‘Sustained by perplexity’ – some snippets from the first 12 days out west

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Friday 3rd August

That’s one of the lines in the text we are going to contemplate on our Buddhist weekend later this month, and feels very apt for today! I picked up my little sea-blue Chevrolet this morning, and am now in the middle of learning the ropes of the life of a car driver. Did a large Sainsbury’s shop, picked up a SATNAV in Argos, filled up the tank and headed where I thought was the top of Penzance town and my chosen car park for the afternoon, but took a wrong turning and ended up on a tiny B-road to St. Ives instead. As it’s past lunchtime and I’m quite hungry, I stopped at the nearest tea shop where I’m sitting now, the ‘Green Pig’ which also rents out one tiny holiday cottage, and has a garden with beautiful views over St. Michael’s Mount. So just as well I haven’t as yet managed to set up that SATNAV and am instead naturally sustained by the perplexity of getting a bit lost. Sad phonecall with my father from there to wish him happy birthday, but of course he’s not happy, but as ever entirely trapped in misery with my mother, with no prospect of that changing, or anything anyone can do to help, at this stage … such a harsh reality to accept; and uncomfortable to feel the contrast of the relative freedom and spontaneity of my life here, the absence of family chains, out of choice – hopefully not entirely selfish choice; wanting to share any fruits freely.

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Sunday 5th August

I’ve been here a whole week now, and gradually the sheer excitement and edge of anxiety about finally having arrived and left London behind is wearing off, and making way for a quieter joy – a sense of this landing place feeling entirely right at this particular point in time. Even though the handy free WiFi connection from next door has just failed, and mine isn’t being installed until much later this month – maybe that too is as it should be – digital detox. Living alone for the first time in 15 years feels very strange; and I worry about making ends meet of course, as I’m spending relatively large sums of my savings on a car and necessary household items like chairs to sit on … but I’m fairly optimistic that it will all work out fine. It felt difficult to focus, but also quite satisfying and reassuring to draft a professional journal article over these past two days – I haven’t burnt all my bridges but am just trying to find a new vantage point. It’s disconcerting but also interesting not to know yet what I’m doing, where everything is and how anything works down here, without ‘irritable reaching for answers’; living in the questions for a while, allowing things to unfold in their own time.

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Wednesday 8th August

A bit dozy today after my first long car journey over the last two days, to visit two Buddhist friends in the neighbouring county of Devon. One of them lives with her partner in a static caravan on a communal farm, and we picked salad leaves together and shared their vision for a couple of days – very stimulating for me, as I’m trying to head in a similar direction…and now I’m preparing for my first overnight visitor, another very good and longstanding buddhist friend.

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Friday 10th August

It was lovely to spend a whole evening and day with my friend and host her here – it made the stone tent feel even more like home, and felt quite easy and spacious, which bodes well for future visitors (: After breakfast we zoomed about down tiny lanes in the sea-blue car, looking at ancient stone circles, burial chambers and the remains of an Iron Age village, as well as walking down to Lamorna Cove for an invigorating swim. I’m gradually getting my bearings in the car now, and it felt very grounding to begin to connect with the ancient roots of human habitation of this land, through the standing stones, magnificent granite stone beings. I’m about to set off on my second even longer drive this morning, up to a week-long meditation retreat in Herefordshire. The timing for this feels just right; really looking forward to a week’s turning inwards, allowing the turbulence of the move and change to subside.

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Bigger on the inside

‘To become of a place is to trade endless possibility for something specific’ (Martin Shaw)

There is a beautiful and profound calligraphy practice in Zen Buddhism, of breathing in, and then on the out-breath drawing an enso – a circle which stands for life, for the moon, for the fullness of emptiness, for infinite space. Sometimes the practitioner puts a dot in the middle standing for the fluid self, the unique small person emerging out of and finding their unique place and stance in that vast space for a little while, before flowing back into the elements. And often the circle has a small gap, it’s open, not closed. Everything we need to know is contained in that image, and practice. The drop in the ocean, and the ocean in the drop.

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On a vision quest we find your power place, create a large circle out of stones and stay in it for three days and four nights, communing with the land and its living beings in that particular place; receptive to what may emerge from that. Animals, birds and insects can sense the circumference of our circle, hesitate and seem to make a decision whether or not to enter. If we are fully engaged and immersed in the ritual, a magical conversation unfolds, where the edges between inside and outside blur and mingle. We viscerally experience life living through us, like a flowing river. All we need to do is keep the flow clear of obstacles – to loosen our self-centred grip.

David Fleming observed that small is beautiful because the smaller the circle, the longer is the circumference in relation to the area enclosed – and it’s along the edges and on the margins of things that creativity truly happens, and flows into the centre.

 I’m about to move from a large city to a small, marginal town at the edge of the sea with a wide horizon; for all the reasons above. Roots in the sky.

I was born by a large celtic lake, I rode an imaginary horse for years, and my first conscious childhood home place was what I thought of as ‘my grandmother’s forest’. She talked to the deer there, and took my brother and me deep into the woods with our skin and hair carefully covered as protection from the wild bees, to gather wild berries. She made the most delicious honey from the growing tips of pine trees each Spring, until she stopped one year because of the acid rain, explaining that the trees needed to be left in peace now, to heal. I only fully realised the depth of her simple wisdom and compassion as an adult, and now as I too grow older, I’m proudly following in her footsteps. I feel deeply grateful for her exemplification, for my rootedness in that forest, and in my wild child imagination. 

