As a Friend of the Priory, you have a right to know – at this early stage of our journey together – why I wrote this book and why I’ve put so much faith into a cause in which I truly believe. To do this, you need to know something about my past. You need to know what happened in 2003.
September 2003 was the darkest time of my life. I’d worked a gruelling seven hundred hours in five weeks, trying to complete everything my employer had asked of me before my wedding day. I’d finished the tasks, only to return home to find it empty – of furniture and love. My fiancée had left me, taking with her a life of dreams and the core of my being. I felt the weight of the world collapse upon me, muffling my senses and entombing me in a state of confusion and self-pity. Within two months I’d lost my job, my house and, in an effort to avoid bankruptcy, had sold virtually all my possessions. I retreated to a place of safety behind my eyelids, where the world was quiet.
The next thing I remember is waking in bed at my parents’ house. I felt achy but somehow refreshed, like I’d had the longest and most rewarding night’s sleep of my life. I looked around the room. There was a birthday card on the bedside table. It read, “Happy Birthday, from Mom and Dad; May 2004”.
Six months in the darkness? How could this be? Silly question, really. What I’d lost from memory I’d gained in understanding. A voice in my head was saying, “The only person to blame for your situation is you...It took time for you to recover...And besides, aren’t you glad to have escaped that life anyway?”
It was laughable really. The world that had come apart, that I’d worked so hard to secure, was completely alien to what I truly valued. I’d worked all those hours, but I hated my job. Yet through some misplaced sense of loyalty, I’d prioritised it over everything else. Like a cog in a machine, I’d lived the ‘dizzy spin’ of productivity and progression but would grate anything or anyone that sought to touch me. And what free time I had was lived beneath the neon lights of late-night bars, where I pursued the gratuitous follies of a reckless life. Acting with no thought for consequence, I shamelessly indulged my every whim. I took advantage of every situation, every opportunity, and every person. Driven by a neurotic fear of failure, I channelled my white-hot anger and ambition into a persona and lifestyle of fakery and excess. I was the epitome of my failures, yet sought only to display my success. I lived for the moment, not knowing that my moment would eventually come. As the supernova at the centre of everyone’s universes, or so I thought, my ego never considered that someone would not wish to marry me. And so I thank the girl who, though her absence, forced me to realise.
She made me realise everything.
Most especially, the shock of an imploding life made me realise that neither the life, nor the person at its centre (me), was real. It was a charade, built to conceal a world of hurt and to protect the child within who loved words but was unable to speak. I’d reinvented myself as a corporate drone, concealing my emotions and personality beneath a sharp suit and a slick haircut. This outward appearance was never me, but I maintained the show because I believed it to be necessary. I needed to be perceived as successful, however superficial the ensuing existence would become. My reality, throughout all of it, was that I was skint, unloved and deeply unhappy.
My crazed world was a far cry from the simple life I’d once had. There had been a time, not so long before, when I was completely contented. I was a gardener on a country estate. I cycled to work and thought that ‘abroad’ meant travelling to the neighbouring villages four miles away. It was a country life, a precious existence. I would tend to roses during the day; fish, shoot, or write each evening; I’d eat food grown just thirty feet from my back door and always have time to savour the changing seasons. I was truly happy. But someone, at some point, must have convinced me that this lifestyle wasn’t enough.
It was probably a bank manager or mortgage lender who told me that I was too poor to buy a car or a house; too penniless to buy new clothes; too pathetic to court ladies and too shy to, as they say, ‘hit the town’ (a lovely expression). For some reason, these things became imperative. I dropped my gardening tools, threw my bicycle over a hedge and went in search of fortunes laid beneath the hangman’s noose. It led to a breakdown and six months of non-living.
Fast-forward to 2004 and my awakening. As I lay in bed, thinking about the consequences of my past life, I realised that my situation was not so much a turning point as a raw and exciting beginning. I was presented with an opportunity – to make a fresh start and undo the mistakes that had cost me my identity, my faith, my sense of belonging, and my purpose in life. I would reset and reboot these values. Stronger and – for the first time – with courage, I would return to and rebuild my earlier life. It would be a ‘quietly rewarding’ country life, where I’d be as much a part of nature as it of me. Connected to living things, and with the self-belief to remain true to – and fight for – my beliefs, I would live a meaningful life.
