Thursday 31 May 2012

What Katie said...

So I was sitting on the couch in the Green Room at Serenity Retreat (bear with me, I will shut up about it soon, I promise).  It’s a little room Kim uses for sessions, meditation, courses, stretching and so on – on the odd occasions when the weather doesn’t play ball.  I’d thumbed through the bookcases but nothing had really caught my eye.  But then, when I got up to go, I noticed a paperback sitting next to me on the couch.  I assumed it belonged to someone but, as everyone started leaving, it still sat unclaimed.  So I went to put it back on a shelf but paused. 
‘It’s probably meant for you,’ said Hilary with a smile.
‘Maybe it is,’ I laughed and popped it in my bag.  But I didn’t really believe it – just went along with it for the smile.  I was feeling a bit cynical back then…had lost my faith a little in life bringing me exactly what I need; had abandoned the trust. 

And when I got back to my patch of beach, I pulled it out my bag and took a look.  Loving What Is by Byron Katie.  Hmm. 
And the blurb reads:  

Who would you be without your story?

"The Work of Byron Katie is a way of identifying and questioning the thoughts that cause all the anger, fear, depression, addiction and violence in the world." 

Hmm again.

Another self-help book with all the answers?  But then I checked it out and, well, she wasn’t charging megabucks for workshops or whatevers…in fact, you can do ‘the work’ for free on the website. 
And I started reading.  And she was talking about business. 
'I can find only three types of business in the universe,’ she said. ‘Mine, yours, and God’s.’
God’s?  ‘For me, the word God means ‘reality’,’ she explained. ‘Reality is God, because it rules. Anything that’s out of my control, your control, and everyone else’s control – I call that God’s business.’
Ah, okay. So that’s like me trying to keep the airplane up in the air by force of pure willpower, when really I should leave it in the hands of the pilot and God?  Makes sense.
She nodded.  ‘Much of our stress comes from mentally living out of our own business.  When I think, ‘You need to get a job; I want you to be happy; You should be on time; You need to take better control of yourself, I am in your business.  When I’m worried about earthquakes, floods, war or when I will die, I am in God’s business.’
Fair enough. 

‘Do I know what’s right for my self?' she went on. 'That is my only business.  Let me work on that before I try to solve your problems for you.  Just to notice that you’re in someone else’s business can bring you back to your own wonderful self.  And, if you practice for a while, you may come to see that you don’t have any business either and that your life runs perfectly well on its own.’

Yup. I’m with you, Katie.  I am.  I think.  And then she said…’You see who you are by seeing who you think other people are. Everyone outside you is a reflection of your own thinking. Everyone is a mirror image of yourself – your own thinking coming back at you.’
And yes, I do believe that too. 

And then she lost me with her four questions malarkey.  You’re supposed to take a thought  about someone or somethingy and ask:
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
3. How do you react when you think that thought?
4. Who would you be without the thought? 


‘Try it,’ said Katie. ‘Don’t just think about it, write it down.’ 
Pfff!  I’m too impatient for that… 
‘It won’t work unless you do, sweetheart,’ she said with a smile.  
‘Oh FFS, Katie.’
But because I was on a beach and the waves were soothing me, I wrote.  She gives prompt questions:

1. Who angers or saddens or disappoints you?  What is it about them you didn’t or still don’t like?
2. How do you want them to change? What do you want them to do?
3. What is it that they shouldn’t or should do?  Be? Think? Feel?
4. Do you need anything from them?  What do they need to give you or do in order for you to be happy?
5.What do you think of them?  Make a list.  I.e. Bob is greedy. Bob is selfish. Bob drives me crazy.
6. What is it that you don’t ever want to experience with that person, thing or situation again?  

And then you turn it around, finding how all those traits you find so revolting in the other person are all there, mirrored in your own experience. Oh so clearly.  It’s kinda hard to explain in a blog post without boring you beyond belief so, if it sounds like something of interest, check out the book or the website…you can try out the process – what Katie calls ‘the work’ - there. 

I came to love it.  Try it on anyone – your nearest and dearest (she says our families are our greatest teachers); the random person who pisses you off at work; on the bus; at the school gate.  Try it, above all, on your worst enemies, the people who really REALLY piss you off.  
‘There’s no such thing as verbal abuse,’ said Katie firmly. ‘There’s only someone telling me a truth I don’t want to hear.’ Oh yes!  I'm with ya, sister.
‘Find an enemy!’ she said joyously, warming to her theme. ‘They won’t give you sympathy. You go to your friends for refuge, because you can count on them to agree with your stories.  But when you go to your enemies, they’ll tell you, straight up, anything you want to know, even though you may think you don’t want to know it.’

It’s tough love, for sure.  ‘If I think someone else is causing my problems, I’m insane,’ said Katie with a shake of her head.  ‘Pain is the signal that you’re confused, that you’re in a lie. I am everything they say I am. And anything I feel I need to defend keeps me from full realization.’

And finally, she said, when you drop all the lies, all the bullshit, all the avoidance and the hiding, you become alive and you become free.  ‘We are really alive when we live – open, waiting, trusting, and loving to do what appears in front of us now.’
Really?  ‘What we need to do unfolds before us, always…’  She promised.
Always?  ‘We never receive more than we can handle, and there is always just one thing to do.  Life never gets any more difficult than that.’
Okay, Katie.  :-)

PS – if, like me, you’re going, ‘Oh, but what about serious stuff  - like serious illness, and debt and war and rape and so on’, she has answers for that too.

