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."

No.

Today.

Now.

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 –

Breathe.

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  

For further information:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qigong

http://www.norwichqigong.co.uk

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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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Gender Equality: Women's Attitudes.

International Women's Day makes me feel uneasy.  The fact that there should still be a need for it.  For all the leaps and bounds we've have made in Europe and other countries since the relatively recent times when women couldn't vote or own property, there are still many issues to address before true equality is achieved between the sexes. And one thing I feel very strongly about is that more could be done by women themselves to redress this imbalance.  

Every International Women's Day, I mentally give thanks for having a vote and for all the countless other rights I enjoy which were denied to my female ancestors and, still now, to millions of other women all over globe. But I also feel deeply sad when I think of how many women – perhaps inadvertently – still fuel this gender inequality with their own attitudes and the signals they send out to men and, especially, to other women.     Perhaps our first step should be true independence and self-sufficiency.

    Naturally, I am speaking here about women who have a choice.

    A few weeks ago, I was at a lunch, surrounded by half a dozen or so women I admire greatly for their education, their professional achievements and their indisputable intelligence.  Every woman at that table could be a role model for any little girl. This is why I was somewhat shocked to discover that I was the only woman there who had not changed her surname after getting married. The others had kept their own names in the professional field but, in their personal lives, had legally taken on their husbands' surnames. Time and again, I am surprised by the overwhelming number of women – and young women at that – who take their husbands' surnames after marriage. Some will argue that most of us carry our fathers' and not our mothers' surnames, anyway, but there's a huge difference between being given a name as a baby, when we have no choice in the matter, and consciously, actively choosing to take on a man's surname in countries where this is no longer a legal requirement. Doesn't that send a message akin to saying, "because we love each other I will let you own, change, part of my identity"? I hate to say this, but to me, this is setting the tone for inequality from the outset.  Please explain this to me if I am missing something here.

 

How can you attain equality without self-sufficiency? A landlady I used to lodge with when I was a student once prevented me from doing an easy repair on the cat flap. She said her boyfriend would do it when he dropped by later.  When I tried to insist, she said, "Never learn to do DIY, or you'll always have to do it."

    Brought up in an all-female household where we fixed our own taps, I was shocked. Actively refusing to learn a skill you didn't enjoy simply on the grounds that you might have to use it at some point in your life struck me as willfully curtailing, in however small a way, your self-sufficiency.

    My landlady was not an isolated case. Too many women delegate financial matters to their husbands because they're "hopeless at maths" (I confess I was guilty of that in my first marriage).  Too many women lack the most basic DIY skills because "it's a man's job".  Women who – and that's something I cannot understand – don't have a bank account of their own.  Fair or not, having at least a little of your own money is the first step to self-preservation, never mind independence.  Many people choose to cohabit without getting married because it's important for them to feel that they're in the relationship out of choice and not because they're bound to it by a legal document.  Trust me, the legal document can be dealt with much more easily than the crippling, paralysing fear, deep at the back of your mind, that you couldn't leave even if you wanted to because you couldn't afford a roof over your head or keep yourself in the style of life you have been accustomed to.

    I believe that loving and respecting your partner or husband is also expressed by not being totally dependent on him, because every ounce of dependence you place on someone else is the amount by which you prevent him or her from being fully him or herself.  Of course, we all depend on our partners in many ways, emotionally, if nothing else.  However, being financially dependent not only gives your partner power over you and limits your freedom, but places you in a potentially very vulnerable position.

 

Every Friday night, walking past the pubs in the city centre, you see young women in sheer, short or very low-cut dresses despite the cold weather.  The men, on the other hand, are dressed for the season.  Apart from feeling astonished that they don't feel the cold, I   can't help but wonder: Why not just bring a jacket or a wrap in case they feel cold later  or in case it rains? Are they so sure of their health? Are they consciously or unconsciously relying on a man gallantly giving them his jacket? I see these young women balance on such high heels, it is anatomically impossible to – should, God forbid, the need arise – run or even walk fast on them.  As an older woman watching them, they appear to me like the picture of vulnerability and, consequently, potential dependence. 

