Recently, a client of mine made me a wonderful offer. He would stump up the cash to fly me to Australia for the launch of Child of the Earth, a film we made together about the life of activist counsellor, social worker, nurse and educator Glen Ochre. I have to say, I was both tempted and flattered “Go!” my friends said. “It’s part of being a filmmaker, attending the launch!” Well, that’s true, but what if you’re a filmmaker AND an environmentalist. Do you still fly around the world attending every screening just to hear the applause?
It’s a hard call to make, because after the final edit is made and the film has been signed off, those moments of applause might be the best form of feedback you get. To sit in a room and hear people laugh at the funny moments. to watch the tears roll down when the story is sad. These can be defining richly rewarding for anyone who has spent a significant period of their life on a project. Those reactions can stay with you for years. They can help you embark on, stay with and complete the next project. What’s more, in the audience, you might meet your next client, or the person who will produce your next film. So what made me say “no thanks” to this marvellous offer? Why didn’t I grab the chance to meet up with my Melbourne friends and revisit my old haunts? Well, it’s simple. Sometimes, we need to sit still.
In a world of depleting resources and runaway climate change, not to mention stress and over-achievement, we all need to take the time to stop and be where we are. In the recent Brexit vote, a good pal of mine confessed that she voted for Britain to leave the European Union. Her reason, she said, was not to control the borders or to regain access to the money we are supposed to be wasting on European governance. Her reason, she said, was that people need to stay put. This argument was a bit rich, coming from someone who had spent most of her life crossing continents like roads. But I knew what she meant. I mean I KNEW what she meant. I felt it in my heart and in my bones. I, myself, personally, need to sit still for a while.
As a meditator of over twenty years experience, I feel that need often. Those times in my day or my week when only sitting still will enable me to connect with my true feelings, or with others, or with the world around me. Only sitting still will fix the ache in my soul – the one that cries out for approval, or wealth, or notoriety. Only sitting still will make me feel whole. This self-care was also one of the maxims for Glen’s ground-breaking work in group facilitation. So instead of flying around the world to Australia, I set up a meditation Meetup right here in my new home town. I resolved to find some other people who wanted to sit still with me. Together we will sit still for the good of the planet. For the sheer pleasure of it and perhaps most of all, to satisfy our need for connection.
I’m not saying I will never cross continents again, or that I will never travel for work or to see my friends and family. I hope I will. It’s just interesting to know that sometimes, saying “no” can be equally as positive and life-affirming as saying “yes.”
So. House renovations are underway and I have to admit, I sometimes get depressed. Not just because the task ahead of us often seems insurmountable and not simply because my arms and neck are aching from hours spent hunched over a sander, hammer, or scrubbing brush. Much more depressing is the amount of time we seem to spend in FesMes.
For those of you around the world, Fesmes is the Catalan equivalent of B&Q (in the UK) or Bunnings in Australia. Do you have a version of that in the US? Anyway, every weekend, we appear to need at least one visit to Fesmes. First it was for water pipes, as the tubo that connects us to the local well had somehow been cut. Because we were complete novices, it took several visits and numerous lengthy conversations with Francisco, our fontanero, before the water finally flowed in the taps. Each visit also involves other discussions – about lighting, for instance. About possible bedroom, bathroom and kitchen layouts. About furniture or about various ways to rig up some shade in which to work when the sun is high in the sky and it’s hot as hell. The air conditioning in the brightly-lit store is a welcome relief from the burning sun outside, but that just means it’s consuming loads of energy. The things in the shop are cheap, but that just means that the materials are likely to be unsustainably sourced. The trips leave me drained and feeling sad. In addition to the dreary trips to Fesmes, there’s another problem. Money.
The Brexit Effect has left us shorter of cash than we imagined, so we’ve determined on a plan. We will do as much of our renovations as possible from recycled materials. We will make friends with the segundo mano store and in addition, make as much as we can out of pallets. I’m thinking beds, shelving and tables. I’m finding I enjoy sanding pallets in the way that I enjoy ironing – it has a meditative quality, where the mind is completely focussed on one thing and the endless list of things to do stops circling for a while.
