Saturday, September 12, 2009

Blessing Blackburn ~ The Sequel ~ Installment 8

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15)

Guest Blogger ~ Marie Sheahan Brown

Tuesday, 9/8/09
12:48 pm somewhere over the North Atlantic

By early Monday, just after midnight, Leslie and I had decided, “Why bother going to bed at normal Blackburn time?” We’d be flying back to America soon, where our body clocks were more aligned to the night-shift hours we’d been keeping.

Besides another fine Scottish breakfast, one other item hovered on the morning agenda. In my haste to get to Mass on Sunday, I had forgotten Leslie’s camera; hence, I hadn’t gotten a photo of the framed musical score.

I slipped into Susan’s church for the Communion service that about 20 parishioners take turns leading when the priest is on deck in other parishes. I was beginning to recognize faces of the regulars, including the silver-haired lady who’d stopped in to pray days before. They would be among Susan’s daily companions, decade after decade.

After the service, I approached the distinguished-looking man in charge this morning. Joe easily found The Gift in the vestry, and I took the photo. Then we chatted.

Leslie and I didn’t go to Blackburn as investigative reporters to pry about Susan, her family, or people who might be friends. We went to bless and be blessed, to experience, not to snoop. Nevertheless, when I told Joe about our reasons for being here, he noted his long friendship with Susan’s parents. In an interconnected village and church, families know each other long and well. Joe volunteered that Susan’s mother was a wonderful artist, which I had not heard before.

Joe’s internet-savvy, so I gave him the blog address. Hello, Joe, if you’re reading this! Thanks for your kind hospitality.

On return to the Burnview B and B, I thought, “Hmm. As long as my hours are weird anyway, I might as well take a morning nap” – which stretched into early afternoon. It was time to blog, and I needed coffee. Leslie said the library, Blackburn Connected, has a coffee machine – 50 pence a cup.

As I walked along the Bathgate-Blackburn road, two older gentlemen across the road hailed me over. Jim and Michael had seen me in church the day before. (See what I mean by everyone knowing everyone else? A new face really stands out!) They were a delightful pair, good pals for more than 50 years; their wives, too, I gathered. To me they represent the rich possibilities of life in a village.

We three kept walking toward “downtown.” They stopped to chat with some ladies waiting for the bus. I, personally, value this aspect of village life – having grown up and even spent recent years in a tiny forest community in Oregon. My casual daily encounters with friends on trails and at the store/post office provided connection and belonging, a pattern of life that I love. Susan would know the treasure of this, too.

At the library in the small mall, I realized that “Blackburn Connected” means more than connecting to the internet or printed sources. It’s another meeting place (besides the parish or the pubs) where the locals can connect just by showing up, no appointments needed. Even non-locals like Leslie and I could show up and feel welcome.

In fact, as I was blogging at Blackburn Connected, a steaming paper cup of espresso at hand, who should walk in but Hugh. “I thought I might find you or Leslie here,” he said. As usual, he offered perspicacious insights on local news. But his real reason was just to say, “Farewell, and have a safe journey.”

On April 10 this year, Leslie and I never imagined we would share budding friendships with people in West Lothian, Scotland, thanks to Susan and the remarkable connecting power of YouTube and the internet. Indeed, such connections can be faceless, impersonal, rude, exploitive, trashy, even dangerous. But with underlying motives of sincerity and goodness, most of us on worldwide fan sites dedicated to Susan Boyle are fostering genuine friendships with people we would love to meet one day – at a concert, a fan gathering, or even at Blackburn Connected.

We fans are experiencing the power of the written word for good or for harm; thus, our obligation to wield this power with sensitivity and respect. Our words present us to the world, a source of news and opinion. Now we all are journalists obligated to uphold the dignity and honor of our vocation.

In a while, Leslie showed up – and instantly recognized Kiera, the 11-year-old poet, who had come in with her mom to log on to the internet. How fortuitous! Leslie handed them Kiera’s much-folded poem about Susan and mentioned that several impressed fans, well known in our virtual community, want to write encouraging notes to her. Kiera’s mom gave us an email address to use, which she, the protective mom, always supervises. (Good on ye, mom!)

The library closed at 5:00 p.m. As Leslie and I left, the friendly but not-to-be-messed-with Mill Centre guard approached. During our Japanese TV interview, he had told us of visits to America, including San Francisco. He asked (as many had) how we were enjoying our stay. Of course, we were loving it!

We walked kitty-corner across the road to the Happy Valley for lemonade and, perhaps, a bit of pool. I’d read of Leslie’s sharkly exploits during her June visit. We hadn’t played pool together since our brother’s wedding in 2003. Was I a bit nervous? “Yea, sure, now!” Good thing her pal John was there, and his pool-playing-buddy Rob, who proposed a team match – like mixed doubles in tennis.

Ever notice that beginner’s luck can kick in again after a few years? Well, lucky for me, it did – for the first few shots. After that, it didn’t matter. At least I didn’t embarrass my twin by ripping the felt! She and John won graciously.

The village pubs don’t serve pub grub, and Leslie and I were hungry. We headed toward The Qualifryer Fish & Chicken Bar attached to The Mill Centre, and I was determined to try the Haggis Pudding. Alas, The Qualifryer was closed. Next time, perhaps.

Good fortune arrived on bicycle tires. Two of the sweet, lively girls Leslie and Del had met in June spotted us and rushed over to greet us. They offered to find the traveling chip trailer. Off they raced on their bikes, reminding us of ourselves at their age. After trawling the neighborhoods of Blackburn for 10 minutes, they returned – not a chip trailer in sight. We thanked them anyway for their efforts, and once again they hopped on their bikes.

We had opted for Chinese takeaway, just across the parking lot from The Qualifryer. The owner was sweeping the speck-less sidewalk as we approached. Chinese take-out menus seem much the same in San Francisco, New York City, and Blackburn, West Lothian, Scotland. Salivating at mental images of fried rice and mushroom chicken, we suddenly felt two presences beside us: our helpful little friends! The least we could do was spring for their favorites – chips and curry sauce.

