Saturday, December 31, 2005

100 days


On 'Day 26' - roughly 3 months ago - I joined an on-line meditation support group called '100 days' and, though up until that point I hardly knew what meditation was, I was committed to trying and I have meditated, even if only for ten minutes, almost every day since. Tomorrow, the first day of 2006, under a brand new banner, we will start another hundred days.

'100 Days' was started by Dale (whose beautiful blog, incidentally, is one of my regular reads). There are currently about ten people commenting on a daily basis, sharing their struggles, insights and breakthroughs, debating, or merely just mentioning the fact that they did or didn't sit today. We have meditated in baths and on station platforms, in supermarket queues and in vineyards; we have taken breaks from family rows to breathe or paid attention to the sound of our environment on city or forest walks; we have shut ourselves in an office at lunch-time with a candle or in a dressing room before a performance with an alarm clock. We have meditated with dogs vomiting and cats licking, children screaming and partners humming.

On Day one hundred, from all corners of the world, we tried to meditate together. This, in my case, meant paying special attention to my breath at the end of an unscheduled sectional rehearsal, rushing back to a hotel in freezing rain, ordering lentils and rice from the Indian restaurant next door, rushing up to my room, showering, and sitting for 10 minutes while my take-away was being prepared and my hair dried, before running back to the concert drenching my black satin hem and new layered coiffure. I am sure I caught the tail end minute of our group sit. Mostly, of course 'sitting' has been calmer than that but that day I wouldn't have missed the party for anything!

In July I packed a suitcase for two months in Salzburg. In it I placed a swimming costume, goggles, walking boots, a meditation handbook, an ipod and a guided meditation cd. I was going to get fit and I WAS going to meditate! I swam and cycled every day but did I meditate once?

Since then, this group of people has supported my practice in cyberspace from Bedoin to New York to Paris, and I am beginning to feel the subtle changes as a result. It is a life-long journey but at least I have begun.

100 Days is open to absolutely everybody, and by that I do not mean just in principal. It is open to all traditions from Buddhist through Christian, Humanist, to Agnostic, all levels of experience from zero pleb to zen master and all manner of folk. The only requirement is a commitment to a form of meditation and a desire to uphold that commitment.

I have a fantasy that, in our internet driven world, such a group could grow and grow, and that the repercussions could be huge. There are so many people willing, yet unable to choose a discipline, unable to be in the same place at the same time every week (let alone every day), or who simply cannot do it without support. 100 Days by no means replaces the real live experience of meditating together or the guidance of a 'master', but it has changed my life and that's good enough for the moment.

Please, if you want to meditate and want support, join us for the next hundred days!

Happy New Year!.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

A visit to the doctor


Today the gals went to the doctor. It appears that I have inter-costal neuralgia and our tabby cat has, like all the best French women, got ‘jambes lourdes’.

Manon has been tippling around on trois pattes over the festive season so I took her to the zero-syllabic vet. He said she had suffered a trauma at the pattes of another cat and recommended a course of anti -biotics, arnica, rosemary and quince seed cream for ‘Jambes Lourdes’ to be massaged ‘légèrement sans frotter’ in to her knee, and a comfrey remedy. Also twenty days of rest.

All I got was to strip off for the doc, and be told there was nothing I could do but wait.

Manon doesn’t even like having her knee massaged with posh cream.


Sunday, December 25, 2005

a provençal christmas


In the first tardy light of a pale Christmas eve I walked in to the lichen dell of the Ventoux to collect twigs - budded, furred and spiked, cones and berries. Later, in Avignon, we salivated in the jostle of Les Halles, where we bought live oysters, crab and crayfish, plump lychees and blushing pomegranates, fought over a pheasant, and ended up with a “Joyeuse Fête!” from our competitor, foie gras and a mallard. I gave myself up to the smelly recommendations of the cheese lady’s ‘Petite sélection de Noel’ and gathered delicate handfuls of rocket and pissenlit (yes, it does mean what you think it means). Obviously, judging by the beaming goodwill of our fellow shoppers, the French take their pleasure in the preparation and consumption of fresh food rather than the gifting of boxes of bad chocolates.


We were ready for our Christmas à deux.

On returning to our hameau we sprayed and baubled the tree, the twigs and some still life paintings, and bowled the fruit for decoration (that is, until the decorations become still life paintings). Julian cut a card star, covered it in gold leaf and placed it on top of the tree.

