Friday, 4 December 2015

Lovely Uttanasana

One morning this week I left the yoga studio feeling inordinately proud of myself.  My yoga teacher had complimented me on a lovely Uttanasana.  Going back millennia people have walked along Stony Stratford High Street, part of an old Roman road, feeling proud of many things but possibly not their Uttanasana!

Uttanasana is the Sanskrit name for a standing forward bend in yoga and if you Google it, you'll immediately get a picture of how it looks.  That morning mine was lovely and I was 'chuffed'.  Then I stopped myself.  What was all this ego stuff about being able to do a forward bend?  My pride became tinged with a touch of guilt.  Yoga is not an ego trip, and I wasn't going to make the world a better place with my forward bend.  Perhaps I wouldn't mention it to anyone after all.

Then I thought about how great it is to celebrate good moments, things, however small, that make you happy.  I have been working on my Uttanasana for almost a year, slowly, carefully, bending and becoming more flexible.  And in all that practice, it hasn't been about aiming for perfection or trying to be better than anyone else.  It's been about the moment itself and about the journey of transformation.  It's been a joy to feel increasing flexibility in body and sense this extending to mind: to feel myself stretching towards a lovely Uttanasana.  So, yippee!!

I love all forward bends, standing and seated.  They are favourite elements of a yoga practice for me. Whilst we are so often pushing ourselves towards the next boundary in everything, it is also wonderful to relish those things we really enjoy.

If I love forward bends, I am ambivalent about backward bends (anuvittasana).  I find them more difficult and it's a lot to do with liking to see where I am going, or, not liking to go where I can't see. So the journey continues, but it's always good to enjoy its steps.

             
   

All of the wonderful photos on this blog are by Andrew Holman

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The 'dire' expectation - a step towards liberated writing


This week I am feeling liberated as a writer.  The breakthrough moment came after reading some advice from a writer I have discovered recently, Safia Moore.  She won the Bath Short Story Award and blogs at Top of the Tent.

Hers is a confident voice when it comes to discussing the craft of writing, and I find her thoughts inspiring.  The piece of advice that turned my writing desk upside down was in an interview she gave to The Short Story.   Talking of writing in general, she said:

'Expect the first draft to be pretty dire'.

Perhaps you are raising your eyebrows quizzically at this point.  Or maybe you can identify, like me, with the comfort those words offer.  It can be utterly dispiriting to come back to the first draft of a story, or to yesterday's writing, for which you had such high hopes, only to discover that it is nowhere near as delicious as you had imagined. If you're not careful, your inner critic finds its voice and you let it convince you that you are not, and never will be, a real writer.  That may sound melodramatic, but it happens.  Of course you know that all writers edit their work and go through many drafts, but it is only too easy to believe that your first draft takes all the prizes for lousiness. Other writers, you think, edit to make already good writing, superlative.  You, on the other hand, edit to spare yourself humiliation.

Expecting the first draft to be dire, far from being pessimistic, is a relief and it's freeing me to write. Now my first aim is to get my story onto the page whole, however roughly.  That's the job of the first draft: to capture the story and not let it slip away.  I know it's going to be rough and I embrace this roughness.  This enables me to keep on going with a piece and stops me from looking back and trying to meddle with the raw story as it emerges.  All too often, (very very, very often) I have not completed a piece at all because I've got stuck in that kind of meddling.

The good news is, I think, that after the story has been 'captured' in first draft, you have the time to play with it.  You've got this messy draft in front of you and you can start to cut and polish it and make it sparkle.

It's early days but the acceptance that my first words will be far from brilliant feels like a paradigm shift in writing for me, a way of getting around myself and on with the job.






All of the wonderful photos on this blog are by Andrew Holman

Friday, 27 November 2015

Books and the Black Dog on Black Friday


 'The only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life or better to endure it.'  Dr Samuel Johnson  
Reading has always fulfilled these aims for me.  The sheer enjoyment of other people's writing makes me glow.  There is the pleasure of escapism: when I'm deep in a novel, I think of little else. It's also the best spur to my own creativity.

I listen to children reading at a Primary School every week.  The power of the subjects their literature explores never ceases to amaze.  Through it they seem to feel safe to imagine and confront some very challenging situations.

