the underdog

I’ve always had a bit of a fatal flaw as a historian, and perhaps as a person too. When it comes to the stories that I’m most drawn to and the historic figures I like best, I’m inevitably drawn to the underdog. Perhaps this comes of being of Scottish and Irish decent. Scottish stories are largely about defensive stands against desperate odds. Living next door to such a powerful southern neighbour takes some doing, I can tell you. (As a Canadian, I know this).

As for Irish history, it makes for almost unbearable reading sometimes. “So, things were really, really bad, and then they were horrible, and then they got even worse. And then they got a little bit of a cattle business going and then that was shut down……..”

And it’s only 1720 and I’m already so depressed that I can’t bear to go on.

I do my best to go for history for my lessons. History has a role in healing I believe but only if we tell the truth. And, I can’t be expected to make all of the mistakes myself, (though I take a damn good run at it). I can learn from others!

Anyway, what happened I think is that I developed a taste for the underdog early on … for the Irish and the Scots and the First Nations people here in North America and other people who were conquered and oppressed from around the world. Mary, Queen of Scots v. Elizabeth I? I was always, always on Mary’s side. I didn’t start learning about Napoleon until I was in my twenties and it was quite heady. Winning is so fun!

But what happened I think is that I developed a really ambivalent attitude towards winning and winners. Because viewed through a lens of history, the winners could often be viewed as the bad guys. (As someone of Scots, Irish and French decent that really means = English!).

I’m going through a time where I don’t feel like a winner. I’m not necessarily proud of my life. And I can see that I’ve been creating my life out of fear for a long, long time. There are all kinds of reasons for that but not so deep down there is the unsettled feeling that it’s not okay to win and be successful. That winners succeed at the expense of others. When it comes to history, I’ve always come down on the side of Charles Stuart and Crazy Horse. Really capable deserving people who got absolutely crushed.

But, now I want to be a winner. Can history have a role in teaching me how to do that so that other people can win, too? Who are winners from history who helped and listened to others and made their own times and places and families happier?

I have this feeling that ordinary people, not the kings and queens and halls of great men hold the answers to that.

van gogh’s suicide note

I’ve been working on a number of different writing projects for years: a book of poetry, a history of my region and a couple of novels. At one point in one of the novels, the heroine (protagonist) is going through a time of dissolution. “Van Gogh she still believed in,” I have have written of her (most effective sentence, wouldn’t you say?!!!)

Sadly, on this day in 1890, the great artist ceased to believe in himself, dying of a self inflicted gunshot wound.

There are two possible candidates for Van Gogh’s “suicide note”, his very last painting.

The first is “The Church at Arles” (bottom), a bleak and haunting image with a frowning wrinkled sky. But, my money is on “Wheatfield with Crows”. There are so many elements of a typical Van Gogh: that signature purple blue outlines around things, the familiar blue and gold palette. Missing utterly, though, are any personal symbols from this, the most personal of painters.

In one of his last letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh says that he fears that his depression is returning and remarks, “I cannot go through this again.”

And so the mind that crafted so much heaven … in fields, in orchards, in flowers, in other people’s faces … could not face its own return to hell.

pilgrim’s progress

I reread The Pilgrim’s Progress for the first time in about twenty years this summer. What an interesting experience to revisit a book that was had such a big influence on Christianity and my own theology as a little girl. Our church had a small library and I would choose a book to read whilst the sermon was going on. I chose Pilgrim’s Progress over and over again.

The stories were written in the 1600s and so there are problematic attitudes towards women and black people as you’d expect. Also, the attitude towards suffering stood out to me. Suffering was not only expected and accepted, but also quite glamourised and I still see this attitude reflected in my friends and family who are Christians today, with even innocent pleasures (and most are) being viewed with hostility and suspicion.

There are however some five hundred year old life lessons that seem pretty solid to me … like not taking shortcuts, what to do when we suffer from despair and being persistent and patient when faced with a challenge.

This seems like good advice too:

“If a man would live well, let him fetch his last day to him, and make it always his company keeper.”

— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress.

mary morton

I hung out with my great-great grandmother last week. She was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1849 and died here in Calgary in 1924. She was described as a “restless spirit” … I don’t take after her there as I’m quite a homebody. I so wish I could have met her. Her life spanned a period of such change and that which we call “progress”. I wonder what she would make of this world now!

salon des refusés

If you had been visiting the prestigious Paris Salon exhibitions during the 1860s, here are some examples of paintings you would not get to see. The Salon at the time was run by people who wanted art that had traditional framing devices and traditional and instructive subject matter. The artists whose work focused on ordinary moments in ordinary people’s lives, rejected framing devices and were interested in painting out of doors found their work rejected over and over again by the established art world, and by people who were meant to know great art when they saw it. Of course, we know now that a lot of the discarded paintings were masterpieces!

Eventually, tired of being overlooked, the artists decided to have a salon of their own, “The Salon des Refusés” where they could display their work and give the public the chance to make up their own minds. These pioneering artists, the impressionists, went on to change art forever, and now Impressionism is probably the most popular and beloved style of art, seen as beautiful, meaningful and accessible to critics such as little children and people who usually don’t like art!

Do you have a private Salon des Refusés in your life? I know you do, because I have one of my own (quite extensive, if you want to know the true story). At the moment, it’s myself who has experienced so much rejection as far as finding a job that I’m a bit stuck at the moment. I’ve applied for jobs I didn’t care about. I’ve applied for jobs I wanted so badly. I’ve applied at grocery stores and gas stations, museums and schools, libraries and retail stores. I’ve had some interviews but so far! Nothing. And, this has been going on for such a long time.

I do feel discouraged and depressed about this state of affairs and I was thinking about the Salon des Refusés today. Just because you are rejected does not mean that you are not valuable and worthy. And, maybe I will have to make something of my own.

Monet: Women in the Garden, Hotel des Roches Noires, Trouville.
Degas: At the Races in the Countryside
Morisot: The Artist’s Sister Edma Seated in a Park
Bazille: Studio on the Rue Furstenberg
Manet: Women in a Garden

the old pretender

Have you seen a portrait of this man before? Depending on who is telling the story, this is either King James VIII or The Old Pretender, and his claim to the throne was as divisive in the eighteenth century as people like Donald Trump are today.

Ultimately, despite a number of attempts, he did not become the king in Britain, although he was descended from the Stuarts, who were the rulers. He did successfully invade Britain though, and I say successfully because not too many people can say they landed in Britain at all, although many have tried (the Spanish Armada, for instance).

His army did win some minor battles around Perth, Scotland, but to keep the enemy from advancing, it was deemed necessary to set on fire a little village in which the poor inhabitants probably didn’t care one way or another who the king was. It was wintertime, so destroying the houses meant certain death.

I’ve always thought that this man had kind eyes. When you read his letters, they display a sensitive person who felt so responsible for the risks that others were taking to help him, and the innocent people caught in the middle. Unlike the ruthless men in the army who without thought would obliterate anything that was in their way, he worried about the people who would be affected, even if they were commoners. I can’t help but think that he would have been rather a good king.

“It is crushing to me who would have thought myself to some degree content if I were alone in my misfortune but the death and misfortunes of others of which I am the innocent cause pierces my heart.”

— James Stuart

bonnie prince charlie

All my life, I wanted someone to make a movie or television show about Bonnie Prince Charlie and the events of “The 45”, a period of history that stands out as dramatic and tragic even in Scotland that has a story filled with dramatic and tragic events. And Outlander was what they came up with (I don’t like it because I don’t think they portrayed Charles Stuart in a fair or accurate way).

Last week, I introduced you to James Stuart, this man’s father. They could not have been more different. Charles was restless and active, with great reserves of energy and physical courage. He was also described as a very magnetic personality, unlike his stern and rather retiring father.

This is the man who successfully invaded Britain and marched his army of Highlanders to within two hundred miles of London. The Spanish Armada, Napoleon, the Nazis and many others who attempted or would have liked to attempt the same thing never came so close.

