I Am (More Than) Amenable

North End

North End


31 March 2014
7:30 pm


T. —

I don’t know how it has happened, but I am now the official tech advisor for the volunteers in the community who are trying to connect and communicate via the internet in the Abbey. All I did was turn the modem off and on again, help someone connect to wifi on their computer, and teach another how to refresh email. But suddenly, like magic, I’m getting requests for help with printing, emailing, websites, how to open tabs, how to save and problem solve and think in technological ways. I kind of love it. I’ve never felt so technologically savvy before.

Who knew that all it took to feel useful and necessary was to offer whatever help you can to other people?

James Merril

I grow old under an intensity
Of questioning looks. Nonsense,
I try to say, I cannot teach you children
How to live.—If not you, who will?
Cries one of them aloud, grasping my gilded
Frame till the world sways. If not you, who will?
Between their visits the table, its arrangement
Of Bible, fern and Paisley, all past change,
Does very nicely. If ever I feel curious
As to what others endure,
Across the parlor you provide examples,
Wide open, sunny, of everything I am
Not. You embrace a whole world without once caring
To set it in order. That takes thought. Out there
Something is being picked. The red-and-white bandannas
Go to my heart. A fine young man
Rides by on horseback. Now the door shuts. Hester
Confides in me her first unhappiness.
This much, you see, would never have been fitted
Together, but for me. Why then is it
They more and more neglect me? Late one sleepless
Midsummer night I strained to keep
Five tapers from your breathing. No, the widowed
Cousin said, let them go out. I did.
The room brimmed with gray sound, all the instreaming
Muslin of your dream . . .
Years later now, two of the grown grandchildren
Sit with novels face-down on the sill,
Content to muse upon your tall transparence,
Your clouds, brown fields, persimmon far
And cypress near. One speaks. How superficial
Appearances are! Since then, as if a fish
Had broken the perfect silver of my reflectiveness,
I have lapses. I suspect
Looks from behind, where nothing is, cool gazes
Through the blind flaws of my mind. As days,
As decades lengthen, this vision
Spreads and blackens. I do not know whose it is,
But I think it watches for my last silver
To blister, flake, float leaf by life, each milling-
Downward dumb conceit, to a standstill
From which not even you strike any brilliant
Chord in me, and to a faceless will,
Echo of mine, I am amenable.
This place is beautiful. I feel so useful. I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive.

Where the Clouds Are Just More Mountains

Breakfast in Cul Shuna

Breakfast in Cul Shuna

28 March 2014
7:26 pm

T. —

I am here.

I am here, and I am working.

I am here, I am working, and I have rolled up my sleeves and am now elbow-deep.

I am working in the kitchen, I am working on my awareness, I am working to befriend others, I am working on my poetry.

My days are covered in words and light and salt and wind, but somehow by the end of the day, the words are all used up, and my breath is depleted.

Thanks for pointing me to Robert Creeley again. It has been a long time since I have read him:

‘Time’ is some sort of hindsight, or else rhythm of activity — e.g. now it’s 11 days later — ‘also alive’ like they say.

I can’t believe I have been here for three weeks already, and yet I feel like it has been longer. I feel like I have been here for years. Six more weeks to go, thank goodness. I’m not ready to be at the halfway point, not yet.

I watched ‘August Osage County’ today, and wrote the following reflection:

I’m thinking that Benedict Cumberbatch has the most natural singing voice I think I’ve ever heard, and I’m thinking that I would give up ever singing anything professionally just to be able to sing lullabies and ditties to my children and the ones I love. I’m thinking that my hands pause at the divide between this page and the next, because I am happy just to look upon the blank page of what is to come. I’m thinking that for the first time I am not scared or ashamed or longing or anxious. I am just in love. I am in love with my life, I am in love with people who can throw themselves so much into their work – their life’s work – that it covers over them and colors everything they do. I am thinking that I would like to  be one of those people, and right here, I feel like I almost am.

