Tuesday 6 March 2018

Walking to Bethlehem: 3rd of 7 Sundays in Spring... by Fern Smith

They say on a Vision Quest that you get the weather you need. You might wish for warm, balmy dry days and you get thunder, lightning and endless rain. For ‘Women Walking’, the third of the ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ gatherings, I was keeping my fingers crossed for a dry day. I am a person who likes structure and certainty. Like many artists I love the dreaming and visioning process (perhaps the most) and then comes the more precise work of ‘making it happen’. For me, this part seems to involve a lot of admin, time in front of the computer-screen, shaping the invites and even more time sending them out via email, making lists, doing my own ‘risk assessments’ (though I don’t normally call it that) and doing as much as I can to prepare for every scenario and eventuality. ‘The art of hosting’ which is a practise that sometimes looks effortless is something which I’m endlessly fascinated by and still learning. It is the product of many hours preparation.

Photo: David Perkins
These ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ represented my fourth and final ‘residency’ as part of my Arts Council of Wales ‘Creative Wales’, journey. Each Sunday involves a specific invitation to ‘all the women I’ve ever met’ to join me in a particular activity. We’ve had ‘Women Making’ in Swansea, ‘Women in the Woods’ in Dinefwr and this Sunday - 4th March 2018 - it was ‘Women Walking’. Not just women walking anywhere, but a specifically chosen route that has significance in terms of making pilgrimage. All the Sundays have a particular intention, which given the location and the activity feels right. The intention for ‘Women Walking’ was: 

"Contemplate the importance of walking and making pilgrimage (as well as doing it!); reflect on our connection to spirituality, deep nature and the mystery of life and to consider and share what supports us during these chaotic and unpredictable times."

Photo: Pippa Bondy
I called this 3rd Sunday, 'Walking to Salem' - the  plan was to walk to ‘Capel Salem’ from Harlech. Specifically, from Theatr Ardudwy along the Wales Coastal Path to the beautiful pilgrim’s church at Llandanwg and then onwards to Pentre Gwynfryn’s chapel which is the site of the painting of the iconic Welsh painting: ‘Salem’, by Sidney Curnow Vosper. The painting was acquired by a wealthy industrialist and used to promote the Lever brothers popular brand of ‘Sunlight’ soap bars. Seven soap tokens could be exchanged for a reproduction of the painting. According to Wikipedia: “this ensured the painting became widely and uniquely popular amongst the working-class communities of Britain, especially in Wales.” It was after all a depiction of Welsh piety, even though the main subject of the painting, Sian Owen, is accused of having a devil up (or on) her sleeve. This is a fascinating place and story and the walk was originally suggested to me by Pauline Williams, board member of Theatr Ardudwy, who has been working tirelessly to negotiate the theatre to stay open in the hope of it in future becoming a thriving community hub. Theatr Ardudwy is possibly one of the most beautiful theatres in Wales in the most impressive of locations, sitting atop and over-looking the majestic sweep of Cardigan Bay with views across to the Llyn Peninsula on one side and the Snowdon range on the other.

Photo: Pippa Bondy
As part of my meticulous advanced planning my partner Phil, our dogs Betty and Jaffa and I carried out a recce of the walk in late January. The weather was beautiful. Clear blue skies, sun all day long and far-reaching views.  We spent time (dogs too) in the little Pilgrim’s church, taking advantage of being the only visitors by reading aloud the scary passages from ‘Revelations’ as well as some poetry by Mary Oliver from the pulpit. We then walked over the saltmarshes, inland, through snowdrop woods, via the pretty lanes and Cycle Route Number 8 (the great Lon Las North/South Wales long-distance route) through Pentre Gwynfryn to Capel Salem, final destination of our pilgrimage. We first spent time sitting outside the locked doors of the wrong church, before serendipitously running into Catrin Jones, the elderly custodian of Capel Salem (and keeper of Sian Owen’s famous shawl), who tells us that the chapel we want is another ten minutes up the road – but that’s another story… Capel Salem is really worth a visit. A reproduction of the painting is on the wall. The original clock, coat-hooks and wooden ‘sheep-pen’ chapel-pews are still there. The chapel is always open, clearly loved, well-maintained, regularly visited and still used for services. It felt welcoming and warm and not just because of the electric pull-string heaters. We spent time there, soaking up the atmosphere - Phil speaking aloud a few poems he’d learnt by heart.  I  cast a few weeks forward in my mind to Sunday 4th March, imagining and savouring the final words, poems and reflections we ‘Walking Women’ would share at the end of our planned pilgrimage.

