A beautiful moment in time

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Because it was sunny today, we decided to take out a couple of yoga mats and do our practice on the empty green space in front of my flat. Out of the Bikram hot yoga studio, I reverted to Ashtanga yoga, my first love. It was like coming home.

Being unfamiliar with Ashtanga, he struggled to follow me, realising that with Ashtanga, you flow with your ujjayi breath, rather than physical prowess or sheer strength.

We lay down on our backs at the end of the practice, the winter sun on our faces, and I could sense a smile on his face. “Rumi said…,” he began.

Rumi? This man seldom reads, and Rumi is not the sort of thing I expect him to read.

“When you close your eyes, you fall in love with yourself,” he said.

And then softly, “Stay there.”

I moved my finger fractionally to touch his. Stillness, and then his finger responded…a thousand strong emotions in one subtle movement.

Aurochs antlers and Baba Yaga

“From one seed, humanity sprang forth. Excavated skulls of early humans – branchycephalic, dolichochephalic – that once housed the stories that were never written down, stories about how we come to be, passed down the generations with storytelling. Epic migration of our people across the vast continents, carrying their ancestors’ essence at the dawn of humanity. Languages, poetry, crafts, commerce, family – they become us today, we are the living stories.”

 By the banks of the Thames, December night 2019 

Thank you for building a nest for me, for looking after me as if I were a fragile doll, for the beautiful stories you tell me to make me feel safe  – keep talking to me in your mother tongue, proszę, and I will immortalise your words – and you – in my next book, my labour of love, my best one yet. How you inspire me to be human with your magic and the love you have for me. Walk by the Thames with me x

Sand beneath our feet

Excerpt from Chapter 10: A place where there are no stars

“Think of the biggest-ever room you can imagine,” she had said to him in her innocent, tantalising way. “And then think about the space outside that biggest-ever room.”

“∞ + 1,” Merlin taunted him with its digital dots, configured to needle him just so.
“How can mankind ever hope to rationalise and reconcile the biggest-ever and the smallest-ever, Alice?” He had despaired, pulling at his hair so that he looked like an angry, golden Mohican. She, the creator of Merlin, knew the answer, of course. It was in that damn book of hers.

“Because they are the same, silly!”

Oh, the blerrie English! How he hated their voices, the words they used! And he discovered, there was nothing worse than Oxford English. For instance, how can a person from Scotland go UP to Oxford? Didn’t they know their own geography, or the basic concept of up, down?

But unwittingly, he recalled the words of his Oupa from long ago:

If we were to turn the universe upside down, these stars would become grains of sand beneath our feet.

 

A place where there are no stars

Excerpt from Chapter 10:

He had travelled so far from his homeland in the South African veld to this godforsaken city, where the blerrie clocks, church bells and gargoyles mocked and taunted outsiders, only to discover that his boyhood dreams were a fallacy: if you look at stars from outer space, they do not twinkle or glitter at all. The enchantment that had captivated him since he was an eight-year-old boy came solely from the earth’s atmosphere refracting millions of light particles raining down upon us from the rays of a dying sun. He remembered his Oupa’s words of long ago, which suddenly made sense after all these years: real magic is to be found here on earth. He had found it many summers ago, sitting inside the hollowed out trunk of his 1,000-year-old baobab tree.

And then in the light reflected in her kaffir eyes, he glimpsed what the universe and life truly were: the totality of the universe was just infinite light spheres blowing in and out of existence like ephemeral soap bubbles, each sphere having a different size but no total volume. Even when the spheres were compressed, this totality remained infinite. To try to catch it would be like catching infinity.

He gazed heavenwards, and up there, the sword of Orion blazed one last time in the afternoon Oxford skies, piercing the shimmering, iridescent moon.

“Catch the moon, my dear Professor,” Alice said. She watched the play of shadows across his face intently. “Let go of your stars.”

 

Photo: Fontvieille, April 2017

heart, universe, one word

Ars Amatoria

I want to put my lips

On your ribcage

Just a bit off to the left

Of your sternum

On your strong beating heart

The wings of a powerful hawk

On my mouth, my tongue

The turbulent flow

Of your life force

Whenever I do this to you

Your hands

Clenching and unclenching

Contracting and expanding

Like the universe inhaling

And exhaling

“Jac”, you breathed

The content of your heart

And your whole existence

Years of waiting

Contained in that one word

O Potestatem, my beloved

 

A short, cruel but beautiful love story……

It’s called Tadpole’s Promise, and it was written by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Tony Ross.

