Category Archives: Blog

The Day Shit Got Real …

If there were ever a competition for a natural born bully, Kenny would have won the blue ribbon. Hands down.

In the mid 1950’s Kenny was about eight years old. He was already the puppet master of our neighbourhood; terror being his only strings. This was when my family moved into his small Hatboro neighbourhood, near Philadelphia.

I was five, my brother Timmy was two-and-a-half and our older sister, Jeannine was eleven. Heather—who would later become the baby of our family—had a few years left to hang out in the ethers.

At two-and-a-half Timmy had a limited vocabulary and even more limited ability to pronounce the few words he knew. When he slipped and knocked his two front teeth out, just shy of his third birthday, what were slowly becoming coherent language skills, instantly slipped back into Timmy’s own language.

“Ah na peeny peeny pelly pelly thitch, ” Timmy said sweetly, to our next-door neighbour, Marlene, one day.

After politely asking him to repeat himself, several times, Marlene looked at me blankly and whispered, “What is he trying to say?”

To this day I recall wondering why Marlene couldn’t understand him. “He’d like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, “ I repeated. “But he forgot to say please.”

“Say please,” I said, looking sternly at my brother.

“Peath,” he said. Marlene chuckled as she made him a PB&J and, from then on, she always referred to them as peeny peeny pelly pellies when Timmy and I were around.

For the most part I loved our Hatboro neighbourhood.

Fortunately, I had completely mastered my brother’s language and so, I became his interpreter within the family and the community. This, and the fact that I was not yet in school, made me an extension of my brother—or him of me …

Timmy had one other constant companion: A small stuffed doll with a plastic freckled face, called Johnny Appleseed. Johnny had a shock of red hair peeking from beneath his green cap that matched the rest of his attire. After losing his front teeth, Timmy called his stuffed companion Chonny Appletheed. Although pretty much lacking compassion at that age, even I thought that was slightly pathetic …

Generally, however, I simply considered my brother to be an unavoidable nuisance. Timmy was my duty and responsibility; I don’t recall any warm fuzzy feelings for him … until the day Kenny stole Johnny Appleseed from my brother’s arms and beat the doll mercilessly while yelling things like, “What kinda sissy boy carries around a doll? Oh yeah, that’s right: The kind of sissy who lets his sister talk for him!” Kenny laughed maniacally.

I stood there helplessly, holding my sobbing, snotty-nosed baby brother, while Kenny brutally beat Johnny Appleseed to within an inch of his little cotton stuffed life; crushing his plastic face into the sidewalk while scraping it back and forth. There was nothing to be done. It was Kenny’s neighbourhood. We played by Kenny’s rules.

When the bully had tired of this latest cruelty, and walked away, I picked Johnny Appleseed up from the sidewalk and turned him over. “Look!” I exclaimed to my quietly sobbing brother, “Johnny is still smiling. He’s not hurt one bit … Wow! I guess he showed Kenny a thing or two.”

There was something strangely comforting about Johnny’s face—scratched and dirty—still smiling up at us. I’m not sure if, perhaps, I believed, just a little, that Johnny had shown Kenny up for what he really was, or not. I’m actually not even sure Timmy bought it. But we both (at least) pretended to believe Johnny Appleseed was the victor in that encounter, as we trudged up the street, with our heads hung low, to the safety of our home.

I learned something valuable that day: I actually loved that little nuisance of a brother, who prior to that event, had been more like a Vestigial organ: something that you just accept because, useless as it is, you have no choice. On that day, however, my little lisping appendix of a brother became a caring, feeling, tiny human being—sobbing and terrified. And I’d have done almost anything to see that he never experienced anything like that again.

Timmy (right), Heather (middle) and me (left), several years later.

Slight Digression:My father was a bible-thumping Christian. He was also a pacifist. He taught us to turn the other cheek and use words instead of weapons. We were to lead by Christian example; we were to let our little lights shine… My father was also a stern, believer in spare the rod and spoil the child and I feared my father nearly as much as I feared Kenny. My father, however, was easier to live with: Do as you were told and as the bible taught and you were pretty much okay. Otherwise say hello to Mr Switch.

Yep, there were a lot of mixed messages living in our house…

Now back to Kenny…

Kenny taught me a lot in that first year. He taught me that when my knees were kicked out from beneath me from behind, and I was suddenly thrown down on the pavement, slamming my head onto its hard surface, I could actually see real live, brilliantly flashing stars, just like in cartoons. He also taught me how quickly a wagon full of little kids could be capsized, by one sharp turn of the wagon handle and a hard kick.

But, It was a beautiful Sunday in the autumn of 1957—the year I would turn 6 in October—that some real learning was about to happen. Shit was about to get real for Kenny. As a matter of fact, there was about to be a paradigm shift for me, as well.

A small group of children—including myself—were playing on my best friend, Kathy’s, swing set, when Kenny unexpectedly rounded the corner of her house.

“Give me a swing!” he shouted, as he approached us.

Immediately the other children leapt from their swings. I wish I could say it was bravery that kept me swinging; that I’d had just about enough of Kenny … But factually, I was simply swinging too high to disembark swiftly. I did, however, (much to my terror) instantly realize that swinging was not high on Kenny’s list of priorities and my failure to promptly offer my swing did not bode for a happy ending to this story.

“But I wanted that swing,” Kenny predictably barked, pointing at my swing. And before I could even apologize for having been born, Kenny grabbed my feet and yanked me to the ground; almost instantly the swing seat slammed into the back of my head with a terrible thud.

And then something quite unexplainable—some might say miraculous— happened. I suddenly found myself sitting on Kenny’s chest, with his arms pinned beneath my knees, pummelling the living daylights out of him, without ever having had a conscious thought of doing it.

A few slugs in and I happened to glance across the street where my dad had been washing the car in our driveway, but was now staring at his normally quiet, compliant little girl, as she appeared possessed. My first thought was, “Oh man, hello Mr Switch!”

My second thought was, “There is no way of backing out of this, and seeings as I have Kenny all pinned down and he’s probably going to kill me first chance he gets, I’ve got a job to finish.”

And so I punched away… I punched for every little kid dumped out of a wagon that year and for every star that flashed before my semi-conscious eyes. I punched for every dog and cat that had met Kenny’s big black boots and I punched for Johnny Appleseed’s silly little smile. I punched for my brother Timmy’s muffled sobs and snotty baby nose… I punched for the collective dignity  of every kid in our neighbourhood.

Kenny was bleeding and sobbing, by the time I completed my task and let him up. To my surprise he didn’t even turn around and make an attempt on my life; he just ambled off in the direction of his house.

I walked towards my waiting father; his arms crossed over his chest and wearing his stern lips.

“Go inside and get cleaned up,” he said, very quietly. I looked down at myself and for the first time, realized that I was grass stained, covered in dirt and wearing a fair share of Kenny’s bodily fluids.

I silently walked into the house and up to the bath.

I’m not sure if I knew the expression Waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I certainly knew the sensation, in the pit of my stomach, associated with that expression. I felt it all afternoon and into the evening as I waited for the switch.

The hours ticked by without even a mention of my unforgiveable behaviour and by dinnertime, I fleetingly thought perhaps I was only going to get a lecture.

As I climbed the stairs to go to bed, my father called out to me.

“Holly, come here,” he said.

I walked back down the stairs and stood next to my father, waiting, holding my breath …

“When you were punching Kenny today,” Oh man, here we go I thought…

“How were you making your fist?” He asked.

What? I wondered… Had my father lost his marbles?

I said nothing, but clenched my fists, holding my thumbs tightly against my palms.

“Right,” my father said. He then opened my fingers and before closing them again he placed my thumb on the outside of my fist.

“I hope you never, in your life, need to make another fist, but if you do, remember: Don’t ever clench your thumb inside of your hand. You can easily break a thumb that way.”

No whooping… Not even a lecture… Just a hug and a goodnight and we were sorted.

My father had been a brick wall of harsh unyielding ideologies and inflexible rules, in my eyes, prior to that evening. He had been someone to avoid and fear for the most part. But a veil lifted that night and he was suddenly a father who wanted, in his own way, to say that he understood how confusing and fluid life could be. He was giving me permission to step beyond iron-clad rules when it was absolutely necessary. But he still taught, above all, The Golden Rule: Do unto others, as you would have them do to you… He still firmly believed it was supremely important to let your little light shine, set a loving and compassionate example, whenever possible … and never value violence over negotiation.

Oh yeah but, if all else fails, don’t clench your thumbs…

 

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Land of the Free

Human beings are prone to rhetoric. We all are, no matter our culture, language, age, or sexual orientation (I just thought I’d throw that last one in there to make my blog hip and current)…

Rhetoric probably makes life feel easier. We can have a few things that we hammer into our psyches, simply by saying them repeatedly, and we don’t really need to think about them. They simply exist unquestionably; kind of like gravity.

One of my all-time favourite rhetorical clichés is, “We’re the best country in the world.” I love this one because virtually every country I’ve ever lived in, or spent appreciable time in, has a version of this one. They also have certain inner stories, based on vague cultural perceptions, which support their beliefs.

America

Americans think they live in the “Best country in the world” because they are powerful in terms of military. They also think they pretty much single-handedly won WWII and Europe is forever beholden to them. They believe that everyone in the world can’t wait to live in America because it’s … well as previously stated: It’s the best country in the world. Americans think the only reason they have enemies is because A. People are jealous of them or B. People are insane terrorists. Americans believe that all other countries either hold American democracy up as their ultimate goal, or they would do so, if their oppressive governments allowed them to. We cannot imagine that our own government possibly set any of these oppressive governments up in power … that would simply be unthinkable of any Christian nation. And first and foremost America believes it is a Christian nation. Land of the free … home of the brave …

England

The English believe they are the Best country in the world because they have, at various times, dominated some part of almost every continent. They have an ancient culture with a powerful history of assisting less developed nations in ways that will help them to be more English (although some would say: assist them in ways to serve England). And of course these nations should have eventually thank England for this assistance in becoming more English because … well, England is the Best country in the world. That nasty word Imperialism is so open to interpretation, isn’t it? The English also have high tea and fox hunts; wonderful words like cheerio (which has nothing to do with breakfast), bonnet and boot (both found on your car, not your body), and cute terms like balls-up and Bob’s your uncle. Google these terms for more information or just for entertainment. These amazing English people have also developed a way of living fairly long, healthy, and productive lives with almost no help from sunshine or vegetables.

Scotland

The Scots believe that they are, by far, the Best country in the world because they fended off the Imperialist English army starting as far back as 596 AD in the Battle of Raith (fought near what is now Kirkcaldy) and successfully beat this superpower back until 1707. Not bad for a bunch of poorly armed, passionate warriors dressed in kilts. The Scots also have gorgeous accents, haggis and, as previously mentioned, men in kilts. I could go on and on about what makes Scotland the best country in the world but I’ll leave it at that; I will add, however, that, the kilts, alone, won my vote.

Latvia

The Latvians believe that they are the Best country in the world because they have survived invasion after invasion but still speak in their mother tongue and miraculously, have kept their heritage— via ancient stories, fairy-tales, legends and songs—intact. Every year Latvians join together in a magnificent song festival and present their oral history to the world— with more than 10, 000 voices braided together—in song. In a country with a population of just over 2 million, this probably proves the Latvian love of country—and pride in history—more than anything else I can write.

Estonia

Ah … And now to Estonia. Estonians actually don’t think they are the Best country in the world; they know they are. Estonians are free thinkers who don’t join groups of any kind. The Mormons as well as the Boy Scouts—and probably Tupperware— have all but given up on the Estonians. The story is, after early missionaries came and converted as many Estonians as they could, and then left, there were mass migrations to the rivers, where the converted Estonians unbaptized themselves. Estonians are courteous and polite (hence pretending to become Christians prior to returning to their pagan ways) and they are impeccably honest, with a work ethic to die for: Thank you, Estonia, for Skype, TransferWise and the Minox camera—although technically Walter Zapp, the inventor of the Minox spy camera, was born in Latvia, but who really cares, right? Then Walter went on and produced his invention in Germany. Big deal; hardly worth mentioning … Walter did, however, patent his subminiature camera in Estonia. So there you go. It’s yet another claim to fame for Estonia.

Here’s the oddest part of all of this, though: Each country thinks that behind closed doors, everyone else has only the highest regard for them and down deep inside everyone wants to be them.

My daughter Jessica dated a young Estonian man while we were living in Latvia. He came for a visit one weekend and met the family. After a lovely visit he shared this with Jessica as though it was hard for him to admit: “Estonians make fun of Latvians all the time; but I actually really like your stepfather.” To which Jessica laughed and casually replied, “Yeah Latvians make fun of Estonians, all the time, too.”

The young man looked at Jessie, in wide-eyed bewilderment and muttered, “Wow, really? Seriously?” He then sat silently dumbfounded for some time.

For several months after this event our family laughed when we discussed this naïve young man’s reaction to having his world-view shifted. He believed his We’re the best country in the world rhetoric so strongly that he couldn’t imagine anyone making fun of his peeps. He was equally sure that the superior Estonians were making fun of others because these non-Estonians actually were inferior. He was surprised to meet a highly educated, friendly, well travelled Latvian among the dim-witted, poorly groomed, unfriendly folks that he was certain inhabited the rest of the country.

It was with a smile and over many years that I came to understand: There is no Best country in the world. It simply doesn’t exist. It can’t objectively exist.

There are different countries and cultures with different histories— all of them rich, wonderful, sad and tragic. None of them deserve to be demeaned or the punch lines to anyone’s jokes. We all have our strong points and we all need to move forward together—especially now—with open hearts, into this new frontier …

When I arrived in Estonia in 1995, I was certain that I was going to love my adventures but that I would probably be called upon to give up some of my freedoms. I didn’t even know that I thought this until I was speaking to my late mother-in-law, Julie, who asked, “Why on earth would anyone want to leave the freest country in the world to move to a Soviet one?” And my liberal, broadminded, well-intentioned reply was, “It’s just the price one pays to travel and have new experiences.” (Insert shudder) It didn’t cross my mind to ask, “What exactly does freedom mean,” or, “What makes America the freest or best country in the world?” America simply was the freest and best country in the world. It was like gravity; it was beyond question.

