The tree outside my window waits patiently for the dawn. It welcomes the rain, stands quiet while the snow falls. Today, I want to be this tree, calmly accepting what comes. It is the third day of retreat and time to turn even more inward.
As we head to the beach to meet with our small group, I’ve forgotten what day it is, something familiar to many people during this time out of time. Together, we ponder the nature of time – described beautifully by Satish Kumar as the clock time we adhere to in order to make our appointment, and the dream time we can sink into once we arrive. These holy days are an opportunity to explore more deeply the dream time.
I stand waist high in the sea, legs slowly numbing to the cold, face turned up to the sun. Gesturing to the shore, I call, “take a picture!” In my mind’s eye, there’s an image of calm water and human forebearance, but the photo that intrigues me most is of a fishing boat, backlit against a clear horizon. I don’t eat fish, but somehow this small vessel tells of the same endurance as the tree as it waits, nets outstretched, open to the elements.
March 2019 will have the watch words patience, endurance and forebearance, but inspiration may come from unexpected places.
“When times are easy and there’s plenty to go around, individual species can go it alone. But when conditions are harsh and life is tenuous, it takes a team sworn to reciprocity to keep life going forward. In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.”
This is a quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass, a book so inspiring that I used another excerpt to begin a recent article for The Ecologist. That article draws a parallel between the way sweetgrass is grown and the way wisdom is passed on “hand to earth to hand” and how, in places such as Off Grid Festival, we can practice this reciprocity whilst learning tools and techiques to help bring about a more resilient world.
The Economist article discusses the permaculture principle of the edge effect, which is about all the juicy stuff that goes on at the edges and how the zones between systems and cultures tend to be creative, fertile, abundant places. Off Grid Festival is one such space, perched as it is on the edge of mainstream culture. Braiding Sweetgrass is an example of this too – a book exploring the intersection between modern science and traditional lore. A botanist who is also a member of the native Potawatomi people, the writer speaks from the margins – between two cultures each running counter to society’s established norms.
As a female scientist, Kimmerer faces the derision of male counterparts who consider her thinking irrelevant, insignificant or just plain wrong. Her Native American wisdom exists only thanks to the stubborn refusal of her ancestors to surrender their world view to those who thought they knew better. From these cultural edges, she creates a fusion which is a powerful testimony to motherhood, belonging and indigenous wisdom that manages to be both unique and universal.
Braiding Sweetgrass was recommended to me by Claire Dunn, an Australian writer and wilderness guide who has made it her mission to bring nature wisdom to urban dwellers. In this way she, too, creates meaning from the intersection of two cultures – three, if you count also the culture of the feminine. In addition to ancient and modern wisdoms, both Claire and Robin Wall Kimmerer offer a perspective that my Catalan friend and healer Esther Pallejá Lozeno might call mano izquierda.
“No tener mano izquierda” is an expression said to originate in the bull fighting ring, where the right hand – mano derecho – is the hand of action and force, and the left – mano izquierda – is the hand which is linked to intuition and skilful means. A person with mano izquierda has the ability to handle difficult situations with sensitivity, even using a ‘sixth sense’, whereas someone said to be lacking in this will appear tactless and undiplomatic. It’s not hard to see someone with mano izquierda is displaying qualities associated with the feminine.
In traditional medicine and yoga, the left side of the body is linked to the feminine, but as with many other left-handed associations, the expression in Spanish also has the sense of acting with cunning and trickery. In some cultures, left-handedness is said to be linked with the devil and children have been discouraged from writing with their left hand. It is painful, yet unsurprising that in a patriarchal world, this left-handed/ left sidedness, along with many other ‘feminine’ qualities, has been devalued.
Gently yet persuasively, Kimmerer asks us to re-evaluate. What if, along with honouring Mother Nature and Mother Earth, we could honour this more intuitive, feminine approach? Might it bring about a more gentle, respectful way of being in the world? A more attentive way of listening – to ourselves, to each other and to Nature herself? And in so doing, might we facilitate a more reciprocal kind of culture, the kind of culture about which indigenous people – both male and female – speak so wistfully?
“Science and traditonal knowledge may ask different questions and speak different languages, but they may converge when both truly listen to the plants.”
Reciprocity requires that we recognise the value of the other and enter into a mutual relationship. We see that masculine energy allows us to act decisively and with strength, while the feminine brings a more feeling tone, concerning itself with the WAY that we do things – or sometimes, the way that we do NOT do things. A feminine way of being might ask that we wait longer, rest often, take more time to be. Between these two cultures – the culture of the masculine and the culture of the feminine, we can find harmony, balance and equality as well as reciprocity.
