My last view of Lewis.
Angus told me a bit about the Sabbath on Lewis, particularly about the Free Church, the stern Presbyterian offshoot that is the dominant religion on the island. It seemed confusing and, well, kinda grim and anything but free to me, so I won’t attempt to repeat what he explained; I know I’ll get it wrong. He gave me a tape of the Free Church singing of the psalms, which he said are in a traditional sort-of call and response style, and he told me how this practice was recently found to be nearly identical to the singing in certain long-established southern black churches in the U.S. He said that there had been a mutual exchange of music between these churches that amazed everyone involved, on both sides of the Atlantic pond. I liked hearing that story, very much.
Because my bag went missing until a few hours before I left for the Catskills, I haven’t listened to the tape yet, and I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll be able to hear of it, but I intend to try. I admire and respect people who have strong spiritual beliefs, as long as those beliefs don’t involve harming non-believers in any way, and as long as the believers don’t expect me to adopt their doctrine. As a (Christian) online friend often says,” your rights end where my nose begins”. Amen to that. I have my own strong beliefs, and they are private. But, after hearing about the strictness of the Free Church, and reading a few things in Stornoway’s many religious bookstore windows, I did begin to wonder if I might be, oh, burned at the stake if I ever attempted to stay there for any length of time.
On the ferry going away from Lewis, near the end of the crossing, I met a fascinating-looking old man. He was very thin, skeletal, his ruddy, scarred skin drawn tight over his skull and the tough cordlike muscles of his jaw, with an incredibly wide, almost lipless mouth. I could clearly see all the bones and tendons of his hands and wrists. Yet he wasn’t pasty or ill-looking; his skin shone with the blood pulsing beneath, and there was a fierce, wiry vitality about him. I was standing on the side deck, sheltering from the wind, watching the distant mainland mountains glide by. He came out to smoke, expertly hand-rolling his own.
“Did ye enjoy Lewis?” he asked.
“Yes, very much,” I said, “it’s beautiful.”
The inevitable response to my voice came next, “And where are ye from?”
“Chicago; in America.”
There was a pause while he peered at me, probably deciding if I was, in fact, worth talking to. Then, “Yes. Lewis is –“ and here the wind jerked his words out of my ears, but I heard the last two all right, because he thundered them, “ – and Christianity!” (pronounced something like Crrrrresst-chee-yan-ehtay!)
“Oh, great,” I thought, “and he’s got matches, too.”
But I said, “Um, yes, I could see that it’s very religious. I was, um, in Stornoway on Sunday.”
Another long pause, while he stared at me, smoked, then said, abruptly, “And where did ye go?
“Oh, I went lots of places, a friend drove me — “
“What church did ye go to? On Sunday!”
Gently, I said, “I didn’t go to church. I walked about the castle grounds. All day. And I had a wonderful day.” He drew himself up and sharpened his gaze so that his clear, pale blue eyes actually did bore into mine. I could feel them. So I stared back, shot him a huge, wide grin and cheerfully said, “I was BAD.”
For 1/1000th of a second, his mouth twitched up and the corners of his eyes began to crinkle, but he quickly got control of himself, put on a sour, dour face, and said curtly, “Ye were.”
“But” I said, “I was told that if I did want to go, I should go to the Free Church.”
“Yes!” He almost smiled. Almost.
I tried again. “My friend gave me a tape of the psalm-singing. I haven’t listened to it yet.”
Another slow drag on the cigarette, eyes still intent on mine. “Hhhmmmmfff. In English?”
I threw down the trump card. “In Gaelic.”
I won a genuine smile! So I said, “My friend told me that the way the psalms are sung is the same as the singing in some American black churches in the sou–” and his face lit up like the summer sun coming out from behind a supercell cloud, and he trumpeted, in an accent that would astound anyone below the Mason-Dixon line, “Allll-i-bama!”
And that’s where we connected; I could share in his genuine, enormous pleasure in his church’s cross-cultural bond, and he knew I truly did, even if I was a weird American, and a heathen at that. I let him urge me to listen to the tape, because “ye can never be too deaf to hear The Word”, and then we comfortably talked about places on the island, and where Angus had taken me. As the boat came into the Ullapool harbor, he smiled at me again and asked, “Will ye come back again to Lewis, do ye think?”
We have now concluded the time travel section of our Blahg, unless for some reason, such as a lot more rain, we feel compelled to flesh out the very sketchy notes that we have remaining. Please return your seat backs and tray tables to their normal upright positions, and once again: we thank you for choosing Blahg.