I’ve done it again, writing my blog later than I had intended, please forgive me!
If you recall; I was at the very top of mainland Scotland and as it stood I had achieved my main goal: finding the origin of my name. In addition I discovered amazing creative people, done things I hadn’t done before, like injecting sheep and meandered through wonderful scenery. But, mentally I was none the wiser and emotionally I was feeling vulnerable. In fact you could say I was more confused as I had no purpose or goal to pursue. The thing with constantly moving on was that I was always on the outside looking in, never on the inside, never belonging to a place or person or people.
Someone on my travels told me about a small community that lived on Mull opposite the tiny Isle of Iona. I contacted them and asked if I could visit – it was a destination. To get to the island of Mull I was given a couple of options. One was to drive down as far as Oban and take the ferry from there. Or, head via Fort William for Lochaline on the Morven Peninsula, from which the ferry crossing to Mull is shorter and therefore cheaper. I chose the latter.
I was still enjoying amazing weather; warmth, sunshine and very little rain. I was later to find out just how rare that was in Scotland especially on the West Coast of the Highlands. I decided to get to Fort William by following the coast as much as possible via Ullapool. As I drove along I had started to notice that my van started to overheat on steep roads, which meant I had to make frequent stops to allow the engine to cool down. I checked the radiator and the water level was fine. I had no idea what was causing the problem, but I trundled on living on the hope it would keep going.
I got to Fort William and found it disappointing, a rather ugly town. It had been redesigned to cater for a new rail station, tourism and coach trippers. I stopped at a petrol station and asked about Lochaline. I was told that it was only about one and half hours drive if I took the ferry from Corran (9 miles south of Fort William) to Ardgour thereby avoiding driving 33 miles to Ardgour if I drove around Loch Linnhe. My van seemed to be okay and Fort William didn’t appeal as a stopping place, so I decided to continue on to Lochaline using the Corran ferry. I had assumed that as Lochaline had a ferry to Mull it would be like Ullapool with shops and more importantly a garage. However, I didn’t check this theory out.
The ferry crossing to Ardgour is short and stunning. It offers passengers views up and down Loch Linnhe and on clear days even views of the top of Ben Nevis. I disembarked from the ferry going left towards Strontian. I had only driven 2-3 miles when I realised I was again entering remote territory, very beautiful and akin to parts I had seen much further North. The road was so quiet that sheep crossed it safely at will, that was until the holiday drivers arrived.
Before reaching Strontian I took the one and only road that would take me the other side of Loch Sunart and onto Lochaline, positioned at the very end of the road. It was also a single-track road all the way, 20 miles, with occasional passing places. The road also has one of the steepest inclines I was to come across. Though the ‘climb’ was compensated by the most wonderful view when you got to the top, it was the last straw for my old van. The road not only got higher but so did the van’s temperature gauge! We made it, just! I pulled into the viewing point, parked, turned off the engine and waited for the engine to cool down, praying that when it did it would start again. A couple of hours passed, it was late afternoon, I took a deep breath, turned the ignition and much to my relief it started! I was off to Lochaline again
The road seemed endless and luckily there were no further steep climbs but even so the engine started to overheat after only a few miles regardless of whether we were going up or down, that meant frequent stops. I had not passed a phone box since Ardgour, 20 miles back, and there was certainly nothing as far as the eye could see, so I had no choice but to hope the van would keep going. I had passed only 4 vehicles since I turned onto the single-track road so I started to wonder just how big the place called Lochaline was!
To my relief I passed a sign which indicated I had about 2 miles to go. I passed a few houses (they turned out to be the homes that had been given to the Islanders from St Kilda when the Island had been evacuated). To my left I looked down on Loch Aline at the top of which sat the most enormous grand house. I could also see Mull in the distance as the road started to descend. I then passed a terrace of houses as I drove into Lochaline. My spirits rose. That was short lived! Where were the shops? I saw one which had a couple of petrol pumps but it was closed. Where was the garage? I continued till I could go no further, the last building was Lochaline hotel. I parked up, went in and asked where was the nearest garage. I was told that the only one was in Acharacle, 32 miles away on the same road I had come in on! I explained my situation and was told I could try Ian, a mechanic, who works on the Ardtornish Estate. “He sometimes does odd jobs for people” His workshop turned out to be at Ardtornish House, the big grand house, I had seen from the road.
Off I went not realising that to get the estate office and workshop which were situated beyond the large house, I had to go down a steep road. Going down didn’t worry me but I had no idea how I would get back up if the guy at the garage couldn’t help.
I drove down and across the end of Loch Aline bay, it is stunning, continued driving into the yard/reception area of Ardtornish Estate. My goodness I had landed in a 1930s film set! There was an office for the Estate’s Factor, an office which acted as a reception, an ancient wooden box which housed the only petrol pump, stables, and other outbuildings, it was deserted! Everything was so quiet I thought I was in the wrong place. I had no choice but to wait it out till the next day in the hope that the place would come to life and help would be at hand.
I parked near the wooden box. It was still light so I went for a walk, found the market garden, which was closed, walked up the track passing the three terraced houses which marked the end of tarmac and the start of a footpath which takes you into the wilds beyond and a well used bothy. I returned to my van, made supper and turned in for the night.
I woke up early and saw a jeep go past but it didn’t stop and then another which did and out stepped the Factor for the Estate. I knew this because he had the keys to the Factors office! I approached and explained my situation and he told me, Ian, would be in later as he had gone to Fort William to get some parts. I was given permission to stay where I was till his return.
Having nothing to do I walked along the lower road which takes you along the side of the Loch and out to the sea overlooking Mull. It was beautiful, sunny, and I even saw an otter!
By the time I had got back Ian had returned and said he’d take a look at my van the next day, it was too late and he was busy. It was while I was talking to him that the jeep I saw earlier went past again but this time it stopped. Out stepped a rather striking man with beard, very twinkly eyes, smoking a pipe. I reckon he must have been in his 50s, slim with a smiling confident presence.
“So, who do we have here Ian?” Smiling in my direction.
Ian had never asked my name so simply explained my van needed a repair.
“Well, I am Jake, pity about the van”
“Yes, it is, I’m Johan”.
“Catch up with you later Ian” and off he drove up the hill in the direction of the three houses.
The next day Ian checked the van and the news was not good at all! I had apparently been done! Whoever had fitted the reconditioned engine hadn’t put in a thermostat and therefore the engine had blown a gasket and may be a write off!
What to do? No money, no van and I’m in the middle of nowhere!
My options, according to Ian, were carrying a lot of water and try to see if the van got me home! (He didn’t know the van was my home and had no idea where I originally travelled from.) Or get to a garage in Fort William. I have to say it; Ian was your typical dower Scot! Not friendly, not talkative, and quick to make assumptions! As far as he was concerned I was a stupid woman, a type of gypsy, potential trouble and worse, I was English! As far as he was concerned he simply wanted me out of his hair!
I thanked him and patiently, firmly and as politely as I could explained that those options didn’t make sense as there was no guarantee my van could get me up and out onto the road from Estate let alone all the way to the ferry! As for home ! My base was London but my flat was rented out so there was no home for me to go to!
“So, any other ideas?”
It’s odd, but another thing about dower Scots, and Ian in particular, they quiet like assertive females! Ian actually smiled!
It was decided that I would stay around while Ian, when he had a moment, would enquire about the cost and the possibility of getting another reconditioned engine. Bearing in mind how remote we were, if one was found it would have to be brought or collected from a very long distance!
I went to the Factor updated him on my circumstances and asked if I could park my van in the field next to the stable till a solution was to be found. I also asked if there was anywhere I could get a shower. The field was agreed but the only utility I could access was the washing machine in the big house which had been converted into holiday flats. Therefore, the only shower or washing facilities on offer were in the stables which meant me in my knickers (a necessary modesty as jeeps, walkers, holiday makers etc often went past) under the stable yard tap, goodness the water was cold.
