Thursday, November 29, 2007

angry faces

angry faces

The Monk told us a story of a man in prison for a murder he did not commit. At one point, after a few years maybe, he was allowed to watch the telly but with no sound. He had gotten into meditation by this stage and what he said he saw when he looked at all the faces on the tv – from politicians, through folk protesting against the war, through bankers, store-owners, religious leaders, environmental activists, feminists, people marching for the right to be gay or have an abortion - was: ‘They are all the same angry faces’.

An acquaintance of mine does a lot of work for peace. I mean a lot. He is a very angry man, He is full of hatred for the oppressor, contempt for the politician who started the war, bile towards the man who owns the gun, anger towards the manager who doesn’t listen, the colleague who lied… This I can understand. His anger, he says, is his motivator. This I can also understand. However, what I never really understood is why his private life is full of aggressive gun-touting people who, rather than listening to him, steal from him, provoke him, shout at him and abandon him.

Now I see that he is just one of the angry faces.

I recently went back to my old orchestra to visit. It was wonderful, particularly because I got a huge ego massage. Everyone said how much they missed me and how the section hadn’t been the same since I’d been gone etc. On the contrary, it seemed to me the orchestra sounded more magnificent than ever and I felt extremely proud to have been part of it for twelve years. (Blah Blah.) Apparently, however, having been resident for twenty years, there are rumours that the band may be in danger of being replaced by a younger fitter version. Just like that. It is believed that the reason may be connected to the fact that five years ago, at long last, we built a committee. Each year, we were told, at the end of the tour, there would a ‘committee meeting’. ‘We have a voice!’ everyone rejoiced. So each year the individuals who put their hearts and souls in to the workings of their small cog in the music, who drove hours and hours through the night on the motorway before and after shows, who spent months away from their families, who warmed up properly and took Alexander lessons, who played brilliantly and faultlessly even when their baby had been sick all night, had a chance to be heard. What did we have to say? Well, there were the small things - the environmental impact of polystyrene cups, the backstage conditions at a certain venue, etc. Then there were the bigger things: The possibility of childcare, conductors who never breathed and for whom playing three mammoth symphonies five times a week resulted invariably in tendonitis, and why the heck did our beloved second oboe get fired when he played like a God? Etc.

In the committee meeting, sixty serene musicians became sixty angry faces. Nothing changed. I was one of those angry faces and for that I am not proud.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

In Tune


My student came. I am trying to help her practice playing with an ‘Other’ in a room without losing her ability to listen; to stay present and maintain her inner observer even when being ‘observed’ by that Other.

We have been talking a lot about intonation and I have been suggesting that intonation is not something we ‘do’ to the music. It is simply there in the vibration of the instrument, of the harmonies we set up, if we do not interfere with it.

This week my student and I had a break through: This week she played for me, and she played in tune, and my whole body was tingling!

Last week the monk was talking about kindness. He was saying that kindness is not something we ‘do’. It is simply there if we do not interfere with it.

Touché, Mr. Monk!

Maybe because of some trace of Church induced guilt far back in my clan, I have always thought kindness to be something we ‘do’. ‘An act of kindness’ we say self-righteously to ourselves, having helped the fat lady with the bulging suitcase get onto the escalator. I have believed that with each act of kindness we get better at kindness; that kindness gets easier and eventually, as we amass our AOK's, we become good kind people. (Then of course we go to heaven, or are reborn as a princess, depending on whether you believe in God or Buddha, because we have earned our passage with all those AOK's).

The monk, however, was talking about duality and suggesting that, so long as kindness is something ‘I’ do to ‘Other’, or ‘Other’ does to ‘Me’ it will remain dualistic and therefore a source of suffering. He was saying that our basic nature is kindness and that it appears naturally when ‘I’ gets out of the way.

I’ve been contemplating this and, as usual, the best place to do that is whilst doing the washing up. Here’s what usually runs through my mind:

‘I am doing the washing up therefore You are not; I am angry at You. I feel cheated by You; It’s always Me and never You.’

Then of course there’s the weighing up, the balancing of accounts: ‘I did the washing up yesterday therefore You should do it today; I washed up Your dirty plate therefore You should say I thank You and I love You; I said I love You last week, and I will not say it again until You say it....'

And what happens when we take the I and the You out of that moment, as I stand at the sink, my hands soapy and warm?

The washing up is being done.

Is that really all that remains from that angry mess? Blimey.

(I experienced this profoundly the other day when Other was out. I let myself just be with the washing up because Other wasn’t there not doing it instead of Me. It takes practice realizing this state of grace when Other IS there not doing it instead of Me, but I’m up for it.)

