Saturday, December 31, 2005

New Year resolutions

Plate of Peaches, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. From the Auguste Renoir Gallery.

Why wait till 1st January before making these resolutions, initiating life changes? No reason at all, but equally no reason not to do it now. Mine are easy to summarise: stay open to life; do what I can; don't take myself so seriously; learn to trust the process; be grateful for work; be grateful for everything; cherish friendships; start singing again; dance; pray and meditate; go for more country walks; continue writing; don't compare myself with others; mind my own business and don't try to fix people/things that can't be fixed; don't take responsibility for other people's mistakes - my own are quite sufficient; remember that gentle discipline is a way of self-care, not self-punishment.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Friendship and psalms

The Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, from Upper Coll, Back, Isle of Lewis. September 2003. Photo courtesy

When you have lived on your own for an extended period of time, as I have, it is always, um, interesting to share your space with another for a while, particularly when that space is limited. Having G stay with me over Christmas was at once a pleasure: catching up on news, opening presents on Christmas Day, cooking lunch, watching films on television, and generally enjoying each other's company; and a low-level challenge: sharing the bathroom, managing access to the kitchen, trying to balance our various individual requirements.

G and I met some thirteen years ago when we lived in the same building in West London. Since then she has moved out of town and I have moved south of the river, and I now only see her a couple of times a year, though we keep in touch on the telephone and via email. We have taken holidays together, in Italy and in Ireland, and are planning to do some longer distance travel in a few years time.

In some ways we are very different: she is an intellectual atheist, I'm a non-specific believer who never went to university. She has a history of serious political activism and I haven't. She is slow and meticulous, I am perpetually in a hurry, with my mind always galloping ahead. But there is that mysterious factor X that means we just like each other. There are similarities as well - we are both now single with less than happy romantic histories, and interested in travel, other cultures and languages. We both have analytical minds and understand each other's tendency to worry and obsess. Intimacy in relationships is an ongoing challenge for me and I am grateful to G that she is willing to hang in there. In time I may even tell her about this blog!

Part of G's Christmas present was Salm Vol I, a CD of traditional Gaelic psalm singing from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. She attended a live performance recently and is now an enthusiast, lack of religious belief notwithstanding. It is an extraordinarily emotive and raw style of musical worship, quite new to me, where the precentor (or leader) leads with a line of the psalm and the congregation responds. Gaelic psalm singing has its own specific musical and spiritual tradition, but similarities exist between it and other types of world music. In the words of the sleeve notes:

"The style defies description with so much of the sound texture relying on the congregation's original response to the melody and the individual precentor's leading. The musical term is 'Free Heterephony' , and in the hands of the Gael this became quite different from the original. In some black congregations in Alabama and North Carolina, a similar style exists, where Hymns are used rather than Psalms. There are also striking similarities to be found for instance in the singing style of the Coptic Church of Ethiopia."

Salm Vol I is unaccompanied singing, not immediately tuneful and in a language I don't understand. One reviewer describes it as being " waves crashing against the walls of the church, washing the congregation in a sea of sound". I've been playing the CD practically non-stop since Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Joyeux Noel

joyeux noel
Rue Ste Opportune, Paris 1er , France

This was my neighbourhood for two of the nine years that I lived in Paris. My former flat is just out of view, further down the pedestrianised street leading off to the right.

A week or so before my final Christmas in the city it started to snow - thick, powdery flakes. Paris does not often experience a white Christmas, and the manager of one of the shops in the quartier, obviously a quick thinker, grabbed a camera, went outside and took this rather nice photo. He ran off several dozen prints which he mounted on card and sold in his shop, very successfully, as Christmas greeting cards. The snow did not settle so I am all the more glad he seized the moment; if I knew his name I would give him the photographic credit, but after eighteen years I hope he won't mind if I don't.

This will be my last post for about a week. I have a friend from out of town staying with me for three days over Christmas and social events before and after, and in addition life has thrown a mini-crisis in my direction. It's not life or health threatening but is nonetheless going to demand a considerable amount of my time and attention well into January. So not much time for sitting down and writing. I will go online when I can to visit other blogs, and hopefully I will be back blogging here again around 29th December, but at a less frequent rate.

A good Yule and a very happy and peaceful Christmas to all my blog friends and visitors - and as the man says, don't sweat the small stuff (note to self: that applies to you too).

Monday, December 19, 2005

Enchantment (Updated)

Photo credit: Daniela Cossali

Feeling in need of a pre-Christmas pick-me-up I took myself off to see The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Not a commercial blockbuster - I had to hunt it down in an arthouse cinema - but a gentle labour of love, a documentary on the friendship between a San Francisco resident and one of the flocks of wild parrots that inhabit the city. Since the parrots are not a native species, environmentalists are divided on what the city's attitude should be to them; views range from extermination to capturing and putting them in the zoo to leaving them to fend for themselves - this last stance is favoured by the film's main character since the birds are great survivors. A meditation on the unity of life and right livelihood, the film is also extremely comic in places, thanks mainly to the feathered supporting cast, and has a terrific happy ending (which I won't give away).

