skye Boat Song on bagpipes many years ago, I’ve wanted to see what kind of place could inspire such a fetching melody. Sir Harold Boulton’s stirring lyrics:

Speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing,

onward the sailors cry.

Carry the lad who’s born to be king

over the sea to Skye.

 

Wait, they take a bit of a turn.

 

Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,

thunderclaps rend the air,

baffled, our foes stand by the shore,

follow they will not dare.

 

Phew. And, we’re back.

 
Though the waves leap, so soft shall ye sleep,

ocean’s a royal bed.

Rock’d in the deep, dear Flora will keep

watch o’er your weary head.

 

Spoke too soon.

 

Burnt are our homes, exile and death,

scattered, the loyal man.

Yet ere the sword, cool in the sheath,

Charlie will come again.

 

And for the win…

 

Speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing,

onward the sailors cry.

Carry the lad who’s born to be king

over the sea to Skye.

Abundantly evident in these overly nostalgic, clamoring lyrics is the kind of sentiment one finds at times of great national upheaval. The song tells how Bonnie Prince Charlie, disguised as a serving maid, escaped in a small boat after his defeat in the Jacobite uprising of 1746, with the aid of Flora MacDonald. Read here and here for more.

But, for all her beauty, Skye holds many secrets close to the vest. She can be coy, and her best ones you work for. Cars get parked. Hats, water, whistle (I of course didn’t have one), and walking canes come out of retirement. If you’re wise, a bit of stretching, and away. For me, however, it was to be further complicated by the fact that I’d be doing so with my bagpipes strapped to my back.

Piping my way through the Highlands and now Skye was always part of the plan for me. If I was to regenerate all that Scots-Canadian blood, it would be done loudly and frequently. On the way here I had already stopped at every other layby, handing my phone to some unsuspecting, wide-eyed bugger already trying to get pictures of something other than me. But they always obliged, adding their thanks for letting them take further photos of their own. Oh vanity, vanity…

I sopped up the last of my inordinately large, complicated breakfast, belched happily and donned my rental chariot for the ride cross island to Portree.

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The picturesque harbor town of Portree

A short sixteen miles later and I let Skye’s largest town play with me a bit. I happily took in the smell of old sea and sound of fat gulls together with the obligatory tourist stops. A final morning coffee was enough to convince me that, today, the north road would be mine.

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Skye, the northern route. Heading east from Edinbane on Loch Greshornish to Portree, then northward and back home again.

Skye did not disappoint. The sky on Skye was uncommitted. It opened enough to allow fingers of warmth from early summer sun, brightly cheerful. But, it was also shy, at times hovering low above the higher peaks, building a rather impressive palette of hued shadow.

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Ubiquitous travel companions

Gentle, sloping meadows donned liberally with grazing sheep, farm equipment, and B ‘n Bs reach out into endless lochs and inlets. They are surprised by the often immediate, multi-colored, volcanic cliffs busting out of the earth in random protrusions. It is a land that veritably tumbles over itself in complex shades of purple-shadowed greens.

I battled tiny roads, a gutless car, crappy Internet (Siri was forever confused or non-existent), and literally dozens of cyclists on the way to my first port o’ call, a rocky outcropping called simply, The Storr. It is on the Trotternish peninsula facing the Sound of Raasay. My particular interest was to see “The Old Man of Storr.” Impressive in itself although one of the ugliest old men vaguely pictured in rock!

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The Old Man of Storr
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The Storr, and it’s Old Man
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Piping by the road that heads to the Old Man of Storr

It was exhilarating as it was inspiring. Alas, in true tourist fashion, I huffed my way, bagpipes in tow, back down the mountain to the car and continued north to my next destination, Kilt Rock. Dramatic, vertical striations of rock, the clawed back of ancient volcanic activity, rise up dramatically from the sea, offering an imaginative view – God’s mesolithic kilt.

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Kilt Rock
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Shear drop-offs make for good waterfalls onto rocky beaches

I tossed my bagpipes into the backseat, where they stayed most of the trip, and continued north. I was feeling good, even a bit feisty and adventurous. This feeling acted as preparation for or omen against what was to come. 

In full obedience to the tourist parade who, along with me, dutifully pulled their cars off the road at all the same stops. Just north of the town of Flodigarry, my eye caught a sign beckoning me into the hills. I had apparently come upon the eastern entrance to The Quiraing Ridge, from the Norse Kvi Rand meaning ’round fold.’

