Walking in Scotland: “as a pipe for any wind to play upon”

I just got back from walking over 70 miles in Scotland, most of it on the Borders Abbeys Way. I discovered long distance walking five years ago and have done walks every summer since, four times in Scotland, once in Corsica.

I’ve always enjoyed hiking and going on walks, but a walking holiday is a totally different experience. You commit to spending most of every day being outside, walking from town to town with a daypack. (Other luggage is transported by a service to the next stop.) This year a friend and I walked for six days.

We started of each day with anywhere from 8-18 miles ahead of us. In the beginning there is excitement, then soon self-doubt creeps in. Why am I doing this? Can I walk this far? When will the aching muscles and stiffness from yesterday’s walk disappear? Will I get lost? (yes, I always get lost) Why didn’t I stay in bed in the comfy B&B and take a bus to the next town?

But soon, as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in Walking Tours, “It becomes magnetic; the spirit of the journey enters into it. And no sooner have you passed the straps over your shoulder than the lees of sleep are cleared from you, you pull yourself together with a shake, and fall at once into your stride.”

In Scotland there is rain. There is always rain. But also blue skies and sun! Raingear is put on and taken off several times a day. (That’s the hard part of walking.)

 

There are sheep, lots of sheep.

And cows and horses.

River paths and hill trails.

Flowers.

And smiles.

Why do I love this so much, I ask myself, as I chug along through mud, scramble over rocks, avoid ruts, or stroll on grassy trails?

The answers come to me. I’m outside. It’s beautiful. It smells good. There is birdsong, the rustle of wind through wheat fields, the flowing river. I’m proud, amazed, and thankful that I can do this. I feel safe and confident. I’m on an adventure that I know I can handle. Miles pass without talking. Thoughts, memories and great ideas come and go. I am part of the earth.

Again, Robert Louis Stevenson: “And then you must be open to all impressions and let your thoughts take colour from what you see. You should be as a pipe for any wind to play upon.”

At day’s end, we take pleasure in removing our boots and wiggling our toes, taking hot showers, going to a pub to eat, and sleeping deeply —only to start the marvelous, magic, magnetic journey again the next day.

Writing en Plein Air

Painters take easels, paints, brushes, and canvases outside to paint en plein air to capture the light and beauty of the natural world; why not writers?

When I take my journal outside (certainly not during black fly season or when mosquitoes are everywhere here in Maine) whether I’m brainstorming ideas, drafting scenes, or writing poems, I find my plein air writing has, for lack of better word, an “airy” quality to it. I’m more open to experimentation. There are no boundaries.

Last fall, I wanted to share this experience when I worked with a group of young writers at the Cathance River Ecology Center to write nature-inspired poetry in my two-hour workshop: Listen, Look, Draw, and Write: Writing Poetry about Nature. It went like this:

Listen: We began inside the nature center. I shared some of my poems and we talked about some of the poetic techniques I used to write them.

Look: Next, with sketchbooks and pencils in hand, we went outside, ready to explore.

Draw: Whenever something “called” to us from the natural world–it was different for everyone: a rotting tree stump, a gurgling brook, lichen on stone, a woodpecker, tall grasses–we stopped, quickly capturing images and words on the pages of our nature journals. We did this several times in different settings.

Write: An hour later, we brought our words and images back inside to help us write and illustrate our poems.

What about you? Do you ever write outside? If you work with children, have you ever taken them outside with notebooks? Were you surprised at the results?

 

Pride Month and a Dedication

After my son Adam came out in the early 2000s, I did what any children’s book-loving mom would do: I pulled some “gayYA” books off my shelf. I was a student then in Vermont College’s Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA Program where, besides writing, we were required to read tons of books.

I’d collected some of my favorites—The Geography Club, Brent Hartinger; Boy Meets Boy, David Levithan; Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz; Rainbow Boys, Alex Sánchez—and gave them to Adam.

Weeks later Adam commented that he’d really liked all the books but asked, “Why do all the books have to be about being gay? Why can’t there be a character in a book who just happens to be gay?”

At the time (early 2000s) I was so excited that YA books with gay characters even existed—baby boomers did not grow up with this literature—that Adam’s comment really moved me.

In TILLIE HEART AND SOUL, Uncle Fred just happens to be gay. I didn’t set out to write a book with a gay character as a result of Adam’s comment. I didn’t say, Gee, I’d better put a character in my WIP who just happens to be gay for Adam.

When Uncle Fred first appeared on the page, I realized he was gay. He was also an artist, a stickler for Tillie’s teeth-brushing routine, an inventive cook, and president of the condo association.

As an author, you can’t make your characters be or do what you want them to. (Believe me, I’ve tried!) Fictional characters are who they are, they exist on their own, products of your imagination with a little magic dust thrown in.

But one’s life experiences (including conversations with a son) feed the creative process and the imagination.

TILLIE HEART AND SOUL’S dedication page reads: To Adam.