It soon became obvious that Ian was in no hurry to sort out my van and, besides, I didn’t have enough money to fix it anyway.
I was also getting desperate for a warm shower. I tried to barter my labour to the market garden owners in return to use their bathroom. They weren’t keen on me sharing their toilet facilities but did offer me some paid work which I took. It was weeding the strawberry beds and in the poly tunnels.
I settled down, enjoying my riverside view and arranged for my sons to join me for a holiday. I walked the 4 miles to the only shop in Lochaline for my shopping and would stop for a snack from the van on the pier. There was no public transport at all, not even to Fort William! If I needed anything other than basic supplies. The only town I could get to by foot was Oban via the Isle of Mull. That meant the 4 mile walk into Lochaline, the ferry to Mull, a bus on Mull to Craignure where I got another ferry to Oban.
As it was summer, especially whilst I was working, I had to cover myself from head to foot in garments plus a netted hood over over my head and face to avoid being eaten alive by midges! I ended each working day very dirty and very sweaty. Getting access to a bathroom had by then become a fixation. I had to get access to a bathroom somehow!
I went and asked in the estate office if there was anyone who worked on the estate I could ask as all the cottages nearby were let to holiday makers, so I couldn’t approach them. Janet who worked in the office had one suggestion. Jake. By then I had become a sort of trusted eccentric – The Van Lady – made official by The Royal Mail who had the postman deliver the post direct to my van. I was also about to be employed by the Estate as a ‘Rhody Basher’. A clearer of rhododendrons to enable the native plants to thrive again.
It turned out Jake came originally from Cumbria (worked it out? – hmmm, not a soft southerner nor a rugged dangerous sheep shearer from the far north, but from the borders, so maybe just right, thought Goldilocks). He had been a member of the mountain rescue team in Glencoe and a very respected mountain climber. He did all the maintenance for the estate and was a member of the local volunteer fire brigade as well as a volunteer coast guard. He was a well-loved character. His wife had died from cancer two years before and, according to Janet, the house was a mess and he was not managing well at home. In fact he had had a fire in his kitchen six months before I turned up and he’d done nothing to clean it since. Janet reckoned he needed some help so I should go and try there. I found out later that there had been some discussion on the estate that Jake and I should get better acquainted.
Jake lived in the end house of the three on the hill. I knocked and called out. He came to the door and smiling invited me into the blackened parlour which was off the kitchen. By what I saw, he certainly did need some help and I certainly needed the use of his shower, even though that too was broken. The Van Lady had met the Ghillie. It was going to be a very testing relationship, as we were both unlike anybody either of us had ever met before!
Next time: the relationship, my son Simon and Australia.
It has been a while since I last wrote my blog, far longer than the week or so I promised. So, my apologies to you all. But, like for everyone else, life gets in the way, health takes a turn for the worse and my mood takes a downward spiral. Do you know what I mean?
Some call it the January blues which inevitably stretches into February and yes, at times it moves beyond that. Even Spring, the early sunshine bringing warmer weather teasing us with a promise of a good summer, doesn’t lift the spirit, it simply makes me feel guilty for feeling so flat and forces me to try harder when in fact all I want to do is hide away and want some excuse to light the wood burner and close the curtains.
Entering Lent seems to help me in some way. It is a time for understanding and being grateful for another’s suffering. It encourages me to look deeper, in the hope that my own resurrection will follow. And do you know something, it actually does most Lents. It may take time, as my confessor told me, I need to relax, to stop trying so hard. So, on his advice, what I gave up for Lent, is being hard on myself, to relax, do less. It means trusting, not easy for me, that eventually, when do I let go and fall, I will be caught and loved for exactly who I am and not for what I may or may not have done. To be loved even for my ingratitude for the many things I have been given and do have. By the way, the penance my confessor gave me is to make a clay pot. I wonder if that is yet again a metaphor for remaking myself?
Let me give you a clear and very real example of that love before I continue with my van journey and how my search for a man, the man, ended.
What happens if you live alone with an old blind dog who gets sick and needs to go out every hour for a poo, a very runny poo at that. On the same day you wake up realising with some relieve that you actually have had 2 hours unbroken sleep without the necessity of getting up and taking the dog out. You lovingly look at the pooch as she sleeps, you’re delighted with her self-control and ability to give you enough warning to get dressed and to get her outside before the bed (yes, she sleeps with you) is covered in stinky yellow slim. You are lying there bathed in self-satisfaction, proud of the amount of patience you have developed in caring for the old dog. As you wallow in the peace of that moment and wonder how the day will be, you get the usual urge to bottom burp, the joys of sleeping alone, to fart at will without embarrassment! But, much to your utter surprise and disgust what you thought would be a puff of wind turns out be an explosion of excrement which you have zero control of. We’ve all heard the expression ‘when the shit hits the fan’ but what if it hits the sheets, floor and doesn’t stop!
That is what happened to me. I had already spent 6 or more weeks wearing heavier duty Tena Ladies due to a bad cold with a constant cough and sneezing and there I was now doubly incontinent! Shit! Yes, shit! I tell you! There is no fun in trying to clean up your own mess praying that the bloody dog wouldn’t need to go too!
As I had no sickness or stomach ache I thought it must be something I ate so expected it was a one off extravaganza of texture which, once the bed and room were cleaned and I had had a shower, I could forget about. Who was I kidding?
Without any of the usual courtesy or prior warning we have come to expect from our bowels, it happened again in the shower. Surely, that was it over with? Just to be sure, once towelled I put extra, extra protection in my knickers and threw on some jogging bottoms for quick release. I.e. no zips or buttons. I was still feeling okay and made my way downstairs taking the dog with me. I got to the bottom of the stairs and the ‘dam broke’ again. I have a downstairs loo so thought if I was quick enough I’d manage to get to the toilet. All, I can say is, there would have been far less mess if I had decided not to use the quick release!
That was the final straw, I broke down into tears, utterly mortified to realise I had reached this stage of my life at only 66! I had no control over my bowels, life was over, sob, sob …. sob …….. Bark … bark ….. shit!, the dog needed out! Shit, again literally everywhere. I threw the dog into the back garden somewhere she doesn’t like to go because she is blind and there are lots of obstacles in it. I panicked, how on earth was I going to manage the day let alone my life! Yes, I had gone into melodrama mode but please recall I was feeling blue even before this.
I grabbed a towel to put round my waist and one to sit on. Snatched my phone from the table and sat on the bottom of my stairs and wondered what I could do, who could I call that wouldn’t be shocked or disgusted. To be perfectly blunt I had lost the plot and was in emotional melt down. I tried someone, can’t remember who, but didn’t get a reply. Then I thought of my neighbour two doors up, she had always seemed practical and she helped me with Holly, the dog. But I didn’t have her number and I didn’t dare leave the house. Ah, but I had a number of mutual friend, Lee, a lovely guy who had helped me enormously with learning how to rout the wood for my art work.
“Lee” breathing heavy and sobbing “I’m in a bad way and need help can you call Donna and ask her to come round quickly! Please!”.
One minute later Donna came to the rescue. Picture the scene: me on the stairs half naked, surrounded by my soiled pants, etc etc the smell must have been a shocker. She was wonderful. She knelt down (she just missed a smear of poo) and attempted to calm me down and sooth me.
