17 March 2006

Put that basket down

Last night, I went to a talk on ‘Living lightly’ at the meditation centre that’s now become my second home (a haven of peace, tranquillity and beauty). Sister Shashi, a famous meditation teacher, was there to enlighten us about this great way of living. She got us mesmerised for an hour, and in stitches at times too. She is a brilliant speaker. You wouldn’t expect this sort of speaker in a meditation centre.

One of the most vivid images that keeps playing in my mind is the one of a man who boards a train carrying a heavy basket on his head, and sits down but keeps the basket on his head.

Why doesn’t he put it down, stupid man?

Well, this is what we all do with our ‘baggage’ in life – we’re so attached to it that we keep it with us, at all times. We’ve taken the announcements that we hear in train stations and airports too literally.

Of course, what does this extra luggage do? It weighs us down, slows us down, wears us down. It prevents us from moving forward. Most of all, this baggage being about our past and our worries about the future, it prevents us from enjoying the present.

Last night, it was suddenly quite clear that carrying these superfluous suitcases (gone over my 20kg allowance, have I?), thinking about the extra weight all the time, was a complete waste of time. What is past is past. I should learn the lessons that those events have taught me, yes, but then I should move on and stop thinking about them. As for the future, I will never be able to control it, so it’s best left to its own devices.

I then asked myself why I was so determined to solve all my past problems: it’s because I want my life to be perfect. Perfectionist that I am, I want my life perfect not only in the present, but also in the past, and of course in the future, too. But this doesn’t make sense! I will never be able to prevent my future from being imperfect, and I will never be able to put my past right! It’s too late, it’s all buried in the ashes of time and will never be resurrected to be changed, so how can I make it perfect now? I can’t! I guess I’m hoping that by trying to make my past perfect, I can make my present perfect.

I then understood that this quest for perfection actually makes my life in the present even less perfect than it could be. Any time I try to make my present perfect, it becomes the past already. While I endeavour to make my entire life perfect, the present is absent, as it were. Trying to perfect the present is not being in the present, it’s not staying present, and it’s certainly not enjoying the present. It’s only about control and perfectionism. I would say that these two aspects make up about 50% of the load that is making me bow like an old lady and slowing me down on my journey through life.

If you rummage around the basket, you will also find things that I’ve grown attached to, such as resentment towards my parents for having done this or not done that, negativity (make that 30% of the rest of the load!), some kind of mild anger directed at life (for not being as easy as it could be), and just complexity in general – I seem to love complexity! For example, I want to be happy but at the same time kind of refuse all the happiness that life throws at me (‘Being happy all the time? What is the fun in that?’ seems to ask my unconscious).

When I left the centre last night, I did feel lighter, literally uplifted, and I kept that feeling with me all through the night: whenever I woke up (I’ve got a bad cold at the moment!), I remembered Shisha’s words and I went back to sleep feeling like a wispy cloud moving effortlessly towards the rays of the sun. This morning, I did my first guided meditation (I bought a CD last night), which was all about Light – imagining blue, pink and golden light surrounding my body. But I also took the word to mean ‘weightless’. So my entire being was bright, colourful and light. It was amazing. I floated outside of my body and couldn’t feel anything – my skin was numb. For the first time in meditation, the imperfections of my body didn’t prevent me from forgetting it completely. Bliss!

What is your basket made of? And are you going to put it down, or at least take a few things out and throw them out of the window, leaving them behind you for ever?


Nearly eleven years.

I’ve been in this country for nearly eleven years and I still can’t master the art of understanding perfectly everything that people tell me on the other end of the line when I call, say, BT, my bank, my car insurance, my mobile phone provider or Virgin Trains.

It sounds like, whatever company you ring these days, you always end up in a call centre that is in, as we say in French, Peta-ou-shnock or Trifouilly-les-Oies – in other words at the other end of the UK, in a tiny sleepy town in Scotland or Ireland (when it’s not on the other side of the world, in India for example). You always end up talking to a guy from one of these places who mumbles and speaks very fast, and who, irritatingly, doesn’t understand that the principle behind me asking ‘Could you repeat, please?’ is so that their words can be repeated more slowly and more clearly. Soooo frustrating!

The other day, I spent twenty minutes on a phone call to the bank instead of five (an irritation in itself, of course – they thought it was the right time to sell me a new product and I thought it was the right time to say, ‘Yes, go on then’) and half of that time was spent doing a sort of pas de deux, me asking ‘Sorry, could you repeat please?’ or uttering, disconcerted and flustered, ‘Sorry, I really don’t understand’, and the operator repeating in exactly the same way what he had just said.