If his men had to dig a ditch or cross a river, he joined in their labour. He also sent his own physicians to tend the wounded of the enemy.
In his honour, many songs have been written, but the events that effectively ended a centuries old family system in the Highlands haunted him all of his life. “When I reflect on the brave fellows who suffered in my cause that does strike me to the heart, and does sink very deep within me.”

He managed to escape with his life and continued to rally the powers around Europe to support another invasion. By the middle of his life he was a broken, drunken and pathetic man who was violent to his girlfriends and wife. “You don’t want friends, you want victims,” one of them wrote.

Late in his life, he took an interest in the events of the American Revolution. He was also consoled by the care and love of his daughter, who was perhaps the only person who ever truly loved him. His favourite song was called Lochaber No More. The Rankin family has a beautiful version of this ancient song if you’d like to listen. This portrait is of a very good looking man, in my opinion! But it may not be of him at all. After all this time, it’s been revealed that it is actually of his younger brother, Henry Stuart.

not only local history

I read a biography of Robert Burns this summer that focused on his creativity and how it was linked to love, or more accurately, to sex. If you think that Thomas Aquinas has his hands full Christianizing Plato, you should have seen what the Victorians went through trying to make Robert Burns respectable!

Burns was deeply respected women and saw them as equals. He did not deify them but truly enjoyed their companionship throughout his life. And, he had a voracious sexual appetite, numerous illegitimate children and was usually chasing at least one goddess (or two). The point of the book is that the creative and sexual aspects of the poet’s life were linked, with spikes in inspiration whilst he was in love.

One attempt the Victorians made to rehabilitate Burns’ reputation was to focus on a woman immortalized as “Highland Mary”, who died when she was very young. These paintings portray a very chaste parting and imply that had Mary lived, Burns’ life would have been more respectable. However, the evidence is not encouraging, with contemporary sources recounting that the young lady was quite free with her favours and a rather interesting persistent story that she died giving birth to Burns’ child.
What I appreciate about Burns is his frankness and far sighted commitment to liberty. His plain speaking occasionally alienated people (he rather tactlessly celebrated the deaths of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI to a member of the Scottish nobility). I raised myself on Burns and I suppose I’ve got him to thank for the fact that I’ve always been a Jacobite at heart. His personal life was kind of a hot mess … but I prefer it to the way Victorians creepily repressed things and tried to wallpaper over people’s reputations and whole sections of life, and history!

The book is A Tinder Heart by Hugh Douglas.

our daily bread

Here is an example of how history can be personal, and provide connection and guidance.

I’ve always been resistant to cooking. I swear if someone created an elemental chart of my make up it would be some fire, oceans of water (emotions) and most of all air — air — air — thinking, thinking all the time. It’s my tendency to live in my brain with books and art and ideas and the past and the future and everything, everything but the present moment. What’s utterly missing from those elements? Earth. My body. I can’t really relate when people talk about the pleasure they get out of preparing a good meal and sharing it with someone else. I know this is partly down to my trauma as well.

Of course, whenever I get a spare moment, I like to learn. The best meal I ever had in my life was that morning in Paris when I walked into that museum and saw the Botticellis hanging on the wall. I thought to myself, sometimes as a human being you get to walk into a palace and have breakfast with Botticelli. I’m still full, reeling, euphoric, from that breakfast. It was magic food.

But I’m an earth being, aren’t I? I need real food as well. I think of the patched together meals that I make for myself and of the time one memorable (for the wrong reasons) long weekend when I got a huge stack of toothsome books from the library. I made pot after pot of tea whilst I devoured those books. I was away in my own world, so happy, the things of this world utterly forsaken. This began on a Thursday night. It was only on Saturday afternoon when a humble little voice … namely, my body … remarked tentatively, “I think I’m hungry.”

My brain had been so nourished and fed by the art, literature, history and biographies that I had been consuming that I had been nibbling on things in an offhand way and hadn’t had a proper meal in days. I was really cross with myself for behaving like a child who has been left unsupervised (neglected, more properly) and has to be told to stop playing and eat. Not good enough for a proper grown up woman.

