Breathing with the Buttercups

Usually, these weekly jots jostle forward and it soon becomes clear which ones will be shared. This week has been different. This week they’ve been a little hesitant. A little reticent. I’ve been as still and as patient as possible – a child holding out a cupped hand, filled with bird seed, waiting for a green-tailed parakeet to come, to perch, and eat. It’s felt like a long wait.

Recent news of a friend’s exhibition in Cheltenham was enticing. So, the camper van was spruced up, and stocked up, and all was made ready for a journey towards artistic inspiration and reconnection with a few dear pals in Stroud  – a ‘palgrimage’ then? 

The last exhibition palgrimage I’d been to was Peter Maynard’s ’All I have to do is breathe’ (Lansdowne Gallery, Stroud, July 2018). It was a beautiful and blisteringly hot summer and I’d been living in the van for just over a month at that time.

I

Walking into Peter Maynard’s exhibition was like walking into a cool park or a faded palace. A smile. Tranquillity.

03.07.2018, jotted in the van diary that evening

This current exhibition (at the very lovely little Gardens Gallery in Cheltenham’s Montpellier Gardens) features the work of Christopher Challen and friends. It’s entitled ‘The Mind’s ‘I’: Bridging Perception and Reality’. I found it fun and profound, light hearted and deep, sublime and ridiculous. And I loved it.  And it struck me, more strongly than ever before, just what extraordinary and wonderful creatures we human beings actually are.

And yet, how we suffer! How easily we can get spooked by things! Wild camping in the van, the night before the exhibition, I realised just how quickly we become habituated to expectations of physical comfort and certainty.  After living in this leafy Sheffield suburb for the past two years, I’m more easily frightened than I was. The primordial fear of pain, injury or death is more easily conjured up these days. I know this because of what happened in the middle of the night, on Minchinhampton Common, Stroud, last week. 

Although alone, I was being shaken awake from a deep sleep. 

Despite the insistent shaking, it took me a little while to come to. Finding myself in the darkness of the van, legs pressed rigid against the end of the bunk, and the eerie sounds of a howling, whistling wind (horror/ghost film classic soundtrack) I felt suddenly, momentarily afraid. There was no quickening of the heart – just a sort of dread. It was only a second or so til deep slow breathing brought me back into my body,  to rational thought, and  to a felt sense of safety. There was a strong wind, so the van was shaking, legs were jammed, neck was stiff, but it was all ok. Chest and abdomen rose and fell. Air entered and left. 

As a general rule, in rural Gloucestershire, in peacetime, you tend not to encounter camper vans lying on their sides in the morning dew, their windows smashed, their inhabitants hacked to bits; bloody body parts strewn brightly, crimsonly, amongst the golden buttercups. No, you just don’t. Breathe my darling. It’s really quite alright. Just breathe. And then I went back to sleep: The wind my lullaby.

The night after the fright, while having supper with friends and their almost 5-year old son, one of them said she thought our brains/minds have changed because of the fear around Covid, and the restrictions imposed, which cut us off from our natural exploratory behaviours. I think so too. So what can we do about it? 

It’s actually possible to bolster happiness and curiosity. It’s done by noticing ‘negative’ emotions (fear, anger, guilt, shame etc) as sensations in the body, turning towards them, and just letting them dissolve. And to notice positive emotions, turn towards them and bathe in them as they gently flood the synapses. Not thinking about, or analysing them, not trying to push them away or hang on to them – just noticing the bare sensations, and being with them. This leads to greater equanimity, whether in a van/boardroom/playground (fill in the gap).  Sure, alarm bells will still ring, but the fear (anger etc) will dissolve much more quickly – unless it’s needed to protect you from actual, physical danger of course. 

But it’s an acquired skill and, as such, it has to be practised. Like learning to ride a bike. If you bought a bike, and left it propped up against the wall in the hallway, but never learned to ride it, you couldn’t expect to just jump on it and pedal off when you suddenly needed to use it in an emergency… could you? 

This week’s second  jot was written 3 days after lockdown measures legally came into force in the UK. Before the days of pale blue paper masks and hand sanitiser and social distancing. Before the days when some of us curled up in fear, protecting what was left of ourselves, and some of us sang out on our balconies, like nightingales. 

II

Life in the van has equipped me for life in the attic. A skylight reveals an ever-changing sky. Last night, Venus, burning with a never-before intensity above a sliver of moon. And, by day, constantly changing cloud-forms as the wind blows and the sun tracks across the sky. I glimpse my mother there. I feel the connection, but I no longer need to live in her lap. Nature, I realise, has been drawn down, soaked up, recognised, internalised, until there is no longer any separation between ‘myself’ and  ‘it’  Now – the powerful manifestation of All is Iris! What a great privilege to be with her at this time. The Narcissi, which Philly gave me on Mother’s Day, offer their scent. It is keenly acknowledged and received. The top of Iris’ head is a pussy willow, stroking itself against my cheek.

29.03.2020, jotted 3 days into lockdown, a couple of weeks after moving into my daughter’s attic. Her baby Iris was 6 months old at the time. 

A sweetly naive jot. Actually, nothing could have equipped me for life in an attic with a young couple who were trying to navigate the endlessly confusing and demanding terrain of becoming parents and trying to create a family life whilst simultaneously adjusting to the constraints of a locked down world. It was hard. And in that rocky terrain, I fell off my bicycle again and again. 

Apparently, the ride is about to get smoother. We’re out of lockdown at last. and my friends tell me that when there are 3 candles on the birthday cake, everything just suddenly changes. But external conditions are always in a state of flux. That’s the only certainty! So I’ll keep practising. All I have to do is breathe… and notice. Notice and breathe.

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Desiderata

In 1983, in the parish church near where I was born, my now ex-husband and I were married by The Reverend Geoffrey Grant.  Some time before the nuptials, he’d invited us round for a glass of sherry and a chat about our love for one another, and its divine potential. Both of us gin drinkers, in our early 20s, and neither of us spiritual, religious or philosophical, found the situation simultaneously a little hilarious, and slightly nerve wracking. We knocked back as much sherry as he would pour into the tiny crystal glasses. Nevertheless, he spoke smilingly and benevolently, and gave us a framed copy of  ‘Desiderata’ as a wedding gift. It hung on the wall of our bathroom for 17 years, until we parted.

The framed ‘Desiderata’ moved with me and our two (nearly teenaged) children to a new bathroom. And, little, by little, fragments of its meaning began to make their way into my heart.

I’m not going to write here about my marriage. I suppose in some ways I do consider it sacred. We loved each other, the only way we knew, as we were, at that time. And I’m grateful that we can sit and chat together on rare occasions these days, and enjoy our granddaughter, albeit separately most of the time.

I think, perhaps, I now have some inkling about what love is. About who Desiderata’s ‘child of the universe’ is.  About the place from which we truly love. I didn’t know much, back in the days of the gin and the jokes; back in the days when we were all getting married, when I recited Shakespeare’s sonnet number 116, at a school friend’s wedding. Most of us didn’t know much back then. 

According to Erich Fromm, “Love is possible only if two persons communicate with each other from the centre of their existence, hence if each one of them experiences himself from the centre of his existence. Only in this ‘central experience’ is human reality, only here is aliveness, only here is the basis for love…they are one with each other by being one with themselves.” So, there you go then. And I  think that’s what Geoffrey was telling us. Be courageous. Find that place. Live from it.

A brief but intense love affair prompted many an anguished jot for a couple of years after the marriage ended, marking the start of a slightly crazy phase as a divorcee. Ah the highs and lows of romantic love, so compelling at the time! Two jots from that period, at the turn of the millennium, are shared this week. 

Some years later, I stepped away from ‘dating’ altogether, tied a spotted handkerchief to a stick, and walked alone, in search of the place that Geoffrey spoke of.  And I haven’t returned since. What an extraordinary journey this is.

