I was having a bit of a wobble; a bleak, dark November crisis of confidence and positivity. So I went for a walk around the seaside town I’ve made my home for the winter (probably: the jury’s still out). And that’s when I stumbled across the Scallop Shell House.
It sits on an unprepossessing corner of a busy road, but it’s a work of art. And it brought an immediate rush of powerful Camino memories from the happy weeks I spent walking across Spain, following the scallop signs. At that time I had no doubts; it was enough to just follow the shells on the roads, the pavements and on the backs of my fellow pilgrims.
Earlier this year I discovered a rough track in the north of Scotland that was spread with thousands of scallop shells and took some comfort then that I was, just maybe, following the right road. I’ll do the same again tonight, and place my trust in the crazy little house of shells just along the street.
There’s deep snow underfoot and fluffy flurries falling as I walk in late afternoon light. It’s Ontario in the midst of a freezing Canadian winter, and I’m shovelling to clear the driveway, playing on skates, skis and snowshoes, taking endless photographs and piling on layer after layer to stay warm. I grab wool, down, boots, fleeces, gloves, hat, more down and sunglasses and am rewarded with whiteness, shadows, a glowing body, aching muscles and a warm dram at night. There’s no guilt.
Guilt? For enjoying winter?
We had snow too when I was little, growing up on a Scottish dairy farm which was perched at the top of a steep slippery brae. There was only one focus every snowy morning; the long farm track had to be ploughed and sanded for the daily visit of the milk tanker. The pot-bellied lorry had to power its way up the hill and manoeuvre round the bends to reverse into position outside the dairy, unhook its long pipe and suck the bulk tank dry because a herd of cows was already gearing up to fill it all over again . And they couldn’t wait.
It seemed the jeopardy was with us every morning. Would this be the day the snow and ice would prove to be too much and we’d have to pour the hard-earned milk down the drain? We kids had the family farm work ethic; we knew it mattered.
My father and the men would spend the morning scraping and sanding the road then hook a tractor to pull the tanker up and up, climbing round the dangerous slippery drops which fell to the river far below. We’d listen for the sound, willing the engine noise to slowly draw closer and roar outside the farmhouse window. Not until it was safely back down the hill could we children make slides and throw snowballs, knowing that all was well with the world. Until the next day.
It’s a lifetime ago but carefree snow is still a novelty. This week I’m embracing it.
I travelled such a long way to visit….
… but only the chickadees came out to play on the cross country trails.
I’ve written the last paragraph.
It’s just the beginning and it’s not even a full first draft, but it feels like an achievement and I need to share it. Writing’s a lonely business and most of my pals suspect I’ve been loafing around and reading novels these past eight months. My “book” has become an in-joke! And that’s absolutely fine because I’m not comfortable describing myself as a writer… yet! Journalist? That’s different; I’ve spent 30 years being paid to write and broadcast.
But finishing the last chapter gives me the impetus to start editing, rewriting and checking on facts. I’ll be more confident in contacting all the professionals who’ve helped so far and I’ll speak to others. There’s still so much to do, and many words to write, but at least there’s a structure now. I can finally see the light.
I started my research in March and took chunks of time out to walk and travel but other than that, writing this story has been my “work” this year, and I’ve learned a lot. It was a mistake to start without a plot but then I didn’t know there were going to be so many words! And I hadn’t a clue how it would end – until it did.
I hope I’m not tempting fate by setting a deadline now, but I intend to have a first draft by the end of the year. And when my family come home at Christmas I hope I’ll have the courage to show them what I’ve been doing all these months.
Now there’s a scary prospect.
I’ve traded superfast Wi-Fi and a reliable phone signal for a log fire, candles and a cottage door that opens onto a Highland beach.
On my first night here I fell asleep convinced that through the bed, the floor, the foundations and the sand I could feel the vibration of the waves on the shore just a hundred yards away. On a wild day I will certainly hear them smashing against the pier.
I know the tide times now; I know when to walk so the rock pools and seaweed will be uncovered. My mind and body are becoming attuned to signals that are natural rather than electronic. No bleeps.
It’s getting dark early at night and it’s quiet; I hear nothing through the thick old walls of this fisherman’s cottage so for the first time in months I slept beyond 6.30am today. And 7.30.
At 8.30 I woke slowly to tranquility I haven’t experienced for years. Is this the return of a natural body clock that isn’t disrupted by the reflex rush to check gmail, Facebook or Whatsapp before breakfast? For the next few months there will be no wakening up to read the BBC news or regular bloggers over a cup of tea. No more crumbs of toast in the keyboard.
For two days now I’ve been writing without distractions and I’m sitting tonight down by the hearth with candles burning. No music. No radio. Just the crackle of the logs and the smell of wood.
It’s what I wanted, but going cold turkey and withdrawing to a life without instant access to knowledge, friends, research and trivia is confirming just how many waking hours I’m wasting by clicking and mindlessly browsing. Random notions to price international flights I’ll never catch have to be dismissed. But will that mean I read more or write better? I guess I’ll find out.
It’s still too early for a full hibernation so in the morning I’ll walk to the library to send emails and this update and by the time you read it I’ll have returned to Internet exile. Temporarily.
But if I no longer inhabit a virtual world do friends and readers still exist? If I can’t see you, can you still see me?
I’m just wondering.