Category Archives: Reviews

Art by Lesley C. Weston, commissioned by MoonPark Review

Short Fiction: “Craig” (Published in MoonPark Review, Winter 2020/2021)

21 December 2020.

Afterwards you have these fantasies of him tracking you down and finding you. Opening your front door, and he’s standing there. And you think about what you wished you had said but didn’t before he walked away in the cold, white morning air.  In your bedroom in another city, when you are looking in the mirror at the two fingertip-sized bruises on your chest, you wonder if you left any marks on him that he is still considering in long, slow moments, too.  And you think about what you knew when you were 25, and what you know now that you’re 40.

You can’t recall the experience in a linear way, just in flashes that are doorways to longer remembrances. Like how the first thing you did when you were alone with him was to press the release valve over his heart and listen quietly while he spilled words that came out trailing dust from being held in for so long, subtly coated in disbelief that someone could do this, one random night at 1 a.m. in a nightclub.

After the last dusty words come out, he says, “When I found out you weren’t from Edinburgh, it made me really disappointed, because it meant I can’t be with yeh, can’t marry yeh.  You’re exactly the kind of woman I’ve been lookin’ fer… You really listen to me, and you really look at me.”

You don’t know what to say to this, even though you’re forty, because he has really looked at you, too; and because you’re forty, you know in a more statistical way about the rarity of lightning strikes to the heart. And then he puts his arm around you, and you can’t resist this.

Of course you didn’t take any of it seriously at first, when you sashayed like a fairy drunk on absinthe up to the table of four young men to ask for a cigarette, and they say that the price for this is to sit down and have a chat with them.  You slide into the booth, tipsy, malleable and delighted to play the game.  You say, “How old are you all?” and they say “Guess,” and you say “21,” and this makes them puff up indignantly like chickens and squawk, “25!”

Then you say, “How old do you think I am?” and they guess 28.

You throw your head back and laugh, then shake your head and say, “40.” You watch their faces, and your eyes are still laughing, knowing that you have just announced a power they were not expecting you to have.

Then their leader – of course he was their leader –  retakes control and quick-fires a volley of questions …where are you from, why are you here in Edinburgh, what do you do, what do you think of Scotland, have you ever been here before…  And you answer, going right along with the rhythm he has set, but you notice right away that he is thinking about you on two levels.  On one level he is effortlessly directing the release of information and snapping your focus back to him if any of his friends try to engage your attention, and on the other, quieter level he is looking hard at you, harder than anyone has looked at you in a long time.

So you look at him, and he looks at you, while your mouths go talk, talk, talk, but you both know about the two different levels.  At some point, his friends leave the booth, and you are by yourselves, but this doesn’t feel like a change.  They drift back at some point, and he looks up at them and waves them away.  You have also decided about him by this point, and so you go to get your coat.

You walk into the tall, quiet house, the other bodies in the house asleep upstairs, and you are thankful for the dense Georgian build of the place and that you’re staying in a downstairs bedroom.

You don’t fall against each other in a passionate crush right away, because something else larger, something unusual, is happening, and you both know it.  So you take your coats off in the hall and lay them neatly on the monk’s bench next to the grandfather clock, the rustles loud in the night-time silence.  You go into the kitchen and turn on the light. He follows and sits down at the table. You sit across from him. You let him look at you.


“Craig” by Joy Martin. Originally published on 21 December 2020 in the Winter 2020/2021 issue of MoonPark Review. Original artwork by Lesley C. Weston (Pastel).

'The Wind in the Willows', Cambridge Junction 2019, credit Claire Haigh

The Wind in the Willows by the Figs in Wigs at Cambridge Junction

16 December 2019.

(Originally published in The Stage on 16 December 2019)

Performance collective Figs in Wigs applies its distinctive style of joyous, high-concept whimsy to the pantomime format in a fantastically imagined and enjoyable production of The Wind in the Willows at Cambridge Junction.

Written by Rachel Gammon, Suzanna Hurst, Sarah Moore, Rachel Porter and Alice Roots (of Figs in Wigs), the show takes the beloved characters from the Wild Wood on a space odyssey, with abundant laughs for both children and adults along the way.

Toad (endearingly played by Sarah Moore) is re-imagined as a fun-loving, reckless amphibian who can’t keep herself out of trouble, especially with her arch-enemy Weasel (Rachel Gammon) prowling around. Toad’s latest craze is rocket ships, and when she blasts into space with Weasel unwittingly on board, her friends from the Riverbank must find a way to save her.

Delightfully inventive visual effects are laced throughout: a giant iPhone dials Shrew Perkins, Rabbit DeNiro and Justin Beaver, who knows a ‘Nick’ with ‘a magical flying vehicle’ which they can borrow to rescue Toad.