I

Toujours

Je pense

A toi.

Je reve

Au Paris

Au tes yeux

Si verts

A ta bouche

Si douce.

Tu est

Des etoiles

De mon ciel

Tu est

Le sang

De ma coeur

Je t’aime

Je te deteste

Jotted for my then lover after a trip to Paris, and folded up inside a snow-globe style paperweight, swirling with silver stars and hearts.

II

If I didn’t care

I wouldn’t be there

On the end of the phone

Sometimes having a moan

About ‘us’.

I couldn’t contrive

To keep this alive

If I wasn’t your fan

And you weren’t the man

For me. 

You’re just so sublime

(Take me to Sondheim…

And to such utter bliss

In L’Ecosse and Paris)

C’est vrai.

Maybe I let rip/

Maybe you’re a drip

But we know we’re ok

At the end of the day

Don’t we…?

25.11.2001

I still have a heart with his initials inside it, tattooed in a place that rarely sees the light of day. What can I say? I was madly in love with him.

Geoffrey Grant died a couple of weeks ago. The last time I saw him (at my little nephew’s christening some seven or eight years ago) he glowed with an undeniable inner light. May he rest in peace.

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Lolling in a Gorilla Suit

It was about 7 years ago that I first learned to ‘loll’ unashamedly. (This isn’t to be confused with ‘lol’ or ‘laugh out loud’ which, happily, had already been learned). In the culture I grew up in, ‘lolling’, loafing, hanging out, or simply relaxing and doing nothing, was pretty much a Cardinal Sin. As a child with a chronic lung condition, I was frequently ill, and confined to bed, and somewhere along the way I developed a sense of guilt around that: Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that the word for a sick person is ‘invalid’ (or in-valid). It’s hard to hold your head up if you think that’s what you are. 

Nowadays, I’m something of a ‘recovering achiever’ and a relatively proficient and guilt-free loller. This week I  find myself visiting a recently widowed friend, who is courageously creating a rural B&B in the astonishingly beautiful area of Horta, in Catalonia. She’s doing it on a shoestring, with the help of ‘workaways’, and faith in the universe (and a strong intellect) oh, and many practical skills, including veterinary ones. I’m combining lolling with cooking, gathering wildflowers and companioning (can that be a verb? Well…why not). On Friday we hiked up to Picasso’s ‘cave’.  Not far from Horta, where the 16 year old Picasso learned everything he would later know (see the link)

Lolling, in just the right measure, can be deeply restorative, and can even inspire healing and hope… 2 lolling jots follow, one’s an account of a chance encounter when lolling in my camper van for the first time, and the other a realisation when lolling in bed many years earlier.

I

Mick, 68 is inspired by my declaration that I intend on living in this little van. He’s going to do the same. He says I’ve freed him up. Something’s changed. His dogs died 5 years ago and he buried them here on Rodborough Common. He planted hundreds of narcissus bulbs every year, making the shape of a cross for them. But some bugger’s been digging them up recently. He says if he’d caught them he’d have chopped their heads off with his spade. He had those dogs (Jack Russells) for 17 years. Loved them to bits. They were 100% loyal. He says I need a Jack Russell for protection. Someone will smash into my van. “What for?” I ask him. “Most people smash into vans to grab the tools, right?” He’s flummoxed for a moment. “Well they might grab you”, he says. “You need a taser gun. I don’t trust anybody”. I tell him I’ll get a gorilla suit and if they find a gorilla in the van that should get rid of them pretty quickly. He chuckles. “Keep you warm too”, he says. He sounds Irish. Builds stone walls in Witney – loves it. But a friend said he should be playing bowls instead of working himself to death. So he played up at Stratford park, but the team never won. “You’ve got to play to win” , he says, so he joined the VP and went touring. He was too big to be sitting on tiny bus seats and got DVT before long, so now he’s on the warfarin and has to see the doctor at least every 2 weeks to keep his dose right. It’s a tie. But he’s going to get a van. He has to leave now to take his pills, he says. We part on the best of terms.

02.05.2018, jotted after a chance conversation when lolling delightedly in the sunshine on the rear ledge of my recently acquired Fiat Doblo camper van, ‘Yikes’. The rear doors were facing south and flung open, like the French windows of a fine house, with far reaching views across Rodborough Common, (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK). 

II

In Praise of Lolling.

‘My Dear’ they say, it’s not ok to loll about In bed all day, 

Or simply watch the clouds pass by and gently murmur My oh My 

One must be active brave and strong if one is going to get along,

Best foot forward, stand up tall; Darling, you must Have It All!’

What is the ‘All’ there is to have, I wondered once (upon the lav)

And in that instant, Oh my Glory, I saw the All was just a story.

Ambition, once a friend of mine, was razor sharp, now anodyne.

It’s all allowed in what there is, this laziness, that buzz, that biz

There is no must or should or ought, there is no battle to be fought

There’s no brave face that must be worn, the rose no better than the thorn

These days if they should firmly say it must be done another way

I say to them phoo phut and phog and sip some tea and stroke the dog

So though they scold and frown and worry, telling us the ‘must have’ story

My friends and I will loll, and play, and see the wonder in each day

….And if I’d like to have a rest, I’ll stay in bed if that feels best.

20.03.2015, 3pm. Jotted one day when tired out. Breakfast-in-bed had become radio-listening-in-bed, followed by reading-in-bed, then cloud-watching-in-bed, and then came the sudden realisation that I felt terribly guilty to be in bed at 3pm! The guilt was recognised and debunked that afternoon. 

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I’ll meet you there

When my big sister and I  hugged one another on the pavement outside her London house recently, we knew it would be the last time for a long while. I don’t know quite what happened, but I think ‘heart wrenching’ probably describes it best. She’s off to live in Florida, and looking forward to buying a gun or two. We don’t really see eye to eye on anything much. And yet, whilst inhabiting entirely different realities, our hearts still meet in the one space we all call home. I’m moved to quote Rumi, so here goes…

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about language, ideas, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense”

Partings can be hard. We miss beloved ‘others’ – miss their apparently tangible form – the physicality of them. We miss that felt sense of hugging another person, that ‘mammalian’ thing, as my sister would say. 

I’ll be leaving Sheffield soon. Excitement and Optimism sit side by side, quietly humming. But they hold hands with Sadness, who is silent. The sadness is letting go of people and places, and of ideas as yet unrealised. So this week the jots are about transitions, about leaving and parting. Deaths; both literal and figurative. I hope it’s not as grim as it sounds! 

I

When you go again you’ll take my heart. In between the pages of your books, in the fibres of your socks, in the space between your keyboard keys. But I will always know your blueprint. And, because I know your blueprint, my heart replicates, replicates, replicates, so it can go with you every single time you go . . . and be still here with me.

15.02.2014, jotted when my son was heading off somewhere or other on his academic adventuring having been at home for a while. 

II

Whoever you are, and wherever you are now, after the moment of death, may it be a place of love and joy. 

Whoever you are, may whoever you leave behind remember you gladly. With gratitude for your life. Perhaps with affection. Perhaps with much more than that.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, may you know that at the very least this one person on this one train near Stroud in Gloucestershire, is thinking of you with love.

17 feb 2017 16.30, jotted when the train I was on screeched, shuddered and  came to a halt. We were told it had hit a land-rover on the level crossing, killing the occupant. 

III

Philly and Tom left for Thailand just now. I realise I am losing the sense of a continuous reality or narrative. They are gone. Gone-gone. This is not an emotional sense of loss. But an understanding that it’s not all my story, with others coming and going – there is more a sense of events going on everywhere all the time. Some happen to be in my awareness and some not.

29.07.2014, jotted after my daughter and her boyfriend left the UK to teach English in Thailand. 

IV

Your eyes and my eyes gazed steadily, each at the other, and the distance between them was nothing.

In those hours before your breath stopped I learned what it meant to love you.

And now I know what I have lost.

