Pay Attention

a reblogged post from In Flow

In Flow

munchow_0949-072.jpgI think all creatives yearn for some kind of success, some kind of recognition for the work we do. Success is maybe not why we photograph, write, paint or travel—or whatever creative activity we do—or ought not to be. The work itself, being creative, is a reward good enough if we only let ourselves not get obsessed with the thought of success. The craving for success can actually get in the way of our creative endeavour.

Nevertheless, we do feel good when we experience some kind of success, whether it’s monetary gain or just some heartfelt feedback from a good friend. I am sure you know what I am talking about.

Success is all in our minds, though. You cannot control how the world will receive and perceive your artistic work, but you can be in command of how you feel about it yourself. If you let yourself feel good…

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Backyard Brief: Great Blue Birthday

January 21, 2017

Blessed on a mild, mid-winter Saturday by a close encounter with a great blue heron, we spotted him from the bridge over Tuscarawas Race. We paused at the threshold between the Coventry Oaks and Tuscarawas Meadows areas of Firestone Metropark in Akron, Ohio.

After a vigorous hill walk with views of downtown and a water tower, we came upon deer and dog tracks and droppings at the base of the bare field. Ahead, whispering, my husband called me to the bridge, toward the woods.

Shielded by leafless branches, the gray, reflecting apparition scarcely twitched before us, though our own insides leapt at the sight.

The long and short of it: 

Caught fishing, eating the fish, and switching banks to fish some more.

Wading, spying, preening, going about his business, he seemed to get used to us lingering there on the bridge as our crouched legs cramped up. Along with my shoulders and hands, they stiffened as I strained to capture, to hold, to know something I did not yet know.

With better sense, my husband stood before I did, and soon a rowdy family came along the path beside the great blue’s bank.

I finally rose but could not unbend without help; all my leg muscles and joints seemed to rebel as one mob. Grace belonged wholly to the heron.

Thus ended the suspense as it withdrew in silent flight down the race, perching on a stone in the water, perhaps to fish again. Our day was complete, our own next meal an easy catch.

A happy “10 and 30th” birthday to another seeker, indeed. And, with this photo gallery of its signature bird, happy 3rd anniversary to the fledgling pond called Philosofishal.


All images © C. L. Tangenberg

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3

In Part 2, we explored the western central and southern sites of Outlander TV series filming, focusing on the Glasgow area and Ayrshire. This time, we head north into the Highlands, starting with Perthshire, also a central region. In an upcoming post, I’ll present our particular trip itinerary for your consideration and discuss existing Outlander-dedicated tours you can book and enjoy in your Scotland travels. To start our journey from the beginning, see An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 1.

As for the Outlander sites, this post will take us full circle so to speak from one version of the story’s central plot mechanism—the fictional standing stone circle of Craigh na Dun—to another, with several essential stops in between. We start north of the main cities Glasgow and Edinburgh and take a gradual north-westerly path from there. The climb begins with a tantalizing mystery of the TV show and ends with a point of resonance for Diana Gabaldon’s creation of the books. You may also learn some history along the way.

Dividing a Nation

One thing I noticed in my tourism research was how inconsistently the areas of Scotland are named from one resource to another and over time. To distinguish areas of north central and northern Scotland for this post, and find current, accurate names for them, I finally found a resource that clarifies how Scottish lands are sliced and how they overlap: UndiscoveredScotland.co.uk.

Fully orient yourself to where’s where on their Councils, Regions, and Counties page, which links to breakdowns of those three different types of division. Or, for the simplified tourism approach, see the official Scottish Tourist Board website mentioned previously, VisitScotland.com. Find out more about how the tourism industry, as well as British and Scottish governments, have labeled things; see the first footnote under the heading “Notes on Area Names.” *

In short, it can be confusing, but with quick look-ups, ready resources, and having precise addresses, you’ll find your tailored trip less daunting to plan. If you’re going far less DIY, it shouldn’t matter. I can nearly guarantee you’ll be well taken care of, at least in country. Choice of travel agent or airline in your home country–and now, perhaps, getting home again–is another matter.

From Here on Up

The Highlands, broadly considered, are sort of a mythical, amorphous landscape in some respects, for a few reasons. For a discussion of this issue, see my second footnote section under “Notes on Area Names.” **

Whatever names the land acquires, one of its most distinguishing features are its diverse, ubiquitous configurations of rock and stone, both geologic—hills, caves, coast lines, mountains, tors, volcanic plugs—and man made—standing stones, stone circles, cairns, brochs, crofts, stone fences, houses, streets, castles, and so on. Stone, loch, and green together mean “Scotland.”

The “Highlands” Sites:

Outlander Show Filming, Book Story, and Scottish History by Region or County

My heart is in the Highlands, wherever I go” – Robert Burns

Perthshire, Perth & Kinross council area     →      Outlander film setting

From roughly east to west toward the Great Glen, the areas of general attraction in the glen of Rannoch include Schiehallion, Dunalastair Estate, Kinloch Rannoch village, Loch Rannoch, and Rannoch Moor.

Rannoch. → On a line east of Glencoe and Fort William in the Central Highlands, somewhere on the Dunalastair Estate, they “can’t tell you where,” the Outlander TV production erected their set of Diana Gabaldon’s fictional circle of standing stones called Craigh na Dun. Shown in eps 101, 103, 108, 111, 201, and 213, this set of Claire’s time-travel scenes includes its backdrop—the very real Loch Rannoch and surrounding mountains, including Schiehallion to the southeast.

Lying on a National Scenic Area between the Cairngorms National Park to the north and Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park to the south, Dunalastair Estate sits on 17,000 acres. The village, loch, hills, and moor are accessible to the general public, as are the holiday cottages for booking on estate land. Caitriona Balfe (Claire Randall Fraser) once called this filming location her favorite and noted the magic that seemed to meet the crew each time, and she’s not the only one. Source: Travel+Leisure magazine’s article “The Cast and Crew of ‘Outlander’ Reveal Their Favorite Filming Locations.”

The Dunalastair Estate website features comprehensive details for tourists. It covers area clan history, the estate family, farm, village, wildlife, rare plants, hiking, horse riding, railway, and other recreational options, plus links to websites like that of the Rannoch and Tummel Tourism Association. Source: http://www.dunalastair.com/Dunalastair-Estate

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Rannoch Moor looking west to Glen Coe. Creative Commons image by cosmicherb70, via Buzzfeed.com & Flickr

* * *

Argyll (county), Highland council area      →      Outlander film settings

Glen Coe. This mountain range is in long shots of Scotland. It was all about showcasing Scotland itself. If you’ve seen representative landscape views of Scotland in any form, chances are you’ve seen Glen Coe. One such view has been my blog’s header image in early 2017. The glen is the result of glaciers cutting into extinct volcanoes, creating a broad, sweeping valley of pleasing symmetry from key vantage points.

Glencoe is the name of the village in Lochaber to the west of the picturesque glen, and the two are connected by the umbilicus of the River Coe. Coming from the south, follow the A82 westward from Loch Lomond toward Glencoe Village, Loch Leven, and the Great Glen. There are dedicated viewpoints along the way where you can park and take it all in.