Leslie and I asked for chopsticks, expecting packets of disposable wooden ones. The owner nodded, went back to the storeroom, and, after many minutes, returned with real chopsticks (for a small addition to our tab), which Leslie and I now keep as souvenirs.

We finally parted trails with our local scouts and headed back to the Burnview. Mmmm. Chinese takeaway never tasted better than on our tiny table between the twin beds.

Just then, Stevieboy49 arrived as planned. This was our last opportunity to check in at the Happy Valley Pub, to say, “adios amigos.” I also had a book to return to Delizia and a couple more Harper’s Bazaars for the denizens.

We were happy to find Jock the pool player there, along with his lovely bride, Debbie. We handed him his very own copy of HB, into which he immediately burrowed at the table next to Susan’s, fascinated and delighted by the article and pictures. Leslie got a priceless photo, which she has since emailed to Harper’s Bazaar.

Leslie and Del’s knowledgeable acquaintance Tony, who had regaled them on local history in June, had been out of town for a few days. Tonight, he was in the pub. He and Stevieboy49 had much in common to discuss, though monolithic their views were not. Tony operates from deep passion for the underdog, while Stevieboy49 mines history for truth from all perspectives. We can report, both men of passion live for goodness and justice.

I think that’s one reason both of them, and others, accept Leslie and me. It’s not that Leslie and I are so good; it’s that we care about what they care about, in our own ways. We both have found our life callings working alongside people who are underdogs. Currently, she heads a small non-profit ministry among recent Russian-speaking immigrants; I serve with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in a program for women seeking new life after jail or prison.

Historically, many, including Susan’s parents, immigrated to Blackburn from Ireland and elsewhere. Perhaps through their own experiences or family stories, the locals we met can relate to the hardships Russian-speaking immigrants face, and how they might appreciate a Native American guide in Brooklyn, New York.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul business card identifying my backpack served as a passport with some of the locals, including Tony. They know SVdP firsthand and even have a Frederic Ozanam Club in Susan’s church. The world of goodness is, indeed, a small world.

After Stevieboy49 deposited us at the Burnview B and B, Leslie and I tiptoed upstairs to our cozy Twin Room. It was after midnight, but neither of us wanted to sleep through the last few hours of our Twin Adventure in Blackburn. I drank hot Airborne while she drank tea. We began sorting through the day’s digital photos, reminiscing, thinking of captions. We caught up with the fan site and YouTube pub news. We typed a few blogthoughts for further development.

Sometime after 3:00 am, almost reluctantly, we curled up under our duvets for catnaps before dawn.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Blessing Blackburn ~ The Sequel ~ Installment 7

“So shall He sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths at Him; for what had not been told them they shall see, and what they have not heard they shall consider.” (Isaiah 52:15)

Tuesday, 9/8/09
12:48 pm somewhere over the North Atlantic

Our Sunday junket to Edinburgh coincided with the grand finale of the famous Edinburgh Festival, which had been underway for several weeks. The Festival combines many different sorts of creative and performing arts, and includes opportunities for less-established participants in the Festival Fringe. Susan Boyle had performed in a Fringe musical several years ago. Now she could probably fill all of the venues combined!

Stevieboy49 and Irene picked us up at the Burnview and drove to the train station in Linlithgow. Irene needed to stay with her mother, while Stevieboy49 kindly accompanied us to Edinburgh. He has a wealth of historical knowledge (his specialty as a teacher), and we were blessed with the opportunity to learn so much about the Lothian area and Scotland as a whole. Our train ride took about 20 minutes, during which we sat at a table with Rich, a window cleaner from London, and shared the latest news about Susan Boyle. Rich knew something about her, but we were far more informed. By the time we exited the train, Rich was far more informed, too!

Edinburgh Waverley Station seems a bit smaller than the two stations in Glasgow that Del and I had seen in June. It is located in the heart of Edinburgh, a short walk from the amazing Royal Mile arterial that stretches from Holyroodhouse Palace to Edinburgh Castle. The locals pronounce the word “Edinburuh” – formed with a rolling Scottish R and a silent gh as in through.

Our plan, determined weeks ago, was to watch the final triumphant segment of the revived Edinburgh Riding Of The Marches. Riding the marches (or borders) is a centuries-old yearly practice of reviewing the community boundaries, usually on horses. Many communities in Scotland still do so regularly, and this year’s Edinburgh cavalcade incorporated 250 riders from all over Scotland. The revived Edinburgh event had not occurred since 1946. By the time we reached the High Street section of the Royal Mile, crowds were lining the route and we were temporarily thwarted from crossing the street to grab a Starbucks. Wild horses could not keep us away, however! With fresh, hot brews in hand, we found an open space along the rail just in time for the bagpipe band that was leading the parade up from Holyroodhouse Palace.

Marie and I have loved horses, and occasionally owned them, since childhood. Now that we are busy adults, we don’t really have time for these living works of art, but we always appreciate them. The horses and ponies in the cavalcade were all well-behaved and calm, even as they were led by bagpipes and surrounded by cheering crowds. The riders were sharply dressed in English-style finery, carrying flags and banners and wearing ribbons to indicate their affiliations. We were surprised to see many Paints and Appaloosas – breeds developed by Native Americans. Later, while snacking in a pub along the Royal Mile, Marie reminded me of our twin cousins (seen in the beginning of Slideshow 2), who had arranged for their extended family to present an exquisite Appaloosa stallion to the descendants of the famed Nez Perce, Chief Joseph, in fulfillment of an ancient promise made by their grandfather to the Chief. You can read the account of this special gift at As the cavalcade ended, we were able to see presentations by the Lord Provost (Mayor) and the Captain of the Marches at the Mercat Cross in Parliament Square. The pageantry was impressive, and the printed programs available for sale enabled us to read the words that were being spoken, even though we could not hear them.

The weather was beautiful, and we enjoyed our history-filled stroll up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle. Along the way, we noticed with amusement many Cashmere wool and kilt shops. We were amused not by the kilts but because, for many years, our family had lived in the small town of Cashmere, in Washington State, and all 5 of us siblings are graduates of Cashmere High School. We have not seen that much Cashmere since our high school reunion!

