boolily logo
 
 

Connect...that's what this page is all about. How do I connect from this little island on the edge of Scotland to the "rest of the world?"

It's raining quite hard but I'm snug in the sun room, ironically, of the Columba Hotel, one of two on the island of Iona where I'm living and working as part of the Iona Community Normally on a day off from cooking meals for 80 in the abbey kitchen, I would be out exploring the island no matter what the weather. But my work on

my feet as the abbey cook has landed me a foot injury, something to do with nerve endings, so I'm laid up a bit. I managed to walk from the abbey to this couch and that's about it for today.

This is every bit a part of the "real world" as any other spot but it does feel distant from the "rest of the world." It is quite an odyssey to reach the island - trains, ferries, buses. There is no traffic noise, only a few cars are allowed on the island. There is no TV. There are no billboards. There is one convenience type shop and several gift shops. There are lots of cows and sheep, sandy white beaches, and grassy/rocky hills. It is windswept and worn, yet vibrant and pulsing with life. I've never lived in a place like this before, so off and away and yet so deeply connected to life, the universe, and everything.

I reach out towards friends, family, and the familiar. I want everyone to feel as connected to him or her self, the essential core of who one is, as I feel here in a place I've never been before, never expected to be, and yet find myself completely grounded and at home. I live in the midst of chaotic community - we are about 60 resident staff and welcome about 90 guests each week - and yet feel comfortably ordered according to my true desires and way of being. It's a paradox place and I love that!

Come and visit and see if the magic is here for you, too. -- Jana, July 31, 2006 Isle of Iona, Argyll, Scotland

iona sound

Here is the first installment of Paul's Notes from a Wee Island, from our time on a not-so-wee island figuring out to come here to our arrival on Iona:

Saturday, 4 March, 2006
It’s hot. Perhaps 35 Celsius or so. We are in the caravan park at a little place in the northeast York Peninsula, about an hour north of Adelaide in South Australia. The water of the Gulf St Vincent I can see through the motor home door is a solid line of bright blue. Above the sky is all bleached light blue. Between us and the water is the brown of the late summer grass and the dark green of the mangroves. I am thinking about Scotland, ancient Scottish kings, heather and old stone. Here it is early March, the end of summer but still hot and dry. In Scotland it is the end of winter, cold, grey. I know, I checked the weather there on the net last night. Today was going to be 5 degrees and sunny. Tomorrow, 5 degrees and cloudy.

Last night, in another caravan park on the same peninsular, we got an email from the Iona Community on the island of Iona, off the island of Mull, off the west coast of Scotland. They want to interview us for the position of cook at the Iona Abbey.

We applied on another blistering hot afternoon three weeks before. We were fruit picking in northeastern Victoria. Pears, to be specific. Hard and green they were. Nothing like ripe. They would be sent to packing sheds to be gas ripened later in the year and sent to supermarket shelves, flawless and tasteless.

It was hot and hard work fruit picking. If you stick at it long enough and work diligently and consistently you can make enough to survive but that is about all. We usually got back to the van, baking in the shade-limited paddock that they had carved out of the fruit trees for their pickers to stay, at about 3:00 pm, in the worst heat of the day. We would take two beers from the fridge, stuff them in the tiny motor home freezer, shower and drink the ice cold beers in a stupor, vaguely wondering if the sprays and insecticides that had succeeded in making the fruit trees completely free of all insect and bird life, were rotting our brains as we breathed them in each time we climbed the metal ladders into the foliage.

Our Internet gismo, which, allowed us to hook to the Web through the mobile phone network, was, thank the Lord, just inside range. We could get and send emails, and, if the sites weren’t too fancy, get some Internet.

I had found a site in the UK that seemed to specialise in jobs in religious institutions and churches. I guess I was looking because we had been talking about what it would be like to do interim ministry positions in the UK. There were a few youth worker jobs and then the Iona jobs. They were looking for a program director for their work too. But the cook’s job is what made us interested. Interested enough that two days later after, trying to think about it while picking, an almost, pardon the pun, fruitless exercise; we decided to start on applications. There is something about that kind of labour that doesn’t allow you to do serious thinking. Years ago, I worked in a car parts factory for a few months. I was in what they called the Small Machine Shop. It wasn’t as noisy as the main line and if you raised your voice you could have a conversation with the guy next to you. On my first day I tried. It took me only 10 minutes to get the hang of the job so I started talking to the guy next to me. When I was introduced to him the foreman had told me he’d been there seven years. He had one less bolt to put in to his part than I had so if figured he could do his job with his eyes closed and we would be able to chat. He didn’t want to talk. He barely grunted in response to my questions. Before long he had moved as far away from me as he could. By the end of the week, I understood perfectly why he didn’t want to talk. When you are doing that kind of work your mind travels, it just doesn’t seem to be present. I don’t know where it goes, but it does go.

