“Only you would go to Scotland to plant trees and end up modeling nude!”
No one ever said it, but some folk back home might have said something similar had they seen me perched on a metal folding chair on top of a paint-splattered oak table while five strangers interpreted my birthday suit in chalk onto giant white sheets of paper.
It was October in the North Atlantic, and I didn’t actually end up modeling nude. I had taken my clothes off in front of these people only twice—for the money. Even though my living expenses in Scotland were nil, it never hurt to have a little extra dosh in the pocket. Not that £25 was a lot, especially for the effort of sitting motionless for two frigid hours. I sat back and thought of Scotland and how I was going to spend my cold-earned cash. A trip to the equator would be nice. Willing myself to be warm didn’t work, so I turned my attention to what brought me to the windy moors of the Scottish Borders.
Ever since I was a young teenager, I’d been cultivating a deep love for Britain. Twelve years before my Scotland adventure, I had taken a break from college to live and work on a red deer park in England, also cultivating lifelong friendships. Post-college dreams were to tour the world and teach others about wildlife conservation. A Peace Corps experience in Africa was cut short by “civil conflict,” and I returned home to pursue journalism instead. Only for lack of trying hard enough did my career remain in first gear. Freelance gigs paid the bills for Montana living but wasn’t enough to support a travel habit. Though blessed with mountains, sparkling lakes and rivers, and plenty of elbow room, Big Sky Country began to feel isolating.
My midlife crisis attacked at 34, an age at which most people were settling into careers and families. Was being single and childless at my age a problem? Would there be better work opportunities elsewhere? Indifference about the answers stoked feelings of purposelessness. Montana’s job scenario was bleak; romantic prospects didn’t exist; and thoughts of if-onlys and paths not trod fermented into depression.
And there was the spiritual crisis.
I come from a family of Presbyterian preachers: maternal grandfather, father, sister. Christianity is my foundational religion, yet by the time I hit my early twenties, I needed more than what the Church was offering. Teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, and other Eastern mystical practices became more alluring, as did Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart and Teilhard de Chardin. Occasional retreats, workshops, and group meditations fueled my soul. So why did it feel like God had abandoned me? Why did life seem empty? I expected better divine guidance, signs to nudge me toward…something. Erratic prayers became missives demanding God to improve my dead-end life. Bored and unfilled, anxious that life was passing me by, whatever was needed—work, love, spiritual food—could I find it somewhere other than home?
I began searching the Internet for volunteer conservation work in exchange for room and board. Scotland appealed because of my ancestral roots. In cold-call emails I introduced myself and my skills (forestry, conservation, all-around outdoor labor). Of the half-dozen replies, one could offer both room and board in exchange for work. The email came from a guy called William at a place called Braemar, a 200-acre Georgian estate, where people from all over the world lived and worked. I could help with their tree planting project. I’d have my own room, and a cook prepared all meals. I excitedly read William’s email over and over. Pay dirt or too good to be true? A subsequent phone chat with him convinced me it was worth the risk.
Braemar billed itself as a “School of Esoteric Education” for adults; a spiritual retreat. Their website was filled with passages about the “unity of existence” and love and God. Okay, here’s a bonus. I can plant trees AND find my way through the spiritual forest at the same time. A few things on the website unnerved me, though: Arabic script and quotes from the Qur’an as well as stuff about a 12th-century Muslim called Ibn Arabi. Like most Americans in the late 1990s, what little I knew about Muslims wasn’t entirely positive. We were tainted with images of plane hijackers and suicide bombers. On the other hand, the website also quoted Rumi, a Sufi poet whom I loved. Who exactly were these Braemarites—a cult?—and what was their brand of esoterica?
Personal reservations aside, I accepted William’s offer to come to Scotland in six-months’ time, secured the necessary visas, and began closing down my life in Montana. I would travel six thousand miles to plant some trees and also, I hoped, find that missing personal something from my life. Whatever that was.
“I can’t believe how still you’ve sat for so long,” one of the artists said, bringing my mind back to the drafty studio. “How are you getting on up there? All right?”
“Well I’m certainly impressed. Surely, you must be freezing,” she said.
Surely, she could tell.
“Can you manage for another hour, or do you need to give it a rest?”
“Carry on,” I said, affecting a British accent.
“Incredible muscle tone,” another artist said.
“I’m active,” I confirmed.
“Good job you are fit, my girl. I dare say you’ll get plenty of exercise working on the Braemar estate,” Rafi said.
I met Rafi, Braemar’s maintenance man, a couple of weeks earlier when I first arrived in Scotland. He set up the modeling gig at a local studio in town, though he might have had other motives for wanting to see me al fresco. So what. Posing naked for the sake of art was nothing. Baring my soul? Paralyzing. Interestingly, Braemar’s form of spirituality, loosely grounded in Sufism, was soul-baring at its core.