Outside the gates of Edinburgh Castle is the wide cobbled square in which the renowned Edinburgh Military Tattoo takes place every year. Del, a music-loving veteran of the United States Marine Corps, has a special place in his heart for the Edinburgh Tattoo, because it was here many decades ago that the Marine Corps Band participated on a world-class level that has enhanced the organization built by John Philip Sousa even to this day!

Having seen Linlithgow Palace on Saturday, it was fascinating to visit on Sunday the primary fortified home of the same generations of royals who had vacationed in Linlithgow. Edinburgh Castle, with its 900-year-old chapel and later structures, is enormous – a complex of many buildings inside high walls melded to a pinnacle of steep volcanic rock. We opted out of the interior tour, which would have cost about $20 each for tickets, but spent much time in the gift shop filled with clan paraphernalia and reference books. Homecoming Scotland 2009 was in full force at the Edinburgh Castle gift shop – with something for anyone in the worldwide diaspora of Scottish heritage. I settled on a deck of clan tartan cards for Del, along with a history of Edinburgh Castle. For Gulia, I was delighted to find the same history book, printed in the Russian language (her second tongue, after Kyrgyz)! This book notes that the most significant event in the castle’s history was the birth there of James VI, who became James I, the first Scottish king of all England. As we had learned on Saturday, he was also the king who commissioned the translation of the King James Bible.

We still had several hours before the start of the Festival Fireworks. As we made our way back down the Royal Mile, we were privileged to see some talented Festival Fringe performers – a violin and guitar duo, and an escape artist whose entire livelihood depends on freeing himself from heavy locked chains – all within 2 minutes. Dare we hope that he will qualify for next season’s BGT?

It was mid-afternoon, and we opted for a snack at one of the many pleasant dining establishments along the Royal Mile. Over a combo appetizer plate, we discussed Susan’s singing and career as if we were in Susan’s Pub or the fan site forum. It’s simply amazing to consider everything that is happening to her, and to all of the fans who have been drawn to her. As I said in the BBC video, I really think God is doing something. How else can we explain it all?

We were eager to see the rest of the Royal Mile, and proceeded down the route, which was cobbled in places and paved in others. There were many shops selling wool, tartans, kilts and souvenirs, alongside pubs, historic structures, churches and memorial plaques. Finally we reached the new Scottish Parliament Building, a modern work with dominant style elements that we could not understand without a written description. Designed by a Spanish architect, the building is controversial among Scots but represents an interesting move toward more Scottish self-government.

Across the street is the Queen’s Gallery, an ancient building housing some of Queen Elizabeth’s extensive art collection. Public access is possible, but not at the time of our visit. A hundred yards beyond, past the Abbey, the Royal Mile begins or ends with the Holyroodhouse Palace, which is the official royal residence in Scotland. Holyroodhouse Palace was also the home of royals who lived in Edinburgh Castle and Linlithgow Palace. Unlike these other two dwellings, Holyroodhouse Palace is still used by monarchs. Queen Elizabeth lives here for a few days each year. On this particular weekend, she has been staying in a more northern royal residence while on hand, as always, for the annual Braemar Gathering Highland Games that culminates the dozens of highland games events held throughout Scotland (and even the world) each year.

As twilight approached, we caught a taxi to a nice restaurant recommended by the driver. Marie ordered vegetarian haggis that was not cooked in a sheep’s stomach, and pronounced it delicious. I wondered how it could accurately be called haggis with neither the ingredients nor the methodology, but I wasn’t about to compare it to the real thing in order to prove my point!

Following dinner, we walked briskly through the rainless night to the nearby apartment of Fran, a gregarious Spanish teacher with whom Stevieboy49 had worked several years ago. How fortuitous, that Fran’s apartment had several windows with a perfect view of the Festival Fireworks, and that he graciously allowed us to join his watching party, among the 200,000 viewers citywide! All of the lights were out, with seating arranged to face the windows and the local radio station providing live coverage of the event. Moments after we arrived, the show began! It marked the end of the Edinburgh Festival and also the 250th anniversary of the death of George Frederick Handel. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus performed various works of Handel, in perfect live synchronization with the fireworks. Handel’s Messiah has long been my favorite musical masterpiece, even to the point of the Hallelujah Chorus being my cell ringtone! Sure enough, the spectacle concluded with the most glorious fireworks accompanied by the full orchestra and choir. Having visited the venues of passing generations of Scottish royals for the entire weekend, I gained an even greater appreciation for these words: “Hallelujah! For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: And He shall reign for ever and ever. King of kings, and Lord of lords. Hallelujah!” (Revelation 19:6, 11:15, 19:16)

We enjoyed pleasant conversation and pastries with Fran and his guests, then caught a cab to the train station before the last train left for Linlithgow. Irene was waiting for us in the car, bless her heart, and Marie and I were back home at the Burnview before the clock struck 12:00.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Blessing Blackburn ~ The Sequel ~ Installment 6

“‘For the bread of God is He Who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ Then they said to Him, ‘Lord, give us this bread always.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.’” (John 6:33-35)

Monday, 9/7/09
2:15 pm in Blackburn, Scotland

Yesterday was Sunday, another busy day spent mostly outside of Blackburn. We purposely limited our non-Blackburn days to only 2 out of the 6 that we have been here, but wanted to see some of the main attractions in the central region of Scotland – places probably very familiar to Susan. Before our trek to Edinburgh for the day, Marie followed through on the special gift for Susan’s church. Here is her report as a guest blogger.

Guest Blogger ~ Marie Sheahan Brown

The Gift Economy And The Bread Of Life

A couple of years ago, I read Lewis Hyde’s remarkable book about the gift economy. Its beginning chapters describe the Native American understanding of property as something to be given away, from one person or tribe to another, to foster expanding circles of good will, appreciation, and care for others. In this gift economy, a chief was considered rich according to how much he could give away rather than accumulate for himself. The appeal of this practice must be encoded in Leslie’s and my Chinook Indian genes and in the cultures of countless other Susan Boyle fans worldwide.