Husband is patching the holes in the bathroom wall with a mixture of lime, sand and water. We have yet to see if it will stick. Meanwhile, I’m attempting a bit of the old, varnished wooden floor with my hand sander. It takes ages so I come to the conclusion that we need to hire an industrial sander. Of course, everything seems to take a lot longer because we first have to look up what “industrial sander hire” is in Spanish. (It’s a ligadora para alquiler, in case you’re wondering.) Then we have to phone or go there and try to explain exactly what we want. Then we have to understand the response, the instructions, the price structure, the dangers…It’s exhausting!
Thankfully, Husband’s brother arrives for a visit. Our first volunteer. Someone else with whom to discuss the issues, problems and solutions. The discussions about spaces, materials, electrical and heating solutions go on late into the night and are accompanied by un monton de red wine and olives. I didn’t know he was such a dab hand with a hammer and when the lime plaster cracks and falls off in clumps, he helps to make a beautiful panelled wall from some of the pallets I’ve sanded. There is a bit of disagreement about what to treat the pallets with but a quick search online confirms my hunch. They are now looking healthy and glowing under a luscious coat of olive oil. Well, we do live in Spain…
It’s midsummer and my world is the right way up. Well, sort of. When I lived in Australia, I could never get used to the seasons being out of place. Christmas on the beach, my September birthday in Spring and yes, June being the middle of winter. It just felt wrong. Now I’ve moved back to Europe the seasons are back in the right place, but in the aftermath of the recent UK referendum, the world seems to have gone stark raving mad. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s characters are victims of a mischievous energy that confuses lovers and makes an ass of an ordinary man. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the name Puck is related to Old Norse puki (devil) and Welsh pwca (imp), but also has links to ‘unsettled’, like puke. Upon leaving the ‘civilised’ city and entering nature’s wilderness, our characters become disoriented and things appear not to be as they ought to be. The feeling is a little similar in this post-Brexit world. Somehow, the world has been changed, but nobody is yet sure exactly how. We only know that there is mischief afoot.
My midsummer celebrations began in Wales, where the weather was as un-Welsh as it is possible to be. I spent long, warm, sunny days in the beach with my friends and woke every day to blue skies. Bizarre. I was grateful for the opportunity to get out and walk in the cliffs, to swim in the chilly Bristol Channel and to partake of the odd barbecue, but it couldn’t last, of course, and by the time I was on my way north to visit an old school friend, it was cold and rainy. This did not dampen the spirits in Flash, where the residents of the highest town in England celebrated mid summer with a traditional blessing of the well.
A custom from medieval times which is said to be associated with the spread of the Black Death, it marks an acknowledgement of the importance of pure water and honours the local source. In Flash, the well was painstakingly decorated with flowers and following the small well-side ceremony, the village takes to the streets in the ‘teapot parade‘. Waving banners and marching alongside a giant papier-mâché teapot, the parade remembers the custom of helping those in need by sequestering funds in the household teapot. As I stood back to take a photograph of the whole scene, a woman spectator reminisced about watching this same spectacle as a child. Her family, she said, could be traced back 700 years in her father’s side and 300 years on her mother’s. Her strong Peak District accent dragged vowels long and clipped consonants short, making disappointed claims that the parade was not as it used to be, when it was an excuse to dress up and for women to get a new hat. I looked down at my jeans, still muddy from the morning’s yomp across muddy moors, and countered that it was great that they still kept the custom at all.
In the church, we sang hymns and listened as the vicar gave a reading. He chose the parable of the Good Samaritan where, if you have not heard it, a man who has been robbed and left for dead is ignored by first a priest and then a Levite. The third passer-by, a Samaritan, stops and helps the man, sequestering him at an inn at his personal expense. I had not heard the story read since my childhood, but I remembered being told that the Levite would have been a local person of the same Jewish faith, but that the word Samaritan meant that the person was an enemy, as the Jews and the Samaritans were not on good terms. In the light of the current refugee crisis and the recent violent death of Jo Cox, the tale gained a new poignant meaning, as parables are wont to do, having a timeless moral code embedded in their codex. Even the giant teapot seemed significant, being a symbol of friendliness and neighbourliness in this land where people love nothing better than a nice cup of tea and who rush to provide one at the slightest suggestion of distress. The vicar did not spell it out, but he did take the time to bless those who would be voting in the upcoming referendum.
