In an olive grove in Extremadura, the winter sun warming my face, the Serins and Sparrows chirping around me, playfully darting from apple tree to persimmon to olive, the undulating velvety green hills in the distance… I sit, motionless.
Time drifts over me like air, thoughts come and go gently and I bask in the stillness of it all and yet, all-too-soon, I become aware that I am not doing anything, not even reading. I berate myself, inwardly battling with needing to do more than simply sit and yet reminding myself that I came here to sit. “Yes, Alice, you came here to meditate, practice yoga, study chakras and, ultimately, manifest your dreams for the coming year, remember?”
This ping-ponging of thought continues for a while as I acknowledge the enormity of recognising the need to shut down my everyday life for a while and I feel blessed that I have constructed my lifestyle in such a way that I can do this. Life can feel so loud, busy and overwhelming and yet so many of us solider on, forgetting what stillness feels like, forgetting what our inner voice sounds like. I don’t want to forget for I know that here – within – is where truth lies and that if I let it spin away from me too fast and too far, I may never be able to grasp that truth back.
So, I continue to sit and I tell myself it’s OK to have a break, to have time to focus on me. I look around, soaking it all up, listening and dreaming, understanding that no day can ever be lost. That even these slow silent days that seem somehow self-indulgent, go towards many other days that are not, allowing us to be the best person we can be so that can happen.
Lately I’ve been absorbing the seemingly collective need to belong; to find our tribe. There are groups for wild women, baby-wearers, home educators, vegans, off-gridders and so on and yet, in the process of trying to ‘remove the box’, of trying to move away from a sense of conforming, there seems to be a lot of things to match up to in order that you can truly feel a belonging to one of these communities.
There are rules you see, they are just subtle…. and there are boxes, sometimes they are just knitted.
As I ponder these happenings that, granted, have been around throughout time but somehow feel louder and bigger and more abundant now given the beautiful pictures and words infiltrating our minds from every angle all day every day, I wonder if the answer is really just simple. For if we strip everything away: all the noise, the expectations, the needs, what are we left with?
Ourselves and the land… that natural instinct to delve within and find out who we really are, to make from what we find around us, to nurture our desire to keep ourselves healthy with the foods that grow from the soil, to limit our needs to rape this beautiful earth in order to power a consumerism that is merely a mirage. And when stripped back, surely it is obvious that parenting needs to be gentle and open and imagination cultivated, that animals should be loved and tended to and offered compassion, that we should move away from screens and resist the constant infiltration of thoughts, free ourselves from indoor air to feel the wind and look around us.
Do we need a group to show us this? Or do we simply need to take ourselves right back to nature… to walk in the woods, camp in a field, lay in the sand and not share it with anyone but those who are with us because only then are we truly connected to that moment.
Simplified living in nature does not need an Instagram page, it does not have a price tag, a tick list for joining and nor does it make us feel somehow inadequate when we fail to live up to seeming splendour. It simply brings us closer to ourselves and perhaps, right there, is where our answers are. Perhaps, once at one with ourselves we can then live within a world that is made up of many tribes and simply be our own light.
We live in a world where we are more connected than ever and yet at times, it feels like there is less connection. Close friends can feel like they are miles away, when in reality they are just around the corner and strangely, many of us find closeness in those on the other side of the world. The on-line brings us into each other’s lives, thoughts and feelings in a more open way; yet sometimes it feels we share less with those next to us. I often feel adrift: taking steps, losing my footing, tentatively stepping back in again… because like most people, I want – long – to feel connected, to share and be involved and yet, for me there is simply no comparison to a real hug, a real like and of course, real love.
We took our box of wooden handcrafted wares out into our community yesterday and it was heart-warming stuff. To see friends old and new, to feel the embracing arms of real flesh and to hear lovely real likes as we talked about our work, shared stories of our travels and told customers where their gifts started life, because it is important to us that they can hold that piece and feel the energy of where it came from.