I am glad to be back and writing here to you again, and there is so much more I want to tell you. This always happens when I sit down to write to you. I will be here longer, sooner, I promise. Tonight, I have the feeling of being possessed, and I just can’t stop working. This is a brief pause in between the pages, in between the drafts, in between the rolling up my sleeves and getting into it again.

I’m back in the kitchen tomorrow — it has been my day off today. But the work I do today creates its own seeds for tomorrow. And suddenly, I can see how writers create a schedule of work. I can see how it develops.

Another photo, to show you where I am. Where the clouds are just more mountains:

Iona Sound

Iona Sound

Even though I’m far away and distant, I’m still reading, I’m still catching up with you. I’m still here. With you.


All That Cycles Through Lives Moving

Letters on letters

Letters on letters

18 March 2014
5:28 pm


I’m waiting for dinner, after having a great Skype conversation with Sarah. It’s nice to feel connected, even in a place which is so remote. Apparently the weather will be very bad for the next two days, and it’s assumed that the ferry won’t be able to get across again until later in the week. It’s a good thing I got a package from Andrew yesterday with some letters from InCoWriMo: International Correspondence Writing Month, which was in February. How did we miss this? I listed my address on the forums, completely forgetting I was leaving for Iona a few days later, and so now I have 12 letters from new pen pals to reply to. That will keep me busy while the rest of my potential mail gets piled up in Oban or Fionnphort, unable to make it across on the ferries for a few days.

Reading some great books, like Deaf Sentence by David Lodge, and Earth Elegy by Margaret Gibson. Everything is going well.

The Man Moves Earth
Cathy Song

The man moves earth
to dispel grief.
He digs holes
the size of cars.
In proportion to what is taken
what is given multiplies—
rain-swollen ponds
and dirt mounds
rooted with flame-tipped flowers.
He carries trees like children
struggling to be set down.
Trees that have lived
out their lives,
he cuts and stacks
like loaves of bread
which he will feed the fire.
The green smoke sweetens
his house.

The woman sweeps air
to banish sadness.
She dusts floors,
polishes objects
made of clay and wood.
In proportion to what is taken
what is given multiplies—
the task of something
else to clean.
Gleaming appliances
beg to be smudged,
breathed upon by small children
and large animals
flicking out hope
as she whirls by,
flap of tongue,
scratch of paw,
sweetly reminding her.

The man moves earth,
the woman sweeps air.
Together they pull water
out of the other,
pull with the muscular
ache of the living,
hauling from the deep
well of the body
the rain-swollen,
the flame-tipped,
the milk-fed—
all that cycles
through lives moving,
lives sweeping, water
circulating between them
like breath,
drawn out of leaves by light.



Terrible Truths


16 March 2014
7:58 pm

T. —

There are some days off that don’t feel like days off at all. I could do with another day, just to curl up in quiet and read for hours. That’s my Friday this week, so I will endeavor to make it a solitary day. I will say no to community things, just for a day. I will walk on the beach, make cups of tea, and read, read, read.

Last night, I watched 2/3 of 12 Years a Slave. I couldn’t finish the last 20 minutes because it was getting too late, and I was watching by myself. I didn’t want to end the night in a state of despair. Instead, I picked up my things, put on my boots, walked up the hill and sang with the staff choir for an hour. After a whole day of wishing I could be on my own, it was amazing to be surrounded by people who cared and supported me, and could ease the tension in my chest from the terrible truths of that movie.

I’ll finish the last 20 minutes tonight, but it won’t be as horrible. I’m ready for the resolution now.

It’s too cold to explore more of the island. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m getting acclimated, or if the new week ahead is making me refreshed. But I’m ready.



