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  • Writer's picturecherylmurfin

Day 7: Learning to stay

Updated: May 14


One of my favorite talks by the Tibetan-Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön is about staying:


"Learning to stay with ourselves is like training a dog. If we train a dog by beating it, we'll end up with an obedient but very inflexible and rather terrified dog. The dog may obey when we say, 'Stay!' 'Come!' 'Roll over!' and 'Sit up!' but he will also be neurotic and confused. By contrast, training with kindness results in someone who is flexible and confident, who doesn't become upset when situations are unpredictable and insecure.


So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to stay and settle down. Are we experiencing restlessness? Stay! Discursive mind? Stay! Are fear and loathing out of control? Stay! Aching knees and throbbing back? Stay! What's for lunch? Stay! What am I doing here? Stay! I can't stand this another minute! Stay! This is how we cultivate steadfastness."

She's talking about meditation, of course. But, what does learning not to jump up and run from your meditation cushion whenever you feel uncomfortable have to do with our band of walking writers?


Today, we stayed. We did not walk 10 miles on St. Cuthbert's Way as scheduled on my overly-planned walking workshop outline, not to mention the blow-by-blow walk route outlined on every itinerary on The Official St. Cuthbert's Way website.


And, strangely, I didn't fall into anxiety (one of my favorite version's of the "jump up and run" scenario) when plans changed. I stayed.


The change happened this morning, following yesterday's long, windy, and challenging walk from Kirk Yethom to Wooler (13 miles for one half of us, 18 miles for the other). As I made my check-in rounds, two in our troupe mentioned they were considering skipping the walk to Fenwick to put their aching feet up and enjoy this quaint village. I, of course, was already stuffed into my hiking gear. My mind was already on my phone, ready to taxi them forward and plow on despite my own hip screaming like a banshee under muddy rain pants.



But as I mentioned that the two would be staying to the the rest of the walkers, I could see and feel a mist of relief rise like heat from a street on a hot summer day. One by one, I could see thought bubbles of agitated "shoulds" and "musts" about walking every inch of this path pop and disappear. They all wanted to stay. Even the writer I had deemed our "competitive" walker.


It was as if once one person made the decision, they permitted the next to practice self-care. Even, and perhaps especially, me. Dominos falling.


Usually, I pound through a challenge, ignoring my body's signals and sticking to a rather unforgiving set of inner rules. I'm constantly engaged in a competition with myself. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, I'm pretty uncomfortable when plans change. My head started spinning. But . . but . . .but . . .How would we get all our outdoor writing prompts in? How could we say we really completed this pilgrimage? How would I be able to track everyone spread out across the town (as if they need my mothering)?

I could have walked on by myself. The youngest among us said he'd happily go forward with me "if you really want to."


But that's when Pema showed up, whispering: "Stay!"


There was a reminder in that whisper: none of us has anything to prove. I have nothing to prove. We're here to walk and write. We are walking and writing. Does it make a difference whether we do that over 1 mile or 100 miles or 107 at the end of the day?

So, instead of the hike to Fenwick, we strolled around Wooler, also known as the "Gateway to the Cheviots," which was described in 1107 as a settlement "situated in an ill-cultivated country under the influence of vast mountains, from whence it is subject to impetuous rains." To the latter, I can only say "truth that."

We had a laugh chatting with an elderly volunteer at one of the charity shops, where David picked up a stunning new sweater and donated his pants. He's been discarding his clothes at each stop as a sort of letting go and act of self renewal. We enjoyed a delicious gin tasting at the village's brand-spanking new distillery Ad Grefin, went through several antique stores, settled in for a pot of tea, and eventually made our way to the little Wooler library where each of us dove into a couple of hours of our personal, unprompted writing. As it grew darker, we climbed into a taxi headed further east.


And topper to this perfect day? An actual salad on the dinner menu. My body had been trying to remember what lettuce looked like. It was as like manna from heaven.

Here's what I learned:

When you feel the itch to go, go, go and do, do, do for no other reason than to prove yourself, stay.

When your body asks you to stop and listen and take care of it, stay.

When plans change, and you feel out of control or uncomfortable, stay with the feeling. It will pass.


When you're sitting in a tea shop with a good book, but you're worried you should be doing something else, stay. There's nothing else you "should" do.


Your doing and going don't define you. Your body has wisdom you need to hear. Plans change, and everything still works out — sometimes better. A writer must read.


You have everything. Nothing is missing right here, right now. Stay.



 

THE PROMPT

There is no prompt today. Go to coffee shop with a good book. Stay.

 

THE WRITING


Fergus' Cows


By Stephen Liao


Fergus had the finest cows in the village, and he let everyone know about it. Bessie, Martha, Bonnie, and Georgina - the latter he named after his brother George, much to George’s displeasure.

Healthy and well-proportioned, he would spend hours every day brushing their coats until they were glossy. He smiled as he watched them graze on the grassy hillocks of the small, coastal island he called home.

That night, after dinner (porridge, as usual), he paced in front of the hearth. “You ought to have seen them today, Mary,” he beamed. “Their milk is the best yet. Soon, everyone from Fenwick to Melrose will be eating our cheeses!”

