Signal

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View of the Firth of Forth from the back of the Salisbury Crags, in Holyrood Park, on a day of scattered showers

This post is a signal flare in the guise of words. I’ve got to write something not simply to catch you up, but to explain a new direction here, on this blog.

For those of you who don’t know, I moved to Edinburgh, in Scotland, a couple of months ago. (I know! Back a few years, I wrote a string of dismayed posts about our first forays into relocating to Britain or to the Netherlands. And HERE WE ARE!)

I could write about the journey to get here, but interesting as it was, I’ll run straight to the point: since arriving in Scotland, I have begun to write short prose poems. So while I might write a long post now and again, in the style of my 2012–2015 output, for the most part, you will see short posts.

For those of you on Facebook, you will be able to continue reading the prose poems there as well. That’s where they’ve “lived” until now, anyway. I like to think of my words in your news feed, alongside the memes, dog photos, and outrage. Sink or swim. May some of these word-pictures swim far into your mind, bringing with them some borrowed peace.

My decision to post these short pieces on Facebook was unpremeditated. That’s just where I put them. It was easy—less introspective and less intimidating than creating a new blog post draft. It was only a bit later that I stumbled on the poems-in-social-media phenomenon. I read Brian Bilston’s “How I accidentally became a poet through Twitter” and a Guardian piece on the questions surrounding writers who self-publish through social media; I discovered Nayyirah Waheed through a graphic circulating on Facebook and learned that she is an Instagram and Tumblr poet; and then I learned about Rupi Kaur, too. I am genuinely interested in what poems can contribute to social media, but I have no mission; just a desire to offer something sincere when Facebook asks me, “What’s on your mind?”

You will also find that some of these short prose-poems, in their blog post counterparts, will be accompanied by brief audio recordings of the post read aloud. Why? The best answer is “Just because.” Growing up, I fantasized about becoming a professional audiobook narrator. I’ve decided to indulge that impulse in amateur projects, just for the fun of it.

This multi-pronged new direction for my creative writing probably isn’t very sensible. It’s generally not advisable to try your hand at many things when you’ve been stoppered up as a writer. But I am going to go where inclination takes me, because I certainly haven’t been getting anywhere as a writer by trying to figure out a straight path!

So: new direction with overlapping circle-back.

“Why prose poems, of a sudden?” you might ask. That’s just what’s coming out. I don’t even think of myself as a poet, so I am as surprised as you. I have so much respect for the skills that poets learn—the skills of meter and structure. I am honestly horrible at those skills. But prose poems are the closest thing I can think of to call what has been coming out of my mind since arriving here, so I am going with it.

When I arrived in Edinburgh in September, I was keenly aware of a rare opportunity to change. A move—especially a transnational move—is excellent for creating a new routine, or bringing forward a new personal emphasis. What I wanted—what I still want—is to spend part of every day out of doors, in a non-manicured landscape. I’ve become convinced over the past six years that this is the only way I can be creative again, and the only way I can find my way back to a trust-based walk with God. (I may share more on that in the coming months.)

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Holyrood Park, view on our neighbourhood (photo credit: Matthias)

When we were trying to decide between the Masters programmes to which Matthias had been accepted, Edinburgh seemed to me an ideal place for this experiment. A city, but not enormous. A city, but full of green space, much of it still wild (49 percent! See “Edinburgh and Glasgow top UK list of green space cities”). We needed a city because Matthias is a huge city guy, and because neither of use copes well with rural culture. We needed to be near history (Edinburgh was founded before the 7th century!), culture, ethnic food—somewhere we would hear more than one language spoken, see more than one skin tone.

But I also longed on a subterranean level for Land. I’ve been profoundly unsettled in soul since I moved to the Midwest in 2008. Unsettled. Unlanded.

I believe intention can make any land, any terrain, interesting. The American Midwest has much to recommend it. But I just could not make a connection.

I don’t know how to explain this. Why couldn’t I make a connection? And why did this trouble me so much?

The degree to which I felt unnerved might be because I am in exile. I had a deep bond with the landscape in northern Benin before I moved to America. I came of age in a place where I felt communion with my surroundings. Benin is not especially beautiful, and it has comparably few interesting geographical features. Yet I was deeply in love with it. And this love tied knots in my spiritual life, securing my sense of God’s presence to a connection with physical place.