26.06.2016, jotted on the death of my tiny Yorkshire Terrier, Harvey, a furry faithful companion to the end.

V

Water dances now

Form, no form, 

Sound, no sound

16.11.2016, with the water sprites in Stroud

VI

Pain and sorrow this morning on waking – the idea of the loss of my beloved sister. Then some strength came in, like a swooping bird, and carried me from bed to shower and into meditation, to connection and resolve, to the place of deep coherence.

18.09.2017, jotted in the final weeks of my little sister’s life. 

VII

These evenings are magical times. You lie, with your back supported at 45 degrees, tiny, in the huge hospital bed. Hair plaited like a child’s. I sit beside you in the wing chair. We’re hand in hand. The light, a single bright source, casting us into a seamless shadow. The understanding that flows between us is so sweet as our breath is breathed and our hearts beat. Sometimes the words are real but the sentences don’t seem to mean anything. We smile, knowing it’s all nonsense anyway. You see the dado rail fringed with grass, an army of ants moving along it. We know it’s matter in the making – the world of potentiality – before the brain assembles it into a fixed point and pins it down like a dead bug. Electricity fizzes somewhere inside you. Fireworks light up your head when you close your eyes … and you say it’s all so beautiful you don’t want to miss a single moment. I look at your face and see the whole family, generations of faces. You are not just you now, but all of us. Every twitch is precious. Every slight groan or little mutterance, slipping from the place between worlds – caught for a moment on the flicker of a frown. There is no sadness here in the ravishing beauty of these moments.

10/09/2017, jotted in the hospital, not long before I’d take my little sister home in the ambulance, for her final days. 

VIII

Knowing I am leaving, I pay attention again to the beauty of this place. Perfectly proportioned windows, mellow stone set ablaze in the late afternoon sun – cool fire. And pigeons tearing my heart open each time they fly over. 

When the mornings are quiet here, and the sun flows in, and pigeons feed enthusiastically from the co-yo pot on the windowsill, my heart is full and I’m in heaven. Glimpses of trees, slate and stone against an impossible sky.

26.02.2018, jotted on deciding to leave Stroud, my post-Amazon home.

IX

Why leave this place which has offered both peace and play, and these people and pigeons – such sweet friendships? The direction is determined by an unseen dance-partner. By Life itself. Who am ‘I’ to argue with that? 

So into the van and off I go!

Where will I go?

How would I know?

 🙂

26.04.2018, jotted as it became time to head off on a pilgrimage of sorts, and live for a year in a camper van. 

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Like a Bird on a Wire

Today’s jot recounts a journey by greyhound bus during the US election of 2016.

In the autumn of 2016 I visited New Jersey, USA. My son, a budding historian, had been awarded a fully funded year out from his PhD at Cambridge, UK, to study at Princeton. Why not combine a trip to see him, and celebrate his birthday, with a visit to family in Houston? The USA was in the grip of ‘election fever’ at that time. Why not go from New York to Texas by greyhound bus?  Get a sense of one slice of one corner of that vast country.  In the time it would take for me to traverse that line, the second largest democracy in the world would have a new president at its helm. 

I jotted observations along the way. Memory joggers really. Here’s the result…(about three thousand words in sixteen hundred miles).

A smooth journey from Princeton to Penn. New York is vibrant. A young man offers to carry my bag up the stairs – I gratefully accept. And it happens again later, with the same response. At the greyhound ticket counter a black woman explains everything to me and we chat about the election. Not much to choose between them she says, but at least Hilary understands she’s running a country not a business and she’s married to someone who knows the ropes. ‘No way I will not use my vote. And I insist the whole family votes. The vote was hard won. I’m honourin’ that’.  We solemnly agree.

There’s quite a while before boarding. I venture above ground and hover on the corner of 42nd street. 42nd street! (‘where the underworld can meet the elite’) I remember the show. And there’s the Empire State Building in the distance.  I take some photos and spot a huge black woman on a mobility scooter with a tiny white dog in the front basket. They’re waiting in line at Dunkin Donuts. I want to stroke the dog. I weigh it up and decide to risk going inside and asking. She’s fine with it. We have a chat. She never takes the bus or the plane. She likes Amtrak. The dog is pure velvet. Conker brown eyes and perky ears on a squirrel-sized body, sitting on a special incontinent pad designed for dogs for ‘just in case’. I guess it doesn’t often get offered the pavement option. It’s quite OK with the attention, but is tuned into the friend ahead of them in the queue. Chatting and stroking happens and then I move on. 

Back underground, the restrooms are super-clean. The woman cleaning them is bedecked in a large and intricate silver necklace with matching earrings the size of a baby’s hand; beautiful against cocoa skin. She’s delighted to be thanked and flashes a gold tooth as bright as her smile.

A waiting area is demarcated with a glass partition about chest height. It is clean and tidy and offers seating for around 25 people. A photographic artwork covers an entire wall. There’s a sign specifying ‘ticket holders only’ and piped music – Mozart and Vivaldi. No ‘drug addicts’, ‘winos’, ‘homeless people’ etc… it seems Greyhound has been cleaned up, unlike its reputation. 

Arriving at gate 73 in good time, I wonder what the 4 cordoned off lanes are for. I ask a black man standing to the side. He squarks that he doesn’t know. No idea. I ask a skinny Latino youth who is standing in one of the lines. He looks at my ticket. Points to the number 14, explains that it’s numbered  boarding. I need to look at the printed board on each line … 0-10, 11-20 ; that one. I pass on the information to the other guy who doesn’t seem that interested. 

A skinny white woman in a black knitted hat, thick specs and black shell suit works the line. Can you spare a dollar? I consider the question. Look her in the eye. Decide I can and hand over 4 quarters. Thank you, she says. Thank YOU I reply, mindful of the opportunity to practice generosity. She thinks this is quite funny and chuckles as she says you’re welcome. We both laugh. Out of around 20 passengers she gets 2 dollars. 

A pretty black tranny in the queue (super skinny with long hair extensions) is given away only by the Adam’s apple and a hint of stubble. The longest greyhound journey she has done is a day and an hour. I ask her advice re seating position. Not too near the back as the restroom can smell. Somewhere round the middle is good. So I sit nearby, across the aisle and slightly in front – and then notice the air conditioning is broken (stuck on) so quickly re position myself, but have to move a little further back, one seat behind her. Should be ok. Everyone positions themselves by the windows, unless they’re travelling with a companion.

We’re told we’ll be in North NJ in 20-30 mins. Traffic’s bad, so we’re leaving late, sorry for the delay. We’ll have a 10 minute stop. Then the next stop, at 10.30, will be for 30 mins which is ‘time for a meal’.

Our driver makes the ground rules clear: No walkie talkies, chirpy cell phones or speaker phones. Use headphones. No alcohol. Speak quietly. You don’t have to be quiet as a mouse, but just keep your voice down so you don’t disturb other folks. Don’t use perfume, cologne, vapour rub, nail polish on the bus – that can disturb folks’ breathing – if you violate the rules you will leave the bus, either without or with police escort. It all sounds super-respectable. 

Newark Penn station. An impressive Art Deco arch swallows us up. We’re not to get off the bus here unless this is our stop. It’s a fine Art Deco terminal building with ‘greyhound’ written on the canopy above the door. Looks a bit like the side door to the Dorchester ballroom. A few new passengers embark. I keep typing, my parka on the seat beside me. People are selecting their neighbours according to complex criteria, and then a ‘nice young man’ asks if it’s alright if he sits there. ‘Sure’ I say, slipping into the vernacular, and move the coat onto my lap. He’s off to Fargo, North Dakota. I wonder silently if he’s protesting the pipe line. He wears jeans t-shirt and a rather incongruous beanie hat. He looks like he might care about such things. Me? I tell him Texas. Aha, so also changing at Cleveland. Right. And he heads off to the restroom. Nothing smells yet. Apart from the slight whiff of hand sanitiser on his return. Good sign.