One lady bought a simple pendant of olive in celebration of her daughter’s name. I told her where the wood had come from (Portugal) and she asked, ‘but how do you remember?’ and I thought… because I know the story behind it, I know the olive grove, the memory of sitting and sanding, of hearing the breeze through the pine trees on the hill and the sounds of birds and next-door’s donkey. I remember the warmth on my skin as I worked. (My reply was a little more succinct!)
When you make something with your hands, there is a real connection to the creation and yesterday reminded us of how much we love that, for without real people to share real stories with, sometimes it can all be lost in a sea of beautifully staged photos and mere glimpses into worlds we can never really know.
Perhaps, for me, this is the limitation of the on-line world, where celebrations, commiserations and jubilations are shared in short sentences, or even shorter reactions, when what I long for is conversation.
Yesterday my conversations introduced me to Sew & Grow where I peered into dye baths and touched beautiful products, but mostly felt the enthusiasm of the creator that simply does not come through in a photo. I was also inspired by Vintage Knit & Sew and her passion to re-use what we already have in circulation – we must! – and consequently we now feel a deeper sense for the need to try and source second-hand chains for our jewellery.
Connection, for me, is something you can touch, see and feel. It’s all around us if only we step out and submerse ourselves in it, make time for those friends around the corner, take our wares out to be seen by real eyes. This world here on the screen is wonderful and wide and opens doors to opportunities and friendships we might never have had, but the smaller world, the world we all have outside our door, well that is just – if not more – as important and it feels good to find yourself in the heart of it.
“I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.” ~ Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust (A History of Walking)
Lately I’ve been walking as a way to find some space, to help me pull words together for the book I’m working on. I stroll briskly, usually from the field where my caravan sits, through the woods and fields in a loop or sometimes to the next village, and back again. Last night it was almost dusk as I set out but I could still see the hedgerows beginning their giving over to the autumn palette, the hawthorn and rosehip berries ruby red and ripe. There were even some huge blackberries still hanging on. It’s been such a hot summer and everything seems to have come and gone in a rush.
As I walk I remember how much and how far my legs carried me when I worked as a travel guide writer. The roads and pathways from country to city that I would pound armed only with my pad and pen. I think about how strong I was then and long to be strong again. Lately I have felt weakened by the inevitable pressures that life throws at us – all of us in one way or another – and those carefree memories of myself sometimes feel so far away: untouchable. I look at the little wooded dells of green and imagine just curling up in them for the night. I think about Patrick Leigh Femor walking to Constantinople – across Europe in winter – and wonder if I will ever get to do a walk that long. One day I would like to. I see rubbish in the bushes and ponder for how many years it will pollute this landscape – oh what us humans have done.
The fields are mostly bare now; harvesting is over. No more the sounds of combines and tractors working late into the summer evenings and I feel a deep loss for the long hot days we have had this year in England, for the eating outside for seemingly unending evenings and I recognise that old familiar melancholy for autumn deep in my heart. But the breeze is still warm; so warm, so I close my eyes to it and bask in its serenity.
Just before I reach the village a large group of crows fly over, squawking and cawing, and I am reminded of camping out beneath a rookery in Norfolk. I turn to begin my walk back, pausing first beneath their swell, watching them move together, working out where they are to roost for the night. I envy their living in the moment, for the moment. I walk again and hear a rustling in the hedgerow, it sounds large so I kneel down, stinging myself. I wonder if it’s a small deer but I can’t see. An owl hoots behind me and a pair of pigeons fly out of a low tree, their unmistakable flapping bringing an eeriness to the darkening sky that makes me feel suddenly vulnerable.
Ahead I make out the treeline and love that I know the shape of my field. I hop over the gate and walk – alive and refreshed – back to my caravan and the light and laughter of my family preparing to turn in for the night.
It’s the lying back… it takes a while you see; to truly trust the sea. For me it happens slowly – inch-by-inch – that relaxing my body into salty water. As it gently laps against my face I am still aware of a tension in my neck, conscious that I am holding my head defiantly; resisting ultimate conclusion.