Back in Spain, I joined in more mid-summer celebrations, but occasionally, the air fell sour with the shock and disbelief of Brits, Europeans, Australians and US citizens. In this atmosphere of multiculturalism and warm abrazos, no-one could understand why the UK wanted a divorce. In my local village of Sant Pere de Ribes, they gathered for the Ball de Diables, where children young and old dress up in devil costumes and hold aloft screaming fireworks in a crazy display of anarchic energy known as a correfoc. Their carnival re-animates the eternal dance between light and dark, between good and evil. Embedded in these ancient traditions is the knowledge that at certain times, we need to be mindful of the uncertainty of our world and of the possibility, always, that mischief will win us over if we only open the door for long enough to let it in.
I am sitting on the back step of my cabin. A shaft of warm sunlight filters through and splashes my foot. In my right hand, I hold a broad sprig of elderflower and with my left, I am plucking the dainty scented petals into a wooden bowl. The memory makes my heart swell, not just because I can feel the peace of that moment, but because behind it in my mind, are a queue of summer-flavoured images and sounds. My grandmother made this sweet, barely alcoholic drink every year and in my favourite scenes, we are sitting in her beloved garden on faded deckchairs, sipping until we are ever so slightly tipsy.
The recipe I am using is her recipe. It was given to me by my Auntie Joan, long after my grandmother had died, and every summer I kept the ritual of sitting and plucking, before stirring in sugar, lemons and a touch of cider vinegar. My friends were wary of my gifts of elderflower champagne. Too often the bottles, expanding through natural fermentation beyond the limits of their fragile glass confines, exploded. The moment of explosion was scary enough but the aftermath – that sticky mess on walls, ceiling and floor, was sometimes more than pleasure of the remaining, intact bottle was worth.
This year, I’m sharing the recipe with the community at Can Masdeu, this anarchist community that has become my haven. The large eldest tree in their courtyard has more than enough flowers. The community likes to dry them for a medicinal tea – a vitamin C-filled curative for coughs and colds. We pick the full blossoms and sit together in the Barcelona spring sunshine, plucking, then stirring, and later tasting. If it’s not too late, head out into the woods, find some elderflower heads and brew your own. But be careful of the explosions!
To make Elderflower Champagne
4 litres hot water
Juice and zest of four lemons
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
About 15 elderflower heads, in full bloom, picked on a sunny day (if you pick them in the rain they smell like dog pee)
A pinch of dried yeast (you may not need this)
1. Sterilise all your equipment. I like to use a few drops of tea tree oil in plenty of water, but it needs a while to air ‘cos it can be a bit smelly. Pluck the flowers from your elderflowers.
2. Dissolve sugar in 1 litre of hot water in a fermenting bucket, then top up with 3 litres cold water. Allow to cool.
3. Add elderflower flowers, lemon juice and zest and vinegar. The elderflowers contain a natural yeast, so you shouldn’t need to add extra. (see below). Leave to ferment.
4. If you did not add yeast and fermentation has not started after 3 days, add a packet of Champagne yeast to get it going.
5. After 6 days of fermentation, strain through boiled muslin into a fresh fermenting bucket, leaving the lees behind. Cover the bucket and leave for a few hours for the dust to settle, then siphon into your bottles of choice. This time I used plastic bottles, for damage limitation, and it worked quite well. We were also able to release a little excess pressure by easing the lids off a little (careful!).
Your champagne is ready to drink after a week. Enjoy!
Place in a fridge or cool place to stop the yeast making any more carbon dioxide and drink. It should keep for up to 3 months, but you may not be able to leave it alone that long!
If the whole popping thing is too scary, try this instead! (Also my grandmother’s recipe).
21/2 il sugar
3 pts water
2oz citric acid
2 lemons chopped
2 oranges chopped
About 20 large elderflower heads
Make syrup by dissolving sugar in water. And simmer for 5 mins.
Pour into deep bowl add citric acid stir.
Putin remaining ingredients. Stir well.
Cover and leave 4 days stir night and morning.
