Holly Has Left The Barn
Jun 17 2023
After 11 months of being planted in the idyllic, vibrant Devonshire countryside, nestled within a team of devoted and dedicated big-hearted Buddhists, running back-to-back meditation retreats, whilst learning to live with grief, I find myself spat out into the Big Wide World again.
This blog explores the strange unreality of endings and how nature and creative metaphor have been helping me to understand my feelings around leaving the sanctity of The Barn. It includes a simple creative nature-connected exercise which you can do to help you get in touch with your own feelings and sage advice from a French train guard.
Here And Now
So much has happened since my last blog, I’m not sure where to start… Maybe I should start with here and now…
It’s Wednesday afternoon and I’m sitting on a spacious, air conditioned train in Paris, on a stifling hot day. I’m saturated in sweat and my shoulders are aching from having shlepped three heavy bags full of ballgowns and books, journals and pens, musical instruments and snacks across Bristol, London and Paris. This train is about to depart in the direction of my dad and step mum’s house in the far east of France where I will rest, read, reflect, write, move, dance and play for a month or two, until it gets clear what I should do next.
It’s been a big year, dear reader! I feel like I’ve undergone some serious internal renovations; walls have been knocked down and some have been rebuilt with better quality materials, some of them have had extra windows and doors put in, to let more light and air flow freely, some of them have just stayed down. It might take some time to be able to articulate just what has changed, but I feel different; softer, calmer, slower, happier, more able to experience joy, love, compassion and connection.
Back at The Barn, it’ll be silent day. The retreatants will have had their lunch, probably dhal, rice and fresh salad, lovingly grown and picked by the guests. Some of them will now be walking slowly in the gorgeous grounds, gazing at butterflies or sniffing fragrant flowers, others will be resting in hammocks or reading books in the sun, perhaps one of them will be baking sweet treats in the big shared kitchen…
I am here, hurtling through flat, wide, French countryside, where shapely trees and water towers protrude from immaculately tended fields of crops. I’m experiencing a mild hint of disbelief, like maybe this is a dream or a simulation. It seems pretty unlikely that I would be sat on a train in France when there are retreatants to be taken care of…
There And Not There
I had a similar sensation throughout my last few retreats like I was badly photoshopped, or as if I was on the set of a film, or like I was watching myself from a distance, delivering the all-too familiar instructions and invitations: “You can leave your shoes here, this is how you use the dishwasher, porridge goes in the chicken scraps bin, sit down and tune into your breath…” I felt both there and not there, as if my psyche was rehearsing for me to be elsewhere.
My third from last retreat was a special gardening retreat, where a group of enthusiastic green-fingered meditators spent extended periods in the garden. Every morning, before we all got stuck into sowing seeds, weeding beds, planting out and harvesting, our garden manager, Luci, shared snippets of her extensive knowledge of growing organic veg. I responded with meditations, sensory explorations and creative reflections to help retreatants explore how the processes in nature are also happening within us. Turns out WE ARE NATURE!
Here’s one of the exercises I offered. You can try it right now if you like:
I Am All This
This is a way of collaborating with nature to find out how you are feeling. I first learned it from Environmental Arts Therapist, Ian Siddons Heginworth. This is my version. It takes 2-5 minutes.
Find somewhere to be, ideally somewhere amongst living trees or plants, but you could also do this looking out of a window.
Take a moment to take in your location through your senses.
Maybe start with your eyes closed.
Feel which parts of your body are in connection with the earth.
Listen to the sounds that surround you.
Take in the scents.
Notice the taste in your mouth.
Now open your eyes and notice colours and shapes, movement and stillness.
Let yourself be drawn in by one thing.
Allow yourself to fully experience it through your senses.
Take your time.
Find three words to describe the qualities of this thing.
How do those three words relate to you, right now?
On one of the days of the Gardening Retreat, Luci took us through the growth journey of the vegetables. Safe and protected in our poly-tunnels, seeds are carefully planted in nutritious compost, with space to breathe and grow, they are bathed in gentle sunlight and lovingly sprinkled with fresh water every day.
