I was recently invited to attend the inaugural yearly Soulsong Choir weekend away at the Edmund Rice Retreat Centre at Amberley in Lower Plenty, Melbourne.
This retreat is nestled in between 20 acres of natural bush land. It is situated on a bend of Melbourne’s Yarra river and overlooks Westerfolds Park and the Dandenong Ranges. Its beauty is breath-taking. As you drive in, you feel a sense of tranquility when you enter the grounds.
In my May blog post I shared how I joined Richard Lawton’s Soulsong choir group, as part of my sabbatical, and how enriching the experience has been. The journey continues with this choir group as I: develop my confidence in singing; understand more fully its emotional and social benefits and; begin to deepen my understanding and feeling of inner fulfilment, community acceptance and belonging.
I nervously arrived at Amberley on Friday night to be warmly welcomed by a relaxed group who were all sitting on the balcony outside – talking, drinking and filling folders of beautiful songs for the following night’s singalong. Everyone brought a plate of food to be shared and enjoyed for dinner.
At this point, I still felt like one of the ‘newbies’ of the choir group and I didn’t even know everyone’s name yet. In time, I hope I will as I am terrible at remembering names! I sat quietly observing the conversation at the table and enjoying the beautiful food that was on offer. I then retreated early to bed feeling quite exhausted after a busy week of activities and preparing me and my family for my absence.
I awoke the next day to a beautiful message from my husband Matt saying that my son Thomas was missing me and that we should arrange a phone call whilst they were heading to my daughter Chloe’s netball game. As I waited for this phone call I started to reflect on one of the benefits of my sabbatical so far. And that is to be able to be home, relaxed and fully present with my family.
More time, and a much slower paced life, allows for the freedom to focus on creating those special moment by moment memories for yourself and your loved ones.
I am starting to form the view that this can not be achieved fully when both parents are working full-time and juggling a busy schedule that can sometimes be tiring and relentless – leaving no time for emotional connection and enjoyment of life. There is a time and a place for everything in due course and not all in life needs to be achieved at once.
For me, slowing down and focusing on the simple things has allowed a much deeper family bond to be formed. One, that I know now, will firmly put us in good stead for the future. My son Tom has changed this year – he is more settled, much happier and when I read him a night time story in bed he puts his head on my shoulder, holds my pinky finger and drapes his leg over my body feeling a deep sense of security and connection.
I am understanding now that these are the simple moments that give children happiness, self esteem and resilience. You not only need to be around for that – but you also need to earn the right to receive such love and warmth – you can only get this if you have the time to ‘put in’ wholeheartedly. There is no money involved. There are no material possessions involved. Just your time and full attention in that moment. And it doesn’t have to be all the time and everyday – I get to enjoy my life too!
So after speaking to my family that morning, I walked downstairs to begin Day 2 of the Soulsong weekend away. It was a little overwhelming for me as I was surrounded by some people I did not know. There were many I did know though – and I was warmly greeted as a ‘first timer’ to Amberley. I reminded myself that there were many people like me who were probably a little nervous and, after all, we just want the same basic things – love, connection, inclusion and acceptance.
We begin the ‘formal’ part of the weekend by standing in a circle to relax, connect and warm up our voices. We do this by starting with a simple meditation to calm the mind. We then sing a song that we all know and progress to dancing freely with our eyes shut to beautiful music. No one is watching and no one is judged. It is a group that allows you to be who you are with complete freedom. The photo below doesn’t prove it – but there are also lots of men here too – dancing and singing – and I just think that is wonderful!
One man bravely shared with me over a cuppa that his single life can be quite lonely at times and that the highlight of his week is attending choir.
These people are my tribe. I love spending time with them.
As I reflected on this comment and observed him over the three days we were there…I could see what it meant for him. A man who sometimes mingled and then retreated for some downtime. Joined in – stood back – but always felt welcomed and accepted.
I sat next to him over lunch one day and asked him if I could get him a glass of water – he looked at me with a smile and said … ‘that would be lovely, thank you…’. As I gave him that glass of water, I put my hand on his shoulder to show him that I cared. You could see from his subtle facial reaction of what my simple gesture and that light touch on his shoulder meant to him. No words were required.
That night I witnessed him perform at the Soulsong concert – and what a performance it was! We all watched in awe of his musical ability and courage to stand up in a crowd and belt out such a powerful song – accompanied by a member of his ‘tribe’ who played the guitar for him. It gave me goosebumps.
The Soulsong concert was spectacular. Everyone performed – some took lead roles – and others took supporting roles. Most people chose to be brave, get out of their comfort zone and perform in a supportive and non-judgemental environment.
I participated in two songs with a group as a back up singer – I am fairly new – taking a lead role would just be too much of a leap for me right now. However, next year that might be different. I suspect (actually, I know) that someone will coax me to give it go. I just need to trust that it will all be fine – let go – and be brave. We shall see what comes! I loved the concert and every act was enjoyable and heartwarming to watch.
