Sunday, October 26, 2014

BOOK REVIEW ~ David Sedaris ~ Me Talk Pretty One Day

Sometimes I get the feeling that I'm always coming late to a party everyone else has been at for 'absolutely ages darling, where have you been' and so it was with David Sedaris. Most days of the week at 6.30pm its time for dinner in our community, the six of us gathering around our grand sized dinning table for some vegetable based dish in a red sauce with chick peas thrown in for added flatulence. For some reason, past recollection, Hubby and I were in our room at 6.25. one evening, when the Radio 4 news slipped seamlessly into the 6.30 comedy half hour, and the deep voiced announcer said 'and next we have Meet David Sedaris.' At first Sedaris's high register voice was an alarming contrast to the bass resonances of the announcer, raised questions; who exactly were you hearing 'is this a woman? a man but transgender, halfway towards an op? no, I don't think so'  Once you've adjusted and tuned ino this, his witty gently self deprecating stories do, gradually cast a spell over you. By the end I turned to Hubby and said, 'I've not heard humorous writing of that quality in a long time, its rather rare and unique these days.' His stories, though they remain funny on the page, do become something even greater when you hear him speak them, full of telling inflections, sharp comic timing, and that subtlest of skills, the well judged pause.

And so began our hunt for anything Sedaris related. We scoured You Tube, and Hubby began pestering me for when I'd be finished with 'And when you are engulfed in Flames', so he could read and giggle to himself too. Both of us applied for BBC tickets for live recordings for his Radio 4 show, and both didn't getting any. For some reason I'd thought 'Me talk pretty one day' would be ideal reading matter to take on a largely silent Buddhist retreat. Maybe I just thought a little levity wouldn't hurt. Well, actually it does. Luckily I ended up in a dorm on my own, otherwise I'd have had to actively suppress my guffaws, giggles and hoots a bit more assiduously than I did. Well, I say that, but I still had to bite my knuckles and slap an open hand right over my mouth after 11 o'clock at night. So never ever ake this book on retreat with you, or read it late at night because I guarantee you'll not get to sleep afterwards.

Like the best humorists, Sedaris knows just how far to stretch the truth without breaking credulity. Well judged exaggeration for comic effect is a fine art. There are many excellent stories in this collection but Big Boy, though short, is a particular favourite. He's at dinner with friends and he goes to the loo, finding to his consternation there's a huge turd already floating in the toilet basin. It was a 'long and coiled specimen, as thick as a burrito'. The humour comes from his attempts to get rid of it, and his self consciousness about not leaving it there, in case the next person using the toilet thinks it came from him. It observes in fine detail the ridiculous lengths we go to sometimes, in trying to maintain our dignity in the eyes of others.

A subject matter Sedaris returns to quite frequently are language classes. For someone who doesn't appear to be naturally gifted at learning a language, he attends these a lot. Maybe he holds secret hopes of being a linguist, or simply sees it as a useful source for material, in other words its research. In this book the story Jesus Shaves documents a French class, and how he and his fellow learners struggle with sentence construction, grammar or simply finding the correct word to use, such as in this extract.

'Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food. 'Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb' the Italian nanny explained. "One too eat of the chocolate" " And who brings the chocolate?" the teacher asked. I knew the word, so I raised my hand saying. " The rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate." 

His attempts to be an artist, his first job as a teacher, the problems of moving and living in France with his partner Hugh and his teenage difficulties with a speech therapist who tried to cure him of his lisp. All become subject matter to be scrutinised with his wit and a keen observational eye for that telling detail or phrase. We can all recognise ourselves in the human frailties on show here, the ludicrous behaviour, irrational idiosyncrasies, evasions and foibles. Sedaris's relationship with his Mother, Father or siblings, and their evident mild eccentricities make them all the more loveably human, and hence you tend to hold them in affection rather than ridicule.  Rarely cruel just to get a laugh, his humour works on recognition rather than the use of gratuitous swearing, personal insults or cruel putdowns. Sedaris is more scathing and honest about himself, lampooning his own behaviour far more than anyone else's. This I think is why its so easy to fall in love with his writing, it has a genuine warmth that rarely panders to sentimentality or loses its frankness or cutting edge.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

DIARY 126 ~ Under The Breath

The purpose of most Buddhist retreats is to take you deeper in ones practice, in your understanding and appreciation of it, on technical, experiential and spiritual levels. I chose Receptivity, Death & Rebirth at Padmaloka Retreat Centre because, being a person who finds regular meditation a difficult ideal to consistently meet these days, its good for me to actively partake in a meditation retreat. They act as a reminder that its not impossible, given good circumstances, for me to still be an effective meditator.