It’s the same with intonation. Instead of ‘I play out of tune; You will judge me; I think this E should be flat; You think it should be sharper; I think Bach would want it My way; I play in tune; I am right; You are wrong; You think I am wrong…’

The music is being played.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Three cats


Rows of v's stood whorled and naked,

Baubles of dew hung on the wires above them like high street fairy lights,

Two village bells rang seconds apart - one rich and brassy and the other bright silver,

A toad croaked in imitation of a distant revving moped,

On the air a smell of liquorice, tobacco and woodsmoke,

Three cats listened to a winter morning.




Friday, November 23, 2007

water shortage


"You will have, one day, to think about putting in your own septic tank" said the brother, five years ago, as his regally chignonned sister handed over the mammoth keys to our new home.

We have always been aware that it says in our 'acte de vente' that we do not own our septic tank; that the ancient system connected to the house is not on our land, but on that of our neighbour, Monsieur A. and that the use of it could be withdrawn at any time. That we had not enough land to put in a system of our own we were not aware of.

When my parents-in-law were here, we had a sign up in the loo to remind them:

'If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down'

Not flushing is, however, no longer enough.

Monsieur A is now carrying out mysterious work in the ruined hamlet, particularly around the septic tank. Whatever he is doing, the tank is, a week after having been emptied, mysteriously full again, and we are possibly looking at a €300 weekly bill to empty it while we try and find another solution.

Here are the seemingly insurmountable problems:

First problem: For a year now we have been researching an environmentally friendly alternative to the septic tank, and have come up with a brilliant mini purification system, officially recognized by the French water authorities. Except, apparently, in the Vaucluse.

Second Problem: If we manage to get this system through we will have litres of purified waste water to give away, but no-one wants it.

Third Problem: Not one of the neighbours with their acres and acres will sell us a corner of land on which to put the system, even though we are offering them free water for their orchards, fountains, bassins and gardens. We have even offered, if Monsieur A gives us the land, buying a system which will serve the entire hamlet once it is done up by Monsieur A, giving him access to it and its purified water. "If we are to remain friends, I think it is better if you have your own system" he said. "But where can we put it?" I screamed inwardly.

I have been to the bored lady in the 'mairie' who clearly does not want to help, I have been to the overworked head of the water board who seems not to have heard about the environment. Last week we paid a visit to our other neighbours and, over the telly, asked them if they could help. They offered us a drink, said it was nice to meet us finally and said no......

There is land everywhere and a serious water shortage. How can we be in this situation in 2007?

Meanwhile, we are conserving water: Not leaving the beautiful Italian tap Julian has dreamed of for years running while we rinse, having short chilly showers now that the winter has drawn in and - now that we finally, after five years without one, have a bath in which to put the lovely Penhagligon's oil my stepmum gave us - no baths. When our friends come for New Year we will empty the tank before and after.

It's all très Jean de Florette.


Monday, November 19, 2007

new shoes


“Ruthie….” croaked my best friend on the other end of the telephone.

The minute I heard her voice I knew something was wrong. I glanced at the fridge with which I had just finished stuffing twenty top notch oysters ‘spécial numéro 2’, a mammoth dotty turbot, a cheese selection ranging from a chèvre wrapped in an oak leaf to a blue drenched in beaumes de venise, and a bottle of champagne. A kitten was nibbling at a bowl of the last of the season’s grapes and there was a bed made up fresh and sprayed with lavender water with two cats keeping it warm upstairs. My friend was supposed to be on the train, on a one-day visit in-between Glyndebourne performances, but there was a telling lack of disturbance on the line when she spoke.

“Something terrible has happened.” She said. I gulped. “I ate some stupid mackerel paté yesterday at lunch and hardly made it through the first act of Macbeth. I've been up all night, you know...I tried to get up at eight but....I feel so sad…”

As I was out on my run this morning a southern breeze was blowing and the olive trees were puffing out clouds of finches. The recent snow had melted on the Ventoux and I was looking forward to coffee on the terrace. It would, of course, have been an ideal day for my friend to be here, I thought with regret. Then suddenly, out of the trees along with the birds perhaps, there came an image of a child sitting in a shoe-shop being fitted for new shoes. Each time a child’s foot changes shape, I thought, we get her fitted for a new pair of shoes. The child leaves the old shoes in the shop and bounces out in the new ready for the next adventure. Even when the child loves her old shoes (I remember a pair of denim platform ‘wedges’ I found particularly hard to let go of), she usually lets them go in favour of the new ones, because the new ones fit. Each time the shape of my life changes, I thought, I keep pinching, squeezing, stuffing and folding myself in and up in the hope that I can still fit in to the outdated mould. I often do it even when the new mould is right in front of me, like the child in the shoe shop continuing to stuff her feet in the old pair of shoes.

