Listen to your silences
This has not been an easy blog to write; I have turned my thoughts and feelings round and round in my head and I keep coming back to the same place: that I really disliked my time in Ängsbacka, Sweden. I have not wanted to write about how much I disliked it for fear of insulting anyone associated with the place, or for fear of burning bridges there. I have doubted and denied my own feelings, I have tried to come to terms with what was ‘wrong with me’ that I did not enjoy such ‘an amazing’ place. I have contemplated only writing about the good experiences, of which of course there were many, but that would not be the whole truth. And to deny what is the truth of my experience, I realise, would be a denial of who I am and would be a deception. This blog is about my experience of Ängsbacka. I realise, in saying that, that we can never really write about a place as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or anything else for that matter, we can only ever write about our experience of it, and that can never be right or wrong, it just is what it is: our subjective, individual experience of life.
So ‘eco-community’ number nine, since October 2016, was Ängsbacka in Sweden where I spent most of June and July. I was interested in being there for two reasons: the first being to attend the European Global Eco-village Network (GEN) conference that was taking place there, in mid July. It was a chance to meet some of the several hundred people gathering from eco-villages from all round Europe and catch up with friends from communities that I have met along the way. And my second reason was based an opportunity that Ängsbacka themselves offered me when I communicated with them about volunteering during the conference. Based on my experience as an architect they asked if I would be interested in spending a few weeks there working with a team of people on their Tiny House Eco-Village project: ‘The Forest Dream’ developing the design for the community centre there. This combination of conference and project sounded great so I agreed to spend 7 weeks volunteering there in exchange for accommodation, food and access to the summer festivals, which, in truth, I wasn’t actually all that interested in attending, with the exception of the GEN conference.
For a little bit of background on the place: Ängsbacka was formed in 1997 as a course centre. It is organised as a limited company and anyone can become a member of the Ängsbacka Association. Together all members own and manage the company. At the time I was there about five people lived at Ängsbacka all year round. From talking to people there it seems that most people who have been residents have stayed for 1-2 years but there have been exceptions with a few staying longer. And there are about fifty people who have moved to the nearby town of Molkom from Ängsbacka. It was interesting to talk to some of the people who now live nearby about what attracted them in the first place and why they left: most were attracted by ‘the magic of the place’ and some said they left because there wasn’t sufficient accommodation and others because it didn’t work for them to live on a festival site.
Throughout the year volunteer camps and programs are run in order to organise the various festivals that are held on site. Up to 170 volunteers are there at any one time, paying €10 per day and working 5 hours per day 6 days per week. Volunteer tasks include working in one of their various teams such as kitchen, site and safety, the garden, beautification, dish washing etc. Work is described as ‘working meditation’ and each group has sharing time each day; this is a chance to check in with one another and simply speak and be heard, and to listen without judgement.
So, my own journey started by arriving in Stockholm in early June and taking the 4-hour bus journey west into the middle of Sweden and to Ängsbacka. This was my first visit to Sweden so I enjoyed travelling across some of the country seeing the forests stretch on and on. I arrived at 10pm and I was met with a warm hug and directions as to where to pitch my tent. I didn’t have a tent. I had asked to be in a room with a maximum of four people. I was sent ‘temporarily’ to a 10 bed female dorm. I felt really welcomed but a bit frustrated at the mix up and the fact that there was not enough storage or shelving for all of us and all our belongings. I ended up in the dorm for the next 5 weeks and never actually unpacked my bag. Next day at the daily volunteers meeting, I was surprised to be ‘temporarily’ put on the dishwashing team. I asked co-ordinators about when I would be introduced to the project that I had been invited to work on but they didn’t know about it. What they did know was that there was a shortage of volunteers to wash dishes for the upcoming festival so I was to help out. I have no problem with dishwashing but I do have a problem with poor communication and the blurring of agreements. Despite my repeated requests I remained on the dishwashing team for almost two weeks. In the end I got to talk to the Managing Director and finally was taken off the dishwashing team and got my first introduction the Forest Dream. (I do want to add that the dishwashing team was actually a lot of fun! We had a great team and a wonderful co-ordinator and I am really grateful for the laughter, singing and dancing as we dishwashed!)
As it turns out, Ängsbacka is not actually an eco-community, and if I am honest I could not discern anything that was extraordinarily ecological about it. They do heat their main building using local wood, their electricity comes from the grid, they have recycling receptacles during festivals, and they have a garden that provides some greens during the summer. The food in the kitchen doesn’t necessarily come from either organic or local sources and there doesn’t seem to be an emphasis on maintaining ecological standards in the running of the company. But they have the intention to start the Forest Dream to meet members needs for accommodation and there is an intention in this project to create an eco-community: building with local materials, designing the site using permaculture principles, providing hot water with solar hot water panels, providing electricity using photovoltaic panels and using water from an existing well on site. It is a beautiful concept set on a gorgeous site sitting just inside the beautiful woods that surround the festival site.