There was a strong emphasis on the Just Sitting practice, of being openly receptive to the fruits of previous practice and encourage an open flexible experience of the present moment. 'Being in the present moment' is one of those terms tossed around quite loosely within populist psycho-spirituality, sounding so matter of fact and knowingly obvious, it appears as if this must be easy to do. It is far from being so. For what exactly is the present moment anyway? How could one become aware to it, when the practice as it presents itself is almost a methodless method.

Like in most meditation practices, a beginner's initial experience of Just Sitting will be of your attention being dragged left and right in a constant flux of distractedness. You just sit with this, with whatever presents itself to your experience within any moment. Any such perception is a subjective one, you cannot be truly objective about it. Objectivity would suggest that you and the present moment are something that could  be stood separate from and be impartial about. This is not really possible. The looker and what is looked at are locked in an intimate embrace.  Philosphically this can lead to more abstruse questions about whether ourselves or the world out there, actually have any verifiable concrete reality at all.  Whatever the theoretical view of what the present moment is. experientially it is mediated through the feeling responses, mental ideas and concepts we generate around and about it. The lover and what is loved cannot be divorced without there first being a falling out of love.

What I began exploring on the retreat was how, and to what extent, it was possible to drop the interpretive filter that experience gets passed through.  Could one just sit with experience as experience and not make it 'mine' by naming, defining and describing every single sensory sensation in a running commentary?  To change awareness you must take closer notice of the timbre of that awareness . The Mindfulness of Breathing practice gave the first clues on how I might adjust my approach.  I've heard it said numerous times that the key in the Mindfulness of Breathing is to take a real interest in the breath as a living changeable process, and how this affects and manifests itself in the body. For the first time I abandoned my previous view that the breath was inherently uninteresting, and allowed myself to become drawn into the gentler subtleties of the breath.  Concentration arrives in the Mindfulness of Breathing when the breath and the present moment become intimately aligned.

Subtle and light, like dust specks caught in strong sunlight, is suggestive of the sort of qualities required in Just Sitting. One morning halfway through the retreat we were all sat in silence in the breakfast lounge. A thought crossed my mind, 'why don't you just listen to sounds in the present moment? '  So I took in sounds, of doors opening, toast being buttered, knives cutting on plates, people eating, people sighing, tea urns steaming, wind buffering against glass, wood stoves humming etc. It turned into a beautifully wrought and intricate symphony. The present moment does have a musical quality to it; of soto voce, everything under the breath, of crescendo to pianissimo and all manner of combinations and counterpoints in between. Gradually, visual movements, my own presence at the feast, and my responses all began to weave themselves into the fabric of the present moment. It became utterly beguiling, quite delightful, if not a we bit thrilling. This experience became the guide for how in the future I might approach not only Just Sitting, but any practice, even extending it to practice in everyday life itself. Adopting an air of interest that isn't possessive of what it sees.

The content of the present moment varies, somethings are currently still, for them movement is in stasis, but the things which are in movement do so in complex, simple, gross and subtle ways.. I sat at times in the shrine room, where everywhere appeared motionless in the meditative atmosphere, yet within this were tiny gentle sounds blending into the background, or the visually insignificant passing of a shadow across a vase of flowers. Our experience of the present moment can be over focused on the central dramatic event unfolding before us. Our senses becoming closed down, numbed or indifferent to the full spectrum of what is there within one moment. When you start to open up to just sitting with the present moment, it has a quality of wonder and childlike fascination to it, as it inhabits your awareness. One is no longer just the interpreter that collects and names experiences like ticking off a list - toast check, cough check, rain check, door closing check, feeling bored check etc.

At your best one sits in the present moment taking it all in, and being aware that you are taking it all in, with little or no subsequent analysis. The long term consequnces of regularly brushing against this state, learning how it might be sustained, cannot be underestimated. Just Sittng  shows great potential for insight should one wish to go there.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

DREAM ~ Needing To Bury Ones Dead

I've been experiencing a sequence of dreams, in a three part serialisation, stretching over a few weeks. I'm in my parents old house in Crowle, and I'm in the bedroom I had as a teenager. In the first dream I'm playing music in that bedroom, but I am me now as agrown up, not me as a teenager. Into the room arrives a young boy around 12 years old I guess. I want him to leave my room, but he wont go, so I push him, he hits his head on the corner of a walland falls slumped on the floor. I go over to check he's OK, but he is dead.

