10. Mentor and Lackey Update (See 8)

Both positions now vacant.  Bit of a boo boo.


9. Meeting an ex from 25 years ago

X was my second love.  A big love.  One that formed the imprint for what I still look for in a partner.  One that, even though the split was ancient history, still had some hold over me.

I took the opportunity to look him up recently and we met for lunch.  Why?  Partly to satisfy my curiosity and partly because I was visiting the area and it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

I predicted he’d be bald, bearded and gay.  He wasn’t.  A little grey and broader in the face.  I’d forgotten the slightly crooked front tooth that stopped his beautiful face from being bland.  His way of moving, the relaxed laugh.

It’s a funny thing to spend time with someone you were once so intimate with.  Who you knew so well in that young immature way and of course who you barely knew at all too.  He was happy and well and we had a nice lunch.  You can’t tell or ask everything you might want to in a hour but it laid a ghost to rest.

It also reminded me of the qualities I so appreciated in him that are still important to me.  Without any of the angst and arguing that were a feature of our relationship.

An intense engagement with the world.  Curiosity and humour.  Treading your own path.

Thank you, X.

8. Mentor and lackey

Nearly a year ago I decided I really needed a mentor and a lackey. A mentor to gently challenge and stretch my ambition and a lackey to do all those grunt work boring tasks that take the edge off a day.  I identified someone for the mentor role but never quite plucked up the nerve to ask.  As things turned out, he’s been a much better unofficial mentor through conversation and my picking out the ideas and philosophies of his I find helpful.  I can say the same of various friends, writers and activists out in the world living by their values.

So it was a very pleasant surprise to meet someone at an event recently who volunteered themselves as a mentor.  We had our first session today and I’ve found it really useful.

The lackey position remains vacant.

7. Vipassana

Vipassana means to see things as they really are.

I spent ten days over Christmas and New Year on a hilltop in North Norfolk with fifty other women sitting in silence and learning the particular Vipassana meditation technique SN Goenka’s organisation teaches.

The silence was surprisingly easy. I was less good at the no eye contact; it’s hard to totally disconnect from your fellow humans when you’re sharing space.

The first three days were about settling into a new routine (up at 4:00, bland breakfast, bland lunch, hours and hours of sitting meditation, evening tea and fruit, an evening ‘discourse’ DVD of Goenka explaining the practice and philosophy) and allowing both body and mind to adjust to the task at hand.

On day four we started Vipassana proper.  This meant we moved from observing our breath as it went in and out of our nostrils, or “nose-trills” as Goenke likes to call them, to observing all bodily sensations as we scanned from head to toe.  At this point I cracked.  The big reveal, the start of real Vipassana, was a glorified body scan introduced in a 90 minute meditation!  I was furious with myself.  Had I really driven all this way and committed all this time for this?  I stomped back to my shared room after the session and swore loudly, thinking I was alone.  A delicate cough from the corner informed me that I was not.

I stuck it out and each day an additional bit of guidance in the discourses and a deeper commitment to the practice started to pay off.   Some days were better than others.  I completely lost focus on day 7.  With time running out on day 9 I booked to see the teacher to ask a question on the technique and that helped.

Boredom was my worst enemy.  There is nothing to do but meditate.  No books, nothing to write on, no talking, no exercise. The complete lack of stimulus meant I had to get on with both the meditation and the thoughts in my head or get angry and frustrated.  It’s a form of benign brain washing.  The discourses proved humorous, wise, helpful and wacky in equal measures.  The entire course is taught by audio and video of SN Goenka.  You become very familiar with every nuance of the man’s voice as he chants and speaks at you several times a day.  The chanting was often very slow, tuneless and faintly comic.  On the first day there were several girls shaking with suppressed laughter.

The theory goes that by observing your bodily sensations and learning to respond to them without aversion or craving, you are training your subconscious to respond a little more evenly to events, rather than reacting in habitual and often unhelpful ways.  This makes sense to me.  Whether those ten days have made a small difference to my responses is hard to tell.  I hope so.  It was hard work.

On the last afternoon of the last day we were released from Noble Silence.  We eagerly compared notes and laughed about aspects of our experience.  Responses varied hugely from “I wouldn’t recommend this to my worst enemy” to “I now know how to make moral decisions” and one girl described how a severe physical condition has started to get better for the first time in years.  There were tears.

I think I had expected some kind of baptism of fire.  What I actually found was something more subtle and just as valuable.  It was a very real type of resilience and confidence that I have the tools and resources for my own salvation.

6. Change the hand you use in the toilet

I hadn’t considered this one as a particular challenge, but life conspired to put me to the test.  I’ve damaged my right shoulder.  It’s a rotator cuff injury that makes certain movements extremely painful.  Putting that arm into a jacket sleeve, doing up a bra or seat belt, reaching across at an angle. Oh yes, and using toilet paper.  I’m right handed so I’ve been learning to compensate with a series of altered movements and techniques.  Some tasks just need the other hand so my very clumsy left arm is having a lot of new experiences. It’s a good test of patience and willingness to be incompetent as I perform familiar actions with an arm that finds them alien.