After several months in Estonia I came to a shocking conclusion: Estonia was actually the freest country in the world. Hands down. Maybe it was even the best …

We were permitted to drink a beer on the streets or while sitting in the park, any time we wanted to do so. We could sunbathe without clothes—by the riverbank that ran through the middle of town, or sitting in our tall windows—shamelessly facing the sun, and the whole neighbourhood. No one batted an eye; no one even noticed. We could smoke cigarettes in restaurants and train stations. We had good national healthcare. Although we were in a university town, there were no curfews or bans on noise after certain hours. Fireworks were legal and—it turned out—smashing Champaign bottles all over the town on New Year’s Eve was perfectly acceptable.

Initially my new life—sans almost all restrictions, rules and regulations—was spectacular. I loved sipping a cold beer in the park on a warm afternoon. I enjoyed an occasional cigarette, when I wanted one, not when I was in a legal or designated area. I loved feeling the hot sun on my entire body, watching myself turn brown as a berry. Everywhere. This was living! This was freedom.

I was extremely uneasy, however, when I walked across the snow covered Town Square on New Years day, 1996, after having spent New Years Eve celebrating there with hundred’s of others, including more than a fair share of students from the university. The snow was splattered with blood in many places and more than one large spot was actually melted by what must have been a puddle of blood. What had seemed, the night before, like an organized smashing of bottles—which I’d assumed was some customary ritual managed and carefully carried out by some responsible folks (yeah, what was I thinking?)—had actually been a chaotic attempt, by a bunch of drunks, to make a lot of noise. And there had been injuries. Some serious injuries.

After careful thought and consideration I decided to avoid gatherings of students because … well … students were notoriously irresponsible.

I still, however, didn’t see this as a societal problem.

Then one beautiful autumn day, as I sat in the park reading a book, a man walked by me. He was drinking from a bottle—which was perfectly legal—and seemed to be weaving a bit. Suddenly he stopped directly next to me and vomited, splashing the park bench, my book, and me.

And that’s when I formulated the question: What exactly is freedom?

Is allowing everyone the right to drink in public places freedom, when some of us can’t relax in the park without fear of being vomited on? I was responsible. I never drank more than one beer and most definitely didn’t puke on people. But that was me; the man in the park lived by different beliefs and standards than I did. He needed restrictions and rules to keep him in line. I needed those rules to keep me safe from his bodily fluids.

Societies need rules, laws and regulations to guide—and protect the majority of us from—the lowest common denominator. That’s how societies have always worked.

When we say: We have the freest country in the world, that’s meaningless rhetoric. And it’s also literally impossible to do. We don’t want a completely free country: A society where anything goes; where people can vomit on you or smash bottles into your head … I’m pretty certain that this was actually never anyone’s goal.

Estonian laws began changing quickly. Within that year, all smoking was banned; even in the parks. Alcohol was not allowed in public places and various other laws restricted behaviour.

I think most of us were glad to watch the changes happen.

Rather than seeing new legislation and policies as restrictive and stealing our freedom, we saw Estonia as growing and expanding. The government was keeping us safe and allowing us to live in harmony. Although I don’t hold Estonia up as the Best country in the world—since no such country exists—they have my respect and admiration for a job very well done.

America is at a crossroads right now—as is the rest of the world—with some of our issues being exclusively ours, while others we share with our planet. We have some major questions to answer: How important is climate change, gun control, women’s rights to govern their own healthcare and bodies, a cohesive national healthcare system, equal pay for equal jobs, ending corporate control of our government and thereby us, ending racism and all discrimination? How do we see our future? Who are we as a nation?

Is being a Christian nation quite possibly just more of our meaningless rhetoric?

Sadly the most prominent Christian belief of many Americans isn’t “Do unto others.” Nor is it, “Helping the least of these, my brethren…” and most definitely it isn’t “Judge not lest ye be judged.” The predominate Christian belief of many seems to be this: The world is coming to an end. So arm up, batten down the hatches and let it all go to hell in a hand basket … oh yeah, and hope that you personally, cut the mustard and wake up on the right side of the pearly gates. Screw everyone who doesn’t buy your brand of religion because … hey … they’re all goners anyway and (and this one saddens me the most) to hell with this sinful planet—our beautiful home with all of its wonder, abundance, promise and bliss has been diminished to a waiting room for someplace that quite possibly exists only in ancient myths and the human mind … but, regardless, to hell with it all.

Question the rhetoric! We have time to turn this train around but not by following the old models. We must question everything and move forward in a new direction.

Let’s do it. Let’s move out of the box and make a pact to become the best plant in the galaxy! Let’s become the land of the responsible and the loving home to all life and humanity regardless of religion, colour or culture.

We can do it. In fact, it’s way more possible than becoming the freest country in the world… And look how long we’ve been trying to nail that one.

Signing off from my little corner of Planet Earth here in UK.

…And Then I Found My Dance

I stood in my open doorway last night, face immersed in the cool, damp, autumn air, smiling for no real reason, waiting for Egils’ bike light to pierce through the darkness. Our residential street has sparse lighting, so the intense halogen light on the front of his bike announces his arrival several seconds prior to his tired body—clothed in a bright reflective yellow jacket—breaks through the night. Egils bicycles eleven miles to his office and eleven miles home… Twenty-two miles a day, one hundred and ten miles a week… By Friday, he is bone tired and ready for a hot meal, glass of wine and a weekend. Luckily for him it was all standing right behind me in the open doorway; well, the weekend would unfold, but the rest was imminent.

I never stand in the door and wait for anyone; I have no idea why I did last night. Maybe it was the cool night air which, defying the laws of physics, carried the aroma of my smoked haddock chowder, simmering on the stove—along with the comforting smells of old wood and wax that live in our house—down the hallway and out the front door at nose-level; or perhaps it was the sliver of a moon beckoning to my romantic side… then again maybe it just seemed like the perfect way to end a really good day.

As I stood in the doorway I surprised myself by suddenly whispering—like a prayer in church—I live in London! And then, as though saying this once, wasn’t weird enough, I repeated it, louder and slower: This time with a silent wow underscoring it: I… live… in… London…!

And then…

Well, here it gets even more odd, so I’m going to go sideways before I go forward…

The block where we live.

The block where we live. “Our House is a Very, Very, Very Fine House…”

Our Front Door.

Our Front Door With Black and Whilte Tiled Walkway.

Going Sideways

 Our house is a two-story turn-of-the-century English row house in which 7 people reside: On the top floor there’s me, an American, WAS (minus the P which I deleted years ago). I’m the oldest in the house, the only person who currently works from home, the one who continuously turns the thermostat back, grieves for the mice in the wall who are about to be exterminated (they’re just trying to lead a normal life!) and uses more words than necessary to say what needs to be said—at least according to one editor and my Baltic man. Which brings me to Egils, my silent, serious, Latvian man, who speaks 5 to 10 languages (the irony of a silent person speaking multiple languages is not lost on me) and who is probably the most pragmatic of our lot. Egils spends very little time and very few words in jest. He is a master of solutions; generally finding them split seconds after recognizing a problem and then, without invitation or complaint, fixes the problem. Upon moving into this house Egils began tightening loose screws on pots, pans, and hinges, balancing wobbly legs on every piece of furniture and appliance in the house, and oiling anything that squeaked or threatened to do so. In other words: When I hug my man and say “Wow, Babe, are you happy to see me?” and he says, “No that’s a screwdriver in my pocket,” he’s serious.

Egils Coming Down The Stairs After Fixing God-Knows-What…

Egils Coming Down The Stairs After Fixing God-Knows-What…

Shiva—a tall, young immigrant from India who appears completely contented with every aspect of his life, says he will one day return to his homeland and marry (not necessarily in that order)—also lives on our top floor. Although Shiva claims to be a less than excellent cook, the aromas that come from his meals create a Pavlovian response in me, when he even approaches the kitchen.

Also sharing our floor is Chanel: A beautiful, young, dark-skinned English woman whose ancestors came here from The Commonwealth of Dominica, and who reminds me so much of my middle daughter, that I have inadvertently referred to her as Jessie, more than once. Chanel possibly rivals me in wordiness, but unlike me, she mostly uses her mobile phone to do so. Yep, that’s my Jessie… Erm…  (that’s British for “Um”) I mean, Chanel…

Downstairs, Hungarian Anita lives with her Bangladeshi partner Quamrul. Anita has a degree in teaching but works the night shift at MacDonald’s—a typical immigrant’s tale. Quamrul is an entrepreneur who works incredibly long hours but perpetually smiles—even when he looks completely exhausted, which is most of the time. Quamrul is also a fabulous cook but unfortunately I seldom smell his cooking because he and Anita eat close to midnight due to her schedule.

The final downstairs inhabitant is Tommy from Glasgow…  Amazingly, with all of the English as a second language flying around our house, Tommy is the person I find the most difficult to understand. With his first language being Glaswegian (and despite this being closely related to English) I understand roughly 60 percent of what Tommy says. When I asked him, recently, if he had as much trouble understanding me, he looked puzzled, cocked his head dramatically and said, “Huh? What?” Then straightened his head and said, seriously, “Holly, you ken better than ta set yerself up like that, wi’ me, aye?”

I love Tommy’s humor—made even better when delivered in his accent—especially when I understand him.

Our space is a mishmash of cultures, languages and belief systems but we share certain essential qualities: We are all quiet, clean and respectful and these traits have created a safe, comfortable home. I’ve already blogged about home and how I’ve come to define it. And yes, I am now at home here in this late 19th century house in the area called Seven Kings in London.

Our house is quaint with a huge back garden (a yard in USA is called a garden here in UK; I try to do as the Romans do when in Rome) and small front garden with a black and white tiled walkway—that appears to have been born at the same time as the old brick house—leading from the public walkway to our beautifully ornate front door and all of this is located only one (extremely-long) city block from The High Street.

[Informational: In UK, The High Streets are generally happening places, allegedly the site of everything from cool upscale shops to great bargain basements. It was clear to me at first glance, however, that The High Street here in Seven Kings, was going to be a cornucopia of disappointments for me.]

On Friday morning—after spending the last three weeks mastering every appliance and device in our new house, when not organizing the stacks of brown boxes and plastic bags full of stuff that had to be unpacked and then repacked into pretty fabric boxes, burlap bags and newly assembled Ikea flat-pack shelves—I spent over an hour wrestling with writer’s block extraordinaire, before deciding to investigate The High Street, however disappointing it promised to be.

The first block of The High Street, after turning right from my street, consists of several used car lots.

To me, used car lots house collections of abandoned dreams, broken promises, and financial devastation, from which disreputable souls are now attempting to make a profit. There was a time when I could counterbalance those miserable images with passionate backseat encounters and drive-in-movies (AKA the excuse given to parents when the actual goal was passionate backseat encounters). But the Drive-in’s have mostly been bulldozed over and it’s been many years since kids tolerated such inconveniences as climbing over a stick shift or worrying about cops with nightsticks investigating steamy windows… Today young people have sexting, cyber-sex, and their own bedrooms, since most parents are far too busy with Facebook, Twitter and their finances, to actually supervise them …  Anyway, due to changing times and cultures, used cars have lost their charm, in my book, which leaves used car lots looking like cemeteries without enchanting old stones, interesting epitaphs, or trees.

Our Ugly High Street

By No Stretch of Even My Imagination is This a Cool Street, Right?

So browsing the rows of used cars was hardly an uplifting way to begin my High Street investigation … no great surprises there.

I was, however, slightly surprised by one aspect of the used car lots: There were no obvious salespeople poised to ambush anyone pausing long enough to scratch his nose. In fact, between three huge car lots I saw only one woman who appeared to be affiliated with the businesses. She had on a shorter than recommended red dress (given her years and girth) and looked like she was smiling in spite of wet burps. Even if I’d needed a used car I’d have avoided her on principle.

In the absence of aggressive salespeople, however, each lot had a website displayed overhead; implying to me that either customers actually come to them (oh yeah, as if) or they were simply attempting to give the appearance of a marketing infrastructure while actually being money Laundromats. I imagined dodgy web addresses—since they apparently had replaced disingenuous car salesmen—saying things like: honestlythebestcarofyourlife.co.uk or trustmemywifedoes.fancyadrink.co.uk. Factually I didn’t stop to read any of them.

Just past the used car lots were shops selling automotive parts and used tyres (UK for tires; when in Rome, remember?). My favorite shop was called Part Worn Tyres. Personally, I’d have gone with Nearly New Tyres, but far be it from me to impose my cup-half-full version of capitalism on anyone. The abundance of parts and cheap tyres, just past the car lots, seemed to scream—to me anyway—when that best car of your life doesn’t hold up, once you’ve left the parking lot, you have readily available options.

Okay so you get it: this was a bleak and boring walk whose only redemption was not so fresh air and minimal exercise.

There was not a cool, cutting-edge boutique, fancy hair-stylist or even a vintage clothing shop in sight as I continued down The High Street… but it was a glorious autumn day so I walked forward, albeit not in the best mood.

When biking this route earlier, I’d noticed heaps of fruits and vegetables on a long table beneath an awning; overhead a sign—seeming more like a demand than shop name—read: Eat More Fruits and Vegetables. What I hadn’t seen was the actual shop itself—and I use this term loosely. Below the awning was essentially a lean-to—which looked like a slight breeze would be its waterloo—with old wooden planked flooring that wobbled beneath the weight of the shoppers—leading into a gutted, turn-of-the-century English row house that had once looked very much like the one I live in. Realizing that this once grand home had been violated in this way turned my stomach. The beautiful door was long gone as was the old brick and plaster façade. I wanted to cry. The massive space created by the gutted house, however, contained the most amazing produce—many items of which I’d never seen before—and I couldn’t help but explore further.