We wrapped our gifts – he disguising his by housing them in large triangular boxes or soft rolls, and me writing home made labels of frosted vines.

“It’s a handbag!” I shrieked when the huge triangle which contained a small tube of a luxurious creamy unguent appeared beneath the pine branches.

“But now for your big present!” said Julian, and he launched into a spontaneous and dreamily elegant jig before dinner. I wondered at the miracle of how someone next to whom you wake up every morning, whose tics and farts and humming repertoire you know so intimately, could suddenly look so exotic and I fell in love with him all over again.

We settled down with a glass of champagne to listen to the carol service from Kings College, Cambridge, on broadband, gulping down emotion along with mouthfuls 'In a cattle shed' and ‘Fines de Claires d’Oléron’. Then we moved on to crab tart and an excellent Côtes du Rhone....

I felt immensely grateful that I had not suffered the tinned Christmas of supermarket music. Nor had I felt the terrible commercial pressure of the high street, or stuffed my face with yikky pink-filled confectionary. Nor was I alone or cold or hungry.

How lucky we are, I thought, to be snuggled up in our falling down house, on top of the world at the bottom of a magic mountain.


Thursday, December 22, 2005

party spirit

wine tasting

After wine tasting in Vacqueyras and Gigondas, Oscar gets in to the party spirit.


Saturday, December 17, 2005

Five friends, five cellos.

peasant nepal

In London I start off by holding court in a Peckham caff – one which has of course sprung up in years more recent than those of my South London youth and which serves cappuccino and organic soups rather than bacon butties and tea to forty-something multi ethnic mothers of toddlers - and visit with four of my closest girlfriends; four cellists, naturally.

A, like me, found herself boarding at a specialist music school at a too tender age. Though there were some advantages – namely smoking in the bluebell wood and midnight boating escapades - we had neither of us bargained for the 6 am musical dictation classes nor, more critically, for the fact that we would have delay a rather important question until our early thirties:

Do I really want to play the cello?

Whilst my answer, after a frozen shoulder, was a resounding and surprising ‘Yes!!!’ her story was different:

A highly skilled and finely tuned musician, A was very successful, winning many of the top London auditions. Four years ago, however, she suffered a broken wrist and her immediate thought was ‘Yippee!!! I never have to play the cello again!’

In the wake of her musical career she painted a milk float pink just like the interior of her flat and created ‘Floating Flowers’, rising even earlier than for musical dictation to get hold of the freshest blooms in Covent Garden. She then floated round a well-to-do Kentish town selling her groovey bunches much, it seems, to the delight of many a timid Kentish bachelor. In her spare time she completed a course in philosophy and religion and has since become a Buddhist.

A always wanted a child and two years ago, having always been told that, due to having neither oestrogen nor progesterone, nor a cycle to speak of, she would never be able to conceive let alone bring a child to term, she was considering fostering as a single mum.

Then A met Z, and now she is 29 weeks pregnant. The doctors hail it as a miracle. She glows pinker than her milk float.

B, having suffered the unspeakable during childhood, had to play the cello. After all, spinning her wordless tale through solitary improvisations in a locked room seemed to be the only way she would survive. Her sense of fantasy – often toppling over the edge into a delicious irreverence - when she plays still inspires awe in me.

Longing to conceive last year B started, finally, to put her story into words and, about ten months later, baby B was born. Wisps of gold crown the sweet dome of her daughter’s head like silk thread, ready and waiting to spin a new and happier story.

Leaning over a lavender bath in which I soaked B read me her compelling writing - hand woven and un-edited - from a vellum notebook, and I shall carry it always in my heart. It is the story of how music can save a life and how a woman can transform her pain, learn to forgive, and create beauty in the world. It - she - is another miracle.

Even if the rest of her life was falling apart, C has seemed to me always to have had a simple relationship with her cello; a relationship free of attachment and un-infused with parental expectation. She chose it for herself and has stuck with it for the same reason. It takes true confidence to sit in the first chair whilst five musicians you have chosen to play with you because each of them is superb express themselves freely behind you, and she has this confidence. Consequently, work has always flowed for her.

C gave birth to a child in her late thirties. It lived only several hours. Perhaps it was at that moment that her spiritual journey was jolted from cruise into fifth gear. She took up body-work, becoming a trained masseuse and now a hatha yoga teacher alongside her gruelling touring schedules.

