Radio Silence

As some may be aware, I will soon be embarking on the next step of my educational career as one chapter comes to a close. That chapter, of course, being my M.Res. in English Literature from the University of Glasgow, the dissertation for which I am currently in the process of wrapping up.

And as of this moment, I have felt some admitted reticence to write — on top of the frank inability to do so due to the overriding domination of my research, the political climate of the world, it seems, is in total upheaval, and there is so much which needs to be said, and not enough people listening to what is being said.

So as I have sat, between piles of notes and books and drafts of my dissertation, self-conscious of my evolving writing style, forever tempered with the sometimes – direct tonality of academic discourse, it has been, admittedly, hard to pick up on the backlog of forty-plus projects which I have had to neglect for the sake of my postgraduate, or Master’s degree.

Beyond this, I have reached the point in my progression as an [person-who-feels-she-is-yet-undeserving-of-the-titles-‘artist’-and-‘writer’], where, despite this, I would like to begin pursuing more formal avenues of publication, leaving me hesitant to ‘pre-release’ work in this very public, digital atmosphere.

But this does not change my affinity for WordPress or for the community fostered here, so at this time, I have decided upon the following solution both for my own edification and such that I may continue interacting with the wonderful folks I have been lucky enough to digitally meet here.

Photography and writing are the reasons I get up in the morning. Every week, I take thousands upon thousands of photographs, travel to various locations with the intent to photograph and write, and scribble two-in-the-morning thoughts on bedside napkins or carry out menus. Every week, the people who interact with me tolerate this forgivingly. A fusion of the two has always been the point upon which my work and my life pivot, and a balance between both is what I desire in the release of that work. As I proceed in my professional career, I want WordPress to remain an enjoyable avenue where readers can view that balance, comment on the thoughts it hopefully inspired, and interact with me.

For this reason, going forward, I will begin sharing more of my photography — and accompanying prose — for the majority of my posts. This does not preclude my inclusion of the occasional reflective piece, story, or notification of some work being published elsewhere — all of which I will continue to feature as well — but for the sake of interacting with this community as much as I used to (and because I enjoy it), I think it is time to feature the other side of my life much more heavily, as I intend it as well to be the cornerstone of my MFA thesis, and hopefully, further academic research in years to come.

I send thanks to the WordPress community and greatly look forward to sharing more of my work in the months and years to come!

(The current featured photograph for this post features a wave crashing on the shores of Traigh Ghearadha, or Garry Beach, in New Tolsta, on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland — roughly equal in latitude to the very North of Newfoundland in Canada.)

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“We’re Here For A Good Time, Not A Long Time”

This week, my grandfather, Dr. Ronald T. Abbott passed away. He earned his medical degree at the University of Glasgow, and his father, Dr. Sydney Gilchrist Abbott, earned his veterinary degree at Glasgow Veterinary College (which would later become part of the University). As a young man, Grandpa loved fast cars, his country, beautiful women, alcohol, bathroom and absurdist humour, and dogs. As an older man, he loved fast cars, his country, alcohol, bathroom and absurdist humour, his dogs, and a beautiful, tender and kind lady who cared for him until his last.

Ronnie B & W 1956.jpgGrandpa was a rabble-rouser, an adventurer, and was always busy with a new object of his focus and affection, motorized or otherwise. At twelve, I heard about his adventures riding his motorcycle from Iowa to Tierra del Fuego, at fifteen, of his adventures to Alaska and close encounters with bears. At twenty, he sent a short story about the time he mistook a brothel somewhere in the wilds of Mexico for a hotel. And no, he did not speak Spanish. Throughout those years, he had a habit of showing up out of the blue (usually in a different car each time), waltzing in with a belch, a smile, and a “hi, Dearie!”, typically in that order. Seeing him was never boring and was frequently a delightful break from ordinary days.

He was, at times, an abrasive man, but was a man who thought clearly with an evident sense of charisma and confidence which carried him through life effortlessly — going through a reported approximated eighty sports cars in five years in addition to airplanes, dogs, and motorcycles. The impeccable Scottish brogue didn’t hurt either.

At the peak of his medical career, his personal choices, career, and life path often took him away from the responsibilities fathers often encounter at bedtime — checking for ghosts in the shadows, reading, and telling bedtime stories — but my own father was never less grateful for the happy times they did share despite. I would ask that he tell them, in all hilarious detail, over and over as I lay down to sleep on nights when my mother was teaching a late class at a local University. Dad would always repeat the same ones.