The Small Cupboard Beneath the Stairs (I Love This Cupboard in Our House) is Now Gone in the Gutted House. How Harry Potterish, Huh?

The Small Cupboard Beneath the Stairs (I Love This Cupboard in Our House) is Now Gone in the Gutted House. How Harry Potterish, Huh?

[Backstory: Frequently when I check out of the local grocery store, a young cashier will hold up a fruit or vegetable and say, “I’m sorry ma’am but what exactly is this?” To which I look at his (or her) pasty white—I’ll have a large coke with that Big-Mac—complexion and reply condescendingly with something like: “That’s an artichoke, Dear; you might try one sometime.”]

I avoided asking what the mysterious fruits and veggies were yesterday, because I don’t like being judged, although—or perhaps because—I’m incredibly skilled at judging.

I walked deeper into what was probably once the living room of the house—Middle-Eastern music growing louder as I pushed through people. And then suddenly I saw her: A tiny, beautiful, bronze-skinned child wearing billowing pants beneath a flowing dress—perhaps 3 or 4 years old—dancing through the crowd as though she were the only person in Seven Kings—or London—or on earth—occasionally lifting a tiny hand upwards towards the heavens and kicking up a small foot behind her.

She was utterly and completely engaged in her dance. In fact she was living in her dance.

Everyone, including me, carefully walked around the small girl, not wanting to interject our consumer energy into her sacred space …

Had Spielberg been directing my day, the little girl would have been in color and the rest of us sepia; she would have danced in slow motion while we quickly filled our shopping bags, talked on mobile phones, worried and judged…

… She had no idea that this shop had once been a grand home. This was, now, simply where her mother bought fruits and vegetables; it was the place that played beautiful music and where she danced… and this place would live in her memory for a lifetime—a safe, warm, welcoming shop with lots of noise and rough planked floors that bounced beneath small feet.

Her innocence made my heart ache for a time in childhood—back before expectations and rampant opinions took over—before I cultivated peculiar adult priorities that kept me looking at my watch and checking my bank accounts. In that moment I suddenly felt naïve and childish as joy poured over me like warm chocolate; and within that awareness of joy, I smiled as I clearly saw myself: in bare feet and a bathing suit, twirling a baton, dancing around the kitchen of my childhood with my sister Jeannine while we sang High HopesAnyone knows an ant can’t—move a rubber tree plant… my legs, feet and soul tingled with the memory.

And I wondered: Why would anyone give a child the message, “You cannot experience bliss anytime you please and you can’t just dance anywhere!” But more importantly: once that child reached an age of reason, why would they continue to believe it?

I skirted the little girl and filled my canvas bag with fresh produce—all mostly identifiable to me—before leaving, with my smile, and walking further down The High Street.

My next stop was a Polish deli where I bought pickles because Egils loves all things Polish, so much so that he studied the language; unfortunately he later informed me that the Polish label on the jar said Swedish Style Pickles. I also bought butter that turned out to be margarine (which we don’t eat) and sauerkraut. It’s hard to go wrong with sauerkraut, although technically it’s German… I said, “dziękuję,” (which means thank you in Polish) to the cashier, as she tallied up my goods. She snapped to attention and smiling, began speaking Polish to me (God I never learn), which left me no choice, but to interrupt her and admit that I’d already used ½ of my Polish vocabulary and the other word was probably inappropriate. She said that I did a fine job delivering my dziękuję before I left. Although I noticed that I’d put the accent on the wrong syllable when she repeated it back to me, which caused me to wonder: How had a poorly pronounced dziękuję led her to believe I was fluent in Polish? But I smiled back at her as I silently blessed her for attempting to connect with me in her mother tongue. Then I walked out the door and rejoined The High Street.

On my glorious yet arduous walk home—lugging several kilos of fresh veggies and fruits, a huge jar of Swedish pickles and a massive jar of sauerkraut—for some reason I began reflecting on my early days in Estonia and a particular cultural misunderstanding that had occurred early on: I’d had several conversations with friends—both Russian and Estonian—where my friends had referred to living in various foreign locations. “When I lived in France, I was almost hit by a car!” or “When we lived in Spain the heat was unbearable.” For months I thought that people residing in Estonia must have suddenly become nomadic and moved all over Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Then one day, after a close friend had related one such story, I asked: “Exactly when did you live in Czech Republic?”

“Oh for two weeks in 1994,” she replied.

I instantly understood: Northern European people use words very sparingly, as I’ve mentioned; in fact they are virtually incapable of indulging in lingual superfluity, like some of us… So their logic prior to putting their story into words would have been: I was in said location for more than a day. I was alive. Ergo: I lived there.

I liked the idea, in theory, of referring to any place I’d ever visited as a place I’d lived. Like seriously, how pretentious and verbose could I get with that one?

“Well, when we lived in Croatia on Krk. “(roll R aggressively, then chuckle) “Ah… yes, those Croatians do keep a tight grip on their vowels, don’t they? So as I was saying, when we lived on Krk—that’s an island, don’t cha know—we so loved the nightlife!” (Smile with faraway look in eye; puff on electronic cigarette protruding from faux silver holder; appear deep in thought)… “But, alas, it couldn’t touch the music scene we enjoyed when living in Prague!”

Okay, so I never actually did it; although I gave it some thought. Clearly… But it was obviously duplicitous for an American with English as a first language to do what comes naturally for Baltic folks; besides it would have cheapened the places in which I actually have lived.

Defining where I live has always been somewhat complicated for me—and more than slightly spiritual; it has become even more so in recent years. I don’t live where I pitch my tent or check into a hotel. I don’t even necessarily live where I pay rent, put my sheets on the bed and cook in the kitchen. I did all of those things in the bedsit from hell, but never did I say, or feel, that I lived there. I spent over a year staying with my dear friend Bette, in the States, but didn’t feel that I lived in her lovely home or neighborhood… This is because I have some rather strict criteria that need to be met before I consider myself living somewhere. Where I live is where I share space with my life mate. It’s also where I find joy and intimate connections with others. Where I live is where I can grow, learn and change because I feel safe … safe to browse through fruits and veggies I can’t name, or try out language skills I don’t have … or stand in a crowd smiling, as every cell in my body remembers a dance I once did in my childhood kitchen … Where I live must also include a home that’s safe enough for me to stand facing an autumn night and smell the air as I smile for no obvious reason and talk out loud to myself …

 Back To Where I Started

 Our house was quiet and clean, with soup simmering on the stove, as I stood in my open doorway last night, and surprised myself by whispering—like a prayer in church—I live in London! And then, as though saying this once, wasn’t weird enough, I repeated it, louder and slower: This time with a silent wow underscoring it: I… live… in… London…! And then, right there on the black and white tiled walkway that runs from my door to the sidewalk—beneath a sliver of a moon—I danced.

Signing off from London with a wee dance!

A Houseless Adventurer Defines Home

The following is a blog I wrote last April, just prior to receiving my UK visa and returning to my Principal Home where I reunited with my Safe Man. At the time I wrote this I decided it was too personal and possibly too rambling to post. After returning to Scotland, relocating to London, spending a month in a rented room—which, while it housed my body, was never my home—and a short Face Book chat with Taylor Keitt about giving ourselves permission to rejoice in our inner life experiences in spite of clearly not meeting societal expectations … I was drawn back to this blog and decided to slightly rework and post it:

A Houseless Adventurer Defines Home

(Written in April 2013)

I‘m blogging on the road, so to speak. Essentially I’ve been on the road for 3 and 1/2 years.

As we made our final departure from our home in Riga our cat, Bianca, promised to wait for our return.

As we made our final departure from our home in Riga our cat, Bianca, promised to wait for our return.

Within my better moments I see myself as an adventurer and explorer of countries and lifestyles; a questioner of the status quo, a non-conforming free spirit … In my occasional pathetic, self-indulgent moments, I perceive myself as someone who’s made some really whacky choices and, although had an incredible life, has currently, landed, face first in the thicket: bruised, battered and homeless

Wait a minute; I’ll be right back. I’d no sooner written the word homeless than I felt compelled to look up the word home.

I’m back … Home: Residence. Birthplace. Place of origin of something. Headquarters. Safe place. These are Microsoft Word definitions. There were others, but I liked Safe Place so I stopped there.

Okay; clearly I have never been homeless; I have actually been blessed with many homes or Safe Places in spite of the fact that I don’t actually have my own house to live in, at the moment.

I’m in Philadelphia, today, with my precious daughter Jessica, after staying with my dear son, Jonathan, and his wife, Emily, for several days; followed by time spent with my wonderful daughter Morgan, her husband Dave and their beautiful, precocious, four-year-old daughter, Ava, all in Virginia.

Ava spent the better part of one afternoon, during my stay, planning how she would celebrate my life after I’d died; this after watching a Lavar Burton video, which I assumed, was created to help kids grieve for loved ones who had already passed on. Ava, however, interpreted it as a toolkit for kids to explore how they’re going to feel when this event occurs. She needed to focus on a specific relative that might be heading in that direction and I was her first choice—she said my proximity (sitting on the bed next to her) and gray hair were the criteria. In spite of my exhaustive effort to point out that her other grandma was my senior by 20 years and still going strong, Ava insisted on mourning my passing: “And I’ll remember how you cooked that oatmeal with berries and nuts in the mornings…” She said, her eyes welling up—neglecting to mention that she actually doesn’t like my oatmeal … I was touched that she chose to share how much she would miss me when my time came although slightly disturbed with the sharing of her vivid imaginings of my demise, including a run down of the guest list for my memorial service—this after some rather disconcerting questions about the alternatives to funerals and burials … But she did seem better mannered and a bit more considerate towards me after her faux-grieving and paying tribute to me …

I spent the better part of 20 years, living and raising my family in Loudoun County, Virginia; so spending time with my children and grandchild in Virginia is always like returning home.

My son Jon and his wife, Emily's home on the mountain.

My son Jon and his wife, Emily’s home on the mountain.

I lived most of my childhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia, so in many ways it feels like I’m home here in Philly, too.

I went to boarding school outside of Reading, Pennsylvania, where my brother, Tim and his wife, Mia, now live; so enjoying a Safe Place with them, for many months over the past 3 years, was like being home on many levels.

I have two major homes in Silver Spring, Maryland and Sleepy Creek West Virginia with my long(est)-term friend, Bette [*note the skillful—although clunky—way I avoided using the term oldest friend].  Bette and I are heading to a Safe Place in Coco Beach, Florida, in a few weeks to spend time in the home of another dear friend, Brenda …

Relaxing by the fire at Sleepy Creek WV.

Relaxing by the fire at Sleepy Creek WV.

Hot-tubbing in Cocoa Beach, at Brenda's; feeling quite at home, I must say...

Hot-tubbing in Cocoa Beach, at Brenda’s; feeling quite at home, I must say…

Last year Brenda and I shared a Safe Place onboard a ship that sailed along the Alaskan border for 2 weeks … What an amazing and blessed adventure that was!

A dining hall on the ship that Brenda and I cruised on.

A dining hall on the ship that Brenda and I cruised on.

For years I lived in a tiny Safe Place in Tartu, Estonia. I still maintain a home in Riga, Latvia—albeit with renters currently living in it. I have yet another home in Stirling, Scotland. This particular Safe Place includes the warm body and smile of my Safe Man, most of my clothes and my bicycle. Quite honestly the Stirling, Scotland Place, with The Safe Man, my clothes and bike, trumps all other homes; I consider this my Principal Safe Place at this moment.

Looking down the stairs in our Safe Place in Riga, Latvia. I can still smell my plants.

Looking down the stairs in our Safe Place in Riga, Latvia. I can still smell my plants.

My Safe Man coming through the garden gate in our Safe Place in Scotland.

My Safe Man coming through the garden gate in our Safe Place in Scotland.

I’ve spent the last 18 years of my life falling in love with places, moving there, settling in, creating a home for myself and remaining there until something or someone disrupted my Safe Place; then I moved on. But there was always one location—one Safe Place, one residence—that I called my home.

This is my family home in upstate Pennsylvania. This has always been both a house and a home to me … It’s where my dear father grew up and where he passed away. It’s hard to think of this as only a structure because of the years of love and history that live within it.

The past 3 years—of splitting my life between the USA and UK—however, have caused me to redefine the meaning of home because I haven’t had one actual place of my own.

My first step, in redefining home—was to differentiate between a house, which is a stationary, material structure, and home, which I’ve decided, is a Safe Place and in my case, needs to be an inner condition.  So, in dire need of a home, I set out to find my inner Safe Place: That inner place of well-being where I could rest, relax and experience joy and peace of mind despite waking up in different beds— frequently not knowing know where I am for several seconds after opening my eyes—as well as living out of other people’s dresser drawers and my suitcase…  I needed to live in a state of joy and gratitude even when my primary connection with my man was hearing his voice through speakers and touching his face on a computer screen …

Whoops! I came dangerously close to a pathetic self-indulgent moment there; did you feel it?

That’s because I constantly struggle with the downright humiliation of not having my own house, in spite of having a home—albeit within myself; because one of the most powerful cultural messages our society has whispered in our ear since the day we were born is: Your personal worth as a human being lies within your having possessions; needless to say a home is pretty much at the top of that list—and our society is most definitely not referring to a warm Safe Place in our soul.

I found the home that lived within me but needed to consciously connect with it while detaching from the importance of having a house; it had to be this way given where my life choices had taken me. I’ve frequently wondered, What was I thinking?  when looking back on my life. But within the process of redefining Home, I clearly saw that I needed to do whatever it took to bring me face to face with this realization: A home simply can’t be a specific building or location because those things are destructible: Places can collapse economically or politically, houses can burn down, or be lost during natural disasters. But the Safe Place that lives within me—where I embrace all of humanity, and all that exists on this planet; that place where I feel joy simply because I’m alive—travels with me and is indestructible.

