Peace of Mind

At long last, I have had my yearly week’s holiday. Each September I try to go away somewhere quiet and peaceful where I can rest, recharge, and hopefully walk and enjoy the scenery. I’m not interested in hot sunny beaches or bustling cities when I go on holiday, what I’m looking for is some peace of mind, preferably in the middle of nowhere. Splendid isolation.

While I do not like the word “glamping”, I think that’s what my holiday this year was. I spent 5 nights in a Shepherd’s Hut in Kilchoan, Ardnamurchan, the most westerly mainland spot in Great Britain.

I don’t drive, so it took me all day to get to Kilchoan from Glasgow. A train to Fort William, followed by a local bus via the Corran Ferry. When I headed out for my bus in Fort William it became clear that life was being lived at a different pace all the way out to the far west. The driver had to retrieve an elderly gentleman from the supermarket, as if the bus had gone without him, he would have been stranded. Everyone knew him, and he was found in the DIY section, apparently. The locals all knew each other, and I suppose when there’s only one return bus journey a day, even newcomers get to know their neighbours.

Once we headed off it became clear how quiet and isolated the peninsula is. The settlements are spaced out, and there are crofts and isolated houses along the way. The road is almost all single track as soon as you leave Ardgour (the first village you come to), so the 45 miles or so along the south coast route is slow going.

The rain was lashing down almost all the way from Glasgow to Kilchoan, but it was easing off as I arrived. On the way I saw some deer on a the beach, and after I arrived at my hut, I saw an otter and a grey heron both fishing in the same lochan right outside the hut. Now, this is what I came all the way here for!

 

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The hut was small but comfy, with a separate eco-compost toilet and kitchenette hut, outdoor seating, and practically no electricity (I drained it on the first night, never to recharge properly again!). I was looking forward to the peace and quiet, but was slightly perturbed by the lack of electricity. As a person who lives alone and prefers their own company, I rely on the internet a bit too much. The lack of electricity was a perfect opportunity to unplug from the online world, even though it was unplanned.

As I settled in (and dropped out of my usual life), I began to notice the sights, sounds and smells of the local area. It was almost entirely quiet at night. No cars, no industrial hums, no sounds of modern life. I slept better than I had in months, and without earplugs too! All I could hear at night was the gentle lapping of the waves on the shore (just a few metres from my hut), birds calling (oystercatchers, curlew and occasional ducks, geese and gulls) and the weather.

Another reason for my improved sleep was the total lack of light pollution. The brightest thing in the sky was the moon reflecting on the water. There were a couple of clear nights while I was away, but the moon dominated so much that the stars were faint, though many.

On my first full day I walked down to the pier (about 40 minues walk from the hut) and sailed to Tobermory. After just one evening in Kilchoan, Tobermory seemed like a bustling metropolis. It was a glorious sunny day, and though I enjoyed my vegan lunch (and cake!) in the arts centre and popping into the shops on the main street, I knew that when I returned to Kilchoan I’d probably not see so many people again until I got back to Fort William.

On my second quiet evening in the cabin, I got to thinking about what I was looking for in the remote places I go to on holiday, and I recalled a friend talking about how our bodies can’t cope with modern life, which leads to stress, feeling frazzled, and dissatisfaction. We have more than we need, so much more than we ever need. I had downloaded the book on mindfulness that she recommended before leaving home, so I started to read it. Before I began, I was thinking about how I could change my life to get more peace of mind. Leave the city, leave my job, have more breaks in the middle of nowhere, basically run away from my life. But as I started to read, I finally realised what mindfulness is – focusing attention on what you are doing rather than mindlessly going onto autopilot all the time, and that maybe my exhaustion was my body telling me to pay attention, rather than to rest more. When I rest more, my screen time increases (TV, internet, social media) and I feel no more rested than before. Food for thought.

My third day in west Ardnamurchan consisted of a BIG walk from Kilchoan to Sanna Bay in the north. As the crow flies it’s a lot shorter a walk than it seems on foot, up and down hills, through the extinct volcano, winding ever winding single track roads. I passed not a single soul on foot and only a few cars. As my walk was long, and there was no chance of public transport, I focused on keeping up a steady pace and eventually made it to the beach almost three hours after I had set out. White coral sand, turquoise water, and improving light, as the sun came out. I paddled, ate my lunch and gazed out at the water, little white sailing boats on the horizon. I saw some excited looking photographers on some rocks behind me and spotted that they were filming whales, just a few metres away in the sea. I didn’t find out what they were, but enjoyed seeing them move so sinuously, their shiny backs breaching the surface for a good five minutes before they disappeared back into the sea.

