October has to be one of the most exciting of months. When I get out of bed each morning, 6am weekdays/ a little bit later at weekends, I look through the window over the square. It is fairly dark but the Narnia street lamps are sufficient to light up the loss of leaves on the trees and the build-up on the ground. The wind is howling as I write this so I'm expecting a significant change to the square by morning.
Today is the 22nd and my late father's birthday. Every year at this time, there is a great deal of yellow around. It is the most amazing shade of yellow - it would be difficult to replicate - perhaps it is not of this world. What do you think? Is it possible that, because we are entering the period when "the veil is thinner" we can, if our minds are open to it, experience sensations outwith our usual sphere? Colours, noises, smells, sounds and feelings. I'm not suggesting ghosts because they are what you think they should be. I'm meaning something less prescribed - something you can't search for.
As a people we are not as careful as we once were - and I use the word "careful" deliberately. The bucket list we are encouraged to tick off before we die is most often about thrills and excitement. Little care is given to incoming communications - unless they are on the mobile. For example, should I be sitting close to the cliff edge overlooking Duncansby Stacks - google them, they're witches' hats - and considering their history, their origin and their ability to inspire over generations, and you were to call me on my mobile, what would I do? I would answer it - and, at the same time, lose that other communication. I wouldn't get by without a phone and I wouldn't be typing this without my laptop so I'm not going to decry technology. I do feel we are missing a trick though - perhaps because of it.
We are coming up to Hallowe'en and our family will enjoy our usual party - kneebones, dustbread biscuits, cheese bones, poison pie, worm soup and Monster pizzas. We can't put alcohol in the punch until the last trick-or-treater has left the square - that's the teacher in us coming through! I decorate the ground floor on the morning of Hallowe'en and, every year, Winty, our blow-up ghost, is more of a challenge. Late in the evening the conversation becomes a reflection on the meaning of the night. In the quiet, after the constant ringing of the door bell ,we consider the spirits and the spirituality of Hallowe'en. There is much to be said.
When the children were small, I used to make up stories for them. Now, as Crowvus (a publishing house), we can enjoy other people's ghost stories as we move towards making a final decision on which ones to include in our 2018 Christmas ghost stories anthology - due to be published at the beginning of December.
We run the risk of plasticising Hallowe'en to the point where we lose touch with reality and especially of what death means to us. If you have ever been to visit a family member or a friend who has died you will know that, in front of you, is nothing resembling the subject in life. This alien, akin to alabaster, has nothing familiar about it at all. Herein is the crux of the matter. The spirit has left the body. It only rested there a while but, while it did, it touched your life - and a little bit of it will remain in you - and in yours. So where's the rest of it? Where did it go?
The lengths we go to as a way of perpetuating the memory of our deceased family and friends give food for thought.
Keith and I have done research into our family tree and one of my favourite things is when we pack our wellies and head - always south of here (although someone suggested we may have a Crow link with Stroma) - to visit graveyards. We have done this at all times of the year but my favourite time is in Spring when the lilacs are in bloom and the tombstones are perches for birds in the throes of courtship or nest building, regaling us with their hopeful music. I'm all about hope and those visits amongst the dead give me an enormous amount of satisfaction. Here lie our ancestors and here life continues.
Occasionally, while we are on such a visit, a strange thing may happen. We may find out some information which is new to us. We may be led to a grave which appeared to be a needle in a haystack. We may sense something which we are unable to explain. It is not the bones of our forbears which direct us - rather, it is a spiritual power - and we leave with the notion that we have been touched by grace.
The graveyards in Scotland are encyclopaedic. The information on many of the gravestones is incredibly detailed. You don't just learn the name and dates of the subjects - there is often an address, an occupation, a list of family members and sometimes hobbies are described too. They are a gift to researchers.
Our daughter studied the local graveyards for her dissertation and the family living up here all helped with data collection. It was appropriately bitter weather when we did much of it. Each of us came away, from those visits, feeling we knew our neighbours and acquaintances better. It made us feel that we were no longer strangers. Such positivity.
When we go south we make the connection which gives the direction but, here, in Caithness we get the education which facilitates association! I am fascinated by the hundreds of tiny burial grounds within high walls in Scotland. Some are upkept - some, not so much. One wonders how the pall-bearers managed to access some of them. There needed to have been a collegiate sense of respect and determination.
As a little girl, I spent happy hours in the village graveyard - sometimes, with my grandmother, tending the grave of her parents and brother, sometimes watching the birds and tiny creatures which made the space their own. Sometimes I simply walked around and jumped over the graves, reading and reflecting on the subjects of the headstones - like the little girl who was buried with her grandparents. What was she like? Did she suffer? Did she know she would die as a child? Where were her parents buried? So many questions. Sometimes it is possible to find out the answers - sometimes it never will be.
I'm finishing this blog on 29th October and I'm thinking of how I'm going to get at the two bags of Hallowe'en decorations in my large and very untidy cupboard. I'm hoping the children - all grown up now - have the party food covered for Wednesday.
Above all, I'm staying open to sounds, smells, sights and sensations which bring home that feeling of belonging in the perpetual circle of life.