Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The River

Listen: letting go
won’t harm you, in truth
it’s the only solution.

Just float, then
breathe the deep
darkness and feel the kiss
of cool water; release
the dry husks
of worn-out thoughts,
let the wind take them
back to the land.

Float, and be
supported by the river;
she has always been here
and she will carry you.

Let it all go.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

A Gift


Gifts and giving have been on my mind this week.

Nairobi, Kenya, in the mid-1980s. I was working in the press office at a week-long international conference, one of about a dozen colleagues from Europe and the US, and staying in an upmarket hotel on the edge of town. Each of us in our group was allocated a car and a driver by the conference’s local organisers.

My driver’s name was Paul. It was his job to collect me in the car each morning from the hotel, take me to the conference centre and anywhere else I needed to go, to return me to the hotel at the end of the afternoon, and to be on call during the evenings.

On the first day we started to talk. He came across as softly spoken and friendly. I said that I had never been to Kenya before, I was going to have very little time off and I really wanted to see a bit of Nairobi – therefore would he mind taking different routes back to the hotel so I could see something of the city, if only from the car? He seemed surprised but agreed to do so.

So for the rest of the week Paul went the long way round when we headed back to the hotel. He showed me the city and the immediate surrounding area, the university and the buildings dating from the time of British colonial rule, and gave me a glimpse too of the wealthy suburbs and of the desperately poor shanty towns. He was a good guide, and he also told me a little about his life and his family. He hoped to be a writer and he had written a play for a local school to perform – he was working as a driver to earn a living.

At the end of the last full day I went out of my way to thank him and, as was the custom, gave him an appropriate tip - which I had been told to put on my expenses. We said our farewells.

The following morning my colleagues and I were packing up files in the hotel room that had been used as an office. Suddenly I saw Paul standing at the open door, holding a large brown paper bag.

He had bought me a present. Inside the bag was a decorative plate with a lion and giraffe motif round the edges. He told me he had enjoyed being my driver and he wanted to give me something to remind me of my time in Kenya. He had therefore been shopping.

I was almost speechless and tried inadequately to express my thanks. After a few minutes he left.

I kept that plate for years on the wall in my kitchen, and then sadly one day I dropped it and it was smashed. But whenever Kenya is mentioned, on the news or elsewhere, Paul always comes to mind.

It can be a powerful thing, to give. And to receive. Why else would I be blogging about this twenty years later?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Alphabet Meme

Another meme. I've been tagged by rdl. Everyone seems to be doing this one .... and I can't resist either.

Accent: Home Counties English with, apparently, the occasional Australian vowel. Don’t ask me why … I have no connections with Down Under.

Booze: None. Just for today.

Chore I hate: Ironing – if I can buy non-iron I do.

Dogs/cats: Pale ginger cat.

Essential electronics: Mobile phone, computer, digital camera, stereo.

Favourite perfume/cologne: I don't wear perfume all the time but when I do it's generally Burberry's .

Gold/silver: Silver. Definitely. I am allergic to gold.

Hometown: Where I live. Currently London but not for too much longer.

Insomnia: Frequently.

Job title: Cook/housekeeper for the cat (unpaid), massage therapist, temp secretary.

Kids: Nope.

Living arrangements: Pleasant one-bedroom flat. Again, not for much longer.

Most admired trait: Outward unflappability. If they only knew.

Number of sexual partners: Who's asking? And why?

Overnight hospital stays: The most recent was for a blocked salivary gland. Very unglamorous.

Phobia: Looking stupid in public.

Quote: All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. – Dame Julian of Norwich.

Religion: Indefinable.

Siblings: 1 sister. We’re good friends too.

Time I usually wake up: c. 5.00 am.

Unusual talent: Cockling. Put me on a coastal mudflat and give me a bucket and I can find cockles more quickly and easily than most.

Vegetable I refuse to eat: Onions. I like them but my insides don’t.

Worst habit: Obsessive worry. And it is definitely a habit.

X-rays: Back, front, and teeth.

Yummy foods I make: Simple stuff. Roast chicken, with vegetables and roast potatoes. Grilled salmon. Home made vegetable soups. Fresh fruit salad.

Zodiac sign: Gemini. And I blew out the candles on my birthday cake yesterday ..... another reminder to live each day well.

I’m not tagging anyone specifically but if you decide to do it, let me know.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Salt air

We both know the dangers. We’re too old now for this sort of thing. We’d be putting out to sea in a very frail craft indeed and neither of us in the past have proved ourselves to be natural sailors.