    A bugbear of mine is women demanding to be paid maintenance after a divorce if they don't have young children to support.  Women who feel that, having given "the best years" of their lives bringing up a family and then finding it hard to get jobs in middle age (and, yes, this is a social reality, unfortunately), they are entitled to be supported after a marriage has ended.  As a divorce lawyer I once met put it: a marriage is a relationship, not a pension plan.  Having no children myself, I cannot begin even to imagine how hard or even almost impossible it is to keep earning while raising a family well.  But I also know women who, as soon as their children started school, began attending courses, keeping abreast of developments in their professional field, and taken on part-time work.  Admittedly, many cannot go back to their original, pre-family careers, so they learn new skills.  I am not, not, not suggesting this is easy.  Only that it is worth doing whatever it takes to keep as much of one's independence as possible.  How can someone who consciously allows herself to be dependent be viewed as an equal?

    I frequently come across women doing work they enjoy, often artistic jobs, which don't pay enough to support even just them alone.  They have the luxury of being able to do this because their husbands have "proper" jobs.  Apart from the blatant unfairness of the situation, what if these husbands suddenly lose their "proper jobs" or decide they want a divorce? Are these women equipped to survive financially? I know only too well how soul-destroying an unfulfilling job can be, but, surely, we have a responsibility to have at least the potential to keep the wolf away from the door, don't we?

    I love it when my husband or a male friend automatically pays for me in a restaurant or coffee shop.  It's so chivalrous.  But, sisters, we just can't have it both ways.  In general, I am often surprised by the number of self-proclaimed feminists who turn all 19th century fair sex as soon as it comes to putting their hands in their pockets.

    

I feel very strongly that one of the ways towards gender equality is also solidarity among ourselves.  Wherever possible, it's important that women stick together, encourage one another, are sympathetic towards one another, and not undermine members of our own sex.

    Let's stop watching one another in the mirrors of ladies' rooms, trying to assess who is better dressed, better made-up, more attractive, more of a competition out there where the men are waiting.  Let's stop putting one another down.  It is deeply sad but undeniably true that too many women see other women as competitors rather than allies.  Too many catty remarks are made where praise and appreciation would be much more constructive.      At the beginning of last winter, wearing a new russet-coloured coat and a Tudor-style, brown velvet hat on a slant, I went to see a female friend.  The two men I was with had commented on how lovely I looked, so I rang my friend's bell, a smile on my face.  She opened the door, took a quick look at me from top to toe, and said, "Gosh! Russian winter, is it?" My smile disintegrated.

    A couple of years ago, a friend invited me over for tea on the occasion of her birthday.  H. had a prior commitment, so I went alone.  To be fair, my friend didn't bat an eyelid, but the other woman in her living room, complete with husband, said, "What? Without H.?" Her arch tone and raised eyebrow suggested a hint of disapproval rather than genuine surprise.  But perhaps my making it an odd number of guests made the room look untidy.

    Many a man is invited over for supper, by the wife of a couple, while his wife is away, "so he doesn't eat alone, poor thing".  How many wives are invited over for dinner while their husbands are away?

    When a woman is single, it's true to say that – at least in this country – attached women will socialise with her when their husbands are otherwise engaged and seldom invite her to couples' outings.  Are they afraid that she cannot hold her own in a conversation without a man present?

    Several years ago, a friend invited me to her engagement party.  "Please bring someone," she said.  

    I was single at the time, so told her I'd be coming alone.

    "But you'll have no one to talk to!" she replied.

    I hadn't realised that it was a "bring your own conversation partner" event, or that she viewed me as a ventriloquist's doll.  Needless to say, I declined her invitation.

    My new female friend L. tells me this strong territorial instinct is a naturally-programmed leftover from our primitive female ancestors, who had to fight tooth and nail to keep other women from their males in order to ensure their very survival and that of their offspring.  I like to think that we have evolved since then.  We've had the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Sturm und Drang, and the Suffragettes.  It's time to shake off the primitive leftovers, right? 

    Time to take full responsibility for ourselves, and treat our fellow women with compassion and encouragement – always.  The fact that many men still consider us as second-class citizens is not a reason to lose our self-respect and our dignity, but, on the contrary a reason to consolidate it.  This isn't about their attitudes, but ours.

