Edinburgh, Spring, Paths, and Empathy

I am in Edinburgh for a day more before I retreat back into the north once again. One of the beautiful things about currently living at the top tip of Scotland is that spring is later there – the trees were only just unfurling as I left, just over a week ago, the first crop of fluffy, yellow-gaped sparrowlings only just emerging from beneath the eaves and behind gutters.

Millennium Clock Selfie
Millennium Clock Selfie

Having a late spring is no bad thing when one can always travel south to advance the seasons. Down here in the capital things are further along, summer is a guest rapidly approaching, the sun carrying warmth, battling with the chill wind. Soon she will win and time will move along, in the direction it is most known for.

Returning to Caithness I will step back, rewind and reverse, passing fields of flowers, peppered coloured petals all vying for my train-captured gaze. At this time of the year, when the simmer dim – the gloaming – is upon us, heading north back in time towards the spring and near twenty-four hour daylight is a pleasure. I have much to do over the coming weeks – admittedly, some things I am looking forward to more than others.

Leaving Edinburgh is always a little bitter-sweet, it is one of very few urban locations I have, thus far, discovered that gets anywhere near to the feelings I get when I am heading into wilder locations. It holds a different magic, so perhaps unfair to compare, but a magic I welcome, nonetheless.

Millennium Clock Detail
Millennium Clock Detail

I have not been blogging here as much as I had hoped – I’m not going to apologise for this, for reasons I am sure I have already discussed, but I will say I have needed this break from the north, needed a different spring breathing space to think about who I am, about my path.

Sometimes we spend so long looking back at where we have come from, our backtrail, that we forget to pause and assess our direction. Sometimes I, personally, lose sight of the path ahead, stray. Sometimes we reach junctions in our lives, crossroads where there is only one clear route to take, the others clearly taking the path in the wrong direction. The way that these paths can appear unbidden at a time when we (I) least expect them is quite wonderful and more than a little perplexing.

When I left behind the city, moving north from England to be wild, to be a part of nature for a time, I felt one of these paths guiding me. The feeling of having no safety net, of fear and joy combined, is a peculiar thing. Over the last week or so I have felt this feeling once more – and it both scares and reassures.

Back then, in 2010, I gave in to this sensation and in turn received a life altering experience, simply by pausing and reassessing my route (both literally and metaphorically). Now I am pausing once more, choosing a different path – and I am already sure it is a route I will not regret, no matter how difficult it will be at times.

Since I arrived in Edinburgh I have managed to put few (work) words together – but this does not truly matter. Some people understand that writing is not always about numbers. Some people realise that I am working when I am walking up the Royal Mile at eight on a Monday morning, watching faces, assessing the way the sun feels, talking, thinking, constantly trying to grow. Others rate how much I have done in a day by wordcount, which is a flawed and inaccurate science at best. Some realise when I sit, seemingly staring at magpies outside the window, I am actually working as hard as I am when the keyboard is receiving a serious workout.

Two for Joy
Two for Joy

May was a very busy month – in more ways than I had envisaged when I shared my last piece, and it appears that June is shaping up to be at least as busy, midsummer nearly upon me, sneaking through the spring with all her daylight and mystical folkloric significance. This morning a project I thought I would have to shelve for a wee while longer happily managed to return to the fore. Sometimes taking a gamble is worth the time – and I’d like to think this gamble will pay off. I’d managed to get about a third of the project scribbled before I decided it would not be possible to finish it in the time frame I had allowed, not and have it approach anything like the excellence it deserves. Now I have an extended deadline and am, therefore, rather pleased.

One thing I have also done this week is read the recent edition of The New Statesman, guest edited by two people I hold in high esteem – Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer. There are articles in there that should perhaps become required reading, but the one I want to touch on in this piece is that by the oft-kerfuffle-causing Amanda Palmer herself (her phrase – “internet kerfuffle” neatly encapsulates and, in my opinion, goes some way to diffusing some of the bile and hatred the internet can produce – it removes some power from the cruelty of others).

In this piece, “Playing the Hitler Card” she discusses empathy and, particularly, what she calls extreme empathy. I think, perhaps, that this term is crucial. It is easy to empathise with those close to you – whether family, friends or neighbours. It is easy to empathise with those who move in similar social circles, whose backgrounds are akin to yours. It becomes harder when difference is thrown in there – the more extreme the difference, the harder it is. This is a fact – and this is precisely the time you should be trying harder.

Back in time, in another life, I used to sit at a desk across from some of what could perhaps be termed the dregs of society. I gained a reputation for being able to talk to these people, as well as those everyone else thought were that bit more normal. As such, my caseload filled with characters plucked straight from Dickens, from dark fictions and darker realities.