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The Three Sisters of Glen Coe, Season 1, Episode 1, opening shot during Claire’s voice-over. Image by STARZ & Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

* * *

Cairngorms National Park, Highland       →       Outlander film settings

“Cairngorms” rather loosely translated means “pile of blue rocks,” or “blue stone heap.” The Gaelic for this mountain range sounds much better, and Gaelic is often helpfully descriptive. There is also a single mountain called Cairngorm. Covering a vast area of natural beauty, rare wildlife (wildcats, capercaillies, and mountain hares in winter, red squirrels, red deer, and others), scenic vistas, castle ruins, pine forests, lochs, burns, and waterfalls, nature-loving visitors can spend substantial time in the Cairngorms National Park year round and not be disappointed.

If you were traveling from Rannoch, you would enter the park from the south, taking the A9 which starts in Stirling and flows through Inverness all the way to the far northwest Highland ferry port of Scrabster. The River Spey chases the A9 along the western boundary of the Cairngorms, and soon both find the small town of Newtonmore, just north of which is the Highland Folk Museum.

Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, Cairngorms National Park, Highland. Almost due north of the village of Kinloch Rannoch, this historical outdoor museum recreates 18th-century Highland life every day and aids in Outlander storytelling in a few ways  → in ep101 for the shelter where Murtagh first takes Claire to meet the other Highlanders, the scenes of village folk around the Castle Leoch area in season 1, and during ep105 for rent collections and wool waulking when the ladies sing “Mo Nighean Donn.”

From their website under the auspices of stewards Highlife Highland, “The Highland Folk Museum sits at the east edge of the village of Newtonmore less than two miles from the town of Kingussie. It lies just off the A9 at the west side of the Cairngorms National Park.”

As a preserved 18th-century village, the attraction has a total of 30 time-period furnished buildings, including a 1700s township of six buildings and a section featured as a working 1930s croft. The whole property, fully active up until the 1960s, spans one mile in length and also contains the Shelter, “Am Fasgadh,” housing 10,000 artifacts, plus a research library, conservation lab, offices, meeting rooms, and more.

Source: https://www.highlifehighland.com/highlandfolkmuseum/

The address is , Kingussie Road, Newtonmore, Inverness-shire, PH20 1AY. Currently in winter closure, the site will reopen in April 2017. Visit the official website for more pictures and information.

Tulloch Ghru, Rothiemurchus Forest, near Aviemore and Inverdruie, Cairngorms National Park, Highland, is an area of hilly woodlands spreading north of, but not far from, the Highland Folk Museum. → Featured in the opening credits of each episode and in scenes where Claire and the Highlanders travel from Craigh na Dun to Castle Leoch in ep101, “Sassenach,” it is peppered like Rannoch with ancient Caledonian pines along a western stretch of Cairngorms National Park.

Tulloch Ghru may also serve in parts of ep108, “Both Sides Now,” such as the woods where Claire and Willie wait while Jamie and the others meet Horrocks. (Not sure about this; I cannot find my original source for that idea.) But you won’t find it mentioned on standard tourist websites.

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Tulloch Ghru, maybe –> Claire, Jamie & Dougal talk British ambush risk. Image by STARZ & Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

The Outlander filming sweet spot is somewhere between Aviemore and Inverdruie, southeast of both and not far south of the Cairngorms Reindeer Centre. To start the hunt, follow the sleuthing, with information distinguishing place names in the area (Tulloch to the north vs. “Tullochghru” to the south), diligently pursued and shared at Wizzley.com. An old map of the area appears on that site.

Anyway, such pine forests in Scotland, though few compared to their ubiquity in times past, provide similar atmosphere as each other, and wee Tulloch Ghru may not stand out visually to the Outlander tourist. Generally, woodland film locations are notoriously difficult for the mere mortal to pinpoint once the crew cleans up, though some visitors may prevail. Interested in plant succession and vegetation change in the park since the last Ice Age? Knock yourself out at Cairngorms Learning Zone.

Note: Cocknammon Rock, also featured in this portion of ep101, is a fictional rock formation invented by Diana Gabaldon and created by the show with special effects.

The Cairngorms National Park itself boasts several helpful tourist resources at visitcairngorms.com (supported by VisitScotland.com, the official tourist board of Scotland) and cairngorms.co.uk, among other sites. For an outline map of the Rothiemurchus Forest of the filming site, go to the latter website’s Landscape Areas page and select “Rothiemurchus Forest.” Rothiemurchus is also a woodland estate with an island castle. For a beautiful map of the whole park, see the Cairngorms National Park Map.

* * *

Ross and Cromarty      →      Outlander book and historical settings

To start farther north and work your way southward back to Inverness for the train to Edinburgh or Glasgow and a flight back home, head for Ross & Cromarty. There you’ll encounter the real Mackenzie lands and their seat of power, Castle Leod. 

Castle Leod, near Strathpeffer–Easter Ross or “in the east of Ross-shire” (county of Ross) or in the regional district of Ross & Cromarty, i.e., something to do with “Ross”–seat of Clan Mackenzie.  →  Inspiration for Castle Leoch in the book. The name from the book was then continued by the show. However, shared in Part 1 of my Outlander tourism series, the historical castle itself is played by Doune Castle in Stirling. Castle Leod is a private estate accessed only by prior permission. However, it has been a stop on at least one Outlander tour out of Inverness.

For pictures and official information, see the gallery page at Castleleod.org.uk. This well-preserved Highland castle, billed as one of the most picturesque and romantic by its stewards, can be booked for special events including weddings. The Clan Mackenzie Society of Scotland and the UK was very helpful with information about access and tours involving Castle Leod. The associated Clan Mackenzie Routes also offers tour package options.

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Castle Leod. Image credit: Clan Mackenzie Society at clanmackenziesociety.co.uk/castles

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Castle Leod, “east view.” Image by coltarbt at Tripadvisor.com

Castle Leod will have select open summer days in 2017 in May, June, July, and August, and the grounds also open to the public on August 12th for the Strathpeffer Highland Games, held annually.

In a valley alongside the Peffery Burn, the castle property is NNE of Strathpeffer off the A834, and the closest town immediately northeast is Auchterneed. Bottacks is also nearby. The address of Castle Leod is .

Loch Garve, west of Castle Leod, Strathpeffer, Easter Ross → The loch mentioned as the home of the water kelpie (water horse; no, not the same species as Nessie) in the fireside tale Rupert tells before the rent party is attacked by members of Clan Grant in ep 108, “Both Sides Now.”

My online search for “Loch Garve” one day brought up the legend of the water kelpie; the story is indeed a long-held Scottish fixture.

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Falls of Rogie. Image by EvaMarina2015 at Tripadvisor.com

Between Loch Garve and Castle Leod are the Falls of Rogie, a series of sought-after waterfalls on the Black Water River, where salmon can be seen jumping the “ladder” and where you can walk across the river on a suspended bridge. Also within this area is the Strathpeffer Heritage Village and Victorian spa resort.

Down from the Northwest, we reach the Great Glen and Scotland’s most famous loch.

* * *

Inverness-shire    →     Outlander book, film, historical, and inspirational settings

Inverness is an interesting case for its lack of interest, perhaps. At least that’s what my friend who recommended I read Outlander said about their Outlander tour with Inverness Tours. I’m not sure if it was the pedestrian passerby on the highway shouting up to their double-decker tour bus “Inverness is sh*te!” that influenced her thoughts on this, but she basically told me there isn’t much besides the river views worth seeing in Inverness itself.

To say Inverness has little tourist value is not strictly true, but as a fellow Outlander fan with other priorities, I decided to follow my friend’s lead on this one. As a result, my personal experience of Inverness is limited to navigating traffic, scenes of the River Ness (mainly in pouring rain) and Moray Firth, parking beneath the Inverness Castle hilltop, and eating at two fine city restaurants.