Me, bilingual? Think again! If after nearly eleven years I still can’t understand people in these call centres, there is no hope that I ever will. It makes me sad. There is no such thing as bilingualism...

Then again, I can’t always understand a Quebequois or a Belgian when they speak French. And isn’t a Scot or an Irishman the equivalent of a Belgian, in terms of language (and of course, in terms of all the jokes that are made at their expense, in England and France respectively)? So maybe it is normal after all – accents do vary greatly, and our ear is not trained to understand them all.

Although, come to think of it, I don’t even always understand my own parents when they speak to me over the phone – yes! even in French, and no! with no specific accent. So maybe it’s just a phone thing.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s just that language itself is elusive, whether it’s the one you have been speaking ever since you were born, or whether it’s the one you have been learning for 18 years...

10 March 2006

Hay-on-Wye, Town of Books, Town of Love

We met on the internet. It was my mother who suggested I try. I thought she had gone mad. She said, ‘A lot of young women do it nowadays, it seems to be the new way to meet people, you should give it a go.’

Believe it or not, four months later, carrying out my first New Year Resolution of 2003, I was subscribing to datingdirect.com, paying a fee for three months and starting to get obsessed with meeting all these interesting men.

Internet dating – I was the first among my friends to experiment with it, and I was the first to be successful, too. I never looked back. I have not had to go back on the site since meeting the man who turned out to be The One. It is quite incredible. One of my friends made me realise, the day I told her he had proposed, how extraordinary it had all been. She said, ‘I want to have a love story like yours!’ I had never quite appreciated how fantastic my love life had indeed been. We met, we moved in together five months later, we bought a house a year after that, we got engaged six months later, and now we’re getting married! (Don’t know about babies yet – see ‘Motherhood’ post below.)

Monsieur l’Anglais, for lack of a better nickname, loves books as much as I do. However, he reads ten times faster, so although he possesses around 250 books, he has read every single one of them (except for the last six he bought on Sunday), while I have about 600 books (I haven’t actually counted them – I suspect it could well be more) and have only read... 100? If that. This is because I’m a bookshop-aholic. I can’t get into a bookshop without buying at least one book. The dilemma is that I can rarely just buy one book – so in fact, I can’t walk into a bookshop without coming out laden with plastic bags full of books.

It is my only sin, though – am I forgiven? It’s a nice fault to have, I think (except when I panic because I have too many books dying to be read... [see ‘To all writers’ post below]).

So when Monsieur l’Anglais turned up at our first meeting holding a Waterstone’s bag (not full to bursting with books, but it was the easily recognisable black plastic bag nonetheless), I knew things would go well. It was a very good sign.

So what better place to ask me to marry him than Hay-on-Wye, when we went in July last year? We had done a car boot sale in June and had decided to use the profits to go to Hay for a couple of days. My then-friend and now-bridesmaid had told me so many times, ‘You really should go, you would love it!’ – and we were finally going! But I would never have guessed that Hay would become synonymous with (hopefully eternal) love and would mark a new episode in our lives.

On the Saturday evening, we went for a stroll around town after our meal. It was 10.30pm and Monsieur l’Anglais was getting a little anxious (so he told me later) – many bookshops, books, drinks and hours after our arrival, there still had been no perfect moment to propose... until we went through a kissing gate, in a field close to the river Wye. It was there, after a brief bisou, that he popped the question.

I was so shocked that my English got all muddled and for a few seconds I thought he’d meant ‘Will you...’ in the sense of ‘Some day in the future, will you...’. There had been no getting down on one knee, no telltale sign that something like that was coming, so I wasn’t ready in any way for this kind of question. But it then dawned on me that he had actually just asked THE question, silly me – and of course, I said yes. As I did, he produced a ring between his thumb and forefinger, as if out of nowhere. Like a magic ring. It was so sudden that, again, it took me a second or two to fully comprehend that it was a real ring and that he really was asking me to marry him – NOW! Not for the future, not as a joke... but NOW, and with immediate implications! He slipped the ring around my finger, and it was the perfect size. Clever and Opportunistic Monsieur l’Anglais had taken to the jewellery shop the ring I normally wore every day but for some reason had left on my bedside table for the past few days, a ring that only fitted on this symbolic finger (a gift from my parents), and he managed to find a beautiful solitaire that was exactly the same size. I was very impressed with his sneakiness!