Tuesday 29 May 2012

The Stone and the Sea...

Whom did I meet in Greece?  Well, Jane Matthews for one.  I’ve been tweeting with Jane for several years and loved her book Have the Best Year of your Life (O Books). So the opportunity of doing one of her courses was too tempting to pass by. 

Jane’s book is all about encouraging you to try different things, every day of the year. Some are fun, some are comforting, some are nourishing and nurturing and some aim to push you outside your comfort zone. I like that she’s not prescriptive – it’s very much do what you can, do what you fancy, try things out. Then again, she warns that, if something really pushes your buttons, if there’s something you really really don’t want to do – well, hey, that’s probably exactly the thing you need to do the most.

So, in lovely Nikiana, just three of us met, very informally, and talked and meditated together.  Jane was as delightful as I'd imagined - warm, kind, supportive, generous in mind, heart and spirit.  

She suggested some simple exercises – often just asking a few questions that, yes, pushed the buttons.  She asked us what we felt deprived of, what we yearned for. ‘If you suddenly had a free day and no limits of any kind what would you do with it?’  Oh.

One day Jane showed us a little canvas she’d painted – all bright and positive and sparkly.  I suddenly thought how nice it would be to do something similar for James.  He had asked for a Greek god but they were thin on the ground (seriously guys, you’re missing a marketing opportunity here) so I thought I’d paint him a picture instead.  To show my love for him.  Something pure and joyful.

It all started off so well…I sat on my terrace and painted the canvas a cheery clear yellow. Then added a bright orange and red heart.  I figured I’d simply put LOVE in big letters across the whole thing.   Keep it simple.  But my mind strayed…away from the pure simple love of a mother for her child...and my fingers followed suit.  The colours darkened; I gave up on the brush and let my fingers smear paint while a fingernail tore spirals…
Oh hell.  And I moved back to the edge of the sea, to that inbetween place, twixt sea and shore and watched the waves again.  And then I gave up on paint and turned to words…which tumbled out like this...

Love isn’t simple and neat.
It’s not a pure red heart with sharp clean edges.
It gets messy. 
It changes shape, the colours merge.
You uncover things, you discover things…
about yourself, about the other.
It isn’t always hearts and flowers.  It’s thunderstorms and ice.
It’s turbulent seas, waves lashing the beach…trying to hurt the stones.
How can you hurt a stone?
But slowly, slowly, the sea dissolves …and the stone gives in…
Becomes smaller, less stone…until finally, sand, it is swept up by the sea.
Is it an equal partnership, this wearing away?  This dissolving, this giving in to a relentless battering?

How would it be to be two waves instead?
Dancing. Separating. Coming back together.
Never ever truly apart…just differentiating from time to time…
Before joining again. 

Monday 28 May 2012

My unapologetic sales pitch on behalf of Greece...

A room with a view...

As you might have gathered by now, I loved Lefkada and the quiet little village of Nikiana where I stayed.  My first impressions, however (if I’m very honest) weren’t great.  It’s an unassuming village, a strip of shops straddling either side of the main (but not terribly busy) road.  It’s no architectural stunner – no winding streets, no great ‘Oh My GOD!’ photo opportunities. 

Its delights are more subtle, less obtrusive, tucked away, shy.  You have to look beyond the brash and the overt.   It’s very Greek.  Yes, it has tourists, by dint of its position, right by the sea – the  beautiful, enigmatic, mood-shifting Ionian.  But visitors tend to be Greek or Italian on the whole, so you’re unlikely to hear the imperious bray or the inebriated slur of the stereotypical Brit on holiday, nor stumble over his or her typical hang-out joints – the ‘Irish pub’, the karaoke bar, the restaurant serving English breakfast or fish and chips.
The  beach outside...

The sea, of course, is a total delight – every day, every hour, every minute showing a different face; playing peekaboo with the mountains beyond.  Some days the horizon was a watercolour in undulating lines of grey and blue; other days you could pick out every detail of the shoreline beyond – every striation of the rock rearing up towards the clouds. A small Olympus all of our own.

But the people were the other joy – warm, honest, humorous, with twinkling eyes and ready smiles.  I love the fact that the Greeks are one of the few European peoples who actively love it if you try to speak their language. However much you mangle it, they won’t mock or frown in disdain but will be openly delighted and encouraging. How many times did I say 'Kali mera' or 'Yassous' on the short journey from my apartment to the high street?  I'd lose count. 
For sure, Nikiana has the odd oddball, so to speak.  Like the man who walked into the café every day wearing a thick jacket and motorbike helmet and drank his coffee without removing his headgear.  Why?  Why?
But generally the people of Nikiana are plain delightful, embracing visitors with ease and grace. Are they concerned about the Euro crisis?  Sure.  But, as they pointed out, this isn’t Athens.  They live very simple, very frugal lives here – there’s not a whole lot to lose.  So no children will be given away and nobody will be jumping off buildings (really, how, how, how can these things happen? What are we thinking that this doesn’t shock us to our core??). 
There will be far less Greek tourists this year of course, but the villagers will get by (or so they say with a wry shrug).  How? The way they always have, by working hard (and yes, they do work hard actually, darn hard), expecting little and pulling together.
I have never, truly, been made quite so welcome in a place. I have always loved Greece (both the islands and the mainland) – and the Greek people – and this trip confirmed and amplified that love. 