“Donna is Johan okay?” It was Mark, Donna’s husband, appearing in front of me before Donna could stop him. Bless him he did have his eyes averted. Then who should then follow the lovely Lee. I sheepishly waved. Lee being Lee didn’t avert his eyes but smiled and asked if I was okay. What else was there to do now but laugh, but not until I sent Donna off, with Lee driving, to buy incontinence knickers. (She got me the larger ones she told me meekly on her return). Mark stayed with the task of feeding Holly and chatting about the possibility of food poisoning. All this whilst I’m still sitting on the stairs half naked surrounded by you know what. Believe me, there was no way of me going to move till I was alone, one just didn’t know what could happen! Later Lee rang to make sure I was okay and to ask if I had ‘dried up’ and Donna rang Lee to check on me as she had gone to see her father. Aren’t people wonderful!
It is now one the funniest stories told in my village, one I tend to tell far more than they would ever do. What I learnt from this is that people are there if you ask them to help. It has cemented my sense of living in a community and gives me a vast sense of hope that when I am old and possibly truly in need I am surrounded and loved by many. The number of people who have now said ‘why didn’t you call me’ has been incredibly touching. It shows that we are all one great big family if we let others in and are prepared to show them our weaknesses and just as importantly respond to theirs. How does it go: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, well we had better start loving ourselves a whole lot more.
Till next time, I won’t leave it so long promise, I will crack on with the road trip
In hindsight I now realise that visiting the WWOOF Host above Lochness actually had a bigger impact on me than I realised at the time. It had sewn a seed of discontent. I envied those women their creativity and especially that they had a man to hold and inspire them, even if it involved Ketamine!
The three female Sirens I’d met above Lochness were the first of a number of women I was to meet in Scotland who hadn’t gone to art college but who were confident in their creativity to not only produce it but to actually sell it. However, those I met after them didn’t need Ketamine!
I met weavers, artists, knitters, sculptors and musicians, mainly women, all getting with on their lives, all in relationships/partnerships, some married, some not, some with children, some not. What they all had in common was a strength and energy I’d not seen before. They were truly themselves. ‘They filled their own shoes’. They were to me, like wild beautiful ponies who were tame enough to be approached, who chose to harness their energy to not only create art or crafts but also homes, families, and relationships. They had found and accepted stability in a non-restrictive and mutually supportive way! They and their north west highland surroundings were as one: wild, free, beautiful but intimidating too.
Whilst my outer journey still continued in the same vein as before – drive, stop, WWOOF, sketch, rest, walk, van repairs,- my inner journey began to take on a different form. I wanted to know how I could be like those people, especially the women, but hadn’t a clue how or where to start.
I had felt let down by the Buddhist monk’s response to my ‘miracle’. My lack of solidity was beginning to show, ‘the shaped pot had begun to loose shape’. My writing also reflected that I was likening myself more and more to a wild pony who was just running and running. One that hadn’t harnessed her energy for any purpose; creatively and certainly not to create a family. In fact I had done the exact opposite I had galloped into family life getting pregnant at 18, married at 20, affairs, divorced, men, and pregnant again at 27. Each time breaking free and charging off, when what I thought of as the ‘saddle of conformity’ tightened or when I could no longer sustain who I thought they wanted me to be.
I didn’t set out to be so destructive, honest! I set out trying to find love, as most of us do. But what did I know at 15! Far too young and thinking love and sex were the same thing. I was typical of a lot of young women from dysfunctional families, where the male and female role models where themselves broken and confused.
Some with similar backgrounds to mine were lucky and found the right person or situation which ‘mended’ them or gave them purpose. Some took the first person who offered what appeared to be love, had children and decided to ‘put up and shut up’ to avoid putting their own children through what they had gone through as kids. Others, went from one relationship to another, due to their own brokenness and lack of self-love, carrying with them any kids they had on the way, unaware of the impact this could possibly have on their children. And some, like the three Sirens, found their Svengali, but also a form of sisterhood.
Me? Well, as you will come to learn, I let down my children even more. At 16 I found and fell in love with my own handsome, charismatic, long-haired romantic, who was 6 years older. He introduced me to marijuana and other drugs. He tried, he says now ‘with the best of intentions’ to alter how I looked, what I wore, what I read, what I said, and what I did because he ‘saw my potential’. He had, and to this day still has, no understanding of the effect it had on a vulnerable young girl’s confidence.
Was he a Svengali? No,I don’t think so. Why? Because after our son was born, he wasn’t there most of the time. When he was, he was planning the next trip away.
Let me make this very clear, he was not and is not a bad guy, he was just blinkered. He was a middle-class bloke who, like many at that time came, from a very comfortable upper middle class family therefore he could afford to rebel and was enjoying the times he lived in, freedom, experimenting with drugs, as many did, but he was NOT an addict nor work shy. He was and is extremely well read. He had big romantic plans of being a writer (he still is a dreamer and the truth is he has huge amount of talent if he just applied himself). He was like no one else I had ever met and was totally not like any of my fathers (biological father or step-fathers) a massive plus! He was exciting! In spite of me knowing I wasn’t his type. I hung on in till we fell into sharing a bedsit and I fell pregnant at 18. He hung on most probably because he loved my adoration of him and my potential. He was and is an exceptional man, loyal to his friends and in spite of everything, loyal to me too. He has been a witness to my life, the good and bad. Yes, I still love him and his lovely wife too. They have been together for over 20 years (I’ve only ever made it to 9 years) His wife, who as it happens is 15 years younger than him (interesting!) has become a very dear friend. In addition, he didn’t run when I found I was pregnant. We got married when Simon was 18 months old. However, the birth of our son, (I always felt a girl would have been better for the father) put a huge strain on me. What did I know about babies, motherly love and being a parent after my own upbringing? Due to things going on in my own family, my mother couldn’t offer support and there was no peer support. Most of his friends were at university or setting off on careers.
As awful as this will sound, I don’t think either of us really gave any thought to having a baby. The truth was I often wished I could have turned back the clock. Like a lot of my naive and selfish behaviours the person who would be most hurt by them was to be my son Simon and his brother Peter too, though to a slightly lesser degree thanks to his biological father (a different father to Simon’s) and stepmother.
It took many years for me to forgive myself and accept the forgiveness of my sons, another miracle! I owe an awful lot to both my sons. They are proof of the power of honesty, love and forgiveness. I’d like to share with all mums and dads, if I may: children have an enormous capacity to love and forgive us for our humanness, especially our human weaknesses and brokenness . They can sometimes love us more for that than because we are just their ‘parents’. But, we have to trust them to know us, to be honest with them and, if possible, that they get to see that is it never too late to learn from our mistakes and that forgiveness, even between adults who once hurt each other, is possible.
Back in the van, the change to my inner journey was also mirrored in the change of landscape as I approached Ullapool and continued north to Sutherland. It was more dramatic, harsher and wilder. The mountains appeared as if they were large prehistoric beasts trying to pull themselves out of the earth, straining, pulling to be free, rivers and shingle scaring their arched backs.
Though I didn’t have hindsight to protect me, I was still enjoying my journey. It was idyllic driving along in the sunshine, window open, admiring the scenery, stopping at lochs or wherever took my fancy. I was often alone in very wild places. Sometimes I’d pull over to watch the highland cattle, birds and sheep, to sketch, make a meal and at times offer a cuppa and biscuit to a walker who I met.
Of course there was another mechanical breakdown just outside Inverness which meant a night or two there, again on a garage forecourt. Afterwards, I drove over the bridge north east of Inverness and aimed for the Black Isle to reach Cromarty, for another trip down memory lane.
In Cromarty and on the Black Isle in general, it was harder to find remote spots to stop and park up and stay. At such times my portaloo came into its own with a plastic carrier bag for a number two, disposed of in the nearest bin! Yes, needs must!
Whilst on the Black Isle I had to buy some light bulbs for my battery run lamps and managed to find a general store that stocked them. As it had taken a long while and many stops to find theseà bulbs I was in a very happy and chatty mood when the storekeeper put them on the counter for me to pay. I consider myself pretty good at the old banter, especially coming from London but could I get a word, let alone a smile out of this shop keeper? No! As I left I couldn’t resist turning and looking at him: “If you are anything to go by no wonder this is called the Black Isle!”