Today, we’ve only got four months and a bit to wait before we say ‘I do’. I hope I won’t get my tenses confused again and won’t say ‘I did’ or something daft like that. What’s for sure is: I can’t wait for our big day!

9 March 2006


Will I ever be ready? Sometimes it feels like I’m still a child myself. Sometimes it feels like I left France and my childhood only a few months ago. (Yet it’s been nearly 11 years, and I’m going to turn thirty soon...) So how can I even contemplate having a baby? At times I’m scared that I’ll have too many tribulations of my own to be able to cope with my child’s – I fear that it will be up to my child to help and support me, not vice versa...

I occasionally think ‘I can’t wait to be a mother!’ and I imagine what the baby, then toddler, then child would be like and how fun it would all be! ... But at other times, all I can think about is the lack of freedom, the lack of time (to write, to read, to see my friends, to go out, to rest, to sleep), the lack of peace, the worry...

I simply can’t imagine a different life – for I know our lives would be completely changed. I have finally reached a point where I’m content with my lot (most of the time), so I really don’t want things to change (or indeed, to change them, active verb, for it would be our decision to change them...). That murky, muddy, troubled water at the bottom of the lake of my life is now far, far down, my roots getting longer and driving me away from it every day, but it’s taken some getting used to – life without the murk, life on the surface, surrounded by clean air, life with joy, on my big green ‘leaf of stability’... Will having a child disturb those dark waters and send some sandy mud up to the surface?

Until recently, it felt like my life was upside down all the time. Now, it’s finally the right way up (though still a bit wonky sometimes) – why would I want to turn my life upside down again (and this time voluntarily)?

On a different note, I am terrified that the day I’m finally ready and really want a child, I’ll be told that I (we) can’t conceive. This morning, I realised I would have had all this worry for nothing.

So back to meditation again – only the present counts. In bed this morning, I shed a few angry tears at the realisation that my life was still and always wonky; that the smallest worry, the tiniest analysing thought sends me right back to instability, that imbalance that I hate so much. But suddenly, I remembered – Only The Present Counts. And as I thought about the present – my warm cosy bed, the roof over my head, the singing birds outside, my fiancĂ© next to me – I realised that in the present, I do feel stable. It was such a relief! ‘I can be stable!’ I wanted to shout! As long as I don’t think about the past and don’t worry about the future, as long as I live in the moment, I feel pretty happy, quite content with my life. It’s as soon as I start reflecting on what was, what could have been, what could be, what should be and what I think will be that I become unhappy.

So – motherhood? Well, I’m sure it’s like marriage. You’re not ready for it for ages, and suddenly that’s all you can think about. Let’s wait for that day – for that moment, that present.

8 March 2006

To all writers

I think I have a problem. Almost certainly most writers out there will think it’s a nice problem to have, but at the moment I still consider it a dilemma.

I have too many ideas! I want to write in too many different genres, I want to write too many stories at once (does that count as three problems?). Then again, I can’t read less than three books at the same time, so no wonder I can’t write less than three novels/short stories/articles at the same time! (Of course, I don’t mean literally at the same time – I mean having three or more books on the go. For example, at the moment, I am reading five books: The Electric Michelangelo, The Shadow of the Wind, Agatha Christie’s autobiography, Desert Solitaire and Status Anxiety. I guess I like variety.)

Why is it that I automatically assume that anything I do, however I do it, is a weakness rather than a strength? It took a lot of cogitation but I have finally come to understand that having several ideas for several genres is an advantage. I have realised that while one short story matures at the back of my brain, my novel can be written; while an article is put to rest for a few weeks, I can edit a few pages of my children’s novel. The brain doesn’t stop thinking about all these projects just because you have stopped working on them. Au contraire – it does all the background work, and when you come back to that article/story/novel, you can see it with fresh eyes and have new ideas to add to it. You also have the distance that you need to read it critically and edit it. And all the while, the ‘resting’ time, the ‘distancing’ time was used efficiently to work on another piece of writing! Fantastic!

Yes... except that if I’m not careful, there still is one slight problem – I panic. I suffer from ‘Too many books to write’ syndrome. And usually, I want to read the kind of books that I want to write, so I also suffer from ‘Too many books to read’ syndrome. Not a good place to be.