Now, it seems, life is throwing up one of the biggest challenges of all: For the first time she finds herself under threat of having her job stolen from underneath her nose by a supposed friend and colleague. He is asking for a fight, and the astounding beauty of C is that, as she prepares to stand up for herself, she is not rising to his war-like bait. Due, I’m sure, to her yoga practice, her energy is softer than I have ever seen it and, underneath the surface of her struggle, she knows that life may be throwing something new in her direction and, on some level she is already opening to the possibility of its warmth like a first tentative petal in spring.

What is it that makes someone THE person you ring when you are in trouble? It is not, I think, a penchant for rescue for that would be based on their need not yours. Neither is it that you love them more or that they have more space in their life for you….I don’t know what it is but D is that person. She always has been. It is she I rang from the hospital after my ectopic pregnancy, but it is also she with whom I first shared my joy at being engaged and then with child.

Our friendship has not been without bumps. Thirteen years ago she had everything I wanted: She was playing in a quartet with my brother (which I had always thought to have been my childhood dream although it was probably more like my parents’.) Not only that but I was a lodger in the house where they rehearsed. D was also a member of the orchestra, which I adored but which had mysteriously stopped hiring me. To top it all she was married to a man with THAT RED HAIR THING going on and on whom I had had quite a crush…I, meanwhile, was single and stuck in a rented room in Tooting practicing for auditions which never seemed to work out (and which A normally won!).

D couldn’t, it seemed, have everything though. She struggled for quite some time with depression caused by apparent infertility. This was followed by an ectopic pregnancy erupting excruciatingly on tour in the middle of a Beethoven symphony. Luckily, however, she too, having been told that she would be unable to conceive, eventually ‘plopped’ (as she described it) not only one, but two little miracles.

“It was just like doing a great big poo!” she said of the second birth in her Tasty Lancashire accent.

Touring the world with two wee ones strapped to your cello case, however, is almost out of the question and she finds herself, from working full time with one of the best chamber orchestras in the world, becoming an occasionally slightly reluctant housewife trying to pay off a mortgage on a superb Italian cello and a house in Highgate…. Not without a big Northern grin on her face which warms me through and through.

Still in South London where I was born, I climb into the taxi to catch the 05.34 Eurostar from Waterloo. The grime from the bonnet has smeared itself all over my fingers as I placed my case in the boot and I accidentally wipe it on my Hobbs jumper. In my new attempt not to try and control the entire universe I do not ask the cabbie to turn off his loud music, but rather lean into it. It is a live recording from around what seems to be a Nigerian campfire. It is very beautiful. The cabbie can hear me listening.

“This song says yo' should not be messin’ with yo' fate. God knows what he is doin’ man an’ you shoul' trust in him”

I think of my four friends and see how our lives have been woven together from strange cello cloth and how a miraculous light has shone on each of them at different times, transforming grey to gold. Above all, I think how very much I love them.


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

In London..

here we are in Sarf east London eating fine food with the delicious one year old Beatrice and old friends.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Bach cantata 199

tibetan monk, nepal 1991

…and now we’re talking Desert Island Discs and beyond into Desert Island Afterlife Discs.

The Bach cantatas are, for me, beyond religion. The deeply religious text, in the hands of this man, is as alive as any and, though absolutely not religious myself, I find meaning in it. It is an open door to the spirit. No cross-bearers, mantra-sayers or burka-wearers are refused entry to this church made of sound.

Cantata number 199 – ‘My heart swims in blood’ – is the journey of the agonised sinner, cleansed by her tears and by her ‘confession’, asking and receiving forgiveness from God and finding joy in salvation. For some this text is in their mother tongue whilst for others the language may be incomprehensible or even repel them. However, with the text de-emphasised and the music speaking even more loudly, it seems to me to be universally accessible. If you take away the semantics of it, you have the therapeutic journey from despair to joy: Speaking one’s demons, catharsis, self acceptance and love. If you take the word God out, the cantata ends with:

How joyful is my heart…that my regrets and my pain do not exclude me from love.

The God bit is important though. It takes us further than the ‘me’ and ‘my pain’. Without it you could say the point is missing in the way that (again, for me) the spiritual aspect is often missing in therapy.