Strain into sterile bottle and keep in cool dark cupboard.
Arjuna da Silva is someone I have never met, and yet I know we have a lot in common. Arjuna lives at Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina and was one of the most enthusiastic (and generous) supporters of the crowd fund campaign for our latest film – Deep Listening. She is a veteran of intentional community and I thought it would be lovely to get some insight into her world…
When she appears in my Skype window, I see an older woman, framed by silvery hair befitting to her name. In the background, a beautiful archway hugs around a living flame. From my city apartment in Barcelona, I feel an ache for the countryside and for her cosy wood-burning fire. She tells me how her journey toward living in Earthhaven began…
“I have lived in several intentional communities. In the early 1990’s I was living in Florida and I had two close friends – we were friends and housemates – and we were all communitarians. We were a networked, small town extended community of people who didn’t live together but who were very connected through their meditations and social lives. We used to dream about ‘what would we do if we bought a piece of land?” In the 70’s, when everyone was looking at maps of the country and asking ‘where would you go if you wanted to avoid disaster?’ , it always came to western North Carolina or the southern Appalacian mountains. This was the place…
After a couple of years visiting other communities, gathering advice and information, one woman who just had lots of energy put out a message to say that one of the pieces of land they had seen was the best choice and if anyone wanted to do this then now was the time.”
So far, so familiar, right? A networked group of people, a wish to live on some land together, a search for the “right place” and a forward thinking, dynamic individual…It’s a story I must have heard a hundred times whilst making the Living in the Future series! Arjuna tells me that the story told in our Lammas film was the one which resonated most with her, and I can see why…
“There are people here whose homes are totally according to the outside codes. There are some who have very nice homes but didn’t bother with the codes. And then there are lots of buildings here that technically people are not supposed to live in. They don’t have a toilet, for instance. These people are pushing the edge of “what will they let me alone to do?” They see that we’re making no trouble…this is a good thing, not a bad thing…. The plus side of the economic downturn in this county is that officials don’t have the budgets to spend time investigating every nook and cranny of development. The truth is that we who started Earthaven were willing to push the envelope. We could have gone down to the local authority and said “this is what we intend to do and let’s work together.” One day we might just do that, but in the beginning we were following advice Peter Caddy from Findhorn gave us early on when he told us about how Findhorn first developed, and how they decided they would be best off if they would ‘ask forgiveness, not permission.’ We decided we would do that too.”
Deep Listening talks much ore about the way we communicate with each other and how we deal with conflict. What was it about this that spoke to you?
Everyone who comes to Earthaven, comes with a different picture of what they’re coming to and what they want it to be like. We do our best to be clear about what’s going on here, but we could do better atmaking sure people learn what to expect, otherwise they’re going to think whatever they want to think. That’s what I’ve discovered. People with very different values from the foundershave come. They might share the idea that they want to live close to the land or be healthy or this or that or the other. But their feelings, their protectiveness about their investments, especially those who had a much more mainstream lifestyle than many of us…. So in the last few years we have had some very serious twists in the community guts over these issues. I think it’s looking like we’re going to come out of it and people on both sides will still be here and have something to say about what was learned. One beacon or shining light that continues at Earthaven that we started with was relationships and communication. There are a core of people interested in this who learn and then teach, learn and then teach, learn and then teach. We have worked our way through Radical Honesty and Process Work, all kinds of things. It’s maybe 10 years now since people started getting serious about NVC. I’d say it’s had more of an effect on individuals – people who are working on their own needs, but it ripples. When people areaware of what’s going on for themselves inside, the languaging starts to shift in the whole community. Empathy and all the kinds of things in your movie that people are talking about, are part of the conversation.”
I’m three months into my new life in Barcelona, this city of sunshine and history where millions of tourists every year take selfies in front of ancient ruins topped off by a blue sky. The visitors all seem excited and the locals love it, but some days, I just can’t find my joy. Despite the sunshine flooding the city, our comfortable flat in the Gothic quarter is shrouded in gloomy shade and I find myself staring at the Roman wall outside our window as if to ask it, what now? Despite its undoubted sense of history, the wall, like any other wall, is cold and hard, whereas my longing is for something soft and green.