Iona 2014

Iona 2014

15th March 2014
2:53 pm

T. —

Happy Birthday. I know you’re having a tough day. Give yourself some mercy, some water, and some Stephen Dunn:

Stephen Dunn

The music was fidgety, arch,
an orchestral version of twang.
Welcome to atonal hell,
welcome to the execution
of a theory, I kept thinking,
thinking, thinking. I hadn’t felt
a thing. Was it old fashioned
of me to want to? Or were feelings,
as usual, part of the problem?
The conductor seemed to flail
more than lead, his baton evidence
of something unresolved,
perhaps recent trouble at home.
And though I liked the cellist—
especially the way
she held her instrument—
unless you had a taste
for unhappiness
you didn’t want to look
at the first violinists face.
My wife whispered to me
This music is better than it sounds.
I reminded myself the world outside
might be a worse place
than where I was now,
though that seemed little reason
to take heart. Instead
I closed my eyes, thought about
a certain mezzo soprano
who could gladden a sad day
anywhere, but one January night
in Milan went a full octave
into the beyond. Sometimes escape
can be an art, or a selfishness,
or just a gift you need
to give yourself. Whichever,
I disappeared for a while,
left my body behind to sit there, nod,
applaud at the appropriate time.


Here, it’s my day off, and I am writing, reading, and thinking of you.

Good afternoon,

In the Fog Like a Ghost

Iona Abbey in the Fog

Iona Abbey in the Fog

13 March 2014
7:37 pm


T. —

I woke up this morning and walked out of the house and down the path to the post office, and looked to find the whole island blanketed in fog. A low-lying fog, making it impossible to see the Isle of Mull across the Sound: mountains disappearing overnight, sinking straight into the water. It reminded me of Hippolyte’s Island by Barbara Hodgson, which is really a spectacular book, that you should really try to get your hands on. I’ve only ever seen it in hardcover, but I will hunt it down in paperback and send it to you.

It was Wendy’s birthday this morning. We gathered for breakfast, and I made a fruit salad with some syrup I had saved when I drained the apricots a few days ago. I cut the oranges in half, then sliced them like an onion into thin wedged slices. They looked like sunrise in a bowl. I stayed for the birthday chat, for breakfast and the opening of presents, but all I wanted to do was to slip out the door like a shadow and stand in the fog like a ghost.

When I left the Abbey to collect Freya at lunch, the fog had crept even closer:

Afternoon fog and the Abbey

Afternoon fog and the Abbey

The fog conceals in layers. It reminds me of a diorama with different layers, where the fog can creep in and cover some things but not others. As you move further, less is visible. First, it takes the mountains. Then the sea. Then the sky. Then the village. Then the Abbey. Then, it is just me: walking alone in a blanket of mist. Stunningly beautiful.

I think fog is my favorite type of weather. Although, as one islander said, “It’s beautiful, but not when you’re wanting to take the ferry.”

I have a few friends on this island. That’s a really nice feeling.

I chaired dinner today, which means announcing the food, explaining which is gluten-free and dairy-free, giving grace before the meal, and holding a moment of silence after. The grace I chose:

For food that gives us life,
and friends that give us love of life,
thanks be to God.

How are you feeling?


All The Way Out Here

Iona Post Office, 2014

Iona Post Office, 2014

12 March 2014
4:48 pm


T. —

Dinner prep starts at 5, so I only have ten minutes to write and get downstairs. But I needed to show you the most important part of the island: the Post Office.

Before I arrived, I was so sure I would become best friends with the postman/postmistress, that he/she would see me coming in and smile, would recognize me, would welcome my arrival and pull out her books of stamps, knowing that I will be coming in for more soon.

When I came here, I saw how quickly reality can alter the only hope or expectation I had about coming.

Hilary is not a friendly postmistress, although I think she has given some people a few very forced smiles. Not me. To me, she throws across a glare that makes me question whether I am supposed to be here at all. I’ve only been in twice. The rest of the time, I post my letters and cards in the postbox outside.

The post office backs up onto the beach, which is the only redeeming quality. And on the other end, arriving mail is brought over on the ferry, needing two boats and a few islands to reach us here. It’s brought up to the Iona Welcome Centre, divided up into essentials and volunteer and staff mail, and then brought to our individual homes. Yesterday, two massive packages arrived at our house for Wendy. It’s her birthday tomorrow. I’ve gotten a card, and it arrived on Monday, when I happened to be in the Welcome Centre, peering over Pete’s shoulder at the day’s mail until he told me that I could help him sort it. My name jumped out at me, and I wandered around the Welcome Centre reading the card, giggling to myself, and feeling generally elated that something someone had written by hand had reached me, all the way out here, surrounded by the sea. I had to re-read it a few times, just to clarify. This is for me, and it has made the journey. All the words are intact. The ink is still there.

