My train home wasn't due for another half hour and I strolled up the platform, looking for something to snack on. There wasn't anything particularly appetising left at that time of the afternoon at the small town station, and I was suddenly tempted by a bag of cheese and onion crisps. Crisps in general are my guilty pleasure, although I prefer plain ones, and I probably hadn't had cheese and onion ones since my student days. College food was so genuinely revolting that, more frequently than I care to remember, all it would take was one mouthful to consign the contents of the entire tray to the rubbish before heading to the tuck shop, buying four packets of crisps, and then dining on them in my room.

And so, in memory of my undergraduate former self, I pulled the packet open and the pungent smell of chemical cheese and lab onion hit my nostrils, bringing back a wave of happy memories. I munched and looked up at the East Anglian sky, especially endless and near in Cambridgeshire. Something stirred on the platform canopy above me. Two rooks were looking down at me. Or perhaps at my crisps.  

I glanced around, looking for any signs forbidding the feeding of vagrant birds – you never know these days – then wondered if any of the other passengers waiting for the train would raise any objections.  Were I younger, I would not have hesitated for a second.  Now that I am middle-aged, I have become a little more wary of displaying my eccentricity in public.  After all, a young eccentric woman is seen as endearingly quirky. A middle aged one – sadly – often as mad.

I stared at the birds, hoping that somehow, by a telepathic process, they would understand that if they flew down, they would get some crisps.  Then I hesitated.  Did I really want to give these innocent, unsuspecting creatures, unhealthy processed food? Oh, go on.  I quickly glanced around to check that nobody was watching and threw down one crisp.  The rooks spread their wings and swooped down with as much speed as silent grace.  One of them, the larger one, landed a few centimetres away from the crisp, while his more timid companion kept her distance despite my attempts to lure her closer.  

The large rook walked tentatively towards the crisp then stopped to study me.  I was drawn into the beady blackness of his expression that seemed to plunge deeper and deeper into my soul.  As though the rook was seeing a part of me no other human could.  A feeling of bonding, of acceptance swept over me.  Then he strutted to the crisp, held it under his talon, and began pecking at it with precision.  I couldn't help but admire his table manners.  Such a beautiful rook, with a long, sand-grey beak and glossy black plumage with glints of purple.  I wished I could watch him for ever.  Once he'd finished his snack, I slowly walked away.  He followed me, looking up at me, expecting rather than asking.  I dropped another crisp and enjoyed observing him as he secured it once again with his talon and proceeded to take small, delicate pecks at it.  Every so often, he would look up at me.  Not a furtive, indifferent peek.  There was no red robin aloofness about this character.  It was a quick but penetrating, intelligent glance.  A connection that ran deep and was acknowledged by us both.  I know you, it said silently.  And at that moment, I didn't care what the humans at the station thought of me.

A few minutes later, I boarded my train feeling a lightness in my heart I seldom experience.  A sense of freedom, of unlimited possibilities and peace.  Of pure happiness.  It had been just a moment on a station platform, sharing a bag of cheese and onion crisps with a rook.  And yet it felt like such a special moment.  

Like making a new friend.  The kind you feel you've known for ever.

Scribe Doll 

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Ash Wednesday

Miserere mei, Deus: secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.

Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum, dele iniquitatem meam.

Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea: et a peccato meo munda me.


The voices gently rise to the stone vaults and fill the 12th-century church, one of London's oldest.  The congregation forms a queue.  Slowly, everybody advances towards the altar steps.  


Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco: et peccatum meum contra me est semper.

Tibi soli peccavi, et malum coram te feci: ut justificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincas cum judicaris.

Ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum: et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.

Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti: incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi.


The rector's expression is stern, menacing almost.  I think I am supposed to look down in humility.  Instead, I stare straight into his eyes, searching for an echo to my thought.  "Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return,"  he says as his thumb traces a black cross of ash on my forehead.


I am thinking of the phoenix.  Of what happens after the return to dust.


Asperges me hysopo, et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam: et exsultabunt ossa humiliata.

Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis: et omnes iniquitates meas dele.

Cor mundum crea in me, Deus: et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis.

Ne proiicias me a facie tua: et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me.


The soprano pierces through the semi-darkness, and lingers high up before fluttering downwards, graceful, having made her plea for us all.


