Friday, November 05, 2021

You have everything you need within you

You have the blueprint within you. Everything you need is inside you, just as the acorn contains a mighty oak.

Pre-dawn walk this morning. The light was just coming in and we walked past the pond where the duck were beginning their morning ritual of circling and chatting to each other. You have to walk quietly (no bark-y dogs) or they will scare and move back into the reeds. It was dark and blue and only the ducks and the crows who live in the big sequoia by the pond. There is a dark, rhododendron-lined path that links the pond to the field, and you have to walk carefully here too if you don't want to fall into a badger whole. The field was crispy white with rime, every blade and leaf outlined in frosting. And here I find my favorite avenue of oak trees, perhaps from when that was the original entrance to the big house next to us. The sky is splintered with pink, awaiting the sunrise, but moving quickly-quickly, greys and melons, shell pink and orange. I put my arms around the largest oak and pressed the side of my face against its trunk and listened. My whole body shimmered with the energy. (Try it, it's true!) And it said, God is in everything. God is in everything. You've known this for your whole life, this old knowledge, and it's unfurling for you now, again. Recognize the divine in every thing you touch. But particularly on this freezing morning in this ancient oak tree with the black cattle against the skyline, the sun barely rising, my arms hugged tight around it. You can relax, it said. God is in everything.

Monday, November 01, 2021

The Charm Offensive: a dozen ways to ingratiate yourself

I've been pondering what I can do to be useful in the world -- other than telling people about tree-hugging, baking carrot cakes, spiritual expansion and Italian independent movies --and I've come to the conclusion that what the world needs now is a Charm Offensive. So many young people born after 1980 really haven't been schooled in the importance of manners,  and I feel that they are truly missing out on life and the marvelous things that could come their way as a result of good old-fashioned charm. As I was completely obsessed with and flayed myself at the cathedral of Nancy Mitford, I believe really do have an enormous amount to offer. Most of this, of course, I blame on my mother's best friend, Sheila, who was always the life of every party and although jolly naughty in some of her suggestions for us children, managed to bring the most wonderful happy energy into any room she entered. Another huge part I owe to my friend D's ma, who spoke with the mo---st mah---velous drawl, smelled divine, and never failed to make us giggle or engage us in a subject we hadn't known anything about before. You know, like the sex life of the pygmy goat.

Here, then is the basic premise: If you want to get anywhere in the world, you need to learn to be charming. Charm, one would think, something one is born with, but alas no, because some of the most charming people I know have deeply un-charming, and actually downright surly children. If it doesn't come naturally to you; if you weren't gifted with a family friend with a twinkle in her eye, or haven't had a copy of Emily Post delivered to your office door (I did this, I admit, to a particularly rude agent at William Morris; he thought it frightfully amusing and I never looked back) I've written you a little primer. And just a note on this, charm isn't fake. It's a method one employs to make those around you feel safe and happy and taken care of. It doesn't have to feel false or forced. It's actually a rather sweet form of kindness. So here goes:

1.Sing for your supper. This is a rather simple notion that states if you have been invited to a dinner party, a lunch or a country weekend, your payment for this gracious invitation is to be witty and amusing, particularly around your host and any elderly family members. Take some time to learn a few anecdotes or funny stories, some jolly facts about lesser-known subjects, and be ready to share them with. Or, make sure you read up on the latest novels or new films in theatres. It's your gift. It's what you're there to do.

2. The Hostess Gift. Never show up empty-handed. Even if you steal a rose from a hedgerow on your way, don't show up without something for your hostess. Some chocolate, a bottle of wine, a few flowers, a special loaf of bread, a book, whatever you can. Recently, I had lunch with an old friend, and instead of flowers, a vase of beech leaves sat on his dining room table, rather charmingly. Americans are particularly good at hostess gifts, and arrive with embarrassingly large gifts, boxed and wrapped and tied with a pink velvet ribbon. 

3. Manners means making others comfortable. Once, when I was about fifteen, overweight, with Janis Ian skin, and quite awkward, a friend took me to the Fourth of June. Her older brother who was ridiculously handsome, down to his chiselled Elvis lips and tight trousers, offered me a drink first, before anyone else. I had no idea what to say or what the right answer was, and desperately looked around me to see what other people had done. But I was first. I felt paralyzed. He beamed at me, the most charming of smiles, and said nodding at the bottle of champagne in his hand "this looks rather good, don't you think?" Saved. In a moment. The relief.