I’m averaging about a letter and a postcard per day, but I’m about to have two full afternoons off on Thursday and Friday, so that number will likely increase. I’ve been here for 6 days, and I’ve written 8 letters and 9 postcards. Okay, I’m way over my estimate. I’m glad I’m keeping a log — I’ll tally it all up and let you know the final numbers.

Today, I made dumplings from scratch. And bread. I made bread from scratch. When I poured it onto the table to wrangle it into breadtins, I watched how it moved, how quickly it needed attention. At first it was an overwhelming struggle, but I almost said to Anja at the end: I understand the bread now. I know how it thinks and what it wants. It’s like getting to know a person who is desperate for guidance.

Trying to Name What Doesn’t Change
Naomi Shihab Nye

Roselva says the only thing that doesn’t change
is train tracks. She’s sure of it.
The train changes, or the weeds that grow up spidery
by the side, but not the tracks.
I’ve watched one for three years, she says,
and it doesn’t curve, doesn’t break, doesn’t grow.

Peter isn’t sure. He saw an abandoned track
near Sabinas, Mexico, and says a track without a train
is a changed track. The metal wasn’t shiny anymore.
The wood was split and some of the ties were gone.

Every Tuesday on Morales Street
butchers crack the necks of a hundred hens.
The widow in the tilted house
spices her soup with cinnamon.
Ask her what doesn’t change.

Stars explode.
The rose curls up as if there is a fire in the petals.
The cat who knew me is buried under the bush.

The train whistle still wails its ancient sound
but when it goes away, shrinking back
from the walls of the brain,
it takes something different with it every time.



Let Everything Fall Where It Will


11 March 2014
7:19 pm

T. —

I have never been so anxious about dinner before in my life. I knew we had a lot to do to get ready from 5 – 6, but nothing seemed to be working. And I made an apricot crumble from scratch, with my own crumble recipe I scrounged from the internet, and then it wouldn’t brown. I think the oven was on too low, but I did exactly what Anja had written. I was so nervous I could have been sick. I almost didn’t even have a piece of the crumble. Almost.

There’s just so much to learn. I feel like I’ve only been cooking for three days. As in, ever. I know Andrew cooks a lot at home, but I used to bake, I make soups. I survive. But this… Cooking for more than 20 people, with that baseline number poised to double in a few weeks. Terrifying.

I almost put too much milk in the scones this morning too. At least those were a success at the tea break. At least we have a tea break every day. It calms the nerves, maybe. At least the custard was hot with the pudding, so it made up for the tepid crumble temperatures, maybe. I mean, it wasn’t that bad. But I think my nerves are fried.

My solution to this : stop freaking out. Just stop. Step back and realize that there is very little I could actually do to horrendously ruin a meal (oh my god, knock on wood) and that these people are astronomically forgiving. Three residents came into the Kitchen after dinner and helped us clean up all of the dishes, while we cleared away the leftovers, swept, sanitized. There is so much help here, and helpfulness. A few days ago, I thought I should always serve at least two other people water before pouring my own as a reminder of how much care is taken here to create community. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place like that before, like this.

I went home on my afternoon break and wanted to write letters, to read books, to come back in early and write a letter to you here, but instead I slept. And when my alarm didn’t go off at 3:15, I slept more. I slept all the way until 4:20, thankfully waking up far in advance of when I needed to get back for the evening shift. I was slightly annoyed at this phone again, its unreliable nature. But I knew I needed the rest.

Breathe out.

One day, every new skill turns into habit. It’s true, isn’t it? How a skill sinks down below the skin and sits in your bones, mans your limbs and commands the muscles? How it turns your body, just so, toward what is being achieved, and never expects it to fail. That expectation of failure… That is, again, me standing in front of myself.

Step back, breath out.


P.s. Wait. I’m not done. I was going to give you a Jane Kenyon poem two days ago, but I kept forgetting. And it fits in perfectly with your letter. I shouldn’t still be surprised, but I am.