So maybe there’s something to be said for staying where we are. For choosing friendship, laughter, sensuality, objectivity, a certain emotional distance. Not moving from here means we can still access logic and rationality when we need it. We haven’t really left dry land.

Yet just occasionally there will be a shift for a second or two and you reveal some of your vulnerability. At these moments my heart lurches and the night air seems to carry a hint of salt from the ocean, many miles away.

Monday, May 22, 2006

City park

Tree posture
Tree posture: A jogger stretches under one of the park's yew trees.

My local park is a stone’s throw from my flat. It’s small, you could walk the perimeter in ten minutes and, in addition to parkland, it contains a couple of basketball and/or football pitches, a kindergarten and a children’s playground. The peaceful appearance in the photographs is deceptive since it is bordered on three sides by busy roads, most notably the South Circular with its continuous stream of heavy traffic and pollution.

For all that, it is a little oasis and is well used: for picnics, by frisbee-throwers, for ad hoc cricket matches, children’s games, jogging, dog walking and cycling. The local pentecostal church holds fêtes there a couple of times a year, and at one time there were fireworks parties on Guy Fawkes Day. The London Air Ambulance has even been known to commandeer it as an emergency landing pad.

I cut through the park most days en route to the underground station and over time I’ve got to know some of the regulars by sight. The grey-haired Asian jogger in his track suit and baseball cap who seems to turn out daily in all weathers; the two elderly ladies, one black, one white – obviously friends - walking a miniature poodle. Most of the handful of people that I recognise are getting on in years; the younger ones seem transient, more interchangeable, less visible somehow.

Park 1

On weekend afternoons during spells of warm weather, the benches are filled by escapees from flats with no garden, reading books and newspapers in a variety of languages and surrounded by cans of beer and soft drinks: a mixture of couples, teenagers, and families with children in push chairs .....

The most vociferous group, unsurprisingly, are the teenagers.


The sports pitches are packed at weekends too, generally for soccer matches – played with a feverish and noisy intensity - or knockabout, spontaneous games between local boys and, in more recent years, girls (thanks in part perhaps to Bend it Like Beckham?).

During the week you are more likely to find just the occasional loner attempting to land a shot in the basketball hoops ... for hours on end. Shoot. Miss. Shoot again. Success. Bounce the ball. Shoot again. Miss.


Park 2

It is only now that I know I will be leaving this area soon that I realise how much I appreciate this patch of green. When I cross it on my way home from work I start to unwind. It has become a physical demarcation line between my private and public lives.

And the elderly ladies and I have started to nod to each other when we meet. Pretty good for London.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Pink Hawthorn

Click to enlarge

Update: On reflection two photographs seemed like overkill so I took one down ....

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Hungry ghosts and gratitude

No amount of possessions or gratification could ever fill the gap between us and the world. So we’re looking for something, thirsty for something, always dissatisfied. In Buddhism they call this trishna, thirst. Like hungry ghosts we are thirsting endlessly for something we can never get.

[To] be grateful for and with what is, doesn’t deny difficulties; rather it embraces them and accepts them as a necessary step in the healing of them.

EverydayZen Teachings, Gratitude
Zoketsu Norman Fischer

I have no complaints about life at the moment. It’s basically very good.

However buttons were pressed earlier in the week in one particular area of my relationships, and the fall-out in terms of stress and emotional upset still lingers. I had expectations and hopes that weren’t met and I was, well, crushed. And I felt diminished. It is not a situation I can hope to avoid in the future either – I need to have regular contacts with those involved.

I was aware I was overreacting – the feelings around what happened have reverberations from, and have been amplified by, painful occurrences in the past. And no, I don’t want to go into any more detail except to say that this isn’t about my love life.

The strength and discomfort of my internal reaction – and fortunately those around me weren’t aware of it - has given me pause. The term hungry ghost is a pretty accurate description of what I felt like. The temptation is to close down, and I’ve done some of that this week. The other option, and part of the reason for blogging about it, is to try and see it as a way of moving forward.

Am I able to be grateful for what has happened, as the second of the above extracts suggests?

Well, I certainly don’t feel grateful. But I know as surely as I know anything, that in order not to stay trapped in this endlessly repeating circle of reactivity and to be able to handle the ongoing situation with a modicum of grace and serenity, I need to stay present with the feelings engendered. I need to flow with them and not resist, not shut down and not try and escape - I’m particularly adept at the latter. The opportunity to do so is therefore a gift …of sorts … and one that needs to be recognised and acknowledged.

It’s about setting an intention. An intention and a willingness and a desire to work with what is for as long as necessary, through whatever means. There has been enough unwillingness. It’s time.


