Wednesday, March 25, 2009

As still as a small weed dancing in the breeze - by Von

It’s a year and a day since we moved here. To be honest I really can’t believe it and yet so much has happened. Every day some part of this land is transformed by us being here and working here. Sometimes I am worried about the impact of our actions because romantic fool that I am I really like the falling down bits: the ‘weeds’ that grow through the house walls, terraces that have long collapsed, overgrown olives, perilous walkways and such like. On the one hand nothing has gone to plan. We are still waiting to put the roof on our house and our intention was to be living there within the first year of being here. Instead we are living in the house that was originally going to be Indie Michelley’s house and we have not really had any communication with Moonbeam and Sunshine since we left Bacelo. Yet these things are never really the plan. The plan perhaps goes deeper and further than we can ever see with our physical eyes. The plan has its own rhythm and impetus once it gets moving. This means that we have to learn to dance with the changing winds yet remain still, quiet, action within non-action.

Our patch of land is mirrored by a fairly steep, wild plant inhabited hillside, populated by a few pine trees, some small oaks, cistus, strawberry fruit trees and an impenetrable thicket of what the Portuguese call ‘mato’, and of course wild boar. It amuses me that this is our reflection so to speak. It is utterly satisfying to turn our backs on our side of the hillside and gaze on nature’s capacity to ferociously replicate herself. It reminds me that no matter what we do she will always reclaim her space as soon as us humans leave her earth alone. Often in the process of playing in the soil I stop take a break and lose my thoughts looking at that hillside and am calmed by its abundance of green. It is frustrating at times too as I wish I could be like the wild boar, or perhaps more poetically like the butterflies, happy to take rest in one of the abandoned cottages, needing neither roof, nor floor, nor clear pathway nor electricity, nor clothing, free from the constraints of attainment or desire. But most of the time I find it amusing, amusing that so much time, effort, energy must be spent making a home for ourselves, and I wonder who is the better adorned for life, certainly not me. This hillside always makes me smile at myself. It makes me feel like God is watching me impenetrable, unmoving and saying ‘relax it really isn’t that hard and there really isn’t that much to do I will look after things, I always do and I always have, let go’.

So, last week I woke up and my darling Memphis, (who always seems to hear my inner thoughts) decided I needed a fresh perspective and that we would take a trip to the other side of the hills. When we first moved here there was a fire or logging access road made along the very top of the hillside, but it is rarely used and we had never been on it. So off we went, with great excitement as soon as the kids were off to school, and after several stops to move fallen trees, some very heavy, out of the road we finally made it to the side immediately facing our patch.

It is hard to describe the experience of standing on the other side looking at our Moses (the place). You see when you are there working or walking or sitting it seems vast, too big for four hands and four feet, two heads and two hearts. The rocks are huge, the fallen trees are heavy, everything we do every impact we make seems small and insignificant on the huge landscape. But from the other side, it well, shrank. It’s tiny, gloriously wonderfully tiny. I couldn’t believe it. It is a speck on this landscape, a mere backyard to all the wild uninhabited landscape that surrounds. From there we could see that nature was eager to swallow every scar that we had made and that boulders to us were mere pebbles to her. I could see myself, watch myself from that side of the hill, a mere ant, or little weed just trying to etch out a life for herself and I could see that though we may be just two, with four hands, four legs, two heads and two hearts that we were not alone, my Memphis and I, that we could paint out a life for ourselves here with time and patience.

So now that I am back on my side of the hill I feel I have a true friend on the other side, one that I can just sit and look at to help calm my quivering mind and body and one that I can also climb (or drive) to the top too and take a fresh perspective, feeling comforted wherever I am of just how small I am, how small my efforts are and that no matter how much I f..k up here, nature with time and patience will always close the gap.

Times of a quivering come to us all and while lying in bed this afternoon I felt that some of my friends might be quivering just now. So whether you feel like you are living in the Babylon of attainment or the Paradise of acceptance I have a story of comfort to tell you. It’s a true story as true as any story can be once it is being told…

In the land of giants...

