The sun pulled apart the clouds and flung them out to sea. There was a rush of gold into my world as the tongues of the mountainsides lapped up new pools of light. Yet despite the vitamin D injection and the stalwart assistance of Jose Manuel, I had reached the end of my tether. Was it fatigue, sheer impatience, or the simple irritation of spending my third winter in a refurbished chicken coop without a hot shower? I don’t know. All I do know is, suddenly I’d had enough.
The danger zone
I stared up at my new windows, but somehow it wasn't enough. I couldn't appreciate how far I'd come because all I could see was the rising ground ahead, and I simply felt clean out of juice. This is the danger zone. You’ve driven the build through storms and snow, but it’s been slow going. You are tired, and worse still you’re starting to feel bored. It’s the time in a project if you are not very very careful, things can slide into a mire of inertia.
Many don’t return from this juncture. Things unravel as confidence wanes. You’re still uncomfortable, you’re not living your dream, and the distance between where you are now and where you want to be looms in front of you in terrible clarity. When you see half-finished projects up for sale, this is what’s happened. Everything took four times longer than expected. Money became tight. Enthusiasm and energy was sapped. Suddenly a normal life crammed with labour-saving devices and central heating looks oh so attractive.
Realities to face on the builder's path
This I where I am now, and grumpiness has taken a hold of me. So why don't I take a holiday? Because there are some realities on the builders’ path that onlookers often don’t appreciate. Some things have to be done within a certain time frame otherwise the structure itself suffers. You may get away with a building being semi-open for one winter, but not for two. Wood begins to show signs of damp. All manner of wildlife from mice to woodworm to birds to ivy are continually vying for habitation rights. The building is demanding to be lived in. It’s not the time for a vacation no matter how much I may want one.
The good thing about age is you have experience to fall back on. I’ve been at this point before, many times and in many places. One was the Camino de Santiago.
It was back in 2017 after my dear dog Rotty died that I decided to walk 170km of the Camino in Spain. I didn’t train, because I didn’t care. I was grief-riddled after all. That route was supposed to take eight days for a fit person. I was on day four, somewhere between Sarria and Portomarin, and it was killing me.
Everything hurt that day, even my ears. As the sun trudged over the sky, I dragged my legs along the roads like sacks of coal. It was too much. I knew many people gave up around days four and five, and I could quite see why. You reach your body’s threshold, and there are two ways out. Either drop out, or hope by some miracle something else happens...
Yes, day four was the rack of the road and I was competing against tortoises and snails for slowest mover. Then, just to ice the cake of doom, my right hiking boot fell apart at the sole. I hobbled along the bridge which spanned the wide river at Portomarin, and the great medieval gate rose before me. It was then I spotted the talus of steps I had to climb to enter the old town. I don’t know how long it took me to reach the top. At times I was on all fours. When I staggered into the hostel and collapsed on a bunk, it was almost dark.
The next morning I took my time over my croissant and coffee. Day five. I’ll never forget it. The sun pierced the cafe windows and cast the cobbles in gold. And I knew my Camino wasn’t over. As I grabbed my backpack and made for the door, I inhaled deeply before put my best, blister-covered foot first. There was resistance. The broken sole flapped woefully when I lifted up my shoe. Things hurt already, and I hadn’t even begun.
Nevertheless I walked. And walked. Out of the small town and onto a track. This is when things bucked the linear trend of my thoughts. The pain didn’t move into more pain, and I didn’t crumble on the roadside in a mewling heap of dilapidation either. No. The pain turned into...well what? Suddenly I sensed I was no longer a small, tired, amateur walker stuck in a cage of skin, but that I was outside too. I noticed the exchange, the life force winding in and out of everything. Power exploded inside me. My legs seemed to throw themselves into a new gear. I had energy, but from where?
I began striding. The Camino wound into woodland and out again. It slithered along the edges of fields and flirted with byroads. By afternoon I was pounding up hills, simply eating up the kilometres. And what do you know? By 5pm I’d covered 26 kilometres and had reached my next hostel. 26 kilometres. The most I’d managed to walk until that day was 19 kilometres.
From there on in, the Camino walked itself. I was ravenous for road, chewing it up like dried mango pieces. Through cobbled villages, over brooks, crossing medieval stone bridges and 21st century highways, passing shrines and churches and cafes, the Camino de Santiago was now a breeze. To the utter disbelief of my friends, I finished the 170 kilometres in seven days, not eight. No training. No clue.
It’s always at the very point we want to give up that we are on the edge of turning a corner. The sun knows this, which is why he keeps moving this time of year. Good job. Imagine if he reached the 21st of December and lost faith. I mean, he could after all, seeing the days becoming shorter and shorter and shorter like that.
Yes. There’s one thing we can’t forget as the days shrink back into themselves, and the nights seem poised to take over all Earth. At that darkest hour in particular, we have to keep walking. We have to keep showing up. We have to simply march or hobble or whatever through the pain barrier, even though we no longer know exactly where our road is going, or how we can possibly do it. We have to nurture the idea that there are greater, more powerful things in and beyond our reality matrix that we don’t even know about. We have to understand that life and the planet has our back. That things on planet Earth move in circles and loops and spirals, not straight lines. Because it doesn’t matter if it’s a house, or a body, or a new society, things simply do not manifest according to linear logic, or the way we were taught at school.
Most of the limits we think exist have been taught us, and the older I get the more suspicious I become of them, because they so rarely prove correct. They rest on the sketchiest of premises, such as we are all separate beings shut in skin, that only the material exists, that it’s all about money, that we have to prove our worth, that humans are innately “bad” and need training to be “good”, and so on and so forth. If I’d listened to what I was taught at school, and followed the advice of the good old majority, I’d still be losing my mind in secondary education, popping anti-depressants, burning out, and watching Netflix to drown out the misery. I doubt I’d even own my home outright, because I’d be mortgaged up to the age of 60 or more. I’d be frightened of losing my job, beholden to the economy, eating shop bought plastic food, losing my health and strength, and looking forward to retiring at 70. Lurvely.
As it stands, I quit that hamster wheel at the ripe old age of 27. Against all the advice of my colleagues in London, I moved to Turkey, and have lived all sorts of adventures since then. I have worked in shitty day jobs a grand total of four years of my entire life, and yet somehow I still own my own home and a hectare of beautiful land. Clearly, the standard protocol for surthrival is missing some significant data-based evidence.
However, it’s not all skipping through meadows of daisies. There is one thing the nature-based free world asks of us. We have to walk our talk, put our money where our mouth is, and be pushed beyond what we think we’re capable of. Because unless we stretch past what we assume to be the limit of possibility, how can the impossible ever appear? We will never have given it a chance.
The solstice is behind us now. A warm wind has rolled in from the south, flattening the grass and inverting the climate. The highlands are now ten degrees warmer than the valleys, and the ash trees rattle like the clapping sticks of the aborigines.
I wander down to look at my barn. The front windows are in, framed by old oak timbers we’ve painstakingly sanded and oiled. The sun falls onto the stones, highlighting the inlaid mirrors and beads. It’s still a barn, and yet it’s not, as though it exists in two dimensions simultaneously, one foot in its old self, the other in the new. As I stand there, neck craned back, I sense the land around me and the sky pushing overhead. The juice of life pours into me once more. I have come a long way. The finish is still a distant speck, and I’m so tired I can’t cut one more bit of wood.
But it’s okay. Tomorrow I’ll put my best foot forward again. It’s going to happen. I don’t know how exactly. But it will. I just have to keep on walking. Keep on mixing the mortar. And whispering with the Earth.
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