Known as the capital of the Highlands, there are indeed attractions worth visiting in the city. I’ll tell you about a less beaten path we took for ourselves, along with other charms Inverness afforded us, when I share our full itinerary in a future post. Incidentally, my first pick of an Outlander tour was through Inverness Tours, but they were booked for our time frame when I finally made my decision, so plan many, many months ahead! We took instead Slainte Scotland‘s Firth of Forth and Fife area Outlander day tour, which was wonderful.

When you focus on the book and TV show, it is equally true that nothing in particular makes Inverness an Outlander tourism city. Rather, its proximity to sites of story interest is what really recommends it. You may decide it’s a nice central location for lodging. Below are some of those story-related sites around Inverness that complement those in Ross & Cromarty.

Loch Ness (and Urquhart Castle), south of Inverness, connected by the River Ness, extends on a roughly north-south line for more than 20 miles. Featured in the book but not in the STARZ series, Gabaldon uses Loch Ness to bolster the mysterious, supernatural element of encountering a mythic beast, presumably either “Nessie” or one of her ancestors, collectively known as the Loch Ness Monster.

North of Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle and west of Inverness is the town of Beauly, seat of the Fraser clan of Lovat, kin of our story’s hero Jamie Fraser. A distinctive treasure awaits in the heart of town.

Beauly Priory, a truly “beau lieu” (French) or “beautiful place,” presents its ruined self in full splendor and grace. The names Fraser and Mackenzie appear frequently on the tombstones within and around the priory.    In the book, this holy place is where Claire meets Maisri, the seer who works for Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, infamously known as “the Old Fox.” Both the clan chief and his wise woman appear in ep208, “The Fox’s Lair.”

Technically not in Inverness-shire but also not far from Inverness to the west, Beauly Priory is free to enter and open 1 April – 30 September. Check for closures at all Historic Environment Scotland sites: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/check-for-closures/. The address is .

After Beauly Priory’s enchantment (all above images by C. L. Tangenberg), last and perhaps best are two very important sites just a short trip east of Inverness.

Culloden Battlefield, aka Culloden Moor, Inverness-shire.  →  “The Outlander action is all leading up to the bloody Battle of Culloden in 1746. More than 1,200 men were killed in the defeat of the Jacobite clans.” Source: photo caption excerpt http://www.travelchannel.com/interests/arts-and-culture/photos/get-inside-outlander-on-a-tour-through-scotland/page/14. This final battle, while not depicted in the book, will be portrayed in the STARZ show during series 3, which is based on the third book Voyager. Culloden visitor centre stewards, battle and Jacobite scholars, descendants of Scotch soldiers and their families, British historians, Outlander fans, Outlander STARZ cast and crew, and Scots citizens–in short, many, many people no doubt all eagerly anticipate this unique project coming to fruition.

I know it will be unforgettable, and I hope it will bring even more people to this historic site that has long been at the center of Scottish cultural identity and its dramatic transformation.

The most prominent inclusion of Jacobite Rising history in the Outlander series comes in the form of weaving its facts throughout the story. To her fans, Diana Gabaldon’s research prowess is legendary, and the show has followed her lead with excellent historical accuracy and detail, in everything from herbs to weapons to period architecture to literal embroidery on costumes (with a few intentional nods to the 1940s in Claire’s 1740s French dresses) and furnishings.

Plot elements such as an inside look at the rebel cause in series 1, discussions and decisions by Clans Mackenzie and Fraser in both series about political loyalties, mention and depiction of the battles of Prestonpans and Falkirk, and Claire and Frank’s talk of Jacobite history both on and off the battlefield in the 1940s all merge into that complex tapestry.

In 1743, smiling after Claire’s joke, Jamie casually mentions the Mackenzie rent party’s approach to Culloden Moor. Triggered by this, Claire suddenly recalls her sad visit there with Frank, circa 1945. “What of these Mackenzie men? How many [would] die on that bloody moor?” Having begun to bond with them over the past few weeks, she now fears for their lives, with a growing sense of helplessness.

The must-see visitor centre combines access to the field with a state-of-the-art, immersion museum experience, complete with dozens upon dozens of primary accounts conveyed in both textual and audio commentary and a four-wall motion picture re-enactment of the battle itself. The museum is designed for the visitor to receive and absorb a robust before, during, and after depiction of Scotland’s last war for freedom, before stepping outside for the most fundamental evidence of its high costs.

Inside, you learn about the Jacobite Rising of 1745 from its inception, with dual-corridor pathways providing both the government and Jacobite perspectives leading up to the war, along with intricate Battle of Culloden statistical and social details, and a comprehensive portrayal of the prolonged aftermath. This is one of the best places to learn a substantial amount about Bonnie Prince Charlie in particular. The centre has also taken pains to ensure Gaelic language representation throughout the museum and on field kiosks.

A dark hallway allows you to hear what each side had to say about the failed Night March before the battle. After viewing the graphic re-enactment film complete with sound effects (think 3D Saving Private Ryan cinematography), don’t miss the excellent aerial-view digital model of troop movements with audio narration. The same room displays artifacts that were found on the battlefield and examples of swords, pistols, rifles, dirks, mortars, and cannons used in the fight.

Next, you can walk the moor, view the memorial cairn, grave stones, flags, and other battlefield features, and better imagine what it must really have been like. Pay your respects at the Clan Fraser memorial stone, which resides directly opposite the memorial cairn, among a series of clan memorial stones. More often than not, many of these will be graced with flowers and other tokens of remembrance.

The land is relatively flat but expansive, so budget your time for the trek. Go early if you intend to add another attraction on the same day, but I recommend light, short, and upbeat follow-up–something purely entertaining and relaxing or mostly physical, such as a beach picnic, river cruise, whisky tasting, tea time, train ride, horseback ride, or bagpipe show.

Actually, you might want to make a firm plan for the whisky. The Culloden historical experience, though fascinating and engaging, is a top-notch example of the ultimate sobering agent. However, despite one myth, birds do indeed sing on the moor–I made a point of listening for them after reading that somewhere. Our visit also featured two beautiful horses grazing the moor and watching over the fallen.

In getting there, keep in mind that several places in the area bear the name “Culloden”: the town of Culloden, Culloden Moor, and Culloden Battlefield, which is technically on Drumossie Moor, as well as the Culloden Inn. The town named Culloden is a bit removed to the northwest, and the namesake moor is immediately northeast of the battlefield. Culloden Inn restaurant is very close to the visitor centre, between Drumossie and Culloden Moors.

Murtagh mentions Kildrummie Moss in ep212, “The Hail Mary,” as well. This is actually farther northeast in Nairn-shire, closer to Nairn, where the British General Cumberland’s camp celebrated his birthday on the eve of their march to Culloden.

Regardless of your degree of interest in Outlander, war, or formal museums, no first visit to Scotland would be complete without at least half a day at Culloden. Be sure to include it.

Address: Culloden Battlefield visitor centre, Culloden Moor, Inverness, Highland IV2 5EU. Tel: 0844 493 2159. Visitor Centre, Restaurant, Shop: open 1 Sept – 31 Oct, daily 9 – 5.30. Battlefield open daily, all year. Price: Adult £11.00. Hire of battlefield tour PDA is included in admission price. NTS members in free.