Scribe Doll 

 

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The Alchemy of Turning Darkness into Light

A text message the day before, signed in both names, gently confirms that H. and I are to go the the Castle museum entrance a few minutes before the ceremony.  

It's a grey morning but unusually mild for December.  We walk over the bridge leading to the Norman keep, where for centuries, those convicted of crime were hanged.  I've always had an uneasy relationship with Norwich Castle.  For one thing, I find its sugar-cube shape on the hill dominating the city rather ugly.  It lacks the charm of Durham Castle's irregular edges, or the Gothic feel of Edinburgh Castle.  There is something eerie about its bland squareness.  I first set foot in it about ten years ago.  I walked in, bought my ticket, caught a brief glimpse of a series of busts on display, and promptly and almost involuntarily dashed back out at full speed, overwhelmed with a totally unfathomable feeling of terror.  I couldn't account for my reaction, which seemed utterly irrational, so the following day, determined to act like an adult, I went back, bought another admittance ticket, and marched in.  I saw the busts again and, as I drew closer, saw that some of the faces had twisted expressions.  I read the signs and only then realised that they were the death masks of men who had been hanged. Men who had been murdered by legal means, by the laws of other men who thought their right to judge and punish was equal to that of God.  Laws that respond to violence with more violence, to evil with more evil, and to despair with more despair.

But this morning, I am here not to visit a museum that keeps the memory of fear and suffering alive, but to attend a wedding.  The Norwich marriage register office has recently moved many of its ceremonies from the beautiful building near St Giles to the Castle.  We are shown into the waiting room and are welcomed by the sister of one of the grooms.  With a broad smile, she introduces us to the other eight or so guests, although I protest I'll never remember everybody's name.  It's a small gathering but international.  English, Polish, French and Italian, among others.  The variety of accents all giggling with excitement at this happy occasion immediately dissolves my innate nervousness at social events and I mentally bite my thumb at all the Brexiteers out there.    

Photos are snapped in various combinations of family plus friends, then more photos, in case some don't come out well.  Everything must be done to immortalise the day and, especially, crystallise its happiness.

After a few minutes, the door to the ceremony room is opened by a tall, elderly lady with a kindly face.  H. and I give a little exclamation of pleasant surprise.  She reciprocates our grins.  "Did I marry you?" she asks. "I'm sorry, I can't remember but when people look at me like that, it generally means I've married them."

She squeezes my hand and hugs me with the tenderness of a dear old friend.

When the two grooms walk in, I am struck by how young they look.  I know they are both in their middle years and yet today, there is a youthful glow about them.   

They stand by the registrar's table.  Vows are exchanged.  For ever. There is a slight crack in the voice, a moment when tears are kept in check. When an overwhelming burst of gratitude, relief and unbridled hope fills the room.  Rings are slipped on fingers.  Gold, like sunshine.  Circular, like perfection.  Like timelessness.  

When the ceremony is over and names have been signed in the large book, the registrar comes up to H. and me, and tells us this castle has a special meaning for her.  "When I was fourteen," she says, "a friend and I came for a walk here one afternoon, to see if there were boys."  She gives a mischievous grin.  "But we got followed by two American G.I.s – it was at the time they were stationed here – and got scared.  So we walked up to two local boys and I said to one of them, 'Can we stand with you until the two G.I.s go away?' Well, I've been with him ever since.  We've been married fifty-seven years." 

And now, over half a century later, she officiates at weddings in this very castle.  "I love doing weddings," she says, and her beaming smile makes it clear that she does, indeed.

It truly is a Good Day.  Into this Norman castle, a building scarred by violence, fear and despair, these two beautiful humans who have just embarked on marriage are bringing love, kindness and hope.  And all of us in that room help shine some light where darkness has lingered for centuries like a sticky cobweb.  It's time to infuse joy and love into these tear-soaked Caen stones.  Little by little, one wedding, one promise to love and be kind at a time.  One beam of light, then another, and then another, until the shadows have faded away.

Scribe Doll

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