I would beg for more stories of this ultimate reckless adventurer-leader — camping in Yellowstone and hearing the dogs fighting with bears as the camper rocked my father and his brother, being stalked through the woods, fishing for dinner, and my Dad, riding motorcycles across the great plains with his .22, being chased by bulls — but would, more often than not, come up empty. There was a finite supply of stories to tell, and I had heard all of the ones my father wanted me to hear. I wanted desperately to have these adventures — the three of us — on our own. Grandpa was an easy character to idolise.
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But Grandpa was still busy ticking things off the list of adventures to have, and I respected that. My father painted him as a character in a story book — Mr. Toad from the Wind in the Willows was a favorite parallel, always looking for another wild ride and always captivated by the sights, sounds, and smells of a clean engine. I came to admire and adore this feature of him — for his absence was in fact a distant presence as this character, off to seek more stories, and I learned early to appreciate this from a distance.

But where Grandpa was still busy with his adventures, others filled the void. A wonderful neighbour, Professor Kent Newmyer, came into our lives, and is always there to listen and share stories (he will probably never know how much this means to me).  My father gave up his own adventures (of which there were many) to check for ghosts in the shadows of my room, read bedtime stories, teach me to whittle, to work on cars, and take me fishing or to the flea market.  I dreamt up adventures of my own. And Grandpa was still there, too — a character to admire and adore.

The night he passed away, the streets of Glasgow were eerily vacant as if bereft of the normally-lively spirit of the population. All the pubs were empty but one, appearing equally sombre from the outside, in which an impromptu, ten-piece fiddle and cello band enjoyed some drinks while playing a lively melody to what seemed the entire population of the city. I couldn’t have known, but as he passed, I sat in that Glaswegian Whisky bar and knocked a few scotches back with an elderly, politely-vulgar Glaswegian man (with certain disdain for the English) with whom I spoke for hours about politics, culture, and current events. I thanked him for his time. I explained that Grandpa was passing and how much a simple conversation meant. We talked and laughed until the bar spilled onto the streets and bequeathed back to Glasgow the fervor it had been missing.

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I was his first-born grandchild, and I will forever respect him for the gifts he gave to the people I love and cherish: humour, adventure, and a love for the parts of life a Glaswegian cab driver named Stevie best described when he once told me “we’re here for a good time, not a long time”.

Whether right or wrong, we often pursue things in life to seek the pride of those we love, or to otherwise fill the spaces which are, to some extent, unfilled either due to our own flaws or the flaws of the characters in our lives. In seeking the adventures I have seen thus far, I hope only to have achieved the pride of my Father, for everything he has sacrificed, so that I may pursue my own ‘Miss Toad’s’ adventure.

So, if you partake, knock one back tonight for the man who in is part responsible for my globe-trodding — and if you don’t, picture my Grandfather staring at you, belching, and bluntly asking “Why not?” in perfect Scottish brogue.

 

Some Good News

Excited to share some very happy news with family and friends… I have accepted a scholarship offer from the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Creative Writing Program at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where I will concentrate in Nonfiction beginning in the Fall of 2017.

The opportunity to earn a terminal degree from an institution which has been a consistent advocate for women’s education is a privilege, and I am so grateful for the support I have received as I have worked towards this goal for the last three years. 

This does not signal the abandonment of the research career I began at the University of Glasgow, and certainly not a divorce from journalism. But for now I have chosen to pursue a terminal degree in writing prior to considering doctoral study or other endeavours.

The programme is, uniquely, heavily centred on using writing as a way to give back to society, and I look forward immensely to all of the learning opportunities this will afford. Further, the willingness to incorporate academic intersectionality into graduate study which Sarah Lawrence is acclaimed for in its undergraduate programme fosters a learning environment I feel my work will have a place in. I am excited to get to work in the Fall and very much appreciate the support and feedback I have received over the last two years.

On to the next adventure!

 

Love Still Lives in London – Photoessay

In the wake of the eighty-two second terror attack last week which devastated the city, London reacted the English way — by keeping calm, and carrying on. I was in London at the time of the attack, but as little as four miles away in Kensington, the city was still as alive as ever.

Shows of solidarity were poignant and well-timed in the days to follow the attack, and throughout, the city rebounded quickly: marching forth with daily life in the traditional, no-nonsense London style.

Weekends are taken very seriously in London, and given the slower pace of the requisite two-day-window of relative respite at the close of what had been a trying and painful week, I half expected the city to be a little more morose, taking the time to lick its wounds. But by the weekend, the pleasant Spring-like weather had drawn all of London out into the city to enjoy — specifically, Kensington Gardens, where I focused my lens this week. I wanted the photos to prove that life had not stopped here, had not dulled, and most critically — that hate had not won in London, with photos of the park’s patrons enjoying their weekend unafraid and in love with the changing seasons.