4. Speak to the people on each side of you. This means, turn to the left and make conversation with the elderly aunt sitting next to you. Ask her what it was like to grow up in Africa, or whether she grows dahlias, or if she has a particularly good Christmas cake recipe. Look her in the eyes. Engage her. Make sure she has everything she needs, so she doesn't have to ask for salt and pepper. And then turn to the person on the other side of you and do the same. Pay attention to make sure that no-one is being left out or feeling shy and awkward. Another personal anecdote. I think I was about thirteen and it was my first dinner party, and I thought boys were from another planet. I was frozen to the spot, dry mouthed and terrified, drowing in my own un-interestingness when the boy next to me, a not particularly handsome redhead called Simon turned to me and said, "Do you know that the Polar explorers discovered that penguin tastes rather like chicken." And then we laughed and laughed, me from relief.

5. If you think you have nothing to offer, trying smiling. Nothing can disarm like a smile. Some of the loveliest house guests I've had to stay when I lived in LA - mostly the children of friends - would saunter into the kitchen in with a bright smile and say "Good morning" with such joy that it was hard to focus on the fact that they hadn't come home till 3am the night before. "I'm making some eggs, would you like some" is always a good follow up.

6. Pass the salt. My father's trick was to say, "would you like some salt" when he wanted it passed to him, because he believed it rude to ask directly. (He also kept a large red Thesaurus next to his plate, just in case.) Or pouring the wine, or water, for the person next to you. And not taking the last potato.

7. Pick up the plates and offer to do the washing up. You probably won't do the washing up, but it's so incredibly lovely, as the hostess, to hear a guest ask at least. And even if you don't wash up, see if you can stack the plates into the dishwasher, or bring in the pudding plates.

8. Stand up when someone older than you comes into the room. Oh I know I'm going to be well and truly bashed for being a dinosaur for this one, but it's just so lovely to be in the presence of someone who is paying attention. Once, when I was about eighteen, my mother walked into the room where a few friends and I were sitting, and all but one of the young men got up to say hello. The one dimwit who was still in his chair was approached by my mother who stretched out her hand to shake his, and pulled him fully out of the chair as she said, "I'm Bente, how are you?" I hated her for that then as much as I love her for it now.

9. Don't drone on. I'm afraid I do this sometimes. I think I'm being witty and charming, but I nervously chatter. I did it yesterday at lunch at a friend's house. I whispered to C across the table "Am I talking too much." "No, of course not" he said kindly. "Actually you're being quite funny." I gulped my water and shut up, remembering a French anglophile who lived near us a few years ago and asked us out to lunch at the local pub. Two and a half hours of non-stop droning on and on and on about the most incredibly dull things. Bored rigid. Eyes propped open with matchsticks.

10. Remember Thelwell: "Treat your pony as you would like to be treated yourself." This is accompanied by a picture of a pony having a lick of a little girl's ice cream. This is essentially "be kind; everyone is fighting a hard battle." It's not always easy to remember that even the most loutish of people are struggling with something inside, and it's always better to be kind and forgiving. I find it hard. Sometimes I want to punch people on the nose, but I managed to wrestle my fist down with my other hand.

11. Phones should be turned off at supper time. I mean, is there anything more un-charming than a phone being tapped upon?

12. Forgive. This should probably be on another list, but it's a lesson I need to learn myself today. It also reminds me of a story about the Queen and the fingerbowl. Apparently at a state dinner, the Queen had an ambassador from a far-off land sitting next to her and there were fingerbowls at each place setting, after a fish course, perhaps. The visitor believe that the little china bowl filled with warm water and a slice of lemon was a tasty English, and heartily tipped the whole thing into his mouth. Without a word, the Queen looked at him, picked up her finger bowl and did the exact same thing, smiling at the gentleman. The whole long table followed suit.





Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Park Trees

This post is from late August, 2006. I'm rather amused at myself because feelings about summer never change:


Park trees
I can't bear the fact that September is almost upon us and summer is giving way to seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness, or in LA's case, seasons of fruit and mellow smogliness.  Childishly, one prepares for and looks forward to summer, imagining great adventures and divine inspirations will be found there.  And yet, summer is just a drag in LA when it's too hot almost to live without air conditioning and the flowers wilt in protest and the dogs scratch themselves because of the preponderance of fleas.  My fig tree, which I gaze at all year long, hardly able to wait for the sweet fruits to ripen, is looking distinctly sickly and I know I should stick a hose in its direction.  We missed the plums and apricots completely because of the feast the squirrels and birds decided to have without us.  The familiar rhythm of autumn is returning, with the children going back to school, and stocks of things we like to call "snacks" filling the cupboards and that desperate notion that summer slacking is done with and suddenly a new serious spirit needs to develop.

I'm praying for that to happen.


Shift

The mourning for the end of summer seems misplaced on the autumn equinox. Along with the sun there is a chill in the air. The window in my office is opened a few inches and I can feel the breeze on my ankles, my face, that coldness that catches in your throat, but I can also see the sun behind the magnolia tree. My lone American flag is moving gently, sprinkled with shadows and last rays, underneath the tree. Summer wasn't really summer, or perhaps I missed it. Who knows? I know that every year summer is what I look forward to because I associate it with happiness and abundance and the smell of cut grass, of sweet peas and snappy pea pods and runner beans that you break off in your hands, of bushels of small, red strawberries, and those walks you can do after supper when it's still light. This year hasn't felt like that, and I may have worried about it too much, may have spent too much time focusing on where summer had gone instead of just living in the moment. In fact, I have done exactly that. 

And so here we are on the autumn equinox and I've got a little bit of perspective after having a couple of months which were not good mental health wise. First off, I stopped writing this blog, which made me unhappy. Secondly, I was struggling with the time differential for my work (which is based in LA). And third, and most importantly, I was out of sync with myself and the world, out of alignment, swimming upstream. It didn't feel good at all. I am a generally positive person and suddenly I'm fucking miserable, for no obvious reason. Miserable in the sense that it was an effort to talk to another human being, to get up in the morning, to read, to write, to find joy in the world, and it started to mess with my relationship. I don't know how I got there, how I got so disconnected, so out of my happy place, but I never want to go there again. Honestly, it was a bit of shit show. I was worried. But now I realize it may have been the beginning of a shift. One day I just woke up and felt something had changed and then things were flying out at me from the Universe. Books from friends. Suggestions of things to pay attention too. Vibrating like a top inside a church at a wedding. Tearing up at hymns. Brimming with emotion. Warm and fuzziness.

Here are some things I have learned, and I'll continue to share them as I am on this journey. I know many of you respond to this place of vulnerability in me, and I am so very grateful for that. The realization that one is not alone is one of the greatest things.

  • We are spiritual beings having a human experience.
  • We are exactly where we are meant to be.
  • The Universe has your back.
  • You are never alone.
  • We choose the way we see the world through what we think,  ie the mental creates the physical and not vice versa.
  • We can look at the world from a place of love or a place of fear. Choose love.
  • Practise mindfulness daily.
  • Ultimately, love is everything.
This path is self-fulfilling. The further you walk along it the more you desire to go further,  absorbing new information along the way, but everything seemingly taking you towards the same place. I believe that all spiritual beliefs and religions lead to the same place. You can call it God or Source or Universe or Higher Self or Buddha or Jesus or whatever you like, but each path may have different scenery but it leads ultimately to the same place. It's all about the name. It's what I've struggled with my whole life and suddenly now it's become clear. A shining white light of clarity. And weirdly (and I know, oh my goodness I know that this will seem soooooo weird to some people reading this, but I really don't feel like a nutcase, just a girl who spent a good part of her life in Laurel Canyon). I know this is the truth. I know intrinsically, intuitively, clearly and without doubt or question that this is the truth.