There was once a young woman who grew up on a very small Rock. She lived on this Rock for many years and while she was there she was told stories of giants. She was told that these giants knew many many things of great importance. These giants had done some horrible and terrible deeds but they were also creators of great beauty. She was told that these giants housed their treasures in enormous buildings unlike anything she could imagine and that in their land you could wear beautiful robes, see all that you could ever hope to see about the world of man and learn great secrets of how the universe and how all things in it worked. But in order to get there you needed loads of paper with special symbols on it and this paper wasn’t easy to make on the Rock. This young woman, audacious, as she was decided, that she would find a way to get to the land of the giants, even if she couldn’t make the special paper. So she worked and worked and read and read and found out the secret way to get to the land of the giants without the paper money.

She got there and it was just as was told. The streets were lined with so many lights it seemed as if the giants had captured the stars and used them to light their way as they strolled down wide avenues and spent many hours sitting and laughing just drinking this stuff called coffee which only seemed to make them laugh even wilder and become more excited. They had huge beautiful buildings, where not even the sun it seemed dared to peel the paint from the walls. Huge green spaces were carved out of their landscape and not even a carrot grew there just plants for looking at and smelling, a setting for giant mothers to walk with their giant babies and for giant fathers to have lunch or a beer with other giant fathers. Huge fat giant ladies sang in buildings painted with gold and lined with red velvet, small tiny giant ladies danced on tippy toes and captured her heart. She decided to try and learn some of the secrets of the giant world and spent many delicious hours in the vast libraries and museums, parks, art galleries and theatres. And in time she too could drink coffee and laugh with her mates and spend endless hours doing nothing but growing flowers and learning and finding ways to make more of the symbolic paper that the giant world seemed to love so much.

By the last day of the first year of her time in the land of giants she knew she was beaten, she had no place to sleep that night and had eaten nothing but beans for several months. She grew tired of all the knowledge and all the talking and longed for a piece of fresh fruit picked from a tree or a cuddle from a grandma or a walk in the Temple yard listening to the old Rastas who lived on the Rock. Tired and beaten she heard one of her favourite Rastas warning as she left, “Be careful daughter you can really lose yourself in that place, remember you are a princess growing into a queen.” At her wits end she opened a book that her Grandma had slipped into her bag as she was leaving the Rock. She opened the book and read these words,

"For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!"

"Do not worry then, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear for clothing?' For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."

She went onto one of the forbidden rooftops and looked out at another rooftop, one with no apparent windows or doors and saw the most hopeful site she ever saw: a bird eating, feasting on some food that had arrived to his benefit. “How did it get there?” she wondered and “how did he know to go there to eat it”.

Still tired and hungry and scared she made a promise to herself. “I don’t know how I will eat tonight or how I will finish this thing that I came to learn but I do know that I need to write some words to feed the giants and I do know that I need to go and learn to use one of their writing machines and I do have a little of that giant paper money captured on this plastic card I am holding in my hand so I will
go to the place where they keep their machines and their many books of learning I will do this next thing I have to do. I will do it gladly I will do it with joy I will do it as best as I can and be as kind as I can in the doing of it. I will not take what is not mine and I will share anything that I have even if that is just a kind word”.

So off she went and in she went and on to the machine she went, tired, broken and lonely but with a little more faith and a little more hope. She fed her plastic card into one of the machines to see just how little she had left, but instead of the card showing digits it flashed three times (just to make sure her dull mind was awake and her shuttered eyes were watching) and it said five letters, letters, not numbers. These letters spelt the word…


Immediately after, the screen came up with an impossible number of digits (these digits represented what the giants called a sum of money). This money would continue to exist on her card for the entire duration of her time in the giants’ hall of learning until the very last page she needed to photocopy or print and at that very last page the card went blank and never worked again.

And so it came to pass that she finished her time in land of giants and in many ways became a giant herself, she found giants to love and to call family and friends, but in time she grew tired of the land of the giants and went to a new land, a vast land of small people and became a small person herself to see what miracles could happen there.

