Only YOU would go to Scotland to plant trees and land yourself a nude modeling gig.
The thought occurred as I sat on a metal folding chair on top of a paint-splattered oak table while five strangers interpreted my birthday suit in colored chalk on giant sheets of white paper. It was autumn in the North Atlantic, and this was the first of two times that I would remove my clothes for these artists. Even though my living expenses were nearly nil, having an extra twenty-five pounds would be nice, though not necessarily a lot of money, considering the effort it took to sit motionless for two frigid hours. Perched on the chair I thought of how I was going to spend my cold-earned cash. A trip to the tropics would be nice! Thinking of warm climes didn’t make me feel warmer, so I turned my attention to what had brought me to these windy moors.
Ever since I was a young teenager I had been cultivating a deep love for Great Britain. Twelve years before my Scottish adventure, I had taken a break from college to live and work on a red deer park in England. My post-college dreams to tour the world and teach others about wildlife conservation led to Peace Corps service in Africa, which was cut short by civil conflict. I returned home to Montana to pursue environmental journalism instead. Freelance gigs barely paid the bills and certainly wasn’t enough to support travel. Though blessed with mountains, sparkling lakes and rivers, and plenty of elbowroom, Big Sky Country began to feel isolating.
My midlife crisis began at thirty-four, an age at which most people were settling into careers and having families. My biological clock wasn’t ticking (I never wanted children), but I was lonely, and my work was unfulfilling. Were there better opportunities elsewhere in work and romance? Montana’s job scene was bleak; romantic prospects didn’t exist; and thoughts of if-onlys and paths-not-trod had fermented into feelings of purposelessness and depression.
And then there was my spiritual crisis.
I am from a family of Presbyterian preachers: maternal grandfather, father, and sister. 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, such as Meister Eckhart, Thomas Merton, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, because of their transcendent views that bucked traditional religious dogma. Occasional retreats, workshops, and group meditations sparked something in my soul, yet mostly, life felt empty. I expected more divine guidance, signs to nudge me toward . . . something. Erratic prayers became missives demanding God improve my dead-end life. I was unsure what I needed—or even wanted. Whatever it was, I thought I might find it somewhere other than home.
In early 1998, I began searching the Internet for conservation work in Great Britain in exchange for room and board. Volunteering was the only way, since paid conservation jobs were hard to come by and would have gone first to nationals. In cold-call emails, I introduced myself to strangers at conservation-oriented nonprofit organizations and my knowledge and talents (forestry, wildlife biology, all-around outdoor laborer). Of the half-dozen replies, one looked promising: an email from William at a place called Braemar, a two-hundred-acre Georgian estate in Scotland. They needed help with a tree-planting project. I would have my own room, and all meals would be communal, prepared by a cook. I excitedly read and reread William’s email numerous times. Was it pay dirt or just too good to be true? A follow-up 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. Its 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: a lot of Arabic script and quotes from the Qur’an. Like most Americans, I had little knowledge of Islam, and it wasn’t positive. On the other hand, the website also quoted the twelfth-century Sufi poet Rumi, whom I adored. His love poems to God had always stirred a longing in me for closeness with the Beloved. Who exactly were these Braemarites? What was their brand of esoterica? Personal reservations set aside, I accepted William’s offer, secured the necessary visas, and began closing down my life in Montana.
The voice of one of the artists brought my mind back to the drafty studio.
“How are you getting on up there?
“Fine,” I half-lied.
“Well, I’m certainly impressed. Surely, you must be freezing.”
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.
“Good job you are fit, my girl. I dare say you do plenty of hard work on the estate,” Rafi said, scratching his chalk in large strokes across the paper on his easel.
Rafi, Braemar’s maintenance man, had set up the modeling gig just two weeks after I arrived to help me earn money, although he might have had other motives for wanting to see me alfresco. I wondered how detailed his drawing of me was. Oh, so what! Baring my body for the sake of art was nothing compared with baring my soul, I would come to find out. In Scotland, I would learn to love God, and man—one in particular—though the path was nothing I had imagined.