Have you ever fantasized about leaving it all behind? Moving to a cabin in the hills, waving goodbye to traffic and streetlights, stepping into that simpler way of being? I have. And then, one day, I did.
It’s been almost three years ago now since I ran away from what I knew. It started like it always does, I guess. I was ready for somewhere beyond the concrete. Somewhere to finally stop my endless train of thoughts, tap into the stillness I felt sure ran beneath them somewhere, like the hidden current of a stream. I thought about where I wanted to run to constantly—obsessively even: a little village I knew about tucked into the side of a range of hills in Portugal, across oceans from my British home that I never thought I'd leave.
The place I yearned for was not the most spectacular place in the rock-strewn landscape of the central hills. In many ways it was indistinguishable from numerous other villages in that region, yet I was drawn back to it again and again. Friends of mine found the place by chance and bought a tumbledown farm there; I’d spent a glorious summer visiting them, and on my increasingly frequent return visits I felt something invisible lift off my shoulders as the road unwound and the mountains came into view.
My heart expanded and my soul exhaled as we descended into the valley. Being by the river and under the dappled shade of the ancient cork oaks and olives felt unmistakably, undeniably like home. How could it be home, in a country where I didn’t speak the language, with jobs few and far between even for those who did, oceans away from my family? It felt like falling in love with an unattainable flame. I daydreamed, I doodled, I told myself it could never happen and then I dreamed some more. I came up with logical and insurmountable reasons why I couldn’t leave the safety of my job, my home, the town where I lived. Despite this, I took steps towards it.
The biggest question was how I would earn a living, out in the hills. I dared myself to try, taking on my first freelance client in the summer of 2013 in the hours left after my part time office job. Barely six months later, my husband and I were packing up our belongings.
A mixture of fortune and hard work set wheels into motion that felt almost out of our control. Friends who lived in the valley needed house-sitters to mind their off-grid, earth bag dwelling. We found a Land Rover almost as old as me that would allow us to negotiate the unpaved tracks, and we used wedding gifts to pay for it. Little by little the impossible obstacles to following my heart were dismantled, and all I was left with was the fear. I told myself I would be fearful anyway. For once, the anxiety that always hobbled me felt like an advantage. I may as well give it something to get its teeth into, I decided.
So we jumped. Solar electricity; woodfire; well water; a mile-long dirt road to the house. A veggie garden, chickens scrabbling in the dirt, sound of birds and river. It’s idyllic, and you know what else I’ve found?
It's hard to schlep out in the rain to get more logs for the fire, with cold fingers and damp socks, cursing the day I ever decided to live without central heating. It's hard to eke out the power in the batteries when it’s winter solstice and clouds are gathering and I just need to make one more Skype call before I can pack up for the day. It's hard to reverse the 4x4 down the narrow mud track when it’s getting dark and I’m tired and if I don’t pay attention we might roll right off the edge and then I’ll really be in trouble. It's hard to build relationships with a community whose language I barely speak and who have lived here all their lives, for whom this land is in their bones—when I’ve landed like a butterfly, waving my arms, wanting to drink it all in now, NOW, in that city mode of instant gratification.
I used to think my life would be simpler, easier, calmer, without the noise. Without the traffic and the appliances and the bills. The truth is, paring those things away revealed how much of that stress wasn’t down to modern life at all. It was down to me: down to my noisy monkey-brain that kicks in with worries and criticisms and tells me I’m not good enough whether I’m working in an office or tending the garden—the one that craves approval from a boss in suit or the old folk working the farms around me. That voice is not picky, it turns out.
This land didn’t release me from my stuff. It showed it to me more vividly and clearly than I ever expected. The beautiful thing is, it holds the balm, too. It’s taken me almost three years to begin to describe precisely what it is that’s calmed and soothed me from the woman I was when I first arrived here. It’s the swelling and shrinking moon. The soft new leaves of the oak leaves crumpled from their buds. The rotting of the forest floor from lush green ferns to rich thick mulch, year on year.
Seasonal cycles have taught me what it is to grow and let go. In tall trees toppled by high winds and tiny fragile flowers blooming irrepressibly for short weeks, I keep learning, keep returning to myself, season by season. That’s the thing with cycles, they repeat and repeat, and maybe we don’t need to run to the hills to find them. Only to open up and pay attention.
They were right here beside me, all along.