“Start here, start now…”

Two people inspired me to start writing my blog again this week and they did it subtly and unintentionally, just by telling me their stories, which came straight from their hearts. Talking to both of them felt a little bit like looking in a mirror because, although we had different views and experiences in relation to some things, there was enough similarity and respect between us to find light in the reflections. One of them was Robert (shown outside Logroño´s church hostel in the photos above), a pilgrim from Germany, who had walked more than 2,700km from his hometown of Leipzig (through Switzerland, France and now Spain) and who arrived in Logroño on day 114 of his long-distance trek, looking for somewhere to stay.

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I first came to the city in March of this year, also walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, and when I finally reached that destination several months later, I turned round and walked back here again. Because the last 6 years have taught me the value and wisdom of listening to the quiet but insistent voice of my heart and my heart told me to return. It´s six months since my last proper ´blog´post and I shared it just before leaving Logroño, Santiago-bound. I´d spent the first period of the Coronavirus lock-down here, gradually growing to love this beautiful and historic place; and also having most of my prejudices about Christian communities and Catholicism challenged by what I saw and experienced at that time.

For the initial part of the confinement period I lived in a rented apartment which happened to be right on the Camino path through the city; a fact that I was unaware of when I booked it on-line through Airbnb . And again by pure coincidence, I soon discovered on my daily walk to the supermarket that, in the street next to the apartment, was the church of La Iglesia Santiago El Real. When I saw that the church was open I began to go there each day in search of some spiritual connection and solace because, despite being a lapsed Catholic who turned her back on organised religion and belief in God as a teenager (many years ago) church buildings have always felt, somewhat paradoxically, like places of sanctuary to me.

When the priest noticed a regular, solitary stranger sitting quietly in the semi-deserted pews each day, he asked me who I was and why I was here and, discovering that I was a peregrina he invited me to move into the pilgrim hostel which is attached to the church, until the on-going state-of-alarm and its related confinement came to an end.

If I believed in the holy spirit of God (which I do and have used many different names to refer to in the last few years: the Universe, Life, Love etc) I would say that the coincidences that occurred were the Spirit at work. But I also believe that the Spirit doesn´t work in isolation, it needs the force of our trusting cooperation, our loving choice (for ourselves and others) and the conscious use of our own free will. I chose to stay in Spain and to wait as long as it took to be able to continue my Camino because the quiet voice of my heart said “It´s important that you stay”. And staying brought me shelter, a small but welcoming community, and a great big challenge to face the arrogance of my ´blanket prejudice´ against the majority of practicing Christians and the Catholic Church as a whole.

Because that´s the thing I find with this troublesome Spirit that moves us…it doesn´t just move us into peaceful places filled with harmony, endless birdsong, rainbows, love and light. If we´re prepared to truly surrender ourselves to it and to see things through its unrelenting ´eye-of-truth´, it will also take us to dark and challenging places on occasion, to show us the error of our ignorant, loftily-superior, naive, unforgiving and often self-defeating ways.

So here I am, living once again in the church hostel, which has a long tradition of offering safe refuge to pilgrims who request it. There haven´t been many other pilgrims passing through the city lately, which is understandable, as a second wave of movement and service restrictions is currently affecting both the city and the country as a whole. But, in spite of this, two intrepid souls did appear on the hostel doorstep on different evenings last week; the first a young man in his early 20’s, who´d walked more than 800kms from Le-Puy-en-Velay in France, and the second was mild-mannered but highly motivated and quietly-inspiring Robert from Leipzig in Germany.

Although it´s officially closed (and has been for most of this year) the pilgrim hostel´s guiding principle of Christian hospitality (which it actively lives, rather than just preaches) has always been: “No-one will be left to sleep on the street…there will always be room here for those in need”. And so room was found for each of them and dinner and breakfast were provided too.

