Day 1: Arrival
‘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…
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
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
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
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
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’
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
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
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.
Day 11: Sea Fog
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
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.
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: