Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Dark

Entry for 9 December 2006:

Americans usually visit Scotland in the summer, so the Scotland they fall in love with and idealize is the Scotland of the endless summer days with long evenings and mild weather when it doesn’t rain all the time, but is still lovely and green. This is a sunny, bright, friendly Scotland, Scotland the bonny (=pretty, excellent) and braw (=brave, fine, showy).

But there is another Scotland: the dark, cold, wet, and mean. Sunrise this time of year, is 8:30 or later; sunset is about 3:45 in the afternoon. When it is cloudy and raining, the day feels even darker and shorter. This is the Scotland that Americans don’t usually see. This is what we are living right now as we approach the winter solstice, as the days draw in increasingly and the temperatures drop into the 30’s (F = 0 to 5 C). In this Dark Time, the dark side of Scotland and the Scottish people emerge: drinking, depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder), bullying and vandalism.

We experienced this duality strongly today: The day was clear for a change and bright, quite unusually, given how much rain we’ve been getting. This afternoon, we went into the city centre to do a bit of Christmas shopping and before we knew it, it was dark. We headed for George Square, where this year’s Christmas lights were even more overdone that I had remembered them from this year last year (when I came for my job interview). The place was swarming with families, drawn like us to the bright lights and excitement of the holiday carnival there, rides and portable ice rink packed with people skating in circles on high-heeled skates. These lights, like those at the Christmas party we went to last night, seem to be lit against the Dark.

After that, it was on through the dark as the shops around us shut at 6 pm, to Wagamama, a kind of Japanese noodle place, bright and buzzing with people packed around communal dining tables, where Diane struck up animated, friendly conversations with strangers on both sides of us. We left feeling light and happy and took the train back to Anniesland, a set of brightly-lit rooms moving through the dark toward home.

At Partick, a woman of middle years got on the train with her 7 or 8-year-old daughter. The woman kept grimacing with pain, muttering, hiding her head, occasionally smiling briefly, unable to keep still; meanwhile, her daughter kept looking around nervously at the other passengers to see if they were watching. Before we arrived in Anniesland 5 minutes later, it was clear to Diane and I that the woman was experiencing a psychotic episode. We were a facing another sort of Dark, familiar to us from our work in mental health, but in a situation where we felt unable to offer help, if only because we had no idea where to direct the woman and her daughter.

From the Anniesland train stations, we made our way home. Then, stopping to at the convenience store on Fulton Street, a couple of blocks from our house, we were accosted by a group of 5-6 young people standing around outside the store, drinking. As we approached they caught sight of my distinctive black outback hat and started yelling at me, “Yeehaw, cowboy!” Annoyed, I was muttering, “It’s Australian!”, when one young woman reached up and tried with all her strength to rip the hat from my head. Instantly, I clapped my right arm onto my hat and pulled back with my body as hard as I could, while we pushed our way through the doors and into the store. The group of young people laughed outside. In the instant of reflexively protecting my beloved hat, several things had happened at once: First, I had strained my right arm again, which has been hurting on and off for the past two months; during the incident, I had had to fight not only against the young woman’s strong grip but also against the pain from the re-injury, which was now throbbing. Second, noticing a bottle of something alcoholic-looking in her other hand (the one she wasn’t using to take my hat), I had had to ignore the impulse to yell “You’re drunk!” in her face. I now realized that this restraint had been the wisest course of action. Third, this incident felt somehow linked to having my wallet stolen in Rome, and I wasn’t about to be victimized again, not when I could do something to stop it. This time, my anger had mobilized me to stop a violation, and it was only afterwards that I realized that I was angry.

We found our milk and paid for it. I looked at the nice Pakistani man who works at the store (and who had kept Diane’s passport for her in September), and said, “They’re a bit rowdy!” but he didn’t answer, acting as though he hadn’t understood me. He looked uncomfortable. We were going to have to run the gauntlet of people as we left, so we prepared ourselves by putting the milk away in a bag in order to have our hands free to defend ourselves. I was going to turn right to go straight through them toward our house, but Diane, wisely and firmly directed us to the left, away from our house and led us across the street, giving them a wide berth. It’s times like this when I think I have no street-sense whatsoever!

Walking home through the dark, we pondered this encounter with the Dark, practically on our doorstep. We noticed small clumps of young people wandering up and down Fulton Street on a freezing, windy Saturday night, apparently bored with nothing better to do than to drink, smoke and occasionally harass passersby. This is the mean-spirited, anarchic Dark of Scotland. I thought of the kids who threw an egg at me on Halloween a block south of the convenience store, of Lorna’s son being bullied and threatened at his rural school 20 miles away. Suddenly our neighborhood no longer seemed genially shabby and run-down, but instead seemed dangerous and Dark. Finally looking down the street us to see if we were being followed or watched, we opened the front door and went into our place, carefully locking the door behind us.

I fell asleep writing this blog entry (something that happens regularly), but when I awoke at 4 am, I lay awake for quite a while, realizing that the Pakistani man who runs the convenience store had also felt threatened by the crowd outside his store, and seeing how he was also being victimized by having his customers threatened at his doorstep. He and I are both viewed as outsiders here by alienated youth who see us as intruders. This is the Dark of prejudice and social exclusion.

Dark vs. light; mean/cynical/alienated vs. friendly/hopeful/open-hearted. This is the time we are in and the place we are in. For the past week, we have been actively looking for another place to live in Glasgow, one that has more Light in it and feels more like a community to us. Maybe that will be Milngavie, on the northern edge of the suburbs, a quaint touristy town at the beginning of the West Highland Walk, where we wandered for a couple of hours on Friday watching the families. Maybe that will be Hyndland, with its spacious 100-year-old 4-storey red sandstone buildings, crowded but neat, filled with academics, families and old people. Both places, we have been assured, are filled with people like us; either place, we hope, will have more of the Light and less of the Dark in them. But of course, Dark and Light can be found in all places; there is nothing particularly Scottish about either Light or Dark. This is only the place where we are presently encountering this universal duality in the human heart.


Poppy06 said...

I found your account of the Dark v. the Light very moving, and a reflection of how I also find living in Scotland, the World, Life... Life is such a mix of great goodness and startling generosity and then hardness and meanness. But I draw strength from St. John's prologue - and the sense that the light wins out over the dark eventually. And also maybe the light is brighter because of the darkness. The acts of kindness and love we experience are all the more bright because of the contrast with the dark.

Spiritbear said...

Wow. I stumbled upon your blog tonight. I am also a parttime expatriate, living in Scotland most of the year now and back in the high New Mexico desert the rest. And am experiencing much of the same as you describe, with The Dark. I think a lot of people in this culture suffer from SAD and don't even know it. Yes, and as poppy06 says, it is a metaphor of life itself. This is a most amazing, strange, haunting place, Scotland.