I noted in my writing the next day that perhaps that wasn’t the a nice thing to have said, for all I knew he was having a bad day!
I found another WWOOF host who had a farm just north of Ullapool so I chose to head that way. The farm had goats, pigs and cows, all rare breeds. My job was to muck out stables and sties. Believe me I earned my keep! But, in many ways I liked the physical labour, at least it stopped me thinking. I continued to sleep in my van and just took advantage of the meals in return for my sweat! I think I stayed there for about a week.
My next stop was Sutherland and the woman crofter. It was a small Croft with a few sheep and there was already a WWOOFer in situ living in the workers’ caravan. She was from Argentina! She had been WWOOFing in Australia on a sheep station and then went to Scotland where I met her. She was delightful and I enjoyed her company a lot. Together we injected the adult sheep, clipped their hooves and generally tidied up around the Croft. I found the Johans in the graveyard but sadly at that time not one who was alive! I did find one later, a ‘postie’, working in Argyll
I stayed on the Croft for about 2 weeks during which time the Argentinian woman was replaced by a very savvy and incredibly funny Essex girl. She was feisty, and passionate about the planet and angry about people dropping litter so made it her mission to pick it up where ever she saw it. She challenged my thinking on a number of things, for which I’m now very grateful and she managed to do it in a funny but unthreatening way. We had many laughs sitting over a mug of tea in her caravan or my van.
By the time I had reached Sutherland I had fallen back into old ways of thinking and turned my attention to studying the men I encountered, but only from a distance, honest! I started to watch and observe the men who lived up there in the wilds. Working on Crofts and farms through WWOOF allowed me to get up close to a type of male I had not seen before. Rugged, strong, with uncomplicated views about life and women. The men farm, labour and look after livestock whilst the women made sure the home (the Croft) was warm for the bairns and their men after a day out on hills in all weathers.
It started to make sense. In that part of the world with its remoteness, weather, lack of ‘soft’ jobs, lack of amenities, limited utilities, miles to find a shop and so on, that type of arrangement for a marriage was necessary and worked to a degree. However, I think a lot of stoicism was also required, especially by the women after the men had had a dram or two. Someone had to keep things going back at the Croft otherwise both would have died from cold and malnutrition. There was a rawness to everything, an essential beauty and, like the women, some of the men were intimidating too, especially one I saw at a sheep shearing competition, – a great place to observe the male at work. That man’s raw sexuality radiated out of him, every time he caught my eye I caught myself wondering what it would be like to be with such a man. Yet, something stopped me, some sense of danger, and I left before I could be tempted to find out.
It wasn’t long after the shearing competition that I felt it was time to leave Sutherland and head north right to the very top of Scotland, Cape Wrath. I hoped, again in my nativity, that I would know what to do and where to go once I got there. Well, I didn’t! I continued driving along the top of Scotland and all I had formulated was one new theory: if men up North were too raw and men down South too soft, maybe men from the middle of the UK might be just right?
That theory was to get me in deep water later on.
Next time, about a week, the Ghillie and the death of my van
Traveling in my van I continued experimenting with my day, my ‘what happens if …‘, sitting in silence to reflect and writing in the early morning. My physical journey was also an inner pilgrimage.
I wasn’t unique in doing such a journey. A number of the 60s generation had chosen in the 70s to join overland expeditions and go East: Afghanistan and India. Yet, there I was in my old green Renault Traffic van going overland in Britain! Maybe not so adventurous, glamorous or risky but no jabs, no malaria tablets, no Delhi belly or Dengue fever! (My eldest son Simon had the former and I the latter when we went for a month traveling through India in 1989).
Why do we do it, take off? Is it a restless spirit, a need to find a physically safe place as well as an inner one, dissatisfaction with our surroundings, head full of dreams, a breaking fee of social constraints? Most probably it may be more than one of those things or possibly even none just a hedonistic adventure. My reason was to find my name and in doing so, I hoped myself.
I set off in my van emotionally very vulnerable (a new clay pot shaped but not yet fired). Because of this and having given up all forms of drugs both legal and illegal I had decided, for my own protection, especially after some of things I had seen and experienced in my pre-breakdown hedonistic life, to avoid many of the ‘New Age’ packages on offer. I was especially wary of visiting places where New Age philosophies were expounded and further adapted by a single strong charismatic figure, generally a man, and used to build communes or communities. If I was to visit communities I tried to stick to ones based on more traditional practices and beliefs such as Buddhist Monasteries.
On my way to one such Monastery, another Theravada Monastery in Northumberland, I also visited a group of Quakers who lived as a community in Derbyshire. If I recall correctly, I spent a couple of days there, sleeping in my van but helping in the garden and chatting to some members who lived there about their faith and if what I’d heard – that some Quakers used Buddhist meditation – was correct. As it turned out it was, for some Quakers not all, as they found it an additional tool to ‘recharge their inner spiritual ‘batteries’ ’.
This inner and outer picture of faith was a curiosity to me. I was beginning to feel quite strongly that for my own life to improve and, if I may be very bold, for the world to also improve, that there had first to be an individual inner change/growth/healing which then had to be reflected out into the world through love. But, what was and is love? That, I wasn’t sure about at all. That was where my confusion and if you like my pain, my brokenness was rooted.
I knew how much Quakers had done, and still do, to create peace in the world. In very crude terms, I saw the Quakers as ‘those who put their faith into action’ – the outer reflection of faith. In comparison I saw Buddhism as developing practices which focused on developing the inner ‘self‘. But I couldn’t see where I completely fitted in either. If you’re wondering why I chose to be a Buddhist and not a Quaker; it was because I felt I was not good or clever enough to be a Quaker. Also, I was a late child of the 60s so Buddhism seemed more attractive, different, at that time, than any of the traditional Christian Faiths. But something was to happen that made being a Buddhist questionable for me personally.
I continued to Northumberland, to the Monastery via Yorkshire where even the road signs had a Yorkshire accent – ‘Mile’ not ‘1 mile’!
After leaving the retreat in Wales, my van and the gear box worked well. I thought at last the van troubles were behind me, I could relax and enjoy the journey for its own sake.
I had decided from the beginning to avoid motorways, to take the longer routes between an A and B, or C and maybe a D! The world was my oyster. It has been said many times how lovely the English country side is and it is true, especially if you have the time to take it in.
I meandered along and eventually arrived at the Buddhist monastery by which time I had also collected my WWOOF list of ‘Hosts’ and their newsletter with general advertisements, from a post office ‘en route’. As it was a Monastery with Monks and no Nuns I continued to live in my van just joining the community for their meditations, meals and chores. I planned for the next stage of my journey to go over the border and into Scotland. The search for my name was on!
Looking through the WWOOF advertisements I came across one from a woman who lived alone on her Croft right up near the top of Scotland in Sutherland. She explained she had a disability and needed assistance with her sheep and the Croft. ‘Food and a bed supplied in return for labour’. There was a phone number.
I asked a monk if I could use their phone after clearing away the breakfast things and completing my chores. I called her.
“I’m calling about your advert in WWOOF, I have my own accommodation as I’m travelling and living in a van and I’m willing to come up there and help”
“I’m sorry I’ve just taken in someone to help”
“How long are they staying, I could come up later as I’m travelling around?”
“All right, give me your name and phone number, you never know”
I then explained my situation about having no phone but that I called my brother weekly.
“Well, what’s his number”
I gave her the number
“What about your name?”
“How are you spelling that?”
“Well, that’s funny, were you from here originally?”
“Well, you see, its a very old name, used to be very popular here a-bouts, not so popular now with the younger folk, mainly find Johans in the graveyards now!”