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I wandered restlessly for many years as a young adult and then again later; frequently getting lost in blind alleys, looking for my tribe. I learnt many valuable lessons along the way. I eventually found a multicultural home in London, an emotional home in Psychoanalysis, then a spiritual home in Buddhism. Proud of and grateful to my ancient human ancestors for revealing such intricate, magnificent methods and paths. Grandfathers joining my grandmother in a wondrous journey to the interior which will continue, possibly over several lifetimes. My work with children connecting me to future generations.

Now the time has come to join a tiny band of likeminded friends, and share the fruits of what I have learnt so far in this one lifetime in a slower, deeper, less fragmented, more coherent way, and in more direct connection with beyond-human wild nature and the elements. Whatever that will look like; allowing the details to emerge organically – to offer what I can and do what is needed, in the specific new place and situation I will find myself in. Emulating my grandmother, quietly exemplifying everyday wisdom and compassion as fully as I can, however imperfectly.

I’m about to move from a large city to a small, marginal town at the edge of the sea with a wide horizon; for all the reasons above. Watch this space.

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One more year in the city 12: July

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I’m writing this on the train back from Penzance, where I have just picked up the keys to the little stone tent and spent one preliminary night in my new home for these next six months. All was as beautiful and even magical as I remembered, in a soft misty summer rain interspersed with hot flashes of sun. I started making friends with my immediate neighbour, the small white horse in the field to my right – I think we’re going to get along just fine, especially if I save plenty of apples for it  – and a little black cat looked like it might want to join the menagerie. 

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My human neighbours on the other hand turn out to be on the very private end of the spectrum, with my Landlords definitely not wanting any direct interaction (as yet, anyway), which feels slightly odd for these parts where the norm seems so much the opposite: yesterday evening I got hopelessly lost trying to walk to my new abode from town, and ended up being offered a lift to my new doorstep by a passing Tesco Delivery driver who ‘had nothing else to do for the next half hour anyway’, and then refused to accept any money for his trouble.

So yes, I picked up my keys, had an informal, connecting pre-meeting with my new buddhist chapter of 3 in my friend’s courtyard garden at the top of Penzance Town, got lost on the way ‘home’ from there, and then spent quite a fretful evening alternately excited and really anxious, as I measured and inspected everything in detail. The little horse really helped, it kept coming up to the fence to check how it was all going, and seemed most curious about my activities out there on the sundeck. I rebuilt the stone bench and had dinner out there – thoughtfully provided home- made by one of my chapter friends, so I didn’t even have to buy a Take Away! I didn’t sleep much but heard the rain and saw stars through all the windows and felt just right there, in my tiny little house. This morning I found wild strawberries in the garden to garnish my porridge with, and later got chatting with the local village shopkeeper. Alas, there was no fresh produce on offer at all, and the shopkeeper admitted with disarming honesty that ‘everything in here is unhealthy’. She pointed me in the direction of the nearest Co-op and Lidl down by the seashore instead; a 20 minute stroll down ‘Love Lane’, past the boating pond (at the shores of which a little tent village of homeless people seemed to be forming, interestingly).

The setting of these two uninspiring but no doubt occasionally useful supermarkets in ‘Wherry Town’ proved most spectacular. As I lay on the pebbly beach there in the sun for a while, watching a heron fishing off a rock, I witnessed several long chats on the nearby bench between locals and passing tourists, about the beauty and delights of that exact spot and the surrounding area. It looked to me as if the lovely little town of Newlyn with its Modern Art Gallery and Mousehole beyond it were only another stroll away. So here is interesting local walk No 1 to take future visitors on; it doesn’t even require a car, as there’s the option of the bus back almost to my doorstep, in case of weariness (:

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So now back for just eleven more days of packing, cleaning, gardening and goodbyes.  There may just be one more post from London before I go (: With the keys in my pocket it feels completely real now, and just right, exactly as it is unfolding, this gradual experiment of turning more explicitly towards ‘elegant simplicity’, and wild nature.

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One more year in the city 11: June

3DEE7C70-F99D-4A7B-986F-47B6AE633EF6So this month I’m delighted to tell you that this little quirky stone tent on top of Rosehill just outside Penzance Town will be my first landing place, at the end of next month. I’m really happy, as everything about it inside and out feels just right, for at least my first six months there – then we shall see where things stand at the end of the calendar year, in terms of an emerging new rhythm of dharma, work and play in this next phase of my life, out on this island’s southwesterly edge. I am so ready to go now, and must admit that I have been finding it hard at times this month to still stay fully internally engaged with my city contexts to be completed.

