Tuesday 27 October 2015

Compassion, hope and encouragement: my choice of travel companions

This morning, over a cup of my favourite Assam tea, I sat and looked at the gorgeous autumn colours in the garden.  The sky was grey and there was drizzle in the air but the tree opposite my window glowed.  Its golden leaves lit everything like a beacon.  I began to imagine that it symbolised a person who was full of love and compassion.  When you meet someone like that, it's exactly what they do: glow and light up the space.

It has turned out to be a beautiful train of thought, because I have started to think of all the people I know who glow like this.  There are quite a few.  One I remember from my childhood.  Whenever she met my sister and me in the town where we grew up, she would bathe us in her glow of love and compassion.  She always had encouraging things to say, a cuddle and a gift; there was always a gift. What I remember though is her glow.  It came from within and bathed us all so that even now, decades later, I feel its warmth.  It is a touching memory.
Wouldn't it be wonderful to glow like that?  To feel deep love and compassion first for yourself and then for everything around you.  That's what she had, I'm sure of it, a loving compassion for herself which simply spread.  I know others who radiate the same.  I'm grateful for their presence in my life and for the memory of some of them this morning.

Compassion for myself, cutting myself some slack, has been my 'theme' this past week and I've been horrible to live with as I try to take my less than compassionate self on board!  The gorgeous autumn trees and the people they symbolise have reminded me it is simply about love.

I'm going to save hope and encouragement for a future post.  My yoga mat calls.

Kelly x

All photos © Andrew Holman.

Friday 23 October 2015

The man with a name. Havana

We took pastries to the Parque Alejandro de Humboldt on our last day in Havana: cigarillos, the least sugary treat available from the cabinets of biscuits, cakes and pastries so sweet that even looking at them sent your glucose levels skywards. The queues for them stretched out of San José bakery into Calle Obispo every day. Sugar, along with tobacco and sunshine - all plentiful in Cuba - must surely be pillars of the Cuban Revolution.  
The square was busier than usual.  Some of the old ladies from the day care centre had stepped outside to enjoy a cigarette under the shade of the palm trees.  In the corner, an outdoor hairdressing salon had set up.  Trainees were getting in some practice, offering trims and re-styles to passers-by who could have a new look for free if they were willing to risk a scalping.  We found a bench and settled to watch.  
The park had become one of our favourite lunchtime spots, a cool oasis to rest after mornings spent walking the streets of Old Havana beneath an ever brighter sun.  Each day we shared the shady benches with familiar faces, mostly old gentlemen who seemed to have no place to go and who we came to think of as lunchtime buddies.  They, dotted around the small park, had no idea we thought of them as part of our lunchtime gang but were always pleased to see us.  

It had started with spare bananas.  We always had spare bananas, at first by accident, then deliberately.  Cuban bananas are tiny and delicate in flavour, it felt good to share and enjoy them together.     

Today one of the old gentlemen sat opposite.  A free haircut walked along the path between us: a young woman, red around the ears. Our friend raised his eyebrows skyward.  I smiled.  It seemed neither of us were sure about the Mohican she had chosen.  It broke the ice.  We offered him a cigarillo with the usual bananas and then munched in companionable silence as a man walked by with a parrot on his shoulder and a group practised walking up and down the rehabilitation ramp at the centre with their Zimmer frames.   
One of our lunchtime buddies
We had brought a bag of small gifts too, items difficult to find here that we did not need to take home.  Giving, even with the best intentions, can be tricky.  Our friend became uncomfortable.  He made us understand he was not a beggar, did not expect anything from us.  In what was, for me, one of the most poignant moments of our trip, he pulled out an identity card and showed it to me. The print was too small to read his name but I understand it wasn't about that.  He wanted to say he was someone, a proud human soul like everyone else.  I had never doubted it.

Sharing was the answer.  How about, we suggested, he might share the items with anyone who needed them.  We were going home - quick miming of aeroplane wings to make that point - and wouldn't be able to.  This made everyone smile.   As he left he hugged and kissed me. 

We saw him twice more, but he did not see us.  The first time, on the next morning before we left for the airport, he was rummaging through the bins.  The second time, a month later, he appeared on a Channel 4 news bulletin.  It was about the promise of change in Cuba with improving US relations.

He was sitting on a kerbside in a street, watching the world go by.  He looked the same as ever.        
Parque Alejandro de Humboldt

All photos © Andrew Holman.

Tuesday 20 October 2015

What is helping me travel hopefully this week

Bronze plaque by Alexander Sambugnac.  Havana 

This bronze plaque adorns a tomb in Havana's famous Colón Cemetery.  It is not exactly the 'correct' pose, but this beautiful woman has become my yoga Goddess.  I love the visible strength in her core (determination, willpower, strength, courage), and the way she is opening her heart to life and love (vulnerability and courage).  I crave her serenity even as she is striking her asana.  She has an air of accepting the moment just as it is.