 

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I managed to get slightly lost on my way back (no signage on the hill paths), but realised I was headed up a mountain rather than into a village, so managed to save the day and headed for the road out of Portuairk. By this time it was really hot, and I had to apply the factor 45 liberally as I hiked up the winding and steep hill out of the village. I passed a signpost for the lighthouse, but I was getting pretty tired by this point so I thought a diversion would not be a good idea. So I just kept walking. Thankfully, the owner of the hut was driving by and offered me a lift back to Kilchoan. I was running out of water, so took him up on the offer and was back in the village and eating an ice lolly before I knew about it!

After relaxing in the garden for a short while. I decided to continue reading the Mindfulness book, and i was definitely getting the “point” this time. I realised that I could change my life by trying to find contentment in different activities, and places (running away from life), or I could learn how to live the life I already have. Mindfulness seems to be a way to do that. I remain particularly interested in the repeated mention of exhaustion as a facet of stress/anxiety/joylessness. I have had more than my fair share of health issues, and I had presumed there was something physically wrong that was making me so tired. But perhaps not. Maybe it’s my way of living that exhausts me. My desire to escape isn’t so much a physical need, but a mental one, as sometimes I feel like the very definition of “frazzled” despite a quiet home life. I also realised that my regular yoga nidra practice is certainly a head start on the mindfulness thing, so maybe it’ll slot into place without too much struggle. Here’s hoping small changes bring some much needed peace of mind.

Ardnamurchan was a beautiful rural location to inspire some life changes. I reckon I’ll be back.

 

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Hogganfield.

 

 

1622342_10153067647812288_2934872981219145135_oToday I walked up to the local manmade loch. Despite the fact that the loch is artificial, it is now a nature reserve and full of birds, particularly swans.

To get to the loch I walked through my local park taking the quickest route up the hill. It was very cold this morning when I headed out and there were only a couple of dog walkers in the park, wearing many more layers than me. I met a woman whose small grey terrier, in a red jacket, had decided that lying on the grass with a ball in its mouth was much more fun than walking, and the owner was starting to get slightly frustrated at this turn of events.

I left the park and crossed the main road into the next suburb, where either it was shadier, colder, or more neglected by the council as the pavements and roads were still covered in packed snow and ice. Some of the snow was melting in fractal patterns, a combination of footfalls and nature taking its course.

My eye was drawn by a little copse, all spindly bare branches, hosting a magpie conference. Or “conventicle” (or tidings) of magpies as I have just found out. As I reached the motorway bridge at the top of the hill, I passed a young man standing almost in the bushes, using his mobile, texting, most likely, and on passing him two more men of about his age crossed the road in colourful tracksuits. I expect they were going to watch the Old Firm match together, but I could be wrong.

On the other side of the motorway the icy pavements were almost impassable, so when I reached a bus stop I put my trusty yaktrax ice grips on for the rest of the walk. Invincible and sure of foot! I passed a vacant plot that I remember housing a beautiful yet derelict cottage in my childhood days. The kind of place I imagined I’d like to live when I was a grown up.

The golf course adjacent to the loch was covered in untouched snow. I half wanted to go tramp about in it, but I enjoyed looking at the unbroken expanse of white. Surprised noone had been sledging on it!

The car park for the loch was full, as usual. It’s a popular place to walk a dog or go for a run, and families take their children to feed the birds there too. I was surprised how icy it still was underfoot. I approached the viewing platform that projects into the loch and looked out over the still blue water. Too big to be frozen like the smaller park ponds, and full of birds. My favourites this time of year are the glorious whooper swans with their yellow beaks and constant honking. Goosanders, mallards, greylag geese, mute swans, tufted ducks, and at the back, the shy goldeneye, never venturing too close to the shore. A young girl was feeding the birds with white bread and shouting “here wee ducky” to the geese while the swans barged in in front. I was wondering if she’d even noticed the goldeneye at the back.

I decided to walk round the loch clockwise for a change, and the ice was certainly less problematic on the northerly side. Immediately I was passed by a couple with two miniature yorkshire terriers. The woman was carrying one of them wrapped up in her jacket and scarf, and I couldn’t even see it as she overtook me. The other was wearing a red jacket and chasing a ball which was clearly as big as the wee thing could get in its mouth. It kept dropping the ball and readjusting it to return it to its master. Looking out towards the tree lined loch again, I saw several robins, a wagtail or two at the water’s edge and noticed the sphagnum building up on the tree trunks.

As I progressed round the loch the sound of traffic faded and it began to feel like I was in the countryside instead of at the edge of the biggest city in Scotland. More dogs intersected on the path, a terrier in an orange harness and a big happy black and tan staffie, grinning, with a tennis ball in its mouth. They clearly knew each other and ran around together with no purpose while their owners chatted briefly. Too cold to stop for long though.

The sky was bright blue and almost cloudless for my entire walk, and even now as I write, I can only see a few wispy clouds in the distance. The water tower on the far side of the loch glowed white in the bright sunshine, and the loch sparkled.