So I jumped at this course Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing which takes Dr Johnson's premise as its starting point.  It's free, online and offered by the University of Warwick via Future Learn. The start date is 1st February 2016.  Most of my friends from our school A level English Literature group have signed up too.  We haven't discussed literature together since ... the last century!!  I'm so excited by this opportunity.

The themes over six weeks are:
Stress
Heartbreak
Bereavement
Trauma
Depression and bipolar
Ageing and Dementia

all explored through the work of a range of writers.    

The reading material is provided online but the course organisers suggest that, if you are raring to go, you could take a look at one or two of the following:

Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility
Rachel Kelly: Black Rainbow
Melvyn Bragg:  Grace and Mary
Mark Haddon: Polar Bears
William Shakespeare: King Lear, Hamlet, Titus Andronicus
An anthology of poetry of your choice.

What an invitation!





All of the wonderful photos on this blog are taken by Andrew Holman



Friday, 20 November 2015

The magical power of the breath in the night

It's 3 am.  No one is up except you and the stars.  You woke because the neighbour's cat was caterwauling outside or you needed the loo.  You squeeze your eyes tightly shut and tell yourself firmly that you are going STRAIGHT BACK TO SLEEP ...

And then they descend like rowdy friends after a drunken party; those thoughts that won't give you any peace.  You try to ignore them but they are so damned loud!  Before you know it, you are listening to every word they say and none of it is soothing.

In fact, these unwelcome visitors are downright aggressive, questioning you and pointing out all of the things you haven't done or should have done better.  'Why haven't you done your Christmas shopping yet?'  'Why on earth did you say that today in the office?'

They're relentless.  They start to question your capabilities too. 'Do you think you'll be able to manage that project tomorrow?'  'Are you sure you haven't bitten off more than you can chew in your new career?' They even question your character.  'Are you a good friend/mother/daughter/wife? Then why didn't you ...?'

You try not to retaliate, but it's no good. They suck you into the debate and you answer back.  'I would have enough time and energy for that project tomorrow if I could only GET TO SLEEP!'

By now you're wide-eyed, your heart is racing and you're hot and bothered.  You can feel those stress hormones coursing through your body and you know you'll only drop back to sleep again five minutes before the alarm.  It's so frustrating because you understand you're the author of your own sleepless night and now everything that might have been challenging tomorrow is going to be doubly challenging. That vicious merry-go-round of thoughts keeps spinning round and you can't jump off!

My regular yoga practice means that I have far fewer sleepless nights, but they still visit me now and again.  One of the best ways I have found to stop them is a simple breathing method.  For me the effect is almost magical.

All you do is focus on your breath.  You don't count breaths, you don't try to change them.  You simply turn your attention to the exhalation.  Each time you breathe out, you let it be in 3 stages. You don't hold your breath at any point, you just let it out as if you're descending down three stairs in one flowing but stepped movement.  I keep it up for as long as I need to.

Hopefully you will find it as calming as I do and with a bit of luck you will drop to sleep, but I don't make that my aim, I just keep breathing in and gently out down those three steps.  Good luck!

I am indebted to Mona Baur, one of the lovely teachers at Whitespace Yoga, for teaching me this technique.  Her own inspiration is The Breathing Book by Donna Fahri.  It's on my Christmas list. 

Kelly x  


      


All photos © Andrew Holman.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The core of things

I love these dark weeks of November and December.  I have always found them to be a rich and meaningful time.  Everything is stripped back and the cold and dark encourage a journey inwards. Nature reflects this.  The golden leaves of autumn have dropped and the trees are laid bare, revealing their structures: what is at their core.

In my yoga classes, I have been working on my physical core where there is much strengthening to be done!  For me it's a real challenge.  To rise to it demands my focus and determination, in other words: a strong mental attitude.  Whereas I am happy to work on forward bending and flexibility all day long because I love it, core strengthening requires a different frame of mind.  However, my attitude is shifting.

What's fascinating is to see how the physical work is strengthening all parts of me.  It is an enlightening process.  I don't want to overdo the point, but I truly do find I am re-discovering the core of myself.

Over the past decade, I have felt out of touch with my core, tossed on the waves of fortune, not sure which course to try and steer.  I have tried to be many things, often for seemingly worthy but probably misguided reasons.   Re-tuning with myself turns out to be rather a relief.  I feel lighter with the strengthening sense of self just as I feel lighter physically as my core muscles grow stronger.  It's so hard to put into words and yet it feels very natural.  