Clava Cairns, Inverness-shire, is a set of circular piles of stones (chambered and kerb cairns), and standing stone circles (monoliths) around those cairns, along the River Nairn, near Inverness. Perhaps sharing features of the stone circle Gabaldon pictured as Craigh na Dun for her story, “the 3 cairns were burial sites about 4,000 years ago, although the remains have long since been removed. Standing stones surround the cairns, but they haven’t seen any mysterious disappearances or reappearances lately—that we know of, anyway.” Source: photo caption http://www.travelchannel.com/interests/arts-and-culture/photos/get-inside-outlander-on-a-tour-through-scotland/page/5

As part of her answer to the question “Are all the locations used in the books real?”, Diana notes in her website’s FAQs section that she had not been to Scotland when she wrote Outlander but would not be surprised if a place like the one she describes for Craigh na Dun actually existed. She found the standing stones at Castlerigg, Lake District, England, to be “very like” her imagined site once she finally did travel to Britain.

She mentions Clava Cairns and Tomnahurich Cemetery Hill as possibly being similar, but she states she had not been to Tomnahurich, which is supposed to be a “fairy’s hill.” It was not clear whether she had visited Clava Cairns by the time of her answer’s posting on that particular page, but I am fairly certain she has been there since, and I know she has visited Culloden as well.

Source: http://www.dianagabaldon.com/resources/faq/faq-about-the-books/#locations

Remember: Numerous examples of cairns, standing stones, stone circles, brochs, volcanic plugs, glacier-carved valleys, caves, and other spectacular rock formations define the landscape of Scotland’s mainland and islands. You’re likely to find one example to be as interesting as the next. This one is special in part for its very close proximity to Culloden Moor and its being part of Inverness-shire.

Just across the River Nairn to the southeast of Culloden Battlefield and visitor centre, the address of Balnuaran of Clava, or the Clava Cairns, is . It is free and open to the public.

* * *

As you have seen through descriptive detail and vivid images, Outlander highlights abound in the Highlands as much as in central and southern Scotland. As I hope you have also seen, Scotland deserves exploring in its own right. Its beauty, culture, history, and adventure are matched by impressive hospitality.

Now that I have oriented you–in part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this series–to the places throughout the land of Scots that can fascinate and delight the Outlander tourist, part 4 will present my specific model for putting it all together. I’ll show you how I approached planning our trip as a do-it-yourself traveler, our full bespoke (that is, “custom-made” for you non-UK folks) itinerary, and how we adjusted it along the way. I’ll also provide further guidance about dedicated Outlander tour options, more filming locations and book story sites, as well as general travel tips and recommended resources.

Footnotes and a list of sources mentioned in this post can be found in the sections below. While I’m on that subject, remember: The information presented in these posts is not exhaustive, errors are possible, and facts change, so be sure to do your own checking when you’re ready to set a Scottish excursion in stone.

I am delighted that you’ve followed me on the journey thus far. Return next time, when I’ll help with some tough choices and prepare you to book transport and more for that Scotland trip you’ve been dreaming about. . . .

Tìoraidh an-dràsta! (CHEER-ee ehn DRAH-steh) Ta-ta for now!


Notes on Area Names

* Go to Council Areas Since 1996 for a numbered map and linked list of all 30 council areas, such as Clackmannanshire, Renfrewshire, East Ayrshire, and Perth and Kinross. The island chains of Orkney and Shetland are listed and linked separately as not shown on the map. Subdivisions into registration counties, used for land registration in Scotland, have persisted since the 1990s.

Regional divisions are a little more complicated and involve subdivision into districts between 1975 and 1996. For that fascinating history, see Regions and Districts of Scotland from 1975 to 1996, the names of which are relevant for the tourist mainly because areas are often still described in these terms.

Finally, counties go back even farther in time and were replaced by the two-tier region-district system. Scottish Counties from 1890 to 1975, like much of Scottish history, retain their footprint on the land.

Beyond these official, politico-historical categories, there appears to be a common understanding among UK and Scottish tourist service organizations and tour guidebook publishers as to which labels are most helpful to tourists. VisitScotland.com, Fodors, DK, Scotland.com, and Scotland.org are among those that blend variations of regions, council areas, and descriptive phrasing to focus tourists on optimal zones for their adventures. Examples include “Aberdeen and Grampian,” “Hebrides” (islands), and “Glasgow and the Clyde Valley.”

** The Highlands, broadly considered, are perhaps a mythical, amorphous landscape in some respects, for a few reasons. For one, this northerly expanse hardly has a monopoly on height and also seems to be synonymous with “the North.” Even the Lowlands are bordered to the south by “Southern Uplands” (Dumfries & Galloway area), and Europe and other continents boast far larger mountains.

Second, culturally and politically, the Highlands were long considered a region of backwardness, even barbarity, by their southern neighbors the English, and sometimes by Lowland or city Scots. The region could in that way be thought of as anything north, island or inland, a certain distance from Edinburgh.

Third, the geological Highland Boundary Fault line has set in stone (sorry) that once vague sense of division, officially distinguishing “up there” from “down here.” This fault zone runs from the isle of Arran and Helensburgh on the west coast, west-northwest of Glasgow, through Loch Lomond and Crieff to the northeast, parallel to the east coast on the North Sea, terminating immediately north of Stonehaven, at Garron Point, just south of Aberdeen. Visual learners, consult the map. 😉

As the line climbs to the northeast, it traverses Stirlingshire, Perthshire, and Angus, southeast of the Cairngorms. To see the topography and current place names, visit Gazetteer for Scotland and zoom out on the map. For geology lovers, here’s George Barrow’s sketch map from 1912.

Scottish Natural Heritage further explores “the five distinct foundation blocks which make up Scotland” geology; examples are Southern Uplands, Northwest sea-board, and Northern Highlands.


Key Sources (in order of presentation in this post)

Highland Boundary Fault information was drawn from Wikipedia and Gazetteer for Scotland.

Gazetteer: http://www.scottish-places.info/features/featurefirst7728.html

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highland_Boundary_Fault

Travel+Leisure magazine’s article about Outlander cast/crew’s favorite filming locations: http://www.travelandleisure.com/culture-design/tv-movies/outlander-cast-and-crew-favorite-locations

Dunalastair Estate: http://www.dunalastair.com/Dunalastair-Estate

VisitCairngorms.com: http://visitcairngorms.com/

Highland Folk Museum: https://www.highlifehighland.com/highlandfolkmuseum/

About Tulloch Ghru at Wizzley.com: STARZ Outlander Scottish Filming Locations

Castle Leod: Castleleod.org.uk

WelcometoScotland.com provided information about Loch Garve and the Falls of Rogie in Ross & Cromarty:

Loch Garve: http://www.welcometoscotland.com/things-to-do/activities/fishing/north-highland/loch-garve

Falls of Rogie: http://www.welcometoscotland.com/things-to-do/attractions/nature-reserves/north-highland/rogie-falls

Learn more about Historic Environment Scotland sites including Beauly Priory: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/check-for-closures/.

TravelChannel.com‘s Outlander sites photo gallery

Culloden Battlefield: Source: photo caption excerpt http://www.travelchannel.com/interests/arts-and-culture/photos/get-inside-outlander-on-a-tour-through-scotland/page/14.

Clava Cairns: Source: photo caption http://www.travelchannel.com/interests/arts-and-culture/photos/get-inside-outlander-on-a-tour-through-scotland/page/5

Diana Gabaldon’s website FAQs: http://www.dianagabaldon.com/resources/faq/faq-about-the-books/#locations

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Candlelight Vigil for Freedom of Expression at AWP 2017. Corrected commentary.