On taking up Ängsbacka’s offer I realised, and shared the fact, that 7 weeks is a short period of time to work on a project like this, but depending on the quality and amount of information available and the number of people committed to the project we could potentially set a good base for the design of the community centre. Even after losing two of the seven weeks, I was still optimistic, and excited to work with a team of people who were also enthusiastic about building this new community!
But there was no team. The main people that I worked with on the project were Liina, the EVS volunteer co-ordinator /Mama and permaculture designer, and Sunniva an EVS volunteer and a bright creative engineer. EVS stands for the European Volunteers Services, which is a programme for young people from 18- 30 years old, to gain work and life experience on 2 to 12 month projects. There were 15 EVS volunteers at Ängsbacka while I was there many of whom had signed up to work on the Forest Dream; they were to build the first tiny house under guidance from a design team! I also met the permaculture designer who had created some site analysis drawings and a permaculture design report with Liina but was no longer involved in the project. I briefly met two of the Ängsbacka members who were ‘leading’ the project but unfortunately they were busy during my time there except for one workshop that we held during the GEN conference. So, there was a group of frustrated EVS volunteers impatient to get building, there was a site analysis, a permaculture design plan, no apparent official client to make decisions with, no committed community members, no contractors and no permission to build… but Liina, Sunniva and I focused on the project regardless.
As the EVS’s were getting very frustrated with the lack of activity I was asked if I would hold a few workshops on the basic logistics of construction projects. We held two workshops and created a project to build a few mock-up ‘ghost’ houses on site to give some sense of scale and to bring the EVS team together. I worked with Sunniva on a report to fine tune our decisions on materials and construction details to be used on the first house, we worked on site layouts and construction details and I helped out with a number of workshops that we held during the GEN conference about the project.
The lack of space is an on-going issue in Ängsbacka, with people working at desks in hallways. Sunniva and I started working in an office that at one stage had 7 people trying to work around two desks. It was impossible. Then Sunniva found two desks and a space to work, and we did work peacefully for about two weeks until we were turfed out with no warning, by the ‘Dream team’ for the upcoming GEN conference. During the time that I was working there, there were rolling pre-festival camps, festivals and post festival camps. Volunteers arrived were orientated, got to work, festival goers arrived, festivals happened, then then ended, festivals goers left and then a wave of volunteers left before the next group arrived. All the time I showed up and worked in my space, somedays the desks were missing, some days the chairs were missing, there were cathartic workshops happening in the space above us some days and full on dance events happening across the hall other days.. no two days were the same but one thing was almost guaranteed: it would not be quiet.
After two weeks of dishwashing, staying in a dark dorm with no storage, having no privacy, being exhausted from the constant noise, feeling detached from the other volunteers and the festivals, deeply missing the connection with my friends, struggling with the lack of information and the lack of people on the project, then being pushed out of our workspace with no other place to go, I was not having fun and really had reached the end of my tether. I couldn’t take any more: the day that the GEN team arrived unannounced, I simply left the site and went to the quietest place I could find; I sat by the lake silently watching the water, waiting for my system to calm down. It took 5 hours for me to feel in anyway normal again… I felt claustrophobic and confused about what I was actually doing in this place; was it really worth it for this project, and to wait for the GEN conference… which was still a few days away?
I didn’t know what I would do but I realised that couldn’t continue pushing myself within all of the chaos; I was wasting my time and deluding myself into thinking that this project would come together during festival season. . I returned to Ängsbacka but was not sure what my next steps would be. I was lucky enough to meet Liina on my way back and explained how I was, and through some miracle, there was single room in the main house free that I could stay in. I couldn’t believe what a relief it was to be able to close a door and have a space to myself. Feeling calmer I decided to stay for the conference. I ended back working in the ‘two-desk-office’ and focused on some basic tasks on the project. During the GEN conference I did enjoy catching up with friends from communities that I had been in over the previous months, including some of my lake buddies from Los Portales and folks from Findhorn, Schloss Glarisegg and Schweibenalp. It was inspiring to hear Charles Eisenstein and Helena Norberg Hodge speak about the importance of community and localisation. But even with the single room and time with friends I realised that I was burnt out, I had little energy for socialising and networking during the conference. I could not stay on at Ängsbacka for another festival and I decided that I would leave straight after the GEN conference; a week earlier than planned. I had received an invitation from a friend of mine living south of Stockholm to visit and chill out at his place for a while. I took him up on his offer and so, after 6 weeks, with a HUGE sense of relief, I left Ängsbacka. I spent a gorgeous week by the water enjoying supreme peace and quiet, painting, reading and generally letting my system recalibrate to a place of calm. It was absolute heaven!
I went to Ängsbacka to work on a creative project and hoped to be designing a community centre and building some tiny houses with come experienced carpenters and builders and to be attending my first GEN conference and meet this wider web of community. Unlike everyone else there, I was not there for the festivals that were hosted over June and July: ‘Sexibilty’, ‘Mid-Summer festival’, ‘No-mind’, ‘the Gen Europe Conference’ and the ‘Yoga Festival’. I was there to take part in the creation of a new eco-village and as such I was on a completely different frequency to almost everyone else there. The Forest Dream is a beautiful idea for a project, one that can help fulfil the need for accommodation at Ängsbacka. But with no group of members dedicated to move the project along and act as a client, it was impossible to develop the project. I did the very best I could with the information that I received, but the reality is that the festivals take precedence over everything else during the summer.
The permaculture site plan
This journey to eco-communities has been a lot more intense than I had ever imagined it would be, and the intensity of it all really caught up with me in Ängsbacka. I realised that the sense of family and belonging that I had experienced in my previous stop, in Los Portales, Spain, was always going to be difficult to match or even come close to, however, I was utterly unprepared for what I felt when I arrived in Sweden. After all the months of travel, opening up to new friendships, making new connections, learning to find my place in different constellations of communities and then packing up my life into my rucksack and saying goodbye, over and over again, to amazing people; beautiful new friends, places I learned to call home, it finally caught up on me and I hit a wall. I felt heart broken. My heart felt cold and closed and I was incapable of making close connections with Ängsbacka and the people there. I felt overwhelmed with sadness, and all I wanted was somewhere quiet to process my journey. I was missing my community in Ireland terribly; my friends, hugs, simple connections. And I was struggling to get information and basic support on a project that I had been asked to come and work on.
Also sadly I could not bring myself to let my friends know how I was feeling. I wanted them to believe that I was on a wonderful adventure. So in essence I cut myself off from everyone as a way of trying to cope with the pain that I was feeling. Because of the nature of the place being the site of rolling festivals, Ängsbacka doesn’t allow much space for individual processes let alone for peace, quiet and grieving. It took me weeks to realise what was happening inside of me, I kept trying to force myself to meet people, but I couldn’t connect, I felt numb, I kept forcing myself to engage with a project that no-one was committed to… and finally I hit a wall. I wanted my friends to think I was OK and I wished that the people in Ängsbacka could see that I was actually a fun human being. I wondered where the happy laughing fun open part of me was, and would it ever come back?
This is a really difficult blog to write, I am still stumbling over my words and feeling terrified at the idea of releasing this experience into the world.
In Ängsbacka I forget that I am loved, it’s a hard thing to explain, perhaps we have all felt it at some stage: like living at a distance from everyone around you. I stayed because I felt that I should: it’s a very old pattern of trying to prove that I am ‘good enough’ and in so doing railroading over my own emotions and ignoring my own well being. By denying my own experience I denied my friends and all the people around me by underestimating their capacities to see me and be there for me. But in the midst of all of this I did have some beautiful experiences and I am grateful for a number of powerful lessons:
I learned about the kind of community I do not want to live in, and the way in which I do not want to live. I felt a very strong sense that I will co-create a community and it will be one that is based in a deep sense of grounding and spiritual connection with the earth, growing our own food, meeting in sacred space, listening to one another, with people ranging in ages from young to old, with structure and clear open communication and lots of space for peace and silence as well as conscious spaces for joyful celebration, grieving and active listening.
I learned to ground myself in the midst of chaos… I learned to trust my own sense of safety and I learned more deeply what sacred space means for me, and how important it is as a hub within a community.
Sacred space in the forest
The greatest gifts of my time in Ängsbacka were my times alone in the forest that surrounds the site, and by the nearby lake. The forest is an old Scandinavian mix of coniferous and deciduous trees, swathes of soft moss and blueberries, wild strawberries, magical light and shadows and ancient spirits. In the evenings after battling for elbowroom on overcrowded hot-desks, I would sit in the forest or go to the lake while the sun set. I would soak up the peace and quiet and the world would begin to make sense again, for a while. I absolutely need time alone; time in nature to replenish. I found solace and peace in the utter simple and stunning miracle of nature, as I realised that on one level I am simply a part of all of it: life simply unfolding. I am profoundly grateful for this deepened grounding connection with nature, it was a sublimely beautiful gift from my time in Sweden.