E1108BF8-938B-4308-BE55-1FC6641C0051Having said that, everything has been going realtively smoothly, especially in my work contexts, with many moving encounters with the young people I’ve been working with, and their parents. I’m fortunate enough to be able to pass those who need more help on to trusted colleagues – and most young people have felt able to accept an ending or transfer and work through their mixed and complex feelings around it with impressive courage and honesty, which has been a privilege to witness. It also looks as if I will not be short of work in my new local area, judging from some initial enquiries already coming in, through a very good therapeutic organisation I have joined. It has also been interesting to create a website trying to bring the varied aspect of my life and skills together in one digital home, so to speak – thanks to a friend who also happens to be a website designer – see what you think, any feedback very welcome: http://www.akashadevi.co.uk 

ABA4EB8F-2C77-4A4D-97B5-B423E6DF4F80Emotionally I’ve been feeling quite heavy, sad and exhausted some of the time, very much realising how much I will be leaving behind in terms of good, deep friendships and working relationships which have taken a long time to build up – and aware also  that it feels easier  to be the one leaving than to be left behind. It has brought back some old feelings of guilt around hurting and upsetting people by leaving them, based on past painful experiences of leaving as well as being left. All fruitful albeit uncomfortable grist for the mill of practice. My continuing lack of patience in regard to all that has been humbling to notice – just wanting to close my eyes and get on with it, wanting to bypass this most challenging part of the process, the saying goodbye and acknowledging the loss involved. But like the young people I work with, I’m sticking with it, which feels good. And throughout the process it basically feels right – that sometimes something new and creative can only emerge by letting go ever so often of safe patterns and old securities. My Buddhist teaching has really kept me grounded this month, and I’m looking forward to my last West London stint next week, talking about the significance of the wrathful figures in the buddhist mandala – figures very much related to freeing ourselves from what has become limiting, constraining and unhelpful, to take the risk of venturing into the unknown.

It’s a full moon tonight, and exactly one more month to go. A month of shedding, clearing, packing – and proper goodbyes.

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One more year in the city 10: May

56B54269-9830-4373-92DA-2F2AB3F0166FThis month culminated in my spending the long Bank Holiday Weekend down in Penzance with my two Buddhist friends, to look for my first landing place down here. It was a really interesting and valuable process – what became clear through viewing the rooms – all perfectly beautiful, with very interesting and friendly landladies – was that I’m definitely at a stage in my life where I would feel a bit restricted in that kind of scenario, however nice the owner, gorgeous the garden or view out of the window. This realisation happened in tandem with my completely falling in love with a kind of stone tent annexe to a large house on the outskirts of town, with a roof terrace and garden, and overlooking a field with a horse in it, and tall trees in the distance. It’s completely quirky and unique, tiny inside, but perfectly formed. After viewing it on Friday, walking to it from the town centre on Saturday (20 minutes beautiful slight climb) and pondering it on Sunday, I went straight to the estate agent to apply for it this morning, and am now sitting by the sea before taking the train back ‘upcountry’ as they say round here, feeling nervous and trying not to get too attached to the idea of this particular landing-place just yet … I was the first applicant, out of many people having viewed it, and I made a good connection with the estate agent, who was interested in my being a buddhist, and told me he was just reading Eckhart Tolle’s ‘Power of Now’. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed now, and put it to the back of my mind, allowing the process to take its course – watch this space. I do have an exceptionally fortunate fallback landing place option of a whole little house in the ex-tin-mining town of Pendeen, which definitely helps keep down the stress levels!

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The weekend also included a private view with exhilarating Linton Kwesi Johnson Poetry Reading at the Kurt Jackson Foundation in St. Just, and a Wesak meditation, shared lunch and silent coastal walk with a very interesting, eclectic group of local Buddhists who meet weekly in a nearby zendo-barn. In fact there was so much going on here culturally this weekend, we couldn’t begin to fit it all in! Most of all, it felt lovely to spend some time with both my friends down there, gradually beginning to get to know each other more closely. I could quite happily stay right now…but quite a few finishing touches still await attention in my various ‘up-country’- contexts first – so on to the last, two month London round of completing things well.

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One more year in the city 9: April

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I will focus on just one day in my month this time, in the wake of an inspiring but also harrowing trip to France yesterday, to help assess three unaccompanied refugee kids with a view to uniting them with family members in the U.K. I will miss this voluntary part of my work the most, and hope very much that I will find a way of still contributing to working with displaced vulnerable young people from my new vantage point by the sea. Because this situation of people of all ages and from many places fleeing either violence or hunger, and desperately trying to get to a place where as one of the young people put it yesterday ‘their future will be bright’ will no doubt become bigger and bigger. Which makes the finding of a humane way of enabling rather than blocking free movement across the globe such a pressing issue…the present dysfunctional systems based on fear and prejudice are creating so much additional and unnecessary suffering, based on what I’ve witnessed and heard about over these past two years of working with young refugees.

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So yesterday, together with a colleague of mine from the small charity I volunteer for, we zoomed at the crack of dawn down to Folkestone in a young Barrister’s car, to take an early train to Calais and drive another hour from there to a tiny town, where 50-odd children and young teenagers from various countries have been housed in very basic conditions in a small hostel. Apparently the French view of the responsibility they ought to take for the children arriving in and passing through their country is much looser and more more vague than in the U.K., and doesn’t necessarily include providing them with health or social care, or education, unless the children themselves specifically request it! We carried out emotional health assessments on three of them, at the request of the Barrister’s fledgling charity, which offers free legal services to cases which have a chance under the Dublin agreement of being allowed to the U.K. to join relatives already living there, and willing and able to care for them.