With a desire for harmony, first I stretch out my legs and watch my toes float up. Keeping my arms gently waving at my sides I stay there for a moment… half fighting, half giving over, knowing that I desperately want to surrender but never finding the right moment. After a while I know it’s time and as I let my neck relax fully, all pressure releases and I float backwards into the water. My ears begin to fill; slowly at first and then in that final release – that ultimate giving over – completely, until there is a soft muffled pop and I am there: total and utter release, pure silence, serenity.
My body motionless, my arms still, I am aware only of the gentle water, the deep heartbeat of the sea. We are in unity… and I am free. Floating there I know that in life too I must remember to trust more, let things flow over me, for it is futile to try and control destiny. I ponder about contentment being achieved only when we become totally and utterly unafraid of the giving over of ourselves.
The rumble of noise dissipates. Bright lights, the seduction of all you are told you want or need spinning around; finally trails away. For a moment – in that moment – I had become briefly blinded as to how life can be but now, now the window is rolled down and the night air is warm.
I tip my face to the stars as our little rental car climbs and climbs and I realise that I am free again; that I can breathe again. I am aware that my lungs, recently so constricted with anxiousness, are instead open and infused with the scent of pine and eucalyptus. My ears, dulled by the din of expectation, are now alive with the sound of cicadas.
We arrive in the dark, following our host down a long and dusty track flanked by shadowy hills and grapevines and there is something unbelievably sweet about not knowing exactly what is out there, trusting only in our non-seeing senses. Outside this simple home on a ranch in Catalonia we play cards and lounge on the swing chair until the early morning hours and those senses tell me to remember that this is how life can be and deep in my heart, I know that I have been away too long.
We walk, and talk. About being wild, being female. We talk about wonder and love and pain. About falling down, grasping our way back up again. We talk about nature, bounty, beauty… strolling slowly, pausing when a point needs to be made more pressingly. Munching blackberries, squeezing sloes, marveling at oaks, silver weed soft in my palm, thinking about pilgrims.
I walk barefoot through a soft field and remember a book I love, about what it means to be a true ‘Nature Girl’, “wild and free, completely unattached, except for a love of life, animals, nature and a few of the right kind of people” (Juliette de Bairacli Levy) and I know that she is one of those right kinds of people.
Sometimes there are no photos; only words. Yet in a world that demands to see perfection created through endlessly compelling composition are words, anymore, enough?
Yet, can a photo really show you how the wind felt on my face ~ soft, airy and filled with fine grains of sand ~ as I sat against the grassy cliffs?
Can a photo tell you what I was thinking ~ freedom is to fly; to lose all sense of anything else around you and let this world we have constructed of noise, shopping trollies, bricks and wheels, fall away ~ as I tipped my head back to watch a white seagull soaring against a silent blue sky?
Can a photo really convey the look ~ sincere, compassionate, kind ~ as heartfelt words were shared, or how a hand felt ~ strong, safe, secure ~ within mine?
Can a beautiful photo of a beach, somewhere on the North Yorkshire Coastline, convey how it truly made me feel ~ humbled, centred, calmed, thankful?
There is no photo, there is no trace
for I left everything behind today
to simply lay
in the sand
and let my dreams take shape.
Restful, deep breaths, a temporary equilibrium that feels easy. Water runs, heat burns; everything is stable and stationary.
There is comfort in this state for it brings a silencing of wired thoughts and yet… there is the constant danger of boredom lurking on the horizon. It’s been too long that my water has not run, that heat has been created with my own hands, that my view has changed daily, for me to fall willingly into the arms of something so… predictable.
These months here in a house between the moorland and coast of North Yorkshire have forced me recognise that my hunger for the road is not simply for the sake of travel, but more importantly: the sake of connection. Connection to every small seemingly incidental action that we open ourselves up to when we wander; when we make life tiny, yet wide, because there is the realisation that we are forever living in the moment.