In Buddhist circles, January is traditionally a month for retreat. It is the time of the monsoon, when the nomadic life of Gautama and his disciples was hampered by the rains. Instead of their usual pattern of roaming and teaching, they stayed in one place, waiting out the weather until the spring allowed them to once more take their message to the villages. With Husband away for 10 days visiting family, I decide to engage in a self-retreat, committing to stay in one place, more or less, until his return. It’s a way of connecting deeply to myself, but I’ve also been thinking that it’s a way of building resilience.
At the beginning of my retreat I impose boundaries, choosing the lines I draw between ‘normal’ and ‘retreat’ life, making an intention to limit those habits which I know take me away from my present state of being. I decide, above all, to limit my use of media. For me, there is no better tool for producing a sense of FOMO – or missing out on something, than trolling through Facebook! In addition to this, I commit to a daily practice of those things which enhance my sense of being present. Yoga and a daily walk – to bring me into my body. Meditation, to quiet and centre my mind. I add in a writing practice, to exercise creativity and ground my energy, but I promise myself that I will not expect productivity, which helps me approach it in a relaxed way.
The retreat begins as usual, with me feeling very tired. It’s as though in the very act of turning my attention inward, I come face to face the effort of daily life. I sleep more in the first day and on the second, I really enjoy the stillness and softness of a warm home and little activity. On the third, my energy starts to rise and I feel surges of spontaneous joy. My walk takes me through the local village, which is celebrating the Festa Mayor of Sant Pau. What strikes me now about these festivities is how they manage to include the whole community. How everyone takes such pride in their role. An hour before the parade begins, I see people dressed in traditional costume walking purposefully through the village. Their white shirts and pants are immaculate, contrasting impressively with the bright red and blue of their shoes, belts, cravats and headscarfs. Small bells attached to their ankles jingle excitedly as they walk. There is a sense of anticipation in the air.
In Catalonia, no festival is complete without a correfoc, a ‘fire run’, evolved from mediaeval street theatre. Bands of young people dressed in painted hessian cloaks hold aloft fireworks which rain sparks onto the crowds lining the street. Their hoods are adorned with bright red horns, their clothing painted with images of demons and fire. It’s not hard to work out the symbology. This is an ancient standoff between good and evil. These devils are followed by dancers, clearly from the same origins as Morris and Ceilidh dancers, leaping and jumping and swinging each other around, or bashing sticks one against another with a force that suggests the moves, like the katas in karate, mimic combat. Each crew of ‘devils’ is accompanied by an ear-splitting samba band. Each set of dancers by jovial pipers. The whole procession lasts an hour or more and winds up with a moving maypole attended by male and female young people and topped with an extremely lifelike owl. Back in my retreat space, I can hear the sound of real owls hooting in the forest around me as fireworks resound through the valley.
Maintaining my retreat intention, it seems fitting to join the celebratory mass at the hermitage the following morning. The day breaks cold, gray and rainy and as the same parade weaves out from the town centre, plumes of smoke from fireworks fill the damp morning air. The sinister sound of drums moves closer and closer, the fizz, splutter and bang of explosions creating a stir in the atmosphere. I am reminded of the noise and clatter of Tibetan horns, bells and symbals as the buddhas are summoned for a puja. Up close, it can be an unnerving experience. There is little doubt that the spirits are responding, for when the monks play like this, the room crackles with energy. This morning, two new players have appeared in the throng. A woman and a girl in the same fireproof gear join the head of the procession, but instead of demons in yellow and red, their cloaks are painted in white and blue with angels and doves . Amongst the noise and hubris of bedevilment, they make a calm case for the peace and innocence.
Inside the church, where it is standing room only, I am moved to contemplation. The choirmaster conducts a willing congregation, producing melodic harmonies which rise past the elaborate chandelier to the simple arched ceiling. Outside, the dancers continue the procession, filling the space outside the church with a party atmosphere. A makeshift bar is doing a roaring trade in patatas bravas and beer. It seems that the whole town is here and everyone, from the smallest child to the greyest elder has a costume and a role to play.
A week later, I walk the same path past the hermitage and out into the vineyards. I am accompanied by three other ‘pilgrims’ on a small yatra, a meditative walk, mostly in silence, to celebrate Imbolc, the beginning of Spring in the Celtic calendar. Empty shells of fireworks litter the path and along the way we pause to take in the scent of rosemary and thyme growing abundantly in the wayside. All through the fields, the vines are bare, stretched out and prepared for leaves that will soon appear. Warm rays of sunshine have broken through the early mist and we peel off layers as we walk. Pink and white almond blossom, thronged with happy bees, gives pause for reflection.
In challenging times, these resources will create resilience.
Connection to self, connection to each other and connection to nature.