Personally speaking, our Basque Country trip couldn’t have come at a better time. I needed the hard manual labour to calm my mind since it was currently reeling from my disappointing news. Overwhelmed, I allowed myself to put blinders on and avoid facing the fact that I am back to square one: back to pitching this unorthodox idea and trying to figure out where my next mid-career internship would come from. But when you are trying to manoeuvre an unwieldy rototiller (that bolts unexpectedly like a dog that’s seen a squirrel), there is little mental energy remaining to worry that my soul sabbatical isn’t quite going as planned.
From summers at our Kootenay Lake cabin, I have a deep appreciation of physical work – be it chopping fire wood, hauling water from the lake, or painfully mixing concrete in a wheelbarrow... by hand. (But all that mixing produced a boat ramp that evokes memories every time the lake reveals our imprinted initials each summer). There is a satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from manual work, when you can step back and say definitively, “I did that.”
As I painted the walls of the txabola (pronounced cha-bola... isn’t the Basque word for shed super cool?), I was rediscovering the intensely absorbing nature of the work. It was meditative, allowing time and space for reflection that was missing. While it’s undeniable that I spend a lot of time observing, investigating, and analyzing, this was different. Painting is simple process that when observed mindfully is a bit like the rhythmic handling of rosary beads. Dip brush. Tap to remove excess paint. Stroke up and stroke down. Repeat. Without even trying, you’re rooted in the present moment and your reflection becomes less head-y... less like thinking and more integrated into your body and soul. (Wow! That sentence totally exposes my hippy woo-woo influences of my childhood!)
But if you really want to get out of your head, I suggest trying something entirely new because it consumes every ounce of brainpower. One of the curious hobbies that Joseba has acquired since moving to Basque Country is sheep shearing - a legacy he’s preserving from his father who was a herder in England. I’ll never forget Joseba’s introduction when I first met him at surf camp in Portugal: I live in Basque Country, I surf and I shear sheep. Say wha’? On that very day, I added 'shear a sheep' to my bucket list despite having no idea exactly what it entailed. I’m pretty sure I thought you shave them while they were standing up. So while we were in Basque Country, Joseba indulged me – probably because I made him pinkie-swear that he would teach me if I ever came to visit.
Sheep shearing is like a dance: it requires strength, flexibility, a tender touch and the right moves. The shears are like an extra sharp version of human buzz cutters but they vibrate so violently they are almost hard to hold onto. With his shepherd school training (yup, that’s an actual thing), Joseba very specifically and expertly shears the wool off of it in a way that the entire fleece comes off as one, like peeling off a jacket that’s still in the shape of the sheep. It gave a whole new meaning to a wolf in sheep’s clothing! He coached me through the entire process but my movements were much less fluid and involved a lot more (supremely confident) shrieking. Nothing can describe the eerie feeling of looking into a sheep’s glassy eye.
When you step into rural life for a few days, you realize that the dwindling of manual skills is part of something bigger and more alarming: a fundamental change in how we relate to our physical stuff. Most of us no longer make things, but buy them instead; we no longer fix things, but replace them. We are trapped quest for more, better and faster without stopping to enjoy the meditative power of manual work.
To Be of Use by Marge Piercy
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
Nice to meet you...
I'm Andi (hence the blog name). I'm a travel aficionado, passionate eater, tireless explorer of internet rabbit-holes, and amateur thinker. Join me as I give it all up (ok, that's a bit of an exaggeration) and go around the world on a mid-career "soul sabbatical" & year-of-learning to figure out what to be NEXT when I grow up. Won’t you grab a cup of chai and stay a while?
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