Rainbows, seals, full moon and six days of silence and reflection
The Queenager : Eleanor's Letter (November 20th 2022)
I was terrified by the prospect of no speaking and no phone for six days but it was wonderful
I do hope you are all well. As you know, I went on a holiday from my usual life, even from speech, by going on a week’s silent retreat. I emerged feeling a bit like a newborn with a soft skull in a boxing match. The world felt very noisy and full-on. I lost several layers of soul callouses over my quiet week of yoga and meditation. The days since I emerged from the cave have felt very hectic. My fault – a week in which I did a keynote speech or event every day was not the best re-entry to normal life!
So what was it like? Well, I was trepidatious, to say the least, heading down to Sharpham Hall, near Totnes, in Devon for the retreat (the pic above is the view from the room we did yoga in down to the Dart). My siblings had a book on how long I would last without speaking – they couldn’t believe I could be quiet. But I’m proud to say I lasted the course and I discovered I rather liked silent Eleanor, she’s mellow and thoughtful. She notices the colours of the leaves, golden on the beeches, tawny on the oaks. She sits and watches the wind blow the clouds into different shapes and loves how the full moon throws shadows on the river and the hills.
I began every morning at 6.45am with a silent meditative walk to the River Dart below the house where I swam in the fast-flowing waters. On the morning after the full moon I swam far out to see it reflected in the water around me and high in the sky above. A seal joined me, its whiskery face human in scale; one of my fellow retreatants yelped with shock. But he felt benign. That moment of wonder, the thrill of being in the water with something as big as you, was followed by near panic as I had to swim hard against the current to get back to the jetty. It was a moment of digging deep, head down, hoping I wouldn’t be too cold to make it, as I swam as fast as I could and seemed to be making no progress at all. The oak tree on the bank stayed stubbornly level. I swam harder. Slowly, slowly I made headway – going ninety degrees towards the bank to get out of the strongest flow. Sometimes to go forwards, we have to go sideways. And sometimes we just have to trust and keep going. I was grateful to the silent woman beside me also swimming hard. Comfort in being in it together.
I learnt to eat in silence. Food tastes better with no distractions. It was remarkably restful being surrounded by friendly women who couldn’t speak. I learnt who I liked; some smiled, or caught my eye, in a shared understanding. Sometimes we cried and comforted each other, wordlessly. The liberation from small talk was great. We unhooked from our normal stories. Without the ‘where do you live? What do you do? Do you have kids?’ cacophony of normal interaction a deeper interplay began. Together we huffed and puffed and downward dogged, through six hours of yoga and meditation a day. That sounds like a lot but it felt eminently do-able. Two three-hour yoga sessions (a mixture of Iyengar and Yin poses) and an after-dinner 30 minute meditation too. It was a dive into our deep selves, unpeeling the layers. Feeling in to where we hold the bits we’d usually rather not visit.
So what did I learn? Mainly some self-compassion. I realised that often in my life I’ll turn to my partner or my children and ask, and mean it: How do you feel, my love? What do you need, my love? How are you, really? But until last week I don’t think I have ever asked that question with that kind of loving interest of myself. For many years I have driven myself hard: long hours, many words, ignoring my body, my tiredness, even sometimes a deep sense of being a square peg in a round hole (a relative leftie at a right-wing newspaper, a feminist in a macho culture, a hippy at heart in a sea of corporate values).
Maybe I didn’t ask how I really was because I couldn’t afford to listen. Because I wasn’t ready. Because I was too driven by family expectations of achievement, or a deep sense of lack, a hole, which was filled by professional success. Now I am amazed that I lived at such odds with my deeper self for so long. I talk at Noon, and in many of the keynotes and speeches I do about Queenagers, about how we become the women we always wanted to be at fifty. Last week I realised that that deeper becoming starts with truly asking ourselves what WE want, what makes US happy. And being brave (and feeling held) enough to listen to the answers.
The week involved a deep dive into my body. That is where the yoga comes in. It teaches inner listening, awareness to where the tension is inside you, where the sadness is held. Some of you may have read The Body Keeps the Score – well it’s true. We don’t have to have gone through PTSD levels of trauma for our bodies to keep track of our inner wounds. I handed in my phone on the first night. Did not speak to anyone. Had no emails, or phone calls, or surfing through the internet from Saturday afternoon to Thursday evening. All the normal distractions were stripped back. And what was given the space to emerge through the physical practice and the quiet were all the bits of me I usually try not to think about, the bits which are painful, from which we turn away, distract ourselves with busyness or the Instagram worm-hole, or breaking news, or chatter.
