From the window, now the huge seas and wild winds of earlier today have subsided and a fitful sun is flickering on and off through scattered cloud, the gannets are out again, doing their freefall dives into Ocean. The ferry, halted by dangerous weather in the Sound this morning, is back, cautiously, under a relief skipper, making huge horseshoe traverses of the brief journey from the Ross of Mull to Iona.
The weather is a continuous companion here, and the seas determine whether this little island, all three miles by mile-and-a-half of her, can be connected to the much larger (and incidentally much younger, Iona consisting mostly of Lewisian gneiss, one of the world's oldest rocks) Isle of Mull; and also whether Mull, in turn, can be connected to the mainland. One's orientation shifts subtly but significantly on an island, especially such a small one; the elements play a huge part in everyday life, even to a passer-through.
Here, working with poets' eyes, we pay attention to the world, inner and outer; and we know that if we want to communicate effectively we also pay attention to the words we use – their potential for creation and destruction is enormous.
Iona is one of those places where, as the Celts describe it, the veil is thin and the Otherworld seems close. It has probably been a place of pilgrimage for 1000s of years; it was a Druidic teaching centre before the arrival of Celtic Christianity, and the (now partial) row of standing stones marching 37 miles across Mull from Grass Point below Duart Castle, just beneath where the ferry comes in from Oban, right down to Fionnphort where the Iona ferry carries the traveller to Iona, testifies to an ancient, probably sacred, route dating back to the late Neolithic or the early Bronze Age.
An island is both a physical point in space and metaphorically a place where we might bring ourselves home.
It's almost impossible to come to such a place as this small island without bringing our questions in relation to who we are and how we might live, and a course such as this writing retreat that I facilitate year after year here invites those questions sooner rather than later; and if I don't raise them, the island will.
The writing is a part of the process; it is itself, in fact, process and product; and yet also in some ways is only a medium for bringing other, deeper, truths to the surface for examination and expression; for integration.
These few days offer the possibility for transformation. For many, simply stopping, simply being silent, sharing solitude with others, is in itself a big experience, and gives us an opportunity to slip the leash of habitual patterns of thought and action.
'It is essential sometimes,’ Krishnamurti said, ‘to go to retreat, to stop everything that you have been doing, to stop your beliefs and experiences completely, and look at them anew… You would then let fresh air into your minds… Perhaps you may come upon that mystery which nobody can reveal to you and nothing can destroy.'