Wherever we are and whoever we are hard times come to us all, but take heart have hope and faith. The next time you are in a place where you can see the horizon, go outside, find the furthest point you can see and try to pick out the details of the furthest thing on that horizon. Chances are all you can see is sky, earth and indistinguishable shapes somewhere in the space between. If it is a tree, all you can tell is that it is a tree, you can not tell what kind of tree or what its leaves are like or whether it has been planted or just grown up there all random like. If it is a building you can tell it is a building but not what kind of building it is or what is going on inside. If it is a person you can not tell the shape of the face or whether that person is friend or foe. In other words we do not know, we never know what is on the horizon for us in our lives, it is a mystery until we reach it and then there is another horizon just waiting for us to reach if we so desire.

So relax and let go be supported by your little patch like a tough little weed, roots dug deep into an apparently impenetrable mountainside. Still in the knowledge that you are rooted in the earth but prepared to dance and move to the slightest breeze. Who knows there just might be something positive on the horizon that you just can’t see, miracles do happen they happened to the girl from the Rock and they have more than likely happened to you.
Later that night...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Foolish, Unlearned, Nobody in Peasantville.

Hey ho. Hope all is well in the lands across the seas and beyond or from wherever you maybe reading this today. Welcome.

Here in the land called Moses, deep in the heart of the forgotten Portuguese interior, it has been a most fascinating season. After the rush and madness that was the end of 2008, the joy of Arlene and Annie’s Christmas visit, the reflections that followed in the stillness of those long cold, wet, winter evenings, Spring is now emerging all around us. Bright pink cherry blossoms nudging through here and there, white and yellow daisies devouring the roadside verges, heathers under the pine and eucalyptus forests bursting into purpleness, warm sunny afternoons, all revealing the promise of much much hotter and longer days ahead and the full glory of nature that we know is about to explode just round the corner.

It should now, you’d think, be the perfect temperate weather and, after our long winter’s rest, the perfect moment in time for Von and I to now be in top gear with the restoration of our other 2 houses. But au contraire.

I am not exactly sure why, but we’re not too concerned. It feels like we are riding the flow of natural rhythms in this most enchanted of places and consequently we’re in no hurry to push things along at the hectic pace of 2008. Slowly, slowly and all things shall come to pass. Não é, Shanti? We have though, managed to clear both the other houses ready to start the first part of renovation – raising the old stone walls by a metre or so in height (in stone, not straw bales, cos we’ve found an old local guy who can do it brilliantly and quickly, prepared to also teach us how in the process, and we haven’t been able to find a decent straw baler near here for love nor money) and then installing new wooden roofs on top with a carpenter roofer who happens to be the boss of Michelle’s gorgeous young Brazilian boyfriend, Warley (captured here squatting down by one of the granite pools in the river that flows round Moses).

We’ve also been able to do a few cool odd jobs around the place: like carving a drain out of the lime floors to transport the sudden emergence of an underground stream that ran through the house after all that rain fell in January (the most for 20 years in Portugal); pruning a dozen or so of our 40 silver leafed olive trees (like this one in the photo); building a neat tri-chamber compost structure from old floorboards; making the house feel even more like a home with simple bookshelves of long sweet chestnut planks on red fire brick pillars and some much needed kitchen storage space; a chimney in the bathroom so we could fire up the elegant old wood burning stove that we’d found abandoned in the ironmonger’s car park in Oleiros; new fascias for the bath and toilet from sawn off pieces of old broken wine barrels; vegetable beds edged with boulders fallen when the new terraces were carved out last Autumn; and new graduated steps along the path that connects the houses at the top (Cabeco) with the house at the bottom (Moses) heaving chunky trunks of felled pine trees up the hill and then back filling them with rubble and clay. That actually sounds like quite a lot of work now I have written it, but it really has only taken us a couple of hours a day and nothing approaching the generally accepted notion of ‘strenuous’.