5. Conversation Dinner

Last night I ran my first conversation meal.  I think it went ok.  I’ve wanted to do it since I first heard of the idea via The School of Life and waited until I’d been to one run by the London Philosophy Club before attempting to run one myself.  In a fit of enthusiasm and then rapid failure of nerve I advertised a dinner and cancelled it earlier this year when bookings were slow.   This time I kept it small at 8 people and a nice mix of people come along and talked and ate. I’m waiting for feedback but I want to run more.


4. Life Drawing

I went to see Sue MacLaine‘s show Still Life.   She performs as Henrietta Moraes in a life drawing class set up. The audience had boards, paper and pencils and Sue/Henrietta held poses for a few minutes between talking to us about her life.  I loved it.  Especially the drawing.  And the different way of looking.

My first attempts


3. The Whispering Gallery at St.Paul’s

A glorious sunny day.  One of the warm blue sky days of September.  Up all those stairs to the Whispering Gallery and on up two more sets of steps for the wrap around views of London from the top of the dome.

This was a great suggestion.  The gallery itself is fun. You put your head to the wall and whisper your message along its side.  People on the far side of the gallery can hear you as clearly as if you are standing next to them.  It’s strangely intimate to hear the words of a person you can barely see on the other side of the dome.  The sound takes a few beats to travel from mouth to ear.   I wondered how many marriage proposals had been made and accepted there.

The stairs leading to the gallery are broad and wide, and there are places to rest on the way up.  It’s all very civilised.  Once in the gallery the floor below does seem a long way away but not in a vertigo inducing way.

The real treat for me was climbing further up metal stairs to the outside walkways with fantastic views over London.  I passed several people with a fear of heights slowly making their way up, being encouraged by friends and partners.  At the highest viewing point, a man had one foot on the viewing platform, one inside the building and both arms firmly around the side of the building.  He got his view but nothing would make him venture outside to get the full effect.

After the whispering and the views I had a wander around the cathedral itself.  I lit candles for two friends.  Sat and listened to a brief service.

When I next saw the friend who suggested this visit, I told him how much I’d enjoyed it.  His face fell slightly.  I assumed he’d suggested it because it was an experience he’d enjoyed.  He’d always wanted to go and thought it might be something fun to do together.  Lesson learned.

Your ticket, if you gift aid it, is valid for a year.

I plan to visit many more times.

2. Running

OK so the actual suggestion was to run a half marathon but I thought I’d start with a smaller mountain. I’m not a runner. I like to hike and sing and dance.  Running was something I thought it would be great to like – the fitness, the minimal kit requirements, the joy of being able to do it anywhere, the runner’s high! The actual running didn’t seem much fun, though.

So I didn’t think this one would be one I’d do.  Then a friend suggested we do a 5K as a challenge. In a few month’s time. ‘Let’s do it’, I said and that evening downloaded a beginner runner to 5K schedule.

The first run (run a minute, walk 3 minutes, repeat 6 times) was surprisingly manageable once I got over the shock of feeling bits of me wobble that I hadn’t expected.  I’ve been following the schedule ever since, running three times a week, each run slightly more challenging than the one before.  I’ve bought a pair of trainers, learned not to be embarrassed by my slow speed and, joy of joys, can now (sometimes) run the allocated minutes without willing the seconds to pass on my stopwatch.

In the beginning the weather was beautiful and the sky pretty.  It’s harder to get out there now it’s colder and rainier.  I’ve discovered my local park does free timed 5Ks every weekend so I have no excuse for not running the 5K at the end of the schedule.  I’m not sure I’ve acquired a running habit but the clever schedule allows me to hit mini goals three times a week and doesn’t seem to ask for more than I can manage.

Who knew?  I run with all the style and grace of a very old man but I’m feeling good.

1. Prison Visit

I was having a quick cuppa and catch up with my cousin Phil, who runs Enterprise for Change.  He came up instantly with a great suggestion.  Would I come into Lewes prison as a volunteer mentor to spend an hour with one of the young men his organisation had been working with?  And could I do it in two Wednesday’s time?  Yes, and yes.

Phil gave me the young man’s (let’s call him N) business plan to review so I could go through it with him during my visit.   My background is business and finance so I was able to pick out the best areas to discuss during our one hour meeting.  The business plan represented many months work and an opportunity to do something worthwhile on his release, which was imminent.

The day arrived and Phil met me after I’d checked in at the gate and gone through the first set of secure doors.  We then proceeded through a huge number of locked gates and doors until we reached the area where I was to meet N.  It was my first time inside a prison. Nothing can prepare you for the starkness of the environment and complete lack of visual stimulation.  It looked like prisons I’d seen on TV but I’d forgotten until I was inside how overwhelmingly male an environment it was.  All the prisoners and guards, bar one, were men.

N was charming, bright and full of excitement.  His plans clearly meant a lot to him and he was hungry for both advice and encouragement.  It was a really good meeting.  For the hour of the meeting I laid aside the strangeness of the experience, the slight claustrophobia and desire to gawp and take it all in and concentrated on the young man sitting in front of me.  He’s out now and I hope all is going well for him.

Phil gave me a mini tour of the prison after the meeting and so I saw the old Victorian parts and met the resident owl (really).

It gave me a taste of mentoring young people and I’ve since volunteered as a business expert for a student competition at a local college which was really good fun.

A good experience all round.  Thanks Phil!