The pinnacle of the cantata is the chorale, with a solo cello continuo part. There are three voices: On the bottom there is the bass line, which is the ground. In the middle there is the cello continuo line, which is the turmoil of human emotion, and above there is the soprano line, a slow moving chorale. This could be said to be the spirit. In Buddhist terms you could say that the continuo line expresses the mind being pulled hither and thither by thoughts and emotions whilst the chorale expresses the still depths of pure mind.

I watch our Japanese cellist from behind as he spins out the waves of joy and pain of the human realm. His head moves gently from side to side as his shoulders actively work the line, his feet well planted on the floor. The chorale appears above as if out of his hands' very travails. For a moment he looks exactly like a Tibetan monk I photographed from behind in Nepal and suddenly my heart is swimming in love.

The language of organised religions may not be universal, but music, thankfully, is. If music promotes understanding as I believe it can, perhaps through Bach’s music we can gain a new understanding of religion.

Friday, December 09, 2005

notes and words

For my traditional city breakfast treat I seek out a funky café: North African music, murals of faded nakedness on a flesh coloured wall and a big brass rimmed bar on rue Voltaire….I give all my coins to the barman in exhange for my crème. He grimaces and retorts:

“Un sou c’est un sou…. Je les prends quand meme”

He serves me a very bad coffee as a punishment.

We are playing Bach. We commence with the concerto for two violins. In the slow movement I am overcome with the mystery of the bass line. I have performed this movement hundreds of times, always preceded by its allotted three minute on the day top and tailing. I have longed to delve into its depths and finally we have the time to do it. I almost forgot. It’s France. They rehearse!

Every beat of this bass line has a reason to be milked, whether it be harmonic, rhythmic or melodic: An ascending scale, but one which dips down an octave every half bar, there are rhythmic stresses on the first of each of the four beats and scrunchy dissonances that make you want to jump up the juice on the third. It’s like walking in a field of wild flowers and wanting to stop and pick each one - you have to make a decision about which ones you choose for your bouquet. Having decided to go with the rhythmic stress in general we hear the dissonances of the solo parts flourish as a result. The second violinist in her low-belted leather trousers, however, seduces us away from our rules for a glorious second with one particularly tasty morsel and we rise to her bait.

I return to the hotel from the rehearsal at eleven, tired yet hyped. I see a woman sitting reading through a pane of Brasserie glass and I enter. I sit a couple of tables behind her in the window row, get out my book and order a pichet of côtes du rhône. I admire the slant of her sluiced bob as her head tilts into the page and I am overcome with the anonymous joy of being in a crowded place, and the silence of contented ambient jazz and chatter. Encouraged by our joint garcon, we talk briefly about what we are reading, and then – respectful of one-another’s public privacy - return to our bouquinage.

The next day I awake with a headache I know only too well: Too much lugging suitcase and cello through the metro and six hours spent playing slowly and quietly. My shoulders miss the flexibility and strength which swimming gives them.

We start the rehearsal with Pergolese’s Stabat Mater. Our 43 year old chef, her belly huge with miraculous child, guides us through the text: A mother trembling at the suffering of her divine son; he, full of sweetness, giving up the ghost; she protected finally by the death of her son and warmed by Grace….

It’s a jolly tale. Tomorrow we move on to the even jollier Bach cantata ‘My heart swims in blood’…..

Sunday, December 04, 2005



away on tour for twelve days so posting will be erratic ....

Saturday, December 03, 2005

blog against racism day


“People sometimes feel that to give anger up is to relinquish a source of power and energy for changing the world. But there is a greater source of power that harms neither ourselves nor others, and that is the power of compassion.”

- Joseph Goldstein


Thursday, December 01, 2005

winter greys

ived vines

The summer blush has suddenly drained away, been sucked up by the mahogany earth, and the elegant bone structure of our Mother has been revealed, her hip and cheekbones jutting rudely where only last week there were ruddy petticoat frills. Her tendons stretch and her fingernails reach from branch-tips. The force travels up the whorlish glint of her torso drawing her skin in tight around secret animal forms.


On my daily (and increasingly short) sortie to salute the mountain I find myself in a monochrome wonderland, the bare vines swaying without moving a muscle on a platinum, gunmetal and pewter stage. My feet crunch on crystallized thyme, its aroma frozen.

There are dog bells and suddenly I hear Santa, see reindeers’ antlers in the iced branches. For a moment I am six again….

When the moment passes I feel so worn. So cold.