It was easy to apply. Sitting in our motor home in the heat, thankful for electric power so that we could run a fan and move the air around some, the words came easily. Were we motivated by a for life in community? The opportunity for something new? Or just the desire to get out of dusty, muscle aching fruit picking?

Friday, 17 March, 2006
Last night we did phone interviews with the team at Iona. Jana first, then me, and then the two of us together. Took almost three hours all up. They were nice people. Made us feel at ease from the start, asked us about our cooking experience. That didn’t take very long! I waffled a little when they asked me what I would do to prepare a meal for someone suffering from Sealic disease. I guessed, amazingly correctly, that I would need to avoid gluten and wheat. I mentioned rice and that I would rush to the Internet to do some research. They laughed. I’m not sure they completely got the idea that we want to job share the position of Abbey Cook as they are also looking for a cook for the MacLeod Centre, the other of the two centres run by the Iona Community. We tried to clarify this with the person we spoke to together. We want to do this but not at the expense of being in it together. If we both cooked in different places, even though they are apparently only a few meter apart on the tiny island, it would not be the same and it would not be as much fun for us. Fun sounds like such a flippant word, such an ephemeral thing but it is what I want and I do know how to get it, by doing things together. We work well together and we are really happy working together and not really happy working apart. So for us that’s about it. As simple as that.

In interviews I am always trying to be on my best behaviour. Same here. I wanted them to like me, to not think me a total idiot. So I waffled a bit. Said a few things that, on reflection, I really don’t have a clue what I was trying to say. But I don’t think I said anything that wasn’t true!

For us, now this morning, we realise there is such a tendency to fit in. if they came back to us and said, we want you to come but we want one of you to work at the Macleod Centre and one at the Abbey, there is a part of us that would say yes just to be nice and to avoid conflict. But we want to be stronger than that and stick to what is important for us. So, I am sure that not being able to work together 24/7 is a deal breaker. If they want us, and we will know tonight our time, they will have to take us the way we want to do it.

I am feeling very anxious. Anxious about making the change. Anxious about doing the right thing. We have only been in Australia for 6 months and we don’t just love hot weather; we need it. Last week at the Adelaide Festival of Art’s Writers’ Week we heard a writer from the West Indies who has lived most of her life in the UK. She talked about visits back to the islands when the warm, sunny weather made her relax like a clenched fist unclenching. I know how she feels when ever I come back to Australia, especially to Queensland and the Pacific Ocean.

Tuesday, 21 March, 2006
It has been a bumpy couple of days with the Iona thing. On Friday evening, South Australian time, Richard, the Abbey Warden called us back as we were out having a pleasant dinner with friends. He told us that they were very keen for Jana and I to come and be a part of the resident community at Iona. He said that he felt like we would be just right for the place. He also told us that they had looked at the physical situation of the Abbey and that they couldn’t see a way of us sharing the Abbey Cook’s job. Instead they offered Jana the cook’s position and me the position of Assistant Maintenance Coordinator. We talked about it that evening after dinner. At first we felt that it wasn’t really what we wanted at all. We had applied to share the cooking job because that is really what we want to do, work and share together. We wondered why they didn’t know accommodation situation before they interviewed us… Later in the evening Biddy, Richard’s wife and another member of the Iona staff called us and said that in talking about the position they thought that the maintenance position could be flexible enough for both of us to share the same hours off. We felt that both Richard and Biddy were making a real effort to make this work for them and for us. After that conversation, we decided that we would take the two jobs as offered. It isn’t a perfect situation as we would want it in a perfect world but when does that ever happen? Not perfect but close enough we thought. We finished the call having taken the plunge and saying to Biddy that Jana would accept the position of Abbey Cook and I the position of Assistant Maintenance Coordinator and that we would talk again when we were able to figure out how soon we could get to Scotland.

The next day we got an email from the acting Staff Coordinator inviting me to apply for the position of Assistant Maintenance Coordinator. But didn’t we just accept the position the night before? We were confused and sent an email back saying so. We got another email back from someone we had had no contact with whose title was Staff Coordinator, telling us that no one gets offered a job without being interviewed. We felt a bit disheartened by all of this. The email from the Staff Coordinator was a bit officious, and read as if we had got the wrong end of the conversation rather than that they might have. It made us panic a bit too. What if the whole place is one mini bureaucracy where different people carve out and defend “their” turf?

