Monday, May 21, 2018

The Final Abbey

I collect my final Borders Abbey.
I collect my final abbey on a day looking perfect in a jacket of clouds and with an accessorizing breeze that keeps the warming air from warming too much.
I collect my final abbey in the company of my host L and her dog Eddie.

The last few weeks, I’ve had my work blinders on as I’ve been barreling towards the end of June deadline I’ve set for the draft of this novel I’m writing. And, but for the art shows and music that L and G took me to, but for the added up hours at my computer, my daily walk, some captured time out in the garden, I have done little else.

One day while I was talking about Things Still to Do, L said she was game for an adventure and a new place to go for a walk (even though she’s been to this particular abbey before and more than once!) and that we could go together. On the morning we’ve agreed upon, assured by her that it’s not an inconvenience, we set out as if we’re both on holiday together.

The days, as they always do, are passing by quickly and my time in this place is winding down. With only a few more weeks to go, I know I have to get out and see the last of what I want to see or chance missing it altogether.

Scott’s View is one of those things.

The story is that Sir Walter Scott frequented this particular spot on his way from place to place (and he traveled and worked all over the Scottish Borders) so often that his horses would halt there without being told to do so. The story goes on that on his final trip through the land he’d loved so much, on his way to be buried at Dryburgh Abbey his horses stopped once more to give him a chance to take one last view.

“We’ll stop there first,” L tells me. And I’m thrilled.

She pulls into the little layby and I get out, camera ready.


The view.

The foreground gorse has bloomed a dusty gold. The clouds swoop down like birds. The Eildon Hills rise up, blue-green pyramids, from the not-so-distant horizon with their own golden blanket of gorse to warm their foothills. The trees of green, and green, and different green make odd patterns around a few patches of lighter green grassy fields. The land domes and descends, curves and rolls.

Not sure how much time we have, I creak my way down the hill of grass to one of the benches there overlooking it all. Another lady takes the bench over to the left. A man goes to stand at the edge of the gorse. But even tourists can’t get in the way of the view. I’m so taken in that I don’t even have to remind myself that I too am a tourist.

Sitting with the whole world, with all that matters before me, I feel as if I should instantly be able to speak some poetry, to write something, anything, everything. That I should be able to express how being here is being at the top of the world, stirred to feel that magic, dragons, and good exist. That if I weren’t too fond of gravity, if I stepped beyond the fence of gorse, I could fly out over that sea of green.

The earth rises and falls, and I feel small and eternal there at the top of it all. I want to spend the rest of my life in this spot. To see what each day looks like, what each season looks like. I want. I breathe. I am.  

Then, it’s time to go.

Back in the car, we drive through Dryburgh (pronounced Dryburoh) and as we travel on, I feel as if I’ve been transported to a different world. What is it? What is it? What is different? Why is it different? It doesn’t hit me until later that it’s the trees, the old trees. For weeks now, I’ve been staring at open fields, at rising hills, at lined stands of trees atop those rising hills through the window of my writing room, at those ever-moving cows, but I haven’t been among big and ancient trees for some time. As we walk into the Abbey grounds, I listen to the sounds. I hear the birds, I hear the bumble of the bumblebees, I hear the lilting sounds of Italian, of Spanish, of English. And I hear the sound of the trees. The language they speak is older, is deeper, is more filled with rolling r’s and rumbling g’s. It’s a language thick with earth and worms, and the absorption of water, mineral, oxygen.

Hello, old trees.

Aye, they seem to say. Aye, we hear you. They shift in the breeze. They sigh, contented to be. Then they doze, they watch, they speak, they grow older still. Moving down the graveled path, I look past them, and, there within the trees are the ruins.

There’s a peace among the ruins of the Abbey. Maybe it’s just the flowering pink of the cherry trees, the friendly blue of the forget-me-nots, but I feel as if I’ve never been happier in my life.

I follow behind L and Eddie, wander this way by myself, skip ahead for a moment there. We sit in the Chapter House and listen to the recording of the young boys’ choir playing from speakers that I never find among the stones.

“Last time I was here,” L says, “they were playing Gregorian Chants.”

“I bet that was something,” I say, leaning back against the cold stone of the house’s wall, looking up at the intact roof, and at the light coming in through the windows.

The Dryburgh Abbey was founded in 1152 by canons of the Premonstratensian order which was Augustinian in form (which in the simplest terms means that they followed the teachings of Augustine of Hippo who was all about following God with all one’s heart, being loving towards others, acknowledging grace, beauty, and singing—this is of course, a very summed up description of what it means to be Augustinian in form and shouldn’t be used by anyone to start up their own order). And, as at the Jedburgh Abbey, this order was made up of canons rather than monks which means that while they lived an austere, prayerful, and ordered life, they also interacted with the community.

We make our way out of the Chapter House and I walk through the other rooms with their crumbled walls. We stare at Sir Walter Scott’s tomb. I touch the old stone and look up at the open sky through the space where once a roof closed the walls in.