In the story, a caterpillar and tadpole meet, fall in love and promise each other to never change.

But of course, we know that tadpoles and caterpillars have to change to progress in life. Like them, we too cannot afford to be stuck. Our relationships have to evolve with the years. What happens then?

Once the Tadpole breaks his promise to the Caterpillar three times the Caterpillar gives up on her prince. The irony in the story is that the Caterpillar herself changes too. She turns into a Butterfly.

But because they stubbornly hung on to their idealism of perfection, they lost touch with each other.

And here’s the surprising, masterful part of the story: One day, the frog eats the Butterfly. Neither one of them realize they were once the Caterpillar and the Tadpole, the big loves of each other’s life.

Here’s a youtube clip of this story:

May I never lose you, Jay Dazzles.

Revisiting the road to happiness

In 2006, at the height of my career and living in Knightsbridge, I took a three-month sabbatical to meander off the beaten track in India. The reason was that I was earning in excess of £100,000, yet I never seemed to have enough money to treat myself. And all around me, I was surrounded by equally “poor”, discontented, superficially successful professionals in their 30-40’s who were in the same boat as I. I didn’t want to wake up one day to find out that a large chunk of my life had passed me by and that I had spent it being discontent and searching.

I had no fixed plans about where I was going, but I ended up in Rameswaram, the holy place for pilgrimage, and here, by the temples, I found a beggar who taught me the Sutras. I just sat beside him on the pavement reading from morning till noon, and passers-by would give us coins. At night, I would return to my simple digs and whenever I was hungry, I ate what the temple volunteers fed pilgrims: mainly watery dhal and chapati.  My sweet treat of the day would be the flavoursome little bananas that were found here.

And I was happy. I was away from my comfortable life, beautiful home and lovely family, but I was happy. I came back and wrote a book about being happy with nothing; it was more like a diary, really, about the thinking humans’ time-old quest for that illusive something called happiness.

The book became modestly successful and I returned to Rameswaram to find the old beggar. To my great joy, I found him! He was still begging in the same spot. The open sores in his legs had not gotten better. Nor had they gotten any worse. Everything was same-same.  I wondered if he remembered me.  I tried to give him money – spoils from the book – but he didn’t want it. For a while, I felt awful for exploiting him. I promised myself that someday, I would write a sequel to this book about the noble man in rags who had more wisdom in his little finger than the learned professionals I surrounded myself with.

I am revisiting this old road, this old topic, because I recently met a kindred soul on life’s rich journey. She – a businesswoman and mother of two – and I got to know each other when she came to the island I am currently living on for a week of peace, soul-searching, meditation and yoga.

We spoke about many topics. It started with the usual. Oh, how tough it is to achieve that work life balance. How difficult it is to keep everything together. The whole world is going crazy being overdosed on adrenaline. we don’t pause enough to connect with ourselves. We lose ourselves. We neglect our spiritual side.

This was when it got interesting for Nicola and I. What is spirituality? An overwhelmingly large number of people do not know (or can’t be bothered). “God”, “New Age”, “mung beans and lentils” or “sandals and socks”?

We talked animatedly round the subject, circling it, and coming back to it again and again.  What is it? it’s the part of us that needs to be acknowledged, the knowing that there is something beyond the smallness of our everyday life. It could be something as ubiquitous as a beautiful scenery in front of your eyes or a piece of music that stirs your soul.  Holding the hand of your loved one and feel the connection in your heart centre. In Nicola’s case, sitting on a boat with lots of tourists on a cheap day trip, with a bunch of folks eating potato crisps and a boy puking into a paper bag as the boat rocked her towards an island filled with tourists. Happy and at peace, despite the cacophony and mundane happenings.

For within that bustle and humdrum of living is to be found that nugget of bliss. Nicola told me about the book she is currently reading, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations by Thomas L. Friedman about the author’s gratitude for being kept waiting for it gave him the opportunity for reflection.