I have recently been reflecting on an extended camping trip that Egils and I took in 2008, traveling throughout South Eastern Europe.  We happily drove from country to country in our tiny car and made our home in a small tent for over a month, peeking out through our tent flaps and through our car windows into the lives and cultures of others.

We lived in this small tent when not biking or driving, for 5 weeks. It was wonderful, exhilarating, and challenging. Moving back into the other world of  stone walls and glass windows was very difficult.

We lived in this small tent when not biking or driving, for 5 weeks. It was wonderful, exhilarating, and challenging. Moving back into the other world of stone walls and glass windows was very difficult.

As we traveled through the various countries we were amazed at the resilience of humanity; how, when faced with enormous challenges—like the recently war-torn former Yugoslavia or the once economically devastated Romania—people survived, and even flourished… But what surprised me the most was that people appeared to be genuinely celebrating life—in spite of having only their very basic material needs met. It seemed that societies recovering from devastation, have different expectations regarding what their lives should look like, leaving people free to live as best they can without pressure to reach a higher standard. I looked on in amazement at people who seemed genuinely happy to be alive in spite of—by western standards—extremely harsh living conditions. And a part of me felt sad for them, because at that time I believed that having, at least some material wealth was necessary to sustain joy.

A man enjoys a smoke out of his window. When I asked if I could take his picture he belly laughed and shook his head wildly. This was in a war-torn area of Croatia.

A man enjoys a smoke out of his window. When I asked if I could take his picture he belly laughed and shook his head wildly. This was in a war-torn area of Croatia.

People dancing and celebrating in what appeared to be a wedding. We could hear the music and laughter even after we drove away.

People dancing and celebrating in what appeared to be a wedding. We could hear the music and laughter even after we drove away.

My postman friend Avto once said to me: “Life is just a series of habits. If something disrupts those habits our life feels difficult at first. But that’s only because we have to change our habits…  Once you’ve done that you can get back to enjoying life.” This was in response to my incessant complaining about having to heat water for our baths during the 3 summer months that Estonia turned off the hot water supply. Avto’s words turned out to be true. Within a month, we had an accepted routine that allowed us to bathe without a second thought and we quickly returned to enjoying life.

If our quality of life is measured by joy, satisfaction and feeling safe and connected to our world and one another, could it be that those who reside in their inner Safe Place—living simpler, materially minimal lives—might actually be having a better time than those of us who value the house above the home?

Addendum to my April blog

It would be hypocritical of me not to state: I thoroughly intend to have a house again. I am not implying, for one second that a material place to call home has no value to me. But one of my greatest wishes is that I might grasp, on a cellular level, the difference between a house and a home. I wish to bask in the joy of my inner Safe Place as I sip fine wine in my house …

But I have another wish in life—are you reading this one day in the future Ava?—at my memorial service, someday far down the road, I hope someone will say: Holly carried her home inside of her and she left a little of her home—a Safe Place—everywhere she went.

Signing off—with love—from my beautiful new home in London!

How To Create and Exacerbate Embarrassing Moments

I entered a stream-of-consciousness the other night, after a short Facebook exchange with George Tiller, about embarrassing moments in our lives. George and I are people of a certain age and, as such, we admitted to having quite an arsenal of humiliating memories.

What I failed to share on Facebook, attempting to maintain a bit of dignity (which I am now abandoning) was this: I’ve actually created two such embarrassing moments in as many weeks. As I was falling asleep, that night, what hit me pretty much out of the blue (getting back to the stream-of-consciousness) was how Righteous Indignation was a key component in both of these events. I’ve always blamed my Christian upbringing for my attachment to Righteous Indignation… because… well, assigning blame to something outside of myself has always seemed like a better alternative than taking personal responsibility. I was taught from an early age that Jesus’ temper tantrum in the Temple—that big scene He made, one Sabbath afternoon, regarding the moneychangers—was perfectly okay because he was displaying Righteous Indignation. This term roughly translates to: Throwing tables around, yelling like a banshee, and making whips out of miscellaneous ropes and cords prior to chasing people around with these weapons, and is completely appropriate; but only when you’re in the right.

So certainly looking down one’s nose and copping a major attitude towards other’s is okay… I mean if I’m in the right and they’re not…  let’s be real here: When my retaliation, to something wrong, includes a few sneers and an attitude but excludes whips, flying tables and verbal abuse … Honestly that’s totally righteous, right?

So factually you’re not entitled to Righteous Indignation unless you’re right. But since I go through life thinking I’m right … Don’t we all? Does anyone wake up in the morning and say, “I think for a change, I’ll do everything wrong, today?”

Okay, so since I go through life believing I’m right, Righteous Indignation is perpetually just one-step-on-a-banana-peel away…

If you’re confused just read on. I thoroughly intend to pull this blog together. Just consider this post a kind of stream-of-consciousness…

 So let’s cut to my first humiliation two weeks ago

[My last blog covered our leaving the village of Fallin, Scotland, to settle in London; a gut-wrenching event for Jim, Thilda, Egils and me. For more details see my last blog this is not a plug, I just don’t want to waste a lot of time boring regular readers.]

Early on Sunday morning—two weeks ago—we left our familiar nest in Fallin and headed south towards London—me sobbing and Egils tearful. We had barely gotten on the road, however, when we decided to stop and buy food for the drive to save on restaurant costs. I was going to wait in the car but realized that I had not used the bathroom at home prior to getting on the road and it was going to be a seven-hour drive.

Wiping my eyes and stifling my sobs I followed Egils into the shop, making a sharp right turn into the Women’s Room. When I walked into the empty room I was immediately looking at an out-of-order sign on the first stall so I entered the second stall. When I came out and looked to my right, I saw a man standing against a far wall, obviously relieving himself. My thought process was “What in the world is that man doing in the Women’s Room?” Then the Righteous Indignation kicked in, “Oh God, he’s probably some drunk who tied one on last night and can hardly see this morning… then he wandered in here…” I stuck my nose up in the air as I thought (I kid you not), “But what the hell are those things, that look like urinals, on the wall next to that drunk guy? And why in the world would they put them in a Women’s Room?” Even what I was clearly seeing, with my own two eyes, was being over-ridden by my belief that I was right. I just knew I was in the Women’s Room!

In all fairness to myself, these thoughts happened within a split second; but I swear to you, my mind fully formulated these exact thoughts. And it was only when another, quite sober looking gentleman, walked into the Women’s Room and looked at me in utter shock (well, yeah!) that the light dawned and I muttered—absolutely involuntarily—“Oh, shit! Sorry!”

I walked slowly from the Men’s Room, leaving behind me the roaring laughter of two men.

Before paddling further down this stream-of-consciousness, a little background is necessary

[Quite honestly, I had not wanted to admit to some of what I am about to write but I think I need to do so… It’s kind of a purge.]

Colors and textures adorn the street where I live

Colors and textures adorn the street where I live

As do families of all shapes and sizes …

As do families of all shapes and sizes …

I live in an amazing neighborhood in the East End of London. I’ve never lived in a more colorful, interesting, aromatic setting. We have fresh fruits and vegetables galore, fabulous ethnic restaurants, and beautiful fabric shops that include in-house seamstresses and tailors. Merchants often stand in front of their shops smiling and speaking to one another and to passersby. The reason for the abundant beauty, texture and diversity in my life is that my neighborhood is almost exclusively comprised of Middle-Eastern immigrants from various countries and cultures but generally sharing a religion.

Beautiful little faces also grace my street

Beautiful little faces also grace my street

... And fruits and vegetables

… And fruits and vegetables

... And merchants and sellers of all things imaginable

… And merchants and sellers of all things imaginable

There is also a mosque on my street.

Now here is the part that I hate owning: I frequently feel uncomfortable walking on the street without my head covered, let alone wearing cool/revealing summer clothes because I fear that my neighbors consider me an infidel. I have, inadvertently, turned the dialogue in my own head into a we/they conversation, with very little assistance from my neighbors. Honestly, I blame the fear and hate mongers: CNN, Fox News et al…  because… well… because it’s a lot easier than blaming myself, damn it!

And onward to my next humiliation

 A few days ago I realized that I needed to submit the paperwork for my long-term UK Visa; this would include a passport photo that I didn’t have. I went online and found a place that appeared to do these photos and decided to walk there, as opposed to biking, because it was a heavy-traffic street without bike lanes.

I don’t have a lot of clothes with me, here in London, as we haven’t entirely moved out of Fallin (Scotland) yet. But within my scarce inventory of clothes there was a summer dress that Thilda had given me as a going-away present: A beautiful, long, sheer, loosely fitting, sleeveless, dress with tiny buttons from the neck all the way down to just above the ankles. This dress seemed modest enough for my neighborhood, but cool enough for the day, albeit a bit more formal than I normally would have worn for an afternoon walk in the city. So I felt that I stood out a little, but given my limited choices, this dress seemed like a good compromise; to be on the safe side I wore a camisole beneath the dress.  I finished the outfit off with a shoulder bag slung around my neck and over my shoulder for my mobile phone, passport and cash.

It was a particularly hot day and I was already out-of-sorts with the heat when I realized that I was going to end up walking, not two but closer to three miles, in the heat, since the place I’d thought did passport pictures, didn’t, but a Middle-Eastern market several blocks further on, did.

Exhausted and overheated I entered the market, suddenly realizing that A.) I wasn’t in a small minority; I was the only woman without my head covered (many were veiled) and B.) Virtually everyone was staring at me with that look.

All I could see were judgmental eyes, shaming and blaming …

I became livid. Let’s hold the heat responsible. That’s far less painful than … Well … than the alternative.

I held my head high and walked through that market like Joan of Arc on a mission from God. I was free to dress as I wanted and yet hadn’t I tried to accommodate my neighbors by dressing modestly? I don’t like any religions so why should I bow to Islam, just because I accidentally rented a flat in a Muslim neighborhood?

I was seething with Righteous Indignation that hot afternoon as I walked through the market of rubbernecking men and women and then into the shop where they would take my picture. I was close to combusting when the man behind the counter gave me a number and told me to wait my turn. But I came dangerously close to breaking Jesus in the temple as I noticed him staring down at me with that look

Then glancing down …

I saw that my shoulder bag had swished and swayed across the tiny buttons on the front of my modest summer dress, enough times to unbutton every single little button from my neck to just below my navel.

So there I stood in an open front dress, camisole, and exposed bellybutton.  With an attitude. In the market.

I later realized the camisole was why I didn’t feel a breeze as the buttons began popping open …

As I discreetly buttoned myself up, my thoughts joined the real world: Those looks weren’t shaming and blaming, saying, “Look at that infidel without her head covered.” They were, instead saying:  “Oh Dear Allah, does that woman know that she’s flashing all of London?”

So here’s my primary point: When we go through life with cast-in-concrete-beliefs like “I’m always right!” or “It’s us against them,” or “I need to judge this situation and have an opinion on it,” we create fertile ground for seeds of embarrassment, as well as hatred and separation, to grow, leaving little room for, self-awareness, compassion, and understanding, to thrive.

The reality is we are one family sharing this neighborhood, this city, this island, and this planet. Thinking otherwise is madness… But yet we’re surrounded by the mad message that we are separate from one another and we need to be frightened and protect ourselves … Look at our political systems, listen to our leaders, the media, religion… The same fearful messages day in and day out. But what if that’s all concocted and unreal? And what if the cure to the madness lies within us—you and me—and our choices as to what we want to harbor in our souls, which in turn dictates what we see?

My secondary points are these: 1.) Never wear an around-the-neck-and-over-the-shoulder-bag with a button-up dress and 2.) Always double check which restroom you’re entering.

Signing off—with love—from the East End.

This is the view as I look out my window and sign off—with love!

This is the view as I look out my window and sign off—with love!

My Name is Holly and I am a Paradigm Shift Junky (Alternative Title) But London? Really?

Years ago, my mother-law Julie, announced to my husband John and I, that she had worked very hard to get rid of any accent.

“You mean within your associates and friends, here, in New York,” John said, assuming he was stating the obvious.

No, I mean I have no ac-cent at awl. I speak per-fect English with no accent what-so-evah,” she clarified, distinctly enunciating each syllable and letter (other than the final R in whatsoever).

I quickly decided to forgo asking how a South Carolinian or Texan might respond to her comment and reached straight for the big guns: “But what about speaking to people from England? You would certainly have an accent to them,” I said, watching for the veil to lift.

She chuckled. “You’re kidding, right? Everyone knows that the English have accents! That’s why they call it a British accent.” Julie looked at John with an amused: Wow, I think she was serious expression.

So much for any acknowledgment of The King or Queen’s English …

I must say, in all honesty, that Julie was a dichotomy: An intelligent, well-read, remarkably liberal woman (qualities that I adored in her); she was also a stubborn little Taurus that resisted change like it was the plague. The youngest child of Italian immigrants—who spoke very little English—Julie was a proud American, who refused to learn her parents’ mother tongue, communicating with them through her older siblings, instead. I am certain that she worked diligently to lose any suggestion of Italian inflections or traces of a guttural New York accent, developing instead, a beautifully refined New York accent.

But with all of her wonderful qualities, Julie’s world-views were limited to … well … to her world. And she liked it that way. Julie happily curled up in her comfort zone with her stories (soap operas) and her daily routines (perpetually cleaning and fastidiously organizing her life). Never a rampant consumer—perhaps leftover values from her immigrant parents—Julie lived very simply. I greatly admired that, in her, as well.

For years John and I joked that his mother kept a low profile hoping that Fate would overlook her and spare her any bad blows.

This was not, however, to be her destiny.