As part of the Trotternish ridge it has been formed by a massive landslip which has created high cliffs, hidden plateaus and pinnacles of rock. Possessing numerous features with titillating names such as The Needle, The Table, and The Prison it acts a bit like the palm of a hand or fold in which cattle could be concealed from Viking raiders. As I would soon discover it had other ‘magical’ properties. It is sly and can quickly subsume unthinking walkers into its spongy loom.

It starts unassumingly in gentle turns on well-worn dirt paths that wind their way around tiny inland lakes. I took hungrily to the task of making them my own, the snaking trail gradually pulling me upward toward the more dramatic features to come. I had started at an ambitious pace, excited to discover what lay ahead. 

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Into the Quiraing Ridge
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One of numerous, small inland lochs
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Sheer granite walls

Skye 43.jpgFor the better part of an hour I continued like this, letting the way unfold before me and the scenery embed itself in my memory. After what I could only guess was perhaps four or five miles I began to wonder, in the absence of any further signage or any other human being (or even sheep for that matter), whether or not I should continue or perhaps turn back. My buoyant mood made the decision for me and I puttered on, proud of my positive outlook, and equally glad for the perfectly cool weather.

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Finally, after another half hour or so, I began to bump into numerous other hikers. Danes, Dutch, Japanese, Somalis, Canadians, Germans, Americans, and many Aussies who, as their sheer numbers suggest, love it here apparently. Brief conversations with some of them encouraged me to continue onward to what would be some of the most jaw-dropping sights I’ve yet seen. From the highest point one can see the entire north-western shore of the island and out to the Hebrides beyond. It was spellbinding. I planted myself on a rock wall and simply let it happen.

At this point I had a decision to make. I had walked for hours to get to this place and, looking way down to my right, could barely make out a parking lot. I was almost across the island! Although there was no concern either for loss of daylight or weather since both were cooperating fully, I decided to go back the way I came and do the trek from the west side the day after. It would be a simple matter of retracing my steps.

Or so I thought…

 

 

“Trip to Bountiful” – part 9

What I learned looking at Skye

Friday, June 3. I wave goodbye to my wife as she makes her way by train south to a writer’s retreat near Bath.Waving goodbye to Rae.jpg I make a leisurely retreat back to the Edinburgh car park where awaits my trusty chariot for the journey to come. As I shut the car door it occurs to me, shit, I have to drive through the Highlands without her as my human GPS (SatNav) where Internet is as rare as the Loch Ness monster. Lord, have mercy!

Before executing the daunting task of driving the Highlands alone I spend a few days reacquainting myself with the chic, sleepy provincialism cum arts mecca cum tourist quicksand that is Edinburgh. Long walks down the Portobello promenade watching very white-skinned Scots sunning themselves on windy beaches. It adds credibility to my insistence that Scots change color quickly given ten minutes of sun. Peppering the shoreline are numerous ice cream stands, overpriced coffee-shops above health clubs, and as many accents as are people to sport them. And best of all, to grace these precious days, friends.

One particularly memorable evening I prepare myself for a most enchanting experience: a literary pub tour in downtown Edinburgh. Two actors, one playing an actor (does he get paid the same?), the other an intellectual, regale us with tales, poetry, and saucy anecdotes of the lives of Robbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson – all of whom would have made great rock stars, awash as they were in wine, women, song, and…wine.

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Edinburgh’s historic Beehive Inn where began our literary pub night
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Our wacky, well-informed, richly entertaining hosts
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One of the many colorful side streets housing the four pubs of our literary evening together

For lit-geeks like myself, it was orgasmic.

Sights, sounds, experiences – these are only given meaning when they can be shared with those closest to us. Edinburgh is a place of such connections. We lived here in 1989 making fools of ourselves among a motley group of trendy Baptists intent on serving one of the poorest areas in western Europe.

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Inverleith Row, looking toward downtown and Edinburgh Castle
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73 Inverleith Row, our oh so trendy address while in Edinburgh

Pastor Andy Scarcliffe and his wife Moira are two of our bedrock Scots friends. It is their home that provided our, and now, my residence these few days.