Murderers, paedophiles, rapists. I sat opposite them all. Helped them. Talked to them. Was this easy? Was it fuck easy. I could tell myself – and you – this was my job, this is what I was paid to do, to help these people. But it was not just that. I tried my damnedest to empathise with them, try and see what a moment in their shoes was like, try and see how I could help, make their lives better. Why? Why not make them suffer?

I suppose here I could digress to a discussion of our criminal justice system, of the penalties available and used, of those who can pay to escape justice and those who can’t. But I won’t.

One of my customers (hah – yes, at one time they were called “customers”) was a man who had been in prison for many years. Many, and on more than one occasion. His face was scarred and his nose broken so many times as to hold little semblance of a nose at all, just a lump of cartilage below sunken and wary eyes. I discovered he had raped a child and, upon his release some years later, raped someone else. He was not a good man and his fellow prisoners had ensured this fact was writ large upon his face for all to see. I still talked to him like a human being because, and here’s the crux of this ramble, he WAS A HUMAN BEING.

I can judge people like everyone else, but do I have a right to do this? Of course I don’t. This man was initially unpleasant, guarded and frightened. Every loud noise made him start, eyes constantly darting from left to right, wary like the rabbit when it smells a fox. Over time I began to break down these barriers, to try and help him to find something he could do in society. It was not easy – but he did get some job interviews, at least. I put him on training courses and tried to juggle the myriad of restrictions his terrible deeds placed on his continued existence outwith prison (and please don’t think a small part of me at times didn’t want to smash his face into the desk, crush that cartilage once more – I’m also only human, I’m no saint).

By the time I was leaving the city, heading out on that road to a future unknown, this man would come in to his appointments with a smile – a genuine smile – when he saw me. He had started to talk about the future, his own future, with a hope that perhaps, just perhaps, he could actually do something good. He wanted to work with old people (I suspect he felt safer with the elderly, whatever cruel and terrible urges had been behind his past horrendous crimes were lacking in such an environment), or to cook in a kitchen. He also wished me all the best when I explained this would be our last meeting. Then he held out his hand, twisted oft-broken fingers and sunken knuckles extended to me, an offer he clearly found as hard to make as I did to take. I shook his hand, the hand of a man who had done things which make me feel sick.

Why did I do this? Was it just my job? Was it just that I took a perverse pride in seeing these terrible people, able to keep face smooth, to listen, to help?

Until I read Amanda Palmer’s piece, I wasn’t entirely sure why I did talk to these people like the human beings they are, why I tried to put myself in their shoes, feel the terror my customer constantly felt at every sudden movement. I had not really paused to think it through.

Post Amanda Palmer Selfie
Post Amanda Palmer Selfie

There is too much of division and disagreement in our world – but I also fervently believe we have the capability within us, at a species-level, to move forward, to move towards a better place, a better way of being. I think this is why I did what I did – if I did not believe in hope, if I did not truly believe in forgiveness, kindness, honesty, truth, redemption, love and, yes, empathy, then I would be in a very dark place indeed. Entirely selfish, you see – all about how I feel, me, me, me. But, perhaps, if we all thought about the same things… All believed in the same dreams…
We are surrounded by too many boundaries already imposed upon us by others that to erect our own walls cannot help the situation at all. I am not saying I do not have my own defences, of course I do – as I keep saying, I am only human.

I will leave this piece here, it has wandered in interesting and sometimes circular directions. I know I have a destination out there – I have never been more sure of this. I know a path is revealing itself to me, whispering “come into the woods, follow this stream, climb this mountain”. I know I can follow this path, remaining true to myself, remaining true to a goal I set myself some years ago.

My twitter bio states “Writes. Turns anger into art. Art wins.” This is something I fervently want to believe in – my own ability to actually help others through my work. It is not easy, but then, neither was sitting opposite someone others refused to talk to, someone who made their stomach turn.

I will take this path, remembering something which has stuck with me for many years, let it shape me. Wise words, not from the Bible, the Guru Granth Sahib, or any other holy book, not from Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, or any other sage and wise voice. Nope, from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure:

Be Excellent to Each Other.

Perhaps we should all think about these things, as we each discover our own path? Perhaps it is the crossroads, the places were our paths meet, that should define who we are? These crossings and forks can all too easily be forgotten if we charge blindly ahead, or if we look directly behind. Better to explore, to take risks, to think of others and, maybe, just maybe, we will then be able to truly make a difference.

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