We wanted to fire back an email telling them that we were disappointed and frustrated. Instead I took my application for Abbey Cook, took out the bits referring to food and cooking and put in some bits about building and fixing things and sent it off.

Thursday, 23 March, 2006
An hour ago I stood in a public phone box in Ballart, in central Victoria and interviewed for the position of Assistant Maintenance Coordinator. It wasn’t a long interview being all about my abilities and experience in maintenance. I totally messed up the scenario question, which was something to do with all the lights going out just before a meal was to be served. I should have said the first thing to do is ensure that everyone is safe. But I didn’t. Still Hugh the Maintenance Coordinator helped me out. A nice man I think. Anyway an hour later when Jana and I were in bed in our little motor home, Richard rang on the mobile and offered me the job. He also said that for them the best time for us to arrive would be the middle of May; the very timeline we had told them was best for us. It is the time line that gives us time to finish doing all that we have to do to be organised properly.

Sunday, 26 March, 2006
Tonight we are in Canberra. Tomorrow is Monday and we will go to the visa office of the British High Commission. We need to get Jana’s visa for the UK renewed. Because she is a US citizen and her last visa was issued in the US, we aren’t clear if we can get a visa issued from Australia. The High Commission website says that we should deal with the office in the country we are in, provided the applicant is living legally in the country. Jana has her resident’s visa for Australia in her passport so we should be in the right place but immigration processes are never easy and I always feel daunted by them. Tomorrow will tell. But if not then we will have to wait a day, as Tuesday is a public holiday here…

I haven’t thought about Iona much today. We spent most of the day driving with a brief stop at the Milawa Cheese Factory, which makes heavenly cheese and beautiful artisan breads.

All the people we have spoken to on the phone are very English. I have to remember how proper and reserved they are in their nature and actions. Will we prove ourselves to be crass colonials? Will we have to tone ourselves down to fit in? Should I be thinking about being spiritual? All I can think about is what will I do if I run out of deodorant or books to read, or aspirin, or toothpaste? We are going to be on an island. I can’t nip around the corner to get a paper or a block of chocolate…

Sunday, 8 May, 2006
What happened to April? I am sitting in a house in Hackney, in London. The sun is just setting; it’s almost 9:00 PM. A new album by Ryan Adams is playing on the computer. His plaintive voice and spare piano playing make the gathering quiet of twilight melancholy. I’ve been in the UK for a few days, enough time to let the jetlag subside and to start thinking about what else I should be doing. April now seems to be a blur. I cannot think how it all went by so fast. A month ago I was in Queensland I think. I have to look at the calendar to have any hope of reconstructing the last month. But this is always the way for me. It seems that I give all of my attention to the present, to the future and to that vast fantasyland where I can wander for hours minding my own business, drifting and dreaming. Buddhists and other spiritual disciplines speak of living in the moment. I don’t know what they mean. For me the big and first question is how long is a moment? Is it the flash of a moment that passes in the time it takes me to say ‘moment?’ Is it the hour that I am in right now? Is it this day, this month? What can it possibly mean to be in the moment? I truly think I am only ever unconscious of the moments (however long they are) that are to come, the things I must do should do, would like to do. The people I to whom I ought to write, who I ought to call, when I am watching a film or reading a book or who knows what…

A month ago today, at this time of the evening I was sitting in the motor home in a caravan park in Tweed Heads or perhaps we were walking back from eating tea at the great take away fish and ship shop in South Tweed, the kind of place where you have to line up for 20 minutes, if you are lucky, to get a great feed of fried fish and good crunchy chips. I can recommend the calamari; so easy to over cook but never at Scales.

Now here I am, having not written anything in the journal for a month and I can hardly remember the urgencies and important things of that last month at all. We finished cleaning, painting and doing the floors of the little unit we own. We put it in the hands of the agent, and still have not had it rented… We visited Tim and Lyndal, my brother and Sister In Law and their little chipmunks in Coolum. We visited Brisbane and talked with Uniting Church people about possibilities for ministry when we go back to Australia, which we thing we do want to do. We drove back to Adelaide and Jana got ready to leave and then she did and then I did and now I am here and I have no perspective on life on time on the flow of time at all. Nothing. Jana is in the States visiting her mother for three weeks.