Later that day as we prepared the turbot with a white bean ratatouille, opened oysters and drank champagne the telephone rang again. This time it was our neighbour:

“I have just baked bread. Stand outside the window and I will give you some.”

“That reminds me, do you like oysters?” I asked. “We have some extra.”

And so it was that as the stars bored into the sky and the wind whipped up the night, I stood beneath my neighbour’s window like Romeo. She lowered a basket with home-baked bread in it, which I returned with twelve magnificent oysters. They were a perfect marriage.

As it turns out, there was a message on my friend’s mobile phone from Eurostar saying that because of French rail strikes, her train wouldn’t be stopping at Lille that day, and that she should call them to make other plans. It is probable that if she had ever got here she certainly would not have been able to return in time for Macbeth on Tuesday. With the cool help of her boyfriend she managed to change her ticket without letting on that she had missed the train because of food poisoning and at no extra charge she will come in December for longer.

As is usually the case, life is not so terrible after all. Throw the moulds to the wind, I say!


Saturday, November 10, 2007

adoption fast track


The adoption process has taken an unexpected turn. Just as we were waving my parents in law goodbye after three wonderful weeks together, a little black and white kitten ran onto our terrace and demanded that we love her and keep her for ever and ever. Our neighbour, Manuel, and I both think it is a strange welcome gift from the man who owns the ruin to which our house is attached, and who has been working here mysteriously every day for the last couple of weeks. They had exactly the same happen to them......

"Vous êtes fait pour l'adoption" said Manuel.

She is cute, with a hundred decibel purr, and a mad woman's screech when she is eating, but perhaps that is because she has been starved of both food and love. She is sucking on my jumper trying to find a teet. (She doesn't have to look far!). She seems most content with her nose rammed up my armpit. She has already nuzzled Julian's used thermals and drunk from my wine glass so I guess she feels at home with the Merrow-Smiths.

Not sure how Oscar and Manon will take it. They are cautiously sniffing and dancing around each other, defending territory, trying to make friends......Right now she is in and they are both out - in disgust? rejection?. I couldn't bear to lose either of them.

(Do any of you cat folk out there have experience with this situation?)




Thursday, November 01, 2007

pumpkin schmumpkin


Lunch on the terrace with my in laws of pumpkin soup, after driving through the pumpkin river of vines seemed a perfect way to spend All Saint’s day. I didn’t feel like teaching and besides I’d done my back in craning to see my old mates in the cello section at Glyndebourne.

The Bourrées were good. My student’s hand was moving freely, bouncing in a healthy fashion over the fingerboard, but I was missing something; something I could only describe as space.

We had had a discussion earlier in the lesson in which C had furiously disagreed with my suggestion that she forgive herself if she go ‘wrong’ in a concert. How dare she play a concert if she was going to go wrong? She asked. How dare she play a concert if she was not prepared to go wrong? I asked. She grimaced. ‘How dare you be a mother if you ever mess up?’ I asked….

She had marked her difficult passages (difficult because they had gone wrong once in a concert) in pink highlighter. No wonder she was in a state by the time she got to them.

We talked about that which I have called the ‘observer’. I had just come back from a day of meditation and teachings at the London Buddhist Centre, and was interested in exploring further the idea (on which I touched in my experience that day) that behind the breath, the one who is breathing is not me (‘I’ am just a construct of course; a story), but rather pure consciousness. It is the same with the cello and the one who is playing. That is where the space opens up for charm, humour, enjoyment.


“But how can I practice playing to someone?” she asked. “I only play to you and suddenly it’s not the same. I fall apart.” It was a good question.

I remembered being told at the last minute that I could not do my final exam in Dusseldorf because I wasn’t good enough. I studied for four years there, from the age of seventeen, and got no qualification. It took me the next twenty years to crawl out from underneath that judgement. I can crawl back without much prompting. I suspected C had a similar story.

I asked C to play the Bourrée again, but this time to see if she could listen not as C with C’s story and C’s judgements and C’s desire for perfection, but as the observer of C. While she was playing I asked:

“Can the observer find any pleasure in the music?”

Immediately, space opened up around the phrases, as if the music had suddenly been gifted not only a pair of lungs but a pair of wings. It appeared to me that C was a quarter of an inch further away from her instrument than before, and there was a smile on her lips; the smile of someone listening to music they love. Perhaps C had indeed ‘fallen apart’ and made way for someone to whom she could practice playing. Perhaps, without duality, there was even the possibility of not even playing to but simply being with. Perhaps, after all, she could share Bach, even alone in a room. Certainly, the observer part of her and I were listening together. We were one.

“What did the observer think when you fucked up?”
“Didn’t care” said C. “It was almost funny”.

Pumpkin Schmumpkin, I thought. The saints were definitely hanging with us today.