That gave me a wonderful opportunity to share meals with them, to talk about the profound life questions that many pilgrims often find themselves discussing and to hear their stories about why they’d decided to walk now. The young pilgrim from France said he wanted to challenge the culture of fear that seems to be sweeping through the world. “At home people told me that it wouldn´t be possible to walk the Camino now” he said “but I have no problems. People welcome me and I find somewhere to sleep every night. I find that when I listen to other people´s opinions my world becomes small and unhealthy, but when I decide to find things out for myself, I see that they´re not the way others say they are.”

He talked about his frustration that many people seem to just accept whatever they see on television, and the more sensational and pessimistic the news, the more willing he felt they were to absorb it and to pass it on. “I don´t waste my time anymore talking to people who have no direct experience of something and just repeat what they see on television believing that it´s the truth.” he said. “There´s no point in trying to tell them otherwise, they just don´t listen”. He also had an interesting question for me, and for the priest, before he left.

“Why don´t Christians believe in miracles anymore?” he said. “If they truly did they would accept that this is all part of God´s plan and they would have more faith, but they seem to believe more in fear and wanting to spread that fear to everyone around them. No-one seems to believe in miracles anymore”.

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Robert´s story was an unfolding one. He told me that he left Leipzig with the initial intention of walking to Switzerland but that, when he got there, his heart told him to keep on going. He´d had the desire to walk the Camino for some time and that had prompted him to start his epic journey but it was people´s reactions to him, and the good fortune and kindness that he experienced on the way, that had motivated him to keep going. “I´m keeping a diary” he said, “of all the things that people give to me and do for me to help me on my way. Look!” and, with that, he showed me a little notebook, its pages filled with neat, individual entries. “Every one is an individual act of kindness” he said with a smile.

“In Switzerland I only had to pay for one night´s accommodation, all the other times people invited me into their homes or offered me somewhere sheltered to stay. They trusted me, a complete stranger, because I´m having the courage to do what I´m doing. They were interested in hearing my story and I learned something valuable from my experience of spending time with each of them.”

He talked about more things uniting us as human beings, despite our different languages and cultures, than dividing us. He said that what we all want, deep down, is connection, humanity, contact with each other and love. “I don´t want to live in a new normal of social-distancing and wearing masks all the time” he said “I refuse to live with that culture of fear…and part of this pilgrimage is sharing that message of hope with others, because I´m finding many, many people who feel the same way”.

And his words lit a little light of hope inside me, because I also feel the same. This camino has taught me to be respectful of other people´s fears because I´ve come to understand that, in many cases, they´re acutely felt. But what I won´t accept is other people´s pessimism or their attemps to stifle genuine actions or expressions of hope because it feels threatening to their own circumstances or beliefs.

I´m a firm believer in optimism. I believe that there will be many, many pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago next year, but I´m in a staggering minority in that belief. Someone said to me recently “It´s fine being an optimist, but we have no idea what will happen next year. You have to be a realist too.” I am. I fully accept that I may be wrong and, if I am, that that will be part of God´s plan for us all too. But thinking as I do, and taking action now to help prepare for what I believe, is not being blindly optimistic or unrealistic, it´s doing something positive and creative to manifest a little hope in the midst of all this uncertainty and fear.

Today is the first day of Advent, a massively symbolic period of hope for a brighter future, regardless of individual belief. There is a Spirit that fills this Universe and that touches all of our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not. One of the ways that it manifests itself positively and noticeably is when we cultivate an inner sense of Hope, but it doesn´t work in a vacuum…it has to be invited in.

On my first Camino five years ago I met an Englishman called Christopher. He was on his third attempt to reach Santiago, his previous pilgrmages having come to unexpected and premature ends. He became a symbol of hope personified for me and he left me with some memorable words of wisdom:

You have to be prepared to believe in miracles before they can happen Michele. It never works the other way around”

When spirits take flight…

The paths to peace take many forms and, sometimes, meditation, contemplation, silent reflection or prayer are not actually the key ingredients that nourish us whilst we meander along our own particular way. Sometimes a dream or a passion burns so fiercely inside us that the only way to find inner peace is to give that fledgling dream wings and the opportunity to see if it will fly.