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Moira Scarcliffe, Adam Scarcliffe (eldest son), Rae, Pastor Andy Scarcliffe and some aging, wannabe photographer

Hours of slow and windy driving through the Highlands bring me at last to Kyle of Lochalsh. It is a tidy little Scottish village at the convergence of Loch Alsh and what is called The Minch. The unimaginatively titled Skye Bridge leads me to Kyleakin on Skye’s eastern shore. Both towns are replete with customary Scottishisms – quaint pubs, fish ‘n chip shops, numerous cafés complete with dodgy wi-fi, and store owners speaking less Scottishy for us tourists to decipher.

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Into the Highlands
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Drawing closer to Kyle of Lochalsh
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The Highlands at Kyle of Lochalsh, doorway to Skye
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“Skye Bridge”

One would think it obvious that places like Skye would have their fair share of tourists. Dozens of us cram onto the tiny ribbon-like roads, hastily taking leisurely pictures at every available layby. We follow each other like newborn puppies in search of Mom.

But, apparently I still live too much in overly-romanticized pictures of it and I become bitchy about just how many of ‘them’ are here. This, despite the fact on numerous occasions I do so while taking view-enhanced selfies or while asking someone to take my picture as I pipe my way across the island – you know, the way actual residents do. *I do not possess enough appendages required to do the same.

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One of dozens of “pipe through Scotland” pictures, thanks to as many fellow pilgrims

By the time I stopped three or four times for still more precise directions I fill my cellphone to overflowing with photos even more touristy taken by at whom I whinge. I can live with that. Besides, once it became clear that I was merely part of the parade, like pinballs bouncing from one site to another, I relaxed a bit more and settled into this reality. A combination of Siri (when available) and my trusty old school map guided my way.

Cnoc Aluin, my island digs for the week would be one of the numerous well-fitted bed and breakfasts that pepper the island. But, not before getting lost on any number of identical tiny interconnecting ribbon roads, high-centering the rental car in the neighbor’s yard, and getting stuck in the driveway. I am, if nothing else, walking proof that the evolutionary process is, well, a process. Once I found the place, I knew it would be the perfect home for the days I would be here.

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My view
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It doesn’t suck here
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Looking across Loch Greshornish from the front deck

Irene, more big sister than business woman, reveals well the identifying marks of many city-born proprietors now happy to live simpler lives here. Born in Edinburgh, lived in London, she and her husband are all too happy now to help those like me find some of the magic here. During my stay, their expertly retro-fitted place also houses a Japanese family and two young grad students with whom to swap exploits. Tangentially, I bumped into the two students on almost half a dozen separate occasions at spots miles apart!

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My fellow travel buddies

Skye has two ring roads that, more or less, circumnavigate the island. A northern and a southern route. Many smaller tributaries to other sites web themselves to these primary ones allowing access to more beauty than is humanly comprehensible. It is surprisingly small by North American standards. But, for its size it boasts a long, proud, convoluted history.

I waited my entire life to see this place. The greatest gifts require commensurate patience on our part. They are revealed to us only as we are prepared for the gifts, and accompanying responsibilities, they bring. Are we prepared for all that may be asked of us? Do we even know how to see what we most need to see? When we see, will we have the courage to invoke its transforming influence in our lives? Will we submit to lessons we hadn’t anticipated?

As I sit behind the wheel of the rental car about to embark on my first sight-seeing trip of this remarkable place, do I have what it takes to humble myself before its treasures and, metaphorically, God’s?

I pull out of the driveway in the expectant hope that I do.

“Trip to Bountiful” – part 8

Our trip to bountiful has taken a decided turn the past few days. Rae and I parted company last week so she could meet a fellow writer at a writing retreat near Bath. This meant the rental car is all mine, as were the Highlands and best of all, the Isle of Skye. This brings a couple very real dilemmas. First, I have the monumental task of reproducing in tiny, insufficient words, the vast and haunting beauty that is the Scottish Highlands and Skye. Second, and rather crucially, I will not have my human GPS (SatNav as they call it here) to help guide me on my way.

This portion of my journey began with a visit to Pitlochry where live two of our best friends. They moved there from Edinburgh over ten years ago, believing it to be the most central route for their high travel jobs.

I do not know whether this is an “official” title but I could easily call Pitlochry the gateway to the Highlands. In that regard, it is not unlike Calgary, who foists herself on the Rockies by means of the foothills. Similarly, Pitlochry is nestled in the ever-growing hills, poised in stately fashion beneath Ben Vrackie.