Following the concert we indulged in a stunning array of desserts. The highlight for me was this amazing lemon tart (which apparently is a tradition for this group) from the well-known Aviv cakes and bagel shop in Glenhuntly Road, Elsternwick. It was delicious and disappeared quickly!
After the concert, members are encouraged to stay back and join in with the ‘post concert singalong’ which apparently can go until 2am in the morning! I was quite tired after the concert. It had been a big day for me so I quietly retreated to bed early. Next year will be different I suspect.
I am learning that I do need time away from people to recalibrate my thoughts and my feelings. I find being around people all the time a little too much as I get older. I’m not sure if I am becoming an introvert or if I find social settings emotionally exhausting.
What I do know for sure is that I love being in nature – on my own – or with one friend or work colleague. To walk, take in the fresh air and enjoy a much deeper conversation and connection is something that gives me happiness. The people who I invite or accept an invitation for these shared moments are with people who I trust and feel safe with. That is very important to me.
During my stay, I explored Amberley and enjoyed some beautiful solo nature walks – discovering the river, the stunning array of roses and some fellow choir members who all looked so happy and connected with each other!
Some of these people have known each other for fourteen years. I heard a story where there were a group of choir members who were going through a tough time all in the same year – and they promised each other to always ‘show up’ to choir every week to be together – sing together – and support each other – no matter how bad the day or week was. And they did. That was seven years ago. Could you imagine the bond that was formed during that time? I could see it at Amberley. There were some special friendships formed that will last a lifetime.
One woman said to me…’This weekend is all about community. It doesn’t matter what the rooms look like or how fancy the bathrooms are. It’s the people who fill it that matter…’
And she was right. I know – I slept in a small single bed! And it actually didn’t matter at all. It was basic and very humbling. But I felt different inside. The soulful singing and the sense of community makes you feel so different inside. It gives you a sense of fulfillment and happiness which just can not be replaced by any form of achievement or material possession. And I firmly believe that our world today needs more of this and less of our fast paced high achieving lives.
The final day had arrived. I woke up to the beautiful birds singing outside. They were calling me to come out and breath in the fresh air. And so I did. This time, I decided to walk around the beautiful Labyrinth which was situated at the front of the property. When you look at a Labyrinth it creates the imagery of a circle with a spiral moving into a meandering and purposeful path.
A Labyrinth represents a path. It is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It represents a journey to our own centre and back again out into the world.
It was early and no one was outside – so it was the perfect moment to experience it. On my own and in complete solitude. So I decided to perform a walking meditation. I set my ‘intention’ for the walk and started at the top which leads you through only one single, non-branching path. As you walk, it leads you to the centre then back out the same way – only one entry and exit point. It was beautiful. It was peaceful.
At the end, I sat on the chair at the front of the labyrinth and looked up to be greeted by a stunning tree lightly swaying in the wind.
As I walked inside to begin the last day of what was a beautiful weekend on so many levels for me personally. I started to feel a sense of belonging within myself and also with a group of people who I can now proudly call ‘my tribe’ – just like that man described to me a couple of days prior. It made sense.
As we sang our final songs for the day – we were brilliant – we were brilliant because the level of connection was strong – our voices were in fine form and the harmonies were amazing. I saw one of the older ladies begin to cry – that is was singing in a group can do! It was lovely to see and made me realise that I was experiencing something quite unique and special in the moment.
I do feel more part of the group now and I know many more names! I didn’t sit back as much, I smiled more and people started to approach me to learn more about me and my life journey which I decided to share more freely rather than reserving that for another time. I felt at ease and more open. More comfortable. I could be my authentic self.
One woman said to me….’Can we catch up and have a coffee one day?’. Another woman, who just happened to be a writer, said….’Have you thought about writing a book?…’ And then this very reserved man quietly started walking beside me to tell me that my colourful silk dresses looked beautiful on me and that my face looked relaxed and happy. (And no, he wasn’t picking me up! It was just a lovely compliment which I gratefully accepted!). It was interesting that this all happened in the final hours. Something had changed.
The world is starting to open up a little. The more I begin to share my true authentic self I see glimpses of warmth and belonging which is wonderful for me to experience. And would never have happened this year if I had not made the time and space for it.
During my sabbatical I have endured some very tough moments and also some very magical moments. This weekend away was certainly one of those magical moments.
And as I reflect – I can confidently say that my sabbatical is certainly like the Labyrinth – it has been a journey to ‘my own centre’ with the absolute intention to then ‘slowly move back out again’ into the world.
And this is starting to happen now. I feel different. A new person is beginning to emerge. More authentic. More relaxed. More happy. More aware of what I want in my life and what I don’t want in my life.
What I do know for sure is that this group will be a very important part of my life moving forward for many years to come. And that is truly a blessing to be thankful for.
Until next time.