At around 2.35am we’ll be in Cleveland, Ohio.  People going on to Detroit will get a new driver but re board the same bus. A different range of destinations is rattled off. A change of bus and driver for me. Must get my bag out of the trunk. Re-board through door number 7 at 4.30am. Two hours in a bus station in Cleveland Ohio then. A slightly grim prospect. I’m glad I have my parka and Primark Uggs.

It’s 3am. Cleveland Ohio terminal. We change buses here. Mr Fargo wishes me good luck and slips away. Inside, the terminal has something of the ballroom about it. High ceiling, Art Deco lamps and large bronze numbers above each of the exit doors. I rub my slightly stiff neck and allow huge yawns to come. We’re kept up to speed with the election right through the night via ubiquitous screens. Hilary Clinton says she will ‘build an America with bridges not walls’.  Donald Trump says ‘I’m here for you. I’ll fight for you. I’ll win for you. I promise.’ Dixville Notch votes are in – Hilary 4 Donald 2, but collectively it stands at 25:32. The terminal is all but silent. There are maybe a hundred people seated quietly napping, or plugged into their phones, in rows of bronze coloured seats set in a spacious configuration.

We re-board. The game is the same, but the cast has changed. My travel companion on this leg of the journey is bound for Alabama he tells me in gentle, elongated tones. He is gentle and elongated himself. A relaxed body in the neighbouring seat. The 50 seater bus is scruffy, scratched, worn. The leatherette seats are cracked. It’s very different to the sleek model that pulled out of New York some 10 hours or so ago. Jeff reminds us of the rules and the consequences of choosing to violate them and thanks us for ‘going greyhound’. As we move further into the state of Ohio the sun rises and the countryside opens up. Golf courses give way to flat expanses of farmland punctuated with areas of deciduous woodland reminding me of East Anglia. I reflect idly on the right to roam the English countryside and I’m grateful for it. You can keep your golf courses. The highway rolls on and for the first time I feel restless. Stiff. A fist of tiredness lodges itself in my forehead. It’s 8.30am. I want coffee. 

A ten minute stop at a minor terminal adjacent to a petrol station affords me the dopamine hit I’m addicted to. Most of the passengers stay aboard unless they’re changing here. This otherwise unremarkable spot is bordered on one side by shrubs of an almost cardinal hue and densely populated by small birds – sparrows I think. Some in amongst the foliage and some perched on the twigs that protrude the  top edge. Red-pink elliptical leaf, twig, sparrow, repeat. All set against a pearl grey sky. It’s a charming sight and I reach for my camera with mummy in mind. Dammit. It’s in a pocket on the bus. This word-sketch will have to do then. 

‘I’m not going back to Nigeria for nobody. If I go it’s coz I say so!’ is the impassioned declaration made by a brightly-lipsticked woman ahead of me in the coffee line. Sympathetic and conciliatory sounds from the Asian assistant on the till blend with the barking to create an interesting harmony. ‘So you’re voting Trump then?’ quips a grey haired pink faced man coming along behind. We all laugh. Lipstick says she’s already cast her vote – did it at first light. I regret I can’t vote because I’m English, but say I’ll do it in my heart. ‘That’s right, you pray for us!’. I will I promise. Well, what else is there? A second greyhound bus has appeared since I left in search of coffee. Unsure now which one is bound for Texas I peek into the first, and, recognising no-one, board the second. I’m not sure that any of these people has come the distance from New York either, but then I clock one and continue down the aisle with the confidence of a seasoned greyhound-goer. An Amish family has appeared. Their little white bonnets are made of a kind of moulded polyester, and look like stiff, pleated net curtains. Not particularly attractive. My mind goes to Vermeer but it won’t do, and swiftly conjures up instead a wholesale business distributing flat packs of pop-up polyester bonnets to scrubbed girls in long skirts. 

Cincinnati next stop. Then we’ll head across the state border to Kentucky. 16 hours down. 34 or so to go.

The gentle elongated one leaves the bus with no goodbye. I thank our driver, Jeff, who switches buses here. He seems awfully pleased, in a quiet way.  In the 20 minutes I have to stretch my legs I discover that Cincinnati boasts an impressive 1930s government building, currently bedecked with signs exhorting people to vote. I speak to two young men. One brown-skinned is pro Clinton. The other, pink, is going the third way. A wasted vote perhaps, but he can’t vote Trump, obviously, and he doesn’t like Clinton’s party’s morals when it comes to war. Well, at least he gets a chance to express that his way. This city must love its pets. It has a pet gym. I wish I’d had time to pop in and make enquiries. I’m guessing you run with your dog alongside – but who knows?! There are two ‘Fido Fields’ adjacent to the gym. One for large Fidos and the other for their diminutive cousins. During the break I also found out that we have traversed the county from top to bottom, Cleveland to Cincinnati,on route 71. Ohio has the world’s largest Amish population. Hence the bonnets. The word Ohio comes from the Iroquois word ohi-yo, meaning great river, which we crossed when leaving the city. And the advice I gave to the young man who loves the English accent and wishes he could do it? Find some English TV to watch and copy.  His friend (the third way) suggests ‘Are you Being Served’. He’s not bothered about the accent, but his wish-come-true would be to go to Wimbledon – and Ascot. Back on the bus it’s now more than half empty. Twenty of us at most continue into the undulating forests of Kentucky. Most of the trees have shed their leaves and it’s an overcast morning. A couple of weeks ago on a brighter day what a blaze this would have been. I munch on ‘Bark Thins snacking chocolate’ slightly guiltily. Only slightly. It has nutritious almond pieces in it. The occasional homestead appears in a clearing. A few cows here and there. And there must be lots of chickens tucked away right? This is the home of Colonel Sanders after all. 

A long dreary stretch. The countryside opened up quite a bit with large overcast skies, pasture and cows – not sure if they are meat or milk, but I think milk. All three stops in Kentucky have been rather grim, with this latest one (Bowling Green) being really quite shocking. Stinky loo with no hand towels or dryer. This leg of the journey is certainly different to the first part. The air conditioning on the bus has now failed, so it’s pretty stuffy. They say they will get us a new bus at Nashville. And the stop there is meant to have a restaurant, so I’m hoping for a cup of tea and some fries or something to offer comfort and boost the spirits. On the positive side, the lack of passengers means I’ve had a lie down and a very deep cat nap. Might do a bit more of that…

Nope. No more napping happens. I eat a protein bar and enjoy the chirruping sounds of the little girl opposite. She’s about four, totally cute, and has just had a couple of cookies and a few large swigs of coca cola. She’s gone off like a rocket! Absolutely amazing to witness the effects of sugar and caffeine. No wonder people consume so much of the stuff and I have my little addiction. I wish it had that effect on me … but a mild perk is still worth having. I can see Nashville now – one of the towers has pointy ears on each end – looks like Batman’s second home.

At Nashville the new bus arrived an hour and a half late. But I did get fries and tea and chatted to a guy who drives trucks for a living and has a partner and child in London. They can’t live together because she can’t get a US visa. He has a dream to create a car mechanic shop with a lounge, and cafe. He seems pretty upbeat about it. Perhaps he will. 

I think we’re in Memphis now. It’s midnight. On the tv screens, the election is neck and neck. It’s deadly close. Back on the bus, Johnny, our new driver, tells us we are two and a half hours behind schedule. He goes through the rules but doesn’t mention the police. Seems a little fixated on the restroom. The night is punctuated by some deep drops into dreamless sleep. My Mexican travelling companion is OK. He doesn’t speak English and chats quite a bit on his phone. But he’s fairly quiet and compact and when his elbow strays into my territory it responds instantly to a subtle dig and retreats. I seem to have become a little less generous. I’m inordinately grateful that the 40 stone black guy opposite didn’t try and sit next to me. Actually I think I would just have moved and given him the two seats. He’s snoring now, and sweating. 