Photo: Pippa Bondy

As the day in question approached, less and less women are able to join. There had been 13 women for ‘Women Making’, 16 women for ‘Women in the Woods’. It looked like we were going to be 7 for ‘Women Walking’. The ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ project is less about scale than about creating a ritual activity over time. Many women are involving themselves in the project in different ways, by sending words from a distance, reading the blogs as well as actually coming on the 7 Sundays. The eventual plan is to write a book about the 7 Sundays project as part of my wider ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ enquiry. So, we were going to be small in number but we had all committed to walk. We had booked Bed & Breakfasts in Harlech, made travel arrangements, bought train tickets. The plan was to converge on the steps of the theatre. Originally, we were going to meet in the cafĂ© of Theatr Ardudwy but since its untimely, recent closure our plan changed to meet on the steps and take it from there.

On Sunday 25th February for ‘Women in the Woods’ we were commenting about the gentle weather and some of us enjoying snoozes under the trees of Dinefwr Park.

And then the weather came in…

The ‘Beast from the East’ arrived hot on the heels of ‘Women in the Woods’ and stayed for a week. It brought with it gale force winds, sub-zero temperatures with even lower wind-chill factors, sleet, snow, ice, frozen-pipes, burst-pipes, roof-high snow-drifts, cancelled trains and a milk, bread and fresh veg run on our local Co-op. Over a week later, food and fuel were still being helicoptered in to parts of Cumbria. 

And with the weather came uncertainty, unpredictability and insecurity. A trinity of most uncomfortable but most powerful life-teachers. On Wednesday evening, I began wondering if I was going to be able to make the journey over the high roads of mid Wales to get to Harlech. I had three options: carry on regardless; cancel; or re-think. There was little time to change plans though I didn’t want to cancel. Some of our group who had bought train tickets in advance and others who really wanted to do the planned walk told me they were still committed to coming. On Thursday, I got an email from Pauline, my ‘woman on the ground’ in Harlech. It said:

"Severe & dangerous winds today. No public transport. Criccieth High St shut due to danger of falling tiles. No electricity in the Harlech/Llanbedr area due to fallen trees (esp in Llanbedr). Until trees are cleared electricity board can’t restore power. Slates flying off roofs in Llandanwg. Part of the roof off at Ysgol Ardudwy. 
My family live in Harlech & are in touch with the community so are aware of the situation first hand. Risk assessment for walking = severe! 
Even my walking friend (an avid all-weather walker) is staying put today - and questions the viability & safety of the planned Sunday walk."

If I’d ever needed convincing, I was now convinced. And, of course I was disappointed… “My beautiful walk…” There followed two of the most uncomfortable days I’ve had for a long time. Sitting in uncertainty, doubt, failure even. The feeling of discomfort was bodily. Brene Brown, the American researcher onVulnerability, talks about the “warm wash of shame.” I’ve experienced this many times and it’s a brilliant and accurate description. This wasn’t a warm wash but I felt uncomfortable in my own skin, prickly, tender, bruised even. This was the bodily feeling of ‘not-knowing’, feeling responsible for things going wrong, feeling a failure (I know it sounds crazy) and as though I’d let people down. These 7 women had chosen to walk with me. They had spent time planning their journey as well as money buying advance travel tickets and deposits on B & B’s. I couldn’t do anything about it. The country was in meltdown AND I still somehow felt responsible! Sitting in the midst of uncertainty, discomfort and difficulty is something which I find near impossible. What if I cancelled and then the weather changes and we could actually have done it anyway?  There was no knowing. I had to make a decision without all the information. I didn’t have the whole picture. I had no way of casting forward into the future and knowing what was going to happen in the next few days.

I spent all day Thursday on the phone to my original walkers, explaining that Sunday might look a little different than we’d all envisaged. “Women Walking can still happen. We can walk with the same shared intention but we can walk from where we already are – even if that is just from our front door to the great wall of snow at the end of our garden….” I could hear disappointment in the voices of some, relief in others. The up-side of this new ‘self-organised, emergent’ plan, was that many others might be able to join us. I re-worded the invitation and on Friday and Saturday sent it out to a number of the women who’d taken an interest in the project from the outset, with an invitation for those women to pass it on to others. 

"Join me in a self-organised piece of walking art, a ceremony, a prayer... Walk at day-break, sun-down, one mile, as long as you can manage, walk with a poem, a song, a dedication, mark a threshold.. Or any, or all of these..."
And so, something else happened - entirely different from my best laid plans.