I am reading 'Super Brain' by Deepak Chopra and Rudolph E. Tanzi.  It has got me super excited and I recommend it highly.  With all the 'core' work I'm doing, you can imagine how the following words from the book resonate with me:  
To have a core self is to be the author of your own story.
I feel that in these words lies a deep truth, one that fills me with optimism.



Tuesday, 10 November 2015

For the Rest of my Life

Inspired by a poem about life by Nadine Stair called 'If I had my Life to Live Over', I've written my own.

I take myself way too seriously but this has been fun.

Here it is:


For the rest of my life
my pleasures will not be guilty.
Instead I’ll dress them in silk and wear them daily,
To enjoy their beauty and their rustle.

I will shed years like snake skin,
And, childlike, let curiosity lead to the joy of the new.
I won’t push fearfully at my boundaries,
I’ll tickle them to let me through.

In summer I’ll read in the garden, in winter by the fire.
At night I’ll go out in pyjamas to gaze at Orion.
Unless they mend their ways and agree to rehabilitation,
I’ll send ‘Should’ and ‘Mustn’t’ down.   

The world is full of problems I alone can't solve,
so I'll try to make ripples by skimming small stones
and as I watch them spreading ever outward
Imagine they are carrying with them love. 

I will tell stories.  Oh yes, I’ll tell stories;
the ones that are destined for my voice alone.
On every southerly breeze and in the rustle of the trees
they whisper of cartwheeling giants and lizards that sneeze.

I’ll whoop if I learn to stand on my head
or laugh if I come tumbling down instead.
There’s no learning in life without tumbling, no tumbling without trying 
and tumbling is what turns life into a kaleidoscope.

For the rest of my life,
my pleasures and I will not be guilty.  
We’ll be unashamedly, riotously, laughingly, 
lovingly, curiously, eccentrically 
Us.

Kelly Holman  

I have to confess that I have written and re-written this and it morphs into something different
each time although the essence stays the same.  So, knowing it is still not 'perfect' in poetic terms, I'm sharing it anyway.  That's one of my life lessons - not to wait for things to be perfect: it will be a long wait!  My only advice, if you're going to write a poem like Nadine Stair's (or mine), is not to take it too seriously.  This is not about loading pressure on to yourself to be someone different or 'better', it's about tuning in to who you really are.  

Much love    

Kelly x

Friday, 6 November 2015

Picking more daisies

In one of my yoga classes last week, our teacher, Ali, read us a poem.  Reportedly written by an octogenarian woman called Nadine Stair who is reflecting on her life, the poem is called 'If I Had my Life to Live Over'.

You will find the poem sprinkled liberally over the Internet on blogs and websites devoted to happier modes of living.  I wondered whether it would be okay to reproduce it in full here.  I have decided that Nadine Stair wanted her reflections to be shared: so I will.

As it becomes colder and the days shorten, it feels like the perfect time to become a little more reflective myself; to sit by the fire and think about what comes next.  So I am working on my personal version of a poem like Nadine's.  To write it, I am simply thinking about the things that make me happy and fulfilled and the things that don't.  It's not a 'bucket list' poem of goals to achieve, destinations to visit etc.  It's about understanding what I would like the essence of my life to be.  I think I'm going to call it 'For the Rest of my Life'.  It's good fun: it's making me smile.


This is Nadine's poem about her life.  

If I had my life to live over,
I'd dare to make more mistakes next time.
I'd relax.  I would limber up.
I would be sillier than I have this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances.

I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.
I would, perhaps, have more actual troubles,
but I'd have fewer imaginary ones.

You see, I am one of those people who has lived sensibly and sanely,
hour after hour,
day after day.
Oh, I've had my moments, and if I had to do it over again,
I'd have more of them.
In fact, I'd try to have nothing else,
just moments, one after another,
instead of living so many years ahead of each day.

I've been one of those persons who never goes anywhere
without a thermometer, a hot water bottle,
a raincoat and a parachute.
If I could do it again, I would travel lighter than I have.

If I had my life to live over.
I would start barefoot earlier in the spring
and stay that way later in the fall.
I would go to more dances.
I would ride more merry-go-rounds.
I would pick more daisies.