When I watch others do this I see the power that such action can have to create love, in all its many forms, and I feel humbled by the endless forms in which Love manifests itself throughout this material world.

More and more often these days I find that the true Bringers of Light in my life, and the ones that seem to influence me most, are ordinary people leading the way by their example (torch bearers if you like) who teach me, through their actions, just as much as any ancient or spiritual text might do.

Two young men who’ve recently taught me something very valuable in this respect are people that I’ve known for the whole of their lives, since birth in fact, because they’re my nephews, Owen and Jamie McNally. And my belief in the value of their story is so strong that I think it’s worth retelling here.

In 2018 Jamie and his wife Heather moved to a house in the Lancashire countryside and discovered that it was located on the site of the former Hoyle Bottom Cotton Mill with its own natural water source called Tinker Brook. The embryonic dream of a business venture began to form and, in discussion with older brother Owen who was working at the time in Spain, the idea of starting their own distillery emerged and grew into a tangible and measurable goal.

With a beautiful, metaphoric synchronicity, which divine Providence seems to have a way of weaving into all of our lives, Heather also discovered at the same time that she was pregnant. And I watched as the two dreamed-for and longed-for creations grew into maturity and eventual birth, almost side by side.

Potential family funders for the business venture were sought and secured, research and development into the mystical art of distilling took place, and a branding profile was created utilising the heritage of Hoyle Bottom Mill and Owen’s professional skills in graphic design.

At the end of 2018 Heather and Jamie’s son Mylo was born and, at the beginning of 2019, Hoyle Bottom Spirits and its signature product, Tinker brook Gin, were launched.

Team Tinker Brook: the face of inspiration, dedication, common purpose and love.

Almost immediately the young men’s mettle was tested when, the day after launch, their pre-contracted supplier of limited-edition ceramic bottles informed them that there would be a problem with supply. The prospect of defaulting on their delivery commitments to customers, and of disappointing all those who had placed faith in their new business and product, loomed large.

But Jamie and Owen are young men who believe in values. They believe, as does Heather (and no doubt, one day, Mylo will too), that honouring your word, in whatever way you’re able to, and finding creative solutions when obstacles occur, are important character traits required to live happy and fulfilling lives.

So they downed a metaphorical (and I suspect a literal) stiff drink, put any knock to their public ego pride to one side, and set to work on salvaging the situation. They wrote to all their pre-order clients explaining the dilemma, apologised profusely, and offered a refund to those for whom the ‘limited-edition ceramic bottles’ had been a determining purchase choice. They provided free postage & packing on initial orders, in way of compensation, and discounts on future orders to show the strength of their goodwill. They reasoned that any financial loss from this unfortunate, last-minute development should be viewed as a necessary investment in potential future business and that this set back gave them the perfect opportunity to demonstrate their genuine commitment to customer care. They then went into full glass-bottle production and Tinker Brook Gin was born.

Since then it’s been a lot of hard work: distilling, bottling, marketing, promoting, planning, parenting, and selling. Owen, after numerous ‘flying visits’ to provide all the practical help he could whilst still holding down a full-time job in Spain, has now returned to the UK and joined the business full time. The company’s product range has expanded, to include liqueurs and speciality gins. The number of commercial clients has grown steadily and a new, larger ‘still’ has been invested in and installed to cope with increased levels of production and sales.

It’s still a fledgling business, testing its wingspan, and learning best how to fly. But, as an onlooker, what I see clearly is the abundance of commitment and enthusiasm that its young founders invest in its potential, in pursuit of their shared vision and dream. I see the continuing encouragement, love and support of their close family members, providing additional funding when needed and promotional help and advice, when it’s sought. And these are all beautiful things to behold. It’s a dream that is steadily growing, lifted by love and powered by courage, passion and belief.