As one of the most pristine neighbourhoods of the city, Kensington is, of course, an idealised portrait of life here — and with so much going for it, it draws a varied crowd representative precisely of the multiculturalism which fuels the economy and culture here. Kensington Palace and Gardens are ever a hub of different faces.

This weekend, love was alive here, never stopping, ceasing, or fearing. Couples of every orientation strolled through the park, unashamedly holding hands and without fear, children flew kites and fed ducks the bread they really shouldn’t be eating, women in burkas and saris strolled alongside Korean, Chinese, and Japanese tourists. Businessmen cut loose to jog through the park, students read, and young boys and girls played football (one, hitting me once by “mistake”, and subsequently shocked when I passed the ball back to him). Friends laughed as they failed — miserably, might I add — at rowing the rental row-boats, families picnicked, Kensington’s feral parakeets chirped and swooped down into crowds of onlookers, perching on hands of all colours, hoping for a free, fruity meal from apples held within. At least for two days, in Kensington, London was a portrait of multicultural success.

The seasons march along here as does the pace of life, and as in nature there are no ideals. London bears its own battles against the tumult and sin of intercultural bias and prejudice, but on the whole, is on the up-and-up in the brightest way possible after a trying and painful week, demonstrating resilience and the long-living cohesive fire of the British Empire.

London is a well-oiled economic machine which runs on intellect and trades in quick-thinking transactions of thought itself, with little time to be slowed by anything which might suggest taking more time than would a cup of tea. Love has won in London.

“By Yon Bonnie Banks” – Flowers on the Bank of Loch Lomond (On Victorian Love, Lost)

While everyone back in the United States is talking about St. Patrick’s Day, Scotland is fairly quiet. One of the most iconic emblems of the holiday, choruses of “Danny Boy” will probably float from the corner pubs across the country, invariably, at one point or another. But as a Scottish-American kid, I didn’t feel that same surge of emotion which accompanies a cultural connection to a piece of music — beautiful and as perfect as Danny Boy seemed, he just wasn’t for me.

Instead, I had “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond”, another iconic piece of folk music from the British Isles centering around themes of profound loss and departure, and this seems to fit the bill in producing the requisite overflow of tears when played at an emotional time (for best results, pair with a twelve-year Scotch, building stress from academic research, and a litany of questionable life choices).

I visited Loch Lomond in recent weeks, and despite the freezing cold weather which usually deters tourists at this time of year, it was, expectedly, as beautiful as the song suggests, and suddenly it became clear why everyone goes into a tizzy of romantic daydreams at the sight of it.

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I have to imagine that the fury of emotion associated with the triumphantly tragic tune and romantic setting is partly due to the older generations’ propensity for holding in emotions and a cultural pride in the ability to sequester them to the unaccessible depths of the psyche. It is something of an unspoken rule, particularly among men of a certain age, from certain parts of Scotland, that emotions are to be kept largely under-expressed lest weakness be shown, building pressure and tension until they are forced outward, typically by negative stimuli. The classic melody of a tender song has the ability to prod at those feelings in a different way, and on this I base my theory as to, partly, why the piece is still so incredibly popular here.

I expected to do the shoot, explore, enjoy the day, take in some lunch from a local place, chat with locals, and head back to Partick. In many ways, this is what I did. I hadn’t planned any invasive measures given the cold, and expected some generic shots as I was getting a feel for the place. Then I saw it.

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On one of the more accessible banks, a bouquet of white lilies had been placed carefully, quietly  — wrapped in celophane as they had been purchased, untouched — a gift for an unknown lost lover, lost life, or lost moment in time, placed by the hands of someone ultimately, intimately familiar with the feelings “Loch Lomond” evokes. It stopped me in my tracks and suddenly, this piece of litter, by definition, became the focus of my mind for weeks to come.

The simple image produces a thousand thoughts, a thousand questions, all never to be answered, and suddenly all the research in the world is useless. Was the person who placed the flowers young, or old? Were they mourning, or celebrating? Were they angry, or at peace? Are they still in pain? Are they still in love? Did they do it for others to see, or for themselves to enjoy — or was it for both purposes?

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But the burning question underlying any and all endeavours to understand photography, from an artist point of view, was the unpleasant rhetorical question: ‘Well. Who does this remind you of?’

I am a researcher of Victorian literature. I have read Kate Greenaway’s “Language of Flowers”, released in 1884, which captivated the attention of the people by providing significance to floral arrangements — sometimes used to express emotions which otherwise may have been sequestered just in the way I have described above. By the definition of that book, white lilies are emblems of purity, of sweetness.