On Saturdays, I take the Metro to the top of the city, where a group of anarchists have created Can Masdeu, a community in an abandoned building that used to be a leper colony. I join with a group of permaculture gardeners to weed vegetable beds and plant seeds. The soil is thirsty and even in February, when my friends at home in Wales are brushing the snow from their boots, I have to tie my hair up from the nape of my neck to seek relief from a cooling breeze. The sun warms my back as I bend to pull the ragged stems from the ground. It’s therapeutic, weeding, and the company is convivial. Our communal lunch afterwards is a protracted, Spanish-style affair, held outside on a long table under the trees.
Something is different here at Can Masdeu. The consumerist grind of life in the city is stalled. It is not all about money, or reputation, or getting ahead. Here, I can relax and be myself. However, living in the city doesn’t need to be an inherently disconnecting experience. In Melbourne, for instance, the amount of spare land, rooftops and shared space that is being turned over to community gardening grows (!) year upon year. Quite aside from its ample parkland, Melbourne’s people have decided that it’s time to grow food in the city. Barcelona is catching on to this. In the urban barrios of El Born and Poble Nou and here, in Can Masdeu, I have spent time learning about vertical gardening, balcony composting and most importantly, I’ve made friends. There’s something about gardening that frees my soul to connect. After all, if someone has made time in their busy life to mess about in the dirt, I feel it says something fundamental about their character, their priorities and, in this context, their politics.
When I lived in Wales, I heard and watched stories of guerilla gardeners, thinking all the time how cool it was that people were digging up the concrete to plant trees, but never realising how essential it was for their well-being. After all, I lived in the countryside and tended my own garden whenever I liked. How could I know the deep importance of this radical act? An article I read the other day told about some research that measured to what extent people become depressed while living amongst concrete pavements and bland street architechture. The writer proposed that what the brain needs to function well is natural landscape. My first reaction was ‘duh!’. Another piece of stupid research to prove something we all knew already. But the planning of modern cities tells us different. We don’t know these things. We don’t understand the degree to which humans need nature. We are only just beginning to quantify the damage to our own mental and physical well-being from being cooped up in grey, dull labyrinths. Bob Marley published Concrete Jungle in 1973, but then, the poets and mystics always know these things first. For the rest of society, it might take an epidemic of mental illness, an avalanche of child obesity and ADHD, or a wave of climatic emergency to prove what the ancients have always known.
“I’d never built anything before I came here. I was Mr Bean with a power tool.”
This was John, speaking to me on my visit to Steward Wood, many years ago. He had just given me a tour of their project – a co-operatively owned woodland in the Dartmoor National Park in Devon. It was green and lush, and very quiet. They had communal gardens where they were growing vegetables and a tumble of shacks and chalets which clung to the side of a steep hill.
This kind of settlement was not new to me. As part of the Living in the Future series, I was used to visiting people who lived in fields or in the woods, in homes they had built themselves from found materials. I was familiar with compost toilets, solar panels and 12 volt inverters that turned sunlight and running water into energy for lights and small electrical appliances. I was used to a warm welcome, too. A lot of the time, the attention such people receive is negative, even hostile. But I was trying to document the importance of low impact projects. I was trying to show that on a personal level, there is an alternative to a large mortgage and a lifelong nine-to-five; and that on a planetary level, something other than fossil fuel guzzling mansions is not only possible, but viable and yes, even enjoyable!
After my tour, we gathered in their small community shelter and used some of their solar-made electricity to power a tiny projector and show one of my documentaries – Ecovillage Pioneers. People were inspired to see others like them, carving out an alternative, which was entirely the point of me making the film.
Now I hear that Steward Woodland is under threat of eviction. That the National Park has decided, in their wisdom, that their project is not longer something they want on their patch of land. In Wales, the planning laws have moved on a little, and projects such as this can apply under a ground-breaking policy known as One Planet Development. In England, the planners have no such document to guide their decisions, but that doesn’t mean they can’t allow the project to remain. They just need a little more help to see the advantages and to figure out the reasons why projects like this are important. Steward Wood have a great lawyer who is helping to take their case to court, but they do need your help. This is what you can do:
The other day I woke with a voice in my head. “No words” it said, over and over. Sin palabras (I’m learning Spanish). Accompanying the voice was a sharp headache, which sent shock waves through my being when I moved too quickly. The message seemed clear to me. “Slow down, shut up and listen!”