“Calm down, Fergus,” Mary said, rolling her eyes as she nursed their infant daughter. “It’s almost as if you love those cows more than your own children. You haven’t even played with little Billy for a week.”

“Bah! They’ll understand when they’re older, “ he said, side-eyeing his toddler son, who was on the floor vigorously rapping a pot with a wooden spoon. “We’ll be richer than a lord!”

“But you have everything you need already…”, she said.

“Aye,” he said, looking out the window, “but not everything I want! I could be eating venison pie and roast mutton every night! Drinking mead, wearing fine silks…”, he trailed off.

Towards the sea, near his barn, he saw flickers of torchlight. They appeared to be moving one by one like a line of ants. Squinting, he saw they originated a long ship with a single square sail. Heathens. Reivers.

“My cows!”he shouted and ran out the door.

 

The night air was brisk as he barreled down the hill towards the shore. “No, Fergus! You’ll get yourself killed!”, Mary shouted from their hut. Fergus ignored her.

As he rounded the corner to the barn, he could see the doors smashed open. He heard a rabble of a guttural, foreign tongue. Inside, he saw a dozen heavily armed me, wearing helmets with nose guards, round wooden shields, and iron handaxes. Some of them were already tying the cows with rope as they mooed helplessly.

“Hey! Hands off my cows!”, Fergus shouted. The heathens stopped and stared at him. He grabbed a pitchfork that was leaning on the wall. “You better get out of here before I skewer you like a suckling pig!”, waving the pitchfork in the air.

They glanced at each other. Then they howled with laughter. One of them slapped his knees, and another wiped tears from his eyes.

“Wha - what are you doing?”, Fergus gulped. Sweat started dripping from his forehead. “I - I really mean it! Don’t test me!”. He gave the air a final, half-hearted poke.

Then, a man stepped out from behind the others. He wore a shining coat of chainmail underneath his fur-lined cloak. His fiery red beard was twisted into two long braids. He was clearly their leader. Folding his arms across his chest, Red Beard spoke to him in his unintelligible, hurdy-gurdy sounding language.

“I dunno what you mean,” Fergus said, his knuckles turning white on his pitchfork handle. “You can take what you want, but leave my cows,” nodding his head towards the captive bovines.

 

Red Beard took a glance at them. Then, he snarled, “Vil du have dem? Kom og tag dum!”. He spat on the ground in front of them, slapped his chest with a thunk, and made a beckoning gesture with his hands.

Fergus hesitated. The entire band of ruffians shot daggers at him with their eyes. He stood no chance against them all. But then he thought about his humble, wind-whipped farmstead. His thatch-roofed hut. His wife and children. And his cows.

After his father died, he fought his arsehole of a brother George tooth-and-nail for his rightful half of the inheritance - their ancestral lands in the Cheviot hills. After successfully protesting at his clan’s council, he sold the land and used the proceeds to pick out the prize heifers being sold at the market town of Wooler. He then moved his family to the coast, dreaming of coming back to his clan triumphantly wearing a coat of ermine fur.

Hunching forward, he looked straight into Red Beard’s eyes. If he could strike him down, he thought, maybe the others might flee. He spoke with ironclad determination. “Ya ain’t taking my goddamned cows.”

He rushed forward with his pitchfork, aiming squarely at Red Beard’s chest. Although only a few feet separated the two, it felt like miles. However, Fergus’ heart beat with exhilaration as he closed on his target. Just a little farther, he told himself, and I’ll slay this villain.

Red Beard’s eyes widened for a moment, and then, with a single, fluid movement, he stepped to the side and kicked out his foot. Fergus’ heart dropped as he realized he couldn’t stop his momentum. He tripped on Red Beard’s foot and stumbled headlong towards a bale of hay. The heathens once again howled with laughter as he helplessly tumbled into the straw.

Groaning, he tried to get on all fours, spitting straw out of his mouth. A pair of leather boots strode into his vision. Crouching, Red Beard patted his head. “Godt forsøght,” he said. Then he slammed the shaft of his axe against the back of Fergus’ head, knocking him to the ground.

 

Barely conscious, all he could hear were shouts as the heathens cleared out his barn. A dull ring flooded his ears as his head throbbed. At some point, his nostrils tickled as it filled with smoke. He started coughing and gasping for air. The heathens had set the barn on fire. As their shouting faded into the distance, Fergus felt a calm wash over him as he slowly suffocated. It’s better this way, he thought. Nothing left but to meet the Lord now.

Suddenly, a strong pair of hands appeared and wrapped around his chest. They dragged him out of the burning barn and onto the grass outside. He hacked the smoke out of his lungs and took deep breaths of the cold night air. He looked up and saw bright green eyes framed by a tangle of auburn hair. It was Mary.

“You’re an idiot, Fergus. And the most shite fighter this side of the river Tweed. But you’re my husband.”

Fergus looked at the horizon as the long ship disappeared into the fog. He thought he could hear plaintive moos in the distance. Tears filled his eyes. Then he chuckled and whispered, “You’re right Mary. I am an idiot. But I’m the luckiest damn idiot in Scotland.”








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