So, after two days of sleepless misfortune in a foreign country, I finally arrived at my destination: The Beshara School at the Chisholme Institute, Scotland.
I was here to WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms involves working for your room and board) and my days had gently structured timetables, but I think my descriptive experience of Chisholme calls for a more unstructured stream of consciousness form.
Almost every day, I woke up for breakfast at 7:30, worked until coffee break at 10:15, worked more until lunch, worked after lunch, took a tea break, possibly worked more, had dinner, took care of any after-dinner chores, showered, hung out in the common room, and sank into bed.
The Beshara School is a self-described “school of self-knowledge” and esoteric learning. It was founded in the 1970s and has been running courses and community events ever since. The courses are varied and often draw from a wide range of spiritual traditions, focusing on the unity of existence. However, while I was there, the running courses were less obviously spiritual or academic: one was a cooking course, called Love, Knowledge, and Broccoli, and another, called Foundations of Natural Living involved spending a week in yurts. Chisholme House, near the Scottish borders, is a residential centre – a place where students (anyone who studies at Beshara) live and where every aspect of life on the estate is seen as an opportunity for learning. Chisholme, in addition to hosting students, benefits from the presence of temporary volunteers such as WWOOFers. Volunteers lend a hand where needed, and we are invited to participate in studies, encouraged to join meditation, and treated like family. I went to study twice – the first time we read Rumi and discussed poetry in a setting reminiscent to my introductory courses at a liberal arts college, the second time was more a fellowship, a cathartic sharing of thoughts.
I lived in the “steading” – a converted farmstead – in a cozy room, my window covered with ivy.
When I think of unique “Schools” out in the middle of the wilderness, run by stately European men, I think Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Chisholme is basically the X-Mansion plus an organic Michelin restaurant (dinner tastes like three stars after a day of physical labor) plus a monastery plus a farm…. Essentially, life at Chisholme is peaceful and fulfilling. I did meaningful work every day, and I went to bed and ate meals feeling as if I’d truly earned them.Chisholme is a place that attracts creative, introspective, artistic, thoughtful, open-minded, curious and adventurous souls from across the world. It is a place to come for quiet retreat (away from the hectic bustle that so often characterizes our lives), honest and fulfilling labor, scenic vistas, delicious food, and courses dedicated to self-growth. Many people experience spiritual growth during the courses, but I knew – at least at this point in my life – that those paths of study were not for me: Instead of discussing old texts, I found my actualization and spiritual satisfaction digging in the garden, baking in the kitchen, drinking coffee behind the shed, hiking in the hills, and swimming in the lochs.
Chisholme, for me, became this utopian bubble – a dreamlike haven that seemed to rest outside my reality. (Here is where I sound like I’m on drugs, but really I just found my time at Chisholme hard to properly describe) Like, if my life were this stream, my time at Chisholme was where I floated off to the side – was granted a break and took time to look at the stream, try to appreciate it and understand it, enjoy the feeling of it without being swept along in my usual state of unaware drifting.
Chisholme is a place of belonging. It is not the place that I belong forever, but for now it the right place for me. I have a strong suspicion that I will be back one day.
Chisholme is a place that encourages people to be present and pay attention. A place that hopes people will achieve those moments of noticing everything that they forget to notice most of the time. A place that wants people to focus on being, not just doing.
It is also a place that encourages perfect moments – moments where I was perfectly present, perfectly aware, perfectly content, and perfectly appreciative of my surroundings and state of being.
Food and meals are an important part of Beshara and highlight the school’s emphasis on community. Everyone eats together in a large dining hall overlooking the grounds. Food is lovingly prepared, often with vegetables and herbs handpicked from the garden. Heavenly, fresh-baked bread is present at almost every meal (and I love bread). Cakes make an appearance during tea time. The second week I was there, the cooking course took food to a whole new level. Meals that had been delicious before turned into the sort of events that rendered me nearly unable to fit through doorways. I thought I would leave my WWOOFing experience a toned, garden-hardened woman; instead, I had to be rolled out the front door with my devastatingly pampered palate.
I cannot properly express how wonderful and exciting it was to go to meals and eat a potato, knowing exactly where that potato came from and remembering how I felt when I dug it up earlier that day.
There was little pot piled on broken tiles in the garden. Do you ever see small details and wonder at their beauty and artistic perfection? Well, I took many photos of this pot. Trying to capture what made it so perfect, right where it was. Probably too many photos. No, definitely too many photos.
I especially enjoyed work that had some connection to the kitchen. I worked primarily in the garden, sorting potatoes, digging potatoes, picking beans, shucking beans, watering the polytunnel (my least favorite activity; getting the water pump to start made me want to immerse my face in motor oil), transplanting cabbages, planting seeds, weeding (oh yes, weeds are the root of all evil. Pun partially intended), composting, picking herbs, collecting courgettes with a satisfying snap, harvesting onions, and – my personal favorite – BRAIDING ONIONS. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a potato-digging machine, but my heart will forever lie with the art of the onion plait. I also helped care for the chickens, gathering the eggs that were used in cakes. And I discovered a new love for kitchens. Give me a large, well-stocked kitchen and tell me what to make, and apparently I will be quite happy to go on a culinary adventure. One day, a caked was needed for the afternoon break. “Lindsey, would you be able to bake cake for this afternoon?” “Well, I’ve never baked a cake in my entire life (icing someone else’s Funfetti doesn’t count), but yeah I could do that!” And thus it was that I learned how to make Victoria Sponge. I mixed my eggs in with such patient love and tenderness that, in a “rare” piece of cookery, they did not curdle. I hadn’t even known about this egg curdling problem before, but now I was absurdly proud of myself. In celebration, I shamelessly gorged on all the left over hand-whipped, double cream. And everyone at the school was so sweetly encouraging: “Oh, Lindsey. I heard this was your first cake and you made it by yourself. It is delicious.” Yes, I spent the afternoon flitting around like a self-satisfied ball of sunshine. I also helped to make pizzas, demonstrating an aptitude for dough rolling and lifting. Dad, how surprised/proud are you? [My love of the kitchen may have also stemmed from frequent requests for me to try the concoctions. “Please, Lindsey, would you taste the ice cream? Or these raspberries? Or this chocolate cake mix?” “Oh, fine, if I must.”]
I worked a little in the kitchen during the course, mostly washing dishes and listening to information and theories about the art/science of cooking. Followed by some of the greatest meals of my life.
Film continues to spring up beautifully in various parts of my life. Even out in the middle of Scotland – where I was taking a break from film pursuits to explore other aspects of life, I found film connections. One student wanted me to come work as his film editor in Morocco. Oh, and Ewan McGregor has been to Chisholme. Mildly intriguing, yes?
I also helped set up a yurt, and worked in the lumberyard, chopping wood, operating heavy machinery, stacking logs, and helping with construction of a storage shed. With my newfound lumberjack skills, gardening expertise, and food preparation knowledge, I feel much more prepared in the event of any apocalypse. I doubt that a school of esoteric knowledge ever expected for a girl to take their learning and apply it usefully (albeit prematurely) to plans for survival outside of civilization, but there you have it.
| Working in the garden. And with birds. |
My favorite potatoes to dig: the Dutch. Oh, those particular tots were satisfying… like digging up an explosion of golden nuggets. It was all very reminiscent of a treasure hunt. I think I was living out some childhood fantasies in that field. Whilst digging potatoes, I also made a blackbird friend who came for the newly tilled soil, but stayed for Lindsey’s special hand-fed worms. There were also three quirky chickens who frequented the garden – they were all black chickens, but just sufficiently different to merit their own individual personas (like Sleeping Beauty’s three fairy godmothers, or a boy band composed of chaps with distinct haircuts). I named them Tubby, Tiny, and Toes. Tubby is the fat one, Tiny is the small one (though the two were occasionally reversed depending on how ironic I was feeling), and Toes is always the one with giant feathers over her feet. They all looked ridiculous when they ran – like squat, toddling, fluffy baby dinosaurs – and I grew rather fond of them.
I grew less fond of the insect life in the garden. They came out with the sun. A flock of flies adopted me as their mother. And, I have to say, I mislike my new children. Loathe them, even. Perhaps they even began driving me insane? I started talking to the chickens, for instance. I was throwing potatoes into a pile… Toes and Tiny jumped and ran, but Tubby was as cool as a cucumber. I threw some more potatoes. She moved closer. I threw more. She didn’t budge. I was like, “Tubs! You are unflappable!” And then I started laughing hysterically by myself in a potato field because chickens can’t fly and therefore I unintentionally made a pun. Yes. So funny. *Pats self on back*
Swan lake was actually right behind the garden.