Julie buried her first husband before her 30th birthday and was left with two young boys to raise; later she buried her second husband. Her youngest son, John, passed away suddenly one day after his 51st birthday, as Julie stood by his bedside. She buried all of her siblings and nursed her older brother through a horrible death …  I watched changes and tragedies occur in her life in spite of her desire to stay within her comfort zone. But I witnessed more than just challenges. I watched Julie consistently twist, turn, bend and surrender to the most difficult times—ultimately embracing and accepting what life gave her with grace and dignity. And as she did, her paradigms shifted—broadening her world-views—with each challenge that she survived.

After Julie’s youngest son, John, my husband, passed away in 1993, I entered some paradigm shifts of my own. In fact I seemed to shift on a cellular level, overnight, as did my basic values in life.

Material possessions lost all meaning to me and I became almost obsessed with traveling light. As horribly as I grieved for my lost mate, I suddenly enjoyed being alone with myself; something I’d never done before … I also began waking before dawn to watch the sun come up, after being a late sleeper all my life. But perhaps the greatest shift was ending all affiliations with churches and religion but seeing Divinity in everything.

In the same way that Julie believed that she had no accent, prior to Jon’s death I had believed: spirituality was tantamount to religion, the-larger-the-house the-happier-the-occupant, and being alone was synonymous with being lonely. Once these fundamental beliefs unraveled, I began questioning everything.

I wanted to understand more about life, but quickly came to the not-exactly-profound realization that my understandings were always going to be limited by my world-views, which were limited by my … well … by my relatively small world.

The problem is: It’s difficult to question principles that you don’t even realize you’re accepting.

How could I question the indisputable laws of the world I lived in without seeing that world from elsewhere. I hated being hurled from the world of wife to that of widow—But I loved the shifts in consciousness.

It appeared that changing my world-view probably entailed changing my world …

So I changed my world.

I chopped off my hair, got rid of almost everything I owned, then packed up what little was left and moved, with my two little girls, to Eastern Europe. I bought a bike and learned the public transportation systems. I bought a one bedroom flat where I lived happily with my daughters. I met a new life-mate who happened to be Latvian …

One absolute consistency in my life has been the continuous slamming shut of doors while others came crashing open—creating endless surprises and infinite possibilities. And I ran through those newly opened doors full speed … Sometimes to my obvious credit and sometimes … well … not so much.

The bottom line is: With every one of these changes—I became aware of new ways to perceive life and I savored and delighted in every single one of those Aha moments.

In fact, I became a paradigm shift junky.

I moved forward, forever searching for new doors leading me to new dimensions. Camping under an open sky for weeks on end in different countries was a quick fix but moving into, and setting up homes in different countries—allowing time to crawl inside of these new environments and study them from the inside out—worked even better. Choosing a life partner from an entirely different culture was a major, out-of-this-world, eye-opening … let’s just say I’m still shifting …

So here’s a premise for a sitcom: A demonstrative, romantic, American and a pragmatic, highly self-disciplined, Latvian decide to make a life together. She wears tie-dyes and goes barefoot in winter; he speaks 5 languages and reads instruction manuals to air mattresses, just in case. She lives in her heart, he in his head. Her heat captivates him; his ice keeps her from self-combusting…

Okay, so that’s my life … although there have been many times the two —my life and a sitcom—were indistinguishable from one another. At other times I’ve lived within a Dostoyevsky tragedy.

A few mornings ago I groggily listened as Egils read the morning news. I heard: “Same six couples queue to say I Do in New Zealand.”

“Wow, is it like a hobby for those same six couples? I wonder how often they queue, weekly, daily …?” I asked, while thinking What a strange pastime …

“Same-sex,” Egils dryly clarified. He stopped seeing the humor in these moments many years ago; I on the other hand I still get a chuckle from them, especially in the wee morning hours.

When Latvia collapsed into a recession extraordinaire in 2009 and we scurried west to Scotland, we lived inside of a paradigm shift for months.

Essentially a Scottish family adopted us. Jim and Thilda Syme taught us how to survive in Scotland with gentle nudges like: “You can’t call that a fanny-pack here in Scotland, at least not on the street!” And the not so gentle: “It’s called Haggis; you’re in Scotland. Who cares what’s in it. Eat it.”

They fed us, watered us, advised us, and never once asked how much longer we were going to stay, over the four years that we lived with them. And we connected in a most astonishing way. I believe, given the love that we developed between us, in spite of our incredible differences, we were and truly are soul mates.

While living with Jim and Thilda, we traveled throughout Scotland, falling in love with the country, as well: The Highlands, the lochs, the people …  Returning home after each adventure to one of Jim’s hot meals, a cozy house and good friends—our new family, actually.

I am tearing up as I write this …

If there is a geographical equivalent to soul mate, Scotland is that to us: our Mother, our solace, our emotional safety net—and she came to us complete with a loving family to watch over us.

What Scotland did not offer, however—in spite of our most diligent efforts to find it—was viable, long-term financial stability. We free-lanced for years and stayed afloat—supporting ourselves and keeping our property in Latvia off the auction block—with a little left over for fuel to travel. We were blessed, well beyond our expectations. But we both knew that, with our ages, we needed more security.

I have to admit that while the first 3 years of our life in Scotland were full of new understandings and shifts in consciousness, we had, more recently, become very comfortable in every way but the financial security bit. On some level of my being, I wonder if I was planning my next challenge—my next paradigm shift op …

With our precious granddaughter, Sophia’s 4th birthday in sight, near the end of July, we made our preparations to make the 5-hour drive south to Nottingham. During the week, in mid-July, that we spent getting ready, Egils received an email: Would he consider interviewing for a job in London?

After countless jobs falling through—some of which had even included interviews—neither of us felt much more than a passing sense of the fortuitousness: This interview could be set for the Monday following Sophia’s birthday.  This meant a 2 1/2 hour jaunt down to London and Egils would have another interview under his belt and possibly a new company to freelance for. We wouldn’t have made a special trip down to London just for another interview but …

On July 22nd Egils drove to London and interviewed for the position. He received a call on July 23rd: Could he begin work on the following Monday, July 29th?

A job in London, aside from coming with a substantial salary, is a coup for any designer. For people, like us, who had been praying for a job that could even modestly sustain them, this job popped through the open doors of heaven.

There was only one hitch … For anyone geographically challenge, I will now explain: London is nowhere near Scotland. London is, in fact, many, many hours away from the Highlands, the lochs, Jim’s hot meals or any of the Syme family.

Culturally, London is light-years away from all of the above.

Egils relocated to London immediately. I stayed in Nottingham for two weeks while he found a bedsit in the East End of London for us to move into.

Bedsits

For any reader not familiar with this term, I wasn’t familiar with the concept of a bedsit, either, prior to moving into one. Apparently this is a quaint term used to describe a shithole that houses 7-10 people, with one incredibly filthy bath and one equally disgusting toilet. You have no idea how quickly a cold shower wakes you up in the morning… The stove has only one working burner but the good news is that the water leaking from the upstairs faucet into the kitchen doesn’t fall onto that one working burner. There is a broken smoke detector dangling from the ceiling, in the common hallway, that reminds us of the front door, which is kept locked, and requires a key to open; I imagine finding the key and fitting it into the lock in the midst of a fire would be nearly impossible. This particular bedsit was advertised for one price but when the burley Spanish guy shows up demanding more money I fork it over.

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This is me trying to sleep, the first night in the bedsit. This is without exaggeration the lumpiest mattress I’ve ever slept on. Ah, yes, a night to remember…

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Egils had the right idea. He avoided the bed and stayed on the computer half of that first night.

And the paradigm shifts are almost audible.

Swoosh …There goes another one as I realize, “Wow the adrenalin rush of biking in London traffic all but obliterates the depression I feel about living in the bedsit!”

This is probably the time to say: We found a beautiful new place to move into and will leave our East End bedsit in 10 days.

But living here in the East End brought with it some great realizations:

When you’re with someone you love you can laugh at almost anything—not excluding checking the bed and each other’s heads for bugs—none found, remarkably.

Vigorous exercise can clear away almost all thoughts of revenge toward … oh let’s say, for instance … unscrupulous slumlords and their lackeys. I did say almost right?

There is always a silver lining. Always. Sometimes it’s looking back at us through the lenses of our cameras on a sunny afternoon in Hyde Park and sometimes it’s in the smile of a fellow bedsit inhabitant when she says, “I am so happy you moved in!” after we cleaned and put boxes of tea bags out for house consumption.

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I snapped this picture as I stood looking through a window at The Tate Modern Gallery. Within this moment all was right in my world.

But maybe the greatest realization is this: Nowhere is too horrible to break us in half if we twist, turn, bend and surrendered to whatever comes our way … It’s how we refuse to be broken …

So here I am in London, awaiting my move in 10 days, writing this blog with at least some of my American sensibilities still intact and clearly doing so with my American accent.

If I had one wish, it would be that I would learn to love London with all of its energy and culture. I would wake up every morning blessing this city; its people and its culture and that would include its seedy underbelly, bedsits, slumlords, and traffic.

I don’t want to spend the next few years pining away for Scotland’s clean fresh air, sparkling water and the Syme family … I truly want to move forward, learning, appreciating and experiencing.

I still dream of Scotland with her clear air and sparkling lochs. Who wouldn't?

I still dream of Scotland with her clear air and sparkling lochs. Who wouldn’t?

I’m not quite there yet but I’m shifting as I write.

I know that I create these things in my life and I know, in time, London will feel familiar if not like home … It’s who I’ve been for years now and how I’ve rolled.

I thrive on change and reinvention…

But, London? Really?

Post Scriptum

I do believe that I am entering a recovery period in my addiction—or perhaps paradigm shifts can be instigated with slightly less drama. I’m working on it. But for now the plan is, we will stay in London, save every penny possible and return home to Scotland to retire in the foreseeable future.

Signing off now from London with love~

I’ve Been Gone For A While But Wait Until You Hear Why…

Since my last blog I received my UK visa!

Wait.

Even with that exclamation mark this sentence doesn’t begin to reflect the monumental nature of the event: Receiving my UK visa …. And  I will not stoop to a double exclamation mark. I have way too many English Majors in my life, who keep tabs on me, for such faux pas….

Perhaps my blogs should come with a disclaimer; something along the lines of the one on my rearview mirror: Images in print appear much smaller than in my reality!

Okay let’s start over.

In April of this year, I received a UK visa after Egils and I worked towards that end for 3 1/2  long years of our lives.  UK law requires that anyone coming from beyond the European Union borders (that would be me) must have a sponsor (that would be Egils) who can adequately (financially) support him/herself as well as the person being sponsored. The UK government is unaware that people coming from the former Soviet countries (namely: Egils and I) can live on air, so the amount of financial stability that they required was um… ridiculous, by our standards.

Screen goes wavy then white and we fade into a backstory…. I’ve been dabbling in video recently.

It’s July, 2009, I’ve lived in Latvia for almost a decade with my Latvian partner, Egils. Both of us received slashes in our, already pathetic, salaries prior to all paychecks ending, a few months ago. We have gone through most of our savings. Every day one of our friends or associates leaves Latvia. The grocery stores’ supplies are dwindling. My close American friend of more than 40 years, Bette, says gently, during a Skype talk, “You have to leave. You don’t really have a choice. I’ll help you, but you must go. Now.”

I’ve been denying this obvious fact for almost a year. But within this moment, I know she’s right. We must leave.

I apply for a UK visa, based on what’s left of our paltry savings,  123 online job applications that Egils has submitted for jobs in UK, and a heartfelt plea to return to the land of my great-grandparents.

A week later I receive my visa application back with a “WTF Woman! You can’t seriously think we’re going to let you reenter the sacred land that your ancestors  abandoned 100 years ago, based on a few bucks in an Eastern European bank account and some auto-response replies to online job applications!”

The official wording is “Visa Denied” but in retrospect, I totally know what they wanted to say.

We spend less than a month packing our small car, renting our home, and finding keepers for our cats, before fleeing our home in Latvia, in August, and arriving in Scotland one week later.

Egils enters the UK workforce on the bottom rung of the ladder, trying to make enough money to sponsor me. His masters degree, rich work experience,  fluency in multiple languages, and strong work ethic are of almost no value. He has an accent. He’s unfamiliar with local culture and traditions. He’s come here, uninvited, from a poverty stricken country, at a time when local people are scrambling for the few remaining jobs in the midst of their own recession.

He takes any and every job that comes his way: he works with disabled people, hangs banners over kiosks, scrapes old signage off walls and applies new, drives people to and from the airports…. I help when I can but have no legal rights to work without a visa.

Our time together, in Scotland, is spent in a rented room with the Syme family in a small village in Stirlingshire—the gateway to The Highlands. The Symes become our Scottish family. On good days they are our safety net; on bad days, our guardian angels.

In spite of the Syme family’s boundless hospitality and our endless efforts to make money, I am forced to leave UK 6 months after we arrive because I am an American without a UK visa.

This  6-months-in-UK-6-months-in-USA  requirement continues for 3 1/2 years. Ultimately Egils and I live separately for more than 2  of those 3 1/2 years—him working odd jobs and looking for full-time employment in UK, while I live in the USA with my dear friend Bette ( yes, we are still best friends!) and her husband, Mike.

This gave me more than 2 years of time in the USA to visit with my adult children: Morgan, Debra, Jonathan and Jessica, as well as my grand-babies. I had months  with my brother Tim, his wife and my dear friend, Mia, and their clan—more time than we’ve ever shared in our adult incarnation; what a blessing! I had time with my dear sisters Jeannine and Heather and their clans. I traveled from Coudersport, PA—where I spent time time with my physically and mentally declining mother and her amazing, young-at-heart, sisters—to Cocoa Beach, Florida where I reunited with my dear friend and boarding school roommate, Brenda (and her man, Bert). Brenda and I also cruised to Alaska, walked the ship’s deck in the (nearly) midnight sun and witnessed the birth of an otter on an iceberg.

