This is a guest post by Madeleine Forbes.
Two years ago I left the cities I’d called home – first London, then Cambridge – and moved into a little house made of earthbags, nestled in the side of a hill in Central Portugal.
For the first six months I didn’t even own a house key; there was no latch on our door. Who would find their way down the steep dirt track that led to our house? I found a new level of trust in the world. We washed in the river and drank from the well and I felt I had stepped onto another planet.
My world shrunk and expanded all at once.
Shrunk to a tiny circle of friends who spoke my language and knew my story, and a slightly larger circle of acquaintances whose language I tried to speak and who knew this part of my story.
Expanded to include the whole of the night sky, the vastness of the hills, the thousands of trees and the countless birds and insects and lizards inhabiting this landscape.
I escaped the rat race. I set myself free. And yet, one year in, I noticed something.
Having left one cage, slowly but surely I’d set about constructing another.
Diligently I carved the bars that would keep me in. If clients didn’t give me deadlines, I made them, ambitiously.
I made myself rules. I had to be at my desk before 8am. I could never say no to a task, even if it meant working on the weekend, othe evening, or on a day when something else was calling me. (Like swimming in the river or wandering under the trees in the old apple orchard or watching the swallows chase each other through the sky)
Slowly, little by little, familiar sensations arrived.
A tightening in my belly. A rushing in my head. A feeling that my face was lit more by the glow of the screen than the light of the moon. A breathlessness, a sense of rushing from day to day, chasing the peace that never came.
I created the worry and anxiety I’d worked so hard to escape.
On the last day of July 2015 I wrote this in my journal: “One of the things I struggle with is that I don’t work hard enough, don’t do enough.”
On the 23rd August, something had changed: “I’m ready to simplify. Seek stillness, freedom. Practise wellbeing and wholeness and breathing. I’m ready for things to be easy”.
One week later, I wrote a letter which changed my life.
This wasn’t the first time I’d met my demons. The worry, the perfectionism, and all the rest.
When outside forces seemed to be stacked against me, my meditation practice had taught me to see the feelings I was experiencing as passing weather systems, transient states that left my core unchanged.
What changed that summer was realising I didn’t want to look inwards any more. I’d moved to the hills to experience the wild, and I was ready to find out what it had to say.
I started talking to people about what nature meant to them – having conversations to find out what I could learn from the hills. And on the full moon at the end of August, as high summer tipped over, I wrote a letter that described what the land had told me.
It opened with this:
“Maybe, if you’re very lucky, you’ll see one hundred summers.
Compared to the number of books we’ll read, meals we’ll eat, songs we’ll hear, that number feels frighteningly small.
The seasons roll by so fast and it’s hard sometimes to pay attention to the natural world when our lives are so full, so busy.
It matters that we do.”
I sent the letter to seven people. But really, of course, I was writing to myself.
After that, I kept going. Month by month, I wrote, even as I went to a dark place when the temperature dropped and the nights lengthened.
In the first weeks of January, my business was quiet as a mouse. I was exhausted from a trip back to England, from endless wine-fuelled festive dinners and long lamp-lit nights. I watched what the land was doing, and I crawled into myself.
I held still. I drank tea. I wrote and read and mainly, I slept. Utterly unable to manifest anything approaching a vision for the year, I rested and rested, following the land, hearing what she whispered.
I was paying attention, now. Noticing the birds hanging still and quiet in the trees; the bare branches, the earth washed away when the river flooded. I didn’t berate myself for wanting to be still and quiet. For letting go.
I trusted that when spring came, green buds would burst out of the trees.
And they have.
The writing of the letters has become a practice that sustains me.
There is no right or wrong here. Only looking, smelling, listening, noticing: one thousand tiny breaths, being and not being, leaf and compost, root and branch.
If you know what it’s like to struggle with storms that leave you gasping, I share this practice with you and invite you to try it for yourself.
It doesn’t have to take long. An hour or so, every month.
Notice what is happening in the here and now of where you are.
Write it, photograph it. Notice how much is lost and gained, with every turn of the wheel. Ask yourself what the lesson for you is in that month (There is always one).
In turning outwards, we begin to draw new maps of our inner landscapes, and see how they too change and grow and wither and die, endlessly, part of the same circle.
We are as changeable as the wind and the trees, and that changeability is what makes us beautiful.
We swing from emptiness to abundance and back again, and every moment of that swing is perfect, and fragile.
Notice it, and savour it. It is yours, if you pay attention.
Madeleine is a writer and wanderer from London, now living in the hills of Portugal.
Image: Cecil Vedemil