Sister Suzanne Toolan’s gift, of which I was the West Lothian courier, perpetuates the gift economy. Susan Boyle’s family, village, and church first nurtured and appreciated the gift that has embraced the planet. People who have been inexplicably touched by Susan’s voice and authenticity want to give back in the ways they can.

I attended Mass on Sunday morning at Susan’s church. Sure enough, accompanied by an organist, the whole assembly sings. I had told Father about The Gift on Friday, and he spotted me carrying a brown-paper-wrapped flat package to a forward pew. He had thoughtfully arranged for the assembly to sing I Am The Bread Of Life after Communion both Saturday night and Sunday morning. Blackburn is blessed by many good voices!

At the end of Mass, Father announced The Gift from Sister Suzanne. “News of singing in this area has reached the shores of America,” he began.,,,, , khkj

(How cute. I stepped away from my table in the Blackburn Connected library and came back to find a blond-haired, blue-eyed toddler in my chair, typing away on my laptop; hence, the hieroglyphics. An aspiring author!)

Back to Sunday Mass. After Father spoke, I went forward and handed him Sister Suzanne’s gift for the community. He told the people it would be placed in the entryway. I would like to think that parishioners and pilgrims will be reminded of the world’s appreciation, conveyed through I Am The Bread Of Life.

“‘I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.’” (John 6:51)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Blessing Blackburn ~ The Sequel ~ Installment 5

“Now therefore, be wise, O kings; be instructed, you judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” (Psalm 2:10-11)

Saturday, 9/5/09
10:35 pm in Blackburn, Scotland

After the filming and all of our enthusiastic conversations with Susan’s young fans, we walked back to our room at the Burnview and discovered that Deadline News TV had already posted a video on their site and on YouTube. The clip was brief but well-produced, and we were happy that the overall message of the film itself was accurate.

The purpose of Japan Broadcasting Corporation was to document certain aspects of the worldwide Susan Boyle phenomenon, and our already-planned trip as fans represented that in some ways. As we walked all around Blackburn, we encountered fans who were either looking for us already, or happy to meet us and talk about Susan and receive Susan buttons and Harper’s Bazaars. Indeed, most tourists visiting Susan spots on their own would experience fan solidarity in this way – from place to place, rather than as a group starting at one location and moving through en masse to the end. Fans watching the video (or reading this blog) could picture themselves in our shoes. Marie and I had known the evening before that many local fans were planning to be at the Happy Valley, rather than the small mall, for the filming. That is exactly what happened. And even after the filming was finished and lunch was served, a whole new wave of genuine Susafans found us – the excited school kids whose classes had ended just a few minutes prior!

We spent the next several hours at home, writing blog posts and preparing photos for uploading. I always know that I need to keep going, just keep on going, baby steps, to blog during my visit to Blackburn. I’m happy that Marie is on hand to help (or at least not to mind my typing away at night while she is trying to sleep)! We took a break of a few hours so we could visit the Happy Valley again with fan forum friend Stevieboy49, and we also visited Moran’s – another karaoke venue for Susan. At Moran’s, our YouTube Susan’s Pub friend, Hugh, greeted us warmly, and it was fun to be part of the actual meeting of Susan Boyle fans who participate in separate Susan Boyle internet forums.

Returning home, we analyzed a bus schedule that was supposed to take us from Blackburn through Bathgate and ultimately to Linlithgow in the morning. We settled on the perfect routes and timing needed to reach Linlithgow Cross by 9:30, where we would meet Stevieboy49 and his lovely wife Irene. Then I continued writing the blog so fans could ruminate on Friday’s details while we were off incommunicado, touring the countryside on Saturday.

We awakened bright and early on Saturday, grabbed a couple of breakfast bars, ran through the rain to the bus stop a few minutes ahead of schedule, and eventually realized that the hourly bus had already come and gone. What if the same thing had happened to Susan on her way to Glasgow for the BGT audition?! Global nightmare! In our case, as time passed and no other buses were coming, we decided that we would have to find a taxi. I tried to call the taxi company whose simple number I knew by heart, but couldn’t master the international dialing. We knocked on the door of a shop that wasn’t yet open, and the lady inside very kindly talked to us anyway and agreed to call the taxi. The friendly driver finally arrived, and after 25 minutes of winding through the lovely green sheep-inhabited hills, we reached Linlithgow Cross – 40 minutes early! Time for coffee!

Stevieboy49 and lovely Irene arrived as scheduled, and explained that Linlithgow Cross was not so-named because it was a crossroads, but because of a literal cross that had stood in the middle of this charming town square in ages past. Now there is an ornately carved stone monument.

Linlithgow Palace had been the summer home of the Stewart kings and queens of Scotland since the early 1400s. We learned that a castle is a fortified dwelling, while a palace is much less secure. This palace compound includes a lovely old church that still functions as an active Church of Scotland parish today. The church itself represented Scotland’s transition, pre-reformation to post-reformation. A list of the church leaders from 1240 to the present day hangs on a wall inside, showing that transition. Kings and queens worshiped there, and now regular Scottish citizens and visitors do so, too!

The oft-remodeled and expanded palace was the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots (not the same person as “Bloody Mary”). As we walked through the rooms, now roofless after ancient fires had burned away the timbers, we could imagine the gracious living of royal families taking impressive summer holidays away from their main castles in Edinburgh or Stirling. Linlithgow Palace is situated on a peaceful lake (loch), and in the distance are the gentle hills still laden with crops and livestock. It was a place of heartache, too, as royal families suffered battle losses in a seemingly endless cycle of wars and conquests. We climbed to the top of a tower where Queen Margaret Tudor waited in vain, day after day, for her husband, King James IV, to return safely from battle against the forces of her own brother, King Henry VIII of England. Sadly for Margaret, her husband had perished – and the next year, 1514, she herself would have to flee her homeland. Eventually, one king from this family – James VI, the only child of Mary, Queen of Scots – became the ruler of all England, and departed for London. Wikipedia has this fascinating entry: “In May 1601, King James VI of Scotland attended the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland at St Columba's Church in Burntisland, Fife, at which proposals were put forward for a new translation of the Bible into English. Two years later, he acceded to the throne of England as King James I of England.” It is this King James, of Scottish origin, who commissioned the famous 1611 Bible translation later named for him: The King James Bible!