As I wander through, I reflect on the other Borders Abbeys. I’d felt comfortable at Jedburgh Abbey, at home. I’d felt a sense of miracle at the Kelso Abbey when I saw the sun light up a spider’s web. I’d felt a bit of judgment, a bit of aloofness at Melrose Abbey. Each different in their stone and ruin. Each different in their placement and welcome. Here, I feel at peace.

“I could have lived here,” I tell L.

“It gets really dark in the winter,” she says. “It’s really different.”

Maybe what I mean is I could have lived here now. With the clouds like dreams. With spring like promise. With the cloud of bugs like a swarm of birds. With the trees as old as they are.

The canons did not know these trees, not the ones I mark as being old, as many weren’t even planted until the 1700s. Though Dryburgh does boast a yew tree from the 1100s which one plaque says, “is thought to be older than the abbey.” The canons would have known that tree.

However, the canons did not know most of these trees for the abbey, suffering from attacks by the English, having been built and burned and rebuilt, had fallen into its exhausted decline by the 1500s.

In the 1700s, the beauty-loving Earl of Buchan bought the abbey in all its ruins and glory and organized its protection. It was he who planted the trees. It’s because of him that I’m able to visit the abbey on this day. I’m grateful.

While the trees slumber in the afternoon sun and murmur in their sleep, I read the plaques which talk of the strictness of the canon life, of the silence, the rigid schedule, the discipline. They tell of Brother Marcus who punched the Abbot in 1320 and how for that breach of manners, Brother Marcus was expelled. But what had the Abbot done? What drove Brother Marcus to such violence? Where had he gone after being excluded from the order? What peace had Brother Marcus never found? Or what peace had the Abbot lost?

Then, I think, this peace here that I feel, is just my own peace. It’s this place and me, the weather and the company. The joy of the open air and the beauty of ruins, of trees.  

When we’ve wandered all we want to, L, Eddie, and I leave the abbey. We drive into St. Boswell’s and have lunch at a delightful little cafĂ©. Then we go for a walk by the river.

When we return home, I feel as golden as the gorse at Scott’s View, as green as the grass growing tall by the river, as pink as the cherry tree blossoms of Dryburgh Abbey. As I fix my dinner and settle in for the night, like one of Virginia Woolf’s characters, I “[string] the afternoon on the necklace of memorable days.” I pin the abbey visit to my vest of collected experiences. Ah, what a day. What an abbey.

*From Virginia Woolf’s short story: Moments of Being
*For more stories and pictures check out my Patreon page here:

Monday, May 14, 2018

For a' That

There’s a moment of settling in.
When the hours at my computer seem to outnumber all other hours, when the view becomes familiar (if not quite taken for granted), when this chair becomes quite well known too, and these afternoon walks are now habit.
That moment of moving past tourist to visitor to local.

My days are filled with novel writing, as they’re supposed to be, centered in and on words rather than outward adventures. But, before the week gets lost to only words and walks, I do get the gift of a few excursions when my hosts L and G invite me out first to an exhibition opening at the City Art Center in Edinburgh and then to The String Jam Club in Selkirk. I go along with them like a guest, like a daughter, like a friend, like a local.  

Thursday, in the early evening, L and I take the train to the city and walk across the street from the station to the gallery. We meet up with G under the strength of whose name we’re getting into the invitation-only event, take up our glasses of wine, and mingle with their old friends until the announcements are made and the show officially opened.

Although I’ve done my best to dress up, I’m feeling dowdy and thick in my hiking shoes and think that it’s a funny contrast to the book I’m writing in which the characters are often dressed Black Tie perfect and performing in front of thousands. There’s that Latin phrase: Clothes Make the Man and I always adapt it to myself as: Shoes Make the Outfit. My outfits are seldom “made.” For I dress for comfort rather than style, I pack for lightness rather than for every occasion. Pretending polite invisibility, I stand a step outside the little conversational circle, watching people, observing their dress, mannerisms, behaviors, trying to tune into the discussions without getting involved in them.

We’re here to see Robert Callender: Plastic Beach … poetry of the everyday.

Robert Callender was one of G’s art teachers some years ago. Callender, 1932-2011, was an artist who worked in multiple media; painting, poetry, prose, installation, and more, and often blended his craft with ideas of the environment and the sea.  

Here I see the frame of some old ship, but this one is made of card, paper, paint, peat (as the tiny explanatory sign tells me). I want to touch it to see that it’s really paper and paint rather than wood or metal. But another sign tells me to keep my hands to myself, so I do.

Here I see a mishmash of items, shoes, signs, plastic, plastic, purses, gloves, tools, plastic, toys, a coat hanger, plastic – over 500 pieces that Callender collected from the beach and made into an installation. To remind us perhaps of our impact. To chastise us for our waste. To call attention to the sea. To transform trash into art. Maybe for all of the reasons above, maybe for none of them.