 

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Ben Vrackie as seen from the front yard of our friends’ home in Pitlochry

From here I ventured north to Dalwhinnie through the swelling hillsides of scruffy reforestation in the Grampian Mountains. It lies on the western edge of the starkly beautiful Cairngorms. Then, on to Invergarry, a stone’s throw from the southern tip of Loch Ness, through lonely miles on tiny roads we in North America might call glorified driveways.

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Into the Highlands

 

At Invergarry one has options. To head northeast is to travel along the western shores of Loch Ness toward Inverness or, as I did, head northwest past Eilean Donan castle, the Five Sisters of Kintail, and Glen Shiel to cross the Skye Bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh.

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Lilting heights grace lazy lochs

The multi-shadowed, green-velvet Highlands rise to dizzying heights as one approaches closer to Skye. As if it were possible to find any other choices of green, they offer more than their fair share of the same. Countless tufts of yellow Gorse, also called Broom, grace these sloping giants. That, and a sense that the light playing upon the mountains is really the presence of sinister ghosts from Scotland’s bloody past.

 

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Near Kyle of Lochalsh

Skye is one of the more sizable islands off the west coast of Scotland with many secrets and much scenery one might not see anywhere else. It was one of a number of hiding places for Bonny Prince Charlie when fleeing the English, bent on his demise. Because my experiences on the island are many and complex, another post or two will be necessary to unpack them.

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My tourist map of Skye

Suffice it so say, I have felt the spiritual topography of my soul humming the well-sung songs of Scotland as I enter the realm of fairies, goblins, and fiercely protective highlanders wielding overly large swords.

These days of exploration offer more than their fair share of soulish considerations. We have in mind what we most want to see in ourselves. Road leads to hill leads to loch leads to yet other roads. And, all the while, we journey without fully knowing what comes around each new turn.

What I can safely say however is it is all good. It is all very, very good.

“Trip to Bountiful” – part 7

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Downtown Edinburgh, from whence I wrote this piece

Block after block of grey, stoic flats flit past to converge with still others in a parade past my train window. An aging reflection gazes back reminding me I need a haircut. The broom-covered, volcanic hills stand guard against a broadening horizon of uncommonly blue Edinburgh sky, and I am pensive.

My wife, as I have described her at least, is a tempest in a teacup. Actually, human hurricane was the term as I recall.

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My wife and fellow partner in words, curiously quiet

She is the poster child for extraverts, an off-the-charts go getter with a zest for life and love for adventure. It’s fun but rather exhausting! I accompany her downtown from Brunstane to Waverly Station where she caught the morning train to a writer’s retreat near Bath.

After seeing her off, I indulge in another quick jaunt up Princes Street. I trip into a trendy Edinburgh café (there are gazillions) for a third, perhaps fourth, coffee and obligatory Facebook check-in. James Blunt sings to me through café speakers, “how I wish I could walk through the doors of my mind; hold memory close at hand, help me understand the years.”

We’re well past halfway in our 2016 “Trip to Bountiful.” A journal and a full heart loudly pester me for a few reflections. At a reunion party last evening, my wife and I were reminded how central relationships are in our lives. Many photo albums and now an iCloud full of photos give evidence of a full life, lived fully.

But, although places and experiences fill much of our memory hard drive, it is the faces of those whose voices still sing loudly in us that best help us to “hold memory close at hand.” It is they who can most capably help us “understand the years.” 

In another post, I share some thoughts from the tale end of our time spent among the good people at Granton Baptist Church, Edinburgh.Granton Baptist.jpg

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Pastor Andy, Moira, and Adam Scarcliffe
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Grant Cunningham
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Fiona Aitken
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Joan Cunningham

There is much I could say about the few months spent among these dear souls. To do so would require some fierce self-editing. First, because our memories are many and detailed. But, secondly, because we weren’t always the best influence despite our lily-white, suburban-Canadian, preppie exteriors.

Life is handed to us often in haphazard basketfuls of beauty and complexity and chaos. The best bits are those we live by accident, the unplanned moments of grace which splash upon us, baptizing us in their freshness. We can no more execute them than plan for them. They simply show up and we do the best we can with what we’ve got.

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Stephen Scarcliffe and his girlfriend, Angela Murray (oh, and Nookie!)

Like the time my boys’ group talked me out of Sunday School in favor of a football game (soccer to North Americans) at the park. It was an effort requiring a lad or two to be stuffed unceremoniously in the boot (trunk) of the car for the journey.