I wandered some of the overgrown trails that dotted Chisholme’s vast acreage.
In addition to working, I loved interacting with a plethora of thoughtful, intelligent, and interesting people. For instance, I found myself telling one woman about the time I dove deep while snorkeling and felt, more than heard, a strange hum vibrating in my bones. It was eerie and wonderful, and a man soon confirmed that there was whale pod further out in the bay. The woman talked about moments that resonate, small events that can affect you in big ways and stick with you forever. We agreed that swimming in whale songs was probably one, looking into the eyes of an elephant another. Chisholme fostered talks – ranging from lightly absurd to deeply thoughtful – about animals, filmmaking, music, politics, smoking, cake, the meaning of life, the best way to shuck beans, the vicissitudes of dating, the art of dough-making, and the hazards of log-splitting. We spent a lot of time talking. And just as much time sitting in comfortable silence. I met wonderful people and made spectacular friends, people from all over the world with a wealth of experiences and stories.
My free days were sprinkled with perfect moments, all beneficially accompanied by a musical playlist ideal for wandering the Scottish Lowlands. The soundtrack to a flawless afternoon: including “I Will Remain” by Matthew & the Atlas, “Hopeless Wanderer” by Mumford and Sons, “Lady Percy” by King Charles, “Furr” by Blitzen Trapper, “Rivers and Roads” by The Head And The Heart, “Restless Heart” by Matt Hires, “Run-Around” by Blues Traveler, “On Top of the World” by Imagine Dragons, “No Ceiling” by Eddie Vedder, the entire Through the Deep, Dark Valley album by The Oh Hellos, everything by The Lumineers, scores by John Powell, and sprinklings of Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, and Kishi Bashi. Music (some of it sufficiently Scottish) that made me smile, glide, and dance alone on the shores of reedy lakes.
One afternoon, I walked up to the memorial, relaxed, read a book. Then walked back down the sheep hill for tea and cake. Then back out to search for a place to swim. Outside Chisholme’s gates, hills spread out in golden and purple waves. The views were idyllic and spectacular, dotted with sheep and meandering stone walls. And the sky was just SO BIG. Walking along the long road, I felt like I was finally getting the P.S. I Love You wandering-roads-in-filmic-landscapes that I’d come to expect from my Europe trip. I even had Gerard Butler crooning in my ear – granted, it was as a hairy Viking from a children’s dragon movie, but I’ll take what I can get. I gazed at the views, skipped along the road, and reveled in every second.
I had to hop a fence and walk through flowers that towered over my head in order to get to the loch. This particular body of water was not the most ideal place to swim – it was shallow and blessed an overabundance of slippery rocks. (Side Note: Who wants to sponsor my book: Skinny Dipping Across the Universe – the best in global, secluded swimming holes? That’s a working title, mind you. I am very tempted to make this my next life goal).
The second loch I stumbled upon – a further walk away – was from a fairytale. When I trekked to the further loch, a storm had rolled in. I was bundled in a down jacket covered by a rain jacket, iPhone blasting music nestled again my neck, eyes squinted against the wind and rain, watching the choppy waves. I scrambled up a heathery embankment and over a moss-ridden rock wall. I scuttled to a sort of stone throne, partially submerged. The water was cold. I sat there for a minute, teeth chattering, and decided, OK, I went this far. No need to wade out any further. I got out. A car drove by. I threw myself onto the ground. Laughing. The car moved way too slowly. The wind picked up. Well, now I have to go in and wash off. Clearly I’m not allowed to get out of swimming so easily. I would say “exhilarating” is one word for swimming in a Scottish storm. “Hypothermic” is another phrase that springs to mind. As I was preparing to leave, another car drove by. And then stopped. An old man emerged from the car and started walking over to me. I’m thinking, Crap. This is probably private property. Or it’s illegal to swim in Scotland. Or something. Oh, he is going to yell at me and I’m going to feel sick… And then, the old man asked if I was allright. He had seen me alone, in the storm, and just wanted to make sure that I was not hurt or stranded. Sometimes I forget that there is an abundance of genuinely kind people in the world – people who will get involved in the life of a stranger for altruistic and not aggressive reasons. We chatted for a while about stonemasonry, and swimming, and topography. And then I skipped back to Chisholme.
“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J.R.R. Tolkien