One thing I really do appreciate about Ängsbacka was its willingness to offer space to anyone to offer classes. Anyone could make an offering: from life coaching to yoga, dance classes, hula hooping or forest walks. I taught four Movement Medicine classes while I was there. I taught most of the classes while I was still deeply grieving and was amazed at the power of the practice of teaching to bring me ‘out of my sadness’ and bring my work into offering and into movement. Movement Medicine keeps unfolding as a practice for me and allowed me to deepen my relationship with myself and with life around me. I am so grateful for this practice, and for the forest; meditation, movement, music, and for simply being held by mama earth.
Other lessons from my time in Sweden include:
Learning to remember my uniqueness and appreciating who I am: honouring my own experience even if it is flowing contrary to everyone around me. To do this I need to find my ground, to find places of safety, for me that is primarily in nature. When I remember who I am and all that I am connected to, I am not alone – and I realise that this is what I am really looking for in my exploration of communities; my sense of ‘home’ inside of me. Tears roll down my face as I write this, but what I wish to experience and what I wish to share is my very deepest desire for us all to remember that to be truly alive is to be fully awake to all that we are connected to. I have experienced Eco-communities doing this in very tangible ways: connecting to one another, to the land, to spirit. There is no freedom in being separate, even though it sounds like a paradox the freedom we seek is in connection to the great web of life and all of its diversity.
Choose your experience: we can experiences different situations in life; some can be hard and some easier. Life happens and we have a choice as to how we engage with it. Based on an old story I forced myself to stay and struggle in a situation that did not nourish me. It’s a lesson that was hard to learn; but life can be easy if we choose it: when I chose to be more loving to myself, and leave Ängsbacka (or Angst-backa as I began to call it…) it was easy to find a place to rest.
I learned just how important my friends are to me: I realised that I was aching for connection with good friends who just simply know me and love me, as strange as I sometimes am. I hadn’t let myself feel this; I had covered it over with a layer of ‘separation’. And this sense of separation and my sense of loneliness is of my own making; old programming from many years previous. And the amazing thing about that is that I can change this story; this way of seeing the world, I can find connection to life around me in very simple ways: watching the water by the lake or picking blueberries in the forest in the evenings; these simple things allowed me to open my heart, and reminded me that I am loved.
I wanted to post photos of me building tiny houses with a group of happy smiling people. I wanted to tell you how fantastic it was to work in a team and build together, I wanted so much to tell you how amazing a time it was in Ängsbacka… but it simply wasn’t: it wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was a very strong learning experience, it was difficult, it was painful… but I am left, as with all the places that I have visited, with a sense of gratitude for what I received.
I am not perfect; I could be more outgoing, I could make more of an effort at times, I could be a whole lot easier on myself. But what I realise and am learning to accept is that by honouring myself for who I am, as I am: perfectly, imperfectly perfect, without struggling and forcing myself to be anything else, I release a whole lot of energy that is bound up inside of me; held tightly like a wound up spring. Something relaxes. I stop struggling. And rather that focusing on all the things that ‘I am not’ and ‘I do not have’, I can be more clear focused about what it is that I am truly here to be, and what life has to offer me. All the struggling and forcing is exhausting – I think the greatest lesson in my life is to learn to appreciate who I really am, to appreciate my uniqueness, our uniqueness. Walk your own walk express your truth, this passion for your truth is what will inspire others.
Oliver Stone speaks about this beautifully:
“…. its important to remember: if you believe in what you are saying, and you can stay the course, you CAN make a difference. I urge you to find a way to remain alone with your self, listen to your silences…. try to find, not what the crowd wants….. but try instead to find the true inner meaning of your life here on earth, and never give up on your heart, in your struggle for peace, decency and telling the truth.”
From Nyköping: resting and painting in divinely peaceful surroundings thanks to my wonderful forest brother Margus
My project of exploring community is fully supported by my creativity through the sale of my art and by a virtual online community through crowd funding. If you would like to support me on this journey you can check out my art on www.sineadcullen.com or make a donation on my Crowd funding https://www.gofundme.com/LetsCreate
- The European Voluntary Service is an international volunteer program funded by the European Commission. It enables all young people legally resident in Europe, aged between 18 and 30 years, to carry out an international volunteer service in an organization or in a public body in Europe, Africa, Asia or South America for a period ranging from 2 to 12 months. It provides the reimbursement of travel expenses and complete coverage of the costs of food and accommodation for the international volunteer. http://europeanvoluntaryservice.org/
- Global Ecovillage Network: https://ecovillage.org/
- Ängsbacka http://en.angsbacka.se/