Nadine Stair


Tuesday, 3 November 2015

A rainbow of Cuban cars

All the world loves Cuba's cars.  They have become the island's trademark and its major tourist attraction.  I was surprised to find myself falling in love with them too; I am no petrol head.  Today, I am sharing a rainbow of them and in putting them together, I can see exactly why I loved them: they are so bright, so vibrant, so shapely.  They put fun and colour into the everyday of life.    
Red: luscious lips, strawberries, Rudolf's red nose.
Orange: autumn leaves, fire, sienna

Yellow: sick as a parrot
Green: pistachios, lime, my sister's favourite colour


Blue: sky, sea, toes on warm sand

Indigo: passion and hope
Violet: Shrinking


Pink:  Sometimes a Dodge, sometimes even a Cadillac but not technically a colour of the rainbow!


All of the photos were taken by Andrew Holman







Photos © Andrew Holman.

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 
Yoga!

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

Kelly




*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.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The genie in the fennel - Flavigny-sur-Ozerain

It's a September afternoon.  In the garden the fennel has blossomed into upside down umbrella flowers.

When I snap one, the aroma of aniseed fills the still air.  It's as if a genie has been conjured from the creamy white stem, filling the garden with the memory of another time and place ...

... Another golden September afternoon.  We are in the Burgundy village of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, perched on a hilltop, picture postcard pretty.  They made the film of Joanne Harris's book 'Chocolat' here.  Enchanting book, magical film.

The shop at l'Abbaye de Flavigny where Vianne Rocher offers chocolate temptation in the film, sells sweets in this world.  They are called Anis de Flavigny and we buy a jar of them.  The tiny white sweets, which are sugar coated seeds of anise (pimpinella anisum - related to fennel), have been made here for centuries.  We suck them as we wander the sun drenched streets where nothing moves faster than a lazy cat.  Wasps hum, apple blissed.

September is the month for nostalgia.  The gilded strands of web stretching across the garden are attached to memories; of the summer past, of all the summers past, of summers beyond the individual memory.

September is perhaps my most creative month and I find I have a 'posse' of stories jostling for attention in my mind - always welcome!

Today though I'm going out blackberrying.  September brings out the deep memory of the hunter gatherer too!

When my favourite photographer finds some photos of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, I'll add them. Memories don't always come date stamped!

             

For those of you who've grown used to my Tuesday / Friday routine, service should be back to normal by next Friday!  It's good to kick back sometimes (Big smile).  


Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Red squirrel power: an antidote to blogger's block





Back home after a fortnight spent in France, the country that steals another piece of my heart every time I visit, I have a touch of blogger's block this morning.  I'm wondering what 'the hopeful traveller' is all about.

For many months my blog writing has been Cuba powered.  Perhaps my best piece of travel writing to date, The Soul Loves to Sing, is set there. If Cuba can't set a writer alight, then where in the world can? But I've always felt that the hopeful traveller is about more than actually travelling.  Perhaps it's post travel restlessness, perhaps it's September which is, they say, the new January: a time for fresh directions. I'm wondering where to go next.  Not literally, you understand.    

So while I ponder, I'm falling back on the infallible charm of red squirrels.  It might seem random, but these chaps are scurrying all over the forests of the Limousin where I've been scurrying too with my trusty photographer.

Squirrels provide a lesson in focus and being in the moment.  For them, right now is the moment to collect as many nuts as possible.  It's as simple as that.  Stand and watch them springing through the trees on this mission and you too can't imagine life is about anything more important either.              



Kelly Holman

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

French is the language of ...

An elderly gentleman is searching for his cholesterol-lowering margarine.  In a supermarket full of native French speakers, he chooses me to help him.  

French: the language I adore.  It's recognised as the language of passion the world over.  But you know what? Even a discussion about margarine sounds like poetry when it's in French.  And an everyday conversation in a foreign language is like a little miracle.  It's one of the joys of travel.    




Photo © Kelly Holman.

Friday, 11 September 2015

France. Milky Way gazing in St. Medard-la-Rochette, Creuse

The church of St. Medard-La-Rochette beneath the Milky Way
What a joy to go stargazing one night in the heart of rural Limousin with so little light pollution to spoil the spectacle.