That’s when meditation comes into play, I suppose. One thing at a time, one book at a time, one idea at a time. Go with the flow, go with the inspiration. Even if I’m going to write in three different genres that day, I still need to focus on whatever I’m doing, the moment I’m doing it. Even if I spend only 15 minutes on my latest short story and then switch to a page of my novel, let these 15 minutes count and make them productive. As long as I write, I’m OK, I’m making progress. And maybe one day, my projects will all be finished at roughly the same time and I’ll have this massive pile of manuscripts to send off!

If only...

7 March 2006


I had my first meditation class last Wednesday. As you would expect, we all had to introduce ourselves – name, why we were there and what we were hoping to get out of this four-week course.

The woman sitting next to me told us that she was attending this class because her husband had died a few months ago and she wanted to feel at peace and be strong enough to carry on with her life, without him. She was only about 45. She had tried meditation before, and the only week she had been able to do meditation every morning and every evening, she had managed to experience some kind of happiness. After that, she gradually gave up meditating and she lost the blissful joy she had felt. She wanted to get it back, she said, barely managing to contain her tears.

Then it was my turn. What could I say after such moving words? I explained that my New Year resolution was to try meditation, that I had done a one-day retreat at the beginning of January, and that I now wanted to learn meditation properly. I was so stunned by my neighbour’s words that I forgot to tell everyone what I was hoping to get out of it.

Well, here is the answer: a sense of peace in my everyday life; being able to stay present, no matter what happens; being able to stop the flow of thoughts that stalk my brain every minute of the day and to retreat to the blissfulness of the present, where everything is peaceful and quiet. When I do get to that place, I feel relaxed and content. Contentment is hard to sustain, though... But it seems that an excellent way to stay happy, or joyful, is to meditate regularly.

Last week, I discovered that meditation is nothing extraordinary. It reassured me – I didn’t want to become one of those weird people who see things, or who can suddenly sense things that nobody else can. Now I know I can meditate and remain just as I am. I learned that meditation is only about clearing your head of the whirlwind of thoughts that attack it every second. This can only be achieved by focusing on just one thing. This ‘thing’ varies from person to person. For the first time, I managed to find a 'thing' that works for me. I wish I could say I had come up with it myself, but it was actually the teacher who helped me find it. At one point during his first guided meditation, he said, 'Imagine yourself on top of your head, on top of yourself.' Immediately, I could picture a miniature version of myself sitting in the lotus position in my skull, just behind my eyes. I know it sounds a bit strange, but the fact that I could finally focus on something without it eluding me within three seconds was a miracle. Yes, I had tried some form of meditation on my own, picturing a black screen, or a white screen, or just 'nothing', but I could never sustain this focus. Now, imagining 'myself within myself' provided me with the deepest sense of connection I had ever had.

I've since discovered that this powerful image of me within me, in the lotus position – a posture of total relaxation – is also useful when I'm not meditating. If I ever feel a little tense, or worried, I can just conjure it up and feel calm – or calmer, at least.

This is how I came to choose the blog name 'Lotus Flower' for myself. It has nothing to do with my looks, in case you're wondering. Yes, lotus flowers are a stunning species and their beauty does not cease to amaze me, but calling myself 'Lotus Flower' certainly doesn't mean that my physical traits reflect theirs. The reason why I chose it is because I could hardly call myself 'Lotus Position', and 'Lotus Flower' was the closest rational name to select. Then when I thought about the deep, long roots that connect this beautiful flower to the sandy mud that lies at the bottom of the pond or lake they live in, I realised that this name really was appropriate. That is me, if you think of the flower in terms of character rather than looks. On the surface, I am full of joy, I have a colourful, bubbly personality, but underneath, somewhere deep down, the water is somewhat dark and troubled. However, little by little, my roots are getting longer and longer. They are pushing me away from the murky bottom of the lake of my life and my green leaf is growing wider and wider, providing me with more and more stability.

Dave McNeill, on http://www.sgi-usa.org/publications/world_tribune/b2b/thelotusflower.htm,
said it best:
'The lotus [...] grows in mud, the deeper and muckier the better. Yet it stays pristine. Though mud clings to the leaves of most plants, not so with the lotus. Nothing sticks. [...] Out of the muddy swamp blossoms the pure lotus. Out of our swamp of suffering springs our Buddhahood. Thanks to the mud, the lotus can survive. Thanks to all the problems we have to face, we can reveal the power within us.'

I firmly believe that. It's in the darkest skies that you can see the brightest stars. May meditation help me grow even further away from the shadows.