I return to the wooden pew, kneel, close my eyes and breathe in the frankincense.  Yesterday, Shrove Tuesday, I ate pancakes.  I realise that I haven't decided on what I will give up for Lent.  I remember those friends who will probably give up chocolate, or alcohol, or both.  Not eating chocolate is easy for me, and, since I hardly drink, renouncing alcohol would hardly constitute a sacrifice.  Now cheese, on the other hand... Could I manage a whole forty days without cheese?


The futility of my thoughts suddenly makes me sad.


Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui: et spiritu principali confirma me.

Docebo iniquos vias tuas: et impii ad te convertentur.

Libera me de sanguinibus, Deus, Deus salutis meae: et exsultabit lingua mea justitiam tuam.

Domine, labia mea aperies: et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam.

What's the point of giving something up that you know you will go back to on Easter Sunday? Doesn't knowing a privation is temporary make it too easy? Easy and pointless? Isn't the true purpose of Lent to cleanse your soul for Easter? Will my soul really be purer without cheese or olives or whatever other anodyne habit I decide to break? 


For Lent, why don't we give up something less tangible and yet destructive to us and to others? Something we would work on eradicating from our minds and washing from our souls?


Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique: holocaustis non delectaberis.

Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.

Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion: ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.

Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes, et holocausta: tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.

How about we pledge to give up resentment?

We could train ourselves, little by little, to replace resentment with responsibility and forgiveness.  Turn the other cheek.  No, not to ask for another slap, but to remove whoever has struck us from our field of vision, from our thoughts, from our world.  To set ourselves free.

When someone upsets us, we could indulge in making up a story about something that just might have happened to this person that would explain his or her unpleasant attitude.  It doesn't have to be true, only plausible.  And the self-storytelling might make us feel better.


How about we give up gossiping? 

We could try never speaking of a third person except to praise at least one aspect of him or her.  Is there nothing good to say about him or her? There must be something, however small.  We could avoid divulging personal information about others.  Instead of using what we know about them as social currency, we could cherish it as a secret treasure.


How about giving up sadness?

We could choose an image, a tune or a thought that makes us smile and summon it whenever we feel the clouds gathering in our minds.


How about giving up fear?

We could try to imagine that we are safe.  Just making believe at first, until it becomes reality.  After all, we can't make it real if we don't imagine it first.  And if we can imagine it, then perhaps we can create it.


Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique: holocaustis non delectaberis.

Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.

Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion: ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.

Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes, et holocausta: tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.


How about we monitor the words that leave our lips and give up using them irresponsibly?

We could replace "Filthy weather, today" with the more accurate "It's cold" or "It's very wet" or "It's very grey".

When someone asks us how we are, we could discard "Not too bad" in favour of "Very well, thank you".  It may not be true at the time, but people mostly don't ask because they really want to know.  And "well" might make us feel better.


How about we give up believing we can't and, at least for a while, try to imagine we can?


How about we give up the familiar comfort of darkness? There is a lot of darkness, I know.

Just one candle.  It's surprising how much light just one little flame gives.



192 Hits

Qi Gong

It's the same every morning.  I negotiate my way out of bed and, eventually, brave the steep Munchkin stairs and stagger into the kitchen.  I put the kettle on, wait for the first crackling sound and switch it off.  I pour the water into a mug and go back upstairs, sipping it.  It's pleasantly just short of hot, cleansing, comforting.  I open the curtains in my scriptorium.  The sky is still dark.  For a moment, like every morning, I am tempted to skip the next stage of my morning routine.  That lazy, sneakily undermining voice that says, "What's the rush? You can always do it tomorrow."




Just for ten minutes.

I start deliberately shaking on the spot, sending the movements from my feet through my body and all the way up to my head.  I direct little jolts to every inch of my skin, every organ, every muscle, every vertebra, waking every nook and cranny.  I imagine I am one of those blankets Roman housewives would shake from their windows every morning, when I was a child getting ready for school. They would flap them vigorously.  To banish the dust, evict mites, fill the fabric with fresh air, toss out memories of bad dreams, liven the wool with sunshine.

I quake from toe to top, like a rag doll, loosening every joint, becoming aware of parts of my body I didn't even know existed.  I banish stale air from the hidden recesses of my lungs, evict dark thoughts, fill my cells with imaginary rainbows, toss out all physical and emotional gunk and liven my muscles with a dose of resounding universal YES.