I’d known this life before, and would know it again. It was something I’d searched for and found as a child after reading the natural history books of W.H. Hudson. Now, as I sought to find it again, I was reminded of his words: “The blue sky, the brown soil beneath, the grass, the trees, the animals, the wind, the rain, and the stars are never strange to me; for I am in, and of, and am one with, them; and my flesh and the soil are one, and the heat in my blood and in the sunshine are one, and the winds and the tempests and my passions are one…The sense of the beautiful is God’s best gift to the human soul…For here the religion that languishes in crowded cities or steals shame-faced to hide itself in dim churches, flourishes greatly, filling the soul with solemn joy. Face to face with Nature on the vast hills at eventide, who does not feel himself near to the Unseen?”
This was my calling, my sunset and sunrise marking my past and future world, defining the Unseen. There, in the light of truth, was my big chance of happiness. It would be where I could faithfully honour the nature of my soul. All thanks to the ability to see life in a new light, made possible by the darkness.
Extreme circumstances, therefore, can trigger the most powerful of responses. I decided, there and then, that I would never again feel embarrassed about, or compromise, my beliefs and values. Being a country lad from a small village, who’s more at home in woods and fields than amongst the concrete of the city, is nothing to hide. I decided to champion this rural lifestyle and demonstrate that it is possible to be happy and successful by living on one’s own terms, in the places and with the people that inspire us. Of these, it was the prospect of an entirely different social circle that held most surprise.
As a deeply private introvert (albeit one who’d recently lived a decadent and extrovert lifestyle), I could have opted for the life of a hermit, away from societal influences. I could have joined a monastery and lived simply. But I knew that such isolation would be unhealthy for me. As a farmer-friend once said, “You have to feel the bite of the wind to appreciate the warmth of a winter coat.” So it is with society and the ‘real’ world. We need to suffer (to a degree) the reality of life – jobs, stress, bills, and conflict with others – to appreciate the value and balance of a quiet life. Conversely, I knew that a rural life working the land could be one of the most brutal experiences – especially in winter. So my perception and understanding of both had to remain honest. I decided, therefore, to return to the world of work, mortgages and social gatherings, but only if they provided me with as much freedom and time as possible to experience True Beauty.
True Beauty. I pondered what this meant. I looked at my past, seeking inspiration from the things that inspired me as a child. Things like the process of creation, writing words onto a notepad or drawing lines in a sketchbook; being outdoors, appreciating the beauty of nature, of feeling the heat of the sun on a winter’s day or hearing the trickle of a mountain stream; seeing a trout rise to a fly; looking up to marvel at a buzzard soaring overhead; growing a plant from seed and then seeing it bloom; savouring the closeness of family and true friends. Most of all, I cherished the opportunity to say I love something or someone without having to give reason. My future life, I determined, would be based on these values.
That was two years ago. I’ve since begun rebuilding my life, getting a new job, new home, new possessions and even a new fiancée. I’m settled now, which gives me courage to fulfil a promise that I once made to myself, which I will now make to you:
“Life can be impossibly tough. At times it seems like there is no escape from either the pressure or monotony of a world where you are corralled into being something or someone you are not. But there is an escape, to more peaceful and gentler places, and a happier state of mind. It requires a conscious decision to view the world in a certain light, searching for and spending time at these places. Not everyone can pursue this dream to the full. My promise to you is that I will do everything I can to live this life as completely and happily as possible, and will share the journey with you.”
This is how Fennel’s Journal came into being. It is why the Priory has such meaning, and why the coming years are so important. We each need to believe in something, a dream that provides our optimism and faith.
If we spend enough time dreaming, then the dream might eventually become real…
This is a sample chapter from A Meaningful Life, Fennel's Journal No. 1
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