I have said au revoir to the gorgeous French village of Labastide Esparbaïrenque. This week away on my own was a wonderful gift from the man who loves me so well. I stayed for a week at a creative retreat where writers write and painters daub inside the studio or en plein air. Of ‘plein air’ there was plenty. Every day I walked through the forests and mountains enjoying the peace ‘dropping low’ to borrow from Yeats.
I have been borrowing many words this week – from my parents, my teachers, authors, poets, my family and friends, all of whose voices are in my head: hymns, sayings, quotations platitudes, colloquialisms. They’re all there spilling onto the page and I am wondering which voice is mine. Wondering but not worrying, because this time has not been about producing something but becoming something: me.
When my mother was in her seventies, she revealed a latent talent for watercolours. I bought her all the gear: the brushes, the paints and the paper but although she dabbled a bit she was singularly stubborn about it. She just stopped bothering and I stopped asking. I knew what was amiss. Painting was not useful, productive, spiritual, as far as she was concerned. She could not give herself permission to do something just for the fun of it. Methodists did not do fun. I feel sad when I think of it.
A wise woman asked me earlier this year what I would do with a day off to myself. Initially I couldn’t think of anything I would like to do. For most women it’s the same: a day off means a day to catch up with washing, ironing, cleaning, serving. We have become an army of homemakers, wives and mothers - always doing for others and seldom taking time to develop our own creativity. I finally said, ‘Writing. I’d like to write,’ and thus began a journey that has led to Labastide. For many years I have been writing and editing others people’s stuff and now it is time for me. The greatest gift I can give my children and grandchildren is not a body of work, written or otherwise, but a model of more and more becoming.
On my last day I walked down into the next village of Roquefère. No shops, just a cluster of houses and an auberge. The river winds its way through picturesque jardins ouvriers overshadowed by the mountain terraces. I sat in at La Fenial, gîte and saladerie, and ate a delicious crêpe filled with crème de marrons. Sweet chestnuts to you and me. Delicious cloying brown puree with soft pieces of nut that get in your teeth and linger on the tongue. The proprietor was Anne-Marie and we managed a conversation in broken English and even more broken French. ‘J’étais Mademoiselle Chestnutt,’ I said proudly and bought a jar to take home.
The walk down had taken only fifteen minutes but it took me an hour and a half to get back. I tried to go off road and navigate my way up the hill by the river and the sound of the bell, but although I walked through beautiful fruit groves: apples, apricots and figs, I got lost. It was hot and not for the first time I was caught in the dilemma of needing to drink and needing to pee. Finally, I found my way back up to the road where I met famous Dutch soprano and author, Judith Mok, walking along singing at the top of her lungs.
My room was called Calliope which means ‘beautiful-voiced.’ She was the daughter of Zeus and she taught Orpheus how to sing and charm the rivers and stubborn mountain rocks with his lyre. She is usually pictured with a writing tablet or roll of paper in her hand. Whether inspired by the mountains or the muse, I felt that last week I heard the whisper of a voice that may be mine.
Montagne Noir is dotted with crosses, mostly wrought iron set in stone. Shrines by the side of the path where people have set pebbles – requests, longings, prayers. I chose a piece of beautiful brittle amber slate and set it beside the others. A thank you for the gift.