When Kim thought about setting up Serenity Retreat, her first idea was to build a tailor-made retreat centre.  Then she looked around and changed her mind.  ‘The people here were so open-hearted and generous and kind to me,’ she said. ‘How could I take away their business? Wasn’t it better to use the local amenities and give back to this wonderful community?’

Nikiana Beach Hotel...
And so Serenity doesn’t own anything – it rents apartments (from the very simple to the divinely smart); it suggests good local restaurants (my favourite was the Nikiana Beach Club taverna presided over by dear Tassos and his family where my supper usually cost a ridiculous 3.50 euros) and cafes (lovely Pepe le Pew where you could make a drink last all day and nobody would bat an eye). She points out the bakery (warm from the oven baguettes, croissants and local pastries), the ‘supermarket’ with ripe fresh fruit, huge rounds of cheese and vats of olive oil and olives.  The trips are all run by local people.  The only incomer is Jane, Kim’s second in command, who provides wondrous bodywork.  And she isn’t taking work from anyone as there isn’t a local touting Amma fusion or Thai yoga massage.  In fact the locals are eyeing up her menu with a mix of curiosity, relish and nervous anticipation.
a calm day...with mountains
Anyhow.  The original purpose of this post was to persuade you all to go to Greece – and ideally to support lovely Lefkada.  Greece needs tourists this year more than ever and, trust me, they won’t hold you responsible for their troubles.  But then, last night I read that British holidaymakers are taking advantage of the crisis and snapping up crazy deals on holidays.  Which I suppose is better than not going...but, oh…

All I can say is, for whatever reason you choose, do go…  If you’re a solo traveler and fancy a bit of optional meditation or just hanging out with like-minded people,  then for pity’s sake check out Serenity Retreat.  If you’re a couple, or a family, then go to Nikiana under your own steam – just say hi to the locals for me, okay?  If you’re a non-stop party animal or can't live without your Guinness or bacon sarnies then…hmm…nah, it’s not for you.  

Friday 25 May 2012

The Great Big Mattress Quest and the Island of Doom

‘You have to get there early,’ insisted Kim.  ‘If you want to get the best mattresses.’
Max, Denise and I frowned in unison.
The MS Christina isn't a big boat,’ Kim clarified. ‘And they lay mattresses out on deck.  Let’s just say that you need to get there before other…um…more forceful nationalities.’
Ah.  Okay.

And so…yeah.  We still ended up being the last on board.  And yup, the proprietorial towels were down and territorial glares were given as we edged along the deck and found the last free spot, at the very very front tip of the boat.  The word that springs to mind is snug.  Let’s just say it was a good job we were friends and didn’t have serious personal space issues.

But, y’know…it was just perfect.  As we set off, I wriggled up even further until I was a de facto figurehead, all wind-tousled and sea-swept, hair flying every sea-witch way as we powered down the Meganisi channel.
I’ve never done this chuntering around islands on boats thingy before. The nearest I ever came was off the East Coast of the States when my brother had a half-share in a boat. But that was actually pretty stressful as it involved a lot of narrowly avoiding rocks while downing excessive amounts of hard liquor (come to think of it that was probably why we kept nearly crashing into rocks – nobody could see straight). 
But this was…lovely, just lovely.  Sea air and pans au chocolat mellowed everyone down pretty quickly and the frontiers started easing.    

We dropped anchor just off the island of Formeluka.  ‘Anyone fancy a swim?’  I adjusted my five layers of clothing and shook my head. A gaggle of already inebriated Swedes in miniscule bikinis jumped in followed by a cohort of earnest Germans and a brace of determined Dutch.   

Next up was the ‘forgotten’ island of Kastos where the population has shrunk to virtually nothing. We moored at the harbour and walked up through what was effectively a ghost town, the buildings mainly boarded up, the erstwhile school playground returning to scrub.  A quick drink and then we were off again to anchor off a tiny deserted beach.   The sun kissed my shoulders and so I plunged into the water, a patchwork of turquoise and emerald; slipped on a snorkel and floated, face down, letting the waves pull me wherever they so wished.  Beautiful.

Onwards to Kalamos, a sunken mountain, ancient pine forests clasping its skin. The pristine beach of Asprogiali where toes touched down onto soft white sand.

Finally Skorpios, the island of the doomed, the damned, the dead.  The Onassis island.  We shivered slightly and, while others plunged merrily into the waters by the beach supposedly the favourite of Maria Callas, we stayed on board.  Superstitious maybe.  The crew threw bread and fish raced in, gobbling it up in a feeding frenzy as we heard the story of how Jackie Onassis contested her husband’s will because three million wasn’t enough.   And one of the Dutch women told us her sister was dying of cancer; that this was probably their last trip together.   And I couldn’t help the obvious correlation - that all the money in the world can’t buy you happiness and love and life.  

And then again, I thought, as we left our little spot at the end of the perfect day.  

You don't always get to choose the mattress you want.  But somehow it will always turn out okay. In the end. Hopefully. :-)


Thursday 24 May 2012

Bloody hell, Max, why did you take the fecking apple?

The beauty of Serenity is that you, well…do your own thing.  Kim has picked out a few activities she thinks people might like but they’re all strictly optional.  And yesterday the opting went up the mountain to meet a …what?  A wise woman.  A wondrous witch.  A shamanka.  An Amazon.  I’m not sure Brigitte would describe herself that way; she’d probably settle for ‘phytotherapist’, a herbalist you might say.