Over the hilltop village of St. Medard-la-Rochette, the dark velvet sky seemed encrusted with tiny glistening diamonds. The Milky Way was so thick with stars, it resembled a smudge of chalk across a blackboard.

From the prominence on which the 11th century church stands, the sky felt at the end of our fingertips, as if we could reach up and pick one of the stars or pull the Plough across the heavens. Jupiter shimmered rainbow-coloured, seeming to dance back and forth like a kite tethered on a string. The longer we looked, the more the heavens seemed alive.  Nothing was static.  It was bewitching.

It was only, after an hour, as a jet fighter shrieked overhead, practising for a conflict real or imagined on our planet, that we become aware again of our feet on the earth.          
The Milky Way

All photos © Andrew Holman.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Cuba: Esto no es un Cafe, Havana

He chased us through the twilight of the PIaza de la Catedral wielding a Campbell's Condensed Soup can.  All he needed was a bowler hat to make the surreality complete!

It was our first night in Havana.  We had dined al fresco at 'Esto no es un Cafe' amongst foraging chickens and the odd hopeful cat.  The food was excellent, the staff welcoming and the musicians in the courtyard of the Callejon del Chorro were enthusiastic.  After the first tense night in Havana, this felt, well, like a holiday.

The name of the restaurant might be a play on the work of Belgian Surrealist Magritte - the owners have even adopted the infamous pipe as their logo - but everything is honest, straightforward and exactly what you order.  That said, they do serve their signature pork dish on an urinal shaped platter!  
   
Armando, Adelaida the Fortune Teller and Alexis
And most evenings and lunchtimes a fabulous woman called Adelaida or 'Senora Habana' comes round.  She is a fortune teller and so dazzling that I'm sure her predictions are full of adventure, magic and excitement.  How could they be anything else?  

I have only had my fortune told once on a coach travelling through the former East Germany to Berlin by a Taiwanese man who, unlike Adelaida, looked like a computer programmer.  That, as they say, is another story. 

Day after day we returned to the restaurant.  We ate almost everything on the menu: chicken, fish, salads. Everything was fresh and some of it was 'bio' from an organic farm in Pinar del Rio.  We couldn't get enough of the ratatouille and the black beans, humble maybe but packed with flavour. 
Lunch: Ceci est un bon plat
We had come to see as much of Havana as we could.  After a few days we had to ask ourselves the question: were we missing out by not trying a different restaurant every night?  By then though it was not just about the food.  It was about the people.  There was Armando with the beautiful baby son whose mango tree fell down one night and severed his water supply (that tree produced the juiciest mangoes ever, sweet, with no fibre).  There was Tais who sang like an angel, was a fitness instructor and who, like many apparently, is now emigrating to Ecuador.  And there was Alexis who was chomping at the bit to become a bespoke tour guide (how does 'Meet My Havana sound?)

It was Alexis who chased us across the square with his soup can but no bowler hat.  We had got muddled up and underpaid our bill, dropping 10 CUCs less than required into the pot(age)!

He is charming enough to say he simply cannot remember.


Friday, 4 September 2015

The Soul Loves to Sing - my nearly winning travel piece from 2015

The music floated from the Church of St. Francis of Assisi and over Mother Theresa’s head to where I sat in the garden.  It was exquisite.  The voices of the violins, the cellos, the basses and the violas sang of every human emotion with deep understanding.  Joy, love, sorrow, grief, fear … I felt them wrap around me and mingle with my own.  Outside the garden, Havana’s Chevys and Buicks spluttered on their way to the Malecón.  Inside, Mother Theresa and I sat statuesque and silent, listening.

Havana was thick and sultry.  We’d arrived the night before, and I’d felt like a bird searching for a roost after dark.  Rubble blockades turned the taxi back again and again as it circled around Compostella looking for our Casa, and figures, looming giants in the headlights, pointed us in yet another direction.  I felt unwelcome, far from home, wondered why I thought a city half way round the world might help me grasp losing my sister, grasp being an only child with a very sick mother and yet grasp my own life again.  But it was when, finally, we stepped out of the air-conditioned taxi that it hit me.  And then it curled around me and squeezed like a boa.  There was no air to breathe.