This King James also rebuilt a portion of Linlithgow Palace that had fallen, although he himself did not live to see the completed work. Succeeding kings visited on occasion, but by the late 1600s the last of the royal families had departed for good. A fire later destroyed the wooden roof and floors, but the palace still stands as an imposing royal reminder.

Exiting the palace, we wandered through picturesque Linlithgow and found a nice café, intending only to have coffee. Two of the choices were coffee with milk, or coffee with hot milk. I had never heard of the hot milk option, but Irene insisted that coffee tastes much better with hot milk! So I tried a cup of the delicious thick coffee with cold milk, then a cup with hot milk, and sure enough my unrefined taste could not tell the difference! Either way, it was good, really good. We all decided that this would be an excellent place for lunch, too, so we each enjoyed minestrone soup and crusty bread before heading out to a small museum featuring Scotty of Star Trek – revealed in one episode as being born in Linlithgow! Then we were off to see the swans in Linlithgow Loch – a beautiful and friendly group – before driving back to Bathgate to pick up the music sheets that Marie had ordered to be framed.

It was so, so kind of Stevieboy49 and Irene to drive us all around central Scotland on Saturday, seeing the highlands and the lowlands and the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond (literally!). Scotland is simply gorgeous! After a delectable meal at a small hotel situated above a loch, we wound our way through the hills and valleys for another hour or so, and arrived at our Burnview home from a different direction than we ourselves had ever taken. It’s really valuable to have a local tour guide on the scene! Also very special is the fact – and we can announce it here tonight, ladies and gentlemen – that Stevieboy49 and Irene consented to having their photograph published in our blog slideshow. Keep looking – you’ll see it!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Blessing Blackburn ~ The Sequel ~ Installment 4

“A man has joy by the answer of his mouth, and a word spoken in due season, how good it is!” (Proverbs 15:23)

Friday, 9/4/09
11:30 pm in Blackburn, Scotland

When Marie returned from her Bathgate errand on Thursday afternoon, I was still working on my blog post. Although writing about our Blackburn adventures is enjoyable and free-flowing, it takes time. We had arranged with Stevieboy49 – who lives near Blackburn and skillfully participates on the fan site – to meet us at the Happy Valley Pub at 7:00 on Thursday evening. Due to the rain, he gallantly stopped by the Burnview instead, in order to give us a ride. I had just a few more sentences to write and post, so he patiently waited and chatted without complaint, knowing that some interested fans were waiting for the next morsels of news about anything related to Susan.

As soon as we walked into the Happy Valley, Jock the pool player greeted us with a big smile and a quick hug, and then asked about Del, saying he was so brilliant, such a great guy! Even that morning, he had worn the knit cap with the USA emblem that Del had given to him back in June. Jock came over to our table to talk for several minutes later on, and we were happy to tell him about the car full of ladies in Brooklyn breaking into cheers when they heard Susan’s voice radiating from Del’s van as he played the CD of Susan’s songs that Jock had given to us.

Stevieboy is such a dedicated fan of Susan’s, and he even remembers seeing her in a karaoke competition in the 1990s. A history teacher by profession, now allegedly retired, Stevieboy loves to share interesting facts about the local area. What a blessing for us, that he is willing to be our unofficial tour guide and organizer par excellence, accompanying us to places outside of Blackburn in the next couple of days. He had already picked up several brochures and made some fabulous connections – and strongly suggested that we study carefully in advance. More on that as events unfold!

Delizia, the tireless pub owner, soon joined us in animated conversation, and it was amazing to hear her and Stevieboy swapping stories about education the way it used to be provided in the tough schools that they had attended. I hijacked the thread for a moment, asking Delizia if the Happy Valley had ever served food. She noted that bed and breakfast guests would of course have morning meals upstairs, but that regular patrons were not expecting to eat and so it did not make business sense to offer food in the pub. I encouraged her to think about the possibility that some Susafans might stop by now and then, wanting a bite to eat along with their lemonade… You never know…

After a few hours of fascinating discussion, Marie and I walked home in the light rain, processing the things we had learned and preparing for our big day on Friday. Every day in little Blackburn is a big day for a Susan supporter, but some things are beyond predicting (and I’m not just talking about the weather)!

Our Scottish breakfast on Friday morning included a soft slab of tasty sausage and a more American-seeming style of bacon than we had devoured yesterday. We knew we would be well fortified for the day! Marie went off to visit Susan’s church and make arrangements for presenting the framed song score, while I checked the latest news about Susan and the fan site quilt/afghan/album project that now involves at least 135 participants from 25 countries on 6 continents, and 45 states of the USA. Just the facts, ma’am, to share with any interested people that we might encounter during the day. And, of course, I just had to see that amazing Susan Boyle CD, Amazon Number 1, statistic again!

Marie and I each wore the Susan Boyle fan shirts that we had designed and then printed up at a mall shop in Brooklyn. (They’re not for sale, by the way – we just put something together for our own use.) The lovely scarves that Gulia had made completed our fan apparel. Carrying a big bag of dozens of Del-crafted Susan buttons, I raced off to the small mall while Marie finished packing up some Harper’s Bazaars. The Japanese TV team was already there – along with STV Scottish TV, Deadline News TV, and other journalists, photographers and crews that we had not expected! They were all very nice and professional, and we hope each one will produce positive and accurate representations of Susan and her global support!