I, meanwhile, may wish I were Goddess but am entirely human, and this week my challenge is to cut myself some slack.  I am learning to use yoga postures to explore my boundaries, physically but more crucially, emotionally.  Physically, can I find a little extra strength, but also be gentle with myself and not push too hard at the edges?  Emotionally, I am asking myself why I still head butt my boundaries?  Why do I feel I should be strong at every moment?  The idea makes me laugh at myself, yet, as my Mum's health declines further after years of Alzheimer's, I still think I should be able to take every new sadness in my stride without stumbling.

Yoga is showing me that there is a Goddess in all of us, but it doesn't mean that we are perfect.  I know I am not alone in beating myself up because I do not achieve the goals I set for myself and because I can't make everything right for my Mum.  That's why I'm sharing my vulnerability today, opening my heart.

Cutting myself some slack turns out not to be lazy, weak or uncaring but compassionate.  And if I can't show compassion to myself, who else can I show it to?

Namasté ~ The Goddess* in me salutes the Goddess in you


*Usually translated as 'Spirit' but I'm allowing myself a little creative imperfection today. x

All photos © Andrew Holman.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Abbaye St. Georges de Boscherville, Haute-Normandie

There are places that speak to you.  This is one of mine.  I never tire of visiting the Abbaye St. Georges de Boscherville in Normandy.  There is an atmosphere here that always sets me aglow.  I have been inside the Abbey and I know that it is a beautifully preserved building, but that's not it.  I spend most of my time wandering the gardens.  There is something about them as they bask on their sunny hillside rolling down to the Seine which feels privileged, blessed even. More than a millennium before the Benedictine Abbey was constructed in the 12th century, this place was chosen for pagan and early Christian worship and burial.  As I wander around, I get an instinctive sense of that long spiritual tradition and of why people chose to practice it here.

Today's gardens are a modern 'reconstruction' of those laid out by monks in the 17th century, but that's a detail: the spirit of the place pervades them as, I like to dream, it has always done.  They are beautiful; there is a potager with fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers; an orchard; a vineyard; a scent garden; a maze; a shady terrace of pleached plane trees.  Depending on the season, different parts of the garden shine.  In autumn, the trees hang low with Normandy apples and the vines drip with grapes.  As I wander through them all, I hum with contentment - rather like a bee!  In the enclosed scent garden, to one side of the abbey, the perfume held on the still air is intoxicating. There is a sublime fragrance I can't identify.  I think it is a variety of 'sarcococca', a sweet box  It is as potent as incense from a censer.

La Vierge à l'enfant by Jean-Marc de Pas
In the cloister, Jean-Marc de Pas's sculpture, La Vierge à l'enfant, twinkles at me in a way it has not done before.  Suddenly, I appreciate how it speaks of the universality of love.  It radiates unity: the child a part of the mother, the mother a part of the child, the individual a part of the whole, the whole a part of the individual: a message that extends beyond religious boundaries. 

L'Abbaye St. Georges is in the village of St. Martin de Boscherville.  It's a stone's throw from Rouen and a practical place to stop en route to and from the Channel tunnel.  Right next to the abbey is an excellent bed and breakfast, Les Hostises de Boscherville, which meets more earthly needs.  It's like a boutique hotel but with a friendly family atmosphere.  The beds are super comfortable, the food is home-made with local produce and there is Normandy cider to go with it.

From every room is a picture postcard view of the abbey and when, at 7am, the first bells of the day call you from bed to look out, you may find the abbey rising up out of a magical mist that has risen silently from the Seine overnight.      

All photos © Andrew Holman.

Friday 9 October 2015

A Spool of Blue Thread

When I love a book, I gulp it down like a mug of my favourite Assam tea.  I run with the emotional impact of the writing, the impression it makes on my heart.  It's like falling in love for a while.  To appreciate the detail, I have to put the kettle on again, go back to the beginning of the book and read in a 'cooler' frame of mind. That first blind adoration is always the best read though.

I've read 'A Spool of Blue Thread' once only so this is 'head over heels' stuff not a 'proper' review.   You've guessed: I loved it!  Could anyone else on the Man Booker Prize shortlist win?  We'll find out next Tuesday, not time enough for me to read all the others as I've fallen in love with my next book already: Elif Shafak's 'The Forty Rules of Love', which will come as no surprise if you read me on Tuesday.

Back to 'A Spool of Blue Thread'.  For me it's a masterclass in character.  In telling the story of a family and how they live, love, dream, work and get through hard times, Anne Tyler reveals what it is to be human.  She has a knack of showing people from every angle - Junior, Linnie Mae, Abby, Red, Denny ... they're not just characters in a book; they're simply too real.  She shows them in their glory and in their weakness too and then twists it around in a no yin without yang kind of way.  Just as I started to judge someone in a certain way, up popped a beautifully crafted contradiction, a redeeming feature or the revelation of an emotional scar which made me look again. The seemingly weak revealed hidden reserves of willpower, the strong had fault lines.  Always they emerged from a place of compassion: Anne Tyler's love for them all.  