Many aspects of these past 3 years were miraculous— rewarding in so many ways and on so many levels of my being…. But they were also years of separation from my beloved partner; they were years of incredible insecurity; they were times of learning the true meaning of faith. They were times that taught us the essence of what it means to be an immigrant: A person with many homes, while lacking a real home. They were times that challenged me—challenged us—to the core.

I have many  other visas and each picture tells a story: I’m over-the-moon to be going to Russia and experience a country I never thought I’d see, in early 1993…. I’m trying to smile, as I have finally succeeded in getting an Estonian visa, but my eyes are bloodshot. It is the week my father died … I have a lopsided smile in my next Estonian visa. I came straight from the dentist’s office with a numb, paralyzed jaw (but the appointment with the photographer had been hard to get)… I’m smiling like I have a secret in my first Latvian Visa. I am in those first days of new love with my partner….

My UK visa picture is quite different from any of the others. I am looking pleadingly, at the camera. I look exhausted and like I’ve been crying for years… I’ve been through heart failure. I’ve been away from my man for… it feels like forever. I’ve been living on the edge for way too long….

There were good times in these past 3 1/2 years. In fact there were great times that I wouldn’t exchange for anything. But there were some godawful, I-can’t-believe-I-lived-through-them times as well.

But now they live only as memories.

Because…

I got my UK visa!!

Now let me address the above statement: I’ve been dabbling in video recently…

After 1 & 1/2 years of working on a video, I’ve now completed it and posted it on YouTube! I am pleased and honored to share this with you.

In Search of Home: A photographic essay of our journey from Eastern Europe to Scotland. I really hope you’ll enjoy it and pass it along to others.

http://youtu.be/Ov8nyg8g8CY

I have also pretty much set up my online store where, should anyone desire to own prints of—or products containing—some of my best photos, just click below and voilà!

http://www.cafepress.com/BonnyScotland

So that’s what I’ve been up to since January and my last post (shame on me!). I hope to be blogging more regularly now that I have ended my regular commute between USA and UK.

For now, I’m nestled back in my wee village in the foothills (or hellfits as it sounds when the Scots refer to them) of the Ochils.

I will end this blog with a few pictures I took this week on the moor. Sheriffmuir, to be exact.

Gorse on the side of a hill

The gorse is blooming; the heather is next!

Cemetery

An amazingly colorful cemetery as I entered the road up to the moor …

Ewe and Lamb

Once on the moor, the ewes and lambs welcomed me!

Sheep scratching

Snow capped mountains, blue skies, sheep scratching their necks. Life is good on the moors

Magical Numbers, Magical Dates and Our Magical Power to Decide What They Mean

I wanted to blog about The End Of The World, which is quickly approaching us. Once again. And I wanted to do it on 12 12 12; not only because it gives you several days to enjoy my blog (prior to the end) but also 12 12 12 feels a bit auspicious, doesn’t it?

So, here we are (not me personally, but many of my human brothers and sisters) once again predicting our demise. There was a Facebook post this week that said: “People stocking up on bottled water and dried beans in preparation for the end of the world are missing the point.”

Indeed!

I think we generally miss the point of these impending dates because in spite of our centuries old preoccupation with The End Of The World, and our exhaustive efforts to pinpoint a specific date (Oh Puleeze!), down in our deepest collective psyche we know there will be no catastrophic ending. We know that this beautiful planet and the gift of life are precious and should be guarded and protected. We know that we are the custodians of this sacred space called Earth and we are the caretakers of our brothers, sisters and all life therein. But in an effort to enjoy life we became so entangled in greed and isolation that we forgot we were all family and Plant Earth was a gift. It was far easier to live in greed and detached from those people—you know… the evil people, the poor people, the dark people, the light people, the non-Christians, the non-Muslims etc.—and attach to an end of the world philosophy that let us off the hook. I’m not sure how envisioning a judgmental God who would come to planet earth and slaughter all of those who were deemed evil became a more attractive and realistic philosophy than Loving and creating sustainability on Planet Earth, but it did. But, slaying the evil is where it gets sticky. To every exclusive group, everyone else is generally evil. Muslims believe Christians are evil and vice versa… Rich despise Poor… Mormons are disliked by… um… almost everyone, it seems and vice versa… You get the picture. To many, I am evil because I write about questionable topics, I support same-sex marriage, women’s rights over their reproductive organs and I don’t adhere to any religion. In fact I ask people to define God before I admit to believing in Her.

But as we approach this next Ending of Our Planet and I try to blog about it, without talking politics or religion—oh whoops, too late—I am being powerfully drawn to blog about the magical appearance of numbers as opposed to magical dates; not wishing to swim against the flow I am going with it.

The appearance of certain numbers magically appearing in clusters—at much greater rates than would be mathematically expected—began suddenly, in my life, in the summer of 1992, and then disappeared as quickly as it had begun, in the autumn of 1993.

Reading this you might think that I have an extraordinary memory: not so. Those were simply extraordinary times—the kind of times that change the landscape of our lives forever and leave behind indelible memories. I also journal.

In 1992, my husband, John, and I worked for a small international tradeshow company. John worked in the main office, while I worked from a home office that I shared with my friend of many years, and co-worker, Lynda.  Lynda and I frequently sat behind our desks in my basement office without make-up (or even fully dressed), sipping coffee until noon; we did, however, have the professional telephone voice down. Ours was the perfect job for women friends who were willing to trade long unpredictable hours for working at home—munching on Chinese take-away whenever the mood struck or giving ourselves a pedicure while negotiating massive contracts via phone and fax—while in our pajamas. Other than some ongoing marital issues, my life was good.

In May of 1992, Lynda and I noticed the number 3 showing up more than would be expected. Then, almost as soon as we acknowledged it, the single 3’s became 333’s and the frequency of appearances increased exponentially. Initially it was mostly phone numbers xxx 7333 or xxx 3331, and so on. Since we made a lot of phone calls we thought perhaps we were simply noticing the 3’s more. But then addresses began coming in—one address was 333 33rd avenue… Almost daily we got a fax at 3:33 (with the number printed on it) and our take-away receipts consistently had 333 or 33 on them—either as a time, amount of purchase, or customer number. We laughed and contemplated its meaning: Was it an omen of sorts? Was it a message from a greater intelligence? We played an assortment of 3’s in the lottery: 3, 33, and then our birthday; 33, 3 and our birthday… and so on, with no wins.  At first it was exciting every time a group of 3’s popped up; in time it became almost passé, but never completely.

Oddly, no one else seemed to share our experience. The 3’s were like ghosts dancing around us but disappearing when others entered our space. John considered Lynda’s and my fascination with 3’s fanciful. He didn’t completely discount them, however; even he admitted that the frequency in which 3’s occurred on our receipts and faxes was remarkable.

In June of 1992, Lynda, John, and I attended PC Expo—a major tradeshow—in NYC. I don’t recall why Lynda and I took the train from DC to NYC or why John wasn’t with us, but we did and he wasn’t.

By June the 3’s, 33’s, and 333’s were coming fast and furious. Our train ran late getting into Grand Central hours after we’d planned to arrive. Completely disoriented and unaware of the time, I asked, “What time is it?” as Lynda and I looked up at a digital clock on the wall— which, at that precise moment went to 3:33. “Of course it is,” we said in unison. It had become more normal than not by that time.

We walked out to the street and hailed a cab, number 33, I believe, although it might have been 133 or some variation of that. I do remember that it had two 3’s. When we got to the hotel, on Time Square, where our boss had made our reservations, we checked into room 333 or 33; I actually can’t recall which.

We speculated that these numbers were from The Great Beyond or perhaps The Great Within… They had meaning. They were meaningless. They were a coincidence of a bizarre magnitude. They were far too numerous to be a coincidence. Mostly we just enjoyed them.

Staying in a hotel on Time Square, enjoying every meal at a different ethnic restaurant, leisurely walking the bustling city streets in late afternoon and window shopping, having my four children tended and supervised back in Virginia by competent adults—who were um…  not me—I was a million miles from my basement office in rural Loudon County, Virginia.

PC Expo was a spectacular trade show for many reasons and it was chocked full of 3’s.

And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better a railroad strike stranded us in NYC for 4 extra days—at the company’s expense. We were all overjoyed.

On Thursday, June 25th 1992, John turned 50 years old. It was a wonderful place to celebrate his 50th—a gift from the Universe (and the railway system and our boss who picked up the tab). We had a beautiful dinner (our bill was 33 dollars; try and do that today!), walked around Time Square and talked about life. We had been through some extremely hard times in our marriage and looked forward to better times ahead…

On Friday June 26th, Lynda and I decided to walk to a nearby Indian restaurant; John took off on his own.  As we walked down 3rd street a woman came running from her apartment with her shirt on inside out—presumably she’d seen us approaching through her front window. She breathlessly begged us to come into her home. She held tightly to the sleeve of my blouse as she told us she had a gift; she could read fortunes. She had some serious things she needed to tell us. She had seen us approaching and felt compelled to read us.

It just so happens that I have a gift, too. I can shake a fortune-teller off my cuff in a… well… in a New-York-second, as it were.

But this tiny Romanian woman was not too be shaken loose.

“What part of ‘we’re not interested’ don’t you get?” I laughed.

“Please just listen to me and I will ask only 5 dollars from you at the end.” The amount had come down by 20 bucks inside of 45 seconds but her tone of voice remained serious and pleading. “If you’re not impressed with what I tell you, you can walk away with no money exchanged.”

These were hardly terms that we could turn down, even as we salivated for Indian food.

Lynda went first while I sat looking at her back, listening. The woman went on and on about stuff that was supposedly happening in my friend’s life. As Lynda’s friend, I was certain the woman was crazy. She was detailing things in Lynda’s life and telling her how to extricate herself from a very specific situation, that, to my knowledge, didn’t exist.

I listened silently—planning my exit—with my 5 bucks still in my pocket, as the woman rambled on and on about someone else’s life—certainly not Lynda’s.

As my friend rose from her chair and turned to face me, I was poised to say, “Yeah, right! Shall we head out, now?” but the look on her face stopped me short.

“Um… she’s really good,” Lynda whispered. It turned out Lynda had a situation that I wasn’t privy to—the fortuneteller however had just nailed it.

I sat down in The Chair. The woman held my hand, looked at the palm and asked: “Who is JMP?”

“JPM is my husband,” I replied.

The woman dropped my hand, as though it had suddenly turned hot or perhaps cold.

“He loves you deeply,” she continued in a softer tone of voice. “No matter how he appears, he is deeply committed to you and is doing the best he can do. He has always loved you and will always love you …even after he is gone. You must remember this.” She looked at me sadly. I cringed. We had been through serious relationship problems but they were in the past… we were working on them; or so I believed.

Is he leaving me? I wondered, quickly followed by: What the hell am I doing, letting this fortuneteller make me question my marriage? But her guessing all three of John’s initials—albeit in the wrong order—left me very uncomfortable.

“My husband and I want to travel Europe with our family and do music. Will this happen?” I asked, moving to something more neutral—or so I thought. John and I wrote, played and sang in a small family band, in our spare time. We hoped to raise enough money to travel and perform in Europe, one day.

The woman shook her head slowly, “No, but you will live in Europe, one day. Not with your husband, but not alone. And you will write, but not music.”

Cryptic witch, I thought, as I threw 5 bucks in her direction and stood to leave.

Once out on the street I tried desperately to discredit her; on some level, however, I had clearly believed that she deserved the money. In retrospect I realize I was trying desperately to kill the messenger in spite of not actually understanding the message.

It was exactly one year later, to the day, that John died—with almost no warning.

Within two years of John’s death I had moved, with Jessica and Erin—my two youngest daughters—to live in Europe, where I wrote a book and later wrote for a newspaper and magazine.

One might argue that this woman had planted seeds in my consciousness that dropped into my unconscious. Later I had, like a programed computer, lived my life according to her predictions, even though I had not thought of the fortuneteller—at least consciously—until 2006, when reviewing some old journals. But there is no explanation for John’s sudden death or the near fatal car accident that left me in recovery for two years with nothing to do but write a book. There is no explanation as to how the editor of the only English newspaper accidentally ended up in my living room in Riga, Latvia, one warm autumn afternoon and offered me a job.

Sometimes the mysteries of life leave me breathless and I simply stop looking for logical explanations.

There were two other predictions, made by the Romanian fortuneteller in NYC that summer of ‘92, which have not happened as of yet… But life continues; so who knows?

The 3’s began disappearing almost immediately after John’s death. By autumn—after his midsummer departure—there were no more 3’s than one would normally expect.

Flash forward 17 years to 2009.

I had been living in Europe for 14 years when—after a massive slide into financial and political no-man’s land—My partner Egils and I were left no option but to flee the region we had called home.

It was a gut-wrenching move that would have been better made a year before we finally packed up and headed out. But it was too painful to make that decision prior to having almost no choice.

As we locked up our house, our baby girl, Bianca sat waiting for the new residents who would love her and take care of her in the future.

As we locked up our house, our baby girl, Bianca sat waiting for the new residents who would love her and take care of her in the foreseeable future.

It’s very difficult to describe the sorrow that accompanies such an event: loading up our small car with a minimal amount of personal belongings, saying good-bye to our friends, giving our precious cats a goodbye cuddle… Then with our bikes on the roof rack, we drove south to Lithuania, caught a ship to Germany, before driving to Netherlands where we spent time with friends before catching a ferry to UK…

Our first morning on the ship to Germany. We felt a million miles from Riga and a million more from Scotland...

Our first morning on the ship to Germany was sunny. We felt like we were a million miles from Riga—our home, friends and cats—and a million more from the home we would create in Scotland…

Egils wore a pin that said "Dream" the entire journey. We wanted to remember the magic of dreaming, I suppose...

Egils wore a pin that said “Dream” the entire journey. We wanted to remember the magic of dreaming, I suppose…

Our one overnight with friends in Netherlands was spent visiting and biking. How do we survive without friends?