Dawn breaks and the sunrise I was hoping for. Startlingly beautiful. Grass is set on fire and glows golden as a delicate mist evaporates. Land stretches flat and open as far as the eye can see. Cattle and horses. Eventually the inevitable domestic and business buildings begin to appear and gradually become denser as we get closer to Dallas Texas. We are so behind schedule that we miss the connection from Dallas to Houston. We’re told to hand in our tickets and listen for our names to be called when new ones have been issued. The next bus departs at noon. Three hours away. The mood is resigned. Trump has kept his promise to win, and America is in the hands of a madman. Right now we’re in a rather dismal bus depot and our compensation for a 3 hour wait is a burger voucher. I decide to brave the streets. It seems a strangely radical act having become habituated to the bus and the depots and the tv screens and the rules.  Miraculously I manage to get my phone to show me a map of the local area and I decide on communing with trees to restore vitality and hope. The Klyde Warren Park looks like the best bet, so I  check my bag into left luggage and head off. The first point of interest is a little square with a few tiny trees, a sort of waterfall wall and a sculpture of a diminutive black woman sitting on what looks like a bus seat. It’s Rosa Parks! And this is Rosa Parks Square, created in her honour. Google maps doesn’t say so though, and I resolve to get that changed. What a day to find myself in Rosa Parks’ Square. ‘God help my darker-skinned brothers and sisters’ I pray, and on I go. A large rectangular bed of pansies lifts the mood. The edge of the Art district is demarcated by the Dallas Museum of Art. And just beyond it, I spy the Park. 

The park works its magic. I commune with Papa Tua; feel connected to the entire universe once more. As I re-enter the terminal building I find that I’m singing Leonard Cohen ‘Like a bird on a wire,like some sleepy midnight choir, I have tried, in my way, to be free…’ I give my burger voucher to Alex, a hungry-looking young guy with wiry curls sticking out from under his wooly bobble hat. He sports a crazily patterned colourful silk bomber jacket, ‘it’s 1980s’ he tells me proudly. He’s incredibly pleased with the burger and Dr Pepper. He’s on his way to a wedding in Georgia. He and his girlfriend have been offering extended B and B to people who need nurturing – a sort of charity hotel come quasi family experience. They did it for several years until finally they were deported – it was somewhere like Moldova. He’s also a mountain guide. He loves mountains more than he can say. He started out in theatre/performance. He has an uncle and aunt who work in the Alley Theatre in Houston. Normally I might have liked to know more about his story, but it’s already nearly midday and I’m watching for signs that the bus might be ready for re-boarding.

At 1.30 we make a stop. Thank god – I’m longing for my first coffee of the day. A longing that has been slowly building since around 10.30, and would certainly have been satisfied had there been a little spot somewhere in the sunshine in downtown Dallas. The restrooms are OK, the coffee is hot, the water cold. As I wait in line to pay, my eye is drawn to a range of postcards advocating ‘if they come for your guns give ’em your bullets first’ and, presumably, failing that, just kill a pig instead so as to ‘keep calm and eat bacon’. Heading back towards the bus, moments away from settling down to sip hot sweet coffee I return to the coffee shop and photograph the postcards. Don’t Mess with Texas. A slogan says a thousand words. 

Some time later, the driver announces ‘This is Huntsville, Texas’ It seems a quaint little town, not that different to the ones in the cowboy films, and it comes as a complete surprise. I thought there was no more stopping til Houston, but we weren’t given an updated schedule with our new tickets. A rather feeble white man gets on and struggles to manoeuvre a compact case onto the luggage rack. After a strangely long time, with a somewhat younger, taller man standing passively behind him, a strong looking woman gets up and sorts it all out. Off we go, past a number of churches, the Dead End barber shop (seriously) The Gallery (photo-portraits of white folks including a smiling cowgirl) a cinema, the county courthouse. Then the straggling suburbs – detached houses on lawns, lawyers offices, the inevitable malls that make brutalist architecture look almost cheeky, and a golf course. As we rejoin the highway I realise that in the space of a few hundred miles we have slipped back into late summer. A lot of evergreens, and swathes of summer-wearied deciduous woodland, with just the merest hint of yellow here and there.

Soon we arrive in Houston and I need to find a taxi to get to Alexander’s place. Miraculously there’s a rank right outside, with a cheering yellow ribbon of taxis at the ready. I wish the family of five, who moved away a few months ago (only to return, disappointed, to settle once more in Houston) a happy new/old life. A few of us wish others good luck and move off. So, the cast changes yet again, and, 48 hours after leaving New York, the bus will roll on into the night without me. Just one of the original 25 or so passengers will be aboard.

Aboard a greyhound bus, travelling more than sixteen hundred miles, via eight of the USA’s 50 States, With 17 stops, I feel I have experienced some of the ordinariness of American life. It is just this kind of ordinariness that I find compelling, interesting and meaningful. Touching, even. 

07-09.11.2016,  Jotted aboard Greyhound buses & on stops along the route.

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POW!

On checking WhatsApp yesterday morning I found a startling image of beauty and colour and light and life. Of optimism and celebration. Its form? A bunch of tulips – flared petals pouring forth their essence, with everything they had, in an explosive burst of orange, yellow and bubblegum pink candy stripes. I had given the tulips to a friend a week ago. They had been tightly closed, their colours somewhat concealed, and no sign of stripes. And now, here they were, being shared with me as this vigorous, rejuvenating image. I had been feeling rather uninspired, then POW! The shared image jettisoned me to the iPad. Suddenly I wanted to write, to acknowledge, to share. What a gift! 

The image sparked a memory of a conversation about how each of us has a unique (primary) expression, and the pain that’s caused if we turn away from it. It brought forth this week’s jot, which was written at a time when I was struggling to care for my elderly, widowed, father-in-law. In the jot, I was trying to work out why the caring was beginning to  feel difficult. I was retired. I had the time. I loved this person. I felt a tenderness towards him, and I knew it was only because he existed that my then husband existed, and therefore my children (and now a miraculous grandchild!). If it wasn’t for him, this particular ‘Melissa’ story would not have been what it is. I was undoubtedly grateful for his existence. And yet, and yet….

I

If I’m a fish I need not try to be a dog. I’m not a carer type of creature. It gives limited joy. It makes no sense to try and distort myself to fit another’s idea about what they want me to be! God/life wants me to be what I am. Sure, I can care and I do care, and I take some delight in it, but that is not my primary expression. A daffodil has a scent, but that is not its primary expression, its yellowness is. I can and do polish the silver, and I take some delight in it, but housework is not my primary expression. So what is my primary expression? Ah, there’s a question worth answering. . . I like to reflect, and I like to write. That much is true.

10.01.2014, jotted whilst visiting my father-in-law one long weekend

…………………………………………………………………………………

I’ve since realised there’s something that’s uniquely me. And as I get to know it and love it and allow it to be what it is, and to do what it loves, then I get to love life, as life. This little speck of consciousness has the capacity for great joy. But it can’t and won’t experience that if it’s poked at with a stick by (borrowed) ideas about what it should be, or do.

………………………………………………………………………………………

II

There is a very strong pull towards being an object, barreling its way through life as if one were separate from the other. ‘This is what I am, this is what I do, in life’ An urge to package myself and stick a label on, justify myself, and say, OK, that’s Me, ‘doing life’ – but it cannot be that way. I am the dandelion head. The seeds that fly, the wind that carries them and the earth they land in. I am the sun that warms the shoot and the water that brings life up from the earth. Can I allow this? Can I move as one, without the need for rhyme or reason – without the need for a label, a story to tell myself and others what it is that I am doing here? Can I believe there is knowing in my not knowing. Can I allow myself to be life. Knowing it is not a game that can be won, or a problem that can be solved.