So, now, how to keep oneself on the path. This is a very good question and it's something I struggle with. I'm a complete work in progress but here's what I know thus far:

1. The time between sleeping and waking is sacred. Do not infect it with your phone, with emails, with social media, with the news. This is the most creative and beautiful time. A good time to write or walk or meditate. A good time for quiet.
2. Spend ten minutes (or as long as you'd like) in the morning meditating. Its benefits will become apparent after the first time you do it. I've already found that it makes me less reactive, more mindful. It's the first thing I've discovered that works almost immediately for anxiety. (*Also see box breath*.)
3. Get out into nature at the earliest opportunity. Just walking amongst trees will change your energy.
4. Find what you love and do it often. (I love to ride. This is where I experience my true flow state. This is a whole other blog post, of course...there is so much to say about the connection between women and horses. I do not know of another activity where one's whole mind, body and soul is connected and fully focused in this way with another living creature.)
5. Drink water. As much of it as you can.
6. If you experience a thought that is negative or taking you down a path that may become out of control try to focus on stopping it, pivoting, breathing, or moving in a different direction before it becomes a runaway train. I am a mercurial and volatile person and I want to change this.
7. Surround yourself with beautiful things - flowers, animals, art, books, candles - that make you feel peaceful. For me, it's Kuan Yin. She is in the center of my house, surrounded by candles and flowers and some prayer flags. She makes me feel safe. 
8. Listen and watch for synchronicity, for words that resonate to you, for things that seem significant, or repeated. I've heard about St Francis almost daily, since I unpacked him from my LA boxes. I've placed him in the garden among the roses and just knowing that he is there is calming and happy making.
9. Remember the gratitude. Actually it was Mary Karr who said that praying helps. Just try it, she said, and you'll see what happens.

I'm loathe to tell you how down this rabbit hole I am. I'm finding Robert Monroe, Brian L Weiss, Barbara Marciniak, rediscovering Castaneda and Blake and Huxley, embracing Ram Dass. The world is expanding and I'm trying to keep up. No, I'm keeping up! I hope.

The strangest part is that I remember this stuff from when I was eighteen or nineteen. I remember being on this journey, knowing these things, because it's all familiar, not strange, and then, somewhere along the way, it all disappeared. Jobs and marriage and babies and making a living all took over, and probably rightly so. But now here we are, and it's all unfolding, and it's the autumn equinox, and I'm excited about the journey. 

I'm saying right here, right now to the universe that my intention is to discover what is my purpose, and I'm prepared to do the work I need to do to make it happen.

I hope that this if of some help to you too. My mind is bursting with information, so much that I'm finding it hard to get it down coherently. Every time I write a sentence another appears in my head, and another idea pops. But who ever said that mind blowing couldn't be fun?

This poem is lovely, too. I hope you enjoy it.

Wherever you are in the world, I am grateful to you for showing up here after all these years and telling me I have something to say. I don't know anything but I can promise I will be a good student. You are very much appreciated.

And you are never, ever alone.

What It Looks Like To Us and the Words We Use

All these great barns out here in the outskirts,
black creosote boards knee-deep in the bluegrass.
They look so beautifully abandoned, even in use.
You say they look like arks after the sea’s
dried up, I say they look like pirate ships,
and I think of that walk in the valley where
J said, You don’t believe in God? And I said,
No. I believe in this connection we all have
to nature, to each other, to the universe.
And she said, Yeah, God. And how we stood there,
low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss,
and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets,
woodpecker flurry, and I refused to call it so.
So instead, we looked up at the unruly sky,
its clouds in simple animal shapes we could name
though we knew they were really just clouds—
disorderly, and marvelous, and ours.


 

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The filmiest of screens

"Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question — for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality."

- William James











 

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Let everything happen to you

After noon, the sun went away. It was here just long enough to tease the blowzy thistle flowers into the breeze, floating like dust motes in a Fellini movie, and to cajole me into thinking that perhaps summer might not be just an idea remembered by children. I found five fat purple figs on the tree this morning and they were a surprise; I'd begun to believe it was November. And a dahlia the size of my small dog, colored like a Trebor Fruit Salad chew, impossibly beautiful. I had a notion that everything flows through me when I walked through the avenue of oaks back to the house. I know how that sounds, but it was an honest feeling. And then I thought of Rilke.


Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final. - Rilke


Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Picniclust


It wasn't long ago that I could cartwheel across a lawn and did at every opportunity. I haven't tried lately. This was at Kew a few years ago, with my best friend, and the weather was meh. Shouldn't there be time for cartwheels?

