There’s a stony feeling in my gut this morning. A cold clammy sinkhole beneath my ribs. I stare at my barn and wonder how I will ever in a million years reach the end. Walls need repairing, nay rebuilding in places. Limecrete must be mixed (without a cement mixer, lest you forget). Roof ties will be attached. The cement mortar between each and every rock must be chiselled out by hand, and the whole thing repointed. Window frames will be built and installed. Wood will be sanded and oiled. Then there’s the roof insulation, the floor joists, the floorboards...and that’s just as far as I dare to look at this moment. All this will be done by yours truly.
“I’ve set myself a target,” I said to Farmer Quilo the other day. He was lugging a chainsaw in one hand, having just pruned my ash tree. His cheeks were a little less red than usual, though he still had his Santa Claus belly. On the way up the hill, my neighbour slowed. He craned his head back to look at the barn. Then he whistled.
“Hay mucho trabajo.”
A lot of work. Yes. Indeed.
“Poco a poco,” he added cheerily. Bit by bit. It’s a phrase one hears often in Spain. Little by little. Step by step. In many ways it’s my mantra, because an awful lot gets done poco a poco. If you can advance one step a day, then in a month you’ve moved thirty steps, which inevitably looks quite impressive when you study the before and after shots.
“I’m hoping to get the outside done by February. Do you think I can?” I patted the stone walls of the barn. They were cool and rugged under my hand. February. Why February? It’s not that there’s any hurry, after all. It’s not that I have to move in for my survival. I’m warm and dry in my tiny renovated chicken coop hut, even if I do keep banging my head on the door frame. But I need these time frames, both as something to aim for and as a solace. Because if I can imagine the outside finished by February, then I’m moving. I’m climbing. It’s manageable.
And there’s something else. Something a little more mysterious about time. When I envision a thing completed by a certain season or moment, it usually is, sometimes in the weirdest ways. Time, like money, is a figment of the human mind. It’s a mental calibration laid over an inconsistent and sentient experience. It twists, expands, shrinks, and dances, and I often get the feeling it plays as well.
So in my mind’s eye I see the exterior finished by February. In my guts I feel it too. It’s just the right kind of time.
Timing is everything
“Oh just take your time, there’s no hurry. It will take as long as it needs to.” I’ve told myself this many times. Still do. Certainly, we Westerners are mostly in a continual rush, pressing on the gas pedal of our lives with such force that we are in a continual state of overheat. Our days so often flick past our windows in a blur, and we have no idea what we are doing or why. Far too much of the time we never stop to think, or rest, or enjoy the present moment.
But life is not so easily solved by a platitude. “Take your time” has its place. “Live in the moment,” too. But there are other places. Other situations. And there is definitely such a thing as timing.
Timing is everything. We don’t always have time, because sometimes it runs out. We don’t live forever. Our bodies are not infinitely healthy. Seasons change. The world changes. And what was at one time appropriate, isn’t at another. There are times to jump, times to pause, times to work your butt off, and times to play, times to push, and times to stop pushing. Part of mastering this game called life is working out which time we’re in and acting accordingly.
As soon as Quilo left, I ran to my ash tree to pile up the felled branches. Now shorn of her limbs, the ash stands as an arboreal sculpture carving a brand new drama into the skyline. It all looks a bit brutal, a place where vultures might perch. But this pollarding is crucial for the tree’s well-being. Winter is all but here and the ash will now turn inwards, collecting her energy and resources. Come spring this magnificent tree will thrust upwards and outwards again with a power that is staggering.
There will be no pause in April, May, and June. My Power Ash will not take her time in spring and summer, nor just watch the daisies bloom. Because trees haven’t had their internal sense of timing messed with by some industrial machine. They haven’t been told to run when they wanted to walk, or told to work when they wanted to sleep, or told to slow down when they wanted to gallop. They haven’t been filled with doubt either. As far as I know (who knows for sure, eh?) they don’t fret before they push out their buds. They don’t have crises of confidence. No one tells them they can’t do it, or that they’ll fail. Trees are supremely confident because they're rooted in the dirt of reality, not in their heads. If the desire and vision have been forged in winter, they will manifest in spring.
When I stare at the crack-spattered limestone walls split both by Portland cement and age, and when I feel the dull ache of my muscles, it’s sobering. The immensity of the task ahead spreads before me like the Mountains of Shadow. I sense the cold dark pit in my belly, the place where all my demons lurk; distraction, fear, lack of self-belief. It would be easy to cling to a truism right now. To say, “Ah well, there’s no hurry. I think I’ll just head to the beach.”
But this is not the time.
Our lives are great tomes, each era a chapter. Once a page has turned, you can’t turn it back. This is what it means to live life as an art, a balancing act, the performance of an acrobat.
I know too many people who’ve sat on dreams for the best part of their lives. They always thought there was time, that they could follow their soul at some future point. In truth we mostly procrastinate for the wrong reasons. Shilly-shally is not the same as rest or reflection. It's often indicates a lack of faith, and is another symptom of being disconnected from our source. When we dither at a moment which has opened up to us for action, before we know it, it’s too late. We lose strength or health, or a pandemic happens and we can no longer travel, or we are simply not at that stage in life anymore, and no longer possess the drive.
So yes, I can take my time. And no, I don’t want to right now. Six months ago I thought I did, indeed I thought I would. I thought I’d chip away at that mortar, poco a poco. But the sun is out. The birds are chirping. And I have a fire burning in my heart. Maybe it won’t be there next year or next month, or even tomorrow. Who knows?
As I peer out of my kitchen, I see the stepladder propped against the barn wall. The mortar bucket is there too. Waiting. I can feel the fatigue dragging slightly at my thighs, and the push of my comfort zone as it tries to keep me from moving. But it’s time. Time to ditch the doubts, press against the elastic of my resistance, funnel my attention, and build.
An hour later I’m balanced on the ladder pushing a beautiful rock in place. It’s the last one on this small part of the wall, but it completes one part of my 3D stone picture. The fatigue has dissipated now. The motivation has returned. This time next year I’m going to thank the 2020 version of me for acting on time. For actually taking the step that needed to be taken at the time it needed to be taken.
Thank you dear contributors and supporters
Thank you so much to everyone who is contributing to The Mud Home. Like most authors, I don’t earn enough from my books to sustain me. These words are a gift and are published here thanks to the generous funding of the Mud Sustainers and everyone on Patreon, without whom I would have no time or funds to keep the free material on The Mud Home coming.
Thank you also to everyone who has shared my work, and thus helped it reach a wider audience. And thank you to those who’ve bolstered me with their kind and stimulating comments.
Take a closer look inside my world:
If you enjoy my writing and would like to express that you want it to continue, please consider contributing. For the price of a newspaper, all mud patrons can watch my private land report videos, ask more questions, and get the inside story on my off-grid mud and stone project in Spain.
Atulya K Bingham
Author, Lone Off-Gridder, and Natural Builder.
"Reality meets fantasy, myth, dirt and poetry. I'm hooked!" Jodie Harburt, Multitude of Ones.