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Nestor's Breath

Last night I tried to sleep in a tin-sided shepherd’s hut on the rugged northern edge of Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland and Christian pilgrimage destination for centuries. I say “tried” because the wind - a fierce and unrelenting coastal force surging in from the North Sea - was rocking the hut and swirling my thoughts into a tornado.

Winds, like every other elemental feature of our living world, and like this sacred island, have distinct characters. If you pay close enough attention you might even detect an earthy sort of personality, unique to each. This particular wind, which I haven't previously met but who told me his name is “Nestor,” was a cool mint mouthwash for the imaginal inner world otherwise known as my soul. As my hut pitched and swayed, I became increasingly disturbed and increasingly lucid.

The ache that always surrounds my heart and that I usually numb with various addictive habits was shaken out of hiding and as I lay on my side and clutched at the pillow, the pain was translated into some of the stories of my life that I haven’t had the space, time, or courage to confront. Meanwhile, Nestor raged on; a single noted throat howl of a sea-bound wildcat, threatening to send my metal shelter hurtling from its bolted foundation.

It was strange to feel my mind in chaos, jumping around seemingly unrelated ideas, yet so totally clear. Each wild-blown thought carried a kernel of truth about my life. Like storm-swept seeds, I recognized long overdue conversations, resentments, dreams, and desires dropping and rising and falling again to the ground of my psyche. In my mind’s eye I saw an image of dusty shelves being puffed clean by a hunched shopkeeper in a plaid Scottish hat. I let the anger burn in my belly and the shy hopes for a wild and exciting life flicker in my heart, grateful for the insistent bellowing, Nestor’s lament, ripping up decayed foundations from my psychic house.

Iona is abundantly green and characterized by gentle rolling hills, sheep, a silver-grey Benedictine abbey with lots of right angles, and a tendency to evoke dreamed answers to questions we don’t know we’re asking. For the third time in my life, I arrived at this island with the intention of being coaxed open. Authentic pilgrimage is a wandering acquiescence to self-revelation and one of the many ways we humans come back to remembering our non-separation from the life force we call the world.

In my experience, Iona has a way of making this process seem gentle even when it’s not. Over our four year relationship, she’s held me close, like a loving parent, while she simultaneously squeezes the trauma of lost friends, lost soul, and a lifetime of exile out of my shadow, into the light of awareness. There’s a point in each retreat where it feels like too much. The storm builds and I think I’m going to run away. And then, rather than a deluge or a thunderstorm, the raindrops start splattering, one-by-one. The next step becomes clear and the surging anxiety passes, replaced by a whole-body sigh of resolution. I’ve cried my eyes out here while the island laughs.

But last night’s wind, still insisting on being called Nestor, reminded me that waking up is also cold and fierce and chaotic sometimes. Of course, this is the North Sea - land of Viking raids and centuries of foggy naval warfare - and stark brutality is one of the selling points of the landscape. But Iona has always seemed separate from that, like a transcendent neutral zone where land brushes against soul with a nearly-whispered breath; a breeze of eternal spring that urges growth even while the heart is sanded raw.

It’s good to remember the fierce wilderness of even Iona, a landscape and landsoul renown for its love. It’s good to remember that regardless of where we sleep, we’re all squishy breathing brainstems in tin huts only just holding to life through the almost-unbelievable good will of our abused mother. By paying attention to where we are, by noticing the hue of the plants, the smell of the air, the particular music of our ecological setting, we are brought back to life.

And like I learned last night, sometimes we’re forced to listen so fully that the Earth will tell us one of her, and our own, countless names.

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