Living in upstate New York during my university years, this bothered me. “New York is land not Land,” I wrote in a creative nonfiction piece my senior year, thinking I had put a finger on it. But the crisis did not come to a head until I moved to the Midwest. Why? Perhaps it was because the geography had more similarity with Benin’s. The disconnection felt acute. It was glaringly obvious. Or, perhaps it was because my spiritual trajectory was rapidly taking me to the brink of a cliff. I lost my confidence in my spiritual ability. As the floor fell out beneath me, I expected Land to catch me, and there was none. Just land. Stretching in an endless prairie, without meaning to me.

On my previous trips to Scotland, the first one at age eighteen, I immediately recognized that the mysterious connection does exist for me here. Scotland is Land for me. Also strange. I am not from Scotland. It is fair to say, however, that Britain formed my imagination, both through the books I read growing up, and my British-leaning education. Some of the most important figures in my life, both as a child and as an adult, have been British.

Whatever the reasons, I am intensely grateful to find the lost connection here.

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This is the view from our street: the peak of Arthur’s Seat!

Holyrood Park is a ten-minute walk from our flat in Meadowbank, Edinburgh. “Park” might suggest a planned landscape, but it is quite a wild place, criss-cross with the story of thousands and millions of walkers on two feet and on four (so many dogs!). It is named for Holyrood Abbey, now in ruins, which flanks the palace. But it is not the palace or the abbey ruin that dominates the park. That honour goes to Arthur’s Seat. “A hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design,” Robert Louis Stevenson famously put it. Arthur’s Seat is only 251 meters above sea level.

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Arthur’s Seat, from Regent Road; the roof belongs to Holyrood Palace (photo credit: Matthias)

A microcosm of wild terrain, Holyrood Park is 650 acres only, the Highlands in miniature without losing any of her dignity.

I try to walk in it every morning, which means I only manage a couple mornings each week. But something has happened to me.

“You seem more alive than I ever remember you being,” my friend Justin said to me recently.

Yes. I am more alive.

I feel as though I have finally fully woken up after many years walking around on benadryl!

These prose poems are berries and leaves I have dropped in God’s path before flying nervously away. Will he notice them? Stoop for them?

Or perhaps I am an eager dog, fetching back to him the branch he first threw.

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(Photo credit: Matthias)

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Glints

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The backs of the crows shine today! Lance-point feathers. I stride toward them, scattering the seagulls and crows alike, my heart rushing at them like a collie dog, and I feel my courage rise with my chin, which doesn’t always follow.

The burn shines, too. Standing on its bank, I look up the cascades of loping, preening water and slip into trance like an otter would fold into this stream. It’s a tower, this burn. Ringing bells upon bells of sound into my mind’s night. I am a curiosity, standing still like this for minute after minute, just looking, just listening, not even pretending the summit of Arthur’s Seat is my goal. Here is my cathedral.

Why do my eyes well? Why do the backs of the crows shine? When I look at this burn, all I can think is, See how the world carries the Light? Into every age, into every land, the world carries the Light. On feather. On stream. Even on my copper head. I turn for home where tourists are just beginning the ascent.

Lesson in a Bottle

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Sometimes I wish Holyrood Park were not so full of people. Guiltily, I want it both ways: the park enjoyed by its people—the locals, the tourists, the dogs—but the park to myself. Its slopes are dotted with chattering walkers even on weekdays! Ugh. And the litter! Who leaves beer bottles and candy wrappers on hills! And what is THIS abomination of a drink?! Tequila BEER? That’s what you chose to drink on this beautiful spot?!

I stoop for it, determined to do the park one kindness today, and the wind rushes into the bottle in purls of sound. I blink. She arches her eyebrows at me as, with a flick of my wrist, she holds the bottle to her lips, purring softly on her new flute! “I make do,” she says.

This litter has chastised me.

The White Horse Rides Again

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Do you see it, too? A horse leaping, neck arched to look behind it, tail fanning out in its wake.

For a startled moment, I wondered if I were seeing a hill figure out of legend! A figure like the Uffington White Horse, only ephemeral, visible to the human eye in fleeting snow. No chalk downs here!

33 Things I Have Learned this Year

Here I am to report on 33 things I have learned in the past year—only about a month late. 🙂 I’ve picked up this habit from my friend Stephanie. I love the way it helps me focus on personal growth and new experiences instead of Western culture’s obsessive fear of “getting old.”