So there it was, my first communication into Scotland and I had found where my name came from! I told her my reason for going to Scotland and we chatted for a while. Our conversation ended with her inviting me up to visit, WWOOF or no WWOOF.
Can you imagine my utter excitement, shock even. Surely that was a small miracle. One phone call! My first attempt! And bingo! I was buzzing with happiness. I had to tell someone. I accosted the first monk I saw: “Guess what has just happened …blah blah…” I ranted on. “Isn’t it amazing, a miracle even!” Looking at me as if I was child in need of calming down he replied: “No, it is just what it is and nothing more” and walked away. Bump! Surely, Buddhists believe in miracles, blessings, the mystery that is in the world which can’t be explained, that I was convinced existed and I was out to find the truth of? A crack had appeared in my love of Buddhism.
I tidied up my van and pointed it North. I had my destination but decided to take my time and re-visit places in Scotland I had been to as a child. My first stepfather was a Scot and each summer we would go to the East of Scotland for our holidays either staying in a caravan or a cottage. I also had found another WWOOF host up above Loch Ness near to Inverness, no phone but WWOOFers welcome. So it was settled – I was on my way!
Going over the border felt significant at the time. A combination of happier childhood memories and a sense of purpose. I revisited Kingussie, Newtonmore, Aviemore in the Cairngorms and stopped at lovely quiet peaceful places overnight. I slowly made my way up the infamous A9 towards Inverness where I also stopped briefly for supplies and a shower. I left Inverness and drove down the A83 along Loch Ness towards Drumnadrochit to find my WWOOF host. Finding my Host was no easy task. I seemed to drive up and up, the road ever steeper turning from a road into a track. I’d lost all views of the loch and was travelling through woods of pine trees. The going was rough and I feared if my van make it.
Eventually the track ended and turned into an opening in which stood a large Tepee, a series of sheds and a large partially derelict house. Pieces of machinery lay around but there was not a person in sight. I found a suitable space, parked and turned off the engine. Through my open window not a sound passed through, not even the chirping of birds. I admit, I was suspicious there were ‘symbols’ of what I associated with my past and ‘New Age’ things lying around, so I was on edge.
I decided to get out and see if I could find anyone. As I walked around the sheds I was intrigued by all the art work and crafts I saw, there was much to admire.
I turned around and standing there greeting me was a woman with a beautiful smile, dressed in a long skirt, a blouse with her hair flowing.
“Can I help you?“ she asked.
I explained why I was there so I was directed to a more permanent parking space behind the house.
“When you’ve parked up come into the house for a chat and tea”. She was so welcoming I was instantly reassured.
It transpired she was one of 3 very lovely women who lived there. All talented, all stunningly beautiful. They were in their late 20s early 30s, and one had a small child. The house was chaotic, and colourful, but mainly used as an eating space as there were holes in the walls and ceiling. There was an upstairs, reached via a makeshift ladder, where they slept. It was also where ‘the man’ of the house slept too. I was told I’d meet him later when it was suppertime.
She told me her story of how she came to be living there, much of it resonated with my own. Broken childhood, running away, men, drugs and festivals. She was on her way to a festival on one of the Hebridean Islands when she met ‘the man’. He was older and charismatic and they paired up for the festival. He had apparently been one of original founders of the famous Findhorn Community but had left due to a disagreement. She decided to stay with him and then in a similar manner two more women with similar backgrounds joined them. They did most of the work as he was older but in return they felt he had taught them many things. He let them be free and encouraged their creativity.
She and the other two women were intoxicating. They talked with such enthusiasm about how he, ‘the man’, had ‘saved’ them. I began to envy them. Hadn’t I spent years trying find such a man and a place to be creative. I loved their enthusiasm – it didn’t matter there was no hot running water or proper bathroom or toilet, that the house leaked and was cold, that they did everything. They were wonderful! There were a sisterhood! And, they liked me too!
I was shown where I would be working the next day, weeding a patch of ground. I helped make the supper, laughing with them and feeling I may have actually found my perfect place!
As we sat at the table, only joined by one of the other women, ‘the man’ descended the stairs. He was tall, pot-bellied, peppered should length hair, disheveled, wearing baggy jeans, shirt and no shoes. He must have been very handsome in his younger days and was still striking even then. To look at he was my type!
He didn’t look in my direction, spoke to the woman making the meal, walked over to the table and sat down next to me without a word!
Once we were all seated he started to tuck into his food. The 2 women lovingly serving him. There was no please or thank you.
I started to feel uncomfortable as knowing looks are exchanged between the women and himself, but the silence continued. I felt I was being tested. “Why are you here, what’s your story?” He suddenly said without looking in my direction. I looked at the women, they nodded, encouraging me to speak. So I did. I told him why I had left London, what I was looking for, my experience of God up to that point, and so on. I was off guard and in fact told him far too much! He then turned pinned me with a sharp piercing look, with his face a few inches from mine and told me: “You’re kidding yourself, you don’t love God you’d never surrender to him”.
I was stunned and felt as if I had been struck in the chest. The women could see my reaction and tried to offer some diversion by asking him to tell me how they had come to their understanding of God and their creativity. Never looking at me again, he spoke of his philosophies and explained that they used Ketamine, a drug used on horses, to enhance their experience.
I had actually landed in my worst nightmare! Suddenly, all beauty of the women and place slid away and I felt very insecure and unsafe.
We finished the meal in silence and it was time, thank goodness to escape to my van. I was invited to take some ketamine which I declined. That was a big thing for me to do as I had previously been willing to try any drug!
I locked my van that night and as soon as it was light drove away. I can’t deny it was a battle not to turn back. A strong male, lovely creative women, freedom and space to be creative myself. Had I become a prude? Was I being stupid leaving that opportunity? Wouldn’t my friends think I was mad not giving it a go and staying longer? …
I did call a friend to tell him about it and he felt I had done the right thing to leave. I just kept driving until I found somewhere quiet, to be alone, to reflect and write, till I felt settled internally again.
I never did get told his name.
Next time Sutherland and beyond.
Whilst I may not have taken a mobile phone I did do a couple of sensible things; I had taken out AA road cover and I had taken a bicycle with me in the van. The latter being incredibly handy, if not essential, to get to phone boxes to call the AA!
Of course, at the time breaking down was annoying. Yes I did curse and kick the wheels – who wouldn’t, but:
- I was getting used to it and if I had had more ‘suss’ about me I could have tried selling an analysis on the consistency of the AA service throughout England and Wales.
- I had time on my side as I wasn’t rushing to get to any appointment.
- I had started my trip in the spring so if my van wasn’t kind to me, the weather was.
- They have also led to some amusing experiences, if not enriching ones.
Just before one of my more long-term and more expensive van’s mechanical tantrums I had a rather interesting encounter:
I was heading to Wales, making my way to stay at a retreat house run by a lovely couple and their family. I only drove during the daytime so I could look and admire the scenery. For overnight stops I avoided campsites and sought remote spots as far away from the road as possible… until a shower was necessary or my loo had to be emptied. On the day of my ‘encounter’ I needed neither and found a beautiful spot along a forest track not far from a stream. Once I was parked up I went to explore my new surroundings.
The weather was dry, but it must have rained earlier because as I stepped out of my van and took a deep breath I was enveloped by the heady aroma of fresh moist earth, bracken, mulch and trees. Instance peace!
I walked along, following the stream, when I heard the faint sound of melodic thumping. It was lovely but simultaneously unnerving. I thought I was alone so I felt rather vulnerable at thinking that maybe I wasn’t alone after all. I should add here, I had stopped watching horror movies years before due to an overactive imagination. It was so bad that even if I heard the start-up music of such a movie, and I needed to use the toilet, someone had to stand outside the loo and talk to me or keep whistling! Imagine, then when I said I felt ‘unnerved’ what I actually meant was ‘OMG run!!’ But, I braved it and continued. The sound grew stronger, not really louder, just more intense. I knew then it was noise made by a human. More worry … or to cheer myself up: Was it a blunt beaked woodpecker?
