There is laughter and conversation between people from near, from far, both in physical and also in years. For a while I am silently absorbed in the moment, soaking up every smile, every line of face, every sentence, my face contentedly gleaming in the iridescent late evening light that is of the Highlands at this time of year.
I look around this wooden house with golden windows on every octagonal side and remember other tables we have sat at; other people we have nurtured a connection with, and feel a deep sense of comfort to know that there are pockets of people and place all over who still yearn for the traditional ways of communication; of spending time in a solid kind of honesty, together.
This table of larch – thick and sturdy – has ensured our acceptance into the fold and I run my hand over its smooth surface with gratitude. During the past two months we have shared meals and long conversations about both the trivialities as well as the deeper issues of life. Last night we sat mesmerised as we were introduced to the true meaning of a Ceilidh… not the group dances that take place in halls throughout Scotland, but the smaller, intimate gatherings lit up by song and story.
As we listened intently to the soft tones of Highland voice, my daughter rested on my knee, eyes glistening, bodies stationary – all of us in that deep state of rest that comes with the complete absorption of something magical – I thought: could we stay?
The connections we are making here, the joy we feel from community – of working through the difficulties and learning to accept difference – and the sense of achievement felt from splitting wood or turning compost; I find myself, in many ways, afraid to leave.
I walk through the landscape on a bright morning and soak up the tumbling bird song, babbling brook, brightest gorse, that silent shift of a deer in the undergrowth and trees that have cascaded into spring above the bluebells without my even being able to keep up. I marvel at the four seasons felt in one day and for a moment I think, ‘Alice, please stay’.
But then, as I turn the well-thumbed pages of an old copy of ‘A Croft in the Hills’, Katharine Stewart’s words about an impromptu camping trip to the West coast, to cook on a driftwood fire and sleep in their van, ring out in my heart:
“We loved our small house, every stick and stone of it … yet here we were, completely happy as nomads! We had unearthed an even deeper level of existence.”
and I know that soon we will move on again… to both return to those other people and landscapes we have fallen in love with, as well as to discover more. For we have gypsy blood and for every table we sit around, for every person who captures a piece of our heart, there is still a deep hunger for movement, to be free of all shackles and yet be tied to every . single . place . we come to land with an intensity that can only be achieved by passing through because these moments are held tighter, the experiences kept closer: never taken for granted.
But this Highland place, this glen, these people: I know they have weaved their way into our very beings and I know that this has become another stopping place on our wandering path: a root to our route, and somehow that thought brings me great comfort.
When I work with wood I imagine life, with all its twists and turns; sharp edges, soft curves. Sometimes we are faced with a knot, or the knife slips and we slice something that we must then try to fix.
I work silently; sometimes for a while, just whittling and thinking. I ponder how we overcome adversity as I carve out an ever-changing shape, how we work out which road to choose: with or against the grain?
But mostly I see how life hands us raw material to work with and sometimes all we can do is chip away, sand and shape and do our best to make something beautiful.
“Orca” for Simon.
And so we come to rest again… for a while… and I feel a deep sigh within; a contentment that we have come to a standstill in a place that takes my breath away. If there is anything I have learned in this past year of attempting to explore the idea of roots in the UK, it is that no matter the sentiment behind the desire, it is not possible to rest – however briefly – if a place does not take your breath away. For how can we grow an appreciation for life if our breath is not momentarily paused?
Here the colours draw me in… for hours I could lose myself within the purple, pink, brown, green and yellow hues of this diverse Highland landscape, and I know that within its embrace I am taking another step on my journey: I am absorbing, I am learning and I am figuring out the path step-by-step because I have come to realise that we can only do that.
Not one single person can know the destination at their beginning, for how can we predict what will happen during the in-between?
So as a family we are enjoying the rests along our many-stepped journey and learning to say, ‘right now, we are here’: here where birds of prey float effortlessly through the sky, where deer roam the woodland and pine martins run fleetingly across moonlit bridges; where silence is, at times, unsettling but also nourishing and where our dreams can be turned over and explored slowly, without pressure.
Oh, Scotland… thank you for allowing us to walk your lands, whether it be for a month or twelve.
The beach. Just the very word makes me sigh with a deep sense of comfort. For me there is something about it that draws you in; gives focus to the day. I only need to call out ‘shall we walk to the beach with the doggies?’ and all life springs into action.
I wonder, what it is about this stretch of sand and water at the end of a road that makes life feel so much more… together? I ponder as to whether it is simply the walking purposefully, knowing that you will – without doubt – reach your destination.
Lately I have longed for destination, to stand still and breathe. Life is about the journey, yes, but sometimes a journey can be in one place.
Over the years many places have made me want to stay for a while but always – always – it’s not long before I am bitten again by the urge to move on, endlessly enthralled by the idea that something else is waiting for me in some other destination.
Right now, though, I realise that seasons are another destination and having watched each one unfold in one country last year, I recognise my deep yearning to continue on that journey, that journey of standing still.
My six week road trip through Spain and Portugal, just me and my girls (daughter and doggies) ended at a beach house near Porto and the daily ritual of coastal walking gave me time to strengthen this conviction. The comfort of the beach as my definite destination each morning, each evening, gave rhythm to the day; to life, and so I end this road trip wondering if our next chapter will place me somewhere I can stay a while.
Driving the road we felt ourselves lean into each bend and curve, felt our ears pop as we edged higher and higher… me and my girl, journeying to find the end of the road. I needed to find the end of the road because for a change, I wanted to be somewhere. No onwards, no through, just the destination.
When we reached the silent village teetering between mountains I immediately pulled a chair outside the front of the tiny schist cottage we were renting and let the sun warm my face. I could hear nothing but the tuneful bells that rang every hour and the sound of a breeze blowing through the pine trees.
Shortly, an elderly lady strolled by in a black shift dress, jumper, wellies and a hat pulled down firmly over her sun-darkened face. A bucket of greens swung in her right hand and her mouth sang a happy “Boa tarde”.
I smiled and thought, ‘this is just what we need: Silence. Gentleness. Simplicity.’
When you live at the end of the road it seems that nothing else matters because all life is where you are, and why go backwards? As I watched daily life unfold I wondered if I could live in such a place; if I might ever find myself contented at the end of a road.
One evening by the light of the Wolf Moon we opened the door to traditional singers who sang happy words whilst thumping a paper drum, holding out a cloth bag for pennies. Neighbours leant out of top floor windows to shower down coins and we stood, mesmerised, watching and listening as they trailed through the village along the narrow cobbled streets.
The following afternoon as we walked our dogs around the surrounding hills we came across an old lady dressed all in black walking up the winding road back to the village, a two-foot pile of cabbage leaves tied to her head. We walked together for a while and with our combined Portuguese and Spanish abilities I discovered that she was 82. When I remarked on how fit she was she told me it was the mountain air that kept her strong and stopped in the middle of the road to do a sprightly little wiggle, arms and thick-fingered hard-working tanned hands outstretched, her face beaming.
As I look around I see people that are always striving for so much more: more belongings, more speed, more space, more likes, more filling-in-of-time and so many of us are always pondering as to if we – and our life – is enough.
It seemed to me during my time in a village that the map told me was the end of the road, that enough is that which keeps us sprightly, makes us smile, and it seems that perhaps it is found when the road reaches its final destination and we stop, look around and say: ‘this end of the road will do for me.’