Our one overnight with friends in Netherlands was spent visiting and biking. I can’t imagine life without dear friends …

We were in shock when we arrived at our destination, a small village in mid-Scotland, at 11:11 on Wednesday, August 26th.

Later that night, as we crawled into bed, I noticed the time 11:11. In spite of the fact that it had been a long day, we both laughed at the fact that we’d arrived at 11:11 and were now bedding down precisely 12 hours later. Other than that, 11:11 held no significance for us.  Then.

We planned a day trip up to the highlands on our first Saturday—three days after arriving in Scotland. We packed a picnic lunch and attempted to head out early. In spite of rising early and preparing quickly we left shortly before noon. In fact as we pulled away from the curb, our car clock went to 11:11. This got my attention. Egils casually acknowledged that it seemed odd.

Our first drive to the Highlands was magical and uplifting... it's difficult to be sad in Scotland.

Our first drive to the Highlands was magical and uplifting… it’s difficult to be sad in Scotland.

But when we arrived at our destination a few hours later Egils became a believer. “Um… you won’t believe what our odometer reading for this trip is,” he said, as he put the handbrake on and prepared to cut the engine.

“What?” I asked, absentmindedly, having forgotten the magical number completely.

“One hundred and eleven point one,” he said.

It took me a second to process: 111.1.

This was the beginning of the 11 11’s in this most challenging, yet magical, time in my life.

I believe that we can train ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, to look at clocks at precisely 11:11. For this reason I stopped considering these daily occurrences—that happened twice a day, like clockwork (no pun intended)—as part of the phenomenon. I do not, however, think we control numbers showing up on sales receipts. Standing in a long grocery queue and getting the receipt stamped at 11:11 is hardly within our control, even unconsciously; nor is being the 111th customer of the day or racking up a one-hundred and eleven £ 10 pence grocery bill (111.10). In spite of the odds, however, there was seldom a day that we didn’t receive several eleven elevens in one form or another. For these reasons I concluded, these random events—sharing the common feature of 11 11—went well beyond the mathematical odds and were not of our making.

In February of 2010, I returned to America for a visit. The 11:11’s embraced my life and followed me back to the USA. Within a week or so I called my friend Lynda. We spoke for a while—caught up on each other’s lives—and just before hanging up, I said, “Remember the 333’s that were so crazy around John’s death?” She remembered them well. “I’m having a similar thing now, but it’s eleven eleven.”

Lynda was silent for a second or two before responding, “Um… so you do know about 11:11, right?” she asked.

“No,” I replied. As much as I rely on the Internet, it hadn’t occurred to me to Google this one.

“Google it,” she said. “It’s a phenomenon.  There are literally millions of people talking about it.”

I was stunned.

I can’t recall the exact number of 11:11 hits, in Google, three years ago. Today there are 220 million.

Theories abound: It’s a warning. It’s a blessing. It’s foretelling the end of the world (of course it is!). It’s bringing in a brighter future.

Since everyone has a theory on these number sequences, I have a loosely woven one of my own: I believe that there is one pure source in and of the Universe. We call it a lot of names and attribute a lot of human characteristics to this source: God, The Universe, Parabrahman, ehyeh, Gitche Manitou…  I think this is simply the pure, uncorrupted essence of love.

Perhaps these magical numbers are a wink and a nod from this source that exists beyond my understanding; a hug or a pat on the shoulder, reminding us of the great mysteries that surround us, no matter how challenging our world looks.

Factually, I don’t know what these numbers mean.

In my bones, however, I feel that life is miraculous and our inner world—or spiritual self—is the last great frontier… And we are being invited—or perhaps strongly encouraged—to connect with our essence: Love!

We are mysterious, miraculous, magicians! Perhaps numbers connect us to that which we dream of, hypothesize about, and unfortunately, frequently fear: God, The Universe, Parabrahman, ehyeh, Gitche Manitou.

Perhaps it’s time to take responsibility for our planet, our family, and our lives, right here and now on 12 12 12.

Or perhaps we should tightly lock up our doors and our hearts, stockpile bottled water and beans and miss the point. Again.

Is Connected the New Alone?

I was raised in an uber Christian family, in the 1950’s—that’s probably redundant since most American Christian families of that era resided in zealotsville. Biblical stories, superstitions and rhetoric—carefully explaining right from wrong, unsoiled from tainted, good from evil—were the glue of our society.  They informed the monsters under our beds and the fairies in our gardens; collectively they were the cornerstones of our psyches as we grew and flourished in our black and white world.

 It seems that part of this legacy is questioning change—forever judging new ideas and technologies, as good or evil. Then again questioning change may simply be inherent to humanity…

 2,400 years ago Plato said, “Writing is all very well and good, but it’s going to destroy people’s memories,” as reading and writing moved into the mainstream. Fact: People no longer memorize lengthy verses of poetry or hours of folklore. Where would we be, however, if literacy were not a daily part of life?

 Later in the 18th century, Alexander Pope said: “If man was meant to fly, God would have given him wings.” I suppose if one determines that our world should look precisely as it did on the 7th day of creation, there is some logic in this statement—at least as much logic as there is in the 7 day creation story.

 Within my lifetime, my grandmother—a woman well worth quoting—warned, “Television will rot your brains,” as well as, “Food should never be stored in plastic!” The jury remains out on the TV warning. And while my sister thinks the latter admonition may have been more related to our mother being a Tupperware dealer than intuition, current studies show plastic to be a bad choice for food storage, leading me to believe: It is important to question innovations.

 My point is, there exists this dichotomy: It’s as human to question and resist innovative thought and technologies, as it is to pursue them. They are the forbidden fruit—equally repellent and irresistible—and we are the Garden of Eden’s children. The challenge: We can’t really assess the forbidden fruits—or put them in their proper place within our lives or society—until we’ve tried them.

 You can call me Eve; it’s fine.

 So my burning question is this: Can we move forward into places we’ve never been before—using (even abusing) these amazing new tools and toys—and find a middle of the road prior to unraveling some of the essential threads of the fabric of society?

 That’s what my blog is about: The wireless, mind-boggling, rapidly evolving, high-tech, world we now live in and the many ways that it has transformed our social landscape—even the way we express ourselves in print IMHO.

Here we are, living in a world where massive information—more than we will absorb in a lifetime—is as far away as our Google access; a world where we can reach out and touch someone 24/7 (thank you AT&T for teaching us that a voice on the phone is actually touching someone!) and a world which—in terms of communication—is now compressed into the size of a neighborhood: A beautiful, ethnically diverse community of Planet Earth citizens.

In so many ways this is a great thing!

There are very few arguments these days. If people disagree, on virtually any subject under the sun—and they happen to be face to face—one swift motion of the left hand produces a smart phone, while the right hand is poised to push buttons, before the phone is visible; Google is a touch away; the argument is resolved.

Information propagation is the new duel—the smart phone the new gun.

And that’s a good thing, for the most part. I think…

But it seems that with the end of arguing about small issues or beliefs we now feel compelled to argue about larger and more personal issues: ideologies, politics and religious beliefs to name a few—often not face to face but remotely, electronically. And I can’t help but wonder if this impersonal communication might have contributed to the division and polarization we’ve watched rapidly increase in our world in recent years. For years now there has been so little eye contact… so few shaky, insecure voices… almost no tired faces, tears, or sighs of exasperation within dialogues. Instead, there have been words on screens and icons expressing the emotions we chose to share.

When did we come to accept the absence of discussion just for the sake of connection and broadening our understanding of one another, choosing sides and becoming adversaries, instead?

After scrubbing and sanitizing our homes and bodies, did we follow suit with our relationships?

I miss casualness. I miss perspiration and laughter and honesty.

In the 70’s, when two or more people gathered together and hung out talking, it was called rapping. There were exchanges of thoughts, beliefs and ideas. There were sometimes heated arguments; there was sharing. Frequently there was too much wine and often the rooms were thick with incense and various types of smoke (Sorry: TMI). The rooms buzzed with energy and emotion but not electronic devices.

I miss the smell of incense and too much wine… I miss that world of smell and touch, of watching people blush and flirt by batting eyelashes…

Chatting is the new rapping. Sigh

The smiley and frownie faces are the new expressions of joy and sorrow in our relationships. Acronyms are the new clichés. Blogging is the new storytelling…

Please understand that I’m not opposed to the new technologies. I am, right now, on my laptop, writing—assisting my of-a-certain-age-post-menopausal brain by fact checking on Google.

Wait a sec… I want to make a comment on my Face Book… My daughter out in Virginia is such a stitch… I love her status updates…

Okay, I’m back.

When I moved to Estonia in 1995, I regularly received 600 dollar a month phone bills for scratchy, barely audible phone conversations with loved ones—which frequently ended in a disconnection. I’m over-the-moon that I can now summon my granddaughter in England to my computer screen in Scotland and tell her how nice she looks in her new uniform before she goes off to school. I love exchanging pictures of our latest adventures with my other kids in the States on the same day of the events.

But every time I sit in a restaurant and watch the smart phones emerge from pockets, or drive in cars where the passengers are working on their iPads or listening to their iPods broadcasting their favorite music or eBook while drivers chat away on their hands free, I miss rapping.

Where has this preoccupation with our technologies brought us?

After learning how to emotionally disconnect from the peers in our cars, was it easier to disconnect from those people? You know who those people are: The less fortunate, the elderly, the dark skinned or light skinned, the immigrants, the sickly… Remember them—the ones that aren’t us? At least not yet…

And where will this new type of electronic connection take the next generation?

Will it be easier to disconnect from global warming and the havoc it’s wreaking on our planet, assuming it’s not in our state? Will wars, poverty and disease be diminished to chats and bulletin boards—or maybe reality TV show—allowing us to ingest juicy bits of carefully selected information about those people?

Okay, I’m going to the dark side… I feel it…

So we continue traveling this road—where technology leaps to new heights daily. We dash blindly forward—hoping to catch up—struggling with the financial burden of doing so.

We upgrade our Smart Phones and laptops; we buy iPads, iPods and Kindles. It’s how we stay current. It’s how we stay connected with one another—at best with a live (albeit fuzzy) image on the screen, but more often through words punctuated by smiley faces with no lines or creases around their mouths and missing the twinkle that lives in a human eye.  We’ve exchanged a cute bear hug for the feeling of flesh and muscle around our shoulders and breath on our necks. We call people we’ve never met our friends. And when we want to end one of these friendships we simply un-friend the offending party with a swish and few taps of our finger. These ex-friends seldom notice our absence because their friends are so abundant that losing one here and there generally goes unnoticed.

Strangers are the new friends. They’re plentiful and expendable.

Why do I miss the pain of breaking up and the joy of reconciliation? That’s just weird. WTF?

Hold on, my daughter in England just came on Skype and I need to set up a good time to see my grandbaby… She’s 3 and growing like a weed… You should hear her little British accent. OMG talk about cute!

Okay, I’m back.

I want this blog to be interactive. I want feedback. I want your assistance. I love this technology. I hate this technology. The Buddha spoke of finding the middle path—the middle of the road. I want to find the middle of this super highway. But navigating is hard when it’s all virgin territory—with no maps or even road signs. Can we find the best of both worlds: A way to enjoy remote connections and limitless information without losing intimacy?

Or will we continue blindly rushing forward—cementing our connection to the world, while becoming increasingly isolated?

Is this new technology the monster under our bed? Is it Armageddon? Or is it the fairies dancing in our garden? …or is it simply a neutral offering created by our collective intelligence—a gift from the universe—awaiting our response? Might we be the judge and jury deciding whether it’s a blessing or a curse, good or evil, black or white. What will we decide? Will we find a balance? How? What are your thoughts?

This is Holly Morrison signing off with an LOL

[On the old planet that meant lots of love—and so it does tonight!]

Magic, Miracles and Gifts From Those Who Came Before

A warning to all who know me or have read prior blogs: I’m going to break redundant for just a few sentences—until the end of the italicized writing— in order to bring any new readers up to snuff.

I was widowed in 1993.

Two years after my husband’s death I packed up my two youngest children and moved to Europe, where I raised them in the small countries of Estonia and Latvia. I was financially ruined, after my husband’s death, but was able to scrape enough money together to make a decent life for my daughters and myself in North Eastern Europe. I bought a small home for cash and we had affordable medical care. It was a safe, clean environment in which to raise my little girls. My older children remained in the USA.  In 1999 I met a wonderful man named Egils and we joined together to create a family and lived in Latvia.

Flash-forward: After the economic collapse of Latvia, in 2009, we moved to Scotland where we now live. Okay that’s it for the backstory of my blog today.

In 2006, while living in Latvia, I rented a fisherman’s cottage in Anstruther, Scotland, with friends. We spent two weeks living by the sea in The Kingdom of Fife, touring castles, walking along the rocky coast, eating fish and chips and sampling whiskey. In the evenings I watched, mesmerized, as the tide slipped into the village—seeping up the narrow cobbled alleyways that ran between old stone houses—on the sea side of the village. One night I sat up most of the night listening to the wind whistle and howl as it drove the beating rain against the old windowpanes of our cottage. I had been in love with Scotland, prior to that visit. From that time forward, however, I was consumed by a longing to return. Referring to my longing as homesickness sounded pretentious, even to me; but it was the only word I knew that came close to describing the aching I felt—when I thought of my time spent in the beautiful Kingdom of Fife—and my burning desire to return.

That same year, after my time spent in Scotland, I began researching my ancestry on my father’s mother’s side. Rachel Scott, my father’s mother, had offered me unconditional love all of my life until her death in 1973, just three months before the birth of my first child. I adored my grandmother, as did my brother and sisters; we called her Noonie.

