At first it was maddening: Google on the only computer linked to the Internet, with its infuriating French keyboard, and try to find a way to be connected. Try that for an hour or two to find the long-lost wi fi password, and then... let go. Give in. Admit that you are in an old stone house on a plot of land in the depths of the Loire Valley, where the last days of winter are still lingering and you could actually be in another century.
Mum and I went for a walk the first morning. We pulled on our wellies and thick jackets and headed down the track where the tarmac comes to an end. La Nivoire is at the edge of a semi-abandoned hamlet where the houses are made from stones picked by farmers from the fields. It is an ancient plot of land on a plateau under a vast sky. As we turned left onto the grassy pathway, hands deep in pockets, Mum pointed out all the hidden signs of spring: a flash of yellow gorse, snow drops dancing in the morning wind. She talked about her father, how he used to do this when she was young. She had vivid memories of his kindness during her treatment--she had forgotten how magical he had been as a father.
The coming of Spring is reflected in my mother coming to the end of five weeks of radiation after a lump was found in a mammogram. It's all been cut out and burned away and now she walks slowly. There is a tightness to the way her shoulders clench in from being, essentially, under attack by otherworldly radiowaves for five weeks. This is why I have come here.
It is a slow and quiet two weeks off the grid, where we circle around the stove, listening to the radio and reading books, and in fragments, we talk of life. Of the way it passes us by. It occurs to me that as humans, as living beings, we are forced to do this very strange thing. We have to watch the people around us age and change. The young mother has become the grandmother. I am becoming the age my mother was when she nursed me. Change is overtaking us and leaving us lost and bewildered on the wayside.
Yet amid this whirling dance of continual change-- the inner I, the sense of self, doesn't change. Which causes a lot of friction. We get angry at people for becoming different. We miss the person we once were. Buddha taught us to gently dismantle this entire concept of self, and the absolute hallucination that it is. The rigid way we define ourselves and the world--it's mistaken. We are imputing permanence on parts that are ever-changing. This Fall, my teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso will be teaching on this very topic, the profound view of emptiness, in Portugal. I need to find a way to fly myself there.
But back to the here and now:
By Day Five, the cranes appear. The morning comes with an unusual heat. A sigh of relief to finally pull open the doors, sit in the sun and absorb the softness. By 4:46pm, Dad comes hurtling into the house, a spade in hand, yelling "Quick quick! Come out! Where's Mum, go get her!" Mum comes flying down the staircase and we dash outside and to the middle of the field.
Hundreds of creatures in four sets of arrows, shifting and morphing in the vast blue sky. The sounds of cries in the air as they converse and rally one another on and push their heroic way from Africa to the Baltic in an ancient movement that signals the coming of Spring.
As they fill the sky, and my mother, father and I stand in awed silence, heads bent back in the middle of a field. I feel the tears prickle behind my eyes. These brave beings are going for it. They don't sit around in their marshes and wonder why it's all going wrong. They just move with the turning of the planet. They accept and they try their absolute best to make it through.
My two weeks of ancient French living teaches me this (and I'm warning you now that I'm getting a bit poetic here):
We need to wrestle ourselves free of our computer screens. We need to stop hiding ourselves away in overly heated, far-flung bedrooms-- that pollute the planet and keep us apart from one another. We need to come together and sit with the passers-by in our fast-changing landscape of life. Realize that we are on a journey--and we're in this together.
Photo credit: Leucojum aestivum, Hans Bernhard, Wiki Commons