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The young people told us of going crazy in a limbo of uncertainty, having waited for this step for almost two years now. They had agreed to be taken in by the authorities and to stop putting their lives at risk by trying to jump on to lorries to get to the U.K.. their relatives and lawyers were encouraging them to hang on in there and pursue the legal route, but we could tell they were near the end of their tether and would not be able to wait much longer. They each told stories of having been beaten and bitten by police dogs, then imprisoned, stripped of their clothes and meagre possessions and sent back where they came from in Bulgaria. 

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On trying again and finally reaching France, they had been repeatedly tear gassed and pepper sprayed, witnessed the burning down of two Refugee Camps – one of them in frustrated violent conflict between different nationalities of refugees, the other, the Calais Jungle Camp deliberately, by the authorities. They showed us their videos of the camps burning furiously. They had lived rough in the forest in the wake of this, relying on ad hoc volunteer handouts of food and water, had kept being found and getting beaten and pepper sprayed by police when trying to hide in lorries, and finally had agreed to live in a hostel. However, they now felt trapped, as the hostel provided only a bed and daily food, not much else. They reported having moved hostels six times over the past two years, in their perception because people in the towns they were moved to did not want them there. In one town they had actually been physically attacked by the local people. They had taken photos and videos of each harrowing stage of their journey, and begged us to help them get to the U.K.. They explained patiently, no doubt for the umpteenth time that it was not that they didn’t want to but that they were not able to go back home because it was dangerous, people had tried to kill them there and would try again. We tried to temper their unrealistic idealisation of the U.K., but it was so understandable that they wanted to believe that there must be a better place for them somewhere. We said we would try our best and encouraged them to be patient, and not to put their lives at risk. ‘What life?’ one of them muttered bitterly.

They walked us to our car at the end and ‘joked’ that we might be able to fit at least one of them in the boot, maybe two, they could make themselves really small, they had had plenty of practice in hiding…we had to tell them matter of factly that the police would look into the car, and they looked crestfallen, then said ‘only joking’, and waved us off. We couldn’t speak for most of the journey back – so easy for us, such an impossible barrier for those desperate kids.

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A not-so-solitary retreat journal

Day 1: Arrival

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‘Have a good holiday – it can only get better’, the woman I got chatting to tells me as I squeeze off the crowded coastal bus with my two bulging bags. It’s Good Friday, which has confused the timetable – the bus was so late in Folkestone that we were all given free rides as compensation for having got soaking wet and cold in the unseasonal, freezing rain. My heart sinks as I get off at my destination – a huge caravan park with big shouty yellow signs, across the fast main road, and opposite a forbidding looking concrete sea wall so high that you definitely can’t see the sea. I remind myself that I got this caravan for a bargain price at short notice, and that I needed to be well away from my inner city base, for a proper pause from my long lists of ‘things to do before the big move’ this coming summer. Also, I’m thinking as I trudge along the waterlogged path to Reception, the caravan belongs to two Buddhists, so it must be okay, and all will be fine.

I’m met with frowns and suspicious looks when I confidently ask for the key to my designated caravan – the owners’ names and phone numbers don’t match the ones I have given, and anyway, their office would never enter into arrangements to hand over keys like this, they declare. My heart sinks as I take a deep breath, realising that I must look quite dodgy to them, in my wet, bedraggled state. I try to get through to the caravan owner but there is no signal. ‘Oh no, not in this building, but the signal is perfect outside’ – where an icy gale is now driving the rain along horizontally, however. The number doesn’t work because it has a digit missing. I despair. I send the owners an urgent email message, explaining the situation and asking them to contact me. Mercifully by now a friendly and competent woman has arrived at the scene and takes it upon herself to call the owner on the number they have on their system. He confirms the arrangement and they find the key. Sighs of relief all around. I am now handed a very large paper map of the territory to help me find the caravan, and pointed in the right direction although warned that ‘it’s a bit complicated, because of the building works’. The caravan may or may not have its number on it, but anyway, the numbers don’t follow on consecutively…I brace myself for the wet search.

After twenty minutes of circling around identical rows of caravans, my paper map has dissolved in the rain, and I am none the wiser. Several workmen have sent me off in random directions, all of which proved to be dead ends. Finally I plead with a trustworthy-looking cleaner who knows exactly where it is, but can’t explain as it’s complicated, to lead me there in person. We will take the shortcut, she decides, and plunges on through the marshy ground in her knee high wellies. I drag my wheelie case after her as fast as I can, stepping into several ankle-deep mud holes in the process. The woman shakes her head as she watches the slush ooze from my walking boots, and admits that ‘the ground is not too good’, as it’s been pouring down with rain like this for about a week now…but true to her word she swiftly delivers me to the door of my dwelling place, and I’m very grateful to her. It’s surrounded on three sides by other caravans, and on the fourth by a building site full of alarming-looking large machines. But it’s clean, and looks fine on the inside. After drying out and warming up myself, my bags and clothes and shoes, I head to the aptly named local Neptune pub for some chips and peas – to ease myself gently into the body detox, and to practice finding my way back ‘home’. Then I make a shrine, dedicate the place to stillness, simplicity and contentment, meditate and sleep like a log. 

