Into the Unknown
Today is the day, almost 20 years ago, that I made my way over to Scotland for the first time. It was a spontaneous trip in many ways, full of anticipation for new adventure. I was young, just having come out of a long relationship (one that I thought would lead to marriage). I was trying to make a go of my art, as well as learning to live and survive in the big city of Toronto. But deep down, I was beginning to feel the urge for change and space faraway.
Sometime in early autumn I went to a talk given by a British film-maker I had read about in my philosophy course — someone who is now my good friend and colleague. He was being hosted at the University of Toronto and spoke largely about film-making. Near the end of the evening he mentioned a place he had just bought in Scotland, inviting us all to come visit (this was to a crowd of 200+ artists, film-makers, writers, dancers etc.). My ears perked up at that and my friends, Rob and Marcia, two artists living in Toronto at the time, and I looked at each other. We were all thinking the same thing: ‘We need to go there!’. I left the university and walked home quite casually, but something significant had been planted in my mind that evening, even though I was hardly aware of this.
Soon afterward, I was up in Huntsville, Ontario, teaching watercolour painting workshops at Algonquin and Arrowhead Provincial Parks. In my search for jobs on the local library computer one day, the idea of the north of Scotland popped into my head and I wrote an email to the screenwriter, never thinking I’d get such a quick and open response.
Some days, maybe even weeks later, I told my friend, Andy, about this place in the north of Scotland that I was fantasising about. ‘Why don’t you go?’ He said. I told him I would love to, but included all the reasons it might not be the best idea, the main one being the cost of getting over and staying there for a stretch. My idea, if it worked, was to spend some time there, painting. He then told me that his Mom, who was an air stewardess, had some tickets to get rid of - Air Canada flights that needed using before Christmas. I could hardly believe my ears. I put it aside, not fully believing it, until the following week Andy handed return tickets to me, saying they were mine if I wanted them. They were priority standby tickets and all I’d have to pay was airport tax (about $50 Canadian at the time) and travel before the end of the year. It was an incredible moment. Suddenly my mind did a complete gearshift. It did not take me long to tell friends and family that I would be going to Scotland in a couple of week’s time - for 6 weeks. That was the plan. Some were surprised, but supportive; others thought I was just crazy.
I packed my things into a large duffel bag and suitcase, taking along painting commissions I had in a large black portfolio, and went to the Toronto Pearson airport for a 10pm flight to Glasgow. I waited in the main hall for my name to be called. Suddenly doubts poured in and I thought ‘If my name isn’t called for this flight, I’m not going.’ But it was - 10 minutes before the departure: ‘Monique Sliedrecht, please go to gate…. for flight … to Glasgow. Monique Sliedrecht, go to gate …. for flight to Glasgow.’ I had approximately 10 minutes to run to the other side of the airport with all my bags. Before I knew it, I was on the plane and heading to Glasgow.
I was in a bit of a daze when the pilot announced our arrival early morning the next day. I felt as though in a dream. Having landed and got my bags, I made my way to Queen Street train station and rang my host to let him know I was really on my way to the north. Little did I know how far north! I got a good first look at Scotland, that was for sure.... the rolling hills, beautiful trees, landscape, sheep grazing - LOTS of sheep grazing… and I slept. By evening time I couldn’t see much as the sun had set, but I was the only one on the train along with one or two other people. This place truly was at the end of the line.
When I stepped out with my large portfolio and cumbersome luggage, I saw my driver on the platform at Wick. It was hard to miss him in his black suit jacket and white shirt - not to mention he was almost the only other person on the platform! I was whisked away to the car, being briefed on the journey (things I hardly remember, I was so tired). All was dark and there was no sense of my surroundings. We ended up at Freswick Castle where a family from Cambridge was staying in the cottage. What the castle really looked like at that moment was hard to say, as the evening was already pitch black. I was so tired, so jet lagged, but I remember a cozy fire roaring, and a general good feeling and welcome all around. Then one of the guests opened a window and told me to stick my head out in the darkness: You hear that? He said. I could hear the crashing of waves…. ‘That’s the north sea’, he said. We were so close to it. The evening was all very surreal.
As all the bedrooms were occupied, I fell asleep by the fire in the cottage lounge and woke up at noon the next morning. Stepping out into the day, there was a huge rainbow to greet me - 2 or 3 rainbows - stretching over the castle and into the blue sea beyond. I had really come to the land of castles and rainbows. The wide sea, sky, landscape were all a bonus.
This ‘spontaneous’ trip changed the whole trajectory of my life. I didn’t imagine all the things I’d learn along the way, and the many adventures I would have. It was not simple or easy all the time, not by any means, and if someone were to ask me now if I would like to travel to a remote place where I knew no one and be there on my own for a stretch, I’m not sure I’d jump at the chance. Or maybe I would….
I wonder what adventures are to come?
Life is not always free from pain and discomfort. This pandemic has brought some of us to the edge of our reserves and strength. As I type this, we are also reaching the first anniversary of the tragic and sudden death of a dear friend and bright light in the world. Coming up in a few days time, another special friend will be going in to have surgery for recently diagnosed thyroid cancer. Life is certainly unpredictable. And wild. And spontaneous. And worth living, while we can, whatever limitations there may be at the time. I’m sure my friend with cancer would agree. She has shown me ways of reaching out to others, and creating beauty, within those limitations. Sometimes we have no choice, and other times we do, but we must never stop adventuring into the unknown. The very act of stepping out stretches muscles we didn’t know we had; it is what makes us come alive and pushes us to potential beyond the comfortable and familiar. We have the ability to travel to places in our imagination that do not always require physically going somewhere. However, it may require the courage to pick up a pen or a paintbrush, or to embark on learning a new skill - a very brave act in itself!