I was reminded of the time I thought I'd write a picnic book. It was in the perma-summer of Los Angeles, when you wake up to sun streaming into the bedroom, and you remind yourself to get up and out quickly before it gets too hot to do so. The girls and I would walk up Laurel Pass before the runners and the actors were awake, before the pavement started to bake, when there was still cold in the shadows. The paths at the top of Mulholland were like the sea, dappled pools of warm and cold. And there, among the dark, cold ancient oaks one would think about English picnics with wicker baskets and silver boxes stuffed with ham sandwiches and green apples and flapjacks. That image must have come from a book because our picnics weren't like that. My mother would bring mountains of Coronation Chicken, created in the Norwegian manner, with great palm-sized mounds of chicken breast bathed in an unctious, silky mayonnaise, served with cold curried rice studded with crunchy bits of cauliflower and red pepper and yolk-yellow corn. She'd wheel it out at school speech days and Royal Ascot. Who doesn't love a picnic, I would ask myself. I even reserved the url...lashingsofgingerbeer.

Stuck in the cold, November-like August of West Berkshire, with ominous grey-mauve clouds and the need of a fleece or equivalent, I'm re-thinking my picniclust. I only want to wear short-sleeved cotton dresses and do cartwheels across the lawn, when in reality, I'm in thick socks and gumboots and scarves, and I've just taken stock of a couple of new duvets with a higher TOG count (who knew?).

MissWhistle in Fall2021

"Let's go to the beach" I say to McD. "Let's take the dogs and go early to the coast and walk and paddle and eat a huge breakfast!" I sound suitably Blyton. "But the weather is grim..." he says, always pragmatic, his brow pushing down further towards his eyes.

I'm dreaming of picnics and cotton dresses and bare, brown legs and cartwheels. Summer hasn't been long enough, or summery enough, or childlike enough.  It hasn't been sunny enough or blue enough or carefree enough. It's been filled with bad news, sad things, the collapse of nations, Covid rules, anxiety.  Interspersed with small pinpricks of happiness.  And I'm one of the lucky ones.

But here's a radical concept: Perhaps we should behave as if the sun is shining. Fuckin' fake it till you make it, man.

There are dahlias in the garden now, fistfuls of them, and we have six hens and bushels of raspberries. There is too much garden and we can't keep on top of it. There are tumbling hollyhocks and great walls of roses, cascading tomatoes and wild morning glory and cucumber vine which I rip off bushes as I pass. There is ivy growing on the wall and we snip wildly at the bottoms of it in an attempt to kill it before it affects the integrity of the bricks. Everything is green because of the amount of rain. Radishes are seeding and squirrels and field mice are nibbling on the root bulbs as they crown through the earth. The strawberries and gooseberries have resident rodents, who've become somewhat blasé. To Thistle, the Frenchie, every small furry creature is a squirrel, and despite her intent desire and laser focus, she has never caught one. Useful.  I'm thinking of creative ways to manage the garden. Aren't there landscaping students who would love to work in a walled garden? With free cups of tea? And ad hoc picnics sur l'herbe?

Monday, February 22, 2021

Nunc Dimmitis

 Three  Four things:

1) Listen to this Nunc Dimittis by Arvo Pärt. Sacred music at its very best.

2) I've plugged in a calming aromatherapy diffuser for my dog, full of "comforting pheromones for stressful situations." Somehow, they must create one for humans. It feels like what we need now (of course, paired with the Arvo Pärt).

3) On my walk this morning I was thinking about how boarding school drained all the joy and self esteem from me like a big fat happy balloon that has been pricked in many places with microscopic holes, that let the air out very, very slowly, so that your shoulders begin to round, your mouth starts to turn down, and you fold in on yourself in an attempt at self-protection.

4) Everyone needs a cheerleader; someone who tells you that you're clever, and smart and beautiful. Many, many years ago, my ex-husband was the one who started to patch over all those tiny holes in my balloon and blew me up again, so I could float smilingly above the world, with the birds, part of the whole, wondrous murmuration.

Meanwhile, there is a carpet of pale lilac crocii underneath the trees. When the sun comes out, they open their arms and reach out toward it, a million little warmth and light devotees. Daffodils have begun to open, vivid, brilliant golden yellow, the color of Cinderella's dress in my childhood book of fairy tales. There is hope again. We've made it through December and January.

I hope you are all staying well and that you and your families and loved ones are safe. Sending you all love.