The second installment, quite a few days later, felt like it picked up from the end of the last dream. I'm less clear what it was about but it had a lot of hightened anxiety and horror at what had happened. The third and,hopefully, final part happened whilst I was on retreat. This is quite a while after the death, I'm still in the bedroom with the dead body, but the dead body is rotting and there are maggots wriggling all over it. I know I have to dispose of it before the stench aroses attention. The dream centres on anxieties about how to move the body. This imperative dominates the emotional tone of the dream, but the body never gets moved in the dream,because I prevaricate about what's best to do.

These dreams seem like companion pieces to a previous dream sequence I'd had five or six years ago. Those all revolved about someone I'd killed and buried under a hearth. I have to move it before its discovered, and this took place in three different places over three different dreams. In the first, it was under a hearth in an old house that was being modernised to blend in with a new estate. In the second, it was under a hearth in a fireplace showroom on the top floor of a department store, In the third dream, I'm walking along a street near where I know the body is buried under a street grate, one of the person's walking with me knew this, and is trying to expose my crime for all to see.

These dreams do mean something to me on a feeling tone level, something was put to an end in my youth, youthful dreams were perhaps dashed. The evidence of this is somehow lingering with me now .Its rotting psychological corpse is metaphorically perfuming my senses still. I need to leave this to further percolate to feel exactly what needs giving a decent burial. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

POEMS ~ Its Amazing What Happens When You Just Sit With Yourself

Here are a few poems, a bit unpolished, that I wrote whilst on a retreat Receptivity, Death & Rebirth at Padmaloka, which has stimulated quite a lot of reflections, of which I may write more later.


Not less than one
is the beat of my thought pulse
with little to gild it with
but a nano second of a passing muse
with no time to wave
before it too has gone
no crowning moment
devastating finale
or clasped hurrah!
just the muffled crunch
of slippered steps on gravel
moving into the distance
and fading within my mind
into mist.


This appears to be no more than an attitude
a point of perspective
placed at an irregular angle
best not make it a defined intent
it gets complicated
its a sliver of something
pasted into the background
like a convex mirror
in a Dutch masterpiece
reflecting on everything that moves
from a clear, yet distorted viewpoint
as if seen from the back
in reverse
in a fishes eye
a fraction of a second
after the moment has passed


Not in my guts, in my sex,
in my little toe, am I
today I am
an excess of acidity
searing my stomach lining
medium rare
grumbles and moans surface
tuning in to my inner teenager
'who are you to tell me what to do
what I am or am not
whether I is an am at all
serving up your existential quandaries
before I've even had my porridge,
its cruel, Christ! its breakfast time!!
surely if hunger exists
it can be satisfied?'


It sounds similar to....

the soft bass and thrumming drum roll
of wood burning in a stove.

a car's low intoned throaty hum
far off on a motorway

a plane's high trailed crackle and thrust
long passed beyond sight, and out of time,
leaving condensed air waves, and a resonant hum
as an after thought.

or a fart, from an unknown fartee, recently blown off
but lingering regretfully in the air

Note what, who or which of these it was
and let them go, let them pass through
don't hold them here, damn it.
bloody let go of them!
let them all die away


There is always
a something
a person
an ideal
we are stepping away from;
phenomena ~ natural or supernatural
feelings ~ base or refined
pursuits ~ trivial or profound
relationships ~ interpersonal or trans personal
in all cases
we're backing off
we're scared
we know and don't want to know
as the strings are drawn
ineluctably moving us towards
an ever closer bond
with whatever intimacy it is.


For some
whenever it rains
it falls both inside and out
whenever its sunny
it shines both inside and out
whenever its cloudy
it overshadows both inside and out

Whenever rain falls upon a sunny nature
it blesses everything it touches
by cooling, bathing and glistening them

Whenever sun shines upon a rainy nature
it warms everything it touches
mopping up the moisture
from pools, gutters and tears.

whenever clouds blanket the sky
cunningly withholding their beauty,
both from inside and out
no glimmer of light escapes
unsuffused or obscured by doubts
or fear of the unhealed dream
leaving us at the mercy and merits
of our own devices
and whether
in the state we are in
we swim or drown.