However exciting, the noise, activity and distraction of city life can be overwhelming. Whether a brief visitor or a long-term resident, we often lack the resources to carve out quiet time. A friend of mine, who is an artist in London, once gave me some advice. “In the country, there is lots of space outside, but in the city, I find I need to create more internal space.” It reminds me of a question once asked on a meditation retreat. “How can we “go out” whilst “staying in”? How can we be in and of the world whilst maintaining the equilibrium and peace of mind we need to negotiate our days with grace and clarity?
I felt I needed some air, so I took myself out into the street and sauntered into the square nearby. At the stroke of noon, a tinkle of church bells began to peal and I couldn’t help but follow the sound. Still walking ever so slowly, I felt my feet connect with the cobblestones, my hands reaching out to stroke ancient Roman walls. I found myself led to a garden, where fresh water flowed through an ornate fountain. I was drawn to the way the light fell into the courtyard, spilling shadows over ornately-carved doors. Bustling tourists hurried past me with cameras, clicking and moving on, clicking and moving on, while I paused, breathed, contemplated.
In Barcelona, it’s not difficult to imagine the sacred amongst the ordinary. Around every corner, yet another stunning cathedral reaches heavenwards and at regular intervals, the Christian call to prayer rings out across the jumbled rooftops. Whatever our beliefs, with a little imagination, we can make these spaces our own. We can bring our own sense of what is holy.
My journey that day led me to take a seat in the sun and enjoy the music from a talented busker playing jazz music in the plaza. An ancient palm tree told tales of long ago merchants and scholars…a centuries-old Jewish place of worship offered up long-held secrets…an intriguing mural gave insight into a local community and a hidden school yard sheltered children playing freely. I was moved to regard the older residents of Barcelona ambling through the place they know so well, and for a moment, my mind stopped its ceaseless racing and my senses gathered in close. For a while, I tuned in to a different pace and time. More at home, both within myself, and without.
A Review of “My Year Without Matches” by Claire Dunn
At what cost? At what cost does a woman pursue “the path less travelled” and focus on her inner life? Although the subject of women’s spiritual journeys has been habitually scrubbed from history, can it be true that lately, we are witnessing an unearthing of the divine feminine?
In these times of great challenge for our world, there is a need to balance the strong, extrovert, “doing” masculine energy which dominates the western culture with something that is more gentle, more yielding, more “being”. This is just the re-balancing that Claire Dunn is undertaking in her book “My Year Without Matches”.
Australia, surely, is a land made for men. Tough and unforgiving, the landscape reveals how humans are vulnerable to nature. Lethal snakes, poisonous spiders, a harsh and deadly sun. This is the landscape that Claire is encountering. She intuits a need to connect with the land. A need to learn nature’s ways and fall into step with Her rhythm. With the rhythm of herself. And in the process, she awakens to the feminine within.
As I turn the pages, Claire Dunn’s voice changes from young, scared girl to mature, wise woman. Leaving the comfort of suburban society, she enrols in a bush programme and takes to the wild for a year. Schooled in the basic skills of shelter-building, fire-starting, tracking and trapping, she makes a place for herself in the landscape. She sets strong boundaries, sometimes too strong, and learns what it is to both stick to her principles and to go with the flow.
Although firmly set in the outer world of survival, the strength of the story, for me, is in the depiction of Claire’s inner world. We watch as she revisits her relationship with her parents, enlisting their help but noticing her reluctance to gracefully receive it. The surly teenager grows up. We see her wrestle with the need for, and rejection of companionship. Walking the line between loneliness and solitude, she discovers the push and pull of neediness and interdependence.
Claire’s self-imposed celibacy and fasting resonates strongly with a path of renunciation, which has come to mean self-denial but more traditionally, was a way to find your edges. Spiritual traditions have a way of testing you, so that you come to know yourself fully. So that your actions, where once they were mechanical or driven by habit, become full of purpose and intent. And this is Claire’s striving. To find meaning in her life. To be able to walk a road which makes sense to her, to her fellows and to the earth herself.