I approached a slight bend in the stream where the water became shallower and wider. I continued and there sitting on a log in the middle of the stream was no woodpecker but a very handsome young man, smiling, hair flowing, beating a small drum held between his knees. Maybe he had been a frog and been kissed by a passing princess. Well you never know for sure! As it turned out he was as surprised at seeing me, the princess’ grandmother, as I was at him. He too thought he was alone.
He lived not too far away in a barn belonging to some friends and apparently he would often go to the spot I had found him to use his drumming as a meditation. Well that’s what he told me. So what happened was … I invited him to my van for tea and we swapped stories. I’m going to disappoint you if you think this leads to a romance. That comes much further into my story with another person. But, that meeting, sharing of meals and thoughts did lead to a mutual appreciation. He appreciated that though I was living in a van and not at all interested in following the music festival trail, we were both searching in our own way for some truth. He also liked my artwork which at the time was a bit of a boost. In return for the tea I had given him, he cooked me a meal back at his barn and in return I gave him a piece of my art work. It was a lovely meeting and after the rocky start in the van, it came at the right time to encourage me to continue.
I spent 3 days in that idyllic spot. Then it was time to go, if for no other reason than to top up my supplies and maybe try to find a shower. Of course, as often can happen after an ‘up’ there is a ‘down’!
I drove back along the track, slowly in 2nd gear, got to the road, stopped, tried to go into first gear and nothing! Just a horrible noise. Out came my bike and thus begun the hunt for yet another phone box!
My whole journey and each experience in my van from beginning to end, was punctuated by vehicle hiccups. If it wasn’t road side repair it was being towed to the nearest garage or limping along till I got to one.
On that occasion the AA took me to the nearest garage where I spent a week! It may have been even longer. The van needed a new gear box (gosh those guys who sold me that van must have had a really good belly laugh) !
At first, the garage tried to fix it without the expense of a new gear box as I had explained to them my situation, that I was short on money (I’d stopped using my credit card long before I left London). They, the guys at the garage, were great. They let me stay on their forecourt at night, and hidden by the van door and their garage shutters I used their hose as a ‘make do’ shower. That wouldn’t be the last time I had a ‘make do’ shower in an unusual place.
Sadly, they weren’t able to fix the gear box so it had to be replaced. They found a reconditioned gear box which would take a few days to get delivered. They also said that I could contribute towards the cost of the repair by painting display signs for their garage. I was then promoted, as their trusted freelance sign writer and moved into the garage where my new residence was the ramp!
It was one Sunday in that small town whilst living on the ramp, that I went looking to see if they had a Quaker meeting house. Instead I came across a Kingdom Hall, a Jehovah Witnesses church. “Well”, I thought “this will be different, so why not?”
So, what happens if … I, a complete stranger, walks into a Kingdom Hall for Sunday Service? Answer; they were more surprised than me to see me there, unsolicited.
‘You mean you came in alone, no one brought you or told you about us?’
‘No, I’m just noisy’ I replied.
They were very welcoming and when they found out about me ‘living’ in a garage they offered me accommodation and meals in their homes.
The reason I didn’t take up their kind offers was because after I had sat through the entire Sunday service and experienced their questioning and answering session, (this is when a leader stands and tests the knowledge of the congregation on their version of the Bible), I felt, rightly or wrongly, as if I was being indoctrinated, told rather than asked. This is only my opinion and nothing more. There are a lot of negative or amusing things said at the expense of Jehovah Witnesses but I have always found them kind, but for me, just too fixed in their ideas and teachings. Of course, you can find this in any religious organisation.
I now have my own response to any person ‘selling’ me a belief or philosophy. I ask ‘tell me how it manifests itself in your life, what does it do for you and those around you, how has it changed or affected you?’ It has been said before, but I can’t recall by whom and I’ve added the female element to it “you can better know a man/woman by what he/she does rather than by his/her words”
Try it next time when someone tries selling you a belief. I’d like to think that maybe that is what I am trying to do with you; showing you my life, how I lived it, how it has changed for me and for others in my life, what changed it, who helped me on the way and who still helps me now.
Anyway, back to the van.
I eventually made it to Wales and the retreat house. It was such a relief after the week or so I had had. Staying there too was a lovely man called Neil. He was in his 60s and spent his time going from one retreat centre or community to another in his Vauxhall car, in the boot of which, neatly packed in boxes, he had everything he needed including his slippers and dressing gown!
One of the highlights of my stay there was going badger spotting and being taken, with Neil, by the Red Kite warden for the area, Ralph, to see a red kite nest and being allowed to hold a red kite chick. Badger spotting wasn’t as successful but we were compensated by watching a pack of fox cubs playing in the fading evening light.
The retreat hosts knew a lot of interesting people, one being a freelance film maker, Dan. He was intrigued by my journey and when he overheard me making some silly comment after spotting a straight line of sheep, something like ‘oh look at those well behaved sheep queueing for dinner ‘ or some other nonsense, offered me the chance to earn money whilst I travelled in my van. He wanted to get for me a video camera to film my travels. Believe me, I was truly tempted. What stopped me?
Well, during all my ‘what happens if….’ in London, the sitting in silence and the pages I wrote, I realised a big thing about how I had lived my life, especially when it had come to men. I suppose it is not unusual for someone whose earliest memories are of violence or hiding from violence, that I desperately sought, what I realise now, was a distorted and naive view of love. And, I sought it too young, too quickly and far too freely. I often became someone else – the person I had gleaned from them through the questions I asked on the first date or meeting.
Okay, I didn’t want love/sex from Dan, the freelance filmmaker, but how would I have had the strength to live MY journey if I had a camera in my hand and avoid wanting to try and win over not just one person, but potentially a whole audience. Instead I took the flattery filed it in my validation box and said “thank you but no thank you!”
Instead I was introduced to WWOOF – Willing Worker On Organic Farms. WWOOF was, and I believe still is, an international organisation which brings together those (called Hosts) who need help on their farms, market gardens, community gardens, vegetable gardens, fruit to be picked, animals to be cared for, with those like me (Willing Workers) who want to have a go, a sort of what happens if … I WWOOF in return for food and a bed if needed.
As the people who ran the retreat centre were Hosts/members of WWOOF they could vet me and supply a reference to WWOOF so I could join and receive the list of other Hosts and the general news letter with adverts offering jobs here and abroad. I sent the organisation my details and application form and arranged for them to send the Host list and general adverts to my brother who would then send them on to a post office of my choosing.
WWOOF was to give me the keys to a whole new world, another way of living here in the UK and possibly overseas. It was one I had not experienced before. It was interesting, fun and at times very challenging, both physically and emotionally.
Whilst I waited for my application to join WWOOF to be processed I headed east over to Yorkshire making my way to Northumberland where I had rung ahead and arranged to stay at the brother Buddhist Monastery of Amaravati.
Next time, in about a week, my love of mystery, my name and beware of amazing women with a very strange man.
Maggie, an amazing young woman from Cornwall, did her degree whilst living in a van in the college car park. Well, most of the time. I got to know Maggie in her final year of a product design degree while I was working at the same college and studying my Art Foundation there too. We became friends and I shared in one or two of her fun trips. In addition we occasionally swapped homes, my flat for her van.
Maggie’s van was a self-converted old transit style Mercedes with a small wood burner and my first jaunt was two weeks in Cornwall. It was wonderful! Freedom, fresh air, lots of time and places to draw. As well as staying in isolated places with an occasional stop on a campsite to have a shower. Yes, I did say occasional!