Living in a house the moment can be lost within the ease of it all and yes, that can be welcome: to know that when travel fatigue sets in I can put my key in a door behind which I will find my pictures and books, cushions and blankets, writing desk and typewriter and know that I can stop, burrow down, rest; is something I do not take lightly. But I find myself periodically running to our caravan tucked away in the corner of a field in the South of England so that I might fill up water containers, feel the wind all night long and be connected to life and when there I find myself dreaming rose-droplet-framed dreams about the road: about campfires and weathered faces; conversations and music, and I know that this house-living-lark could never be every day. Forever. Can anything? If it can then surely we are heading speedily towards death.
And so, as a family, we adjust to the knowledge that we are here, find joy in the vegetables growing at our allotment and tentatively allow our roots to venture a little below the surface and yet, also remind ourselves that there will always be a need for us to go away… to walk barefoot, wash our clothes in a bowl, cook on one ring and wake up together overlooking the sea, because we are travellers, wanderers, gyspy souls and it is the call of the road that makes us know we are alive.
Wandering = Movement = Freedom. It is a stretching of limbs, and of mind. It is never standing still for long and yet, standing still long enough to breathe. Mountain, moorland, coast, forest, meadow… walkways, waterways, roadways; the life of a wanderer is a perpetual anticipation of next steps and new adventures.
Perhaps the attraction is in the new? The erasement of that which you do not want to remember because you find yourself lost in the absolute freshness of possibility. It is a running away; a running to, and I have a hunger for that lightness of step – that release – that comes, both physically and mentally.
The wandering life is lived deliciously simply, out of a bag… once upon a time (for me) on foot, but as a family: in a van, cabin, boat, cottage, caravan… shared houses; shared spaces – so many places and people found, so many adventures that have grown within us like a patchwork quilt and so many experiences we are endlessly glad for and yet, like any life there are periods of unrest… the flailing about on an unknown path without destination, the night-time awakenings given over to creatively developing ways to sustain such a lifestyle and then there are the waves of uncertainty, wondering whether the wandering life still works for the whole family.
On a practical level, living from here to there brings challenges… there is water to be collected, waste to be disposed of, laundry to be done with cold red hands – either from hand-washing or dragging a bag to the laundrette in mid-winter. Food must be prepared and cooked in tiny spaces and higgledy piggledy places while crafts, projects and colouring are limited and put out or put away to accommodate. Beds are endlessly made up and down whilst stepping over dogs – and each other. Pans and kettles are boiled for washing up… and washes, for showers can be taken only when there is enough solar power. There is paperwork in foreign countries; translations, invitations, conversations… a combination of sometimes wonderful, sometimes tiring things, because the tiny little incidentals can loom large when you’re out of your comfort zone… and there is the endless packing up and unpacking; forever losing and finding.
For ten years now as a family we have wandered. Sometimes standing still, but never for too long and for any hardship this life has presented, there have been more than enough joys to balance it out. For every irritation such as living without running water for weeks on end because the canal has frozen, there has been felt a sense of accomplishment for being independent and resourceful. For every night spent uncomfortable, tired and lost on the road, there have been ten heart-stoppingly beautiful stopovers that remind you why you do what you do. For every anxiety arising from living in a different country there has been a cultivation of pioneering spirit and a warmth from locals that restores your faith in human nature… for every mean person, there have been five beautiful souls and for every frustrated word (or ten!) flying around our tiny spaces and big dreams, there has been nurtured a deeper love, admiration and respect.
However, recent months saw our path edging into a different space and it has taken a while for us to navigate this changing route, to acknowledge our collective desire to stop, root down, maybe even belong somewhere for a while, in our own country. We don’t know for how long we will need this, but we know that finding ourselves in a house nestled in a village between the sea and moors of North Yorkshire, feels right. We know that for a while, having some comforts and space feels as exciting as running away. We know that the connections our daughter yearns for at this stage in her life are valid and that being close to our extended family is important and we imagine (hope) that having such endless and boundless beauty on our doorstep where we can seek out plentiful micro-adventures, will allow us to weave these wandering hearts into our new chapter of standing still.