While I was drafting this I came across the article I have linked to above by Zoketsu Norman Fischer, a Zen Buddhist teacher. I have found it very helpful over these past few days. The last two sentences speak of movement and of the universal as well as personal benefit to the work.

Through our practice of gratitude we can imitate our teachers and move forward with our lives, come what may, whether it is suffering or joy, arriving or leaving, in the spirit of gratitude. And we do this not only for ourselves alone – which makes no sense at all anyway – but for and with everyone.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Night leaves

Night leaves 3
Copper beech flowers - the leaves are just beginning to change colour

The path leading to the front door of my block of flats is lit at night on one side by low level lamps, and immediately behind these are two trees, a copper beech (fagus sylvaticus purpurea) and a whitebeam (sorbus aria). Both are about 20 feet high now, and provide protection and privacy, and in the case of the whitebeam, a supply of red-gold autumn berries which attract the local pigeons, jays and magpies. The latter are a source of endless irritation to the cat but they are too big for him to make any serious attempt at hunting.

Night leaves 1

At the moment both trees are in flower, and the copper beech's leaves are still green - though they are now just starting to turn to the beautiful burnished coppery brown that will see us through to next winter.

Night Leaves 4

The ridged grey underside of the whitebeam's leaves are resistant to pollution so they are ideal for growing in cities; there are several lining nearby streets.

Night leaves 2

Thanks to the lighting and the new camera, this year I have been able to take some shots of the trees and their branches at night. Their beauty, which I can so often take for granted during the day, is impossible to ignore against the night sky.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Body and soul

I had a massage this week. I’ve been going to Jenny for years to get soothed and put back together again, but it had been more than six months since my last visit. She tut-tutted gently over the tightness around my neck and shoulders and dug deep, working the knots in the muscles around the scapula. I yelped.

“People who do massage should have regular massages themselves,” she said. “It needs to be a priority.”

“I know,” I replied through the face hole. “How often do you have one?”

A short pause. “Not as often as I ought. Every few months, but sometimes it’s longer than that.”

We contemplated our shared difficulty in allowing ourselves such a necessary indulgence, and I made the commitment there and then to have a massage at least every three months – more often if finances permit.

And it was bliss. Touch, oil, music, bliss. I floated.

Aside from self-care, an almost equally important reason to book in for regular sessions is to remind me of the full implications of what can happen during a treatment. Massage has value and I know the theoretical reasons why, but I only truly understand when I am a recipient.


Jenny works from her home, and when I arrived she put me in the open-air waiting room of her back garden while she finished with her previous client. I sat on a bench on a small, pleasantly unkempt lawn, the latter surrounded by a shoulder-high brick wall and bordered by packed flower beds: purple flowering aubrietia; forget-me-nots that matched the sky; large daisies with dark blue centres dotted with gold, and blue-white petals; a stone angel in the corner of the garden; and a purple lilac in full flower giving shade. A child’s multi-coloured rubber ball had been left on the seat next to me.

It was a sunny spring day - jeans and T-shirt weather, no need for a jacket. My winter-white feet and toes, temporarily liberated from sandals, luxuriated on the grass.


I haven’t yet mentioned here that I started seeing an ex- partner again a few months ago. We’ve remained friendly even when we haven’t been together, but I’m still somewhat surprised to report that this time around things are going very happily, in a relaxed, low-key way.

I'm well into middle-age. You need to know my history to realise what a gift this is.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

A break

blossom 1

I posted something this morning, but on reflection I didn't like it so I have taken it down. My apologies to LJ, who was kind enough to leave a comment.

I am tired, mentally and physically. The words just won't come, the ones that do aren't good enough and I am not coping well with the pressure to keep the blog fed. It has stopped being the pleasure that it ought to be, so I am going to take a break from blogging until things start to flow again.

In the meantime, here's a photo of this year's blossom which has been heart-stoppingly beautiful. Much of it is a thing of the past now - we have had heavy rain today ....

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A poem: Prayer


When I am stressed (and oh yes, I am this week) poetry can help. This atmospheric, wistful poem, by Carol Ann Duffy, which I rediscovered recently on Jeanette Winterson's poetry website, is a favourite.

The last line refers to the sea areas listed in the Shipping Forecast – broadcast daily first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Their names are evocative and I hear them usually when I am in bed with the radio on - either at the beginning or the end of a day. And the forecast is indeed rather like a prayer, or a litany, comforting in its familiarity and yet with an edge of fear – it conjures up visions of cold, perhaps dangerous, seas .....


Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.