No, really, she does! Oh alright, you've got me. It was me. I'm the woman who walked into a bar. Joke's over. During my recent residency on Shetland, I went to a bar by myself. I went to a few gigs...by myself. I went for a steak...by myself. Doing all of these things unaccompanied, took guts. I'm no shrinking violet, I like a chat as much as the next person. However, it takes a certain amount of bravery for me to walk into some situations without a wingman/woman. I don't believe I am a shy person so don't think that is what causes the dread. I'm a woman.
After an early start and a lot of exploring and hiking around the north coast of Shetland, I was ravenous!! I mean, I could have gnawed my own arm off, kind of ravenous. I was also knackered. The sea air takes it out of you (I had no sleep due to inconsiderate hurricanes whirring around the lighthouse through the night). I needed food....and caffeine. Didn't care about the order, I just needed them and fast. I finally reached civilisation at Scalloway and visited an establishment there. The hunger meant my eyes moved over the words on the menu but took nothing in. I ordered a cheeseburger and a latte and a water. Sat in the corner by the window of this empty pub in the early afternoon, I was caught in a hallucination. A mirage, if you will. Chicken legs and potatoes floated around my brain as I willed the chef to move quicker. This day dream was broken by the noise of 3 guys who came in and stood at the bar. They stared. For a split second I wondered if they could see the chicken legs too. They stared some more. It turns out they were staring at me. Their eyes followed me as they took a seat at the opposite end of the pub. This was awkward. I really did not want an audience for the devouring that was about to take place. Who does?!! I knew the hair was in a bad way, I knew there was mud spattered up my boots and legs, I knew that my mascara was smudged from the elements. This was not why they were staring though. If I was a guy sat there alone eating a burger in the corner of a pub, would it have warranted this level of intrigue? I didn't even have the sketchbook out at this stage. It bothered me a little. This is why I am apprehensive about going to certain places by myself. I don't want to be looked at...particularly while ramming a quarter pounder into my face. I felt flustered and sick. The latte was like an espresso and it turns out they don't go so well with burgers. I left, walking past, feeling paranoid. I wanted to go back in and say something witty....but I didn't.
To be fair, I should mention that I encountered some truly welcoming and kind spirited people. The guy at the shop was lovely. He also served at the Sunday cream tea and gave me a piece of his home baked carrot cake. He was a legend. My bravery to attend the Sunday Cream Tea and muscle my way in at the end of a long busy table, was rewarded by some lovely conversations. My knocking on the door at Bressay Lighthouse was rewarded by meeting the fellow artist in residence and we had a nice blether. Generally I found that if you felt the fear and did it anyway, I was compensated with memorable connections.
While I love the idea of being independent and not relying on anyone else to "chum" me to places, there is such a fine balance. Throughout this residency I pushed myself into situations I felt uncomfortable with, in terms of being alone. I don't want to miss out on amazing things because I am waiting for someone to come and hold my hand. It made me think.
Whenever I meet my mother somewhere, she has this odd thing where she has to meet you outside. Even if it is raining, snowing, windy, you name it. Outside, at the entrance. Not inside where it is warm and you can get a seat. In fact, she has a knack of turning up early. The funny thing is, that she is annoyed if you are not early. She could tell you to meet at 2pm and you turn up at 1.55pm feeling smug. She will have been there since 1.45pm and feel miffed that she has been stood there on her own. Purposeless. This thing of being alone and being seen to be alone and without purpose or safety blanket, is fascinating to me. The mobile phone has become the number one safety blanket. My sketchbook became mine. On Shetland, I went for coffee by myself. I went to an open mic night, by myself. I saw Blade Runner at the cinema, by myself. However, I must confess that I often had my sketchbook there as a safety blanket. As a purpose.
And I am proud of myself for getting out there and not hiding in a cupboard. When you are on your own, you are an awkward balance of independence and vulnerability.