Perhaps the time my wife and her coworker decided a girls’ sleepover the perfect time to discuss procreational geometry to middle school girls with the aid of balloon phallic symbols? Perhaps the seaside games night in which my wife and I, so exasperated with each other, shouted “fuck you” in the presence of innocent, Baptist kids? The rest had long before given up and were shoving each other into the sea. Perhaps the time we danced at a church-wide ceilidh (party) and a young boy affixed himself to my leg all evening and wee Calum became the namesake for our eldest son, now 25.

Yes, all these and many more besides provide the yellowing pages of our memories. These folks have shaped our lives, glutted our hearts, and colored our memories. And so we find ourselves back here in Edinburgh at a café get together arranged for the purpose.

We may have been the ones to uproot and replant for a time at 73 Inverleith Row in the land of bagpipes, blood pudding, and pasty skin, but it is they who have walked us through the doors of our mind, holding memories close at hand.

And, yes Mr. Blunt, most definitely have they helped us understand our years. More than they will ever know.

 

 

“Trip to Bountiful”- part 6

Dunbar Harbour. A tiny nook of land nestled tightly against the North Sea. The horizon shoulders in equal measure a ghostly, white mist and the slowness of morning sea. Waves of amber grey taste the red rocks of Scotland’s southeast shoreline. And the timid shores trade their sins for the secrets of the deep, betrothed in waves of forgiveness. Pink-cheeked seamen toss buckets of fish as bate into lobster traps readying for the day’s catch. There’s a sharpness to this low tide air, the sea’s pungent reminder of her abiding presence.

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Fishermen in Dunbar Harbour prepare the lobster traps

A lit-geek to the core, I doffed my book-bag complete with eyeglass cleaner, multiple writing implements, not one but two journals, half a dozen books and of course, my laptop. One always hopes the effort of lugging around an extra twenty-five pounds of geekery will pay off on some seaside park bench. Thereupon will I compose the next great American novel or T.S. Eliot’s long awaited Fifth Quartet, or even just the sequel to 50 Shades of Grey.

Instead, it became a large security blanket that added beats per minute to my heartrate and a rather sore neck. That said, my own journey this morning included a leisurely stroll beside these kelp-lined shores. I saw an interesting strand of beach to my right, southward down the coast and began walking in its direction.

A few steps in however and I glanced back. My view was given much better capital in the other direction. So, I redirected myself and walked northward through the ample streets lining the shore. It was to provide some rather rewarding eye candy and even more soul food.

If God is my father, the sea is my mother, and Scotland her teat upon which I gratefully suckle. In all my yearning for a sense of harbour – a deeper certainty of my soul’s DNA – these moments come closest.

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A rocky beach

So much of life is lived in a sea of perceptions. A few of those are based on reality. Some are not. Like this morning, they come upon me by way of hint, innuendo, suggestion. They leave the potential of other things yet to come. It is the gentle, sideways life that doesn’t leave me breathless, but simply curious.

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Walking along Dunbar Harbour walkway

At other times, without warning, I find myself stranded on a tiny isthmus that is no guarantee that I won’t be swept away in the insistent, foaming anger of my changing tide. Either way, it is how we must all live.

Our perceptions of the world are, for us, what really is, in spite of what may actually be true. This sneaky truth is the reason why we must always be in pursuit of whatever is true, or good, or noble as St. Paul suggests in his letter to the church at Philippi.

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The North Sea as seen from Dunbar Harbour

I’ve been to these shores often enough to recognize the layers of what I see. There is the Scotland of history, the one with sharp wounds cut deep in her skin of stone. There is the Scotland of my imagination, the mythology of Celtic knowing and bardic mysticism.

But there is the Scotland that just is. It is traffic horns and coffeeshops and Tandoori restaurants and cell phones. It is a collection of wiry old sea dogs, self-absorbed businessmen and dark-haired, haggard looking moms. It is a clash of class, struggle, and culture like anywhere else.

Mostly, like everywhere else, it is a place where people simply live.

And, it is this discovery that has blessed me on this trip more than any other. Any of my previous fanciful notions of the place have been chipped away. What remains is an unadorned appreciation for what my senses perceive. And, in fact, as I am further removed from any need to either sanctify or romanticize it, I receive the deeper gifts available from just keeping my eyes open.

Well, either that, or I’m finally adulting (at 52!).

