A Reflection on the Occasion of a College Reunion

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Lake Champlain

I regret to announce that I have not yet discovered the meaning of life.

It’s not that I haven’t tried.

In 1968, after dropping out of Vassar, I protested at Columbia, spending the night in “the tombs” with six hundred other idealistic or reckless young people. We were trying to make a stand for justice, trying to right the wrongs of a society bent on killing and racism.

Barreling through life in my quiet way, seeking, questing. Swimming in the Aegean Sea and camping out in the ancient caves of Crete. Living on a commune in Woodstock. Living on the earth, living of the earth, that was the answer. I hated the word hippy. It trivialized our idealism and attempts to find a more natural, more genuine, lifestyle.

Giving birth to a child. Connected to the most basic, most fundamental part of life. Falling in love with my baby girl, like mothers throughout time.

happy grandma

Happy Grandma

 Being a mother

Meditating on a hilltop in Tennessee, I envisioned Christ and realized the ashram was a cult. Going to seminary, surprised by theology. Combining feminist theology with Christian mysticism. More graduate school, becoming a pastoral counselor.

The meaning that comes through story, through many stories. Engaging in so many stories as a psychotherapist.

Starting to write. Writing stories, publishing novels.

Like me, some of us moved from one scene to another, “reinventing” ourselves at each step. A few of us stayed put, maybe for forty or fifty years. But still the stories rise and mutate and weave into a tapestry of one life or many lives, weaving in and out. Many stories form a life.

Maybe we have twenty more years on this earth, maybe less, or more. What new stories will come in those years? Stories of loss and declining bodies, or stories of integration, of seeing more clearly now that the rain (ambition/clinging/resisting) is gone? Or all of these.

 

 

 

 

Retirement?

 

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Daisy and me

No, but it sure feels like it. Writing in the morning, beach in the afternoon. The last day of summer in Vermont – October 10th! and Daisy and I at our favorite place in Burlington, Lake Champlain.

The other side of Scotland

 

I drove across Scotland, from west to east, and this is what most of the landscape looks like. One town I passed was called Windyraw. (guess why!)

Windyraw

 

I was going to Delegate Castle, another seat of the Hay family, but this one in eastern Scotland, near Aberdeen. And these Hays were not Covenanters, zealous Protestants, but Catholic (God forbid!) and they supported Queen Mary and the Royalists during the Reformation. So, probably not my ancestors. Even though the photograph of the latest Laird looks a lot like my father. – couldn’t do the tech to put them both here. Anyway, my brother disagrees with that opinion. But Delgatie Castle was charming and quirky, with lots of lovely artwork and historic though cosy rooms. Except for the room Queen Mary slept in that looks more like a tiny stone cell. Well, that was in the 1500s, not so much luxury then.Nancy Delgatie Castle

The ponies were very friendly at Delgatie Castle!

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The fairy mound

Downie Hill from field

Downie Hill from the field

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Downie Hill closer

Downie Hill from the air

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Morag on the Downie Hill

The Downie Hill is 15 minutes from where Morag, my new friend, lives in Nairn, Scotland. Can you see it through the field? No one around here seems to know about it. I talked to the farm family whose land it is on and a horsewoman neighbour named Downie, and they knew this was the Downie Wood, but they hadn’t heard about the hill. In witchcraft history, the Downie Hill is famous, the place where Isobel Gowdie met the fairy queen and the elves, all of whom lived in it.

I went there the other day, walked across the field, and stood in front of the hill, but didn’t try to push through the giant ferns to climb up it. But today Morag talked me into forging through the ferns and bracken, and we did it. We reached the top – also overgrown with ferns, as opposed to the satellite picture on the left that must have been taken in winter. We didn’t see any fairies or elves, but we stood there in silence for a bit and felt the silence and the breeze. Across the fields, in the distance, the sea.

The Kindness of Strangers at a castle

 

 

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I drove up the little dirt road, following the signs and with the help of a young woman pushing a baby carriage. “Up there,” she said, “the castle is just behind a new house, a massive, massive house.”

As I pulled up the driveway, an elderly man came up to the car. “Ye’ll be wanting to see the castle?”

“Yes, it is okay?” I said as I realized that this was his private property.

“Aye. And ye’ll be wanting to take photos?” He was smiling, indicating that it was very okay to take photos, and directed me to a spot to park between a few barns and a large house (but not “massive, massive as the young woman had said.)

I stepped through a gate and walked across a grassy slope. A heap of stones, the remnants of a tower and a few walls, the castle looked about the size of our tiny row house in Burlington, Vermont. This was the hereditary home of the Hay family in Morayshire, seat of John Hay, Laird of Park and Lochloy. In the 1600s, with peasant labor, they farmed the thousands of acres around it, land that reached several miles down to the Firth of Moray, an inlet of the North Sea. Standing here, I could see all of that land and all the way to the sea.

I took some pictures and walked back down to the car, where the man was waiting for me. James Campbell, he introduced himself, and invited me in for tea. His wife Doreen came out and we went into the kitchen where she made the tea and laid out a variety of cakes and biscuits. James told me that they had lived in this house that they’d built twenty years ago after living down the hill in their old farmhouse. He’d been a dairy farmer all his life, and when they retired, they built this larger house near the castle with its magnificent view of the land around it.

James and Doreen obviously enjoyed having visitors to the castle that was on their land and told me that many Hay descendants had come to call. “So you’re a Hay, too?”

“Well, very remotely,” I said. “My ancestors in Scotland were named Hay, and probably way back were related to these Hays.”

They were surprised when I said my ancestors had moved to America in the 1700s. I guess that’s unusual, or maybe just more remote than they’d thought. James and Doreen have an archive of books and material about the castle and the Hay family.  They brought out book after book, and soon I was surrounded by a small library of information.

The minutes went on, and James and Doreen seemed eager to talk about the castle and the Hay family. My instinct was to look at my watch, but then I realized that I didn’t have to be anywhere. How wonderful, I thought, to be free to stop and chat for an hour with someone you meet like this. And serendipity that now I could learn something more about the history I’d been studying for the past few years. I told them about my project, the novel about Isobel Gowdie, a peasant on the Hay lands, and her witchcraft trial, and Doreen smiled. “Ah yes, the witch of Auldearn.” Isobel is known in these parts.

They showed me books about the Hay family, the history of the castle, some plans one man had drawn up to restore the castle to its original form, “but he couldn’t get the money from the government.” There was a book on the history of the Auldearn Church, which features prominently in my novel, and pictures of James and Doreen’s twenty grandchildren, most of whom live nearby. They led me on a house tour, and upstairs I enjoyed the view from two large drawing rooms with “massive, massive” windows in bays overlooking the land.

When I was finally able to extract myself from this charming place, I was armed with more than I’d imagined. The kindness of strangers in magical Scotland.

 

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