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.
“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.
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.
Silence. Stillness. Settling. A heaviness that, once you give yourself over to it, becomes lightness… Inside. And from that surrender there becomes a kind of freedom in the soul, as if there is no stone left unturned, no sense left unfelt, because you have allowed yourself time to delve deep, reach in, extract, and be true to yourself with what you do with that which you find.
“It is possible to feel as light as a gentle breeze,” I am reminded of when I am here.
I wake in the morning, the room darkened by wooden shutters. Opening them light streams in. There may be the odd rumble of someone going by below, probably to their allotment on the outskirts of the village, but otherwise there is no sound but birdsong, and my it is bliss.
My deepest fear was that this place I had reminisced about in the nine years since I left, would be changed somehow; would have lost its magic. When we first arrived and saw once again the desert landscape stretched out for miles around us, we wondered what had made us stay for five+ months. The scenery here can appear dusty and devoid of life and yet there is rawness, a realness that draws you in; there is a hunger to learn from those roots that can live so long without water.
In the absence of anything else to do we begin to walk ~ endless walking ~ and slowly I feel my heart releasing, easing, my thoughts starting to lace together into something coherent. We delight in the mountains changing each day… sometimes dry and uninviting, sometimes the deepest greens rolling like velvet, beckoning us towards them, sometimes even snowy tops. On other days a pale mist surrounds us hiding everything behind a white tinge… the olive leaves look frosted, the mountain tops hazy, and I find that I have fallen in love all over again.
There is no rush to the people here, they pass their time slowly and methodically, carrying out daily tasks with a relaxedness that I am envious of. In nine years it remains the same; tending olive trees, stopping for lunch perched on a stone, cutting greenery for animals, sharing a laugh or two. I remember with fondness the several old faces that have disappeared, but many remain the same and they smile and welcome us back with open arms and shining eyes and marvel at how our daughter has grown and at our dog; still with us, healthy and glossy (and now joined by another!).
I survey this place and say to myself that I must, once again, learn… and hang on to my observations for as long as I can. Wander slowly. Be more methodical and connected. Continue to nurture contentedness in simplicity… I arrived with a distance towards life, but I know I will leave with a deeper sense of closeness.
Pondering how our time here before also came at the beginning of a new adventure, having not long sold up our house in a city and given up a steady job to take our baby on the road in search of more freedom as a family, I wonder if this tiny timeless village in rural Andalucia will continue to call us back at important junctures. I hope so, because my love runs deep for this pocket of solace in a crazy world, for a landscape that encourages me to dig deeper within myself: to question, contemplate and ultimately... help discover our next chapter.
I love the silence of snow… lying in bed it closes around us; cocoons us. I can hear no planes in the sky, no cars on the road, no sound but that of nature, of snowflakes falling softly onto our caravan roof.
Reluctant to wake completely I stay motionless, lost in the stillness of it all, but the sound of horses hooves passing the window on the other side of the fence make me realise that it is daylight and animals need feeding. I close my eyes again, grasping a few more moments lost in the sound of compacting snow beneath hoof.
When in the depths of nature, closed in, I realise I never want for anything like I do for this feeling. The noise of the world we have constructed around ourselves suddenly seems futile, pointless, and just as with the freshness of snow, I want to start again, choose what to grow from this beautiful blank landscape.
My daughter wakes and delights at the sight of real snow; “real snow!” she sings, and hurriedly we pile on layers before venturing outside. The alpacas sorrowful faces look up to us, their ears weighed down with moisture. We scrape thick snow from their troughs and break the ice in their water bucket. The horses are going crazy, galloping around, and we scurry about organising hay for them.
I stop for a moment and look out to the landscape, relishing the magic of working methodically in snow and I am overwhelmed by the utter newness of things, of a clean and silent world, un-marked in every way.
Our Portugal is on the edge: bordered on one side by the indescribable lure of lively Spaniards and on the other, the comfort and softness of the Portuguese. The land is green, spilling into hidden valleys. It is dusty, backed by breathtaking rock faces. It is hot; it is cool, but it is always balm to the soul.
I felt it clearly the other night on horseback as we galloped freely, reins loose, the rhythm of the animal beneath me all at once tender yet powerful. Submersed in the beauty of this landscape I was reluctant to be drawn away to anywhere else; the desire to stay put was strong. We rode around mountains, through valleys and across streams, pausing for water in a village alive with guitarra and accordion; I felt as if I had stepped back into a long ago book.
To be invited to ride with our friends in the evening, saddling up on a piece of silent land in Spain, dismounting in the darkened hills of Portugal (the usual way of horse rotation as it is here) was a treat – four hours of bliss – and I just wanted to keep on going. With the horses I feel I have rediscovered something from long ago, perhaps with an even stronger connection than ever before and yet, I came here this time knowing that we would soon be leaving our home; passing it on to others.
The pull of personal circumstances, the ultimate wrongness of our land due to situation and also the desire to maybe, just maybe, one day have horses ourselves… mean it is time to move on and despite a slight heaviness of heart, I feel also an immense excitement in knowing that fear of the unknown will never hold us back and that the richness of what we find as we wander is always a worthy element in the makeup of our life.
We do not know where we will come to rest again, sink our hands back into soil, continue our dreams of self-reliance. We do not know if it will once again be Portugal or if somewhere else will reach out to us, but we know that our hearts will find it when they need to and that it will be the right place and the right time to discover something beautiful.
We worked our boats through the lock in opposite directions but in that relatively brief exchange she reminded me – this woman – that life is short; so very short. So affected by our conversation was I, that tears pricked my eyes as I continued walking the towpath, working my boat through the last two locks.
In those few moments we had that rare immediate connection and she spoke about her daughter dying just weeks earlier, about the grief and yet how she had also been reminded of LIFE. I talked to her about how sometimes I get scared as to if we’re making the right choices; that I worry about what others think of our nomadic, sporadic, seemingly shambolic lifestyle. That sometimes I lie in bed at night wondering if we should just settle down.
Her parting words were to tell me to keep living: to change, evolve, take chances… to give up, try again and most importantly: not give a shit about what anyone else may say, think or believe because it’s our journey; our life, and there are no rules.