These moments help escort me away from the rocky shoals of misperception that are so damaging. And, even as the healing presence of Scotland’s broad sea, green vest, and briny aftershave grace my steps this afternoon, I can internalize all this to take with me when we return.

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Street leading to the sea

The deftness of wind, strength of stone, and the broad belly of sea will speak their secrets in my lesser moments. I can share what I’ve heard of God’s voice with the dear souls to whom I return.

And, when the unforgiving summer sun in Yakima valley steals the breath from my lungs, I can put in its place what I have today experienced. Perceptions can, for a moment at least, be what is true.

And in that moment, the truth will set me free.

“Trip to Bountiful” – part 5

 

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My writing perch this morning, Ambleside

August, 1989. My wife and I were the grateful recipients of Scottish largesse and enjoying a robust, five-course meal at Edinburgh’s George Hotel. The meal was spectacular. The entertainment? Lounge cheese. Nevertheless, down went venison, roast vegetables, fresh salads of varying kinds, nips ‘n tatties, roast beef and, of course, haggis. We were by far the youngest at our table, mere months after celebrating our first anniversary on Culloden Moor. It was pure magic.

I suppose this added a bit to our sense of naïveté and childlike wonder. We had just completed our time at Granton Baptist Church, Edinburgh as youth ministry “missionaries” and were spending some ramble time in the Highlands and England. We were, as a result, the wrong people to hear the travesty of screw-the-world chest-puffing comments that followed.

Seated across the table from us were two of the most arrogant ass holes the world ever produced. God was in the toilet when these two popped up whole out of the ground somewhere. The husband made the ass-tute observation, “aaah, ya see one cathedral, ya’ve seen ‘em all.” Delightful. She went on to add, “good Lord, what a California developer could do in the Highlands. Glencoe absolutely needs condos.”

As I suspected, your reaction was the same as mine.

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Grasmere, in the Lake District

I breathed in deeply trying not to portray my disgust, wondering to myself why it’s necessary for some people to reproduce when this is the best we can get. I consoled myself with the fact that they’d die before their time. Okay, so maybe I only thought it. I repented (kinda) and moved on.

In the lifelong pursuit of all that I’d call ‘home’, deep in the stone guts of a thousand-year-old cathedral or castle somewhere in Britain is as close as it gets. Even as a young boy my predilection toward all things old and musty presented itself regularly. This was constantly disappointed growing up in Canada. As deeply Canadian as I am, it was still never old enough to satisfy my longing for anything older still.

As I write I do so in a corner window overlooking the high street in Ambleside, one of many perfect Lake District towns. It is made to order for writers. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine why that has been the case for so many writers (real ones, that is): Beatrix Potter, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It has inspired countless others since then, Shelley, Keats, and Robert Burns, to name but a few.

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Near Ambleside

My point is, to find the deepest reserves of one’s creative and spiritual taproot, one must be willing to explore and discern what that actually means. The whole point of the spiritual enterprise is to be ‘home’ everywhere. It is to be completely comfortable in all places at all times under all circumstances. Says St. Paul, “I have learned to be content in all circumstances.”

My wife and I have come to Britain for a host of reasons. Hers are similar but different to my own. I am here to reconnect with my spiritual DNA. My helix is uniquely interwoven with that of the ancient, storied hills of Scotland. The latter part of our journey allows me some alone time, with the rental car, in the Highlands and then to Skye. I shall suffer this unbearable burden with God’s abiding strength (stupid emoticon here). I shall also offer more pontifications then.

Until then, I pray you never suffer the indignity of meeting the toilet-water-buffoons with whom we shared a table in Edinburgh.

“Trip to Bountiful” – part 4

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Hay, Monmouthshire – the view I’ve been waiting for

I have, for the first time, truly experienced the devastating wonder that is Wales. It is as though God made Britain first and then, everything else from spare parts (not that I can speak from context, or experience, or knowledge of any kind really). From the broad-shouldered Brecon Beacons, to the literary orgasm that is Hay-on-Wye, the city of bookshops.

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A bookshop. A café. In Hay-on-Wye. What’s not to love?

From the Cistercian monastery ruins at Tintern Abbey to equally haunting and beautiful Llanthony Priory. From the seaside riches of Harlech and Llanbedr to the rough ‘n tumble Dolgellau.
From a fifteenth century teahouse in Ty Hwnt I’r Bont near Llanwrst to Snowdonia National Park in Beddgelert, Wales is a place of countless treasures. 