When I was about half way round the loch, the deserted icy path to the next nature reserve looked very enticing, but it is rather remote and I resisted. I was lapped by a couple of joggers I had seen earlier. A middle aged couple, going at a fair pace. The woman was wearing a bright pink jacket and matching turban. A turban! Such glamour on a Sunday morning!
The furthest edge of the loch from the main road is a strangely deserted place. There’s a marsh opposite the lochside, with long rushes, which was frozen over, and a beach and picnic area by the water, which tend to be uninhabited even on the finest of summer days. I saw a young man attempting to feed his toddler son, who was having much more fun pottering about the ice. The wee boy was dressed in an orange jacket with a tiger printed hat and a Minions backpack. I always wonder what goes in such a small child’s backpack. Change of clothes in case of accidents? Full of toys for the journey? Out on the water beyond, I spotted an adult male mute swan in busking posture with neck bowed and wings half up speeding along like a motorboat. Defending his territory I expect. Looked like he meant business whatever he was up to.

On the home strait I passed an elderly couple both on foot but one of them pushing a wheelchair. I couldn’t make up my mind which of them was the wheelchair user as they were both walking on the ice without difficulty. Maybe the man, who was pushing the wheelchair, was using it as a zimmer and it was his. Not entirely convinced though. Opposite the loch there was evidence of serious sledging, with tracks coming down a steep hill. I hope no-one ended up in the loch. It was certainly still sledgeable, but again, nobody there. Maybe the kids are all fed up with sledging now that we’ve had a few snowy days. A woman encouraging her spaniel to find the ball was getting impatient with the dog’s endless running around. Another matching spaniel appeared, but apparently unrelated as the owners didn’t know each other. Maybe the dogs were cousins.

Heading out towards the main entrance I stopped to look at the swans still honk honk honking and was glad that I took the trouble to climb the big hill to the loch on such a chilly day.

A Walk in the Park.

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Recently I find that I’m more able to connect with the world out there than I have been in some months. On opening the close door it became apparent that the yaktrax ice grips were an excellent idea as the layer of snow visible from the top floor is resting on a bed of solid ice, buckled by yesterday’s footsteps and is treacherous underfoot.

Despite the ice there are few valiant souls on foot, obviously with better footwear than me as none walk so slowly as I did without the yaktrax yesterday. On crossing the road into the park I see a couple, with their dog, all bundled up like eskimos. He takes her ungloved hand and kisses it, she laughs. More dogs and their people pass by and I extend a hand to each dog that comes near to say hello.

A creature of habit, I turn right towards the boating pond and am delighted to see that it is entirely white, completely iced over with a layer of snow, like thick icing sugar on top of a delicious bun. This pond is usually full of coots, little grebes, swans and common gulls, but they have all deserted for the more hospitable duckpond. Pity, as I like to see them ice skating.

The sky is bright blue and clear and as I look over the pond I see a lot of purposeless walkers like myself. I am particularly impressed by a man using two crutches on the icy path on the opposite side of the pond. I wonder where he needs to go. A young woman enters the park from the main road above and overtakes me. Dressed in waterproof hiking trousers, and wearing a wide sporty headband I wonder if she’s training for something.

As I climb the hill past the golf course I see occasional sledgers, and a number of enormous snow globes. Abandoned snowman attempts I reckon. Or maybe the steepness of the hill meant that once rolling was commenced, momentum took over and the giant snowballs ran away from their originators.

On the home strait, past the potting sheds I saw a single struggler on the bumpy icerink pavements. A woman, perhaps in her fifties, in wellies and parka, carrying a large Asda Bag For Life and only just managing to stay upright. Her daughter was well ahead of her, frustrated at her guardian’s slow pace. Just before leaving the park, next to the children’s playparks a puce faced bawling toddler was being pulled by an older man in a small plastic sleigh. She was not best pleased by this arrangement, while her older sister was keen to have a shot, but from where I was placed, it looked to me like she might not fit in the little sledge.

Songwriting with Pat Pattison

I write riffs, hooks, chord progressions and fragments. I have never written a song that I’m half way happy with. What I have written in the past has been unsatisfactory, incomplete and the lyrics have been downright appalling. I can write a bit of prose, (after a fashion) and once upon a time I could sort of write poetry. But lyrics? Nah, cheesetastic, and generally utterly awful.

But I’m telling a lie now. I have written a song. Just the one, but I am well equipped to write another. Just after Christmas I decided that what I would like to do, musically, is form a soul band. Music for dancing. I’m already part of a disco covers band, and count many talented musicians among my friends, so I’m sure it’s possible. But there was a problem: I didn’t want to be doing yet more covers. Not that I’m against covers, but I’d like to do something different.