The courage with which she undertakes this task inspires awe. Awesome is a word somewhat overused in Australia, but Claire’s journey, and the book which emerges from it, deserve the phrase. Awesome.
After reading “My Year Without Matches”, I’m raving to my husband about it and he picks up the book. “She lives in Newcastle”, he says. ”So you won’t be able to add her to your signed book collection.”
“Mmm”, I respond. “You never know.”
The book is still sitting on the coffee table when I am invited to attend a gathering at the Urban Temple – a small shared-house community in Brunswick, in Melbourne’s trendy inner North. I’m circling the laden pot-luck table when I notice, out of the corner of my eye, a woman chatting. I wonder, thinking that I recognise her. The man speaking with her mentions “Newcastle” and I know that it is her. “Are you Claire?” I ask, shyly.
We chat over dinner and I ask if I may interview her. She agrees good naturedly. When I get home, I thrust the book into my husband’s hands, pointing to the image of Claire on the back cover. “Guess who I met this evening!”
A couple of weeks later, Claire and I are sitting in my apartment in Fitzroy, drinking tea. She has only recently moved to Melbourne. After finishing her book a year ago, she has been engaged in the world of promotion.
“I’m still enjoying this part of the process”, she says. “It’s kind of ‘out from under a rock’. It’s why I’ve come to Melbourne. It feels like there’s a community down here that’s very interested in this work. Earth-connectedness and personal transformation through that doorway. It feels much stronger down here than anywhere else I’ve been. I always thought it was an urban myth that Sydney and Melbourne were so different, but they feel like very different beasts. Very different jungles.”
I can only agree. Not having lived in Sydney, I don’t know what that’s like, but the Melbourne community – especially the inner North, has responded very well to my own work on conscious communities. I ask her if she is making any money from the book, given that it has just gone into its second edition.
“I’ve just been given my first royalty cheque after my advance. So it was the first money I’ve been given since 18 months ago for my book. I’m making my living doing freelance journalism for Fairfax – Sydney Morning Herald and the Newcastle Herald. I think there’s only a handful of writers in Australia – novelists or non-fiction – who make a living from their writing – writing books, anyway.”
If it’s not the money keeping her going, why does she do it? I ask.
It was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.” says Claire. “When I finished writing that book I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m writing another book’. I can see how easily you could get caught up in ‘well I’ve written a book, everyone’s expecting the next one, ok, I’ll just do something’. But I can really see how it could become a case of not really embodying what I’m passionate about because I’m too busy talking about it or writing about it.”
And embodying it – walking her talk – is important to Claire. She’s started running “Earth Wisdom” courses and gets invitations to collaborate with other people doing the same kind of work. It was a determination she arrived at in the final pages of “My Year Without Matches”. That she wanted to work as a “bridge builder” between mainstream society and the natural world.
“I’m feeling the call back to the earth.” she says. “Back to the land. Back to what inspired me on this journey in the first place. It’s like a spiralling back.”
It wasn’t until I actually sat down to write the review that I fully realised what a spiritual book “My Year Without Matches” is. I ask Claire how that spiritual journey is unfolding, now that she has left the forest.
““Well, it feels like all the stuff I wrote about in the book I’m absolutely needing to embody and trust in a new way. It’s almost like that year in the bush gave me that first insight, and those first new, very powerful experiences of this new way of being, which at the time I referred to as the feminine way. I was discovering this much more feminine way of showing up in the world, which was much more motivated and moved by desire, impulse, intuition and feeling, than by thought, and rationality and logic. And so the last few years I’ve been given the opportunity to practice that, both with the uncertainty of choosing to write a book with no publisher confirmed, and also the way that I’ve chosen to live my life, which is moving around a lot, and not having a stable job as such, and feeling the fear in that, but also the deeper desire to walk the talk, to really live from that place. My old identity fell away. All the certainties and the youthful idealism or ‘this is the way life will unfold’ – that’s all dissolved. It’s much more about inhabiting that fluid space of ‘where am i drawn, where do I feel that I want to contribute. what wants to come through me? What stories, what gifts to I have to bring right now? Is it a learning time or a teaching time? Is it a giving time or a receiving time?’ Knowing that life is seasonal and cyclical and and flowing with that. So it feels to me that living from that place, embodying that feminine pattern of energy which is all about receptivity, intuition, really puts into practice all the concepts that i’ve learnt about a spiritual life. It’s easy to just agree with them when you hear about them – uncertainty, unknowing, emptiness, fullness, but living from this place is putting it into practice for me.”