I’ve been here before, but not this close to the bone. I’ve learned what it means not just to drive a car but navigate it like a big ship through a tiny canal. I’ve heard horror stories of those possessing significantly superior driving skills to myself pissing themselves from stress on the very Welsh “highways” I’ve just driven. Now, to be fair, I changed before writing this and how would you know anyway?

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Beudy Bach, our perfect stay in Llanbedr, near Harlech

In addition, to drive a car in a place so utterly complex is to forego any certainty of directions, ETAs, the logical movement of traffic, expectation of driver largesse, and frequency of toilets. Throughout the UK, the puritan American spirit must learn to contend with the lack of excretory euphemisms.

 

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Llanthony Priory

 

A tiny thumbnail of a country it boasts as long a history as anywhere in Europe. Today, we said goodbye to Wales, and find ourselves in another enchanting part of Britain – Ambleside, in the Lake District. We stop here to catch our breath, drink a ton of coffee and write.

In the days that follow, our travels will take us east and north to Dunbar and Edinburgh. The deep connection I have to Scotland will require a host of other blog posts. Hence, for now, with Wales in our rearview mirror, I think poetry is the only song that will work. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for joining us on this ride.

Down in the throat of Wales

In the throat of Wales,

where light is sparse, then it is best.

This land of green trousers with grey hat,

hair coiffed in bluebells, tulips,

and yellow daffodils.

She is held in frames of arbour, where bristle-faced hills

are bred for poetry – Coleridge, Thomas, Wordsworth.

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

we pass the standing stones, God’s elder brothers,

and their eyes follow us.

Rain falls like sweat from the coal miner’s brow

while praying hands of hedgerow herald peace on every side.

A bleating sheep choir beckons eyes up to the watching hills.

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

down, down the Brecon Beacons beckon, swallowed down

where the green things live – down in the throat of Wales.

At the Blue Boar Pub, regulars and weekend

intellectuals hold out town secrets.

Practiced tongues wag in dark corners, breathing out suds

and gossip and recycled stories with fresh laughter.

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

at Hay-on-Wye – these streets are full of pages,

ten thousand dog-eared voices

tucked away on shelves and tables,

under arms and coat pockets.

American streetlights bow to clock towers, cheery pubs,

and weary stones. Long-drawn lines of primogeniture sing

the songs everyone still knows. And, the many-throated

happy-hour jubilee of a thousand years gone by

still steeps in the glow of candles,

wine-bright eyes, and cell phones.

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

the hills stand guard, where stone and memory bleed

the colours of the ancestors,

drawing their long and bloody shadows over Beddgelert.

The River Colwyn, host to muddy boots and hooves and paws –

I pause to imprint her banks of sleep.

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

Harlech’s stiff-shouldered castle juts out a jarring face

into Cardigan Bay, catching salt kisses

blown from the cold, grey sea.

Oh, where to wander in this wild and brooding land,

where friend is stranger – stranger, friend –

and all that ever wrung true hangs tightly

to the soft skeleton of a land made

from the stoutest stone, the strongest sheep, the swollen stories

of hearts that glow brighter than the smiles of children?

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

In the throat of Wales,

I place my ear next to her breast

to hear the consonantal tongue

make love to songs as old and wise as she –

where still, of all sad souls,

the blind man is poorest.

 

Down in the throat of Wales.

 

“Trip to Bountiful” – part 3

 

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Rae and I on the train to Wales

Here, in the lavish, lazy valleys of South Wales one can smell the old, taste the green. To the mystic’s palette it is chateau briand for the soul. The harmonious voices of stocky, Welsh coalminers blend with the buoyant tongue of an ancient language to stoke the most experienced fires.

Too bad they drive like shit. Well, one can’t have everything.

Our brief foray in the UK takes a turn from the sleek, overly preened mien of London to the clumpy, sodden town of Newport, Gwent, South Wales. It is a place as equally devoid of panache as it is pretention. The people are as unremarkable as they are genuine. Note to self: read that line again later.

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The muddy banks of the Usk

The River Usk upon which this town is built looks like one long bowel movement running through the center of town. To hear them speak with pride for something so utterly un-notable is in equal measure quaint and unnerving. The last time we were here a few years ago, I joked with my wife, for whom this is her birthplace, that Newport was the only ugly place in all of Wales.