But when you turn into yourself and really inquire. When you sit with what is, with love; just sit with it, allow yourself to feel it and for the tears to flow – (one woman said at the end that she’d found the feeling of tears running down her face into her chin like a caress, that after months of bottling up her grief about the death of a parent it felt so freeing to just let it go..) – it is surprisingly peaceful. At some level none of this is new. We know it hurts, it’s why we don’t usually go there. But I learnt that by going towards suffering, sitting quietly beside it with love (as the retreat leader kept telling us to do), allowing it in – none of it was as bad as I expected. There was one morning where I could not contain the tears, where I sobbed in the middle of the class. It was triggered by frustration. I ruptured my cruciate ligament in my right knee ski-ing years ago and there were a whole series of poses which were impossible for me. That brought up that deep sense of lack, of not being good enough, which I know through talking to so many of you and running the Noon retreat, is so prevalent in so many Queenagers. But even that storm of weeping was ok. Ayala Gill who led our retreat had opened it with these words of Mary Haskell’s to Kahil Gibran: “Nothing you become will disappoint me; I have no preconception that I’d like to see you be or do. I have no desire to foresee you, only to discover you. You can’t disappoint me.”
At lunch that day one of the women passed me a note: “Thank you for crying for all of us”.
I felt no shame in my distress. I found there was strength in that total vulnerability, that openness to everything, to embracing complexity and all the different strains of who we are – that there is light in the darkness. Maybe in fact, as the Ying Yang sign suggests, the light in the middle of the darkness, the love and support that we find there, shines the brightest of all.
Every afternoon we had three hours to ourselves. To walk, or read – or just to lie, as I did, and watch the clouds and continue the inward journey. One night we created a mandala of leaves and autumn berries and candles and, within it, we all planted seeds (on slips of paper) of what we wanted to come into our lives in the future. The next night we burnt slips of paper with the things we were happy to leave behind, to shed. Under the full moon, it felt so hopeful. I shed the parts of me which were not aligned with my true purpose. I promised to be better at admitting when I am wrong (not till now one of my strengths). I felt a deep pull towards a simpler life, one more embedded in nature, calmer, quieter. But of course I came back to a tumult of public speaking and filming. And my admitting I was wrong resolution was tested immediately when I backed into someone’s car at a film studio and subsequently spent hours on the phone to the insurance company admitting my sins: Yes, I hit the car. Yes it was my fault. Over and over. We should be careful what we ask the universe to bring into our lives… it is uncanny how those wishes are answered.
So was it worth it? A hundred times yes. Partly because of the love and compassion of Ayala Gill who led the retreat (she taught me pregnancy yoga 20 years ago, last week I felt a bit like I had birthed a new version of myself, thanks to her love and care) and because of the silent support of my other sixteen retreatants. I will never forget the beauty of the place – I truly feel that if I could swim in the Dart every day, surrounded by such women, such love, such beauty, I would be content.
I keep being asked if I would recommend it. In our times of busyness and electronic overwhelm I think everyone should have the chance to sit quietly with themselves. The freedom from electronics. The joy of re-reading Virginia Woolf’s To The Light House, with its dive into the heart of things, and The Life of the Buddha. The beauty of the place and the moon. I would certainly do it again. Because in that silence I found not just sadness, but an intense sense of joy, of peace, of a connection to something golden and larger than myself. And when I meditate, even back in the middle of London, I feel that stillness, that awareness, deep inside me.
At 51 there are few truly new experiences left to us – this is one I highly recommend!
Ps – Don’t forget there is a Noon Circle for Paid Subscribers to the Queenager happening this Wednesday, a chance for us to meet in person in Soho, London (with an online option for those who can’t get there). I sent an email about it with details on Friday. Do email me at email@example.com if you want to come.
PPS I am so excited about our Noon trip to Morocco, so exciting that some of you have joined up – we still have a few more places left. Also, we are expanding the Queenager Travel content on the Noon site and would love some of you to write about your best midlife travel experiences (or even your worst) whether alone, with family, friends – or anything you think might be of interest:
I’m Diane, the new Editorial Director at Noon. I’m sure you’ve found reading about Eleanor’s extraordinary week as fascinating as I have.
New travel experiences, whether they’re close to home or in far-flung locations, are such an important and nourishing part of Queenage life. This is so often a time when we can look to new horizons and try things and destinations we never have before. In my Queenage years I’ve been on a sailing flotilla holiday for the first time, expanded on my enjoyment of solo travel, explored countries on two new continents, one of which was as part of an organised group tour which I did with my mother, and spent a week doing a liquid detox health retreat.
I’ve shared my experiences of those trips on the Noon website. Maybe they’ll make you consider doing something similar yourself. Maybe they’ll remind you of trips you’ve taken. I’d really love to add to the Noon collection of inspiring travel tales with your stories. Have you got a travel experience and destination that you’d like to share with your fellow Queenagers? Somewhere new you’ve been. Something different you’ve tried. A trip with a first-time travel companion. A holiday on your own or in a group. A break where you learnt something new. An adventure which thrillingly stretched you out of your comfort zone. Please do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas and suggestions, and we can work together to get your stories up on the site. I look forward to hearing all about your travels!
By Eleanor Mills