The wood burner was also a great novelty which due to my childlike enthusiasm nearly saw the end of Maggie’s home. One evening I stuffed it with so much wood that the cast iron exterior started to glow red! Doors, windows were flung wide open, blankets, anything flammable, which was about everything, were thrown outside until it was safe to get in again. Actually, with hindsight, this was a warning of things to come in my own van!
What I also learnt being in Maggie’s van, was that being taller than Maggie, every action that required standing, which was a lot, meant I was stooped – resulting in back ache. Now you can see why getting a van I could stand up in was a very seductive requirement when it came to buying my own, especially as vans with the required height cost more than I could afford.
There is also something else about vans or even cars. From a young child I loved being in them, they felt safe. As a passenger I fell asleep very quickly and still do. (Actually, I’ve also fallen asleep driving only to be woken up by the bumping and rocking of the car going onto the grass verge!). I’ve had some of my most important or difficult conversations in cars, also some of my funniest. I’ve even been on long distance overseas journeys in trucks, twice going to Iran. All the trips were with my first son, Simon, who was 4 on the last adventure. If you’re a parent, close your eyes and imagine being asked numerous times in a day ‘mummy, when will we get there?’
There was and still is a sense of being in a protected bubble in a car, a metal womb if you like. In a car or van I seem to relax, daydream, partly because I’m cocooned and therefore unable to do any of the tasks or deeds I feel I should be doing.
So, there I was in London, in my flat, lying in bed, determined I would do nothing to sustain living until The Universe or God came up with a darn good reason why I should. You see all the ‘What Happens If …’ I’d been trying up to then all led to one big conclusion, the way I was living just didn’t work! It was a mess, I was a mess!
Friends were patient and very kind. My eldest son, Simon, was wonderful but didn’t know just how bad things had got in my head. Well, I think he got a clue when I bought for his future wife, as a wedding present, a place on a weekend Forum to work out issues she had about her father, as I was convinced if she didn’t my son was in for a very difficult marriage! My younger son, who I was still getting to know, with the help of Simon and friends, also may have found me a little odd. Mind you, to him, I was already an enigma based on having left him and his father when he was just two.
The only places during that time where I found any clues to how life could be, or how I’d like to be was when I attended the Quaker, Society of Friends, meetings and the Buddhist Monastery of Amaravati in Hertfordshire, where I’d go for retreats and learn meditation. The common elements to both are Silence, Love and Acceptance.
The only certainty I had to go on at that time was this; if there was any truth in some of clues I was being shown in the Meetings and Amaravati then I had to stop the antidepressants and stop smoking marijuana in order to find out if the things I was discovering were real or just another symptom of my mental and emotional state. I described to my GP that I felt as if I was a clay pot that had just been ‘thrown’ and shaped but still very vulnerable until I had been ‘fired’ and made solid and that staying in my flat I felt at risk of that not happening.
I also decided that this ‘new pot’ had to reclaim her name Johan. I liked it but hated that at school no one said it how I thought it should be said (phonetically JoHan) so everyone called me Jo. My mother had the same name and my father, a determined man who was a dangerously physically abusive husband when he’d had a drink, had insisted on my having it mainly, I was told, to upset my mother’s remaining family.
Therefore, what better reason could there have been than to get a van and to leave London than to go in search for the origin of my name! Plus, my amazing GP supported the idea, though she was concerned at my stopping the antidepressants.
The van was bought, a Renault Traffic, and with the help of friends and my brother it was cleaned, lined with sheets of plywood, a bed built with storage, fitted with cupboards, sink and equipped with a small portaloo, essential when staying in villages or towns! Sadly no wood burner but I used candles for lighting in the evenings and a couple battery operated lamps.
However, what it also needed was an engine!
No, it did come with one, I got the van home, just! So, again with the help of Simon’s friends a reconditioned engine was fitted at further expense.
If this all sounds ‘easy peasy’, well it was and wasn’t. It was frustrating to the point I started to question if I misunderstood the answer I felt was given to me by The Universe or God. So who better to ask than one of the founding Buddhist Monks of Amaravati.
The day I went was a special gathering due to the auspicious visit of this Monk. I, with many others, queued for a long time to either receive his blessing or ask his advice. My turn eventually came. I bowed and asked: “I’ve bought a van to make a special journey to find my name but things seem to be going wrong and I’m wondering if this just a test. Should I persevere or take it as a sign I shouldn’t go?’
The answer: ‘You will know when you know.’ I leave it to your imagination what I felt.
However, that experience and many more became the seed which grew into one of my personal philosophies called ‘knock three times’. More on that much later.
In spite of this advice, or maybe because of it, I left my job (though I hadn’t been able to return to work since the morning I awoke not recognising my own hands because I couldn’t even choose what to wear let alone get to work). I told the Director of my Fine Art Programme what I had decided to do (continuing my fine art course was the only thing my GP encouraged me to stick at all through my Breakdown/breakthrough), packed up my flat and rented it to an ex-boyfriend, said goodbye to family and friends and drove to Amaravati, took my Buddhist precepts and pointed the van northwards to start zigzagging across the UK. I also wanted to explore my own country as part of this adventure.
I knew my great grandmother had the name Johan too and she was Scottish, so I chose to make Scotland the final destination before I headed back. I was convinced that once I had found the origin of my name and got to the very top of Scotland I would know exactly what I was to do, I would be ‘fired’.
One other major decision I did make was not to buy a mobile phone as I didn’t want to be contacted. Instead I arranged to ring my brother weekly to check in and see if there was any news from my sons or problems with the flat etc.
For my first stop I planned to visit my younger son Peter who by then was living in Nottingham. I got about 20 miles up the road when I had the first of many vehicle malfunctions. What did I know by then?………buy a better van!
Next time, hopefully 1 week’s time;The drummer, garages and WWOOF…….
If this blog is to be truthful and act as an invite to try ‘what happens if’ then I need to start at some kind of beginning.
Starting or choosing a beginning is not easy. Do I start with my childhood or a specific moment in my life, a changing moment, that then becomes the stepping stones to some kind of ending? Will such stepping stones allow me to present you with insights and connections which reflect childhood and teenage memories enough to satisfy your curiosity? I’m not sure. What would you do?
Maybe a good place to start is ‘Why do I want to write a blog’, does that help?
It is because when I looked at my website, on its penultimate presentation, I realised,(please recall that real wet blobs rolled down my cheeks), that I was looking at someone, me in this case, who had been made whole, healed. The ugly duckling realising they were a swan
Okay, it may sound dramatic and maybe even conceited to some but my journey to that realisation has at times been extreme. As a priest once said to me when I needed to tell him of my perceived failure as a mother and all the inappropriate and crazy things I had done in comparison to all the amazing mothers there are in the world, he said, “ okay, they (other mothers) may not have been as extreme as you but all of them, every one, feels on some level they have failed too”.
So, when,or if, you look at my website and you may think what an adventure I’ve had and it all sounds such fun, know this, like all adventures there are always risky moments and scenarios which are very uncomfortable if not painful, especially to start with. So, I’m blogging to share my journey in the hope it gives courage to others to do the same. It doesn’t always have to be as extreme a journey or trigger as mine but the end result is the same, being made whole.
So my first stepping stone to becoming whole began with waking up one morning at the age of 45 and not recognising my own hands, I did say it has been extreme!
In reality I had been burning the candle at both ends, actually it was a number of candles! I was working incredibly hard proving I could do a job that In reality I wasn’t truly qualified for, which also meant making presentations to hundreds of people as the ‘expert’ in my field ,studying a fine art degree part time after I’d only been making any form of art for two and half years , dating a number of different males and abusing my system with smoking a lot of marijuana plus other substances . The ‘cherries’ in this ‘ Molotov cocktail’ were being reunited with one of my sons who then was 13 but I hadn’t seen since he was 2 and my eldest son deciding to marry an Australian girl he had met at a pub and moving to Australia.