I moved to a new country since my previous birthday (!!), so this has definitely been a year of new experiences!

(These 33 items are not in any particular order.)

Musings on Adventure from an Anxious Protagonist1. I didn’t know I could be this brave, this resolved. Deciding to move to Scotland was a BIG DEAL for us. A year ago, we had no idea we would be living here in Edinburgh eight months later. It’s a long story, and it took a tremendous amount of courage and determination to get through each stage of the journey, from researching the possibility to actually buying the airline tickets. (I wrote a bit about this in “Musings on Adventure from an Anxious Protagonist.”)

2. How to apply for a UK student visa. This is something I’ve never done before. My visa status when living in Benin and Niger was handled by my parents. The only visa I’ve ever needed as an adult was a tourist visa when I took Matthias to Benin. Student visas—and student “dependent” visas (what I needed)—are much more complicated and expensive. It was an interesting experience! If I had any doubts about our resolve to move to the UK, our willingness to slog through all that paperwork and financial hassle proved we were ready to do this.

3. I found a migraine drug that works for me! I made the mistake of assuming that Excedrin Migraine would be available here in the UK in some form. I didn’t even bring a backup bottle with me!! But. This was the push I needed to finally try prescription medication for migraines. I am so grateful for the NHS (National Health Services), giving me this wonderful opportunity to explore this! All the consultations with the doctor and the prescriptions themselves were free and will continue to be. I was able to try two variations—sumatriptan and rizatriptan—and the second one is working! It’s especially great because it does not damage my tummy and liver, as Excedrin does. I don’t know yet if I will be able to afford to continue using this drug in the US, where I have heard it can cost $40 per tablet!!

4. On the topic of healthcare, wonderful as the NHS is, what isn’t wonderful is learning how to navigate healthcare in a totally different country and culture. Everyone at our doctor’s office has been lovely to us, taking pains to explain how “simple” things like making an appointment and signing up for online prescription ordering works. I am so grateful for them. I feel we really lucked out with this practice.

5. How to get a bank account in the UK. This is was the single biggest surprise for Matthias and me. It is not like the United States at all. Much more difficult. Plus, not only does excellent American credit mean N.O.T.H.I.N.G. here, but even the way to get good credit differs. By some miracle, because I work, I was able to get us approved for a credit-card-issuing bank account—something not available to international students.

6. I was not prepared for how much bigger my genre is here in the UK! Book shops carry SO MUCH landscape writing, nature writing, travel writing… They even have whole sections of shelving to themselves! Every time I go into Waterstones, I just want to curl up on top of “my” sections like a Smaug.

7. How to get up into the Highlands. It can take some planning to get out into the Highlands from Edinburgh—unless you’re prepared to pay money for a bus tour. But we cracked it! I now know how train and bus schedules can be found and read—and the value of Railway Passes! I’m really looking forward to getting away to the Western Highlands and the Hebrides with Matthias in April.

8. There’s no angel food cake in Scotland. 😦 Angel food cake, strawberries, and freshly whipped cream are my birthday dessert of choice. But I didn’t feel like making this from scratch, so I made galette des rois. (Not as impressive as it might seem considering how cheap ready-rolled puff pastry is!!)

9. Don’t buy houseplants in a new home until you find out the light patterns in winter. 😦 We have some big windows on both sides of the apartment, but the beams of sunshine that streamed in when we moved in, in September, quickly shrank back. Even on a very sunny day, the rays just didn’t reach down far enough into the street or garden. If only I had known, I would have purchased plants happy with indirect light.

10. Troopa boots are wonderful. I knew this before, but I love them even more now. I bought new hiking shoes before we flew to Scotland, but I needn’t have. I wear my Troopas everywhere, in all weather. As long as I have warm enough socks, they do great, and they look “me”—something sneakers never manage to do.

11. How to dry laundry without a tumble dryer in a wet climate. Radiators and drying racks, naturally—I knew that before I moved here. But there’s an art and a strategy to getting the clothes to dry quickly.

One thing I haven’t adapted to is my neighbours’ habit of leaving items on the line out in the garden overnight! No dew on my laundry for me, thank you!

12. I take it all back! Electric fireplaces are wonderful! Yes, even the cheap kind that only cost £70. I have been a real wood fire snob. I still LOVE open wood fires. But living in a tenement flat with a thermostat that can’t be programmed with a timer, I am so in love with this little electric fireplace and outlet timer I bought. They warm up our bedroom so that I actually get up in the morning!!

