This is a story about stones.
One gratitude stone starts the tale.
I gathered it from a Norfolk beach the day I ran away from London in March 2020. London locked down and I fled in a van.
Although I drove the van forwards, I could see no way of moving forward in my life. I was driving away from a very tough year in London; a return to England after nearly three decades overseas. It had been a financially disastrous year and my partnership in a training business would dissolve eight weeks into lockdown.
I was turning 55, and although I could have looked back on many successes – both professional and personal – my mind was full of fear and uncertainty. I looked ahead and saw nothing. Emptiness. Blackness. Solitude.
The first gratitude stone was for my mother. She let me move into a small beach property she has on the west coast of Norfolk. I knew how lucky I was to be given the key to this tiny haven when so many were so much worse off than me. I put the first stone on a window sill.
I vouched to walk on the beach every day – whatever the weather or my state of mind. I knew the science of connecting with nature. As a yoga teacher, I also knew I should continue my weekday yoga practice. I didn’t. I don’t think I could stand to be with myself on the mat. It was too painful to ‘hear’ so much gloom.
The next day on my walk, I remember thinking that I was not the only one to feel pain. As the pandemic spread around the world, I realised it was no time to cast myself as a victim. Many people had lost their ‘daily bread’ in less privileged circumstances than mine. I was grateful for this awareness. I put the second stone next to the first.
When there were seven stones lined up on the bathroom window sill, my tenants moved out of a property I had bought in the village 14 years earlier. The work of preparing it for the next tenants became my reason to get up. I drew up a daunting work list and felt inadequate in the face of so much toil. Yet I knew I should thank the smart 40-year old who had bought the house as an investment in happier times, and I picked up another stone.
Soon it was clear I was crossing the dunes every evening because I had to find a stone. There seemed to be comfort in my growing collection. There were now little rows of them marching across kitchen shelves and pilling up on my bedside table. Each one marked another day traversed. A kind of primeval calendar whose beauty lay in its simplicity.
In my mind, though, everything was complex. By the time there were eight weeks’ worth of stones populating every available space, I had parted ways with my business partner. Like in a game of snakes and ladders, I had just slithered down a snake. I felt alone. Lonely. Lost. I picked up another stone because that was a simple thing to do.
I wasn’t alone. My best friend called from Australia and asked the obvious. Why didn’t I move into my rental property? “I can’t! I shan’t! I won’t!” I howled like a spoilt brat. What would I do here? I couldn’t imagine how I could earn a living in a village by the sea in Norfolk. My mind was set – set as hard as the pieces of rock that amassed daily in my temporary home.
Back at the house, the agent called to say she was waiting for lockdown to lift and was already screening prospective tenants. With a start, I realised that I had formed some sort of bond with this house that had become my daily focus. I didn’t want to let it go to someone else. This panic forced me to approach my predicament from another angle. I thought: What if I can make this house earn money in another way, with me in it?
It now seems so obvious it beggars belief. It was as if the immutable (stone) head I had been hauling around finally cracked under the pressure. Out of the fissure poured a hundred business ideas that were unthinkable with my previous mindset. I decided to set the house up as a mini retreat centre, with the lounge turned into a yoga/training space.
What happened in the following months is a blur, and the most beautiful proof that when you need help, people appear at your side.
I may not have had a stick of furniture but now I had purpose. Purpose is the strongest driving force you can tap into.
- I registered as a sole trader. In a pandemic.
- Mum lent me a bed and I moved in. I applied to become a B&B with a commercial kitchen.
- Someone in my inner circle said they had capital to invest. I accepted and bought guest beds and appliances and vowed to upcycle the rest of what I needed.
- A friend, who’d been locked down in India for 12 weeks, got a repatriation flight to England and moved in to rehash my garden. Someone gave me outdoor furniture.
- I designed a retreat and started to think about marketing. Someone I met at a dinner offered to take my house and yoga photos – for free!
- I ran some beta retreats to test the concept and the cuisine. Someone put a mahogany dining room table out on the street for a taker. I took it.
- I uploaded my weekend retreat to a commercial booking platform and reservations were made. The gardener departed; the transformed outdoor spaces a living legacy of his support.
- Eventually there was a knock at the door and in walked the first retreat guests. My business idea had reached the market in a pandemic. Those first reviews a testament to the viability of my product.
As to the gratitude stones, I’d envisaged returning them to the beach. Instead they moved house with me. The first ones – when I obsessively collected only orange ones – have been upcycled into a terrarium that sits on my dining room table.
I see those stones daily and cringe at my hard-headedness. Yet the stones form part of my story now. I want them to remind me there is always a way forward. That we all have this innate capacity to be resilient in the face of despair.
Our biggest challenge is finding a way to unset our mind.