Perhaps this feeling is a generational thing. I think it is something we are getting better at (as women). It is something I want to get better at. This year I have tried surfing, I have hiked Munro's, I have wallpapered my own bedroom, I have spent time on Tiree, I have trained for a half marathon (and wrecked my knee). These are small achievements in the grand scheme of things...but each has enriched my life, contributed to my skills and improved my health. When I was hiking up Ben Lomond, a woman in her 60's (maybe she was older), ran past me. RAN!!! Up a mountain!!! I pretended to take photos every 100 yards just to catch my breath and this woman just leapt up like a mountain goat. I remember thinking "Wow, she is my hero!" She still is. This stranger modelled to me something important. Ladies, if there is something you want, go get it. At least try. At least don't be put off because no one is holding your hand. And guys, don't be that guy. Be a gentleman. Be an equal. Support your fellow man/woman to fullfill whatever noble cause they are trying to pursue...whether it is running up a mountain or ramming a burger into their face.
How many of you have seen the northern lights? How many times have you seen them? How many of you wish you could see the northern lights? I think everybody has at least a slight fascination for this natural phenomena. A combination of its rarity and beauty fills me with excitement. The potential for the sky, that vast, open, ever present space above us, to put on a remarkable and unique show is something that turns me into a giddy child.
You can imagine how I felt when I spent a month in Shetland and saw nothing. My eyes tried to convince my brain a couple of times that they saw something of note, but the reality is that I missed them. All of them. In fact the Aurora Shetland social media page was kind enough to show me how close they were happening but a tiny screen is no match for the sky above. I signed up to a special app on my phone to give me updates about when they were likely to appear. I got the odd buzz that sent me running to the windows. Pressing my nose up against the cold glass and holding my breath to stop it fogging up, I would gaze out. Without blinking, I stared, my eyes fixed on the moving light! It’s not as green as I imagined but then again everyone says it’s the camera that exaggerates the saturation. Actually….nope. That is in fact the beam from the lighthouse. Nothing. The next day, the laptop would be filled with glorious displays of brilliance, the Mirrie Dancers. This was to my frustration and everyone else’s joy. During my time there, I travelled up to spend a night on Unst. You don’t get much more north for northern lights surely?! Nothing. I saw nothing. The next day, the laptop was filled with the boast posts of photo enthusiasts. It became like a joke. At least I told myself it was funny to try and cheat my brain out of the disappointment.
It’s not the first time I have gone to great lengths in the hope of stealing a special and unique glimmer of beauty. A couple of years ago, on a whim, two pals and I went on a wee adventure. Three different characters joined by our Thursday night activity and a desire to see something magical in the sky. Throwing caution to the wind we high tailed it down to Yellowcraigs beach, trying to rid ourselves of the city lights that clung to us for the length of the bypass. Given that it was last minute, we had the essentials. This included a chippie, a kettle (good job Catherine!) some exquisite cupcakes and a torch. Leaving the car we climbed over a stile in complete darkness, feeling our way to the clearing through the trees. The darkness magnified every sound, it fed every childhood fear. Creaking of branches and the rustling in leaves, swaying shadows and creatures of the night. The scene was effectively set for a horror film. I was starting to imagine the worst, that someone might leap out and prevent me from eating my chippie while it was still warm. Needless to say, it was a fruitless effort and Aurora did not grace us with her presence, sadly.
Tonight I went for a walk. I do love clear autumn evenings. The stars were out. They waved at me, twinkling. Remember us?! I had taken them for granted. They had been there all along and were generally visible most nights. Guilt washed over me. Here I was, wishing for brighter, better, bolder more memorable, spectacular swirls of green rippling through the nights’ sky. I was dismissing the nights without this display and all along the little guys were doing their best to impress. And you find that don’t you? When you catch sight of one star you all of a sudden see the one beside it and then the one beside that and the next and so on until you are gazing at a blanket of stars in an arrangement of patterns and prominence. And as with the stars, I am guilty of doing that in my own life. I look for, hope for, wait for something big to happen. Something good. A win. Something worthy of praise and adoration. And the whole time, small yet beautiful things have been going on in the background. The kindness of others. An encouragement when you needed it. A banana peel comedy moment when you’re down. These little things keep us afloat when we feel weary from treading water. They maybe don't give us all that we want, but we are given what we need. So while it’s okay to run to that window and hope for something spectacular, I’m learning that sometimes it’s okay to settle for stars.