13. Drinking tea loose-leaf, from teapots, is really not that common in Scotland! It’s all tea bags!

14. Just how amazing and supportive our friends and family are. The BIGGEST gift to us was Kirk and Deb’s offer to let us store tons of our stuff in their garage and basement. But support from my bosses, Dan and Carrol, who have allowed me to work remotely from halfway across the world, has also been a HUGE factor in the success of this adventure. My parents helped us tremendously with the financial requirements of our visas, and Matthias’s parents saw us out of the Midwest with full support.

15. I was NOT crazy for feeling as though I did not belong in the Midwest. I cannot begin to explain the immense relief I felt when the train pulled away from the Kansas City station for the first leg of our journey to Scotland. These months since finally getting out the Midwest have felt like waking up from a bad dream. (Sorry Midwest. You’re awesome. Just not where we need to be.)

16. I can be genuinely sad to leave an American Midwest town. This seems like a contradiction to what I just wrote, but somehow both are true. I am so happy to have left the Midwest, but I miss Lawrence, Kansas, fiercely sometimes. It’s just such a wonderful town.

oyan-blog-legwork-pinterest17. My gut was right about needing a change of landscape to release my creativity. I wrote about this at some length in “Signal” and in “Legwork: Walking So You Can Write.”

18. I’ve always liked moss, but wow! Moss in Scotland is so deep and varied! I love nothing more than lying down on a bed of plush moss. I am inspired to learn more about these plants.

19. Counseling still has something to offer me. This probably sounds super obvious, but I had come to a point where I just didn’t believe further counseling could bring any more breakthrough for me. My problems often seem insurmountable—something, at this point, to adjust to instead of fighting to overcome. I went back to counseling out of a sense that at least I could get some support and accountability for self-care. But I really didn’t expect any useful input. After all, hadn’t I read all the books by now? Gone to counseling? Tried all the healing prayer options on the table? Etc.? But when I went, I found that my previous hard work in counseling was ready to pay dividends I didn’t expect. I needed a further push to create momentum so the hard work could find a release. I felt hope for the first time in many years. I can go far on a small amount of hope!

The one regret I have in leaving Lawrence was stopping my sessions with the wonderful counselor I found there. She was a gem. She changed my life.

20. The power of being understood and being in the same room. For the first time in years, I live in the same place as a very close friend of mine who has a similar background to me. It is the most amazing feeling to talk to someone and know that the person already understands most of the background without any need for me to explain. That’s not entirely new, of course: in the past two or three years in particular, I have come back to my roots through forging and re-forging friendships with people from my past. Add to that the comfort of everyday friendship. It’s been so long since I have experienced this that it has really touched my heart. I am lucky to have many wonderful friends all over the globe. But there is something very special about my friendships with roots in my childhood. You know who you are. ❤

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Visiting Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle

21. Some of Scotland’s most iconic sites can’t be captured on camera. There’s a reason the panorama photograph was invented in Edinburgh: Scotland’s landscape needs to be experience in surround sound, so to speak. I was astonished by Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle, for example. They really are as beautiful as people say they are. The mediocre pictures online just couldn’t show me the magic.

22. It IS possible to find cheap socks Matthias won’t wear out in a matter of months. I got lots of great suggestions from friends on Facebook, but they were all out of our price range. These have been WONDERFUL. He walks for at least an hour and a half on most days, and they’re still in great shape, and they breathe well.

23. I enjoy photography. I didn’t know this about myself. I am an amateur, with a lousy phone camera, but I enjoy myself!

24. It seems silly, but I didn’t fully anticipate the cultural stress I would undergo in this move. I am older and more stable than I was at 19 when I moved from Benin to the USA. And this is a change from one developed country to another. Yet there are new facets to this move: This is the first time we have lived as a couple in a country that is “neutral”—neither of us is in our “home” country. But this is also the first place we have lived where important people from my “old life”/my subculture—people who are like family to me—are nearby. In a strange sense, it’s been a little like moving home again. And that has brought up emotions and identity conflict for me.

25. My body still manifests cultural stress in the same way it did when I was nineteen. Again, not sure why this surprised me as much as it did. The symptoms were milder by far, but still, the same symptoms. Horribly irritated skin, unconscious scratching in my sleep, feeling cold. I was glad I brought so many of my pictures, rolled in poster tubes. Familiar pictures on the walls have proved very grounding for me over the years.