Area fans had been invited to join in the filming, and it was so fun to see people waiting or catching up all along the route of the informal tour of Susan sights. Two young men delighted the Japanese crew by bringing the stuffed animal mascot and T-shirt of the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) – their channel! How in the world did a kid from Blackburn and his pal from a neighboring town find not one but two NHK fan items? Another lady tracked us down near Susan’s church, and said that she had so enjoyed reading the Blessing Blackburn book of fan messages that Del and I had brought to the village back in June! Other people gladly seized our Susan buttons and spoke of their appreciation for her. By the time we reached Susan’s street, a reporter and cameraman from the BBC British Broadcasting Corporation had caught up with us, and soon there we all were in front of Susan’s house, as in times gone by – where two uniformed girls from the local academy met us to show their support for Susan. And, somewhere along the route, the rain clouds had given way to blue sky and bright sunshine – not at all what the weather forecasters had predicted! God answers prayer!

Marie and I addressed several questions and expressed – on behalf of fans everywhere – our love and support for Susan and Blackburn. As we walked back to the Happy Valley, we had a lovely conversation with some neighbor ladies who were delighted to see Susan’s spread in Harper’s Bazaar. We gave them their very own copy, knowing they would share it widely with their friends and families. The Japanese TV staffers, ever the professionals, had arranged for filming inside of the Happy Valley Pub, and many of Susan’s fans were waiting there – more than the usual crowd that we had seen at that time of day.

After a sit-down interview with the Japanese team, we went off with them to the small mall, in search of lunch. The café was just closing, so we took our tasty Scottish pies, chips and coffee into the conference room at the library – graciously permitted by the library staff. And, as has often happened in Blackburn, in the mall we ran into people that we had met previously – this time, some of the great kids who attend Susan’s elementary school! As before, they all wanted buttons, and I had some new ones for them – the last of the dozens of buttons we had brought with us in the morning. One librarian cheerfully noted that the kids were acting a little silly – and a young lad later said, “No, we’re just showing our support for Susan!” And he was right!

As we were leaving the small mall, having finished our wonderful few hours with the Japanese TV crew and all of the others, a shy young girl came up to Marie and me and said that she had written a poem. In fact, she has written 70 poems. This one, by Kiera of Blackburn, age 11, is about Susan Boyle:

Growing up in Blackburn
Such a simple lass
No frills no fancies
No obvious class
Far from glamour
I’m such a humble lass
I’m not pretty
I’m not fast
I’ve just stuck to my class
So humble
So simple
I’m just a lass
I look to the stars
So far away
Elaine Page sings and makes my day
I love my church
My religion is free
I love to sing this pleases me
Doing Karaoke in the Happy Valley
Is such a pleasure to me
How do I go forward
I think to myself
TV could be the answer and my cat agrees
Piers what a honey you look good to me
Simon, oh, Simon will you see the voice that is in me
My day in Britain’s Got Talent
Has made me shine
It’s made the stars so much closer to me
Thank you Britain
Thank you Demi
You’ve made me a star
For the world to see
No frill no fancy
No obvious class
But sing I’ll sing
With such panache
The stars they are now closer
So much closer to me
Just a simple lass from Blackburn West Lothian and that’s such a blast.

Blessing Blackburn ~ The Sequel ~ Installment 3

“‘Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life.’” (John 6:47-48)

Friday, 9/4/09
6:30 pm in Blackburn, Scotland

It’s hard to keep track of our jet lag, since Marie and I started out in separate time zones and our various clocks (cell, laptop, blog, forum) are all different even though we are now in the same place, GMT. Anyway, we awoke early on Thursday morning to enjoy our traditional Scottish breakfast, expertly prepared by Shirley. Overnight, heavy rain had caused the Almond River to rise dramatically, but neither we nor the cows grazing just across the river were at all nervous about possibly being flooded out. I decided to stay home and work on yesterday’s blog post, while Marie traveled by bus to the frame shop in Bathgate. Nearby, she posted this message on the fan site:
“I'm at a tiny internet cafe in Bathgate, near Blackburn, West Lothian. I took Susan's usual local bus here about an hour ago. I'm sipping coffee out of a paper cup, checking my emails on my laptop. I get the message from Amazon. I click and order 3 CDs to be shipped to my home address near San Francisco. Isn't this surreal? What great fun!”

Marie was in Bathgate yesterday for a special purpose, and she is guest blogging here to explain that aspect of her visit to Blackburn. Susan Boyle has inspired many people from all sorts of backgrounds – people who relate personally to her in some way or another. As people analyze their own connections to Susan, they have shared these musings widely on fan forums. My other blog has one perspective, and Marie shares below her impressions as well as news of a special gift for people in Blackburn.

Guest Blogger ~ Marie Sheahan Brown

I Am The Bread Of Life

One person who heard Susan Boyle’s audition in mid-April became a quiet fan.

She awakened one morning in the convent near San Francisco where she has lived for nearly 60 years. She padded downstairs and turned on her computer. She clicked a link to YouTube in one of her emails and watched the unforgettable audition. She noted Susan’s voice and her breath control (“sha-a-a-a-aaame!”); her underdog story and persistence; her humble, devout life.

This quiet fan, herself gifted yet humble, composes sacred music. She celebrates the church choirs and assemblies that nourish the soul in song.

Susan Boyle began singing in church at age 12, developing both her gift and her faith. Although the church has no actual choir, quite possibly over the last 40 years the parishioners of Susan’s church in Blackburn, West Lothian, Scotland, have sung what Sister Suzanne Toolan, RSM, now in her 80s, calls “an old chestnut.” Most people know it as I Am The Bread Of Life, translated into 25 languages.

Most do not know of its narrow escape, related in the National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2007:

“It was 1966 and Mercy Sr. Suzanne Toolan had been asked to write a song for an event in the San Francisco archdiocese. With the deadline looming, she worked on a song in an unoccupied room next to the infirmary in the Catholic girls’ high school where she taught. ‘I worked on it, and I tore it up. I thought, “This will not do,”’ Toolan said. ‘And this little girl came out of the infirmary and said, “What was that? That was beautiful!” I went right back and Scotch-taped it up.’”

The composer of I Am The Bread Of Life is the quiet fan who, when asked if she might bless the community of Susan’s church in Blackburn by writing a few words on a copy of the score, immediately responded: “I would be so honored!”