02.05.2016

III

The hour we spent together on the bench in the garden of Aloka cottage was transformative and will always be with me. I am so grateful for your presence, generosity. wisdom, light, warmth, love. The phrase that springs to mind when thinking of that time with you is ‘you’re allowed’ and for some reason it touches me very deeply. With that knowing, Comes the confidence that everything that is or isn’t happening is deeply OK.

05.10.2015, fragment of a letter I jotted to Buddhist nun, Sister Candasiri, at Chithurst monastery.

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Tree Rings and Ayahuasca

This week, a couple of  jots from the Amazon (2016) came up to be shared. 

The Change or Die year of the sabbatical in 2007/8 marked the beginning of the ‘spiritual seeking’ years. Significant teachings thus far had been Vipassana, and non-duality. Teachers  (in person, via books, videos and Conscious TV)  had been many and various. Then a year of ‘group work’ with Malcolm Stearn, founder  of ‘Alternatives’, (St James’, Piccadilly) followed in 2015. Once a month a dozen of us met up in a basement near Hampstead Heath, and, guided by Malcolm, we set out to ‘slay our dragons with compassion’. To grow spiritually and psychologically. And I think we did. That year was to pave the way for a radical meeting – a meeting with Mother Ayahuasca. 

In 2014  A faint, but undeniable interest in Ayahuasca had been re-kindled by a meeting with Mark Flaherty,  author of ‘Shedding the Layers’. He was the tech support guy on James Eaton’s non-duality retreat and had written an account of how his lifelong life-threatening struggle with chronic and acute eczema had led him to the Amazon, and an encounter with death. I was fascinated. I wanted to die to the softening, but nevertheless persistent sense of separation, and to be born into a knowing of the interconnectedness of everything, of universal love. And that meant I was willing to fly to Peru, take a boat up the Amazon, stay in the jungle, and every night for 6 nights drink Ayahuasca in the dark with mysterious shamans drumming and singing icaros, lie down on a mat with a sick bowl at my side, become a supplicant to Papa Tua and throw up everything that was holding me back. Yes. If that’s what it took, I would do it.  

The first few nights were quite interesting. With eyes closed there were colourful visions and patterns, with eyes open, the shamans and assistants became 7 feet tall light-filled beings healing my fellow seekers. After each healing they shrank back to normal height and hue, looking momentarily exhausted until their chin would lift, and they would go to the next suffering being. At the end of the ceremonies they became Dr Seuss cat-like creatures moving  about playfully with the master shaman. It was intriguing, but, what I had come here to know, was eluding me. On the final night, in the dark, with the insistent beat of the drums, the strange singing incantations, and the swirling tobacco smoke, I swallowed the vile-tasting medicine for the last time and prayed earnestly to Papa Tua, the head medicine spirit. I asked him  to show me what I needed to know, clearly, in a way I could understand, with great kindness gentleness and care, please. And then I lay down, eyes closed, focusing on the heart. Loretta, a female shaman appeared at my side and held my hand while a bittersweet mournful song was being sung by Maya. When Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) poured forth, flooding my brain, as at the moment of death, Loretta slipped away to help others on their journey, leaving me to be with Mother Ayahuasca. 

Here are two jots about the experience.

I

Feeling the physical sickness in the stomach, which never before made it into awareness – it wasn’t allowed. During the final ceremony, when the deep fear of disconnection was allowed, when the felt sense of disconnection, of abandonment, of emptiness, of aloneness and separation, vulnerability and closeness to death was allowed, the sickness breathed itself away.

Fear in the pit of the stomach. Digestion failing. Sickness being felt. All within the frame of awareness. Nothing denied or rejected. No will imposed, no insistence, no orchestration, no turning away.

Gently, silently, tearing open. Silent tears – then soft sobbing until it petered out. Then desolation and the feeling of being abandoned. Done for. Alone. Left for dead. Then no me feeling the feelings. Only the feelings themselves. 

Then the huge space of Nothingness. Everything simply stopped. It wasn’t peace, it wasn’t relief, it wasn’t anything, and it could have gone on forever. There was no time. The not anything was the Source of everything.

Out of the not anything, something happened. As optimism appeared, hands emerged. Look! Hands! And then joy as two hands felt themselves. A re birth of the body. A re-membering, a me-ness, delight in embodied life. A body – arising from the Source  (Love) so I can play as a human being in this realm. Joy. The simple joy of being human.

What does this all mean? There was a hospital stay when I was little (two or three years old) where I experienced the literal disconnection from home/mother, and all the above emotions associated with that physical reality. And the invasive surgery – the pain of having tonsils and adenoids removed. But, it means more than that – it’s a remembering of the disconnection from Source, the source of all Love – and the remembering that that’s where this body is from. The only way to reconnect with source/love is through the body. And that means through the felt pain. We can’t think ourselves there, or imagine ourselves there. We have to feel it. Feelings are the province of the body. Thank you to ayahuasca for taking me on that journey.

16/02/2016 jotted in a lodge in the Amazon Jungle, not far from Iquitos, Peru

II

It was very funny and joyful. I was my own universe. Life began to flow. The body stretched and unfolded like a plant growing. My knee mended. Then my hip. I could choose absolute peace – when it got noisy in my head I swooshed thoughts away, using the breath and flapping the hands. When I felt queazy I swooshed that away too. Feelings were invited into the heart, like Rumi’s guesthouse. I could put my attention where I wanted it, which was with the baby body. I invited the spirits to come and play a game called looking after the baby and we tended and nurtured it. Held it, rocked it. Heard footsteps and knew I also had feet. How amazing. Lungs were filling and emptying in a brand new way. Huge huge yawns happened. Yawning, stretching, opening. The whole thing was so wondrous that I couldn’t sleep and eventually got horribly tired. But it didn’t really matter.

16/02/2016 jotted in a lodge in The Amazon Jungle, not far from Iquitos, Peru

So, although I didn’t get the whole ‘interconnectedness’ thing that I had hoped for, there was immense gratitude to have been shown what I needed to know. And a pervasive gladness and ease hitherto unknown. The newborn baby left the jungle feeling really rather delighted to be here.

By the time the newborn returned to England, after visiting Cusco and Machu Picchu, a playful (and highly competent) eight year old was in charge of its every need. Together they said farewell to their mother and older sister in London, packed a large bag, and danced off to Stroud in The Cotswolds. There, they rented a double height studio apartment in the middle of town, from where they revelled in life, made lots of new friends and simply played and played and played. The newborn and the eight year old were one and the same Melissa, contained within the 58 year old, like a set of Russian Dolls, or, perhaps more tellingly, those tree rings that indicate the growth of the trunk in a particular year.

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Life greeting Life

Mothers Day may just be an invention and it may fuel a massive consumer-fest, yes. Yet there’s something touching about a joint acknowledgement of, and gratitude for, the miracle of birth, and renewal, and regeneration. And so, with gratitude for my mother on Mothers Day ( in England)  here are 5 varied jots from 2014 – 2021

I

Cow parsley pouches being drawn from their stems and giving forth furled flower heads. Pouches forming into firm supports for stem and leaf, and more pouches will be drawn forth from these ones here. . . and on and on in an eternal fountain of flourishing. Breath-giving and brilliant.

Ten ducklings. So tiny and light a puff of air could carry them away. Under the water, set wide upon their bodies, busy webbed feet propel them after their mother until suddenly they are nothing – flashes of light and colour.

Every plant, every stem, nodding, greeting, smiling and celebrating this impossibly unendingly beautiful moment.

28.07.2014, jotted after walking on Wandsworth common

II

Listen carefully, 

on the breeze the faintest sound, 

another heart breaks

A new day begins, 

yesterday’s sorrows return, 

my heart breaks again

Mothers everywhere

Knowing life is full of pain

shed tears for their sons

24.07.15, jotted when my son was suffering after a break up. 

III

Philosopher Alan Watts said about the dualistic mind: 

“Looking out into the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.” 