She lives in a tiny village tucked away right up in the green mountains that rise up behind Nikiana and she is passionate, beyond passionate actually, about the Earth and the plants that grow on it. 
She took us on a walk – more of an amble really – stopping every few yards to investigate some plant, to learn its biology, its pharmacology, its mythology.  ‘We’re not conscious anymore,’ she said, with a sad shake of the head. ‘We don’t listen.  Each plant comes out at the right time to help us.  Like nettles in spring when we need to cleanse our bodies.’  It was intriguing – some of us loved the scent of plants that others hated. ‘Listen to your body,’ urged Brigitte. ‘Your tastes will tell you what you need.’ 

We learned which plants can help the circulation, which can ease migraine, which can boost the immune system, which can prevent balding.  At this point she fixed a beady look at Max, the only male in our little group.  ‘Men eh?  Too much testosterone.’  Max looked like he was stifling an apology.
‘I need to pee,’ said Claire, darting behind a bush before swiftly re-emerging.  ‘Umm, it is okay, isn’t it?  I mean, is it okay to pee here?’
As in, is it really okay to pee on the mound of wondrous sacred oregano we’d just been honouring?  We exchanged glances. Was it okay, or was it some kind of dastardly sacrilege?  It could have gone either way.
‘Of COURSE it’s okay,’ boomed Brigitte.  ‘We take from Nature, so we give back to Nature. Spit, pee, blood…is all good.’
Er…blood?  What was she up to out here? 
‘Menstrual blood,’ she said with relish.  ‘Blood is not dirty. Let the menstrual blood flow freely.’  We glanced at one another.  Apart from Max who looked…pained. 
‘We should bleed on the Earth... Tampons!’ spat Brigitte, turning it into a whole new swear-word. ‘Invented by men of course.’
Bloody men. Or not.

Eventually we fetched up at the abandoned monastery, Ayios Georgios.  Did any of us go to church, Brigitte asked.  Not particularly we said, apart from for the architecture of course. ‘Well, I’m nominally Christian,’ said Max and Brigitte gave him a kind of ‘yeah, right, well you would be, you patriarchal chauvinist MAN,’ look.
‘Adam and Eve, okay?’ she said, with a challenging stare.  ‘So Eve gave the apple to Adam but did he have to take it? Did he?’ She looked fiercely round the group and Max shuffled his feet.  ‘I mean,’ she continued. ‘He could say yes or no, right? He didn’t have to eat the apple. Hey, you men, don’t make us women responsible for your own choices!’  

Damnit Max, why did you take the fecking apple?  It’s all your fault, all this darn mess.  Jeez, who’d be a man? Son of weak-willed Adam, liable to baldness due to ineffective hormones, completely lacking in Earth-nourishing menstrual blood.  Bloody losers, huh?  

Bush and Obama got a bit of a tongue-lashing next, followed by a swift dismissal of the Vatican and religion and politics in general. ‘All those people killed in ‘holy’ wars, eh?  All those women they burned at the stake?  Where are their monuments?  And what about that commandment about killing?’  What indeed?  Truly she was magnificent, a wild-eyed Valkyrie, or should that be Athena of the flashing eyes? 
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ she said, with a pitying glance at Max. ‘I’m not anti-man.  Not at all. Just that we need balance. Yin and yang, light and dark.’

Inside the church we gazed on icons, we stared up at the broken wooden ceiling, still showing vestiges of its original blue (symbolizing the heavens).  Examined the rood screen with its acanthus winding around and its encircled cross, a version, Brigitte said, of the medicine wheel, the stations of the sun, the spinning of the year.  ‘There,’ she said, pointing at the altar. ‘What’s under there is the source.  The wellspring. This church, like so many others, was built on something much earlier, a temple…to the goddess.’

And then she led us down a narrow track to the village to meet Maria, a true kitchen goddess, a Demeter, who cooks food straight from her garden and serves it lovingly in her home to the few people lucky enough to be in the know.  Long peppers stuffed with deliciously piquant cheese and herbs; aubergines, tomatoes and bell peppers gorged with rice, onions and herbs; tzatsiki and fresh bread; Greek salad and, for the meat-eaters, spicy meatballs.  Total heaven. A million miles away from the standard tourist fare.

Eventually we waddled out to Brigitte’s house and workshop – with bundles of herbs drying in a shed, hanging from the rafters or stretched out on racks.  She makes all kinds of wondrous potions - teas, oils, ointments and tinctures.  It was hard to choose but I came away with Wellbeing elixir (“to give strength from within”) and Daisy tincture (“gives light to the body, soul and spirit”).  But really I wanted the lot. 
The herbs are mainly wildcrafted, harvested at precisely the right moment of the right day and made with total respect, love and dedication.
If you ever come to Lefkada, you absolutely have to find her.  Though if you’re a guy, you might want to bring a mate for moral support.   

And, if you can't come, you can still buy a little witchy magic, from Brigitte's website. :-)
AromatikaPhyta, Alexandros, Lefkada, Greece. 

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Watching the waves...

So, what am I doing, here in Greece?

Well... Y'know...

Mainly I am just sitting here watching the waves...

They come in, they go out; they come in, they go out; they come in, they go out.
In, out; in, out; in, out; in, out; in, out.... (you get the idea?)

The current ran from the left for a few hours.  Then it changed its mind and ran in from the right.
Presumably because of the wind.
Every so often a boat will go by and the water will come a little closer to my toes.
And then withdraw again.

But, really... In, out; in, out; in, out; in, out...

Like breathing.

And, really, that's what I am doing.  :-)

Saturday 19 May 2012

Fifty Shades of so what's the problem?

So, while I’m waiting to wash off my fake tan (which, in retrospect, was probably a mistake – I look decidedly weird) I’ve been thinking… about Fifty Shades of Grey. Yes, I know I'm late to the party but everywhere I look it seems like it’s the book (or set of books) that everyone loves to hate.  Ye gods, I haven’t seen so much vitriol slathered all over a novel since, well, Twilight.  And you know what?  I liked Twilight.  So stick that in your pipe and smoke it. :-) 

Anyhow.  I must have been in a bunker or something because I hadn’t even heard of FSOG.  And, when I did, I thought it was some kind of hair dye.  Honestly.  Then I mentioned to Kim (Jewell) that maybe I should dust off poor old Samael (my deeply unwanted YA novel), up the age of the protagonist and make it more sexy and she said, ‘What, like Fifty Shades of Grey?’ and I frowned and she explained so I nabbed a copy. 

‘The writing’s awful,’ she warned. ‘But it’s kinda fun.’  No kidding.  Sure it ain’t high art, great literature, but so fecking what?  It’s a romp.  It’s a great big stupidly ludicrously sexy pile of total trashy nonsense.  It’s huge fun and I’ve been lapping it up, so to speak.  

Is it ‘anti-feminist’?  Does it oppress women?  Nah, I don’t think so, not for one moment.  So the protagonist discovers she rather enjoys being tied up and slapped on the backside?  So what?  Nobody’s forcing her. What is feminist sex anyhow?  Women feeling okay about themselves?  Well, Ana seems pretty sorted actually.  And, as the tale unfolds (and yes, there is some progression; it’s not quite just a series of sex scenes strung together like, er... pearls or fake diamonds – though, has to be said, there ain’t a whole lot of plot involved) it transpires that her ‘dominant’ lover isn’t quite so secure and in control.  He’s seen the other side of the coin, so to speak and, in fact, it's really sweet virginal Ana who wields the whip (sorry). 

The whole thing about BDSM (having known a lot of people who’re into it) is that it’s all consensual.  Nobody does or has done anything they don’t want.  So, really, what’s the problem?  Why’s everyone getting so hot under the collar? Maybe it’s plain sour grapes mixed with wishful thinking – sheer envy that these (fictional) bods are having such a fecking awesome time in the sack (and in the lift and in the car and the kitchen and the restaurant and right across the top of the grand piano and so on and so forth)? 

Then there’s the ‘oh but it’s so unrealistic’ argument.  Like, how come she has a monster orgasm on her first fuck?  And comes at the drop of a word each and every time?  Not to mention the small facts that, a) he’s filthy rich and, b) he has the body of an Adonis and a penis that should be called 'Ever Ready'.  Well, lucky cow is all I can say.  Were it real.

Cos, let’s just remember something here.  This is Not Real Life.  It’s like movie sex:  if it were played out in real time with every realistic squelch and tooth clash and wilting erection and badly timed case of cramp, we’d all be bored flaccid.  Yes, it might all be deeper and more ‘meaningful’ and 'literary' if they were civil servants from Croydon but…yawn.

You know what I think?  I reckon everyone’s just jealous as hell that they didn’t do it; that they aren’t raking in the bucks.  And boy is she raking in the bucks!  Cos half the people bitching about it haven’t even read it.  Sheesh, even a reviewer in a glossy mag hadn’t read it.  She rolled her eyes over the ‘bored housewife’ MC – er, nope – she’s a young student actually.  Yes, it’s neck deep in cliché, yes the writing’s repetitive.  But it kept me reading alright.  So I say, get over yourselves!  If you don’t like that kind of malarkey, the choice is easy – don’t read it.  If, on the other hand, you fancy a harmless frisson or two – then go for it (and go buy yourself a set of Ben Wa balls while you’re at it!). 

Friday 18 May 2012

She was gone, gone...

So. That was then. This is now. Well, sort of...  And today (well, three days ago actually - I'm writing this in the past for the future present) - I'm packing my bag again.  This time adding a passport.  I’m getting on a train this evening (let's just accept that it's this evening, right? Well, probably) and will spend half the night wandering around Gatwick, so if anyone fancies joining me for a vigil?  Then (God willing) I'll hop on a plane to Greece.  
Why?  Well...

You know how you meet some people online and just know?  Well, I have this weird idea that the Internet is a conduit, that it’s allowing us to meet up with our..what would you call them?  Soul brethren?  Psychic tribe?  Hell, I dunno.  But I do know that there are some people I meet online and just know…that we’re linked in some way.  I don't always get it right, of course. Sometimes I get it more than a bit wrong. When I say this to my friend Jane, she just raises an eyebrow and says, 'Random Twitter Guy' and we both fall about laughing.  But, hey, he was never one of mine - he was my offering to her. But, actually, I don't get it wrong that often.  And not with Kim.  At least, I don't think so. 

Anyhow, I met Kim (randomly) on Twitter and we shared a daft sense of word play.  Don’t know why but got talking a bit deeper than one normally would with a total stranger. Went on from there and now she’s one of a very very small handful of people I trust.  Yeah, I have trust issues. 

Anyhow, she runs a company called Serenity Retreat.  Based on the Greek island of Lefkada (just above Kefalonia) it offers ‘retreat style holidays for solo travellers on a spiritual or self-development path. It’s about finding some personal space to simply ‘be’.’    

It sounded (and still sounds)…delicious.  Not to mention warm. And, hey, Greece needs our support, right?  But – old story – couldn’t afford it.  Couldn’t even justify going away really…the bills are mounting, the credit cards are squeaking…you know the score.  But then I thought, sod it.  If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.  Let's give Fate another chance, huh?  So I fired off an email to a travel editor on one of the nationals.  
And he said…Yes.   
Huh?  I mean...HUH??? 
And the fee will cover my costs just perfectly.  But then I felt guilty about not even trying to earn any money in a week (like I have this crazy idea that, as long as I'm sitting at my desk worrying about not earning anything, it's okay?).  Until another very lovely editor I’d pitched it to said, sorry, I can’t pay for travel pieces (you probably don’t know this but the majority of the travel features you read in magazines are written by the staff who get a freebie holiday for writing up a piece) but how about if I commission you to write a couple of other features to make up the shortfall?  And I said, that’ll do nicely, thank you very much.  

And I did.  And so here I am/was/will be. And there I will be. God willing. Jeez, these scheduled posts are more worry than they're worth.  The tense-ion. :-)

Of course, if you wanna come too, just jump or hop or clamber onto a plane; or walk or swim or crawl or whatever... and I’ll see you on the beach. Hopefully being serene.  Ish.  :-)

Serenity Retreat:

 PS. Okay, so I haven't quite gone, gone quite yet after all. Forgot to say... of course, you know where the title for this post comes from, right?  Yeah..our Syd...

This was yesterday, btw, and the day before that this pinged up on my screen and made me smile...another version of the same old song... Teenage White Riding Voldemort  hits the hi know? :-)  Sink row nicety, huh?

And now (yesterday) I really am gone...

Thursday 17 May 2012

What do publishers really really want?

In a white room...
When away from home my life is decided by my iPhone. My total control-freakery, weirdo nutjob iPhone. Arbitrarily it decides whom I shall see and whom I shan’t; whom I should talk to and whom I shouldn't. Whole lotta whoms here, huh? 

Sometimes it will cheerily download my emails; sometimes it has a hissy fit and refuses access.  If it does let me on, it often decides – quite off its own back – that my responses (time-consumingly tip-tapped onto its tiny screen – torture for touch typists) should not be delivered.  Ditto Twitter – sometimes it will deliver tweets and DMs, sometimes not.  Facebook?  Don’t even go there.

So, when I was in London, I saw some friends but not others; certain publishers but not others. I caught some PRs while others must have thought me exceedingly rude.  I had hoped to catch my old friend Sam Baker and couldn’t quite figure out why she hadn’t responded to my nudges, and then – finally – I realized it was because she hadn’t received my missives.  Sigh.  But - who knows? – maybe there is method in its madness. Maybe I saw the people I needed to see…rather than those I just really really wanted to see.

I did learn some interesting things though, from those I saw.  That sentence bothers me too, but never mind.  Like, apparently a review on a good blog can be worth more than a review in a national paper or glossy mag in terms of sales. Now - although I am a firm believer in the power of social media - that still surprised me.  But one PR cited the instance of a page feature in the Daily Mail drawing in far less response than a blog post. Amazing.  In my own experience (as both a blogger and a journalist) many PR companies are still sniffy about blogging.  But maybe that is changing. 

And, you know how people all whitter on about What Publishers Want?  And Which Way the Market is Going?  The wannabe authors amongst us, that is (cos the others, frankly, don't give a shit). Well, hey, guess what?  The publishers haven’t got a clue what’s going on either. We’re all of us together, paddling blindly in circles. Honest.  I popped in to see an old friend who is now a head honcho at one of the Big Six.  ‘We used to know our customers,’ she said wistfully, leaning back on her comfy sofa in her big corner office.  ‘Y’know, Waterstone's, Smiths, Borders etc.  We knew what they wanted; we knew who they were.  But now…’  She shrugged eloquently. ‘We haven’t got the foggiest. Our customers are now the public, and we don’t know them, not remotely.
‘Celebrity still sells,’ she said with an eye roll. ‘But the rest is wide open. Wide wide open.  And content is key.’

What about self-publishing, I asked her. ‘Hell yes, of course,’ she said.  Really?  
‘We can’t come anywhere close to offering the royalties Amazon do,' she said sadly. 'We just can’t afford it.’ 
But surely, I mused, people still want – or should want – a traditional publishing contract?  She looked deeply unconvinced. ‘Why? Sure we can get them a good cover and good editing but, really, you can get that yourself if you know where to look.  What we do do well is to hold people’s hands – we look after authors a lot more now, we’re much better at it. We have to be.’
As I walked away I got the impression of leaving a huge rudderless supertanker gyrating slowly in the middle of a vast ocean.

It was pretty much the same story when I had lunch with a much smaller, more niche publisher.
‘What are you looking for?’ I asked.  He shrugged and mopped up some hummus with a bit of bread. 
‘It’s easier to say what we’re not looking for,’ he said.  Paused, swallowed, and shook his head. ‘No, actually that doesn’t work either. It’s wide, wide open.  We just don’t know really; nobody does.’

And as I looked round the big bookshops in London I could see what they meant.  There are no real trends; no discernible patterns.  Which, actually, I found rather comforting.  
‘It comes down to passion,’ said Mr Small but Perfectly Formed. ‘If a book has real passion behind it, it can be a surprise bestseller.’ 

He also said that they were shamelessly watching to see which self-published books were making the grade and stepping in to offer deals.  Does that mean we get great new talent plucked out of nowhere?  Not necessarily. As everyone who's ever self-published knows, you don't just need a decent product, you also need uber-marketing skills - or a shitload of luck. 

‘I’m looking at our backlist,’ said Mrs Big but Vulnerable. ‘There are some real gems there which I’d like to see polished off and brought back.’ Ah, that’s rather comforting too. 

But how, I asked them both, do we (the customer, the public) choose books - with the sheer volume out there right now? How can we discover the real gems and avoid the cowpats?  Mr Small reckons like-minded communities are the answer – online forums. Interesting.  Mrs Big cheerily admitted she really didn’t know. ‘Amazon sure as hell can’t do it – their algorithms aren’t sophisticated enough.’  

I said the one thing I did like about Waterstones was their ‘favourite books’ lists and staff recommendations.   Because they seemed to like a lot of the books I'd already read and loved, I took a chance on Pema Chodron, figuring she might be good too.  And she was. 

And Mrs Big agreed.  But then, she would.  :-)

But seriously.  Word of mouth.  Which is maybe where we turn full circle and look at the value of blogs and social media again.    We're in a world of too many authors and not enough readers, with the big publishers generally no longer acting as decent gatekeepers.  The mainstream press doesn't really help either - they play the celebrity game and, to be fair, are simply overwhelmed by Too Many Books.  So perhaps this is where blogs and Twitter and so on come into their own.  Except...hmm... they're clogged up with people shouting about their own books.  Aaaghhh.  

Maybe we all just gyrate in a sea of more and more books? 

Anyhow, I wrote this a while back and it made sense at the time but, reading it back now, I haven't got a clue what I'm going on about.  what do you think?  Do we know where we're going to?  Does it matter?  

'What do you want to write next?' asked both Mrs Big and Mr Small.
'Not the foggiest,' I said.   :-) 

Wednesday 16 May 2012

In which I am undone by love

It’s no secret that I love ila products.  In a world of fudges and half-truths and compromises, this stuff shines out pure and clear with integrity and authenticity. Okay, it’s not cheap but then, more and more I think I’d rather have one truly wonderful thing than a whole bunch of cheap bits of nonsense.  In the field of beauty we’re sold so much crap, truly we are. So many lies.  Anyhow, this isn’t a sales pitch – like I’ve said before, they don’t pay me. There are just some businesses that so chime with me that I love to shout about them. 
But, funny thing, I’d never had an ila treatment.  
‘Let’s fix that,’ said Philly Vass, their adorable PR.  Okay, I can hear your thoughts - you think all PRs are grasping bitches who only love you when you’re a columnist on a daily?  Well, mainly you have a good point but Philly really is different.  She turns down lucrative accounts if they don’t chime with her core values. And she’s stuck with me over my year of being entirely bonkers.  Plus she has a pug puppy.  Enough said.
‘You have to see Holly.’ 
‘I do?’
So we had a coffee at Paul in Marylebone and then she walked me to Gielly Green (one of those slightly intimidating hairdressing places) and introduced me to Holly who was about half my size and not remotely intimidating.

‘My job is done,’ said Philly with a knowing smile, and left us together.  
I felt nurtured before I’d even taken off my boots. If you’re a spa or massage virgin, I beg you, please, go see Holly.  One thing I think so many therapists and spas get wrong is that they don’t tell you exactly what to do.  And I figure that’s what puts a lot of people off.  But with Holly, there is no guesswork involved. There is no need to do anything in fact except let go and just be.
Her room was a small temple, a womb-like cocoon of sensory soothing. Softly lit, warm, embracing. Scents enveloped me – some familiar, some not so. And music, one of the gently captivating ila CDs that I love so much.
As I sat swathed in a thick towel, she knelt and bathed my feet in such a rapt honouring that it almost brought tears to my eyes. It put me in mind of Mary washing the feet of Christ.  Her attention was totally there – I felt noticed and blessed – elevated yet humbled. Then I lied me down on the couch, naked under the softest, warmest fluffy towels (honestly, you don’t feel exposed or weird, trust me on this) and she started the ‘kundalini’ massage.
I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what I expected but it wasn’t this.  She didn’t say a word, just started touching my back, so so gently.
I wanted to beg her to go harder, dig deeper. As I've said before, I like my massage hard and tough: it’s why I tend to prefer male bodyworkers. But then the fight just kind of went out of me and I was simply slayed by gentleness, beguiled by softness.
It felt like some kind of initiation into an ancient feminine mystery. A benediction. A soft yet insistent teasing apart of all the toughness, a dismantling of all the harsh walls. She got under my defences, not by smashing them down but by soft insistent love. 
Strange images flashed up.  At one point I ‘saw’ her extract some horrible insect. It was so clear and visceral I nearly started off the couch. And oh,when she touched my heart area, there were deep stabs of pain - not from her hands, but oh so deep inside. I was undone. Tears rose and then quietly dispersed.
When she was finally finished (oh too soon, too soon) and I sat sipping a glass of water, she looked at me with huge compassion.
‘Tell me,’ I whispered. ‘Tell me.’
‘You’re so guarded,’ she said softly. ‘Your poor, poor heart.’
I nodded. ‘I know.’

And as I sat on the top of the 73 bus on the way back to Jane’s flat, I felt a wave of sadness wash over me - like the rain outside. And no, don’t start thinking, ‘Oh, poor Jane, how awful’ because really it was lovely. An opening up.  A softening. Because I’d been building up my carapace again, thinking I needed to be oh so tough; to not feel, not trust, not dare to open. And something a friend had said had been worrying at me. She said she was trying to think more like a man, to compartmentalize, to attach less importance to the whole experience of relating. And while I understand that, I felt, very strongly it wasn’t the path for me.

I have been oh so masculine in so many ways in my life, oh so tough. So in control. I’ve dismissed and diminished the soft feminine, the woman in me. Maybe it’s time for her to smile shyly and emerge from the shadows. 

“In the midst of loneliness, in the midst of fear, in the middle of feeling misunderstood and rejected, is the heartbeat of all things, the genuine heart of sadness… We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering, we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is, we only become more fearful, more hardened, and more alienated.”  The love that will not die, Pema Chodron. 

Tuesday 15 May 2012

In which I make a woman retch up a hair ball

I’m standing outside a smart house just off Wimpole Street, round the corner from Harley Street. I check the number again. There’s no sign, not even a discrete brass plaque.  I press the intercom. 
‘Hello,’ says the tinny voice. 
‘Er, is this Inner Sound? ‘
Warm and fuzzy, huh?  Well two can play at that game. 
‘Jane Alexander.’
I walk in, footsteps echoing.  It’s like the Marie Celeste.  Wend my way up the stairs and finally see someone, a youngish man at a desk.  I walk over, say hello and stick out my hand.  He shakes it half-heartedly, looking pointedly at my feet.
‘Could you change out of your boots please? There are slippers out there.’ He points back the way I came.  ‘Er, sure…’  I wander back and see there’s a (small) sign instructing the shift.  It isn’t the best of starts and the guy behind the desk really definitely doesn't get my inner sounds humming happily. 

This is the Inner Sound Foundation and I’m here to check out a Qi treatment.  Apparently it’s an ancient Korean technique in which the ‘Master’ presses acupressure points in your body while using a breathing technique to transmit energy via sound. It has good results, I’m told, with all manner of ailments, including insomnia, arthritis, stress, back pain, ME (have you noticed how it's okay to call it ME again?) and intolerances. Intolerances eh? I have a few of those.
I’m given a form to fill in and offered tea, juice or water…there’s lots of fruit everywhere too. It's all very...abundant. But I’m still not feeling the love.

Then Master Kim comes out to fetch me. She could be any age, wearing a long blue skirt and a gleaming white linen shirt.  Her room is all very girly, with pink cushions and embroidered coasters but my eye keeps getting drawn to the large box of tissues in a frilly lacey case that puts me in mind of Aunty Dot’s loo roll holder.  
‘Do people cry?’ I say, eyeing the frills.
‘Oh yes,’ she beams. ‘Lots.’
We sit down (her on a chair, me on the sofa next to the frilly tissues) and she shuts her eyes.  She looks pained.  Actually she looks in severe pain.  She yawns. She swallows. She twitches.  And then she burps loudly.
‘This is quite serious,’ she says, shaking her head at me. I feel an overwhelming urge to apologise. I’ve made this serene erstwhile smiling woman burp in anguish.  Her eyes shut and off we go again. Sigh. Yawn. Swallow. Twitch. Burp. Very loudly.
‘Oh dear.’
Turns out I’m a bad case of appallingly low energy.  Eyes, liver, kidneys, digestion – all screwed basically.  But why, I ask?  
She smiles pityingly.  ‘Emotional pain. Deep emotional pain.’
Then I’m on the couch, fully clothed for once.  Does that make it any less intense?  Er, no.  She starts on my stomach and, eee, aaaa, ooooo, uuuuughghghgh.  That HURTS.  She prods deep into the area around my navel and her burping and yawning intensifies.  I, meanwhile, am fighting a strong urge to fart in a companionable way – a kind of symphony of body noises?  As if reading my mind, she ups the ante and goes in for some deep throat retching, like a cat coughing up a hair ball.  I clench my buttocks and keep quiet.  I made a woman retch??  She moves all over my body – it’s a firm but (apart from the stomach bit) not painful touch, an insistent rubbing and pushing, all accompanied by a whooshing sound that comes from her stomach.
Treatments are usually swift – usually around 15 minutes – but this seems to be going on for a long, long time.  Is time stretching?  But when I check my watch I see an hour has passed.  I’m obviously a really serious case. Oh dear indeed.

She explains that my vital energy is so low that I cannot digest food properly.  It will also affect my sleep, my concentration and my sense of emotional peace. 
‘Are you cold?’ she asks.  Er, is the pope Catholic?  I nod meekly.
‘Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear.’

She gazes at me and I feel like a six year old.  ‘You’re very lovely,’ she says, by way of a consolation prize. ‘Very lovely. Just so so tired. What is your nationality?’
Huh?  That came out of left-field. ‘Er, sort of English I suppose.’
‘Er, why? What did you think I was?’
‘Well, the Irish are very friendly people.’
This is becoming more blissfully weird by the moment.  I ask her what I need to do to stop being so tired and Irish.
‘More treatment,’ she says firmly.  ‘I can’t recharge your battery in just one session.’ 
I resist the urge to burp in agreement.

PS - thanks to Anonymous for posting a link to this report on InnerSound (formerly Ki Health), claiming that it had brain-washed people into handing over huge sums of money.  That kinda explains a lot.