For this purpose, Sister Suzanne allowed me to make a digital duplicate of her original hand-notated score (not the Scotch-taped one). She signed the copy with a special message to Susan’s church, and a blessing in the songs of praise we sing.

I carried the one-ounce treasure wrinkle-safe in my laptop case from San Francisco to Blackburn. Leslie and I asked around and found a craftsman, Neil Anderson, who owns Bathgate Picture Craft and reputedly does excellent work (for example, the framed landscapes in the Happy Valley Pub). We easily found his shop on Wednesday – closed. So I returned Thursday while Leslie blogged at the cozy Burnview B and B.

I found Neil at work in his shop on Jarvey Street in Bathgate. I asked if he had a few minutes to talk. Very politely he replied, “Yes, a minute.” I began explaining what I wanted him to frame, and he chuckled. “I thought you wanted to sell me something!” I suppose I did look like a peddler with my backpack and Gore-tex jacket to keep off the rain!

He suggested possible mats and frames. I chose the dark blue mat to draw out the color of Sister Suzanne’s 1960s-era blue pen, and the silver-gold wooden molding to complement without overpowering the image. He recommended glare-free glass to reduce the potential of fading. We arranged for me to pick up the opus on Saturday.

Hopping off the return bus in Blackburn, I stopped in at Susan’s church. In this week’s adventure, I feel myself more pilgrim than tourist. As a pilgrim, I go to experience a place, to learn something about it, about the people, about myself. I attend to God’s presence along the way.

I entered the Blackburn church as an insider, having chosen to enter the Catholic Church more than 22 years ago as an adult. Some five thousand miles and an ocean away from home, I recognized everything in the sanctuary as an old friend.

I sat and considered the people who have worshipped here over the decades, the joyous occasions, baptisms, weddings, and unexpected moments of grace. I imagined the pleas to God during times of loneliness, grief, fear, anger, shame – all the human conditions. Not only would they pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” But in Sigrid Undset’s wry wisdom they might also pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those against whom we have trespassed.”

American poet Frederic Ogden Nash wrote, “A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” Neither the people of Blackburn nor I are yet ready for the Saints’ Hall of Fame. I doubt Susan Boyle is, either – which is why so many in the wide world love and can relate to her. That doesn’t mean she’s not learning, nor her fellow villagers.

I sat in the quiet, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, listening to sheets of rain on the metal roof. A silver-haired lady came in, said her own prayers, and left. We honored each other’s silence.

I went to the back of the church and found neat stacks of well-used slim songbooks on each side of the doorway. They told me, “This congregation sings.”

I leafed through worn pages and found hymn number 226, I Am The Bread Of Life, by Sister Suzanne Toolan. This confirmed my guess that these Blackburn parishioners and pilgrims have sung “the old chestnut” often during Communion and at funerals.

May the villagers of Blackburn, near Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland, find deep comfort in this rescued music that touches spirits and offers hope worldwide in 25 languages.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Blessing Blackburn ~ The Sequel ~ Installment 2

"If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25)

Thursday, 9/3/09
3:05 pm in Blackburn, Scotland

The days have flown by since I last posted! It was with fond memories of little Blackburn that I went from international bank to international bank in gargantuan Brooklyn, unable to exchange dollars for pounds without waiting a few days for my small order to be filled. How simple the exchange had been in Blackburn, with the option of either the counter at the post office or the ATM near the door. Still, I decided not to risk everything on availability of funds in Blackburn, so I made plans to exchange at JFK enough funds for my room and a few meals and bus rides, and the rest as needed in Blackburn.

Packing was so simple! Laptop (check), purse (check) and canvas bag smaller than a cat carrier (check) were all that I needed! My dear immigrant “mamochka” Gulia had provided something special for Marie and me (more on that later), and even the three extra items for my twin fit into my bag. The heaviest load between the two of us would be the 11 copies of Harper’s Bazaar, weighing a total of 22 pounds, which Marie had purchased as gifts for people in Blackburn.

On the first day of September, Del drove me the 15 miles from our home in Brooklyn to JFK Airport in Queens (all within a small section of New York City), and with a hug and a kiss and a prayer dropped me off at one of the Delta terminals. I had gotten my boarding pass online the night before, expecting to check my one little bag. When I got to the counter, the lady smiled warmly and asked if that was all?! Then she said that I would probably be able to take all three items as carry-on luggage because they were so small, even though only two items were normally allowed – and if security said no, then she would have my tag ready. I quickly passed through security, and soon received a call from Marie saying she had landed and was already at Gate 3! She also had managed to fly with only carry-on items, so as we met again for the first time in 3 years, we had no concerns about our luggage parting with such sweet sorrow.

Marie and I are the co-oldest of 5 children (she was born first by 25 minutes). Our younger brothers and sister are not the Susafans that we are, but we’re sure they will really enjoy her CD for Christmas! Since birth, in addition to our formal names, Marie and I have been called Bear and Bird. It’s not quite Ant and Dec, but then again neither is it Susan and Elaine! Marie was happy to show me her carefully-packed ton of Harper’s Bazaars featuring Susan, as well as her socks, part of the Pebbles Boyle Fall Collection. There was no wi-fi in our area of the terminal at JFK, so our first post en route would have to wait.

Our overnight flight directly to Edinburgh (pronounced Edinburuh by the locals) was supposed to take 7.5 hours, but literal hurricane-strength tailwinds propelled us to a smooth landing that was almost 1.5 hours early! While waiting for a ride from Hugh, our generous YouTube Susan’s Pub friend, Marie and I found some delicious coffee at Edinburgh Airport – but again no wi-fi in areas that we could access. So my pre-paid 30 minutes of T-Mobile wi-fi, left over from our June trip, would have to wait.

Hugh picked us up exactly as scheduled, appalled that he was so late! No problem! It’s good to learn to be content in any situation. On the way to Blackburn, Hugh drove us through West Lothian’s latest big town, Livingston, which has rapidly grown in size and stature during the past few decades. We walked through a gorgeous new mall with many different fashionable stores, and I thought about the possibility that Susan in the past had probably traveled by bus to shop here, but with limited resources. Who could ever have guessed that she would be featured in America’s legendary fashion magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and be credited with an increase of some 2,000,000 views of their September online edition?