The young woman at the Casa had given our room to someone else.  She showed us to another, ‘just for tonight’, clean and adequate, but close and brooding.  I felt my panic notch up and with it, her lack of understanding.  ‘We’ve been without mains water for weeks,’ she kept saying, as if that explained something.  ‘I will be without my sister for the rest of my life and I can’t breathe,’ I kept thinking, because that explained everything.  We sat the night out with the balcony doors thrown wide open.  Only when the birds began to sing, in the glimmer of dawn, did I calm down.

Daylight revealed a crumbling, but beautiful city, as well as the failing mains water system.  In the streets of Old Havana the old cast iron pipes were being ripped out.  The city was indeed without water in many places.  Soon we would grow accustomed to the lumbering 1950s water tankers that spewed black diesel fumes into the air as they struggled through the narrow, dug-up streets.  Only hospitals, schools and expensive hotels were guaranteed a delivery.  Everyone else had to go begging or bribing.

That people could make music so sublime in this ground down city caught hold of me. My focus began to shift.  I admired how Cubans are resilient and resourceful.  I watched how they picked their way through the rubble on the way to work, keeping their shiny shoes clean.  Saw them rush out to the tankers with every recycled water bottle discarded by a visitor that they could find.  Noticed too how the tension ratcheted up at the Casa when the water delivery, begged for, bribed for, was late. Our en-suite room was always first to run out.  We were water canaries, signalling impending drought.  When they came, the tankers arrived after dark, honking their horns in what we liked to think was celebration.  Relief flooded through the Casa as the water was pumped, deafeningly, into the storage tanks. 

I opened my heart to this fighting Havana, but the mistrust of that first night lingered. 

One afternoon, Armando, the regular pianist in the bar over the street, is murdering ‘Stardust.’  I am oblivious to this but not my husband.  It was the signature tune of his grandfather’s accordion band.  Armando can’t get it right.  Unable to listen any longer, Andrew goes off on a mission.  Amongst the many things he has brought to Cuba is the music for ‘Stardust’.

When he returns, an hour later, Armando is playing ‘Stardust’ as badly as ever but he is over the moon.  He has found a different, jubilant home for all of the music, classical and popular, that he has schlepped here:  the young woman who owns the Casa.  She not only keeps the water flowing, just about, with bribes, she is a professional violinist.  She has invited us to a concert.

Mother Theresa is sitting in the garden when the music begins.  I am sitting in the Church of St. Francis of Assisi.  The voices of the violins, the cellos, the basses and the violas sing again of every human emotion with deep understanding:  of joy, love, sorrow, grief and fear.  Of how the first two prevail because, despite tragedy and hardship, the soul is resilient and it loves to sing.

When the music ends, the young woman from the Casa, the violinist, looks over to me.  We share a smile.

Kelly Holman

Awarded a Special Mention in the Bradt /Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Competition 2015.
The brief was to write a piece of between 600 - 800 words in the first person and on the theme of 'Serendipity'.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Bradt/Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Competition 2015

The streets of Havana

The six finalists in The Bradt / Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Competition 2015 were announced last week.  I can't wait to read the winning entry in the Independent on Sunday on 13th September 2015 and will try to post a link to it if I can.

The theme was 'Serendipity', a force of life that never fails to give you a frisson when you encounter it.  You will not be surprised that my entry was set in Havana.

I did not reach the final six, but I am delighted, over the moon and grinning from ear to ear when I tell you that I got a Special Mention.

That means that in "the country's leading travel writing competition" (to quote the Independent on Sunday and big myself up!), one of the judges deliberating at the final judging meeting thought my piece had legs.

Now I won't deny that I would have loved to win an eight day trip to Iceland but a 'Special Mention' is just peachy, thank you.  I adore the whole process of writing, it's how I love to spend my time, but writers write to be read and when someone enjoys what you've written ... well, it's a thrill.

I will be publishing my piece here on Friday 4th September 2015.    

Friday, 28 August 2015

Cuba: Patio Passion ~ Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, Havana

"The patio was like an abbey cloister, with a stone fountain murmuring in the centre and pots of heliotrope that perfumed the house at dusk ..." 
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.

Ever since reading Love in the Time of Cholera, the idea of a traditional Spanish patio has entranced me.  An interior courtyard enclosed by galleries and arcades, sheltered and intimate: this is what drew me to the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales in Havana. 

