Once, decades ago, a friend and I wild-camped in the Massif. It wasn’t until the next morning we realised that we’d pitched up within the ruins of an old monastery. We breakfasted on ripe figs from the little tree growing against a south-facing wall.
We drive through the volcanic lands of the Auvergne. I can’t pass through here without remembering ‘Songs of the Auvergne’, a vinyl record my mum bought me, way back before her Alzheimer’s, after I’d come back through the Auvergne from the Pyrenees as a young thing.
I’d hitched back with a record of Catalan protest songs that summer; sadly, the record didn’t survive being tucked into the back of my A-frame rucksack, where it fell prey to the heat of the in-cab lorry engine on which it had rested, and for all my attempts with hot water etc it remained as curved as a soup bowl.
Now, as we near the remote Cévennes mountains, especially on the last 100kms or so of dramatic switchback roads, something in me starts to lighten, to prepare to fly free once again. The hot southern light brings a clarity to the day, and the car is filled with the backdrop of cicadas, with an occasional intervention of wind-in-trees or river-over-rocks. The scent of hot pines drifts into the car.
We’ve passed three red kites, and what is probably a short-toed eagle is overhead as we begin the descent from the high limestone causses down through chestnut and holm oak towards St André de Valborgne (near which Robert Louis Stevenson would have passed with his poor overburdened little ass on his Travels with a Donkey, when these mountains would have seemed impossibly remote and probably still teeming with wild boar and wolf, not to mention the odd bandit).
I’m experiencing the usual mix of a kind of wild joy of anticipation coupled with the slight nervousness, or perhaps rather adrenalin rush, that accompanies my travel towards one of the weeklong courses I lead in Europe’s more remote places.
This is the third year of my writing retreats here in this remote sunny place where Sharon and Alex have created something beautiful.
I think of this week as ‘the mountain retreat’, the other end of the summer from ‘the island retreat’ which takes place on Iona in the Hebrides. From next year, I’m adding ‘the forest retreat’, in Brittany.
I always find it hard to describe the content of these weeks without sounding pretentious. Writing, of course, is prominent, and this week the 14 women (it happens) who share inner and outer lands here with me and each other will create a number of strong, beautiful and sometimes very moving pieces of prose and poetry. They will also create a potent and kind group dynamic. It’s a good mix of people who’ve been before, who know what to expect, and newcomers who will be initiated into the Gardoussel experience.
We write from imagination, from observation. Each afternoon, I lead a feedback/crit session.
And/but writing is also a kind of shamanic tool; a tool for deep exploration, for reflection, for discovery, for bringing back the pearl beyond price. This is soulwork, and I dare to call it that. Some – albeit unnamed – ‘soul retrieval’ is involved. We establish a community of enquiry.
Very early, a kind of almost magical deepening happens, and the group swiftly becomes a safe, supportive and bonding place. From New Zealand via Oman, America, Denmark, Switzerland, Scotland, England, Holland via England (and also from two miles down the road from me in Devon) women bring their trust to tell stories of old griefs and angers, vulnerabilities, sorrows and joys, hopes and desires, and especially their warmth and laughter to the process that unfolds.
We’ll sit in the dappled light of the Buddha Garden, or walk under the grape-slung arbour to the upstairs group room to dream, remember, imagine, write. We’ll walk barefoot in shared silence. We’ll laugh over wine after an intense day’s writing. We’ll sing and tell stories around the fire. We’ll share our work. One night, we’ll dance the Five Rhythms ‘Wave’ on the yoga deck down by the river under the stars and the nearly-full moon. In the afternoons, people will head off to the sun-warmed rocks and the waterfall pool, or a hammock.
Over and over we come back to this present moment. Gradually, something transformational happens. In this space we switch between outer and inner worlds: exploring, uncovering, enquiring, healing, deepening. And from the pens flow vivid expressions of different ways of seeing, being.
And it’s hot. In fact, too hot. The mid-30s is intense. For yes, I have the old dog with me, whose tail was amputated a bare two weeks before, and who has now succumbed, with perfect timing, to such severe d&v that I fear she may not pull through (not to mention my fear for the bedroom and group room – luckily she's far too well-mannered). Dear B, who drove me down from Brittany and back, allowed her smart car to be festooned with towels, rugs and Indian throws like a travellers’ vehicle in an attempt to keep the sun off Hairy Mutt – who by rights, at her age, shouldn’t still be with us, but has a strong bright gentle spirit that has pulled her through so much. We had the air conditioning at full blast; a luxury my old campervan, for all its roomy depths and good insulation against both cold and heat, couldn’t have offered.
The dog’s illness is a distraction for me, but the group is kind, she has much loving care, and she manages not to disrupt the sessions. I’m short on sleep, strained from too many personal traumatic events too close together, of which the dog’s are simply one slim current, and am glad my professional self is able to keep going when my personal self is flagging.
I’m so grateful for having learned this ‘balance of attention’ which, after so many years of Zen meditation and psychotherapeutic work, allows me to be (mostly) fully immersed in this present moment – the only one we have – whilst not denying the other realities alongside. It’s a tool worth possessing, and something I teach during such a week. It can make the whole difference between swimming and drowning.
But this is not (just) a serious week. I suspect that what most of us will take away is the memory of laughter, so much of it; some of it at sheer silliness like the jokes around the fire, one of which was about tarmac and cyclepaths and which I didn’t ‘get’ for hours, but laughed at anyway. And I’m still chuckling with delight at B’s ‘praying mantra’, by which of course she meant ‘praying mantis’ – the latter found one night in her bed.
And now, the end of the week has come, Dog has pulled through, and we are heading north again. The heat is still intense, the mountains and French countryside so beautiful, but something in me is elated, almost ecstatic, as we cross the Breton border into – le brouillard, fog; it lifts, and the clouds carry the threat, or promise, of rain. The land is wooded and lush. And then the Forest, and Dog and I stand in the pools of the little gold stream, and Dog is better and B has again been a hero with such a drive.
And here is the little cottage – my home, perhaps? – and later rain, yes rain, just like being back on Dartmoor.