What I’ve learned yet again, by watching Owen, Jamie and Heather, is that the most effective form of teaching is simply to live by example and that the path to finding inner peace takes many different forms. It sometimes takes a large measure of bravery and tenacity to pursue our individual dreams but, if we just make the effort to open our hearts and to look around, we’ll see that we’re actually surrounded by a legion of courageous torch bearers who, through their own inspiring examples, are showing us all the way.

And I, for one, raise a glass to them all.

“Here’s to friends and family who know us well, but love us just the same”.

– Anonymous toast

If you’re interested in learning more about their story, or the product range that Hoyle Bottom Spirits produce, their website can be found at: www.hoylebottomspirits.co.uk

Castles in the sand…

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The Endless Beaches of Costa Calma

This week I visited the South of the island and took a walk along its linked and seemingly-endless stretch of golden, sandy beaches.

I set off with the intention of exploring a little, walking to a ‘Spit’ of land I could see in the distance and then returning to my starting point to sit and soak up some sunshine before heading back home. But, like most of Life, the initial plan was only the starting point and the real meaning behind it was hidden in what I encountered and experienced along the way:

  • Little rocky outcrops to pick my way over, draped in various shades of luminous green and studded with gem-like limpets and sinister, scurrying crabs.
  • A gentle surf-line of ebbing tide that whispered “Surrender your naked feet to my tender touch and cooling flow”; a Siren’s song that I was happy to be seduced by.
  • A fortress-line of tiny sand castles being skilfully constructed by an army of tiny hands; each strategically dotted along the length of the beach. None within sight of each other, but all driven by the same tiny human need to design and construct something visible, something tangible on the endlessly-shifting sands.
  • Long, expanding rivulets of incoming tidal water that temporarily blocked my path, each one offering me the choice: ‘Wade in and get your feet wet or make a cautious, drier detour and take the long way round’.

And so the walk went on…and on.

Hotels, surf schools, sun loungers and parasols came and went, slowly retreating into the distance, as mountains, desert plains and endless ocean and sand lay waiting for me, invitingly, up ahead. Constant desert landscape to my right, vibrant, dancing ocean to my left and only beach, and more beach, the pathway in between.

It was the sort of moment where philosophical thoughts begin to form and so they did…slowly and comically at first:

“Life’s a beach and then you die…”

But then “I’ll have to let go of my original plan soon, walking out to the Spit of land, and consider heading back. I suppose I’ve failed in my objective for the day.”

“How human”, my inner voice said, “to focus on the failed objective and not the joy of the little things that surfaced in its place”.

As I retraced my steps I thought more about this, how the feeling of failure is always linked to comparison and to somehow falling short. Comparison with our original plans; comparison with other people; comparison with unrealistic standards or ideals of perfection, in behaviour, in selflessness, in appearance or in measures of achievement. And I thought about how we continually dampen our spirits and dull our inner light each time we choose to take this ‘thinking path of comparison’.

I looked out at the sunlight glistening magically on the moving water. I looked out at the solid horizon of mountains silhouetted in the distance and I felt the spirit of peace that they both convey, in their own unique way. One dancing, vibrant, life-filled kind of peace. One calm, solid, silent kind of peace. And I thought “Failure is just a meaningless human construct. Comparison is just a human and limited way of thinking, living and being, hard-wired into us through generations of conditioning and a daily ritual of repetition.

Neither of them has anything to do with this all-consuming Spirit of Life that I can feel all around me and, fleetingly, within me too. Neither of them has anything to do with finding, creating or cultivating peace within or with sharing that inner peace with others in any way.

This can only be done by accepting my ‘imperfections’. This can only be done by sighing and smiling at my human need to continually judge, myself and others, and then by letting all feelings of ‘failure’ around those judgements go.

Our whole lives are really all about letting the liquid tide of dancing light sweep in and wash away the ‘sand-castles’ that we build around who we think we are, or who we think we should be. And then looking up, looking around us, looking at the beautiful, inviting horizon…and continuing to walk the endless and unfolding beach of Life ahead…