After a few minutes, once I have given every part of my body a good shake, I stop.  It feels wonderful, like being reset, with every nerve tingling and feeling alive.

Then I stand.  Knees soft, head floating into the sky, feet plunging firmly into the earth.  As the tingling subsides, I focus on my breath.  Regular, deep, inhaling from my belly, imagining sunlight filling my lungs.  Trying to think of nothing else.

Ah, I must remember to buy some cheese later –


I forgot to e-mail my friend, yesterday –

I gently bring my mind back to my breath.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Slowly.

If I can finish work by three, I could –

Never mind that for now.  Just breathe.  Slowly.  Regularly.  Let the belly expand, the lungs fill in full, then let the air out, no rush, sense the warmth spread through my body, grow in strength.  I suddenly feel taller.  Towering over the house.

At least ten minutes have gone by without my noticing.  This time, as the breath rises, it carries up my arms.  Effortlessly.  Naturally.  And so I begin the sequence of movements that constitutes the form of Qi Gong I am practising today.

Dragon and Tiger meet.

I'd tried different kinds of yoga over the years – many of my friends swear by its benefits – but it had never agreed with me.  For some reason, it made me feel ungrounded.  I also did pilates for a few months, but it felt like too much effort.  Then I discovered Qi Gong and it's 70% rule of practice.  Always give it your 70%.  No more.  The interesting result is that I end up achieving far more than when I set out to give it my 100%.

Dragon looks to the horizon.

When I first started Qi Gong, I was suffering from yet another episode of adrenal exhaustion, or Yin deficiency, as my Chinese doctor elegantly puts it.  In other terms, your garden variety of burnout, with all its classic symptoms that make life seem unmanageable.  When you wake up every morning, and your heart sinks at the prospect of the day to come as though you have to climb Mont Blanc in summer clothes.  When I enthusiastically asked my teacher how long I should practise every day, he replied, "Five minutes."

I frowned.  Didn't he understand I intended to take Qi Gong seriously?

"Five minutes.  No more," he reiterated.

Tiger crouches.

He was right, of course.  By setting out to do a five-minute practise session at home, I would inevitably end up practising for twenty minutes, then half an hour, and now nearly an hour every morning.  Of course, if, when I wake up, I were to tell myself that I would spend an hour doing Qi Gong, I would simply never start.  So, every morning, as soon as the nagging little voice of laziness and procrastination whispers, "Why don't you leave it till tomorrow?" I cheat it by replying, "I'll only practise for ten minutes. No more."

Three months after I first started Qi Gong, my health was better than it had been for years.  When people asked "How are you?" I could actually reply, in all honesty, "Very well, thank you."

Tiger separates her cubs.

I find that practising Qi Gong has also helped sharpen my focus in other parts of my life, such as work.  Also, the slowness of it is not only very grounding, but also surprisingly empowering.  After a few minutes of practice, I feel like a willow, soft but sturdy, swaying in the strong wind but not breaking.

Tiger pounces.

Most people I mention Qi Gong to don't know what it is, so I explain that it's the mother of Tai Chi.  Many react by saying they couldn't cope with practising such a slow-moving exercise.  I try to tell them that it's that very slowness that makes you feel so in harmony with life, that's so empowering.  The trick is not to build a boat solid enough to withstand a powerful wind without capsizing – it's to weave a sail of silk that can gather the wind in its embrace, so the boat glides faster and more effortlessly.  But, of course, different disciplines are suitable for different people.

Dragon and Tiger pierce heaven and earth.

Outside the scriptorium window, it's now light.  My body feels like a friend, an ally, and I am looking forward to starting my day.

Dragon soars to heaven and brings back the pearl.

And, let's face it, with movements that have such beautiful, poetic names, I'd certainly rather practise Qi Gong than do "press-ups", "push-ups", "weight-lifting" or going on a "treadmill".  But that's just my own, personal choice.

Scribe Doll  

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A Crack in the Viewfinder?

Last year, I was at the Easter Sunday service at Norwich Cathedral with a new acquaintance.  In the distance, I noticed a lady in the congregation whose face was very familiar.  "I think I went to College with her," I told my acquaintance.

She didn't miss a beat.  "Oh, that's V. – you know, she had cancer last year."

