Saturday, 27 December 2014

Insight, Housework, and History: a pre-Christmas retreat at Gaia House, Devon

My first visit to Gaia House was in early summer. At the time, its tall many-windowed Georgian front evoked whispers of nineteenth-century institution - perhaps orphanage or boarding school; its sprawling wooded grounds with their ancient, thick-trunked trees and tiny closed-off graveyard clearly harboured secret histories. Unlike many old houses, there were no laminated signs with explanations or accounts of its lineage over the past few centuries - and there was no wifi to look it up, because it was a meditation retreat centre.

Gaia House
There have been buildings on the site amidst rolling green hills, just outside Newton Abbott, since Elizabethan times. An old foundation stone in one wing still bears the inscription 'Anno Domini 1588 T.R', for Thomas Reynell, patriarch of the local gentry family. Although much of the house now is Georgian, the tiny thirteenth century church which adjoins its grounds harks back to a sense of older history in which the silence and stillness of modern-day Gaia House are steeped. It has been a manor house, Christian retreat centre, an evacuated school during the Blitz, a convent, and - since 1996 - an insight meditation centre in the Buddhist tradition. Visitors arrive for a weekend, five days, a week, for teacher-led meditation retreats and study retreats, or to practise silently by themselves. Although the dining hall periodically fills with chatter at the beginning and end of retreats, it's a quiet place, where people come to filter down through the noise and vigilance of mind and life to find deeper stillness, and quieter truths.

Nuns at Gaia House, when it was West Ogwell House
With the sounds of owls calling at night, and star-filled skies, it couldn't be a more beautiful place in which to try. Yet the beauty is real and rough around the edges, and the house weaves its retreatants into its very fabric to keep it running. Along with a simple schedule of early morning meditation, breakfast, three hours' meditation before lunch, three hours' afterwards, and an early supper, every morning after breakfast each retreatant is assigned to a part of the house to work for an hour. On my first retreat I washed the dishes in the early summer morning, bleary-eyed, the sunlight pale and clean through the sloping glass ceiling. On my second, I chopped vegetables with increasingly blunt knives: onions and sweet potatoes, aubergines and kale, peppers and courgettes and squashes and potatoes, for the vegetarian dishes that appeared beautifully cooked and seasoned for lunch each day. This time round, I did housework as the anaemic winter sunlight struggled through the windows. I scrubbed toilets, sinks, and showers, refilled hand-wash bottles, wiped mirrors, vacuumed the winding corridors, dusted the skirting-boards, took down the bins to the silent laundry, mopped the linoleum floors.

Housework is just a chore for most of us. At Gaia House it is many things: it's an opportunity for mindfulness - to practise being fully with the task in the present moment, however seemingly mundane; it is also a way of contributing, of clearing up after oneself, for a centre that works hard to keep its costs to retreatants low and the old house ticking over. Yet there's a particular sense of discovery when these things come together, as they did for me this December, as in silence I cleaned, wiped, and dusted the intimate spaces of the old house. I noticed the window shutters, now painted over and pinned back, which used to close up the house in the wartime blackouts of the 1940s, and from which wisps of cavity wall insulation now poke; I spotted the hideyhole in the strangely-shaped tiny cleaning closet, where I could imagine evacuees hiding from their teachers. I found that what I'd taken to be a tiled floor was in fact a cunning linoleum. I discovered the old taps in incongruent places, where pipes had once led, and where now there were none; I noted the antique marble fireplaces, once expensive, now disused. I noticed the bumps and scrapes on the paintwork where previous retreatants had trailed their luggage, and witnessed myself adding to them involuntarily with Henry the Hoover as he took corners with a gallant thud. I was discovering a house that was made up of layers of history, some quieter and darker than others, and which continues to accrue its scrapes and stories as visitors come and go, however silently.

The spiral staircase, Denbury Wing
As with my previous tasks on previous occasions, I also sensed the ways in which this unsung community hour weaves together people and house in symbiosis. To take a dish and have seen the person who washed it for you, even if you don't know their name; to find that the sweet potato that you peeled and chopped with aching wrists has morphed into a delicious soup at the hands of the woman in the kitchen; even that the bathmat that you fetched from the laundry has been carefully hung up to dry - these things integrate retreatants, staff, and house far more than somewhere where it's all done for you. By drawing its visitors into the living heart of the house - its dusty cleaning closets and oniony kitchens - Gaia House turns meditation into a form of life, life into a form of meditation, individual visitors into companions, and each retreat into a homecoming. Meanwhile, amidst the simplicity of the present moment lurks the history - much lovelier when stumbled upon beneath a layer of paint, than laminated in plain sight.

My Eyes Are Bigger Than My Bookshelves: The Attenborough Effect

It was all going really well - until David Attenborough came to call.

