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Bardsey Island Observational Research Project

God is in the details

Aug 12, 2010. After a day without words, this morning they are tumbling out faster than I can do anything about it. I have to just let them go in the hope that they will still be hovering somewhere ready to pop back into the queue for submission to the page. You see here there is a lot that one must do each day before beginning the indulgence, that release, of writing.

My chores began this morning by emptying the toilet bucket into the giant composting box. It’s a windy day so today I had the brainwave to open the composting box before going into the outhouse to collect the bucket. Hence no smell. Genius! I normally take a deep breath before opening the box and before lifting the seat in the outhouse. Individually this does just fine, but usually by the time I have thrown back the big heavy lid on the composting box, with the bucket warbling in my other hand, by the time I am have tipped the bucket, with its cleverly placed handle on the bottom which I admire for its ingenuity every morning, I am close to running out of air. That means I need to breathe and on one unfortunate morning I did it as I reached back over the top of the box to grab the lid. Bad mistake. I did that dry vomit thing, that really just makes you feel worse. Since then I’ve learned to take a step back at this point, take a – small – breath, and THEN close the lid. But this morning, the wind did all the work for me.

One of the things you start to appreciate when one is using the outhouse is its sanctity. My children yell to me through the bathroom door. There is no peace there. But here, one is left alone, in peace, your thoughts uninterrupted, your eyes lifted to the gap at the sky and the trees through the top of the outhouse door, and you can’t help but be struck that this somehow resembles prayer, We are so humble at this point, our thoughts are at their most appreciative. Of the little things in life that are perhaps most important.

Steaming bowl of water is a very welcome sight

That steaming bowl of rainwater that awaits at the end of the task. Sure we can be grateful when we turn on the tap at home, but this gratitude is cerebral, logical. We know that we should turn the tap off when we are brushing our teeth and try not to waste water in other ways. But when a little glass of precious water – that has been teased from the well’s limited supply, that you have boiled and then filtered – is all that you have to brush your teeth with the feeling is different. The thought, the feeling and the gratitude comes from somewhere deeper.

When we turn on the hot tap we don’t think about how the water reached that tap, the filtration process it went through and all the miles of pipework all needing constant maintenance or even the work our boiler or immersion heater has done to make it hot for us. We only really notice when these things go wrong. The sight of the steam rising off white bowl is so comforting. And the appreciation for the water, its heat and it’s decontaminating properties is profound. The sight of that dwindling white bar of soap on the wall next to it fills me with joy. My old battered toothbrush from the bottom of my backpack was taken out of retirement to be a nailbrush on the first time and I can’t help but be struck by how much comfort that silly thing brings. It has been used to scrub hands, scrubbing stains out when washing clothes, and getting the stubborn charcoal and oil acrylics off my fingers after drawing. (Never before had I realised how much water it must take at home to clean my hands after artwork!)

It’s the little things. Emptying the waste food bucket is a joy every day, as I swirl the bucket as I walk to compost heap at the end of the garden in anticipation of what I will find. Some days clouds of blue butterflies have lifted off the bushes as I walked through. Another day the path was crisscrossed with spider webs that were covered with hundred of little orbs of dew each bearing a little upside down picture of here and now with me in the middle. It was like nature had strung up fairy lights just for the occasion, just for me.

Then there are the contents of the compost heap. There are the remains of past meals from previous residents of Hendy. Someone ate crabs last week. Everyday the discarded crab shells are picked a little cleaner by the creatures. Today a big black crow cawed at me from on top of the slatted sides of the compost heap. We looked at each other in awe for a few seconds, then he flew off, but not too far. He was waiting to see what fresh delights were in my bucket.

Boiling water is a constant chore. Collecting rainwater from the water butt in a saucepan is an experience, resting the handle on the rust cage that contains the giant water butt, turning the handle, then listening to the rising metallic note as the water fills the pan. Several times I’ve been so intent on listening to the sound that I’ve let the pan run over without realising only to have this universe remind me not to waste water by soaking my shoes, which took the whole day to dry out. Yes, Kathie, enjoy the sound, but next time remember to value the water.

I think I am in love with the stove. The gas burners are so friendly and efficient. They are such comfort and strength. They burn so robustly to boil the rainwater to kill the germs so that I can wash the dishes. Yes last night we were so caught up on sketching in the gas light that neither of us got up to do the dishes. For the first few days it seemed important to get everything done before it got dark, then we could huddle in safety in the darkness of our rooms without needing to venture out to the kitchen or – god forbid – the outhouse after nightfall. But now we don’t care. My daughter who was initially very scared and overwhelmed by this strange place – so much so that she vomited in the night out of sheer fear on the first night – is now calm enough and secure enough here to venture out to the outhouse in the dark. In fact we are now staying out till long after midnight gazing up at the vast number of stars that are visible in this place, listening the sheewaters and watch the Perseids streaking over the mountain in long white-hot arcs. You don’t really want to tear yourself away to go to bed, despite your best efforts to keep your eyes wide open to the night to catch a meteorite, they start to close and you can fight it no longer. Even so, I retire to my room and sit on the window sill gazing out for another half hour, catching a few Perseids shooting out past the lighthouse to land somewhere in the dark sea beyond. The sheerwaters calls are like a lullaby to me now.

