Virtual Vacation: The World in One Square Foot

VVS WTTThis morning in our second full writing class, we talked about the importance of sensory details and then did one of my favorite exercises, practicing the art of “bare attention,” drawn from Vipassana meditation practice.

After some instruction, I sent everyone out with jackets, sweatshirts and hats, a notebook, pen and a plastic chair–into the magnificent Newbold Gardens. The instruction was to sit in front of a square foot of nature, choosing a spot that wasn’t moving or seemingly “busy.” And to sit for a solid half hour, not writing, just looking, to practice deep observation of that small patch of ground or plant or tree. And to do it in silence. After half an hour, I told them I’d give them a signal, and each writer would then write up what they saw, heard, smelled, felt and observed. And I sent them off.

As the time designated for observation was ending, I put on my shoes and my green army-navy jacket and headed out in search of my meditative writers, scattered all across the grounds. to tell them it was time to stop observing and to start writing. As one of them, Emily, said to me, it was like finding the eggs in an Easter egg hunt. I even missed two, tucked so far in the trees I couldn’t find them.

It was wonderful to see everyone sitting in beauty, so intent on observing, learning and deeply seeing:








After the allotted writing time, we gathered back in our meeting room to warm up, debrief and share our observations:

“It went fast.”

“I was excited when something happened in my square.”

“In the first minutes, I was sure I’d seen everything and then I really started to see. I started to really see more. I realized I move through life, thinking I see things, but not really seeing at all.”

“The quieter I got, the noisier the world got. I was just as cognizant of the smells and sounds around me than what I was seeing. It was like jazz.”

“I really didn’t like sitting in a plastic chair out in nature.”

“I was cold.”

“I had to keep pulling my attention back.”

“Because there was more time, I slipped into my old mode of analysis instead of just observing what was in front of me.”

“I got distracted by the chocolate in my pocket.”

We talked about how little we really see in real life, how much we take for granted and how writers need to see with different eyes. After I gave them their homework for the rest of the day, we broke for lunch and a spacious free afternoon. People napped, walked to town, read, played Scrabble, did laundry, wrote and went on adventures I still haven’t heard about.

Our cook for the evening, Seth, an American who has been living at Newbold for years, prepared perfectly cooked salmon and spinach risotto, and after dinner we were entertained, right in the dining room, by a extraordinary coffeehouse full of local talent, including a poet and half a dozen excellent local musicians.

Sheila Pettit, harpist
Sheila Pettit, harpist

Before she performed, Sheila said, “I’ve been working all day and these songs aren’t rehearsed, but they live in the cells of my heart.” And she left all of us certain that was true. She sang in Gaelic and the tunes she played and sang were haunting. She performed on her own and also with Barbara, a flute player.

Ben Aitchison, a young man who works out in the Newbold Garden, performed some of his original poetry and then acted out a poem from his childhood, recited in Doric, a local language. Ben was so expressive, alive and sensual in his movements that one of the women in our group, a lesbian old enough to be his mother, called out, “Can I take you home?” We all roared with laughter. I don’t think Ben heard. Or if so, he had the good sense to just keep smiling.

I made a video of one of Ben’s terrific performance pieces, but I couldn’t figure out how to upload it so you could see it, so this picture is a poor imitation of his great delivery:

Ben, the gardener performed his poetry
Ben, the gardener performed his poetry

Wolf Felix from Denmark played guitar, sang and serenaded us on the accordion. And did a duet with a flutist.


Christopher, who leads the morning singing and is one of the core members of the community did a beautiful wedding songs with two other local singers.


The evening was magical and spontaneous and couldn’t have made me happier. Everyone was beaming (some with the help of a little Scotch and some without).  Mary (seen here with flutist Barbara Swetina) expressed it for all of us when she said, “This is serendipity at its apex.”


The party went on for quite a while with the rowdy people staying downstairs and the quieter ones going to bed. As things were winding down, I followed Sheila out into the main vestibule as she was wrapping up her harp to take it out to her car. The covering was striking and I asked her about it. She’d made it out of sheep’s wool and I asked her to tell me the story.


Sheila had been helping a neighbor clip his sheep, something that takes place in a mobile van that travels from farm to farm. The truck has sides that fall down and there are three clipping stations inside. “It only takes a skilled person one minute to sheer a sheep,” she told me. “And you don’t want to do it when it’s been raining. You can’t clip a sheep when it’s wet. You have to hold the sheep between your legs and if the wool is wet, it creates sores between your legs.”

Sheila’s job as part of the team had been to roll up the fleece as it came off the sheep. “Every time a beautiful fleece came through, I wouldn’t put it in the pile. I’d hide it and put it under the table instead.” The farmer  caught on and asked what she was doing. He said she could keep the ones she’d stashed away as her wages.

She let them sit for a couple of years, but after her farmer friend died suddenly in his fifties, she decided to take those fleece to create a covering for her harp.

She and a friend spent a whole summer felting them. They teased one layer of fleece, then carded the next layer in the other direction and kept repeating this alternating process until they’d collected a whole pile of fleece, ensuring that the fibers went in different directions to create strength. Then they covered the fleece in bubble wrap and rubbed it with hot soapy water, then rolled into venetian blinds in two directions. Finally when it was ready, she had to shape it and sew it together so it would fit her harp:


And the belt that holds the two sides together was her son’s belt twenty years ago, when he was four years old. She’d bought it for him on a trip they’d taken together to the U.S. when he was small. I think I used to have one of those belts!


When her very rare left-handed harp was secured, I opened the door for Sheila. She said she’d like to write and so have a few more members of the local Newbold extended community here, so I’m going to invite them to sit in on one of our writing classes. It would be a nice cross-cultural exchange if that happens.

There’s so much more I can tell you, but its very late here in Scotland and the teacher needs her rest.

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