Instead of making a pilgrimage to Salem – which of course derives its name from Jerusalem - as the result of a week which was clearly teaching me to ‘let go of outcome’ and surrender to ‘what is’… I decided to turn things on their head and walk to Bethlehem. From a place associated with death and crucifixion, instead, to one of birth and new possibilities. I’d always wanted to go to Bethlehem – the mid Wales one. It was only a twelve-mile round walk from Dinefwr Park. “There’s nothing there” - my partner Phil warned me. The post-office closed down a few years ago, previously the site of chaotic activity once a year when throngs would descend on the village to get their Christmas cards stamped. (You can now get them stamped at the village hall – but that’s another story).

Photo: Fern Smith
And so, at dawn - 7am on Sunday 4th March 2018 - I departed from my home in readiness for a 7-hour walk. The water gushing from the taps for the first time in four pipe-frozen days, as if in celebration of my pilgrimage. I walked alone. I walked with many. I walked with a Rilke poem

I live my life in widening circles
That reach out across the world
I may not complete this last one
But I will give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I've been circling for thousands of years
And I still don’t know;
Am I a falcon, a storm or a great song.

On this the 3rd of my ‘7 Sundays in Spring’, I got the weather I did not want. But I think I got the weather I needed. Instead of 7 of us walking, we numbered 44 women and 1 man in total. As a result of a few invitations going out, within 24 hours, there was an immediate response to the call. Women were walking, connecting to one another across time and space with a personal reflection and a collective intention. Women were walking all over the country, solo and together in rural and urban surroundings - in the rain, the sun and the snow. Women were walking everywhere...

In the run-up to International Women’s Day 2018, I remember my original invitation to ‘All The Women I’ve ever Met’ to join me in this project:

"Yes, this is about sisterhood. Yes, this is about “hashtag me too.” Yes, this is about identifying as women witnessing the beauty and the sorrow of this time. It’s also about honouring the fragile nature of life at a time where things and people appear to be falling apart on a daily basis."

Photo: Phil Ralph
These words are dedicated, with gratitude and joy to all the Women Walking:

Andy walked in Bath 

Amalia walked in Cambridgeshire
Anna who walked in Swansea
Anne who walked in Cardigan
Annzella who walked in Gower
Avi who walked in the Dyfi Valley
Carol who walked in Hereford
Chris who walked in Swansea
Christine who walked in Herefordshire
Clare and Charlotte who walked in Hastings
Donna who walked in Swansea
Di who walked in Northumberland
Eleanor who walked in Leamington
Emily who walked in the Swansea Valley
Fern who walked in Carmarthenshire
Frances who walked in Yorkshire
Gilly who walked in Cardiff
Holli who walked in Gower
Janne and Sarah who walked in Pershore
Jasmine who walked in Ceredigion
Jay and Judy who walked in the Swansea Valley
Jenny M who walked in Bath
Jenny W who walked in mid Wales
Jess who walked in Ceredigion
Jessica and 2 friends who walked in Malmesbury
Jo who walked in Pembrokeshire
Judith who walked in Harrow-on-the-Hill
Louisa who walked in Eastbourne
Lucy C who walked in London
Lucy N and Anna who walked in Wells
Meg who walked in London
Micki who walked in Gower
Lucy who walked in London
Nicky who walked in Northumberland
Pauline, Anne and Maria who walked along the Menai Estuary
Trish who walked in Devon
Wendy who walked in London

…And to Patrick who walked in Whaley Bridge.

A few days later, the snow has disappeared. The big thaw has begun. Everything looks as if it is emerging from a mighty shock. I find myself reflecting on the events of this time. In one way, it was a complete failure - my planned walk did not happen. In every other way, it was perfect – the only and the best thing that could have happened. Earth Pilgrim and peace activist, Satish Kumar, who I’ve been lucky enough to walk and spend time with, talks about the difference between being a tourist and being a pilgrim: “A tourist expects whilst a pilgrim accepts.” Perhaps the journey of my walk was to move from the first to the second. It’s not the particular route or the destination that counts – the teaching is in the way one walks. Especially if the way is uncertain or unclear, improvisation is what is needed. When will I learn that plans are made so they can be surrendered? Yes, the plan is important – but I have a richer experience as soon as I let go of control, and truly understand that I never really had it in the first place.
Photo: Fern Smith

7 Sundays in Spring continues until 1st April 2018. Contact me if you would like to participate. 

Fern is Recipient of a 2017 Creative Wales arts Award.
For more information go to www.emergence-uk.org

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