My commentary–updated with corrections 2/6/17–and a reblogged post (at bottom).

Many have been saying the following and then launching new campaigns of activism. As always, I launch only my considered opinions, research-based (the one statistic I did use and cite needed correcting afterwards–my apologies) views, and best advice, leaving each person to do as conscience dictates.

It has been my aim to avoid politics in large part on my blog, focusing on pre-chosen themes that put art and beauty and positivity first. However, those themes include freedom of expression and opposing censorship, I’m still putting positivity first, and I’ll offer content according to my conscience regardless of trends, mine or others.

We all have choices to make. Wouldn’t it be great if we all kept the freedom to make them?


When executive orders forbid, for instance, federal workers from discussing federal policy, conditions at work, or opinions at all related to their jobs, it is a form of corporate practice as lawful as the conditions of security clearance or signing a confidentiality agreement. It goes with the job. That’s why it’s called an executive branch rather than just “the president”; there’s the Cabinet with 15 departments including Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, State, Justice, Agriculture, Interior, Environment, Education, Energy, etc., each with subsets of dozens of other organizations such as the FBI, the EPA, and the CIA.

The unreasonable suddenness, logistical difficulty, and accumulation of such orders amounting to a moving target that creates confusion and chaos is another matter for the company to work out within itself, lest its efforts to comply break a host of laws and fracture the Constitution. Even as they comply, federal workers must be cognizant of the consequences of their actions and weigh the risks and benefits of continuing to comply, keeping the conversation open amongst themselves if nothing else.

But there is more to consider in a climate in which the default impulse of the executive–whether he chooses to act on that impulse each time or not–is to rule by unexpected direct order, absolute silencing, intimidation, bullying, bribery, general dismissive belligerence or a combination of these. We must consider that non-federal employees with legitimate, rights-based objections to those or other orders have an even greater obligation than previously, and than their federal fellow citizens, to voice or also enact their objections.

Those included under such an obligation are state-level law enforcement leadership, whose duty it is to oppose, countermand, and, if necessary, arrest federal agents who have little choice but to carry out federal orders regardless of state-level legality or moral rightness. Where refusal to comply is truly untenable, blockage of compliance becomes essential.

The power of the executive branch of the federal government has expanded dangerously over the last several decades, for nearly a century in fact.

Now we see (because we finally choose to pay attention), in more vivid and alarming detail than under previous administrations who also wielded such power with various degrees and kinds of impunity, the threats that unchallenged executive mandates and manipulation pose to a panoply of basic freedoms–to pursue work or education, movement, trade, speech, religion, decisions about one’s own physical body and property, including land, and the ability to ask our State and military leader challenging (or any) questions. The legislative branch, the judicial branch, the states, and everyday citizens all have the obligation to check and nullify those threats.

Speak on, ask on, petition on, fund, litigate, assemble, enjoin, fight for what’s yours, relinquish what is not, pray or abstain, and don’t be intimidated. You’re not alone. No persecuted American left behind. Liberty and justice for all. Keep the conversation going. Debate, question, and prioritize your engagements.

No one has the right not to be offended, but you can choose not to take offense by ignoring non-threats to your freedom and focusing on those things that actually threaten it. In a society in which it has become far too easy to get distracted by inflammatory language and pursue useless tangents, the first order of business in making positive change in your country is to restrain yourself so that your energy is not spent before it can apply to what matters.

To that end, speak but don’t just speak. Think before you speak, choose your words wisely, and move from speech to action to protect your liberty and your neighbor’s. Don’t fight each other; fight the unlawful and abhorrent actions of your government. Show each other the respect, but not without adherence to Constitutional law, that your executive chooses not to show as he flouts the Constitution.

Be brave enough not to panic but to question, find facts, learn, engage, think, object, reconsider, seek alternative views, train your mind, open your heart, think critically, understand, decide, and, when necessary, dissent. That’s freedom. That’s patriotism.

What is not freeing or patriotic is terrorism, which comes in many forms. Since 9/11, we have scared ourselves into creating a less secure and far less free society. Now we are seeing the culmination of that extended, misguided, and misapplied paranoia.

From the Patriot Act forward, starting with Bush Jr., we have made incremental choices to excel at being our own most effective terrorists. We have looked the other way while our government implemented ineffectual laws and programs, and devastating military operations, and continued them under Obama:

the counterproductive bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security, the Patriot Act’s negation of habeas corpus and due process, Guantanamo Bay’s remaining open with the resulting unjust detentions, NSA snooping on American citizens, the TSA’s invasive blunders, Benghazi’s wrongful deaths, lack of transparency in leadership, Afghanistan, and drone strikes amounting to undeclared war in Syria and now troops in Yemen, for just the more obvious examples.

The effects–of both these government actions and the people’s acceptance of them–have been gradually eroding our basic freedoms and rights, and increasing our enemies’ hostility towards us, as well as abilities and determination to harm us.

Nothing brings that fact into sharper relief than the election of this president, who now perfectly embodies our terror. The fear has merely been disguised as anger. We must eventually learn and might as well start now: The only response with any chance to reverse this freedom-hating trend is calm, reasoned, organized, and well-applied resistance–first and foremost, to our own worst impulses.

Resist. But: Know why you resist, be clear about what you’re resisting, prioritize what is most important to resist, and learn how to do it more effectively than the government does anything.

Stop looking to centralized government to fix everything. They have proven repeatedly, in both parties, from all angles, that they are unfit to do so. A new executive won’t resolve this; the system itself is unfit, and the wisdom of term limits supports this notion. Being “unfit” may seem unfortunate, but it is not the tragedy. The real misfortune is our continued gullibility in believing they can fix it all as we passively await our deliverance. The corrupt, powerful godheads have led by fear and kept us afraid. In this respect, the federal government is a modern god for those no longer beholden to the earthly bonds of organized religion, a secondary one for those still trapped by it.

The alternative?

Start being responsible for the state of your own citizenship; the least of the actions demonstrating this is voting for a leader or simply attending church regularly. Each of us is the first, best, and only leader of ourselves. Set yourself free, and become the best kind of advocate for fellow citizens without the power to do so. Grow your worth, moral and monetary, to apply to the community in discerning, uncompromised benefit. Transform your anger into loving, positive, freedom-expanding action.

Real liberty is scary, but it is worth everything. Jesus, who sacrificed himself for everyone, understood that. So did Stalin, who sacrificed everyone for himself. Neither way is right or practical for the citizen who must remain strong and vital to serve as a thread in the societal tapestry, lest it all unravel. Neither absolute equality, nor absolute deference, nor totalitarianism will serve. Only generous spirit for uncommonly meaningful and inclusive purpose combined with an educated, well-reasoned will can defeat the frightened sheep–in this externalized form of a stingy, insecure egomaniac–that lives in us all.

Liberty is that inclusive purpose. Liberation is that will enacted. Actual security is an illusion. Actual equality is an illusion. We can choose to put first either freedom or safety, either freedom or equality, but not both. Put safety first, and freedom dies. Put equality first, and freedom dies. In seeking freedom first, we welcome safety and equality; we open the door for both. We can and must choose whether we are our own worst enemies or our own best friends, whether we will stay fearful and overly self-sacrificing or calm and wise.