Wildness, is a dance, often
done blindfolded
by those who desire
to be free of form
arching, crashing and bending everywhere
like branches being whipped by a storm
flailing after expressing something
that in their flailing
they can never catch
yet in this ungraspable state
lies the appeal of being wild
of being in touch with
a facsimile, a trial performance
fully dressed up and everything
but dreadfully under rehearsed
for the true liberation.


Winding round
as though turning a windlass
navigating ritual space
with only a stupa to guide us
everything and nothing is present in each step
no praying, no chanting, no pressure
but the catching of a thought
in respect of each moment
and through such momentum
of concentrated circularity
we walk with our time, clockwise
feigning indifference to the fizz of mosquito's
squiggling the air around us
but nonetheless are distracted by them
whilst above, in the dimness
of a late afternoon autumnal sky
a posse of black winged birds,
sweep counter clockwise
as if mimicking or mocking us
instinctively forming an orderly circle
and collectively feeding
off flies.

DIARY 125 ~ Holiday In Old Amsterdam

In September Jnanasalin and I had a six day holiday in Amsterdam. For us holidays are rarely about where we go for a break, but just giving ourselves one. Amsterdam was one of many places in Europe we'd like to visit; Centre of the Dutch Golden Age; the Van Gogh Museum; Dutch Apple Pie etc. What draws us anywhere is usually a mix of History, Art and Cakes, with a fluctuating sense of priority.

Our first day was quite exhausting. take my advice don't set off on a walk into the city centre from your hotel thinking it would only be a forty minute amble. An hour and a half later we arrived in the frantic commercial throng of the Leidsplein and Dam area, an area which I have to say has little left to make it appealing. Amsterdam looks deceptively small on maps, distances appearing to be a shortish walk turn into a huge hike through the marijuna haze of other tourists. As a city, Amsterdam does have a warm, welcoming and friendly demeanour. You have to remind yourself, you're not a resident, you're a tourist too, as a phalanx of tourists on cycles wobble / hurtle dangerously past you.

Having learnt from our first days herculean effort, our second was executed with slightly more knowing and relaxed sophistication. We followed a circular tour around parts of the Jordaan, which was a lot more like what we were hoping for from our holiday. Nice cafes and restaurants, historical houses and churches, an idiosyncratic and interesting  range of shops. Here we could take our time more. We'd plannned after our second day we'd buy a three day 'I Amsterdam Card' for 67 euros, and from then on hit the museums and tourist spots with a vengance. We bought a similar thing when we were in Bruges, which saved us quite a bit of money. In order to make the most of it, it did mean we were averaging around five places visited a day, sometimes more. We got our money's worth, our 67 euros buying us about 200 euros of entrance fees and travel.

From the Hermitage exhibtion

So, we saw a lot, and consequently the trip became a quite busy and full on one, but satisfying none the less. Some personal highlights were an exhibition at the Amsterdam Hermitage of Romanov tableware, which doesn't sound remotely exciting, but its amazing what presentation that is inventive and superlative can do. The Winkel Cafe, in the Norde Kerk area, where we had an excellent coffe and the best Dutch Apple Tart of our visit.

Winkel's Cofee & Apple Tart

Then there was the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, which, not surpriingly given the central role played by Dutch artists,had a very good collection of 20th Century, plus an engaging range of contemporary art. I loved the multi screen video work of Sarah Carlier, eight screens each with an apparently motionless, slowly changing image, at some point there was or will be an event or action, but when? There was a wonderful sense of expectation, of waiting, a quiet patient space, similar to Just Sitting. You just sat observing small comings or goings. there and not there, the things that were quietly changing.

Of the Amsterdam Zoo we both had mixed feelings, some of the animals just appeared sad, or depressed to us. Apart from the seals which were a simple delight, just watching their playfulness and joi de vivre.

The Museum that looks like its under a sink

My first De Witt wall drawing in the flesh, Hurrah!

 Comparisons between countries are often odious, but there are things which are glaringly different. Amsterdam has a reliable, frequent and truly integrated transport system. The UK appears not to know the real meaning of those words. There are hardly any large scale national or international retail chains, consequently there are a thousand varieties of independent shops. In the UK we support enterprise and innovation by encouraging bigger companies to move here, their greater market clout squeezing out those smaller entrepeneurs trying to nuture something interesting to grow.  In Amsterdam good pleasent customer service seemed natural, and always present, people appeared to enjoy it, whereas in the UK its seen as more like a contractual obligation or optional extra.  On our return from the continent the UK always feels small and pinched, in scale, in ambition and mindset, not to mention grubby and mean spirited.