The word 'patio' conjures up an everyday part of most gardens these days, even the smallest ones. It has come to mean a hard surface, usually adjoining the house, where you can put tables and chairs. The traditional Spanish and Latin American patio is so much more romantic!  It's a place of light and shade, of cool and sunshine, of shelter from swelter, bluster and squalls.  

Imagine the pleasure of sitting on the edge of sunshine and shade, feeling the caress of both. Imagine peeking from beneath the shelter of the arcade and allowing drops of cool rain to fall on your face. Imagine inhaling the perfumes of flowering plants, heady and intensified by enclosure. Imagine the sense of secrecy, privacy and tranquility in the closeted garden. 
This kind of patio is a Spanish architectural feature that was imported to Cuba and more widely to Latin America.  It is the perfect arrangement in a hot climate where the arcades that surround it become an especially important feature.

We visited on a sultry day, shortly after a rare shower of rain.  The sky pressed down.  It was a joy to sit on the cool marble steps leading up to the galleries and listen to the bustle of activity on the Plaza de Armas outside.  I felt as sticky as the humid air: we merged into one.  Amongst the ferns and tropical greenery the King of the patio, a peacock, stood lazy with heat, the jewels in his feathers weighing him down. When, finally, he found the energy to move, he dragged his tail along the dusty ground, too oppressed to care if the silky threads got snagged and dirty.

In the centre of the patio is a statue of one of the city governors. I envied him a little: made of pure white marble, he is eternally cool even beneath a blazing sun.      
Today this former palace houses the Museo de la Ciudad with collections that would most kindly be described as 'eclectic'.  There are certainly items of interest.

For me it was all about the magic of the patio.  


Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Upside Down and Grateful

I have learned that there is always something to be grateful for.  Some days it is harder to embrace this truth than others.  Conversely, on the hardest days, I often feel gratitude overflowing for the simplest of things: the breeze rustling the leaves, the song of a bird, the next deep breath of fresh air.

Over the past few days my mother has been unwell.  She has been ill with a form of Alzheimer's for almost ten years and is now severely affected.  When she has a bad spell alarm bells ring, distress and helplessness kick in, and I feel like a small child again, but without my mother.  It is a sad place.

Today I am filled with gratitude for my yoga practice.  An hour on the yoga mat this morning and all the physical signs of distress in my body have floated away.  I can cope again.

It was with my Mum that I first started practising yoga.  I was a teenager and together we went to classes in a local church hall.  I came back to it a few days before Christmas last year, eighteen months after my sister died, having lost her year long battle to recover from a devastating brain haemorrhage. I stood looking out of the window into the garden, feeling the stress I had come to accept as normal and I had a moment of epiphany.  I understood that everything had to change and knew, without question, how I would change it: through yoga.

Even as I stood there, watching a great tit on the peanut feeder in front of the window, I saw this yoga in front of me as a way of life, not a once weekly class.  That vision excited me.  And, amazingly for me, I had no doubts.  I started my practice on New Year's Day.  

My yoga journey feels personal and I don't like making a song and dance of things. Yet it is turning my life upside down in ways for which I have such enormous gratitude that it feels wrong not to share. So, when you see a post preceded by the 'Upside Down and Grateful' banner, you will know there is some yoga in there somewhere although, truly, it's all part and parcel of trying to be a hopeful traveller.

I had hoped to turn my little blue warrior upside down.  Perhaps I will manage it yet!  I think of him as a yoga warrior.  

My Mum seems a little better today.      
  

Friday, 21 August 2015

Cuba: More Street Art from Havana


Here's a small collection of street art from Havana for you to enjoy.  What I love about so much of it is its placing and the way it plays with the features of its environment (the window above and the fish tail below).

You could spend days wandering the streets of Cuba's capital discovering the often skilfull work that artists have shared in this way.  For me, it's yet another reminder of the importance of creativity, of expressing it and sharing it.  Art is about expressing one's humanity and seems brave and inspiring displayed here on its crumbling canvas.

Sometimes it has an opinion to express, sometimes it comes from a deep emotional well, other times it's playful.  In all cases, I felt, it signalled resilience and determination.  All of the pieces have signatures but I don't know who the artists are.  I think, however, that they intended to share.

If I found these daubed on buildings in London, I think I would react very differently.  In fact, I'm sure I would.  Here it seemed to me that they were intended to instil a note of cheerfulness, optimism or to provoke thoughtfulness about their situation.  For me that made all the difference.