I think about Iona in tiny flashes but I don’t know what it will be like. I worry that I won’t be spiritual enough that the others there will be true believers, will be really committed and that they will take one look at me and know I am a charlatan and they will be nice to me but take me aside and tell me that I must be crazy…

Wednesday, 17 May, 2006
We’ve been on Iona for 24 hours. It’s been raining almost non-stop. We’ve met two dozen people and gotten lost twice trying to find our way around the building of the old Abbey and the Cloisters. At the meal this evening, and at every meal, people who are having their first meal on Iona are asked to identify themselves and are welcomed and people who are having their last meal before catching the ferry, the bus, and the ferry back to the mainland are offered a blessing and a farewell. This is a place of comings and goings. There are people here from a dozen different lands, all speaking English with their own particular accents. Some people we have met have been here a few weeks and others have only a few weeks left on the island. Lotte, the member of staff who gave us the guided tour this afternoon, was herself being guided around only 6 weeks earlier.

We were welcomed last night as we arrived just after the meal began. We are the community’s newest arrivals, at least we were until the 2:00 pm ferry this afternoon, when seven new volunteers arrived. Three other volunteers are due to leave on the early ferry tomorrow. And so it goes …

The journey to Iona from Glasgow, even in the 21st century, is long. A three-hour train journey winding through some of the bleak, cement encrusted, neighbourhoods of 1960s housing commission Glasgow, along the edges of Lock Long and up through the beginnings of the Western Highlands until the line drops down to Oban. From there, a 45 minute ferry ride to the island of Mull takes you out through the sheltered amphitheatre of Oban Harbour past tiny rock islands, ruled by sea birds and out towards the Western Isles. Under low, steel-grey clouds, through slate-grey water, and the mournful, echoing cry of the Atlantic gulls, a ruined, moss encrusted hulk of an ancient castle brooding high over the harbour entrance looms out of the mist. All of it a signal. The world is different out here on the edge.

The ferry lands at Craignure on Mull. Two buses wait. One journeys up the north road to the pretty village of Tobermory and one journeys west to Fionphort from where the 10-minute ferry journey to Iona begins. The single lane road to Fionphort skirts Ben More, the highest mountain on Mull, shrouded in cloud for our journey, and the long shallow bay of Loch Scridain Driving anything along a winding single-lane road requires vigilance, driving a 40-seat coach, requires that, and a fast brake foot. Our driver had both in spades as we lurched from passing point to passing point playing chicken with vehicles that were nearly always were smaller than we were so soon got out of our way.

Dropping down eventually into Fionphort the little island of Iona sits just off the coast. In the low cloud and mist the grey-brown of the Abbey, by far the largest of the 30 or so buildings on the island, merges with the grey-brown of Dun I, the large rocky hill behind it. We shared the ferry with two cars and about 20 walking passengers. Both cars were loaded with boxes. One was full of potato chips. Of the walkers, we were the only two headed for the Abbey. A few American nuns in green habits were headed for the Catholic retreat house in the village and the rest I guess to the B&Bs and the two hotels on the island.

There was no one from the community to meet us off the ferry. This left us confused and disheartened. We decided to walk as our heaviest bags had wheels and the rain had stopped and we had no idea what else to do. As we walked through the handful of houses that comprise the village we told ourselves that it would be okay, that we hadn’t travelled all this distance on a fools errand, that there would be someone to welcome us when we finally finished this last leg of our long journey. By the time we arrived at the Abbey’s front door the rain had started. What seemed like the main door was open, but the place was quiet and seemed deserted. What if they had closed the place down and all left without telling us? What if there’d been some huge mix up in communication and they really weren’t expecting us and had no work and no room for us? We piled our bags inside the front porch and I stood guard while Jana went in the first open door and up some stone steps to see if she could find someone. Within two minutes, Jana and three or four other people stumbled down the stairs all talking at once. Of course they were expecting us but not until tomorrow. But they were glad to see us, happy to welcome us and already had our rooms ready and waiting. Apologies flew as our bags were lifted and taken up the same stone stairs to two tiny rooms in what the locals call The Warren. Room one has enough room for a double bed and a tiny wardrobe, room two, reached by going out into the corridor, past the shared bathroom, and in the next door, is even smaller and has three chairs and a tiny cupboard. The bathroom and corridor is shared with three other members of the resident staff, each with their own room. Sinja, from Germany, who works as the Cook at the Macleod Centre, Francis, who is from Glasgow and is the Macleod Centre Program Worker, and Bek, from Sydney, the Macleod Centre Housekeeper who was on a few days holiday when we arrived.

We dumped our bags in our new room and were guided through the warren of The Warren to the Refectory where Abbey guests, staff, and volunteers were finishing their evening meal. We were immediately welcomed by the whole group and plied with food and cups of tea and lots of names. When we went to our rooms we soon climbed into our new bed and, exhausted from, in Jana’s case 30 hours of travelling and in mine, 15 hours, we were soon asleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
   
   

boolily home | inspire | connect | equip |about us| contact us
designed at the boolily cafe