Jane Kenyon

March. Rain. Five days now.
Water gathers in flat places,
finds every space between stones.
The river peaks, fish lie
stunned on the muddy bottom.

After the crash in the Swiss
countryside, an arm
dangles from a tree. A tortoiseshell
comb parts the grass.
The bookmark is still in place.

This month I was five days late,
but now the blood comes in a rush.
Let everything fall where it will.
Someone unpacks a suitcase, thinks
of living without possessions.


I was thinking of how to explain this poem to Almut, the German volunteer who lives with us, whom I met on the bus from Craignure to Fionnphort, who spoke of wanting to minimalize her life to what is manageable. I was thinking how to take this poem apart. But then, maybe I wouldn’t have to explain anything to her. Maybe she would understand how all of these situations are being weighed equally against each other: the atrocity, the small griefs, the simple truths of weather. Maybe she knows this is how the world turns, and the only way to survive it is to let it all fall and to pick it all up, to bear each moment equally.

To love them all, in spite of what might come.



10 March 2014
7:30 pm

T. —

It was such a gorgeous day outside today. Blue skies, no wind, birds singing. Even the island cat was sunning on some recycling bins when I went to pick up Freya at school for lunch in the Abbey.

We are on a split-day schedule, so in the kitchens we work from 9:00 until 2:30, and then from 5 until 7:30. In the morning, we make bread, scones, whatever soup is for lunch, and start to prepare the meal for dinner. After lunch, we wash the kitchen, sterilise everything, mop the floors and put away what needs finishing for dinner. At 5, we come in, put dinner in the oven, serve it up, eat with everyone, and clean up in the kitchen after (evening cleaning is always shorter than the afternoon, because we haven’t used the kitchen enough to get it fully dirty.)

One or two days a week we each come in early at 7 or 7:30 for the breads and scones, but this week is still just a learning week. I made the soup from scratch for lunch today, though — sweet potato and coconut soup for 20+ people. I ate it quickly with Freya — because of her school schedule, we eat the first half of lunch on our own, and I leave before most of the other staff and volunteers have really started eating. When I come back from taking Freya back to school, they’re on to teas and coffees. I arrive back in time for the kitchen cleaning. But a few people stopped me today to tell me how tasty the soup was, so I think I’ve passed my first test. It’s amazing to think I didn’t know any of these people five days ago, and now I live among them, cooking their meals, sharing their stories, engaging with their lives and histories. Robin, one of the resident staff members, is going to Glasgow this week, and asked me about museums there. I used my limited knowledge to share what I know of Glasgow, and helped her wrap up a few extra pieces of cake from dinner today to take with her on the journey tomorrow. It’s not all that far to get to Glasgow, but from here it feels a world away.

Dinner was a roasted courgette lasagna with a coleslaw I made using this industrial slicer and grater. I feel like you’re going to hear a lot about food while I’m here. I apologize if it makes you hungry.

I didn’t know bread takes two times to rise. Three, counting leaving it overnight for the yeast to develop. I prepped the bread tonight, ready for the making tomorrow morning.

What else can I tell you. I wanted to spend the whole afternoon outside. I can already start to recognize the difference between islanders and visitors. Everyone waves. Most people say hello. It’s going to be hard not to know everyone, and I kind of love that concept.

I had a great discussion with Pete, a resident in the Finance office today while he reimbursed me for my travel expenses. He told me I was ‘unbelievably cheap.’ He seemed astonished that I traveled to Iona for £20 one-way. I take that as a compliment for my ingenious planning. But we sat and discussed Edinburgh, the life of an artist (I almost qualify, although at this point I feel more like a professional student…), and what makes Iona tick. At least, the Iona community, which I have to keep remembering is not all of Iona itself.

The best connections seem to come in very unexpected places.

I am already glad to be here. If I had to leave tomorrow, I could already say that I think this has changed who I am. For many reasons. The least of which being that I can cook for over 20 people. That’s a really good foreshadowing for Thanksgiving 2014.