Day 2: Locating myself to the east…

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I wake at sunrise to unexpected blue sky, thinking this ‘solitary’ will be a unique experience, and feeling quite excited. I brought a pile of zen books, having recently finally started reading the 12th Century Japanese Zen Master Dogen properly, and wanting to continue that thread. Zen is short for Zazen which means ‘just sitting’ with whatever is happening, with the whole of our experience. It also stresses the importance of practicing during our everyday lives and ordinary activities, not only on the meditation cushion, and emphasises that enlightenment can happen at any moment whatsoever, as long as we hone our bodies and minds well, and are open and receptive. So what better place for the zen approach to things than a slightly rough around the edges caravan park?!

The sky has clouded over again after breakfast and morning meditation, but I feel restless, city-wired, and plonked randomly into the middle of a muddy field. I start reading about the meaning of zen circles and decide to walk the periphery of my circle here, to explore  my space here from the outside in. I take the old steam train from nearby Dymchurch to Dungeness – a strangely beautiful, desolate shingle peninsula right out on the edge of the south coast, facing the Channel. With a nuclear power station as its central feature. I visit the late film maker Derek Jarman’s garden and take photos of his former cottage. What a disconcerting place to choose to live – I want to see more of his films now. The sun comes out again briefly, and anglers are fishing in the wild waves off the shingle beach. I will come back here for that beach, the mesmerising sound of the waves on the shingle. I’m hungry so I have some chips and chocolate, and walk home along the sea wall in beautiful light, to cook my first batch of mung bean kedgeree. From now on, porridge for breakfast, then two meals of kedgeree each day, nothing else – I feel ready for it – ‘dropping away body and mind’, as Dogen put it.

Day 3: … and to the west 

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The day starts and ends with more practical problems. The gas runs out, it takes me a while to figure out how to switch over to the new bottle, and in the meantime the boiler pilot light goes out and is tricky to relight, so now for the moment I have no hot water. One good side effect is that in my concern about not being able to stay warm enough if the second gas-bottle runs out, I manage with the owner’s text-help to figure out how the larger high-tech heater works – although that too is a bit temperamental it seems, keeping on beeping and switching itself off randomly … I’m hoping that by now I may have exhausted all the complications that can possibly arise. Zen and the art of caravan maintenance.

The weather is greyish but dry and very still today, which helps me settle into more stillness internally too. I start delving into Chogyam Trungpa’s book about the connections between tantra and zen for this morning’s study session, and am discovering to my delight that it very much links up with my emerging theme of zen circles, and that Trungpa and Suzuki were close spiritual friends, which I didn’t know. Auspicious synchronicity.

After the underwhelming experience of one horse town Dymchurch yesterday, I don’t expect much of Hythe, the little port town just west of here which I decide to explore in the afternoon – but it has a surprisingly lively and interesting high street, with a beautiful friendly cafe called ‘Tea & Tides’ featuring free WiFi with a very secure code, scribbled on a long piece of crumpled paper -clearly not much in demand round here! I am discovering the extent of my digital addiction over the past year or so; it’s really hard to let go of ‘just needing to look up that one thing’ – humbling. Anyway, I spend a useful hour reading back over the first year of my blog seven years ago, to retrace the meandering thread of my life since then, and remind myself of themes I was going to return to in more depth…I then walk back along the coastal path, which involves scaling a few walls and fences into and out of the large tract of Ministry of Defence Land – which the local fishermen told me was okay ‘as long as the red flags are down’, which they were. Quite eery though, to walk past the empty shooting ranges, albeit along with quite a few other adventurous people and their dogs. The sea was receding today, with a very different, more peaceful quality than yesterday’s wild surging of waves as the tide was coming in. I like walking while listening to the rhythmic sound of the waves; the sea breathing in and out…peace on my left side, war on my right.

Hythe also has a royal canal, built to deter Napoleon’s troops from invading, apparently. It runs through or around the edges of Romney Marshes and all the way to Rye and Hastings; so I might be walking along some of it in the coming days, or even take a boat tour – they start at Easter, which is today – it feels like a good way to spend Easter Sunday. Easing more fully into the body detox feels good too – I only had a mocha and a piece of toast extra today, and am feeling slightly hungry now as I write this, but in a good way – no cravings. I’ve made a rough daily retreat rhythm programme just now, which says it’s time now for my evening sit before sleeping…

Day 4: Slough of despond

It’s my mother’s birthday today, so after a distracted meditation I start the day bracing myself over breakfast for phoning her. She is in her worst mood, ranting at me about having forgotten her, not caring, not even bothering to call…I manage to intercept a few times that I am calling her, and she eventually veers off into complaining about everyone else neglecting her, about dad coming down with a cold on her birthday of all days, and about the weather being nice when she is not well enough to enjoy it. My brother told her that ‘I’ve gone somewhere’, she adds. I tell her I’m in a caravan at the south coast and it’s raining here. I can sense she stops listening mid-sentence, so I give up. After a pause she says oh well, she better go and heat up some food now, ‘get in touch when you’re back’, and hangs up without waiting for my reply. 

The call hangs like a dark cloud over me, and I find it hard to shake it off. Fortunately the sky outside is clearing and brightening, which helps. I keep thinking about the little girl I saw yesterday with her mum all dressed in black and white like Cruella de Ville, and a Dalmatian dog. The little girl was skipping along the sea wall opposite the caravan park and excitedly plunged down the steep, narrow concrete steps to the water, playing down there for a good while. The dog was reluctant to follow her but did in the end, barking disconsolately at each encroaching wave, and clearly feeling trapped in an incomprehensible, hellish place. Eventually, the girl emerged smiling, holding a tiny mussel shell she had found on the bottom step out to her mum. So undaunted, finding her connection with nature and the elements even in such a boxed-in place, I thought. Then her mother slapped the shell out of her hand, shouting at her not to be so stupid to pick things like that up, it was dirty. The girl glanced at me in confusion, I smiled at her and she skipped on, unperturbed.