Protectionism is fearful and unwise–bad for the economy and global relations. Discriminatory application of basic rights by sex, religion or politics is fearful and wrongheaded. Targeting things and people to ban by a scary-sounding name or traditionally suspect nationality is cowardly and stupid. But if you’re going to be that way, at least be consistent. Targeting those things and people while at the same time allowing even more actually suspect ones to travel freely is asinine and completely counterproductive. We seem to have a Joseph McCarthy-like character in the highest office.

However, the illogic of this seemingly arbitrary discrimination is nothing new. Obama’s “higher deportation numbers than those of all 20th-century presidents combined” (questionable claim) at least partly targeted those illegals previously convicted of a crime, though non-criminal ejections (whether mostly returns or removals) have exceeded criminal ones consistently since 2001.¹ See updates to this footnote (in purple). Ousting peaceful but illegal Mexican farmers with non-violent criminal records, and peaceful but legal Shiite Muslim Iranian academics, when the real problem is legal Sunni Muslim Saudi immigrants learning to fly planes into iconic American buildings, is pure bald-faced, idiotic cruelty in the guise of tough do-something-ness.

Furthermore, behaving like an absolute monarch or dictator is fearful, malicious behavior. Supporting only like-minded advisers is infantile and short sighted. Gag orders are fascist–fearful and growth stunting. Acting without thinking, without warning, and without remorse is profoundly malignant, distrusting (fearful), and incredibly foolish. Whether cunning steamroller or bold imbecile, and at times he seems to be both, this president may well be insane. Signs of schizophrenia would not be more disorienting to the observer. (Well, maybe that’s insulting to schizophrenics.) What is certain is that the man is a frightened rabbit with a nest for hair. It would be funny if he were not so dangerous to freedom.

He either doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or both. But even if he were a better leader, it would still be up to the people to lead. To each person. Freedom is not free. For free speech, free religion, free choice, freedom over our bodily person, free assembly, free expression, free enterprise, free trade, and free pursuit of happiness, freedom to have a sense of humor or none whatsoever, we have the responsibility to control ourselves: to avoid fraud and falsehood, assemble peacefully and lawfully, invest wisely, refrain from censorship, interact only by mutual consent, permit individuals’ free use of their own minds and bodies, and defend the rights of everyone else to do the same. Live and let live.

Not just Uncle Sam but the people of your country want you. Need you. Facts are indisputable, and this is the plainest fact: Only you can make things better.


¹ Corrected, 2/6/17: See the Pew Research Center’s August 2016 article “U.S. immigrant deportations declined in 2014, but remain near record high,” The Economist‘s February 2014 article “America’s Deportation Machine: The Great Expulsion,” and ABC’s August 2016 article “Obama Has Deported More People Than Any Other President.”

Pew’s chart does not distinguish illegal immigrant returns from removals, both of which have increased fluctuated since the late 90s but together have steadily decreased, according to the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), since 2004; see the Center for Immigration Studies’ chart spanning 1982-2011.

The CIS reports directly cite the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s own “internal” records as opposed to “packaged press kits.” CIS’s claim is that the DHS numbers used by other sources (such as the 3 above) to report record highs in expulsions were manipulated in unprecedented ways under the Obama administration. Some of this has to do with which agency is doing the ousting (ICE vs. Border Patrol), the actual departed vs. ordered gone status of illegals (order vs. enforcement), and how returns and removals have traditionally been counted.

The Reuters blog reported a total of 414,481 deportations in fiscal year 2014, citing DHS, closer to the annual downward trend shared by CIS. According to their chart referenced above, it appears that President Clinton was the expulsion winner among two-term presidents in recent decades (including Reagan, Bush Jr. and Obama).

I encourage you to seek additional sources beyond those above, to take few things at face value, to challenge the media not to swallow whole everything authority figures tell them, even when quantified and packaged well, and to take this example of the unclear state of reported facts as a lesson in the value of general skepticism, if not that of deeper, nuanced investigation few of us have time to conduct personally. And, thus, to understand the futility and folly of rash, precipitous action based on sound bites taken out of context, half truths that ignore equally relevant truths, and distortions of fact that breed further distortion.

What politician does not spin the facts for his or her own purposes? And, ultimately, what is the government if not political?

Often, our reactions and overreactions prove that we can be puppets in their hands. Take great care and consider that sometimes on certain issues, just maybe, we really do not need to do anything, except wait for the fog to clear. Abstinence, restraint, and calm but alert, steady work make the best, most effective kinds of resistance to the seductive call to chaos.


BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

March.jpgThe annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference is in D.C. this year, and in fact, it is next week, and this year is starting to look a bit different. Yes there will be books, and yes there will be beer, and chances are good someone at some panel is going to sound pretentious, but in keeping with the times, we have this:

On Saturday, February 11, during the last evening of the AWP Conference & Bookfair, a Candlelight Vigil for Freedom of Expression will be held in Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, which faces the north side of the White House. The vigil is set to begin at 6:15 p.m.

The gathering will include several speakers: Kazim Ali, Gabrielle Bellot, Melissa Febos, Carolyn Forché, Ross Gay, Luis J. Rodriguez, and Eric Sasson.

The group organizing the event writes on their Facebook page: “This basic freedom is threatened in…

View original post 40 more words

Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Matthew Thorburn. A pressed post.

A post linked at bottom from the blog http://memoriousmag.wordpress.com, companion to Memorious: A Journal of New Verse and Fiction, has moved and intrigued me. It also intersects with my own blog’s areas of poetry, nature, travel, art, and reviews.

Sara A. Lewis reviews Matthew Thorburn’s book-length poem Dear Almost and presents Leslie Harrison’s interview with the poet. An epistle in four parts parallel to the four seasons, the book is about the loss of Thorburn’s unborn daughter to miscarriage.

Some of the review and discussion’s elements that caught my especial attention and urged me today to pursue the book:

  • a cultural tradition unfamiliar to me – classical Chinese poetry and Chinese language (Mandarin) through wife Lillian’s family and their 3-year-old son learning Chinese
  • the notion of the “season suite” – A book-length poetic form brewing for Thorburn (though not consciously as a form) found its subject, and the book was born.
  • the raw, peculiar experience of loss and grief for a forming but unborn child her father will never meet – This recalls for me actor Caitriona Balfe’s deeply affecting performance as Claire Fraser in episode 207, “Faith,” of the Outlander STARZ TV series (series 2 based on Gabaldon’s 2nd book Dragonfly in Amber), when Claire learns her first child, a daughter, was stillborn.
  • Thorburn’s relationship with Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, a favorite poet of mine – a coupling of attentiveness with deep, restrained emotion
  • using haiku as bookends to a longer poetic passage
  • the interviewer’s incisive sophistication and the poet’s elegant thoughts

The interview is a bit of subtle theater emulating the kind they finish it discussing–how epistolary works hold readers at bay as the audience overhears a conversation between others.

Matthew Thorburn’s fourth full-length collection, Dear Almost, has recently been released by Louisiana State University Press. A book-length poem broken into sections that correspond to the four se…

Source: Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Matthew Thorburn |

Backyard Brief, January 2017

January 18, 2017 – Titmice, chickadees, house finches, and the ubiquitous house sparrow have been competing with squirrels for our backyard fodder. Hubby watched two squirrels crowd the suet feeder, one impatiently waiting for the other to get the bushy tail off.

Of sparrows, mice, chicks, houses, tufts, finches, caps, food, tits and a squirrel-proof feeder –

Happy backyard birding and squirrelling, and remember, brevity is the soul of tit.


P.S. To All Scots, Scotch Descendants, and Lovers of Scotland and Poetry, Happy January 25th. Have an excellent Burns Night supper!