There comes a time when the seedlings are big enough to venture out into the world, but often they are too fragile to withstand the elements. So they are placed in their trays on the ‘hardening off’ table for a while, where together they learn to face the elements and toughen up, so that they are ready to be planted in the ground.
I remember looking at the seedlings on the hardening off table and seeing their fragility, vulnerability and aching hope for a bright future. I remember thinking, “Me too seedlings, we’re all on our way out to The Big Wide World!”
“Tranquilo! No Rush! No Problem!”
Back in France, I just looked up to see my entire carriage vacating. Struggling to free even the most basic French from the cobwebs of my mind, I said, “C’est fini, le train?” to the guard. He looked at me with such kind affection and explained, very slowly, that I had to pack up my stuff and walk along the platform, because the back half of the train is stopping here. Panic! Emergency! Quick! Drop all my snacks, hat, laptop, notebooks and pens in a huge kerfuffle, like the clown that I am. The guard placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “Tranquilo! No rush! No problem!” Ah yes, all those things I’ve been learning over the last 11 months of regular meditation, all forgotten in an instant! Thanks guru train guard for the reminder!
The Last Goodbye
I facilitated my final retreat with the marvellous Martha, who had guided me through my shadow week last July (which was her last week of being a coordinator). She came back especially to accompany me through my last retreat and together we held space for wonder, depth and joy to flourish.
Our final closing circle comprised of heart melting poetry, raucous and sublime sing-a-longs, a couple of cartwheels and a never-been-seen-before tap dance and tin whistle combo. To close our circle, one group member led us, single file, out of the meditation room, into the world, stomping our feet to a Japanese marching song.
When the retreatants finally left, I had a few hours to de-Holly-fy my room, packing up all my multi-coloured teapots, ball gowns and hats, preparing the space for the next coordinator to move in.
I noticed that my house-plants were looking a little worse for ware, so I took them up to the garden to repot them in fresh, nutritious soil. Those dear plant friends that I lovingly propagated throughout my years of trying for and losing babies. My house was like a jungle! Keeping them alive kept me alive in the year after my partner left, and giving most of them up when I left Bristol, last July, was utterly heart-wrenching. This small selection was all I had left. How had I let them whither and brown? Probably because I had so many other beings to take care of; the retreatants, the cats, the chickens, the vegetables, all the members of my Barn family, oh and me…
I heard my aloe veras, spider plants and money trees sigh in gratitude as their roots spread out into the rich, dark earth and thought, “Me too, dear plants, that’s exactly what the Barn did for me!” The nourishment, kindness, acceptance and space I received allowed me to dig in my roots and grow beyond belief. I'm so grateful to the soft curvy hills, the living breathing river, my warm-hearted workmates, the endless stream of seekers, my kind steady pals, my two wise therapists, my dear furry friends, my old tree muckers and the good old dharma.
To say thank you and goodbye my Barn family, I performed an improvised fooling show, giving away all my plants as a finale. In return, they co-created a goodbye ritual for me, showering me in love, watering my flowers and singing You Are My Sunshine whilst carrying me from the shade to the light.
Later, we howled at the huge pink strawberry moon as it rose for the last time in my Barn chapter.
Back at The Barn, someone will be ringing a bell to summon everyone to the closing circle. I am not there. I am here on the hardening off table, in a tiny village, in the far east of France, beginning a process of letting go and dreaming into my next chapter.
I picked a card from the Internal Family Systems ‘Inner Active’ card deck that my Barn family gifted me.
I see a skinless figure, exposed and vulnerable. They are walking away from a healthy, fertile land where they've been nourished by rest, movement, healthy food and love. The ground beneath their feet is stony, yet they stand open-hearted in tadasana (the yoga pose that says, “Ta-da! I’m here!”), ready to face whatever comes next...
If you'd like to read about my year at The Barn, check out The Barn Diaries or sign up to my mailing list at the bottom of this page.
If you're interested in finding out more about The Barn retreats, click here.