At our feet, crickets explode in all directions like sparks, or firecrackers. We're at the edge of the meadow, barefoot. The sun has just risen behind us, and Alex was up early, thoughtfully mowing a slender path through the grasses and flowers. The perfume of wild thymes, oregano, marjoram and mints hangs in the air.
I am blissfully happy, here in the hot mountains and forests of the wild Cevennes, in the Languedoc area of southern France, doing the work I was born to do with people who 'get it' – or, if they don't quite yet, soon will (more in a minute).
I'm not sure whether we're on day 1, 2 or 3 of the retreat I'm leading. Time has an elastic quality here, in part because of the nature of the work we're doing together, and in part because of the magical quality of the place. This is soulwork, and I'm daring to name it as such.
Later, Lucy who lives nearby and came for the first time to my Iona retreat this past April (as did another four of the participants, including Sharon – whose amazing home, Gardoussel yoga and writing centre, is hosting us) will say of this moment: 'You asked us to take our shoes off and feel the world through the soles of our feet, and our senses. You asked us to follow you in silence, and I knew that this would be a lesson in mindfulness.'
For perhaps half an hour we walk gently and slowly through this long moment in this shared silence, shared solitude. Everywhere there are herbs, little flowers (mallow, scabious, soapwort, dianthus, yellow flowers whose names I don't know):
The sky is intensely blue. We have silent conversations with crickets and cicadas, with dragonflies, with apple trees and the river. I find myself moved, as so often, by the quality of attention people will bring when they're loosed from the 'need' to make verbal human conversation, invited into slowness and stillness, inwardness in the presence of World.
Most of the participants follow me on the first loop of the path, where the grass is in shade beneath the trees at the moment, and dewy (there's a delicious quality to the coolness of where we tread), but some have strayed into the sun, unable to resist. Personally, I enjoy the moment where my feet emerge from moist grass into sun; I enjoy the transition.
I'm finding it hard to label the work I do. 'Creative and reflective writing courses' is how I describe it, and certainly people will write reams, some of it very different from writing they have done before, or even thought they'd be interested in. But, as people tell me, the courses are about so much more than 'merely' writing – though of course I also hope for and direct my attention to our writing well: to what makes 'good' writing*.
But writing here is also in the service of something else, and as I flagged up above I am only just now starting to dare to call it by its true name. This is the work of the soul, and is about deepening our connection to – everything. And, of course, everyone – including ourselves. When we write from this place, no matter what the 'style' of our writing, our work has an intensity that comes from an authenticity, and a richness that comes from more than engaging the intellect (or feelings) – though that happens too. So writing becomes both a tool for depth of engagement and a way of expressing and recording the experience of that.
Over and over this week (despite my initial every-time fear that this time, perhaps this time, it won't work), I will be moved hugely by the quality and content of the work produced by the group of nine disparate participants. We'll laugh – a lot. There may be some tears. We'll experience a kind of intimacy that happens, I think, extremely rarely in many lives, and a kind of trust, ditto.
And we'll find a way to also be the best writers we can be.
I know all this; the participants, other than the four who know my courses, might not. Yet.
I smile quietly to myself the first evening, too, when I ask the nervous newcomers to speak of why they're here. People mention being prose writers, or working on novel chapters, and here to learn about techniques, and for tips.
What I know that they may not is that it's very rarely the surface reason that is the one that brings us to such places and events; and that even prose writers when exposed to this kind of location, and the kind of dynamic and group that seem to emerge when working in this way, can find within themselves a well of poetry not experienced before. This is not designed as a poetry-only group, and often we do write in prose, but sometimes poetry seems to arise from, and suit, the deeper places of our psyches and imaginations.
Poetry is also the language of transformation, and that, ultimately, is what will happen for some people this week. I know this, and I love this, and I am so grateful that places like Gardoussel exist, in the hands of guardians as caring and thoughtful and aware as Sharon and Alex.
We eat outside as we work outside – in the shade of the poplar tree on sofas when it's hot; up in the firepit earlier in the day, and in the evenings.
And the food is extraordinarily good – vegetarian, plentiful, locally-sourced and mostly organic, imaginative, and Ayurvedic in 'tone'.
And Gardoussel has another, and particular, secret: the waterfall pool. Yes, we swam. It's not me in the photo below, but I too lay on my back and watched the eagle above me, and felt how it is to be held up by water, with the sun on my body, on this good earth; how lucky I am to be alive, how privileged to be here.
It has been hard, for me, for 14 years, to imagine anywhere else as inspiring and beautiful as the Isle of Iona to host my courses. I have to admit that I've found a new love in the Cevennes and its wildness - not a rival to my Islands of the Heart retreat each April, but a complement. Now I can offer this kind of course twice a year: once in the Hebridean spring, on an island in the Atlantic; once in forested mountains in late summer sun. Bliss.
* Someone later says: 'I thought I was coming on a writing course. Now I realise it's really about how we live.'