I can only agree.
My Year Without Matches has just gone into its second edition :
Contact Claire for speaking engagements, writers festivals and earth wisdom retreats around Australia.
It’s a cold winter day in Adelaide when we take a ten minute stroll from the central market to keep our appointment at Christie Walk. It feels colder still for us, because we’ve just come from Alice Springs, where it’s cold at night but in the day, the temperate is a balmy twenty-two degrees. We came down to Adelaide on the Ghan – the famous locomotive which began as a camel train and takes its name from the Afghan cameleers who were the first to carry supplies from Adelaide to the desert interior of Australia.
Adelaide is not much known for its innovations. It has a reputation in Australia as a sleepy little place – more village than city – where everyone knows everyone else. Perhaps that cosy vibe is why it has now become home to an innovation in community living – a co-housing settlement slap bang in the city centre.
Christie Walk embodies much that is revolutionary about the co-housing movement. As resident Sue Gilbey tells me as we walk around – “ You have an intention to have a community first and you build around that intention. So you begin with the end in mind.” Architect Paul Downton certainly had a vision. His vision included not only community, but sustainability, taking into account elements such as the embodied energy and energy usage; retention and recycling of water; land health and soil fertility through restoration and encouragement of biodiversity and promotion of human and environmental health through limiting use of polluting or damaging products.
The result is a compact settlement of 27 homes on half an acre, including two apartment blocks, four individual cottages, a community room and shared laundry facility. We approach from Sturt street through an covered passageway decorated with a mural on one wall. Sue explains that the mural has been created by the residents and tells the story of the building and all the people who have lived here, including a reference to the traditional owners by the presence of the Rainbow Serpent. It gives a friendly flavour to the entrance way.
We then wind down a narrow alleyway past a row of tall, colourful buildings, two of which are made from straw bale. “They’re possibly the only straw bale buildings in the world that are built in the inner city and in an intention community”, says Sue. “It’s one of the best building materials because of its insulating factors but also, providing it’s rendered properly, it’s one of the safest. It’s vermin proof and fire proof and it allows for minor movement, where most houses would crack.”
Sue points out a circular area with a seat where people tend to pause for a chat. “One of the really beautiful things about it here is when you get to the centre, you don’t know that you’re in the city. You’re surrounded by bird life and there’s a sense of serenity about it that you just don’t get in the city.”
Another unique feature is the community room, which has a fully functioning kitchen. Every month the community meets for a shared meal. Meetings are all held there. There is a piano. They have film nights and talks. And if Sue wants to host a dinner party, she can bring people here. So as well as supporting the sharing economy, it helps people live with less. Sue’s apartment is just 55 square metres, smaller than the average suburban home but with all the advantages of space afforded by a much bigger home.
The population of Christie Walk varies between 42 and 48 and 30% of the properties are rentals, where people have bought as an investment, or moved on and rented their house out. Sue says this helps to maintain diversity. “The good thing about it is that we have just about every age group. I was always fearful that it was going to end up like a retirement village. and it might still do, because we are all ageing.”
As Sue tells me about the decision-making process, which is based on democratic voting, I ask Sue how she finds living in community.
“When I first moved here, i moved here for the environmental credentials, not the community. I was used to living with family or on my own or with people that I chose to live with not people who just happened to be there. It took me a long time to get to grips with the fact that there were people who I wouldn’t normally have in my circle that were living close. You examine yourself and the way that you react to things and that’s a good thing. That’s a really healthy thing to do.”
Climbing up to the communal roof top garden, Sue plucks a handful of kumquats and we survey the view over the city towards the Adelaide hills. For a city centre apartment block, Christie Walk does seem to offer the best of everything.