I can hardly believe this is the first of her twenty novels I've read.  Perhaps it's because she's billed as charting everyday family life, not my instinctive reading territory.  It's her love and deft crafting of those family members that makes all the difference.  As an aspiring writer, she has so much to teach me about breathing life into the flesh and bones of characters.  She is quoted as saying (Wikipedia): 'Aren't human being intriguing?  I could go on writing about them forever.'*  That's how she can make a man's character stand out simply by describing his shirts which are 'white, always, and unfashionably high in the collar.'

She likes a twist of fate and serendipity too. 'I love to think about chance, about how one little overheard word, one pebble in a shoe, can change the universe'*.

That's where the blue thread comes in, teal blue, and with it unspools a little universe changing magic.

*Thank you Wikipedia 

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Fret not where the road will take you ... (Elif Shafak)

As a child travelling in the back of my parents' car going shopping or visiting, I would fantasize about a different sort of journey.  Instead of having a fixed destination, I would go wherever the road might take me, choosing, - well, not even choosing -, simply taking the direction that called me when I got to a junction.

It was a strong impulse, one I have often looked back on.  I understand now, seeing myself again as a child peering through the side wing window of our Ford Anglia, that it was the natural desire to see the world, but also, much more importantly, to explore life itself.  And I wanted to do it in a free, spontaneous way without fear: to be a hopeful traveller.  Where wouldn't I go when I was behind my own steering wheel!

Over the years I changed.  I became very fixed on the destination, wanting to know what I would find and needing to plan every twist and turn of how to get there before I even set off.

One of my great joys at the moment is re-discovering the hopeful traveller in myself, the girl in the back of the Ford Anglia who doesn't need to know what is at the end of the road, who is happy simply to set off along it.  It's harder than it sounds; it requires faith and courage. Travelling to Cuba earlier this year was a big part of that re-discovery although, as I have shared, it pushed me painfully out of my comfort zone.

Last weekend, I found myself in a yoga workshop learning about having the courage to live with an open heart.  We were also saying farewell to our beautiful yoga teacher, Naseem Khakoo, as she travels to Mexico on the next step of her journey.  Randomly, she offered to each of us one rule of love from 'The Forty Rules of Love' by Elif Shafak.  She hoped the chosen rule (or perhaps the one that had 'chosen' us) might resonate with us.

It was an emotional gathering.  I experienced one of those profound moments for which there are no words when I felt something change.

So, moved and 'stirred up', I could not read my 'rule' until the next morning.  When I did, I was touched by its message, one which spoke to the little girl in the car:
'Fret not where the road will take you.  Instead concentrate on the first step.  That is the hardest part and that is what you are responsible for.  Once you take that step let everything do what it naturally does and the rest will follow.  Don't go with the flow.  Be the flow.'   
Rule 19, The Forty Rules of Love, Elif Shafak

Perhaps sharing this with you is my first step.


Kelly Holman



All photos © Andrew Holman.

Friday 2 October 2015

Confluentia by Bina Baitel at L'Eau: Exposition de Tapisseries, Eglise du Chateau de Felletin, Limousin

Confluentia: Bina Baitel 
When you're travelling, there seems to be more time and space for curiosity.  If an exhibition of tapestry opened in my local town, I doubt I'd find the time to drop in.   In Felletin, I did.  L'eau: Exposition de Tapisseries at L'Eglise du Chateau de Felletin runs until 31st October. 

What a fantastic eye-opener to modern tapestry.  It blew away all of my preconceptions about tapestry as dusty, faded carpets that hang on walls (and I have a horror of dusty, faded carpets!)

Amongst the stunning pieces was Confluentia by Bina Baitel, my favourite.  I find it sensuous.  Feel the cool water as you dip in your toe, hear the splash as you jump right in!  I love the flowing movement of the piece, can imagine the rush of the water.  As for the aqua colour palette, it gives me goose bumps!  I absolutely love it!

Who'd have thought you could get all that from tapestry!  Follow the link above to the Bina Baitel website where a series of maquettes illuminate the piece and show how it flows from more traditional roots.      
Felletin is the shy sister to Aubusson, the French town world-renowned for its tapestry, although it has an equally long tradition of tapestry and all things 'woolly'.  It was in Felletin, at the Pinton Freres workshops, that Coventry Cathedral's 'Christ in Glory' tapestry, designed by Graham Sutherland, was woven.

It is known as the gateway to the Millevaches National Park.  It holds an annual exhibition of tapestry in the glorious 15th century gothic church and an annual wool festival.  

I did rather fall for its modest charms.

All photos © Andrew Holman.