So whose body was I occupying if these hands didn’t seem to be mine?
Well, that is what I was about to start to find out, with the first of many helpers or messengers I was to encounter. The first one being an excellent GP who listened to me each week and believed that if I was listened to, supported and not processed through the then limited NHS mental health alternatives, I could be encouraged to find myself. The GP allowed me to question the world around me and experiment with trying out the best way for me to be. If you like; it was the beginning of my first conscious ‘What Happens If’ I was to attempt. I would go into new situations and try …’what happens if’ I’m cheeky, ‘what happens if’ I’m small and invisible, ‘what happens if’ I ask complete strangers how did they manage to live in the world, or how did they find happiness. ‘What happens if’ I’m loud and brash etc etc.
Each day I went out tried another ‘what happens if’, went back to my flat, sat in complete silence staring out of the window letting my mind wander through the day, went to bed and wake up at about 4am and write. I’d write about the previous day, what had happened, what I had learnt, all helping me to reach some kind of conclusion either ‘no, that is not how I want to be’ or’ yes, that seemed to work better’.
That went on for about 4 months, maybe longer, until one day I went to bed, decided not to eat or drink or even get up again until I had been ‘given’ or found a reason to do so. On the third day, the answer came!
A VAN. The two guys who sold it to me couldn’t have believed their luck and must have laughed all the way to the pub where they most probably drank themselves stupid on the proceeds . For me it was a rattling mechanical uncertainty but it was a beautiful bright green and had at the time the main requirement; I could stand up in it.
So Why a van and where would it take me ?
As it is Christmas let me start my blog with a a true story of hope and joy, if you like a miracle , we’ll that is what it turned out to be for two young women.
To maintain privacy I’ve changed their names, Julie, a young Tanzanian girl, and the other a young woman, Jane, who is registered disabled due to coping with epileptic seizures. The story starts in Tanzania but ends in Scotland.
As you may have seen on my ‘about’ page I went to Tanzania for 3 weeks (which turned into 3 months) to visit my best friend who was working at an International School. Whilst I was staying with her I got to know some of her colleagues ,teachers and teaching assistants. One teaching assistant, a local woman called Ruth, asked my friend if she could meet me before I left. My friend advised me that it was most probably to ask me for money. But, having experienced what I had in Tanzania, I knew that whatever the reason and however much I would prefer to say no , I should at least meet her.
Ruth turned up with her niece, Julie. Ruth’s sister,Julie’s mother , had schizophrenia, an illness which then there was no treatment for in Tanzania. The only help available was from immediate family. This meant Ruth was using all her salary to help her sister, and trying to protect Julie from her mother’s frequent violent outbursts.
My friend was correct. Ruth asked me if I knew how to find someone to sponsor Julie ,to pay for her school fees, care , clothes and possibly later, college fees . I told Ruth I had no idea how to help but I took their photograph, notes of their story ,contact details for Ruth and promised I would try to do something when I was back in Scotland. I hadn’t a clue how to begin and, if I’m honest, I was also feeling why oh why did I take this on!
So what does happen when you take on this type commitment and have no clue what to do?
Well, this is what did happen.
Back in Scotland I returned to my job, my boss had kindly kept my place available. I was part of a team of 5 carers , or ‘scarers’ as John fondly referred to us as. We cared for John’s 60 year old wife Gillian, who had developed Alzheimer’s at the age of 45.
My first working shift after my trip was about a week after getting back to my cottage. I recall that morning because I became aware that during that week I hadn’t done anything about Ruth’s niece, I’m not sure if I even gave her much thought!
I imagine you are all now asking ‘silly woman, why couldn’t you have sponsored Julie, or advertised etc etc’ . But the truth is I hadn’t and didn’t. My own situation and income was too unpredictable to make such a commitment and back then long term commitment was something I struggled with!
Anyway, what I was good at was feeling guilty for making a promise and not knowing how to make good. Feeling pretty desperate that morning I found the photo ,looked at it and prayed. “ please can You show me what I can do for Julie” . Now, before you mock you need to realise that at this time I had not been baptised nor did I pray regularly. Yet, after the opportunities that came my way in Tanzania as a result of other peoples prayers, the local NGO volunteering and the cookbook; what else could I do!
Prayer completed , I chose , or did I , to put the photo into my jeans pocket and went to work.
Gillian, the lovely lady I cared for, had a sister, Sarah, who had adopted, I think it was either 3 or 4 children ,all with some form of disability, all who were then in their early twenties. Due to the shifts I worked , I had never met Sarah personally even though by this time I had been with Gillian for about a year.
On that same morning , once I was at work , I was ironing when unexpectedly Sarah turned up to visit Gillian. We exchanged the usual greetings at being surprised to finally have met at last, after which Sarah sat with Gillian in the conservatory while I continued ironing in the lounge. I was near enough if help was required and therefore could hear bits and pieces of what Sarah was telling Gillian .
This is what I overheard:
“ Gillan, remember my daughter Jane? Well she is getting very broody but it is sad you know as she may never have children. As a result she has started looking into sponsoring a child. She has looked at agencies that organise such things in some countries in Africa but gets disappointed when the only contact with the child will be a yearly letter sent by the agency updating you and it won’t be the same child. She wants more than that, she wants to know one child and see that’s child’s progress but we have no idea how to find that”
Well, are you as stunned as I was ? I was so stunned I nearly burnt the thing I was ironing!
‘Excuse me’ I said ‘but I couldn’t help over hearing what you were saying as it happens in my pocket I have this ” and pulled out the picture………………
Yep, you’ve guessed it, Jane became Julie’s sponsor . Julie went on to college and Sarah’s husband with the help of friends in my now local parish went on to sponsor Julie’s sister.
Have a wonderful Christmas full of hope and joy at the birth of The Child , in Jane’s case it was Julie
Before I start ‘blogging’ I’d like to give some heart felt thanks to two people who helped turn an ‘ugly duckling into a swan’. They come under the business name of Atelier Designs but I know them as Ian and Kate.
Ian Luck, a wonderful artist and tutor himself, recommended I asked Kate to do my website . I hesitated cos’ for one thing it would mean having to pay! But, boy was it worth every penny!
The process was so organic, honest ,completely collaborative and fun. There was absolutely no stress in it and I was incredibly busy at the time of its development. Kate would email to say ‘take a look’ and I’d feed back. We only had two conversations by phone and no meetings. Shame really as if one lady deserves a massive hug it is Kate.
The penulitmate ‘take a look’ was the surprise ‘punch’ and I literally cried, yes real wet blobs rolled down my cheeks. It was if all the years of doubt , lack of self belief, even pain vapourised. I was actually looking at a person who had been ‘healed’, made whole. That acknowledgment wouldn’t have been possible without Kate the web designer and Ian, who has encouraged me for a few years now.
I suppose that is why I want to blog ,why I want to invite people to come to my ‘what happens if your explore your creative spirit’ workshops ,because what you see before you now has been a journey and some of my ‘What Happens If’ , my choices , have been hard life lessons ,painful, especially for others, selfish, even risky ,some of my protective friends might argue. But! ALL have led to this moment of wholeness, of me finding me.
So, if you are nosey like me and want to know more of my ‘What happens if’ ,the good and the bad, and why living a life of leaps of faith, especially in the last 12 years, has been an adventure of discovering not only myself but meeting amazing people and encounters. Then can I invite you to my blogs?
They may jump around and as they say on ‘Strictly’ ,presented in no particular order, but they will be honest, open and from my heart. So, please be kind because this Leap of Faith, opening up to you, is actually pretty scary and maybe my biggest and most risky What Happens If……