So speaking of turtles and the things that hold you up… My grandmother Lucy died last week. She had a certain force about her, something commanding and elemental, like gravity. Something that let you know that she was the centre of her own particular universe. I am just a little fragment thrown out there into space. My orbit takes me far away sometimes, but never so far as to be beyond her reach.

Sometimes, I have to admit, her glare was too bright for me. Her opinions, unfiltered as they mostly always were, could burn and her wisdom was best absorbed in small doses. She taught me that a grandmother’s love can be critical, as she corrected my pronunciation (she so preferred rounded East Coast vowels to my flat western tones), my use of cutlery or the way I brushed my hair. She taught me that you can’t hide anything from your family- most memorably by unearthing an illicit bottle of vodka in the process of cleaning out my closet when I was in high school (I should have known better- she always cleaned out my closet when she visited).

She taught me how to find my contrary streak…after all, I think I inherited it from her. She taught me a lot of other things too…fundamental rules for life. Commandments without the God part. You can’t argue with them, because they are as truthful as the sun. Here are some:

•                Christmas presents are more gratifying after breakfast….after the dishes have been washed, dried, put away…and then one at a time, so that that unwrapping becomes a gruelling, day-long ritual which does justice to the money and effort expended in buying them and wrapping them in the first place.

•                Spices should be stored in alphabetical order.

•                A Dustbuster is a household essential.

•                Never, NEVER cross a picket line.

•                A woman’s handbag should always contain chewing gum, a little notepad and pen, and a perfumed handkerchief.

•                To play Scrabble- but not well enough to beat her.

•                That it is almost impossible to like someone whose political views are very different to your own.

•                That you should always make sure your floors are clean before going away on a trip.

Lucy– Lux–the star at the centre of our little world, she casts a very bright light which will shine for a long time. My orbit will always be shaped by her force. Every time I find myself sweeping the floor while the family waits impatiently in the car for me, and every time I correct Jamie when he says “I done it” instead of “I did it”, and when I walk out on strike, as we most likely will this winter in protest against the public spending cuts in the UK, I will think of her and smile and know she has made me what I am.


Walking to the top

On Saturday we walked up Turnhouse Hill from Flotterstone in the Pentland Hills, with son Jamie (9) and daughter Susanna (4). Turnhouse is the first of the hills that rises steeply above Glencorse Reservoir, an easy escape into the wind-blasted wilds just a few miles from the centre of Edinburgh. This is one of the things I love best about Scotland: the way the hills brood just outside our little cities like grumbly old dragons.

For the seasoned hillwalker, Turnhouse is nothing much- a steepish ascent of around 1000 feet from the carpark at Flotterstone- but it’s a big daunting mountain for little legs. The kids had managed halfway up on a bitter New Year day at the start of the year, moaning their way through the wind to a little stand of gnarled trees that marks the top of the most difficult part of the climb. So, with confidence brought about by better weather and the benefit of nine months’ growth, we set out to beat our previous mark and reach the top. When we reached the trees, we sat on the damp, spongy moss under their branches and had some water and fruit. Then we pressed onwards. They had climbed largely without complaint until this point, but as we faced another sharp incline beyond the stand of trees, the moaning started in earnest.

I know the feeling. A wall of mud, stone, heather and slippy grass rises up in front of your face, and you look up with the almost heartbreaking realisation that the level patch you have reached isn’t the summit, or anywhere close to it. Your legs start to shake. This is not the kind of climb I would have managed as a four year old, or even likely as a nine year old- though for one reason and another my parents never challenged me to try. A little guilt hovered in the back of my mind; maybe this was too hard for them. Maybe it was unfair of us to push them so hard just to satisfy our own selfish need to reach a peak.

But there I was, driving them both from behind, issuing words of encouragement like Mama Drill Instructor. Place your feet carefully, keep your legs moving, slow and steady. Try not to look up. Just think how proud you’ll be. If you make it all the way, you can play video games to your hearts’ content when you get home. That kind of thing. And the occasional Stop, look at that view. We looked back at the precipitous path we’d just climbed, and out over the little county of Midlothian, almost able to identify our house in a greyish row at the top of the Esk Valley, five or six miles away. Then beyond, to the east and the shadowed Firth of Forth, and the Moorfoot Hills to the south. Then climbing on, one foot at a time, not looking up.

And then the top came. The best part of any hillwalk, for me, is the point where the path levels out and you can see the summit cairn there, just a few easy metres in front of you. The incessant wind whips around you from all directions and you might almost spread your arms and fly away. Susanna jumped up and down and Jamie gave a “Woo hoo!” into the wind. We placed our stones onto the cairn, and started down the other side. One little Scottish hill conquered by brave little Scottish legs. So many more to come. I can’t wait.

On the Back of a Turtle

 One of my favourite anthropologists, Clifford Geertz, once wrote:
There is an Indian story–at least I heard it as an Indian story –about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the way they behave), what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? “Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.”
Right now I can’t help but think that the turtles are getting restless. After all, who could blame them? The load on their backs gets heavier and thornier by the minute.  And so I have to wonder: what happens if they decide to pack it in completely and swim off into space. The poor old elephant won’t stand a chance. Neither will we.
I have almost completely stopped watching the news. Like my grandmother Lucy, I am prone to fits of depression over global events I can’t control. These days of natural disasters and nuclear meltdowns, financial crises, wars and fuel prices could easily send me running for the Prozac. I have to ration my intake of news to ten minutes a day, or a bit of radio time driving home from work.  But it’s enough.
The thing that strikes me is that we treat all of these events as separate things- but really they’re all part of the same old stack of turtles, each one precariously balanced on the back of the other.  Take any single reptile out, the whole caboodle threatens to come crashing down.
So what do we do about these turtles, then? For me, it’s about trying to find the balance in my own life here on this wobbly old pile. It’s about lifestyles. I have more or less rejected the ambition and material aspirations I had when I was much younger, and set my sights on more modest goals: to cook good meals and sit down with my family for tea most nights, to raise happy children, to find time for creativity, to be able to laugh a little- or better, a lot-each day.  Last week I planted vegetables and decided to move my savings from a certain bank (much in the news of late for its role in the global financial meltdown) to my credit union. Both things felt good. I heard the turtles give a little sigh of relief.