Next to the loch, even the rain came in waves. The only thing to do for the afternoon was stay indoors. For most, this meant a trip to the pub, where they would alternate smoking hand-rolled cigarettes with nursing a pint. And while they busied themselves, the dog stared out at the water.
I had found a cozy spot at the bar and spread my things out: moleskine, tea cup, saucer, tea pot. I reminded myself to ask for herbal tea because failure to specify resulted in the caffeinated breakfast tea typical of Scotland and England. Unlike the locals, I alternated between three things: writing, drinking tea in a desperate attempt to warm myself, and locking eyes with one rather handsome fisherman (during these moments, I imagined myself rowing onto the loch in the small rowboat that sat in front of the pub and “losing” an oar so he might rescue me).
The day passed like this. At dinnertime, the locals went home and I was left to have dinner on my own. But the line trickled back in again for more pints and smoking a short time later.
The cook’s husband introduced me to his friend, a man named Murdock who had grown up on the island but now spent most of his time working in Britain. He was a linesman for an electric company. And, as is so stereotypical of the Scots, the more he drank, the harder he was to understand. Even the other natives looked confused.
But amidst the drink and music and smoking, he and I had one of the most raw conversations I’ve ever had with a stranger. Murdock had asked me why people in the States are so focused on money and salaries. I didn’t know how to respond at first. His observation seemed true, in a general way. Of course, there would always be exceptions, but particularly where I was living, money and status were important. I told him that I thought maybe community had something to do with it. I had noticed the strength of community during my travels in Scotland and, before that, Ireland. I speculated that without strong community ties to support us and make us happy, we needed some other way of measuring happiness. Money was simply easiest. We quantify objects, experiences, even emotions. Perhaps I was wrong, but there seemed to be something truly special about community.
Murdock then told me how the company he worked for lost four men in the past few months. These men were putting up new broadband internet lines. It’s a dangerous job, not that most people think too much about it. He asked me if faster internet was worth the lives of four men. His face was somber and I could read his heart ache.
My heart hurt. “No. No, it’s not.” I could barely manage the words.
And I thought about the price of progress, and all the lives that had been lost, all the lives that we continue to lose for faster internet or more advanced electronics. We don’t always see the effects our obsession with stuff has, we don’t know who gets hurt in the process. We forget how interdependent we are, how the small communities we create aren’t that small anymore.
I can’t shake the heartbreak of that moment, and even in telling the story, I can’t describe the profound effect it had upon me. I still choke on my words. Tears still well up in my eyes. I can’t go back to who I was before, but I still haven’t fully discovered how far his words have spread in my blood.