Alan watts clearly never met my mother! 🙂

18.05.2015, jotted when feeling annoyed with my very exacting mother. 

IV 

I greet the sunrise. Witness the lavender. Hang out with the mango tree and listen to the birds’ calls filling the valley with joy. I imagine leading La Mama out into this new day where she feels the gentle kiss of the morning sun on her face and knows she needs nothing else. This is the perfect day, as Life greets Life. And I think Philly must feel that, greeting Iris, when rested. Life greeting Life. Nothing lacking. Nothing needed. Quiet joy.

28.02.2020,  jotted in Southern Spain, on the terrace of a little  ‘cortijo’ where I had expected to live for a while. Three mothers are present in this jot – my mother (La Mama) myself, and daughter (Philly). 

V

Saturday 12 November 8am Chiang Mai

Sliding open the tinted window of this 5th floor city apartment, a soapy warmth wraps itself around my face.There’s a milky thickness to it. Birds chirp like sequins in a cloth woven from the hum of almost a million air conditioning units. This is my first morning in Chiang Mai.

Heavily wooded mountains, stretched out beyond the western limits of the city, greet me silently.  They are the colour of rain clouds, or distant islands in the sea, though my mind is trying to paint them green.  Between their forested ridge and a hazy blue sky, sits a seemingly solid band of cloud – its ever-shifting movement imperceptible in the still air.

And now, the mountains begin to reveal their true colours as the haze thins, and is lifted from every leaf by the warmth of this morning. One day, this body will join the mountain; will make the soil, the trees, the clouds.  What an honour. One day, Mother Earth herself will die, and her children find a new home.  But, long before then, this body will have become her – returned to her completely. 

The band of clouds expands now, filling the sky, and leaving just a fuzzy streak of blue here and there.  In the space of 40 minutes or so, the imposing ridge is no more, and dark clouds have blended earth to air. 

No separation.

12.11.2021, jotted 8-8.45am,  while contemplating Doi Suthep, to the West of the city of Chiang Mai

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Clouds, Samphire & the journey home

This week, 6 jots from the year of the sabbatical 2007/8 came up to be aired. So here they are, along with the story about what that year brought.

In the autumn of 2007 there had been an urgent need to just stop everything. No more work, no more dating, no more planning, no more striving. Something had to give (see ‘Change or Die’). After one year I would either rekindle the neurofeedback work, or go forward into something new (as yet unknown).

I

Peace – love

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, a baby girl was born.  She arrived, like all babies, clutching a treasure map, which disintegrated the second the umbilical cord was cut.  It was a dark winter’s night.  Outside, snow was falling, thick and deep and in the grate a fire burned.

Six years later the little girl’s mother bundled her into the mini cooper along with her two sisters and their brother. They swept down the long drive, past the lodge and over the cattle grid, leaving behind them forever the Georgian villa and the angry man who slept in the beautifully carved, George III, four-poster bed.

Life followed, things happened. Schools, lovers, a degree, a marriage, 2 children, a post-grad teaching certificate, a divorce, more lovers, another degree. Deaths, illnesses, joys.  And so on.

On 10th July 2007 the now big little girl decided not to move up to Yorkshire with her then boyfriend after all, and they split up instead.

The Sabbatical…

Neurofeedback clients were either finished off or referred on.  The therapy room was dismantled and became a tiny bedroom.  The main bedroom and bathroom were let out to a lodger.  Belts were tightened.  Hatches were battened down. The destination was a place called Peace. There was no map.

The stillness was stultifying.

Doing nothing was the hardest thing imaginable.

Reading, writing, thinking, drinking, wanting, waiting.

And then a strange, or, rather, a miraculous thing happened. A breeze started up and in due course Acceptance came into sight.  Acceptance is a small island, just a short swim from Peace (which is also known as Love, Truth, or God).

We are all born with a treasure map in our hands.  It disintegrates at birth.  And for the rest of our lives we know we’re looking for something, but we don’t know what and we don’t know where. The treasure map charts the way home. There’s a very clear and very simple route, but few of us find it.  Instead, we travel circuitously and painfully, alone or with another. Many of us die never having arrived. The route is Love.  Because it leads us back to ourselves.

 09.12.2008, jotted when reflecting back on the sabbatical. 

So, the first thing that happened on The Sabbatical was that my neurofeedback equipment was given away (on a long term loan) to ‘The Cloud Man’, who’s real name is Gavin Pretor-Pinney. He acquired the nickname after writing  a best selling book, ‘The Cloudspotter’s Guide’, and was now embarked on ‘The Wavewatcher’s Companion’. The Cloud Man had approached me to find out about brainwaves (EEG) so I told him everything I knew, and handed over the gear, inviting him to play with it for as long as he liked.  Only recently, I watched his TED talk, and was amazed to learn that, all along, he had been an ambassador for the miraculous creativity that comes forth from nothing; from ‘effortless being’.  He knew.

“Great, there go the tools of my trade”, I had thought, “now I just need to stop doing anything, and see what happens”. The second thing that happened was reading Tom Hodgkinson’s books ‘How to be Idle’ (and ‘How to be Free’). They were, like many books that are full of really good ideas, only understandable after you’ve already learnt what they’re teaching you. Ha ha. Never mind. Trying to read them at home on my own, enveloped in the sound of silence, and with ‘nothing else to do’, proved to be unbearable…so they were read instead sitting in a local cafe full of yummy mummies and tiny children.

The thing is, whenever I stopped ‘doing’ (striving) I tended to feel empty or agitated… because at that time I knew precisely nothing about the ‘effortless being’ practised by The Cloud Man.

As the emptiness and agitation ebbed and flowed, any ideas that presented themselves were met with grateful curiosity: Little shoots of green in a vast muddy landscape. Everything started happening spontaneously. A Samphire crop of delicious and nourishing possibilities sprang up. Here’s a list of some of the things that happened:

Reading about Idleness and freedom (Tom Hodgkinson), and about pain depression and suicide (Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mark Williams); doing a very short taster course in a variety of meditation techniques (resulting in realising that my angel wings had got torn off during the past decade and were now growing back, and also that I needed to ‘reveal myself’, but I didn’t actually know who ‘myself’ was…so how would I do that then?) ; travelling with my daughter to Goa and getting hypnotised (by comedy hypnotist Dave Rawson) so my hands were stuck together and I experienced first hand (!) that “The mind is its own place, and can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”  John Milton, Paradise Lost ; completing a hypnosis short course – the law of reversed effect – at the LCCH (hypnotising a chicken, a rabbit, myself and my classmates); getting a place at the University of Surrey to do a PhD (with Prof Annette Sterr) examining how neurofeedback might affect hypnotisability, and therefore pain control; doing a ceramics course; volunteering with Vaughan Systems in Madrid and talking to Spanish people all day in English; writing a play; learning about EFT and affirmations and psych-k,; walking for miles in gym shoes; discovering Mindhabits attention trainer; Reading Bruce Lipton’s ‘The Biology of Belief’, Ronda Byrne’s ‘The Secret’, Paul McKenna’s ‘Change Your Life in 7 Days’, discovering Ekhart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now’; having cranio-sacral energy healing with Mathew Schrock; curating an art show for Mark Leonard at a mindfulness conference; adopting my little sister’s miniature Yorkshire Terrier, Harvey; accepting her gift of Marianne Williamson’s ‘Everyday Grace’ and following her instructions to look myself in the eyes every day and say “I love you”.

II

Bedtime thought

I wish I’d written it down – although it was probably crap anyway…

It was something about being part of the universe.  Something about being part of nature – of being in a kind of circle – safe and included.

Gone now.

Doesn’t matter 🙂

17.10.07 jotted in the early days of the sabbatical one morning – a clue as to what the year would reveal. 