Noonie taught me how and where to plant pansies, how to grow hearty vegetables and how to knead and bake bread. She’d wiped my tears, rubbed my sore muscles with Black Salve (an herbal concoction her mother had taught her to make) and tucked my body into bed with satin comforters—which smelled like her old cedar chest—every night I slept under her roof.  She had endlessly tended, worried and fussed over me all of my childhood, but she seldom spoke of her parents. I knew that she was very close to both of them—especially her father— and that they’d come from Scotland; beyond that I knew nothing. I certainly didn’t know that my great grandfather—Noonie’s father—was raised in the small town of East Wemyss, only minutes from Anstruther, in The Kingdom of Fife, where I had fallen so deeply in love with Scotland. I’m not sure my grandmother even knew the name of this small village, since her father referred to his younger life as having been spent in Edinburgh—no doubt because it was the nearest large city.  When I found the exact farm where my ancestors had worked as laborers, I realized that I had driven within a mile of that farm and their cottages, several times while staying in Anstruther.

This synchronicity came at the beginning of my journey into my genealogy. There were more to follow.

Within a few months of researching, I learned that my great-great grandmother, Agnes Scott (Noonie’s grandmother), had been widowed at a young age and moved with two of her children to America—one of whom was John Scott, Noonie’s father—leaving the rest of her grown children in Scotland.  The fact that I had been widowed at a young age and had moved with my two younger children to Europe, leaving my adult children in USA, instantly created a bond between Agnes and me.

My nephew, David Cosentino, and I worked obsessively on this particular branch of our family tree, for several months in 2006.

Gradually my ancestors became more than names in an old bible in the attic. In particular my great-great grandmother: Agnes was a real woman who’d loved and lost her husband, William, as I had lost my husband, John. Her children had lost their father as had mine. Agnes left her homeland with little more than her clothes, two of her children and the wish to survive, exactly as I had. This small family left their homeland not knowing if or when they would see the rest of their family and loved ones again. In this sense our realities differed greatly; I knew I would frequently see my older children, family, and friends in my homeland. I could only imagine Agnes’s pain and insecurity with this additional burden. But in many of the fundamental ways Agnes and I were very similar. We buried a husband and father who was too young to die. We made the hard and drastic decision to leave our homeland, as widows, leaving our grown children and loved ones behind, to create a better life. We survived.

In 2009, when Latvia collapsed my partner, Egils, and I headed west landing in Scotland. I hadn’t thought much about my great-great grandmother Agnes—and our paralleling lives—for almost 3 years. David had been busy working and raising a young family; I’d been trying to survive financially… With neither of us nudging the other forward, the old stories lay silently tucked away in attics, drawers, and old archives.

I didn’t pursue researching my ancestry, here in Scotland, for the next two years. My life was busy with days crammed full of projects.

Then last year, while I was in the States, my mother broke her hip and was confined to a nursing home for what promised to be an indefinite period of time. My brother, Tim, and I began the laborious process of sorting through my mother’s home: The same homestead where my beloved grandmother had lived and raised her family; the home where my parents lived in their later life and where—after my father’s death in 1998—my mother had remained and grown old. This home has always been a reminder of the happiest memories of my childhood and my connection with those who have gone before me. It has always been magical…

As I sifted through mountains of paperwork including old photographs, documents, bills, and personal letters (my mom saved virtually everything she touched) my eyes fell upon something interesting: A document printed on cardstock, created near the end of the 19th century, somewhere in Scotland. I read it slowly:

“In Affectionate Remembrance

 of

Janet Scott,

Aged 21 Years,

Who departed this life, 1st of January, 1874.”

My body went cold. Janet Scott was a daughter of Agnes and William. It wasn’t the fact that Janet had died that started my hands shaking; Janet would have died many years prior to 2012. It was the date on which Janet died that disturbed me. This document revealed something I had not known before that moment: Barely six months before, William, her husband died, Agnes had lost her daughter, Janet! Sitting in the living room of the house where my Noonie had kept me tightly tucked beneath her wing throughout my childhood, I thought of Agnes—Noonie’s grandmother—and she was once again close to me. Her story was unfolding: Now I knew that she had not only lost her husband, William, but also a daughter in that fateful year, shortly before deciding to migrate to America.

Found in my mother's home in summer of 2012: Janet's Death Notice

Janet’s Scott’s death notice: found among the piles of papers in my mother’s home last summer. The death was not shocking; the dates were.

When I returned to Scotland in July 2012, I was overwhelmed with projects: A new Internet store to organize and build, a new lifestyle to construct (after having CHF as a part of my life, I now swim 40 minutes a day, eat very differently and require more sleep). Consequently my genealogy was once again on a back burner.

But, even without any direct attention aimed at Agnes and the Scott branch of my family tree, they entered my consciousness from time to time—like each time I traveled up to Fife or baked bread or saw a movie set here in Scotland in the late 1800’s…

Then on September 3rd David sent me a picture of a middle aged man standing next to a monument.

Monument dedicated to William, Catherine, Janet, and Margaret Scott

This is my great grandfather, John Scott, standing next to a monument erected to his father William and three sisters: Catherine, Janet and Margaret.

The email read: Here’s one [a picture] of John Scott. The monument refers to William Scott who was his father. Janet is mentioned here (the one from the death notice [that I’d found last summer at my mother’s house]) – she would have been John’s sister. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could track this down and take a pic today? 😉

I loved the picture. I was, however, confused as to how Dave could think this picture was from Scotland. John Scott left Scotland with his mother, Agnes and his sister Rachel in 1874 when he was 19 years old. How could this monument to his father and sister, Janet, be in Scotland, with him standing next to it, as a middle aged man?

I wrote back to David:

Dave I’m 90 percent sure this [monument] is in USA. It was erected by Thomas and Rachel Scott Blythe in loving memory of their father… my guess is they erected this in the States in memory of their father William and sisters who had died here in the old country.

Holly 

But there was more to this monument than just the mystery of “where in the world was it?” This monument clearly stated that Agnes had lost three of her daughters. Catherine had died in 1870, Janet in 1874, and Margaret had passed in 1877; three years after Agnes had migrated to America. All of the girls were in their 20’s.  I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. The sorrow that I felt for my great-great grandmother was now physical—my stomach was in knots. After a bit of research I learned that there had been a massive epidemic of Scarlet Fever in Scotland, between 1874 and 1875 that had killed 11,000 Scots. This explained both William’s and Janet’s deaths; the other two sister’s deaths remained a mystery. I told myself that this had happened many years ago; it was not an uncommon scenario in the 19th century and my visceral emotional reaction was illogical if not ridiculous. But I couldn’t curb my feelings and I continued struggling with this overwhelming sense of grief.

Egils, sensing my sadness, and always up for an adventure, suddenly said, “I get off work at 5. Why don’t we head up to East Wemyss and see if there is a cemetery or church that might have a trace of the William Scotts?”

It was a brilliant plan. Getting out of the house and looking for some tangible evidence of my ancestors would occupy my mind with something other than the Scarlet Fever epidemic of the 1870’s and the pain and suffering of my people.

I shot off a message to David:

I just got a bee in my bonnet. Egils and I are driving up to East Wemyss after work and a quick swim and going to the cemetery. 

H

To which David—shocked and excited by the abruptly hatched plan—wrote back simply:

Well, [removed expletive]. You go! 🙂

I honestly feel that my ancestors—at this point, if not prior—actively stepped in and took the reins…

We left our village, intending to take a quick swim before starting the hour drive to East Wemyss. Swimming is a daily routine, conducted at specific times; we very seldom reschedule.

As we headed out, however, Egils said, “We have plenty of time before the pool closes; let’s go to East Wemyss first.” This was the first touch of destiny: Had we gone swimming first, we would have gotten caught in a massive thunderstorm that was, unbeknownst to us, heading for East Wemyss. Heavy rains would have undoubtedly made walking the cemetery impossible.

We arrived in East Wemyss just after 6:00 to sunny skies, parked our car in front of the only church we could see, on Main Road. Apparently there is a small cemetery in the back of the church but for some reason we didn’t even look there. Instead, I asked a passerby if there was a main cemetery. (In hindsight, I realized how out of character this was for us. This church cemetery would have been the logical place to bury people in the 19th century. But again, if we’d spent any time looking through that cemetery, we’d have gotten caught in the coming storm.)

We were told that if we followed the same road a short while we would find a large cemetery on our right. We got back in the car and drove maybe a half-mile to the enormous MacDuff Cemetery, sandwiched between the Main Road and the Firth of Fourth (just this side of the North Sea). From the time we left our village our world seemed a bit surreal, but from this point on I recall feeling like a character in a play—going through the motions of a prewritten script.

We parked the car in a parking lot at the far end of the cemetery, not realizing that we could drive into the cemetery and began walking back towards town through thousands of stone markers and monuments. If we’d driven on the small roads that, we later realized, ran through the cemetery we’d never have ended up where we did. It’s hard to imagine that we didn’t notice the roads and drive them… It simply wasn’t part of the script, I suppose.

We arrived at MacDuff Cemetery and immediately felt slightly deflated. The size of the cemetery was daunting. The old and new stones and monuments stood side-by-side and the weather was looking dodgy. But something made us move forward…

As we walked slowly across the grounds, we searched for old stones or markers of the type that might have been placed by a poor family in the late 1800’s. We quickly realized, to our dismay that most of the older markers and stones had worn down too badly to read.

Initially I’d hoped that the cemetery might be divided into sections according to eras. It was quickly apparent, however, that the very old and fairly new (1850-1960’s) markers stood side by side.  Logically there was little room to hope we’d find anything, but for some inexplicable reason we continued walking forward through the center of the massive cemetery, slightly veering left, for no reason that we were aware of. We did not meander; we walked in only one direction, through the grass, making our own route towards something, or—more likely, it seemed—towards nothing at all.

We both quickly agreed that the calm walk along the seaside was probably more of a reason to be there than any realistic hope of finding anything.

After perhaps 10-15 minutes of wandering, we realized that a storm was coming in off the sea. Clearly understanding the improbability of ever finding evidence of William, Janet, Margaret and Catherine Scott in this beautiful, massive, maze of a cemetery, Egils (who was walking slightly ahead of me) turned around and said, “Maybe somewhere there’s a directory of names and where people are buried.” And then he reiterated what we’d already recognized, “Because even if there is a marker somewhere, most of the really old ones that are close to the ground are not readable…”

I knew, at this point, that he was tired after a long day’s work and the importance of our journey was probably just getting out of the house and spending some time together.

“Yeah, and there may not even be a marker if they were as poor as I think,” I added, as I prepared to turn around and return to the car.

Then suddenly I stopped in mid turn-around and said, “You know we had this exact same sense when we were looking for Stella. We knew there was a good chance that Stella was killed in the war or had died afterwards or had married and changed her name. We had every reason to doubt that we’d find her and then we did. Just like that: There she was!”

(Note: Stella was a Latvian woman who had disappeared pre WWII. Against insurmountable odds, after years of searching through old Soviet archives and just as we were about to give up the search we found her.)

It restored my faith a bit to remember how I felt when—against all probability, feeling deflated and helpless—Stella seemed to materialize in front of our eyes.

I began walking towards Egils, again, but after only two or three steps forward, I had to step around a monument just to my left. I looked at it and read “William Scott.”

I was mentally unable to process what I was seeing.

Monument at MacDuff Cemetery

This caught my eye but was too shocking to completely process, mentally.

When I continued reading, my first thought was, “Huh… this stone is full of names exactly like my family’s. Those Scotts really liked those particular names!”

Holly at monument in East Wemyss Cemetery

This is seconds after stumbling across the monument that I was “90 percent certain” was in the USA.

As I realized what I was looking at, I almost fell over: I was standing in the exact same spot where my great grandfather stood, in Dave’s photo; I was looking at the same monument!

The ground beneath my feet felt sacred—not in the cemetery sense, but in the “Something really blessed is happening right here in this moment.

As dramatic as it sounds I was completely overwhelmed with a sense of my ancestors presence. I sat down on the ground and touched the base of the obelisk as I read the names: William. Catherine. Janet. Margaret.

I’m not sure why, but touching this stone, made it more real to me. It was actually unreal until the moment that I felt the stone beneath my fingers.

Agnes’s husband and three of her daughters. Gone.

What immediately struck me as odd (and continues to) is that I suddenly felt happy. Seeing this monument and reading these names didn’t sadden me more. I felt my people smiling down at me. I felt they had brought me to this point and were pleased that I now knew a bit more of their story. We were connected in that moment; they were once again engaged in life—my life and that of my children and living family.

By the time we walked back to our car it was raining and it rained all the way home…

This monument made a statement: How incredibly important family must have been to my ancestors. This pilgrimage back to the motherland, at the turn of the century, to erect this monument to William and the three girls—Janet, Catherine, and Margaret—took money, courage and a commitment that speaks volumes about the terrible sense of loss they felt but it also speaks of immense love, loyalty and bonds that lived within the family.

I emailed Dave as soon as I returned home:

The monument is here!!!! I found it!!!!!!

And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our ancestors led me to it. It was bizarre beyond my wildest dreams.

Love you!

H

And Dave replied:

This ancestry stuff can take some weird twists and turns…

David is the master of understatement.

David and I agree that sometimes the magic and miracles that surround this genealogical research leaves us thinking the ancestors want to be heard. They want their stories to be discovered and shared. It’s important—perhaps only because it makes us stronger to know what our people went through in order to get us here. Today.

I thank them, today, for all of the pain, grief and sorrow they endured those years gone by, as well as for leading me to a monument in East Wemyss on September 3, 2012 so I could unravel a bit more of their story and share it.

And as I sit here, in my wee Scottish village, writing this blog in the 21st century, I feel the completion of a circle. Agnes left and I’ve returned.

A note to Agnes: I’m home, Agnes. My babies are all grown and some have babies of their own. I have cousins and second cousins with babies who have babies… Your line lives on… It’s not always an easy life here on planet earth but I think I can speak for all of us—your descendants—we are grateful for the opportunity to travel these roads. And we are here thanks to you, your perseverance and your strength. It was all worth it.

Well done!