ICYMI: Here’s my post about Burns’ “To a Mouse” poem.

The Dream of Turning 40

My birthday’s gift to you? Getting personal–one day early.


Each time I’ve thought of this coming birthday, I have heard Meg Ryan’s immortal lines:

“And I'm gonna be forty!”
“When?” asks Harry.
“Some day,” Sally adds weakly.
“In eight years!” Harry reasons.
“Yes, but it's just sitting there like this big dead end. . . .”

As with many of my favorite movies, and even ones I don’t like much, I occasionally hear these movie lines from When Harry Met Sally running through my head as I go about my day. These days, this particular record is broken.

Sally wants a family and has just learned that her several months’ ex-boyfriend Joe is engaged. Harry has gone to her place to comfort her. She’s crying rather hysterically, having shown no signs of grief post-breakup. Finally, the bubble has burst, and Harry and Sally’s friendship takes an irrevocable turn.

What’s my point? Lord knows. But isn’t that a great scene? More entertaining than I find everyday life, which is probably why I live in the cinematic fantasy world a significant portion of the time. (Don’t need the video; it’s all memorized.) Besides, the trauma is happening to someone else. I’m comforted, safe, but it also often means the joy and rapture are more likely found elsewhere. What reward without risk?

My eight years have passed, and 32 more besides. That reminds me, I’ve decided to state my age as “ten and thirty,” as in the days of yore. That sounds much more forgiving. Go for it, 60-year-olds! Say, “I am twenty and forty” or “I am twice thirty.” Sounds younger. I got this idea from my husband, who is nearly 14 months younger than I. Very thoughtful, Dear.

No, my husband is a hoot and adorable, and my parents, bless them, still vital and being parents. But I currently have no pets or children to look after (besides the backyard birds), which is the most accepted form of daily joy. No little ones to amuse me each day, which is, of course, the primary function of kids. Right, parents? Well, maybe not “primary,” but it’s mixed in there with all the exhaustion, stress, bewilderment, and worry.

The truth is I’m on the fence about having kids and have been for a while, but the inevitable alarm bells for presumably fertile women go up in volume a few decibels with the introduction of that dreaded digit “4.” No more thirties, not that I’ll miss the years themselves. No more legitimately falling into the young category. I’m entering that middle zone some refer to as “too young to be old and too old to be young.” Sounds like license for a mid-life crisis, for sure. 

But it’s certainly not a mid-reproductive years crisis. No, if it is a crisis or anything like, it’s that we’re coming down to the wire. As Sally Albright says after “this big dead end,” “and it’s not the same for men. Charlie Chaplin had babies when he was 73.” Harry replies: “Yeah, but he was too old to pick ’em up.” Sally starts to laugh but it returns to sobs.

Generally, women who want children and haven’t found a mate by their mid- to late-30s have more cause for mid-life crisis than men do, but science and evolution give us hope for higher numbers of fertile years and higher survival rates amidst high-risk pregnancies and complications of childbirth. Risk is always there, and danger still increases with age, but the 21st century is patient with late bloomers, whereas even as recently as 150 years ago, unmarried women past their twenties were already doomed to spinsterhood.

Risks and rewards come in many forms, and mean different things for different people. We as a society seem to believe we have no right to seek, let alone expect, healthy challenge or happiness in work or marriage itself or travel or the arts, especially not instead of in reproducing. Shouldn’t we take growth and joy everywhere we can get them?

You might think it depends on whether you’re passive or active in the “getting.” Actively seeking seems more honorable somehow, more adult, more enlightened than waiting for manna from heaven, as if we’re helpless, inert, ineffectual, and faithfully convinced of it. I.e., sheep.

Two movies intercede here. The Sound of Music and She’s Having a Baby, another 80s gem. “The Reverend Mother says you have to look for your life,” Maria tells Captain Von Trapp. And: “What I was looking for was not to be found but to be made,” says Jefferson Edward (“Jake”) Briggs of his wife and newborn son. Love that John Hughes.

Yet, even when we look for and make a life, nothing that results is absolutely great or horrible. Just as important as the issue of seeking actively or passively is to weigh the potential risks and rewards together.

For me, added risks come with carrying and birthing a child. Greatest of these besides age is that, due to inflammatory arthritis, any pregnancy would be considered by clinicians to be “high risk” from the start. I can imagine, have imagined the possible rewards as I watched my friends expand their families and now watch their eldest become teenagers. I’ve made my mental pros and cons lists and thought about all the right and wrong reasons and good and bad ways to have children. I’ve assessed our suitableness for parenthood and the question of passing on hereditary health conditions. Most important, after all that careful consideration and consultation, though, is to feel the desire rise above fear and doubt.

But whatever ends up touching us, however strangely or improbably it happens, however deliberately, desperately, or passionately we reach for it, there it is. It can either be good or bad for us, or both. We receive the good with the bad whether or not we want either of them.

The universe presents good, bad, worse, and better to us sometimes as options from an à la carte menu. The tongs grab the casual sex instead of the terrifying emotional chemistry that means risking great loss. Single woman will take slavery to meddling, co-dependent mother with side of slaw, instead of daunting freedom of looking for life, with unsweetened iced tea. But we always get a full plate. Another memorized movie brings the idea to a head:

“I have this theory of convergence that good things always happen with bad things, and I mean, I know you have to deal with them at the same time, but I don’t know why . . . . I just wish I could work out some sort of schedule. Am I babbling? Do you know what I mean?”

An enamored Lloyd Dobler replies, “No.”

But I got it perfectly! “Diane Court, whoa.” Genius of 1988, valedictorian of the class in Say Anything . . . Weren’t the 80s golden for rom-coms? She finds love just when her father’s life is falling apart. She can’t pick and choose. They both descend unbidden, and neither is going away any time soon. So she does the logical thing and pushes away the good out of loyalty to her lying, thieving father.

We do that sometimes—make self-sabotaging choices, afraid of happiness, scared of the sin of it, especially as others suffer, whether we play any role in their suffering or not. It feels wrong to be happy when loved ones are not. Fortunately . . . perhaps, Diane rights herself, rejecting Dad for Lloyd. The ending is open ended.

Love does not guarantee happiness; the opposite is more likely. But that doesn’t mean we should shun love. Pain is a powerful teacher. Once in a while, we learn something valuable to apply to the future.

Oh so much wisdom can be found in film. Our movie and TV heroes show us how we stumble and how to recover. They demonstrate how it’s done. The best stories at least hint at the fact that it’s an ongoing process, until it’s not.

If we’re lucky, we get to choose to embrace life or embrace death. “Get busy living, or get busy dying,” says Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. Even more fortunate is the blessing of joy in this life. We may make our own happiness. We can certainly try.

Failing that, we can preserve our sense of wonder, mystery, beauty, or hope, even when rapture is out of reach. Even when disability, disease, injury, mistakes, conflict, or loss seems to mock our reaching.

In truth, fortune is fickle, and navigating it takes effort and patience, of initiative and waiting and recovery, and, for some, of praying. It really does seem to be all about the balance.

Whether equilibrium or tipped scales, the balance holds all. A 40-year-old can wobble like a toddler in heart or mind or body. A six-year-old can dispense ancient wisdom effortlessly. A 90-year-old can cut through the bullshit with razor sharpness. Nothing is completely as we might assume. Expect to have your expectations defied.