I make myself go out for a walk to overcome my sluggishness after kedgeree lunch. Walk up and down the sea wall to Dymchurch and back – nothing but a long grey line of relentless concrete the murky-brown sea is bashing itself against. The soothing sandy beach submerged under the high tide. I feel lonely and desolate, my family crowding my mind, and succumb to a chocolate bar with my coffee in the Neptune Pub, which is full of cranky families fed up with the cold and rainy weather. Thinking about Zen trying to break you open with the sheer relentless monotony of its strict and demanding rules and routines – may this place break me open…I manage to relight the pilot light on my return, then make a zen circle enso from some Harris Tweed and Kenneth White’s beautiful line: ‘Now the struggle at the Centre is over, the circumference beckons everywhere.’ I feel quite peaceful and still in my caravan now, listening to the rain.

Day 5: Journey to the interior

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I wake up to blue sky and a brilliant sunrise – with my bedroom window facing east, I experience a few moments of bliss, before the workmen start arriving in the adjacent field, loudly debating how to drain the rainwater lake which has formed on their building site. They decide the best course of action is to pump the water down the convenient little slope to the bit of semi-muddy path just before my front door. I discreetly peep out of my kitchen window, which fortunately has the desired effect of their realising this would create quite an obstacle to my getting in and out, and diverting the water to a little bit further along. The small pump makes an enormous noise for about half an hour while I try to meditate with zen spirit, not very successfully.

During breakfast they crank up the engine to the big digger and start digging a couple of yards away. The noise is positively deafening. I make a quick plan to be out between 10-5pm over the next four days, and have my internal, meditative days over the weekend. I buy a weekly bus pass which allows me to range over the entire county of Kent, incredibly, and start modestly with nearby Romney Marshes Visitor Centre. I’m thinking if I can’t go into the interior of my mind due to the somewhat challenging external conditions, I can at least walk inland for a bit, exploring that landscape. I must admit I have phantasies at this point of decamping to a solid house with a log fire and sea views for the remainder of my time, whatever the cost…

The man in the Visitor’s Centre is startled to have an actual visitor, and clearly feels somewhat at a loss as to how to direct someone without a car to walk back to … He also finds it hard to comprehend that I want to venture inland, and keeps directing me back to the sea wall and coastal path. For someone working in the Marshes Visitor’s Centre he seems spectacularly ignorant of his immediate surroundings and why they might be interesting to explore. Finally he finds me a nearby circular footpath he says he has walked with his dog and enjoyed – though he adds that I may as well walk along the B-road, as not many people tend to drive on it.The footpath looks most unpromising and very muddy, so I follow his advice and stay on the empty road for a bit. There’s a lovely smell of grass and flowers and life, after yesterday’s concrete experience. I see a sign to ‘St. Mary in the Marshes Church’, only 2 miles away. I can see it in the distance, so decide to make a small pilgrimage there – partly by another more interesting though also of course very muddy footpath right across two fields, which then circles back to the little town of New Romney and its supermarket, for my shopping on the way home. I find the landscape quite boring and dispiriting – flat muddy fields and ditches, basically, no trees in sight on this stretch, a few scraggly sheep – but the little church is lovely, and a good place for a pause before heading back – this was my longest walk so far, about 5-6 miles or so, and I’m properly tired and hungry when I get back mid-afternoon – the digger mercifully a bit further away now.

I feel a bit stir-crazy and head out again when the sunset light turns out to be most beautiful. I walk towards the west, which takes me through the posh part of the caravan park, where each caravan has a large porch and its own parking bay or two. Almost everyone is inside, watching their massive widescreen TV and missing the sunset – they could be anywhere – so why sit in a metal container on a concrete base in a marshy field by the sea? I despair about the future of humanity, then about my own lack of composure in the face of this strange place. Composure being crucial, according to Zen, and Buddhism in general – let’s practice ‘calm abiding’ – I’ve always loved that phrase.

Day 6: The white cliffs of Dover

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The sun shines promisingly and meditation energises me this morning, so after breakfast on impulse I rush out to ride the bus for an hour all the way to Dover. I spend the day walking up onto the famous white cliffs above the port, reflecting on last night’s distressing dream about my mother, and on my sad family story. The landscape and weather help greatly – literally breathtaking on this very blustery day, with the sun keeping on breaking through; bursts of warmth alternating with sharp cold gusts of wind – the sea in synch with my choppy mood, and the sheer vastness of the horizon putting my small situation  back in its proper perspective. I’ve never walked up there before and am glad I did today – I’d like to take my brother and niece up there one day…the ships and lorries also made me think with solidarity of all the desperate refugee kids dangerously trying to cross over to this troubled island in search for a better life – as I did much less perilously, but a refugee of sorts nevertheless, 35 years ago…

I don’t manage to resist a second cup of coffee and sugary biscuit in the afternoon and regret that later. I also fret again about internet access, and am disappointed in myself for not managing to be more self disciplined and resist the temptation, break my bad habits… I think it’s partly the strain of not really being able to be fully solitary here in these unusual conditions, when this was very much what I had had in mind. I need to accept more fully that this is the situation I’m in, through my own somewhat foolhardy choice, and actually it’s a very interesting and fruitful one for testing the strength of my practice. I’m not automatically protected here from the temptations of comfort food and WiFi; so I need to make an active choice each day as to how strict I want to be with myself. After pondering all that, I perfect my skill in making the tastiest yet mung bean kedgeree for dinner, and only eat half my usual portion.