My make up — fire and water and air — is good. But missing from my gifts and abilities was the capacity to recognize the importance of something as earthy and grounding as taking the time to cook for myself. I suddenly thought, is that because I haven’t felt safe for all these years? Would that be a nice thing to do? I want to pay more attention to my body when she says she’s hungry or cold.

A few weeks ago, I visited my great-great grandmother’s grave. I suddenly remembered that my great-great grandmother lost her husband as quite a young woman. She had three wee children. What you had to do in those days was go round and stay with your relations for a few months at a time, always moving on. My great-grandmother, her daughter, didn’t have a home of her own until she married my great-grandfather when she was twenty five years old. She didn’t learn to cook until then and it sounds like she never cared about it either.

But, my cousin recalled, my great-granny did bake really good bread. Bread is the one food that I do respond to. I know a lot of people say that the smell of meat cooking is the most primal thing and it is wonderful. But for me the smell that makes me want to rip through walls is fresh bread. I thought to myself, I think I’d like to bake bread.

So I tried that this summer, and perhaps it’s genetic! I can make bread! I’ll never buy it again! It costs pennies to make, pennies! And it sounds so impressive when you tell people you make bread. I no longer have the shame and stigma of not being able to cook!

This is the recipe I use. It slices nicely, makes delicious sandwiches, and when it goes stale it allegedly makes great French toast. I cannot confirm this as it never lasts longer than a day or two in my house. I like to serve it on my great-grandmother’s one hundred year old bread board, with soft butter. If you listen to beautiful music whilst kneading it, anecdotal evidence shows that it tastes even better.

Basic White Bread

  • 1 t. dry active yeast
  • Pinch of sugar
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1 T. plus 2 t. vegetable oil, divided
  • 1 c. warm water
  • 2 1/2 c. all purpose flour
  1. Combine the yeast, sugar, salt, 1 tablespoon of oil and warm water in a medium sized bowl. Allow the yeast to activate … it will become foamy, which takes about ten minutes.
  2. Stir in one cup of flour, then add the rest of the flour half a cup at a time. You do not want dry dough, so I add just enough flour to keep it from being sticky.
  3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it for eight minutes. Fold in half, quarter turn, repeat. Some people say you should have a bread machine for this part but they’re expensive and I don’t have any room on my counters or shelves for more gadgets. And, I like kneading bread. It’s really quite relaxing and reflective, and why do we want to hurry up so much anyway? Also, I’m meant to do a workout for my arms so I can skip it on the day I make bread, I reckon. My arms look like cooked spaghetti no matter what I do anyway so who cares.
  4. Oil the inside of the bowl with one teaspoon of oil and put the ball of dough into the bowl, turning once to coat with oil. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and put it in an unheated oven to rise for one hour.
  5. This will be one of the proudest moments of your life — remove the dough from the oven — it has risen! you think to yourself! And joyously punch it down, folding a few times.
  6. Lightly oil the inside of a loaf pan with the remaining oil. Shape the dough into a pretty oblong loaf, then return it to the unheated oven and allow to rise for another half hour.
  7. Remove the pan and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  8. Place the loaf in the heated oven and bake for thirty minutes until golden brown on top. You can paint it with a little honey thinned with water and sprinkle some rolled oats on the top to make it beautiful.
  9. Another proudest moment: remove your bread from the loaf pan. It should sound hollow when you tap on the bottom.
  10. Choose your own adventure. Civilized version: allow the bread to cool on a rack whilst you make a pot of tea. Spread slices of the bread with butter and honey and eat a slice or two whilst sipping your tea. Even millionaires can’t get anything nicer than that, darling. Primal version: rip into that loaf of bread and eat it by the handful.
  11. When people call or text you casually mention that you’ve baked bread. They will be impressed. Play it extremely cool but feel like a bad ass.
  12. FYI: If you live with others and leave that bread unguarded, prepare to return to a crime scene…… a knife, some crumbs, and vague and uncooperative witnesses (the usual suspects).
My daily bread, my great-grandmother’s bread board.