By Erica Lowe, Housekeeping Assistant
So, I arrived in September 2015. An Essential Volunteer. Signed up to clean toilets, harvest vegetables, cook meals, fix fences… anything Embercombe needed two hands or more to get done and receiving accommodation, food and the opportunity to experience living in a community of like minded people with the aim to find within me what I needed to go back out into the world being the change I want to see in it.
Within two weeks I was ready to go home. Curled up in my caravan not able to go out and face into the community of people who were all so lively and fabulous and principled and passionate and had done so much and were just so….. ? … cool.
How can I possible find a place for myself within such a group of people?
I didn’t run away. Instead through continued engagement in morning circles, shared meals, movies in CentreFire, making hot-chocolate in the volunteer caravan, pushing wheelbarrows up and down and up and down and up and down all the hills, dancing the Lindyhop, sitting around fires with the odd bottle of cider, peeling vegetables, weeding rows of cabbages, cutting back brambles, making up beds, dancing in the November rain… somehow I found a place. My place. My place inside of myself where I was solid enough to know I was loved and accepted for who I am. And Hmmm, what is this feeling? I’m pushing a wheelbarrow up a hill past some chickens and I’m feeling something… what is it? Oh wow, I think, I think this might be joy! Joy? Yes, joy. It’s there. It was there all along, covered up and buried by so many things and now it’s surfaced. There, real, glowing. Joy. Heh heh heh, I know where you live now Joy, no hiding from me anymore.
And then came the opportunity to stay longer at Embercombe. The 2016 Assistant applications were open… nope. I’m good thanks. Done here come Christmas. Totally the right thing for me. Big love and encouragement to everyone applying for the various roles in kitchen, garden, education, site… nowhere for me to apply really and no need to either. I’m good.
Oh, what’s that little voice inside? Hmmmm, well, I’ll just ask Jez if late applicants for the Housekeeping role would be acceptable. Yes? Ok, well maybe….. Ooops. Look at that I seem to have applied to stay for another whole year! And bam, fever illness on the week of interviews. Off to bed, toss and turn and fever dream ripping through my psyche… of celebrations. Of joyous dancing and prancing and overwhelming wellbeing. Right then, Mind, are you listening? No matter what you throw at me, I know in my soul and the place my joy lives that it’s the right thing for me to be here at Embercombe for another year. And yup, I was offered the place, accepted it and turned back up post christmas to what was to be my new home for a whole year.
Sitting now at the end of that year looking back it was everything I needed, very little of what I wanted, joyous and challenging, full of learning and laughter and love. And under and around everything this land. To be able to witness, to revel in the changing seasons, to see myself reflected in the lake as it’s life shifts with the weather. I’ve never been in Spring before. Not like this. Not walking past the Hawthorn hedgerow every day and seeing the buds and the leaves and the colours and the berries and all that life every day pulsing and pulsing and eventually bursting out.
I was responsible for keeping all the insides clean. All the places we sit and dance and eat and listen and talk and work and sleep. Making sure they were set up for whoever was coming in to use them. How many chairs, what kind of configuration, did they want a flipchart? Were there heaters in situ? Firewood stocked and kindling chopped? Toilets clean, tea table restocked…? So I continued to walk the hills with wheelbarrows full of bedding and I learnt how to drive the tractor 🙂 then it was seats and chairs and benches and tables. Admittedly only 5 drives on the tractor all year. But what joy. What utter pure and simple joy to be sat up there chugging away around site. Goal number one from my Personal Development Plan achieved. Whoot!
And then things got a bit crazy. Suddenly the main office was a vast cavernous hole with the Volunteer Co-Ordinator, the Housekeeping Manager, the Programmes Manager, the Marketing Manager, The CEO all gone within a month. No replacement in yet. And then the site Manager too.
Changemakers. Changemaking. Change. Yup. Crash Course in how to step up, step out and step into what I know I’m capable of doing and haven’t always done. And so with a skeleton crew in charge, the Embercombe ship continued sailing. Watching my peers step up, step out and step into what I knew they were capable of doing. What an awakening of fierce pride and love for my friends, witness to their journey and struggle with taking on more and more and more and rising within themselves to meet what was being asked of them.
Hot summer of busy craziness, programmes in back to back, the kitchen having to prepare meals for over 60 people on a daily basis for over three months, the day one bus of outgoing programme participants crossed paths in the driveway (a mean feat of driving skills somehow obliterating the laws of physics in the process) with a second bus load of participants. From 30 adults to 65 young people under the age of 12 in about half an hour. Breathe out, breathe in and get on. Get on with the doing. All the multiple pieces of work needed to support a group coming to this land for their learning, growth and soul connection, not only on a practical but emotional level too.
And what kept us all sane? What kept us all going? The assistants, essential volunteers, extended volunteers, Clare, Fi, the managers? Not just our daily morning circles, the listening partnerships, coaching sessions, breathwork sessions, courageous conversations… but the glue that holds all of those things together. The steady love and trust and joy of being part of something bigger. Part of a community. Living, working, playing, practicing emotional maturation, practicing vulnerability and opening to being supported, being seen and heard, on a daily, hourly basis.
Man, I found that hard. The constant opening and opening and opening again. Witness to the rolling ball of people tumbling in and turning back out, programme participants, shorter term volunteers, facilitators, even one of the assistants. HeartBreak. HeartOpen. HeartHeal.
And then came the Autumn. The new command crew had arrived. Phew. Oh, yeah, more change. Ok, so what is actually happening now? Emergent change. Ok. So more breathing, More opening and opening and opening again. More facing into what is holding me back, what needs to be said to bring me back into relationship, where can my voice be best placed and heard. And the leaves fell. The trees became bare. The frost washed the ground in hard white sparkles and morning circle started being around a fire once more. And the people who came, they were the ones to stay now. The ones to carry Embercombe through into the Spring, the Summer, the Autumn, the Winter. And those leaving would be leaving at the same time as me. Winter solstice and farewells.
I would love to be able to sum up in a short article what it is that I learnt during my year at Embercombe. I have a feeling it’s still too soon. Though I know I’ve learnt how to find my joy. I’ve learnt how to love deeply, fiercely and profoundly. I’ve learnt how to let others in to support me. I’ve learnt a lot about listening. How to light a fire in the misty windy rain. I’ve learnt how to stop beneath a tree and watch her leaves unfurl. I’ve learnt the spots sheep love to have tickled (much like a dog really… on the chest, middle of shoulder blades, cheeks) and what it feels like to rest in a wooly cuddle puddle. I’ve learnt how to grieve and share that process with ones I love. I’ve learnt how to speak up about what I know to be true…. And I’ve learnt how to be me, unashamedly Erica.