This morning some of the Sisters shared – they spoke about their practice, their difficulties, their successes. The Abbess is Dutch-Irish – she talks about her (Irish) mother’s affinity with the sea, how during storms her mum would gather the children together, and they would pray for those out at sea. She feels she still draws on her mother's strength.
The sister in charge of the garden speaks about her work this year. Her New Year’s resolution was to complain less - she hadn’t realised until recently that she complains all the time. In January she started a list of everything she complains about. She’s still writing. Thay had a meditation to help, but she wasn’t getting anywhere with it. And one day in a magazine she saw the words “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”. She cut out the quote, and has it up on her shelf in her room. And it's helping.
She talks about the shelf – how she has it organised neatly. You can see the pleasure she takes in things being orderly. Her garden tools are the same: for years, each day after use she oils them and replaces them in her shed. But other people come in, people who don’t return things to their rightful place… when she leads the Gardening Family out to work, half of the tools are missing. She feels very angry, and she can’t even walk away to calm herself because her Family is waiting for guidance.
She’s been working on the anger this year. Now she always has a Plan B or Plan C for the Gardening Family – she has other things they can do without the missing tools. And she breathes as she gardens. And that's helping too.
I adore her. I feel I’ve met her a hundred times: the person in the office who reddens with anger because no-one’s reordered paperclips, or someone’s swapped meetings without updating the Big Central Chart, or left their dirty coffee cup in the sink - again. I adore her, and through her I adore all these people.
At dinner we’re planning the events of the next two days. All the hamlets are descending on us tomorrow, and there’ll be a formal lunch. One of our leaders asks for volunteers to pick flowers. My hand shoots up. I am super-keen. “I need you to wash pots, Orlaith”, a friend explains patiently.
It turns out the flowers are for tonight, there’ll be a ceremony right after potwashing. My hand slinks back down. It makes no odds – there are already two volunteers from the lunchtime shift. The leader thinks carefully, then says, “I would like you to pick flowers Orlaith. I will wash pots in your place”.
I am mortified. I mumble thanks but really, I’ll wash the pots. “I would like you to pick flowers. Would you like to pick flowers?” she asks. I hold up my palms, like the Egyptian weighing of souls –scrub pots? – pick flowers? – which to choose…
And off we go, to pick flowers. I’m pretty racked with guilt. And I’m feeling the pressure, because if someone’s scrubbing pots to let me do this, then that flower arrangement had better be something. We cover Lower Hamlet, loading up on wildflowers, adding some blossoms from the garden (I’ve borrowed the Gardener’s secateurs, and am paranoid in case I forget to return them). We pick ripening blackberries and plums and I lean, teetering, over the lotus pond to reach a couple of the big round leaves.
We run out of time. Other potwashers come and help us tidy up, get pebbles to hold the flowers in the tin can (a great trick). I look at the final arrangement; if I only had more time, I think...
The rest of the Family join us. And they love it, genuinely – they marvel over it and make a big fuss. At the ceremony, we talk about our experiences here. One person opens her arms, encompassing the flower arrangement. “This really sums up the week.”
And so this blog is humbly dedicated to Cecilia, the lady who washed pots so that I could pick flowers. Thank you.