For someone like me who has never been to San Francisco and who yearns to go, it was also a chance to begin to plot a walking itinerary in the city. Telegraph Hill looks even better than I had imagined it, with its walkways, flights of steep steps and hidden cottages. Sweeping views of the bay and of Golden Gate bridge appear frequently.

But above all, the central character, Mark Bittner, helps restore faith in the human race. The most touching part of the film for me was the way in which he developed relationships with individuals in the flock, observed their behaviour and personalities (if that word can be used), wept when he had to say goodbye to them, and was unafraid to admit the fact that he loved these birds and that they mattered to him. The quality of open-heartedness I suppose one would call it.

Update: Synchronicity, coincidence, call it what you will. Out walking on my local common on Christmas Day afternoon, less than a week after seeing the film, I came upon a crowd of maybe a dozen adults and children gathered around a large beech tree and staring upwards, some of them pointing. Simultaneously a series of raucous whoops and cackles could be heard from the top of the tree. As I drew closer there was a sudden whirl of vivid green as two parrots took off for an adjoining branch where they settled and looked down, with some curiosity it seemed, on the assembled humans below. The BBC website gives more details of the wild parrots in the London area. I had no idea of their existence until this week.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Digital cameras

Although it may not be delivered until January, I believe Father Christmas might be prevailed upon to bring me a digital camera this year.

It's been almost a year since I started reading blogs and I know there are a lot of really talented photobloggers out there. What model/type would you recommend, particularly for posting on blogs? What do you like about it (or not)? Money is always an object but I would be willing to stretch the budget to get the one that really suits me. Not being a camera or technology expert, simplicity of use and/or comprehensible operating instructions are REALLY important - it must be reasonably idiot-proof.

Input of all kinds very gratefully received.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Sweet almond oil


After the shower, too late,
she realised there was no
body lotion (unperfumed,
utilitarian, habitual)
she'd thrown away
the empty container.

No choice but to use that
bottle of sweet almond oil,
blended with rose, jasmine
and bergamot, extravagant
so reserved only for clients;
and yes, just this once, work
it carefully into her own skin,
such decadence it seemed

and such surprised delight,
the oil-slippery gliding
moments of giddy fragrance;
an unlooked-for blessing,
and a needed reminder
from the gods of pleasure,

for she often directed others
to their altar, but very
rarely bowed to it herself.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Cultivating joy


"How do we cultivate the conditions for joy to expand? We train in staying present. In sitting meditation, we train in mindfulness and maitri*: in being steadfast with our bodies, our emotions, our thoughts. We stay with our own little plot of earth and trust that it can be cultivated, that cultivation will bring it to its full potential. Even though it's full of rocks and the soil is dry, we begin to plow this plot with patience. We let the process evolve naturally.

At the beginning it is just a feeling that joy is workable. We stop looking for a more suitable place to be. We've discovered that the continual search for something better does not work out. This doesn't mean that there are suddenly flowers growing where before there were only rocks. It means that we have confidence that something will grow here."

Excerpt from: The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness
Pema Chodron
*Maitri is defined as elsewhere in the book as meaning a complete acceptance of ourselves as we are.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

In good hands

I had to go to the hospital for some tests today. Very nervous, both in anticipation of a positive result (I've got a life threatening illness) and of a negative one (I'm a malingerer). In the event, it looks as if my GP's concerns are unfounded. Phew.

Now, I don't know whether everyone that I came in contact with was simply having a good day, but in the course of my three hours in the hospital I felt increasingly uplifted. In the waiting room I read a meditation book and then an elderly Filipino lady sat next to me and started to tell me all about herself; I couldn't understand everything she was saying but that didn't matter - it distracted me from my self-centred worries.

Then when I met my consultant my heart sank; she looked smart, crisp, efficient, middle aged and very, very tough. In fact she was indeed efficient, but combined it with a dry sense of humour and the willingness and the ability to explain things to me as an equal. She sent me off to another part of the hospital to have the test and arranged for me to have a scan in a couple of weeks' time. As she said, it's better to cover all the possibilities.

I won't go into details of what was involved in this particular test procedure - trust me, you don't want to know. I was conscious the whole time, and at one point when I became distressed, the nurse attending to me stroked my arm and said:

"Try and relax; just focus on your breathing".

If I could have done, I would have smiled at that; focussing on the breath is the cornerstone of my meditation practice and what I aim to do for a session every morning. The doctor administering the procedure and the nurses in the unit were calm, kind and capable. Two medical students in highly starched white coats (who both looked no more than 15 years old) had enquired if they could be present as observers. I said yes of course, and they asked me when I was recovering what the procedure had been like from the patient's point of view. Thank goodness, I thought, that their training these days takes this into account.