Beyond the obvious revitalization enjoyed by this city, I repent of such ignorant, North American bluster. Besides, the passing years have replaced my previous eyes with new ones. I see now something quite different. The grey, spongy demeanor of the place is easily eclipsed by a deep and knowing spirit – a kind of relaxed ennui, without a hint of self-pity.

I must learn from this.

When the soul moves past its incessant need for the spiritual X-factor, it then can see the better coal beneath the monochromatic surface of its own shallow intentions. The beauty of Newport isn’t found in its breathless joie-de-vivre, the jaunty rollercoaster of soulish affixations we often call spirituality. It is somewhere down under. It lies beneath all of that, in the bedrock of older soil breeding nourishment over luxuriance.

In exploring here, I am struck by how difficult it is to amuse the over-stimulated American psyche. By contrast, the British are delighted by small pleasures. The sheer joy of a few hours before the fire with a stiff cup of tea, a biscuit and conversation is all they require to feel human and whole. As our spirits chase after ever more lusty extravagances, Newport reminds me that the best things come in the unbidden grace of simple, genteel moments.

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A visit to the St. Woollos Cemetery

Today, I am a tourist in the most non-tourist town I’ve yet seen. Better still, I’m a pilgrim where once I was a tourist.

And, I am seeing the beauty that lies beneath.

 

 

 

“Trip to Bountiful” – part 2

As endless underground tube stops, countless footsteps to and from every possible sight, packed unimaginably into what amounts to an hourglass on my wife’s schedule I am, of course, café bound. Two very full days of touristing the hell out of London with a view to advancing my wife’s novel descriptors has left me washed out. She’s a veritable whirlwind in a thimble, a human hurricane of never-ending activity and world-wonder.

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My wife, the human hurricane

As a self-described artsy, bookish mystic, I’m sure you understand my reasons for writing. Besides, I’m sure she’s glad to be rid of me for a few hours. Who needs a needy poet on their back when there’s a world to conquer?

The morning started with a leisurely walk along the Thames through, first, an industrial district and later, through rows of prim, stately flats. Every time I see the Thames I am instantly reminded of how contextual our histories are. To hear Londoners speak of “the mighty Thames” after having lived beside the Columbia for a few years is quaint to the point of hyperbole.

It is however a river that has seen more history in a lunch hour than many others in their long, sweeping careers. At once lazy and overworked, her rippled, brown back shoulders international industry and commerce hard to rival.

It also makes for a lovely morning walk; a walk that has landed me in this very café.

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The Putney Café, Wansworth

My wife’s novel, now on perhaps its fourth title, provides much of the backdrop for this journey. She began writing this story almost four years ago. It has gone through many iterations, edits, rewrites, lapses – a great working metaphor for our lives generally.

As described in my first piece of this series I am here for reasons hard to name, hence the elusive title of “Trip to Bountiful.” If ever a story points well to the Celtic idea of hiraeth, it is this one. Contextualized in twentieth century Houston, it is in many ways a timeless tale of escape from an unpleasant present to the friendlier familiar where one hopes to find a reality more amenable to the longings of the heart. It is both escape and discovery. It is reality versus perception of reality. 

The broken places of my present seek out the healing that can come from places connected to my psyche even deeper than my own short history. In the play, an aging Carrie Watts, living unhappily with family, dreams of escape from a claustrophobic Houston existence back to spacious Bountiful where she was raised. 

The longer I explore this idea of ‘home’ and ‘longing’ and ‘be-longing’ the more I am skeptical of easy answers. The incarnational realities of daily existence in our physicality are demeaned by an over-spiritualized romanticism. We are a rooted people. We have a ‘where’ as much as a ‘why’ or ‘how.’ Conversely, the unnameable yearnings resident in every soul are never fully realized by placement in easy familiarities of youth and proclivity.

As ‘hiraeth’ suggests, we may at once long for what can never be again. But, as the even broader, more pervasive gospel narrative insists, in Christ we are everywhere, fully, ‘at home’ – even as exiles in a strange land – the often stifling realities of temporary displacement, geographically or otherwise. 

Hence, even as I gaze out the window of this quaint café onto the rain-washed streets of London I do so sad that I must soon return to a familiar geography with an unfamiliar spiritual DNA, but do so completely happy.

Besides, it’s raining, and the coffee’s good here.