It’s an intriguing exhibition. One of those that makes me wonder: What makes art art?

For in the next room over is more. It’s a room with pieces by student-artists who were a part of a residency program with Robert Callender and who (from what I can glean) also tried to blend art with care for the environment. There on the wall is a series of photographs of the sea, of the beach. There is a video about sustainability, about impact, about farming. There in a corner off by itself, I see a stove with a large pot. A stove that’s not really a stove but only a life-sized replica of a stove. A pot that’s not a real pot. What does it mean? Why did the artist make it? Why is it here in this room? What does it have to do with art and the environment? There’s no sign to tell me what to think. Only a sign that says: Do not touch.

On a walk with L one day, she and I had talked about how too often art is hard to explain, to put all together under one banner, to say definitively “this is what it is” “this is what this means” and I said something like, “People don’t want to think for themselves. They want to be told what to think beforehand and then go look and say ‘yes, I agree’ or ‘no, I don’t agree.’”
Now I find myself wanting to be told what it all means, what to think, how to process what I see.

Instead, I have to think for myself. Which is perhaps the point. 
On Saturday night, G, L, and I drive a few villages over to Selkirk. G parks, we get out of the car, head out of the lot, walk past the statue of Sir Walter Scott, cross the street, and go into the hotel.

We sit in a room with tartan colors hung like paintings, with crowns as chandeliers.
The room has been arranged casually with chairs around long tables. The stage is just there, a small and cozy stage, the bright lights waiting for the musicians to arrive so as to shine down upon them.

“You’re getting the real Scottish experience,” L says.

The opening act sings old time jazz and swing songs, Ella Fitzgerald, Leonard Cohen, that make me forget where I am until one of the singers speaks and her accent is Scottish not American, not Canadian.

“The Scots love Americana,” L had told me. Folk, bluegrass, rock, jazz, country.

And I think of hammer dulcimers, lap dulcimers, harmonicas, and the clapping of hands, the stomping of feet as if I were from the Appalachian Mountains myself.  

Then on comes the main act, the real Scottish Experience wearing black denim and a red flannel shirt. Ewan McLennan singer, song-writer, balladist, storyteller. He opens his set with Robert Burns’ “A Man’s a Man for a’ That.” 
“That song doesn’t need any explanation here,” he says when he’s finished. “You’d be surprised how many places don’t know Robert Burns.” 

I know it’s Robert Burns because L had turned to me when the song began to whisper, “This is Robert Burns.” And I think, ah, yes. So it is. But what it means to be a man and a’ that, I don’t know. For the old Scottish brogue, for the poetry, for the history (I learn later that it was a revolutionary piece talking of the equality of man written by Burns in 1795). 

“Gude faith, he maunna fa’ all that. For a’ that, and a’ that.” What do I know of all that?

But still, I feel it, like the running of blood through veins, long-distant Scottish blood that runs through my veins still. This is home and it’s not home. These are my songs and they’re not my songs. This is what it is to be human, from somewhere, from anywhere, connected by words and chords and thought.

As he plays song to song, McLennan switches from guitar to banjo, from banjo to guitar, from traditional ballads to ones he’s written, tuning his instruments by ear while he talks, while he sings. He tells stories, little anecdotes, and he sings.

At the end of his first set, he plays an instrumental air and the notes rise, fill the room with haunting melancholy, the memory of loves lost, the hope of a beautiful future, an image of a mountain at sunset, the sea at its fullest, a sunrise to break the heart… How does music do that?   

Much like Rabbie Burns, like Robert Callender, Ewan McLennan too is an advocate for social justice and the environment. Playing along the frets of his guitar, he sings a song of his own, a song in which a grandmother and a granddaughter happen upon a beached whale, dying, magnificent even wound up in plastic and battle-scarred from the touch of propellers. “One, love, the last of its kind,” the grandmother says, McLenna sings. In front of me, L wipes away a tear, and I see all the plastic that Robert Callender collected out of the sea for his art and I see in my mind a dying whale and I want to cry too.

Maybe art says, Don’t think, feel. Maybe a song says, Don’t think, remember.

Feel the life around you. Feel the sky above you. Feel the waters of the sea as the last of the whales sound the depths. Pick up the trash. Look out the window. Think of what it is to be a man and a’ that. Remember. Remember. Feel. Stand for a moment in the sun. Paint. Write. Sing. Be.

In the morning, I take my coffee to my chair out in the garden. The sun adds freckles to my face. The bumblebees bumble by. The songbirds sing. The cows lay themselves down in the grass.

There’s a moment of settling in. Of being in a place. Of fitting in my own shoes. A moment of being human, compassionate, kind to the sea, careful with plastic, and touched by music.
There’s a moment of settling in.

*If you’re interested in hearing Ewan McLennan for yourself, you can check out his stuff here:
*More info about Robert Callender can be found here:
*More info about me can be found here: