Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Catching a Feeling

Eve has asked her readers to write about their childhood. I thought I would give it a try, because I can’t resist a challenge that is as well-written as this:

If you read here regularly, I wonder if you’d indulge me by thinking about your own childhoods, going back to the flow of days during which nothing much happened, but when the passing of time nurtured and fed you. You’ll know which days I mean by finding strings of days, days on end, whose memory causes a wave of nostalgia to overcome you. Days that now fill you with longing, or a pang of loss, deep joy, or deep gratitude. Sometimes you may think of them and feel great sorrow over something you’ve lost. Maybe it was days you spent with your grandparents, or days you spent at home doing nothing; a day with your brother or sister, a family vacation. Think back to the hours or days when life felt like an afternoon in a hammock, or time on a quilt under a tree with your very best friend.

Think about it, or feel your way back to it, and write it out for yourself. I don’t mean you have to write about it here, as a comment, or even on your own blog; but I do want you to write about it. Get it down somehow when your level of feeling or emotion (affect) rises up and squeezes you in the middle of your chest, right around your heart, and you begin to feel a little weepy or giddy. Right . . . there. That’s the part we want. Catch it like a firefly in a jar, and get very close to that feeling, and then write about it. Write it all out, the memories surrounding it: where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, what it smelled, tasted, and sounded like there; how long did it last?

The Angel in the Garden

When my father left in a storm of self-justification and golf clubs, my grandmother moved into the cottage at the bottom of our garden. It was like having an angel of our own living there. My brother and I would wake in the morning and race our beaten path to her front door, where she would open up, catch us in her arms and breathe, “Hello my darlings!” as if she hadn’t seen us for a month. While my mother was dealing with her own pain and sorrow, and gradually finding her way back to herself, my grandmother gathered us into a gentle place of wonder that offered us refuge from our pain. She had a naivete that spoke to my child’s heart, and taught us how to be silent and listen to the self within, how to shape clouds, how to appreciate an egg sandwich, to believe in fairies. Under her guidance, I developed an interest in other realms and soon our garden became, for me, a magical fairyland that was bustling with activity and solace from the pain of my parent’s separation.

This fairyland was closely tied with the plant life in the garden, starting with the enormous camphor tree that towered over us like a gentle giant. I climbed into his arms, and found comfort there, staring at the leaf patterns and imagining myself on a ship sailing across oceans, or in a palace, or in village of busy elves. I lost time there as I watched ants trace paths across the tree’s rippled bark, or listened to the doves high above, or felt the wind sough mournfully in the branches. The tree reflected my mood: he was sad if I was sad, content if I was so, but his depth of feeling was so great that after a while I could bear his compassion no longer and had to seek more light-hearted magic elsewhere.

Ivy covered the camphor tree’s earthbound roots – the perfect place for fairies to cavort. I imagined them climbing the roots and chasing each other under the green pointed umbrellas of ivy leaves. The Japanese anenomes planted nearby were special since they flowered around my mother’s birthday, and their ivory petals and fluffy yellow centres brought to mind elegant fairy princesses, wafting through my fairyland in white gowns with golden crowns. They were beautiful, and slightly removed, rather like my mother, and I couldn’t spend too much time with them without the sadness edging in.

Following the path of the anenomes, I would arrive at a bed of flowers planted by my mother that curved out into the garden like a headland or peninsula. This buttress was seldom shadowed by the tree, so it was a sunny place for both children and fairies. Roses encouraged the arrival of pink and white fairies, bold and laughing. They were enticed by the dripping tap that stood in the flower-bed, and would recline underneath the tiny waterfall and catch drips directly into their mouths. The tap also attracted an old fat frog, who croaked grumpily as dusk fell. Here in this sunny bed, I created fairy gardens, small flat patches of earth, surrounded by stone walls and decorated with flower furniture. I knew that when the moon rose and I was in bed, the fairies would be sleeping on an azalea or camellia petal and thanking me for their comfort.

Following the bed, I came up against a wooden fence, behind which lived our mad and muttering neighbour and her barking dog. If I came too close to the fence, the dog would unleash its volley of angry remarks and I would have to retreat to underneath the lemon tree for safety. It was fragrant and citrussy there, but the ground beneath was littered with rotting lemons which were revolting if I stood on them with bare feet.

Behind the lemon tree was a green wire fence covered with jasmine, and behind that a lowered area where our maid washed and hung the washing to dry. I would climb the fence, sit on the hot and crumbling stairs and watch in a dream as the washing swirled on the windy drier. The maid lived there too, in a room that smelled of soap, sweat and putu – the porridge that she liked to eat and sometimes shared with me, if I was lucky. There weren’t fairies here – it was somehow too jagged a place – but her bed was on bricks in case of the tokoloshe. There was mystery in the bamboo fence below her khaya that separated our house from those neighbours. I could walk between the tall bamboo and the fence, and be transported to a world where plants were huge and people tiny.

Following this fence, I would come upon a green patch of lawn where our jungle gym had once stood, before it grew rickety and dangerous and had to be taken away. There was my grandmother’s cottage, with the door always open. She would be reading, or painting, or gently napping, but was always welcoming to her small visitors and would find us a piece of hazelnut chocolate from her secret stash. In front of the cottage stood a bank of strelitzias, flowers which my mother dismissed as ugly and African, but which were fascinatingly bird-like. I could crawl under the bushes and hide there, enjoying the feeling of separate nearness to my family. Usually the corgi, Muffin, would snuffle me out or my little brother would crash in, demanding that I play a game with him.

Sometimes my grandmother would get a blanket and we would lie on the sunny grass, looking up at the clouds. She would show us how to shape clouds, and we would get lost in the mystery of the sky. I think both my brother and I learnt early, and from her, to take responsibility for the shape of our lives. We were taught not to feel buffetted by fate, but that our thoughts could shape our lives and that every event, no matter how sad or sick inside it made us feel, happened for a reason. Then our mother would bring out a tray of a tea and biscuits, I would put the tea cosy on my head to make everyone laugh and my brother would run off to hit a tennis ball against the wall, all life’s lessons forgotten.


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2008: Where Hedonism and Ascetism Meet

I’ve been pondering my word for 2008. My word for 2006 was travel, and for 2007, it was beauty. However, this year I realised I needed a more spiritual word, a word that would encapsulate the things I want to achieve in my fortieth year, my goals both public and personal, and a word that would inspire me whenever I returned to it. My word – with such a lot of baggage wanting to attach to it – was eluding me, but I am glad to say I have found it. My word for 2008 is:

self-discipline

I am good at luxuriousness and at rewarding myself. I don’t stint when it comes to food, books or long, hot baths. I love a delicious glass of red wine and a langourous chat with a friend. I can wallow. When allowed, I can lose a day on the sofa. I am not afraid of fun, laughter or pleasure. Living in the moment, relishing the now, is not a challenge for me. I am a big fan of the here and now.

That said, I feel my inner ascetic call. Healthier eating, regular daily writing, more frequent exercise are all required to nourish my soul. Self-discipline means organizing my work better, being more up-to-date with my taxes and getting my invoices in on time, but it also means soul work. I want to be the disciple of me – allowing my self to grow and develop through more regular disciplines of daily writing, exercise and cleansing eating.

This is not just a response to the excesses of Christmas, birthday and New Year in 14 short days, but also a genuine need to tame my tendency to lavishness with a more streamlined personal approach. I want to shop less, acquire less, need less and with that spare time I want to think, write and meditate more. Also, I feel very strongly as I approach 40 that I need to include in my daily life things that are good for my soul. It is a discipline for me to remember and perform them.

Having come to this decision, it was fascinating to have read parts of a book that once belonged to my grandmother and that is now being lent to me by my mother. Joel S Goldsmith’s Infinite Way Letters 1955 is a series of meditations on leading a spiritual life. As I flicked through it before starting to read, I came across a passage noted in my grandmother’s beautiful curlicue handwriting. “V. important”, she notes. It reads:

For all the glorious Gifts of God, the great price is self-discipline. Each of us has the right to accept these Gifts in proportion to the degree to which we develop our ability to discipline ourselves. This is the price of truth!

I will probably have to meditate for some time to understand exactly what this means for me, but how apposite that my darling grandmother had this passage already marked for me, that my mother decided to send it with my brother and that in the last few days I’ve had the time to pick up the book and browse through it. Always my spiritual teacher, she has sent me a message through the years and in the pages of an old and crumbling book.

Along with this more serious bent, comes some different goals for my blog. It’s nearly two years old now, which makes it a grown-up in blog years. I gave myself serious blog fatigue in November posting every day, and now I want to swing away from that towards fewer posts of higher quality. I need to take some time away from blogging for my own writing because this is the year that I am committing to writing and submitting work. Blogging has opened my eyes and my mind to a new and fascinating world but it can also be a vortex into which I am sucked. I will be trying to discipline both my blogging and my reading of blogs into smaller and more manageable chunks of time, leaving time for creative writing, reading and thinking. However it is more than likely that I will break down, take part in memes and tease the Germans.

I have had fun reading everyone’s resolutions and goals for 2008, and I wish you all a wonderful, creative and happy year. I hope your dreams come true.


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Happy

I had my first yoga practice in months today, with a wonderful new teacher. Her studio, which looks over the Rhine plain all the way to the Pfalz, was a peaceful refuge from the driving rain outside. For one and a half hours I thought of nothing but myself, my body and how it was feeling. She taught me how to be conscious of my toes, how to attach four corners of my feet to the earth and anchor myself. I learnt how to make my calves, thighs and stomach muscles strong. I left with a wondrous feeling of well-being which lasted for hours.

So it seems appropriate to address Ms Magic Hands’ meme Five Things You Do To Raise Your Vibe while still feeling the afterglow. Here goes:

1. My life is busy. I have three kids, work, friends, and family who require maintenance, even long-distance. One thing I do every day to raise my vibe is to have some time to myself for reading. It usually happens late at night in the bath, when the house is quiet and everyone else is asleep. I pour in the bubbles, keep my toe on the hot tap, add more water when necessary and read, read, read. Right now it’s Elizabeth George’s What Came Before She Shot Him, which is an education in brilliant characterisation and a deeply engaging plot.

2. I plan holidays. One the advantages of where I live is that the whole of Europe is easily accessible. This year I’ve been to Berlin, the south of France, Oslo, Alsace Lorraine. The holidays don’t always have to happen – I enjoy trawling holiday websites, dreaming of what could be.

3. I dance with my children. It’s exercise and it’s fun. I can be as ridiculously silly as I want to be without feeling self-conscious. We call it “working on our moves”.

4. I have a night out with my girlfriends or a date with my husband, all involving wine, food and laughter. Come to think of it, I’d better go and put my party face on right now. I’m heading out to meet the girls.

5. I meditate and dream. After years of practice, I slip readily and easily into a meditative state. I use it in various ways: to relax, to feel better, to raise my consciousness, to commune. It always, always helps.


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Meditation: What I Know

In Eat, Pray, Love the recently divorced Elizabeth Gilbert spends three months at an ashram in spiritual practice. She spends many long hours in meditation, both alone and in groups. She finds it enormously difficult but eventually has the kind of ecstatic spiritual experience she was hoping for, and is able to reflect on her journey and the lessons she has learned. I found the section fascinating, both for her frank acknowledgement of the personal frailties that were getting in the way of her spiritual development and her details of life in an ashram.

Part of me was wishing that I could have that kind of an experience, but if I’m honest, my desire is more for a three-month holiday than the kind of floor-scrubbing and mantra-chanting worship that Gilbert had. Another part of me recognised her journey, for, as a child, I was lucky enough to have a grandmother who taught me how to meditate and how to engage in spiritual practice. However, unlike Gilbert, I never had to struggle with the language and idioms of meditation. For me it has always been as natural and as easy as it is for small children who imbibe a second language without realising they are doing so.

My grandmother was a fascinating woman – a non-racist in a racist country, a divorcee (her marriage lasted a whole six years – one year plus the second World War) amongst married women, a painter, a gardener, a spiritual thinker and a gentle soul. She was a wonderful grandmother; adoring, non-judgemental, generous with her time and love. I am so grateful to my beautiful Ellie for the gift she gave me. She was a wonderful teacher, who never took to a podium, but allowed fascinating drips of information to leak through, just enough at a time to keep me interested and coming back for more. She doled out spiritual teaching just as she doled out chocolate – one piece at a time.

I thought I would share, for those who are interested in beginning or furthering their own spiritual practice, some of the things she taught me:

For meditation, you don’t need a guru, an ashram or a mantra. You don’t need a church or a mosque or a priest or an imam. You don’t need the Kaballah. All you need is a quiet place to sit.

For meditation, it is best to sit cross-legged or on a chair with your feet touching the floor. Lying down brings you too close to sleep.

Close your eyes, breathe deeply in and out, and insert a pause between each in-breath and each out-breath. God – or the divine – is in the pauses.

You can imagine a white light entering your head, or you can imagine your chakras opening, or you can imagine a tree. Anything that brings you to peace.

Meditation is about sublimating the ego. Let the thoughts and darts of the ego swim past you like fish. Don’t fight them, just acknowledge them and let them go.

Listen to your heart. Your heart is the seat of prayer. Meditation is about listening, not speaking.

Don’t make a list of the things you want; rather list the things you are grateful for. Prayer is gratitude.

Don’t second-guess yourself. If you are still, quiet and listening, you are meditating. You don’t need a guru for that. And it gets easier with practice.

You can use meditation for relaxation, or to connect with the divine, or you can use it for both. Either way, you will receive insights or messages about how you live your life. This is the wonderful benefit of taking time to be quiet and listen – you will hear what you need to hear.