I slept badly. Lots of dreams, nightmares. Strange that ones days should be so peaceful, yet nights so tormented. I wonder if the ancient monks were troubled in this way.
We both start the day, groggy and slow. Plus we both have a killer cricks in our necks from looking up for so long. Now I know why Count Dracula had that high, stiff collar –

being nocturnal and with probably so little light pollution in Transylvania, that collar would have come in very handy for star gazing. Yes folks, these are what pass for the jokes around here and you realise life on Enlli has even changed our humour. The excitement and anticipation when yesterday I pulled a packet of Banana Angel Delight from my jacket fell a bit flat when we both had our first spoonful and realised it’s not quite the same delight when made with fresh unpasteurised goat’s milk. We pulled faces. We made noises. We made jokes about goat-noms. We laughed so hard. And we both cleaned our bowls. Angel Delight – that rare (plastic) indulgence – will never be the same again.

I’m not sure I will ever be the same again. Several of the island people have asked me if I have adjusted to island ways. And

when I reply that yes, I love it and that I am so very happy here and I notice a particular smile crosses people’s faces. A big grin of acceptance, of shared participation, of welcome. One lady said that people come, and if they don’t like it they don’t come back.

So to not come back then, would surely be the same as me saying I didn’t like it and truly nothing could be further from the truth. I love Enlli. I want more. And I love island ways. I loved it from the first moment. Somehow like all these people the island had called to me, and I know I will be back because that call stays for life. Some might say there are no real islanders now. From a population around ninety a hundred years ago, the only people who live here year round now were all born and raised off the island. A few people come back for the summer months. But what you come to realise is that today the islanders are many. A look at the guest book that resides on the alter of the chapel tells a story of people coming from far and wide around the world, as well as from not far too away like me. It tells of generations of families coming back

to live this life summer after summer, for as many days or weeks a year as they can possibly afford in money and time. These are the islanders now and they are many. And I think that makes me one of them. I will be back as often and for long as I possibly can. I found a sense of purpose here and freedom to write here, to paint, to draw, to photograph, to think, to create without hindrance, without technology or life getting in the way. In short I found ME here. And I think in many ways I will probably leave me here when I begrudgingly board the boat for the journey back to the mainland.

What is it about ‘real’ life that gets in the way each day? I sit down to write first thing before my unconscious has fully turned off its tap, and before my conscious – and its accompanying critic – has had a change to wake up. This what I have been taught to do in I don’t know how many writing classes and books. And yet it doesn’t feel as ‘real’. And somewhere other people are getting up and the sound of the toaster popping, a computer booting up, or – the worst – the tv going on. The latest news from Twitter, or Facebook or Sky news starts to reach my brain, via my ears, whether I want it to or not. The ‘Awww come see this’ for the latest Lolcatz starts to pull me out of myself, out of my writing space, to make me feel hey the world is happening here, you’re missing out, And inevitably I participate in family life, get pulled kicking and screaming back into the tech-world by my husband and business partner and postpone my writing, my creativity, for later. And later never qurie comes. At least not like here.

Yet here, as I go about the essential chores that must be done on this island before the day can begin, I must postpone – and hopefully hone – my thoughts until life’s necessities are dealt with. This delay only makes my hunger to write – not to mention my hunger to eat – all the more voracious. When I finally write, I do it at the same time as eating the fresh eggs and a big mug of explorer tea and fresh goat’s milk. I write happily, freely and creatively. It is a wonderful, contemplative, release.

Last night I watched the monk walk from the hermitage, where for seven days he lives as the guest chaplain for this week. He walks solemnly, devoutly, purposefully, contemplatively, to ring the bell for compline as the sun sets. I see him praying or meditation or possibly just sitting and enjoying the sun during the day and he looks purposeful. He is on a spiritual quest. And yet as I go about my day here, with times for buckets and sweeping, times for chopping wood, times for boiling water and cooling water and filtering water, times for washing, times for cooking, times for baking, times for meals, time for afternoon tea (which is a ritual in its own right here), times for writing, times for photography, times for going out drawing, times for putting boots on, times for taking them off, times for recharging batteries in the sun, times for charging things up, times for conserving power, times for hanging things out in the wind, time for trust (when you go out and leave your things inside when there is no lock on the door), time for faith (when you hear a noise in the night and there is no lock on the door) times for relaxing, times for contemplation and reverence, I feel my own kind of purpose, my own kind of devotion – and in some way this too feels holy.

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