Meanwhile, the kids have both had their birthdays, Eli’s 10th & Joshua’s 12th, and continue to fly at their lovely school in Oleiros, making great grades and even better friends. They are fantastic little creatures and we love them lots. The very sweet little Brazilian lass in the photo is Ju Ju, Eloise’s best mate here, (Hatti will forever be her bestest mate in the whole wide world) and she’s spending the weekend with us at the mo’ making cookies and cakes every few hours. Josh will be entering another photo competition this week called Splash Flash 09 featuring the best of the waters in Oleiros. He won the prize for the most original photo in the council’s last competition, so he’s keen to do well again this year. Here’s just one of his amazing shots. If he ever finds the time between his full-on studies to write another blog, you might get to see some more of his talent. Last weekend we nipped over to Coimbra to buy them new clothes and shoes cos they were looking a tad dishevelled. The clips below are from that trip to Portugal’s University City.

Coffee and bike rides alongside the Montego river in Coimbra…

Anyway, enough of the catch-up, let me explain the title of this blog entry as well as the reference to peasantville in the skits above.

Our closest neighbours are old. Joao and Eugenia (not the ones in the village but the other ones round the corner in Vale da Figueira) and José & Eugenia (whose Father built our houses over 80 years ago) have lived in these parts, in their current houses in fact, all their lives. They, like so many people round here, are kind, generous and expert stewards of their lands. We can’t help but admire the way they live, so simply yet enjoying the rich abundance of the fruit and cultivation of their toils. Not much cash and as such, together with their rustic lifestyles would be thought of by townsfolk and city folk as mere peasants. In the next 20 years or so, if we are able to learn even half of what they know how to do, we will be gloriously content.

In contrast, the so called civilised learned sophistication of the London we left behind and in the shopping malls and universities of Lisbon or Coimbra, doesn’t really seem to make much sense to us out here in the sticks. On so many levels, we have been unlearning, deconstructing, dropping much of what we thought we knew and in response are in the process of seeking the authenticity of a more firsthand physical and, in particular, spiritual existence. We have no idea if anyone will ever pay to stay here and therefore whether we will have ‘enough’ cash to live. But, strangely, we’re really not that bothered, most of the time. This place, the potential of the land, in itself, in ourselves, is more than enough. To some we know this will appear like pure irresponsible foolishness. Maybe it is.

Moreover, we were previously surrounded by a world where people, including us, were seeking, often with all our might, to become important, or at the very least useful to our employers and/or to society at large. Here, however, we’re slowly recognising that we’re moving towards a lifestyle where most of those people would consider us useless nobodies. And boy, let me tell you, it feels just great.

When I grow up, I want to be a foolish, unlearned, nobody.

Ironically, this label for my new found self awareness makes for quite an apt acronym. F.U.N. So much fun in fact, that if ever our kids tell us one day they are off to the mountains to renounce the world and become foolish, useless, nobodies like us, it will be a delight. (As would be the case if they said they’re off to become doctors or actors, scientists or artists – just in case the grandparents get too worried by all this new fangled babble.)

I went fishing early this morning with Josh by the Rio Zezere (not in the pretty little stream in the photo which runs at the bottom of our place, but the big river just over the hill). Didn’t catch a thing. Obviously, hapless fisherman that I am. But to spend a couple of hours with my boy, appreciating the awesome tranquil beauty of a thick cold March mist being dispelled by the heat of a rising Springtime sun, chitchatting philosophical nonsense together about life’s existential quirky dilemmas, while waiting with not so rock solid faith for the trout to bite, is one treasure I would not swap for all the treasures of this world. Well, maybe I would to land an actual fish one day. (Just for the record I should note that what we were doing probably shouldn't be called fishing until I catch a fish, so if you wouldn't mind please re-read that para to begin 'I went sitting this morning...)

I will leave you with this video clip of Von and Slinky sharing a quiet moment on the yoga terrace yesterday. For the more discerning of you, you will note that Slinky begins to move into a very familiar yoga position, which I, unsurprisingly, misname, and which Von, the yoga teacher, even more surprisingly, can’t remember. Correct answers on a postcard to Moses, Amieira, Oleiros, Portugal, 6160-052. Previous experience of yoga, or of anything else for that matter, is not a requirement for entry. Prize winners will be chosen next month. By Moses the dog. Of course.