Day 7: A gentle flow

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A quiet day with only a gentle afternoon stroll today on account of my aching feet, from Hythe to Sandgate and back, along first one, then the other bank of the Royal Canal. The canal flows through some sluice gates into the sea at Sandgate, and the warm and protected atmosphere along its protected banks as compared to the exposed and blustery seashore just a few yards away is striking. I buy an ice cream for my walk back, as it’s properly sunny for the first time since I’ve been here. 

As I walk I’m pondering what I’ve just read this morning – our life as the vast ocean, and simultaneously just a tiny dot – interconnectedness basically – being with the whole of the living landscape, not separate from it, living from the heart, or the belly, flowing into everything and allowing everything to flow through us, without putting up obstacles – breaking through the gateless barrier … A willow branch has broken off in the wind, so I take some twigs for my shrine – that earns me some funny looks on the bus back to New Beach. I wonder what the families make of me, a strange, lone woman in muddy boots, never seen during evening entertainment over in ‘the complex’. I walked past once just after sunset; big disco balls, pounding bad music and lots of drunk shrieking. Even on a bad day I prefer to sit in front of my shrine, mercifully well away from all that.

Day 8: ‘Flying white’

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That’s the name of the dry brush calligraphy technique, where bits of white show through the zen circle, giving it a light and dynamic feel – I love that: movement in stillness.

Anyway, today the whole caravan starts literally shaking and vibrating with the building site noise just after 8am, which just feels too much – I set off out as early as I can without rushing, but meditation is impossible, and I must admit to my shame that I can’t really recover my composure until my return in the early evening, I feel slightly disgruntled all day, and nothing quite feels right … I head for the Dungeness Bird Reserve, for a peaceful stroll under wide skies – an incredible, quite desolate,  flat semi-desert landscape, with reed lakes dotted amidst the shingle. I spot a small ringed plover in flight, a great crested grebe and a white egret, amidst the usual ducks, geese, moorhens and seagulls. Plus a small unknown reddish-brown bird in the reeds, which hides too quickly for me to see it properly. I’m a bit underwhelmed, and resent the quite high entrance price, then feel bad about my lack of generosity for such a good cause. 

It’s a mile long trek from the Visitor’s Centre back to the road-head, and the bus takes ages to come by. My Achilles’ tendons are hurting badly, and I just want to rest and relax and be still, but it’s a bit too chilly for that still…I eat too many chips in the depressing town of Dymchurch, then walk along the sea wall home to digest them, forgetting just how far it is, given the state of my feet…it’s still a bit too early to return to the caravan, but the Neptune pub smells so strongly of meat today that it makes me feel nauseous. I very nearly book a room in Folkestone for my last four nights next week, but then think no, I will simply return home early; I’ll have more chance of relaxing fully and completing my strangest ever solitary well there – and it will mean not spending yet more money.

Now all is quiet again, as the feared weekend crowds have not (yet) materialised. I feel exhausted and quite dispirited, but also relieved for having made the decision to leave on Tuesday – a good compromise; it will give me enough time to end and leave well here, and then more space back home before diving back into the last stretch of my multitasking London life.

Day 9: A rounded day

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It’s raining this morning, and the diggers have moved to the far end of the field, giving me a chance to stay put, meditate properly, then read more Dogen to my heart’s content until lunch. The more I learn about him, the more amazed I am at the sheer depth and poetry of his teaching. In one poem he is wondering whether anyone’s gaze will fall upon ‘the petals of words’ shaken loose from his brush, ‘as if only the notes of a flower’s song’ – exquisite. I also think that his central message of the aliveness of nature, and the earth being the Buddha’s body is crucial for us in our times. Maybe I especially feel this marooned as I am in a kind of glorified car park here.

After cooking more mung bean kedgeree for the next few days, I take the bus into Folkestone in the afternoon, changing my train ticket and exploring the harbour and sea front – serendipitously the sun has come out. It’s a strange little town which at first seems to me to have badly lost its way somehow – it’s hard to find my way on foot around all the car parks, derelict and boarded up places, and make sense of the layout of the old and new high streets. The bus- and train-stations are miles apart from each other, which also doesn’t quite make sense. But then the ‘Creative Quarter’ and the old High Street – now aptly renamed ‘Steep Street’ – wins me over – particularly the very funky ‘Steep Street Coffee House’ lined with Second Hand books people actually browse and read – especially children. I read in the local magazine later that this cafe is regarded by all as the creative hub of the town. I once again break my body detox regime when I discover they sell toasted banana cake…no self discipline; Dogen would despair of me. Now it’s raining again as I write this at the close of day, in a pleasing rounded pattern.