Finally, while I was in the recovery ward, a motherly hospital volunteer fetched me a cup of tea and biscuits, and sat with me until she was sure I was all right.

I found this all the more cheering as this particular hospital, one of London's largest teaching establishments, has had its share of bad publicity in recent years. I came home this afternoon, though, feeling incredibly fortunate that I have had free access to good medical treatment from efficient professionals who demonstrated a detached kindness when I badly needed it. I know that not everyone in the world is as fortunate.

Fire in the night

Fire eater, community festival, Belfast, late 1990s.

"Life is a pure flame and we live by an invisible Sun within us."- Sir Thomas Browne

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The rising of the sun

Westminster Abbey
From - Cities Guide

This is where I was earlier this evening, singing Christmas carols and listening to choir performances and readings. An historic setting, angelic choristers, those oh-so-familiar words and tunes, most beautifully read and sung, does it matter that I am not what an orthodox Christian would call a believer?

It's funny, the closest I can get to a label for myself is a pagan with buddhist and christian overtones, constantly in flux and changing, unable to sign up to any particular creed, yet recognising the good in all of them. And yet, Christmas carols exert a pull on my memory and imagination that is impossible to break. As someone born into the culture that created them they bring a comfort and a sense of belonging, of sorts. And the theme of light being born in darkness is surely a universal one? At the same time, nowadays they bring a sense of being an outsider because I don't believe in that same way. It's been an uplifting evening though, shared with friends, and I'm feeling happy and rather emotional.

My favourite carols? No doubt about it: O come o come Emmanuel. Based on plainsong, in a minor key, heart-wrenchingly beautiful. And I am also fond of The Holly and the Ivy, with its mixture of Christian and pagan themes.

"O the rising of the sun
The running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir"

After the storm

Overnight a storm;
boiling the kettle for
my first cup of tea
still half-asleep, I see

through the window
yes, a shock,
the stripped
angular branches
of the lime tree,
a layer of dead leaves
on the grass like a carpet,

a crow perches on
one of the branches
a chill wind
ruffling its feathers.

Did I really think
this would not happen?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Waiting (updated)


I'm observing life these days. Appropriately for this time of year, waiting. For guidance, for my own light to appear, waiting for the results of medical tests as well. Definitely a crossroads time, a transition. I go about my business ending some things but not yet ready to initiate anything new. Much confusion and numbness, some depression and anxiety, I am moved and encouraged by the kindnesses of others when I come across them.

I had a cranial osteopathy session yesterday evening; like floating in still, buoyant water, the tiny, rhythmic, wave-like movement of the cerebro-spinal fluid mirrored and held by the osteopath's hands underneath my spine, it's like playing an instrument she said. The inflamed thoracic vertebrae soaked up her touch; the knotted muscles and fascia started to un-knot at the periphery but a hard core of resistance, of blockage, remains at the level of the heart. This is what I am really waiting for, an energy, a flowing, a non-resistance, a melting, a letting-go.

Update 1: For those unfamiliar with Cranial Osteopathy, here's a link that might help make sense of what I've written.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Utility and elegance

Thames sailing barge
Thames sailing barge with sails furled, off Southend-on-Sea, Essex

Those who know the Thames estuary and the adjoining coastline - where I grew up - may recognise these flat-bottomed Thames sailing barges, widely used for both national and international trade right up to the early twentieth century. According to one source their voyages took them on occasion as far as South America, and certainly more frequently to the European continent and Ireland. And in the words of this website :

"A number of these vessels still survive in various roles, some fully active, others used as housebarges or are awaiting restoration, while many are rotting away, abandoned in creeks long ago."

S.B. Henry, River Thames, 2004
Photo, D Renouf : Thames Sailing Barge website

A barge running before the wind is a sight not to be forgotten, with its billowing distinctive russet sails (to lengthen their life these were treated with a combination of fish oil, red ochre and water or horse urine!) and harmonious lines. Even with the sails furled at anchor, the barge retains a spare elegance; aesthetics and commercial viability seem to be effortlessly combined in its design. Many of them bear names redolent of their era: Edith May, Marjorie, Gladys, Ethel Ada; or of their locality: Tollesbury, Wyvenhoe, Lady of the Lea. I love them. I love the fact that in spite of their grace, they were, and in some cases still are, proper working vessels that provided the livelihood for ordinary people, not playthings for the very rich.

I have a possible tenuous family interest. My great-grandfather was a mariner, a captain of a commercial vessel on the Thames in the latter part of the nineteenth century, carrying cargo between London, the Medway ports and the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Northern France). I don't know whether or not he was the skipper of one of these barges - but I like to think that he might have been. In any event, though, they would have been a very familiar sight for him. A more tangible connection is that these romantic, useful craft form a small part of my own memories and history that I revisit with a poignant pleasure.