III

Nothing, eternity

I walked down the steps that lead from the balcony.  Slowly.  Deliberately. And as I reached the last step I paused a minute.  Then stepped into nothingness. Nothingness that was just the right temperature, with just the right amount of buoyancy and just the right amount of air.  It was a perfect state of being.  And, filled with joy, I started to do slow somersaults – like an astronaut. But I wasn’t like an astronaut, I was like a wingless angel.  Golden.  As I somersaulted I became aware of other angels somersaulting nearby.  We joined hands and feet and became a beautiful sphere that rolled on and on through space.

And I’m fizzing, just below the skin.

I walked on down the weathered steps

not knowing where they led,

but as I walked I felt no fear

of what might lie ahead.

I reached the last step and I paused

The time had come to go,

To leave behind the things I knew

For things I longed to know.

Then everything and nothing came

To greet me as I fell,

And everything and nothing was

A part of me as well.

And I was you he she and it

and we and you and they

a joyful golden globe of light.

No thing. Eternity.

06.09.2008 jotted after a spontaneous vision during a hypnotic trance, and re-written as a poem a few days later. 

IV

Drowning your sorrows

The trouble with drowning your sorrows is that the sorrows remain, floating inside you, bloated and pale.  Much better to dissolve them.  For that you need something fizzy – I find champagne works best. Or a good Cava, at a pinch.

05.02.08 jotted at night when full of sorrow and Cava

V

Go To Sleep

Go to bed

Go to sleep.

Stop making excuses for your sadness.  It just is. 

For you – and many others.

Stop making excuses for your sadness now.

Go to bed.

Go to sleep.

10.03.08,  jotted late at night, when all possible thoughts about why I was feeling sad had been thought

VI

Coming Home?

It feels so different.  I don’t know when I last felt like this.

Actually, I don’t think I ever felt like this

In the past, when I have felt OK it’s been a manic sort of energy. 

But now I don’t feel manic and I don’t feel sad or fettered.

 I just feel quite OK.  Yes, really quite OK. 

Until I felt it, I would have thought it impossible –

manic, in despair, or becalmed.  Those were my references.

This has nothing to do with them.

 In this feeling I feel a freedom – a lightness of being,

a sense of self that is quite unknown to me.

It’s manic without the mania. 

It’s becalmed without the lack of energy. 

And despair is not a part of it in any way, or shape, or form.

I feel excited and yet I feel a little bit frightened by the place I can see just there..

Just there…

21.01.2008, jotted when a moment of peace was suddenly and undeniably spotted, like a rare bird, poised between waving branches of sadness, agitation and listlessness.

When the sabbatical was over, and no funding had materialised for the PhD, I returned to the work I knew. At a Spring conference in Dubrovnik, my reading material was Les Fehmi’s ‘The Open Focus Brain’. An upward spiral followed, and too many brilliant books to mention here. The home-based therapy room was moved to Wimbledon Village and then to Harley Street. In time, Mindfulness was learned. A regular meditation practice began,  and my research and understanding of neuroscience deepened. In addition to the work with clients, workshops and presentations were given, sharing what I’d learned.  It was at one such presentation, hosted by The British Psychological Society, that an enthusiastic young accountant was invited to “come on down” from the audience and have his brain wired up. As we watched his EEG (brainwaves) on the big screen, we saw  him shift effortlessly from the alert-aware ‘beta’ state into the ‘alpha’ state. In that state, you become a cloudspotter – fluffy summer clouds present their shifting forms to your imagination as a dreamy gaze meets an endless blue sky. It’s Open Focus, where the mind opens up to limitless possibility.

This young man became my intern, and a year or so later,  invited me to his wedding in India. And so it was that in the spring of 2012, one morning just before dawn, after four days of nuptial rituals and revellings, I found myself in a taxi, hurtling northwards at high speed. The destination? McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala, an 8 hour drive up into the foothills of the Himalayas, for the start of a Vipassana retreat – and the end of a career in neuroscience.

What are these strange twists of fate? What is it that drops a particular book (or a particular person) into your lap at a particular time? What is this golden thread that guides us, when we just let go of notions of control?

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Its dimpled self

Looking through old jots this week, what offers itself is evidence of a shift in perception. A shift from the sense of facing, with a degree of courage and trepidation in 2005, a willingness to be ‘punctured’,  to the softening, allowing and welcoming that’s expressed in 2016.

This perceptual shift switches from a sense of self as a hard, separate something that ‘does’ life, (and must be either protected or shared, like some sort of object)  to a self that is experienced ‘as’ life – dissolving into a dance of delight.

It comes and goes; ebbs and flows. 

Has it felt like a dance of delight this past week with Covid? With the felt sense of  the face and head exploding? With a total-body rash that screamed out heat and itchiness and burning fury, so extreme that there was a desire to split these knuckles open with a meat cleaver in one almighty blow? Well, no, it hasn’t. 

Eventually though, it was a softening, a metaphorical ‘dropping to the knees’ in helpless surrender, which brought the whole thing to an end. Thank God. 

Here are some words jotted on waking – heat and torment all gone. No trace. Silence:

This morning

This morning the words are unformed, amorphous. Like smoke, rising from some invisible, cool fire. I feel them winding  themselves around these legs, like affectionate cats’ tails, but  can’t see what they are, and so can’t write them down. Eventually it seems these words, right here, will have to do.

11.03.2022, jotted in Sheffield, home in bed, post Covid. 

And here are the jots showing a shifting sense of a self 2005-2016:

Not a Cheshire Cat.

The brace is dropped. 

The body softens. 

The mind follows. 

The particles that form this body dance into the beyond 

as the edges disappear into all there is.

And all that remains is a deep smile. And life lives itself.

It doesn’t ever last for long … Doubts. Questions. Some sort of agitation about what should be done next, what is life for, how best to live a life. 

How can something so simple be so damn difficult.

Another word for difficult is hard. 

There’s the answer right there…if it’s hard it’s difficult. 

Just soften. Soften and life lives itself.

01.12.2016, jotted at home in Stroud.

For Zohar. In your delight.

In your delight 

the shame dissolved 

and the fetid stink of wrongness was carried off on a wisp of air.

In your delight 

permission was given 

to be life and allow the doors that held it separate to swing wide open.

In your delight 

I heard god say I am always here, just listen.

In your delight 

We were all bluebells.

18.04.2016, jotted at the end of a Freely Given retreat in Dartmoor, Zohar LaVie was the teacher.

Punctured for a Purpose

 I believe that we have to allow ourselves to be hurt, punctured, so that we are permeable – can make exchanges with one another and with the world.  If we are not perforated then everything we have to share is kept inside. It is safe, but useless. And will atrophy.

When I am hurt, I want to run away and hide.  I want to withdraw into a safe place.  I don’t want to be punctured again. I don’t want to feel the hurt. l don’t want to examine what’s inside; to face it; to understand it. I want to close up that little tear as quickly as I can. I want to be impermeable. 

But sitting in a restaurant, looking at the fresh tea bag on the saucer, ready to be plunged into the cup of hot water in front of me, I understood. What use is a tea bag with no perforations.  What pleasure can it bring – what purpose can it serve. The hot water must soak the leaves and the leaves must give up their flavour – that is their purpose.

So do what you will.  Say what you will. And although I want to run away and hide, I will not. And although I want to close up the tear, quickly quickly, I will not. And although I do not want to examine  what’s inside, I will do so.

And I will learn from what is revealed to me through the myriad of tiny wounds.

And I will thank you.

And I will share my emerging Self with the world. 

19.08.05, jotted after spending time with a very uncompromising friend in a cafe in Brixton, London. 

And, finally, a recent jot of pure delight:

Grand Child 

As your fat little hand thrusts its dimpled self into mine,  this heart explodes – a galaxy of stars shooting through these veins – rose petals unfurling in their wake. 

Jotted 09.03.2022, from a memory of being in Chiang Mai and my 2 year old granddaughter taking me by the hand to look at something Very Important (a tiny snail) 

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