26. This move has taught me something of the immigrant experience. I have SO MUCH RESPECT for immigrants—their resilience and bravery. And a deeper empathy for the desperation that drives a person to do almost anything to be able to stay in a new land where you can see some kind of hope for your future.

27. Dogs in Edinburgh are so well behaved and quiet! The city is full of dogs, but I never hear them bark. And most of them go about with their owners without even needing a leash. They are just wonderful to watch—especially the border collies, of which there are many!

28. How to navigate energy companies. Scotland has so many energy companies that I found myself very overwhelmed. I am used to the US, where there usually isn’t any choice at all. To go from a default local provider to choosing between about twenty alternatives, all in terminology not quite familiar to me was an experience! I was thrilled to land on a clean energy option, called “Bulb,” that has been very easy to use so far.

29. Thanks to my friend Ruth, I discovered a new favourite artist, Matylda Konecka. Her pieces, many of them set in Scotland, are enchanting.

30. Scottish history! We didn’t have much Scottish history education before we started to visit Scotland, and, more recently, moved here. Most of what we knew about Scotland related to interactions with England. I am really glad I have this opportunity to even out my understanding of the history of the British Isles. And Matthias is kind enough to share much of what he reads and learns for his classes.

31. In Britain, there is a license fee for watching/listening to live TV/radio programs, including through most streaming services. It’s how the BBC is funded. We knew this before we moved here, but it has been odd to have less access to British radio and TV now that we are here. We also have limited access to American TV content. We could pay the fee, of course, but it doesn’t seem necessary for only one year. And we have so much to see and experience as it is. We’ll catch up later!

32. Understanding of why British people consider short distances a far ways to go. I used to find it amusing that my British friends considered a two-hour train journey a long trip. Compared to North America, places in Britain are so very close to each other! But now that I live here and have to pay for my train and bus tickets out of “everyday budgeting” instead of holiday money, I get it. The cost of train travel—and even bus travel!—can be quite expensive.

33. Since moving to Scotland, I have shifted my workday from a “9 to 5” schedule to working in the afternoon and evening (haha! As though I ever finished at 5!!). I did this so I could maximize the number of hours I overlap with my coworkers in the US, but unwittingly, I did myself a major favour. It turns out that this is a much better routine for me. Moving my “free time” to the morning, when the sun is up and I have energy, has been wonderful. I used to feel very discouraged because by the time I finished working, I had no energy or daylight to pursue my own interests. I would end up frittering away my evenings on mindless activities or exhausting myself cleaning the kitchen, etc. I can’t begin to explain how encouraging it has been to have some energy to give to reading, writing, and spending time out of doors!

 

Thanks for reading! On to more new experiences!

Somebody to Someone

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Stone flowers. The crush of stone stars falling.

A stone says, stiff with fatigue, “This is what I saw that night so long ago—that meteor shower. I’ve been trying to tell you. Such beauty—someone must remember it. It’s almost done. Almost perfect. I am almost ready to pass the baton. Would you say this will stick in your mind? Can you see it?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Sorry,” says the stone, “I don’t mean to be rude. I just know how pervious you walkers are. And SOMEBODY must remember.”

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Lines from Edward Thomas

The Road

Roads go on
While we forget, and are
Forgotten like a star
That shoots and is gone.

On this earth ’tis sure
We men have not made
Anything that doth fade
So soon, so long endure:

The hill road wet with rain
In the sun would not gleam
Like a winding stream
If we trod it not again.

They are lonely
While we sleep, lonelier
For lack of the traveller
Who is now a dream only.

—lines from ‘The Road,’ by Edward Thomas

What to do?

Tender Sky

Tender is the sky
as he leans over me
to see Am I all right?
He furrows his brows in deeper blue
Passes a hand of grey over his mouth.
Should he say something?

No. Instead he will descend in mist.
Instead he will bathe me in cloud like silk.
Why not?
He notices the dust accumulated on my regret.
Who can see and not do something?

Yes.

My lashes and cheeks are wet
with kindness.
My hair is a forest of kelp
Drifting quietly.
Regret turns to confession.
The snow melt picks out a path
to communion.
I look around me,
count the silhouettes of hikers
on the spines of the hills.
I wish—oh, I wish I dared
remove all my clothes
to swim in this!