When you do, the likelihood of it may just increase. Sometimes a taste of the possibilities outside convention opens up the horizon like a star exploding. It’s messy, destructive even, but creative, too. We are all more resilient than we suppose, more capable of renewal and starting fresh after a fall or fallout or the numbing effects of time. I must remember this.

I think about death a lot, particularly my own, and not just because it’s my birthday. I expect to be struck down at any moment, much of the time. Especially any time I get in a car. I don’t really fixate; I just let the thoughts meander through. There’s little to stop them. Sometimes, I think I focus on death as a way to force myself to embrace life more vehemently. Losing grandparents, aunts, uncles, former classmates, and friends hasn’t done the trick. The terror does not yield to carpe diem, and some darkness lingers.

Losing the dog last February, however, brought new emptiness, which I greedily filled with guilty pleasures and renewed ambitions. Seen another way, I dusted myself off and kept going. However, along with vigorous effort and focus comes not just hope, but expectation.

We have no right to expect positive outcomes just because we are open to them or want them or reach for them or demand them. But while we’re here, we might as well try to build and enjoy something that is ours. Few will remember us for long after we’re gone, and eons from now, no one will.

Nowadays, almost as much as I think about death, I wonder about having kids, and my husband and I discuss it periodically (no, not monthly). The questions arise, along with the concerns. Answers are few and indefinite. In short, neither desire nor aversion has yet won.

People like to say, “It’s never too late,” but frankly, for everything, one day it will be. The line cavalierly sanctions procrastination of major life decisions. It’s little different from “There’s always tomorrow,” but that may truly never come, and one day, it just won’t. Do now, be now. All we know for sure is now. Do what, you ask? What is most true to yourself. This notion has become a trend and may now be somewhat out of fashion.

I’ve read my share of self-help books, most before the age of 30, and some have pearls of wisdom I’ve tucked away. You may know one that says, “Your mission in life is where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (I won’t say which one; I’m promoting movies, not books, today.) In reading these, and favoring this quote, I’ve trained myself to be alert to my inner truth and its expression, and it seems to be working as I work. I don’t seek out those kinds of books anymore; too many better options await my attention.

If we all cop out or settle to some degree and at some point, or even if only most of us do, it’s no great tragedy. On the other hand, if we ignore our soul’s longing completely, it may not be a mortal sin, but it could become a terminal regret. My fear of regret keeps me asking important questions such as, How can I make the most of my life? What am I meant to do?

Like today, even tomorrow may be nothing but a dream. In that case, I choose to embrace the dream, and the dreams within it. I’ve made it this far. I survived. I fulfilled the dream of turning 40. It’s a milestone, a benchmark, a signpost, a weigh station (I try not to stop at those). As if life is an aging contest or some sort of race to the finish, as if the finish line were not death itself.

Age is a sort of accomplishment in our culture. For people with, say, a terminal illness or violent household, this may well be true. Obviously, war-torn countries are so described because of death and maiming, where celebrating survival may become almost necessity. Still, in places and times of relative peace, we celebrate birthdays from year one forward, and in weeks and months before that. When birthdays are used to celebrate life and becoming, it makes sense to add some hoopla.

Otherwise, encountering another year really isn’t much of an achievement. This time, a song borrows the old adage: “Wisdom doesn’t follow just because you’ve aged.” Experience doesn’t guarantee learning. “Been there, done that” doesn’t mean you’re really any better off than someone who hasn’t. So don’t gloat so much, old fogie.

I’m certainly not done yet, not done trying to “fulfill” my “potential.” At some point, you’ve got to deliver, Dodo-head, or find yourself going the way of the dodo. And who would mourn the loss? The inability to evolve, to persevere, maintain a foothold on earth, on behalf of your species? To represent! I always feel that pressure to achieve, to make a difference, to leave a legacy, but with long-term pressure, I risk overcooking.

One side of you is saying, “And so you should.” And perhaps: “How selfish of you, how typical, to lament the inevitable passage of time, to make excuses for not using yours wisely. More selfish still, just spending (wasting) the time thinking about it because you ‘have the time’ to do so.” That’s my projected criticism from all those busy family people my age who don’t have such a “luxury,” the disapproval from the other voices in my head.

Why do I choose to look at it this way? Is that motivating? Even with these last quote marks, my defiance comes through. “I am what I am and that’s all that I am,” says Popeye. It’s a defiance to convention, conformity, being ordinary. It’s an insistence on forgiving myself for not being perfectly healthy, at my ideal weight, in shape, and bursting with energy while also juggling two jobs, a home, and children. Besides, I do juggle many parts of a busy life.

I defy contempt for privilege, I defy the progressive insistence that moral rightness means impoverishing oneself in the name of equality, and I defy the stigma and misconceptions about writers’ and artists’ lives. I could do office work, and I have done lots of it. I could do manual labor if I really, really had to, but I don’t. Now I work to be an artist, I teach for some income, and, thanks to my husband, I’m not starving. There, I said it.

Of course I would consider writing about, which requires dwelling upon, turning 40. I am a writer. And what’s more, a writer in a culture accustomed to celebrating and obsessing about birthdays. I’ve often thought that I am better suited to life as a free-wheeling scholar from the Age of Enlightenment or something than to traditional, modern-era work. Rather than snub the blessing, I embrace the chance to be just that kind of scholar and writer, while still working toward greater individual contributions to our income.

I usually try to keep my defiance in check in my writing, never wanting to seem too selfish, self-righteous, self-absorbed, too forthright, feminist, emotional, emotionalist, or otherwise stereotypically female, except in jest. But also because I claim a cherished penchant for reason and logic. True, the suppression is a bit neurotic, but, hey, awareness is the first step.

I really like that first step. I walk it all the time. It’s an infinite loop, as though I have one leg much shorter than the other and am walking in circles. Selfish –> anxious about it –> neurotic about anxiety –> selfishly neurotic. It’s oh so productive.

Suppressing defiance or anger, though, just comes across as being cold, rigid, emotionally distant, or, perhaps worse, dishonest. Unlikely I’m fooling anyone but me.

Defiance leaks out, anyway, eventually, in other contexts, the rest that I have—tutoring, friends, family. I’m human and American. Overall, I like to think my students and loved ones are pleased with me despite my egocentric leanings. (I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

Maybe I shouldn’t try so hard to defy expectation and to be different. The effort has become its own sort of tedious convention. Those who know me have come to expect it. Who, in the end, is truly 100 percent original? We are creatures of habit, pattern, and imitation. Relax a little when faced with things you really can’t change. Do everything in moderation, even moderation. Let loose on occasion. Balance.

And so, I revel in the riches of imagination, in all its forms, mediums, shapes, and colors. “God is in the rain,” says Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta. In nature, in reverie, in reflection. That’s where God lives for me. Where I can find something of grace, of beauty, of serenity, invigoration, balance. It is my universe. I can touch it, see it, hear it, taste it, examine it, love or hate it, reject or accept it.

We all need ways to shelter ourselves from the certainty of death, at least long enough to invest in our lives and to dream new dreams. The only soul I have to live with is this living, sensing one. I mean to do right by it. Invest in the balance, and then, “wait and hope,” as the Count of Monte Cristo says. And smile.

My new dream? Only one of many: the chance to see how I feel about all this at age 50. What of effort, deepest joy, money, ego, pain, employment, God, imagination, kids, limits, convention, neurosis, the world’s hunger, potential, balance, or wisdom then? I hope I’ll see–and hear those movie lines calling.


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graduate school graduation, age 31, or “ten and 21”

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