I’d heard of Coursera and was aware that they had some free music classes, but didn’t really know much more. I’d already signed up for a Scandinavian Film and TV course so I had an account ready and waiting. So when the idea came to me I had a quick look and spotted some Berklee College of Music courses. I think I must have looked at the Jazz improvisation classes on the past, because I thought the courses were waaaayyy beyond my capabilities, and then I spotted the 6 week Songwriting course, run by Pat Pattison. Obviously, I’d never heard of him, why would I? When I saw the course, it was starting in 2 days. Yikes. It seemed like a big commitment, and I was starting the Film and TV course at the same time. I couldn’t possibly fit them both in. Help!

Anyway, I bit the bullet and dived in. It was scary. I had do show my workings and colouring in, in the assessments, but after week 4 I realised I could write a song, and I even finished one.

Pat Pattison’s method is based around the concept of “prosody”. I knew this term from linguistics, where it mostly refers to the rhythm melodic line, and stress patterns of speech. Pattison uses it as an even more overarching concept of how things work together: “the matching of lyrics and music to support your underlying message”. I learnt about the use of different types of rhyme, and preserving the natural shape of the language. Ways to support the stability or instability of ideas. Jazz education teaches you about some of this, and this certainly helped, and by week six, I had a finished song that I was happy with.

Time to got those soul songs written now, I have the tools. I can do it! If you want to learn some really useful techniques for writing lyrics, I can highly recommend this course. There’s another session starting up in April. And it’s free, so no excuses. 

Final Day: A Brief Blog on films seen at Glasgow Film Festival 2014

My brain is now fried. It was the last day of the film festival yesterday and though I’m gutted that it’s over, I am looking forward to relearning how to use my legs. Oh and books. And music. Remind me?

The final triple bill marathon began with The Tale of Iya. I hadn’t read (or remembered) the brochure carefully enough and had thought that Iya was a person, but it was a place. A beautiful, mostly wild place, of forest and crofts (what are they called in Japanese, I wonder?) with little settlements in the mountains. At every screening where Allan Hunter (Co-Director of Glasgow Film Festival) introduced a film he plugged this one, which led to an upgrade into Cinema 1 at the GFT. Initially I was unsure if I was going to be able to watch it as the 35mm print flickered almost continuously, particularly when the shots were of snow, mist and light colours, but I got used to it. The film was a whopping 169 minutes long, a definite trait in Japanese cinema, but what a beautiful eulogy to the harmony of modern humans and nature. The tale centres round Haruna and her adoptive grandfather who finds her as an infant survivor of a car accident in the mountains. Painterly at times, the cinematography is consistently graceful, using the quality of the light and bucolic imagery to the utmost. I found it overlong, but it’s very much worth seeing, for the artistry, and the sense of hope for the future that it engenders so well.

Benny and Jolene was a bright and breezy Welsh comedy, with a couple of familiar faces (Craig Roberts from Submarine), some great comic turns, and a good few belly laughs. Benny and Jolene are a young folk duo, recently picked up by a record company, who go on the road for the first time, leading to some proper laugh out loud moments. Awkward and deliberately cringeworthy at times, it’s not the kind of film I often go to see, but it did make me laugh out loud, which was very enjoyable indeed, this Film Festival.

I managed to win a couple of tickets to The Closing Gala – Under the Skin, which properly delighted me as I’d been gutted not to get any gala tickets at all at the time of booking. There was a party atmosphere at the Gala, but I never found out why there were people in Kilts and ballgowns (Oscars party?) in Cinema 1. Under The Skin is adapted from the book of the same name by Michel Faber, and although I’ve not read the book I am now looking forward to doing so. I’d heard about Scarlett Johansson’s drives about town in a black wig but hadn’t found out any more about the film until it started being screened at film festivals in the past few months. I love when there’s no explanation of why or what is going on in a film, if there’s enough visual information for you to make up your own mind, and this was a brilliant example of this. Scarlett Johansson plays Laura, an alien who may be feeding on men as she drives around Scotland. The naturalistic interactions in the film were a result of covertly filming people interacting with Johansson as she stopped to ask them for directions, then started to chat them up. Permission to use the footage was then requested and either granted or denied, leading to the images and interactions we see in the film. The director, Jonathan Glazer, made a point at the Q&A of stating that this was not improvisation or “acting”, he was filming “behaviour” as Johansson and her prey first met. From beginning to end it’s startling stuff, deliberately weird, and like nothing I have ever seen before. The sound design and music (lots of scratchy insect like strings) is incredible, the performances so fresh, and Johansson inhabits the role with total confidence. Outstanding stuff, but not for those who like to know exactly what’s going on.

21 films seen, a paragraph about each. I am going to miss you, Film Festival, but it’s been a blast. What a cracking 10th Anniversary!