Day 10: Dizzying Reflections

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I spend the morning ploughing my way through a Chapter of the quite irritating, over-intellectualising book ‘Dogen’s Zen Poetry’, by some erudite scholar who seems to be most fascinated by his own theories, which he keeps repeating a lot in convoluted ways. It’s worth it though for the actual poems, many of which are astonishing and sound contemporary, rather than having been written in the 12th Century – who was that guy? I want to read everything actually by him I can lay my hands on…

After more mung bean kedgeree (which I must admit I am quite bored by now) I head out to walk west for an hour or so along the ‘Royal Military Canal’ from the steam train station in Hythe. I get as far as the ‘West Hythe Dam’ and learn that the wide stretch of shingle between here and Hastings was ‘deposited there by the sea’ 6000 years ago – I think that was in the Bronze Age! The Marsh formed behind it because of the many rivers and streams in the area, and people found ways of draining parts of the Marsh to make it inhabitable, by digging ditches, and this canal. Which doesn’t quite go with the other story of the canal having been dug to ward off Napoleon’s invasion – but maybe there were several canal incarnations! The soil is really fertile, so people then first planted a blackthorn hedge (please bring back those days…), then built a stone wall and finally more recently a concrete wall to keep back the sea.

It’s a beautiful walk, with all the blossoms and leaves slowly coming out, a hazy sun producing a sauna-like effect and wonderful smells of new life. There is no wind, so all is reflected perfectly in the water, producing quite a dizzying effect. I pass two swans’ nests, and numerous pairs of herring gulls very noisily mating on rooftops, just like in the caravan park … they’re beautiful birds though really, and quite funny. The one in front of my caravan looks fiercely concentrated when it pads the soil with its feet to encourage the worms to the surface – like it’s doing a dance, or a form of walking meditation. Anyway, it’s not solitary, nothing is solitary here, not even sitting back in the caravan, as people keep walking past, peering in, dogs are barking, children screeching – I remain relieved that I’ve decided to leave early. 

During my cafe stops (to help keep me away from Facebook and my emails), I’ve started re-reading my blog from the beginning, which is an interesting experience – fruitful, to look at the perennial up and down sequence of events internal and external in retrospect – and see some recurring patterns, and attempts to lean from my mistakes along the way. I’ve just reached the beginning of 2015. So reflections inside and out was the theme of today.

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Day 11: Sea Fog

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An interesting last full day here: a cold, cloying sea fog gradually descended over the landscape, veiling everything very atmospherically. The sea was right out with the mud flats visible (just) as I took the bus for one more visit to Dungeness, ‘the UK’s only desert’. As I wandered around towards the sea, the fog was closing in so much that I actually worried about getting lost and disoriented, like on Bodmin Moor, and returned to the safety of the famous ‘Pilot Inn’ for lunch. I then worried that the bus might not continue to run and I’d be stranded out there, as the world was seriously disappearing under a damp white blanket – but it did come eventually, to my relief. The bus driver clearly doubted my sanity when I asked to get off at the beach near Littlestone a bit further along where the bright beach huts make the place look like a David Hockney painting (I didn’t say that bit to him; I think he was just puzzled why anyone would want to be out in that fog). It proved a good idea though, as I had one of my favourite walks of the week along the old coastal road to St Mary’s Bay, as the sea swiftly returned, and the fog gradually lifted. If the caravan could be transported to somewhere along that stretch of beach, a solitary would truly be possible – it’s quite deserted, and very wabi-sabi. I even heard a fog-horn. I imagine Dogen would have loved that place – ‘Now this boundless sky and entire earth are like unrecognised words, a voice from the deep’. He has become an inspiring companion to me over this past month.

Once again I arrived back at New Beach just as it started to rain, and have been enjoying the sound of the rain on the metal roof as I started to pack my stuff and cook my last meal here – without mung beans, because I’ve eaten them all! The timing feels right to me now, and I’m actually really looking forward to three more free days back at home. Meditation has felt near-impossible here, so I will do some longer sits three times a day on my return.

Day 12: Early Return

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I am so happy and relieved to be back in my room, looking out onto a green and blossoming garden, listening to birdsong – bliss. So far I have been able to keep the solitary vibe by not hanging out in the lounge as usual, and my two flatmates are being respectful of that – though probably thinking me a bit weird, but we can talk about that later. The journey was smooth, I found a good cafe for an early lunch near Folkestone train station and sent off some strong but I think respectfully worded feedback to the caravan owners stating my reasons for leaving early. Let’s see if and how they respond to that. I was able to let the disappointment and slight disgruntlement go after sending it off.

I realised on the train and even more so the tube that I am in a different, mellowed out internal space, despite it having felt so un-solitary, and with hardly having been able to meditate at all – that’s encouraging. I meditated for half an hour this afternoon, and will sit again before going to sleep today, trying (once again) to get into a pattern of evening meditation at home. And I will only re-engage with emails and Social Media on Friday, as planned, though I’ll continue to re-read my blog, as that is such an integrating experience somehow, and I think feeding into my vivid dreams this week.

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Postscript on Friday

The last three days have been the quietest and most truly solitary ones of the two weeks, and I feel ready now to re-engage with the world! Here is my zen fabric collage (using Harris Tweed and kilt material collected last year on the Isle of Lewis) which I feel very pleased with as a memento and culmination of the last two weeks:

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