And I knew that very second that I would never be friends with my acquaintance.  Why? Because I do not want to be friends with someone who can find nothing to say about a stranger except that she'd had cancer.  She could have said that V. was a splendid cook, an outstanding gardener, an avid reader, or even simply that she was a lovely person.  At a push, "Oh, that's V. – you know, she had cancer last year and recovered by using such-or-such treatment/philosophy/herbs/breakthrough surgery etc."  Instead, she chose to describe a person exclusively by her affliction rather than by any personality characteristic she might have.  As though this woman was defined by her illness and nothing else.

It has been my experience that most people find it much easier – almost unhealthily more comfortable – to relate to another person's unhappiness than happiness.  As a literary translator, I know that it is much easier to convey grief, fear and unhappiness from another language and culture than happiness and humour.  Unhappiness travels at the speed of light.  Happiness, for some reason, doesn't.  It's stopped at every corner, questioned, analysed, its visa checked, its motivation examined and viewed with suspicion.  Too much happiness is viewed as superficial, twee, unrealistic, whereas unhappiness is frequently described with such complimentary terms as "profound", "real" and the arts programmes' favourite, "dark".  Happy endings are automatically considered flawed, while tragic or unresolved ones are worthy of respect.  Love stories that turn out happily are chick-lit, but the ones with characters battling each other's demons are more likely to win literary prizes.  When and why did we decide that darkness is worthier than the light? 

A few days ago, some neighbours were expressing their sympathy at my husband and me having to move house for the fourth time in as many years, and asked about our plans for the future.  "It's very simple," I said, flippantly.  "I'm going to buy a lottery ticket, win the jackpot, then buy a house in Norwich and an attic apartment in Rome."

Interestingly, they didn't comment on the obvious flaw in the premise of my plan.  Instead, their faces turned sad and they replied, "Ah, yes, but then when you buy a place you can end up with the neighbours from hell.  And then something always goes wrong and repairs are so expensive..."  There it was – the zooming in on a tiny crack in an otherwise perfect crystal vase.

"Not too bad..." increasingly seems like the favourite British response to the question "How are you?" and people are surprised when my reaction is, "Oh, dear, have you been unwell?"  To me, "Not too bad" implies that things could be worse but, well, they're not good at the moment.  

"A friend in need is a friend indeed" is a saying common to many different cultures, and yet it's much harder to share good news with a friend than bad ones.  People rally around you at bad news, offer help and sympathy with an enthusiasm that (I hate to say this) sometimes verges on a hint of gratitude.  They plunge into the pool of your unhappiness and swim in it for hours.  Give them a tale of success, independence and joy, and, sadly, they'll all too often walk around your pool of limpid water looking awkward, almost afraid of dipping their toes in it.

In a café, I overhear a woman at the next table talking to her sister about her forthcoming fiftieth birthday.  "It's a brilliant age," I volunteer light-heartedly, being two years her senior.  "It's when you find out what you really want." 

The woman beams at me.  "Oh, I really don't mind turning fifty.  In fact, I'm quite looking forward to it."

"Ah, that's what she says now," her sister says.  "Just wait for her to be really fifty and then she'll feel old like the rest of us."

That's what I call toxic.

More and more, I find myself drifting away even from people I love if their default setting is one of pessimism or their focus automatically on the negative.  If I can't tell them about my joy, then I will not give them the satisfaction of wallowing in my unhappiness.  They have their own.  I have no inclination to encourage Schadenfreude.  

Why do so many of us accept only a vision of a flawed, doomed world? Is there a crack in our mental viewfinder that distorts our perception?

What makes us more attuned to misery than to joy? To pessimism rather than optimism? To despair rather than hope? Why is it often easier to sink under the gravitational force of darkness rather than dare to push upwards through the clouds and stand in the sunlight?

In a world that is a resounding "YES" why do we primarily hear a stream of little "no"s?

Scribe Doll

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Ken Hartke The Architecture of Trees
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To marvel is to live...even at the engineering of a lowly dandelion. Marvel mar·vel /ˈmärvəl/ verb:...
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Beautiful. We labour under the misconception that all knowledge passes through consciousness.
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Rosy Cole Sedona: A Serendipitous Journey
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Ken, we shall look forward very much to hearing about your travels! :-)
Rosy Cole Sedona: A Serendipitous Journey
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Certainly, I've experienced some serendipitous revelations, often when dog-walking in the country an...

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