The ride from Livingston to Blackburn took only about 10 minutes by way of the old highway that becomes Main Street when it passes east-to-west through Blackburn. It is a rather busy road for traffic between the several villages along the route. But stopping in Blackburn seems inconvenient, because there is little or no parking available near the few businesses located on that stretch of road. Our Blackburn lodging, the charming Burnview Bed and Breakfast, is located on Main Street. We met delightful Shirley, dropped off our luggage, then backtracked on Main Street to its intersection with Blackburn-Bathgate Road. This main north-south street in Blackburn is also busy with substantial traffic that just passes through. In one sense, Blackburn is active; but in another sense, the bustle belongs to someone else and the residents just go on with life in their small village with its hundreds of years of ups and downs.

Hugh immediately drove us to see Susan’s house, near his own childhood home. No traffic, no gawkers besides us, no reporters, no TV cameras (until tomorrow, for a short while!). On the same day that pre-sales of Susan’s late-November-scheduled debut CD were zooming overnight to first place among all albums currently being sold in the United States, the street where she has lived since birth was peaceful under the rain-laden clouds of Scotland. First on Susan’s summer shopping list was the home her family had rented for almost 50 years. It looks as though she is now able to scrape together enough cash to buy it! She’s among millions of friends, is she not?

Hugh dropped us off at the small mall, and we headed first for the Blackburn Connected library inside. The librarian cheerfully assigned computers 6 and 7 to us, and we briefly signed in to update fellow Susafans at and the main YouTube site, Susan’s Pub, at Then we went hunting for a special picture frame that Marie will blog about later. The many frames in two little stores were not exactly what we needed, but the clerks were very patient and helpful. Returning briefly to the library, Marie found the address of a frame shop in Bathgate. We bought some healthy edibles at the Scotmid cooperative grocery in the small mall, briefly stopped by the Happy Valley for a photo op and lemonade in Susan’s seat, and then hopped on the bus to Bathgate, only a mile or two away.

The frame shop was closed on Wednesdays. But we were glad to spot a café with free wi-fi and made a mental note to return as needed. We ate our fruit and veggie snacks seated on a sunny bench in Bathgate’s pretty town square, then waited for a Blackburn-bound bus. After a few minutes, we realized that the various buses to various destinations had various bus stops all adjacent to one another. So, like bees in search of perfect pollen, we bumbled along from one stop to the next, looking for something that said Blackburn. Sure enough, a bus finally stopped and we boarded, followed by a nice fellow that we had seen earlier at the Happy Valley. He sat directly in front of us, and then another man boarded the bus, recognized his friend, and sat down right beside him. It was John Boyle, Susan’s brother! Amazing! We were in shock! The two men were chatting away, and we didn’t want to interrupt their conversation, so we didn’t bother him. Here’s hoping we will see him again during our time in Blackburn!

Back in the village, we enjoyed the blue sky and fluffy white clouds as we walked from the bus stop to Susan’s church. The doors were open, but no one was there. A printed sheet listed the weekly schedule and who would be conducting certain activities. We wondered how often Susan had sat in the choir loft at the back of the sanctuary.

A brief walk away was the small mall, where we promptly ran into Alison, the tirelessly devoted and savvy leader of the Blackburn Community Council, with whom Del and I had spoken back in early July. Blessing Blackburn options are still in the consideration phase, and of course we all want to be sensitive and patient. Alison mentioned that she had read my blog, and filled us in on some of the latest Blackburn news. I asked how they felt about tourists visiting Blackburn. She noted that things had quieted down considerably since the initial deluge of reporters and camera crews. The disruptions to the community had come largely from journalists, photographers and TV trucks vying for stories, but now the flow was much more pleasant and manageable. She mentioned the Japanese TV crew that would be here on Friday. We noted that they had contacted us, too, when they found out from the fan site about our return trip to Blackburn. They had politely asked if they could come along with us on a little informal tour of significant Susan spots in Blackburn, and we agreed! Japan Broadcasting Corporation is the main public television channel in Japan, and they are producing for October airing a prime-time nationwide program about the Susan Boyle phenomenon that has also swept Japan! My blog has links to some of the news articles about the Japanese documentary, which will also be covered on Friday by STV – Scottish Television.

Busy Alison chatted with us for about 15 minutes, then ran off to her next mission. Marie and I still had some time to kill before the official check-in of 4:00 pm at our home away from home, so after catching a few jet-lagged winks seated on a bench near the small mall, we walked to the Burnview Bed and Breakfast on the banks of the Almond River, met Shirley’s friendly husband Colin, and settled into the cozy Twin Room overlooking the Almond and a green hillside of grazing cows. Rest and relaxation at the bed and breakfast! And, oh, what joy fills my soul! The Burnview has free wi-fi for its guests!

After a few hours, we walked through light rain to THE fish and chips shop at the back of the small mall, and ordered Susan’s favorite. There is no seating inside, and the mall was closed, so we walked across the parking lot to a bus stop and perched on the rail eating our delicacies. Following our brief but memorable feast, we walked to the Happy Valley Pub and had a long and interesting conversation with the owner, a feisty and straightforward woman of Italian and French descent, who was born and raised in the Blackburn area. Delizia is a hard-working, can-do person with a heart for people in trouble. She also affirmed that the frame shop in Bathgate was just the place to find what we needed!

Returning to the Burnview, we discovered that Hugh had thoughtfully stopped by with an umbrella! Bless his heart – more of that wonderful Scottish hospitality! Marie and I soon forgot that we were tired and began to work on our blog entries – I on my Dell and she on her Mac. Dell, Mac – there’s something about that name – well, of course! My dear husband, Del McMillan, is holding down the fort in Brooklyn, checking in now and then by single-digit cell dial, and waiting along with everyone else for photos and blog entries!