A few months ago I identified a book surplus issue in my life. The double-stacks were making my shelves dip ever so gently in the middle; books adorned my furniture and served as book-tables for more books. It was pleasant to be engulfed by my favourite form of material culture, but it was becoming problematic for the supporting walls, and quite demanding to navigate in the early morning. So I've been attempting with some success to go six months without buying any more books.

A funny thing started to happen at the beginning of November, two months into my challenge. I would wander through Waterstones and read the back of a lovely shiny paperback and not feel the visceral urge to buy it. I'd clock it and think vaguely 'Oh, I might get that once my six months are up,' and then as I stepped out into the damp Oxford air the thought would float away softly into the ether. Meanwhile, I was on a good reading roll at home. Donna Tartt's The Secret History was proving an addictive bedfellow; so well written that I'd pick it up to read a few pages at night, and find myself still there twenty minutes later. I was in a happy equilibrium with my books, satisfied not to be adding to their number, replete with the real joy of a good one on the go.

Then I heard that David Attenborough was going to come and sign his new book at my college.

I've written about David Attenborough on this blog before, but suffice to say, most of my childhood was spent either reading, making dens, or watching David Attenborough. Not only does he feel like the nation's coral-reef-abseiling grandfather, he even looks a lot like mine. His documentaries instilled both love of nature and landscape in those who watched them as children, and also feelings subtler and intangible: curiosity about and affinity with the natural world, a sense that it is part of us and we are part of it, and that we would do well to know and look after our wild places. I've harboured a wish to meet him ever since I discovered two years ago - on the day, too late - that the great man did in fact take in Oxford on his book tours.

When I got the email, I was all over it like a chipmunk on a camper's granola bars. Without a twinge of book-buyer's guilt I went out and picked up his new one, the updated Life On Air, which I had listened to as an audiobook a couple of years earlier. This was a purchase with a purpose: I was going to meet David Attenborough, and he would probably just smile and sign my book, and that would be enough. The joy sustained me over three weeks of intense thesis-writing. As yet another weekend sailed by at my desk I would think about David Attenborough wafting eau d'Antarctique into the calm unknowing corridors of my college, and wonder yet again whether twenty-six was too late to throw in my lot as a wannabe natural history camerawoman.

Then, three days before he was due to visit, I got another email. David Attenborough's schedule had sadly become overcrowded, and he would be unable to meet us and sign our books. However, he would sign bookplates for us, and he'd be at Waterstones that day, if we wanted to go and queue there.

It had felt too good to be true - the mythical Attenborough, a rare and refined species, glimpsed repeatedly from televisual distance throughout my life, descending through the forests of Oxford to emerge in my college - and I could only smile with disappointment. I wondered vaguely about heading to Waterstones, book in hand. My sister was in town on the day and texted me six hours before he was due to make his appearance: the queues were already in place - and they were long. That settled it for me; it was my first day off in a month and I didn't have the energy to spend it in a queue, even for David Attenborough. Others were more determined. The Oxford Mail later reported that people queued for up to eight hours to meet him. My sister joined the line for a while and discovered that people had come from all over the country: he'd been at a bookshop in Basingstoke that morning, the queues were too long for everyone to be seen, and the un-quenched had jumped on trains to Oxford. One had flown down from Aberdeen, and others flown in from Ireland.

The scale of it took everyone by surprise. Strikingly, my sister noticed people heading to his enclave in the shop with not just one book to be signed, but piles of them - Life on Earth, The Private Life of Plants, The Life of Birds, Life in Cold Blood. These were summarily unloaded onto the table for Sir Attenborough to put his pen across. It was a reminder of the peculiarity of celebrity, the discombobulating juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous. Over a sixty-year career, the broadcaster has been loved for being genuine, patient, and dignified; for bringing the world's jungles and mountains, deserts and deep oceans, ice flats and gardens into the nation's homes. Yet as we yearn to materialise the ineffable, he is maxed-out for his signature by some, while hundreds of others wait patiently to catch a glimpse.

So that was that. No sightings of the man himself, but instead one rather lovely bookplate-signed hardback copy of David Attenborough's Life on Air (2014). It was a tasteful fifth column within my six-month challenge. Something had ruptured; that month I also succumbed to a cookbook. Later, doing my Christmas shopping, I was hooked by Andrea Wulf's The Founding Gardeners: How the Revolutionary Generation Created an American Eden. Soberly facing the New Year, buoyed up by a fortunate Christmas trilogy of Hilary Mantel, Henry Marsh, and Helen MacDonald, I'm back on track for my last two months of self-imposed restraint. Maybe Sir David will return to Oxford; maybe he won't. I'll just have to be patient, and wait.