It reminded me of an enlightening book I read a long time ago one freezing winter in New York City with the imaginative title Shovelling Snow With Buddha by Billy Collins.

So, where does one find one’s spirituality?

Travel. Be on your own for days on end. Embrace growth and don’t be afraid of where the growth takes you. Take the time to meet yourself without the excuses, old pain, conditioning, past histories. Yeah, go shovel snow with Buddha.

Hearts and my mother Marion

The Cardiologist told me this beautiful tale about our hearts. I love the stories he tells, because they are shrouded in Eastern esoteric knowledge, folklores from a bygone world and also cutting edge medical research. He tells these stories when we walk my beloved South Downs, the Itchen Valley of my youth, the magical New Forest, the streets of London and in distant countries by the sea.

Over the years, it seems to me that he straddles the realms and he seamlessly merges the knowledge together oh so beautifully, though in the beginning I doubted him. But I have seen his strange beliefs working, in me, in my beating heart: he had patiently rebuilt my heart muscles every single evening during the dark nights and days of 2015-2016, when I was too weak to climb the six flights of stairs up to my eyrie.  We ran along the Embankment by Battersea Bridge every winter evening with my heart hooked to his. I still don’t know whether his contraption really worked, but it was a lifeline that I clung on to until I found my my own in my rebuilt heart.

When my heart went into difficulties, it sought his to find its life-saving rhythm again. It trusted his to lead it out of the infinite loop that it found itself in, that it was unable to escape from without help from somewhere, someone. My belief in him saved me.

He would put his ear against my chest with a frown on his face. “Ah,” he would say mysteriously. Sometimes, a smile would flit across his face.  He told me that during his training in cardiology, he would tape the heartbeats of as many patients as he could find and play those heartbeats back to him on his Sony Walkman, permanently attached to his ears,  until he was fluent in the language that hearts speak.

“That’s why I don’t always hear what you say, Jac, especially when you are nagging,” he often joked, and then with seriousness, “But I hear your heart all the time.”

This is something beautiful he told me a few evenings ago in rainy London, sitting in a pub near where we used to run every evening.  He told me that when a person suffers emotional trauma, his heart shifts its position within the ribcage. It could be a few millimetres or even centimetres.  I guess that’s why it feels like a physical pain sometimes, when someone or something hurts us deeply.

“Is it possible for a heart to move physically?” I mused.

He who held beating hearts in his hands many times said “Yes” with utter conviction.  “The power of thought alone can move a robotic arm, so this is no different. Science will bear this view of mine out in a few years’ time.”

He said that his heart had shifted a lot in the year that his mother died (when he was eight) and the brutal years in an English boarding school that followed his mother’s early death. He grew up learning to live with his heart in a different place.

“But when I walked into your mother’s house for the very first time, when she opened her arms to me and smiled at me with that big smile of hers, I felt something move in me. It was my heart, Jac, going back to its original place.”

 

The White Horse

In Catching Infinity, I wrote about 14-year-old Alice biking all the way from Jericho in the city of Oxford to the village of Uffington, where the White Horse had danced for 3,000 years, so big that it is visible from the skies. Here, she had lain quietly, alone,  looking at the stars and thinking about her love 8,272 miles away in Cape Town, South Africa.

Nobody knows precisely who or what civilisation created the White Horse of Uffington, only that every year, on chalking day for thousands of years, people had come here to clean the Horse. This tradition still goes on to this very day, with teams of volunteers turning up to clean and chalk this ancient monument of beauty. You can read the article on Smithsonian here.

I wrote this poem on May 16th, 2016:

ON BEING ENGLISH

When I close my eyes
And kiss your lips
I hear the winds
Of Uffington Castle
Singing in my ears
And the White Horse
Of Oxfordshire
Dances behind my eyelids
Hooves pounding in my heart
As the unmistakable taste of
An Englishman
strong on my lips
Each time I kiss you
Open your eyes
Show me your colours
Whatever you may say
Stop fighting me
Lay down your sword

Let go of
Your strength
Love yourself
And love me
Don’t give away
Your nationality
Don’t give away
Me
Together we are bound
By the heartbeats
Of our fair England
For Cross of St George
And my Englishman
My fire burns

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If you are interested to become part of the white horse of Uffington’s chalking team, please click on the National Trust’s website to volunteer.