I have read, of course, the origins of the song, published in the 1840s, author unknown. I have read essays on the significance of Victorian photography as an avenue by which to better understand and contextualise Victorian literature. Importantly, as noted by Jennifer Green-Lewis in her paper “Victorian Literature in the Context of Photography” for the Victorian Review in 2008:

Photographs, we note, have meanings that speak to the world beyond their immediate frames and aren’t necessarily “about” what we see at all: they may speak of our desires far more eloquently than they speak about their subjects.


I have only ever learned, in all I have learned, that in many cases, there just are no words. Sometimes, there are just reminders, signs, and things which prod at that ever-heightening emotional tension. No analyses from which to base an understanding. No discussion needing to be had. No broader context. No benefit to any of it. Sometimes it’s not a song that makes you remember.

Sometimes it’s just the privilege of imagining and empathising with the shared struggles of another human being, gifting flowers to the banks of a landmark long associated with patriotism, lost love…

And to the sustenance, in my case, of a fuzzy memory of a bus ride home, singing the chorus under my breath.

“Sky’s On Fire”: Urban vs. Rural Reactions to Fire

On March 5th, 2017, a fire tore through a Scrap Yard in Govan, Glasgow, sending plumes of billowing smoke skyward — much to the curiosity of Glasgwegians. On the streets in City Centre, on campus at the University, and in Partick near the River Clyde, bystanders at bus stops and crossing the street stood frozen in awe of the never-ending formations forming from the billowing smoke.

A few months ago, I was living and working in Northern California when wildfires tore through the hills, blackening everything in their path. Wildfire crews worked around the clock to extinguish the flames, but not before a fair amount of damage had already been done. There’s only so much which can be done for a wildfire when the fields of sun-dried grasses present an opportune tinderbox for even the smallest flame (I reflected on that experience with an essay and photo series here).

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After The Fire II, Brooks, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016

In both scenarios, a fire commands the attention of powerless bystanders who chance upon it or its effects. But in stark contrast to fires in urban areas, bystanders can be few and far between, only seeing the effects of a blaze up close and personal when it’s on their doorstep.

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Lake Berryessa Fire, Brooks, California, (c) Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016

But in urban areas like Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city by population, human reactions happen in real-time, expressing emotion and concern for something which instantly hits close to home. The outrage, concern, fear, and sadness hits every citisen within hours of the first spark.

IMG_4214.jpgAnd fire crews in urban areas clearly have a different set of parameters to work with: tasked with extinguishing a flame in an incredibly high-risk area where human life flourishes and congregates.  Urban areas are engineered around accessibility, and while battling a blaze in a densely populated area carries with it its own logistical issues, a wildfire taking multiple acres of land per day in the midst of some of the most unforgiving terrain in the world for motorcars is not an easy task — simply getting firefighters and tools to the periphery is a critically challenging, dangerous, and very costly endeavour.

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Urban Fire Under Glass, Glasgow, Scotland, (c) Caroline C. Evans Abbott, 2017.

Even from the safety of a cozy flat, there are few views which are not inclusive of a fire’s effects in some light — and the longer it burns, the more this issue presents itself. The slightest change in vantage point in an urban area will reveal the fire’s presence even if the fire itself is not directly visible: the demeanour of bystanders going about their day to day, the chatter of a local shop, a television or radio giving updates. Concern hangs thick in the air.

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Fire’s Effects Linger in the Atmosphere, contributing to Beautiful Sunsets — themselves often a product of pollutants. Glasgow, Scotland, (c) Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2017

But in California, where the Lake Berryessa fire burned thousands of acres, outrage, while certainly felt amongst NorCal’s population, was not as personal: it wasn’t on their doorstep… yet.

We have something to learn from the discrepancy between these events not just for their obvious differences, but chiefly, for their overall commonality. It is critical for the preservation of forests and the management of wildfire, particularly, that accessibility to personalised images which demonstrate fire’s impact on human and animal populations are distributed — because otherwise, human populations will always continue to be more terrorised by a lit match in a humid cement jungle than in a massive field of hay.

A New Page for ‘The Ruby Slipper Project’

In late 2015, I began an investigative photoessay memoir project which aims to explore the stories told in my family from one generation to the next. Until I feel it is finished, I will be traveling across the world, seeking out an immersive experience of my family’s most poignant, funny, heartbreaking, weird, and beautiful stories with the hope of inspiring others to do the same. The more frequently we do so with eyes open, rooted in an emotionally-sound connection, the more prone we are as individuals and as a society to cultural acceptance — something which cannot be undervalued in the current politico-social climate. And the shoes… well, there’s a story for that, too.

The new page will serve as a cohesively-flowing home for the project in its entirety, and new installments will still appear on my blog as usual. If you would like to follow my journey and work in its entirety, please follow my blog.  Learn more about me or drop me a line here.