Space is sweetly conjured via Tim Spooner’s set design and Tom Parkinson’s thoughtful and bright electro-musical soundscapes, as the lovably comic trio of Badger, Ratty and Mole (respectively Suzanna Hurst, Rachel Porter and Alice Roots) fly in Nick’s sleigh, contemplating the vastness of the universe.

The plot is resolved with a single resounding joke that landed riotously with the children in the audience, while the adults are peppered throughout with ticklish theatrical ironies. Altogether, the whirling conceptual play between micro and macrocosms – woods, rivers, small furry animals, technology and the cosmos – are  deftly woven together into a deliciously alternative and modern Christmas panto.

A scene from "SALT (The Marvellous Puppet Show)" by Bämsemble. (Photo by Mario Lensi)

The Birth of Superdrama

28 February 2019.

(Originally published in American Theatre magazine on 29 January 2019 under the title ‘It’s Noh, It’s Viewpoints – It’s Superdrama’.)

“It is not the object of art to make life comfortable for the fat bourgeois so that he may nod his head: ‘Yes, yes, that’s the way it is! And now let’s go for a bite!’ Art, insofar as it seeks to educate, to improve men, or to be in any way effective, must slay workaday man; it must frighten him as the Mask frightens a child, as Euripides frightened the Athenians who staggered from the theatre. Art exists to change man back into the child he was…we want theatre. We seek the most fantastic truth. We search for the superdrama.”

—Yvan Göll,1922

Last spring I found myself in Castelfiorentino, Tuscany, a sleepy hamlet nestled into the voluptuous green hills of central Italy. It was April 7 and I was sitting in the foyer of the Teatro C’art, where a milling crowd was waiting to see SALT (The Marvellous Puppet Show) by the visiting multinational theatre company Bämsemble, which are based in Milan and Turin. Teatro C’art’s resident company is primarily a clowning ensemble, and the walls are scattered with framed photos of past productions, all featuring images of the classical European clown, some with white face, all with red noses, pictured among surrealist props radiating whimsy.

An open mezzanine area upstairs was littered with these props: a sousaphone stuffed with flowers, old saucepans, an antique black bicycle with huge, white feather wings. As I beheld this sweet and idiosyncratic space, a friend told me that the rows of steel strings under the handrail for the stairs had all been tuned to different pitches, so the building itself could be played.

Behind the door leading into the theatre, we could hear the sound of musicians warming up—a shaker, mandolin scales, a drumroll—as various members of the company rushed in and out, bursting through the pre-show fourth wall with abandon, their urgency reminding me that this was a work-in-progress performance. Then from behind the door came the sound of a rumbling roar of voices, the company warming up in unison.

SALT (The Marvellous Puppet Show) is the first major production from Bämsemble, which formed in 2017. The show is directed by Jon Kellam, who founded the company with Andrea Bochicchio and Andrea Cavarra, the show’s producer. Kellam’s co-director, co-movement director and co-choreographer for SALT is Madeleine Dahm, a theatre director and dance practitioner who instructs the company in elements of Graham technique, Laban, and BodyWeather.

The show’s dossier describes Bämsemble’s mission to present “an innovative, unique, and contemporary approach to commedia dell’arte” and tells the story of how SALT began as a theatre “laboratory” for Kellam to experiment with a new method he calls “Superdrama.” I learn later from Kellam that Superdrama is based on the Style acting method, which he learned during tenures with New Crime Productions in Chicago and as an actor and director with Tim Robbins’ Actors’ Gang in Los Angeles. Kellam tells me that the Style synthesized “commedia dell’arte, German Expressionistic images, and melodramatic emotion” to create “a kind of heightened, punk-rock-like dynamic theatre that I found irresistible.”

Kellam left L.A. for Europe in 2013 to work with European performance ensembles, study clowning, and garner an MFA in physical theatre at the Accademia dell’Arte in Arezzo, Italy. Kellam explains that his version of the Style has become so infused with other elements acquired in the course of his career that it has now lifted off into its own unique methodological niche, requiring a new name; hence Superdrama.

I am curious to see the show and experience the results emerging from Kellam and his collaborators’ theatre laboratory. Have they have made gold out of their new methodological alchemy? I am also curious to find out more about the origins of Superdrama, how it arose from Kellam’s particular history as an American theatre artist travelling to Europe in search of new and ancient perspectives.

It is now time for the show, and we all file into a little black-box studio theatre. The stage is mostly bare: The left edge is lined with musical instruments attended by two musicians, the right edge holds a row of chairs. The only other object is a large black hoop, the diameter of a tall man, resting against the back wall, opposite the audience. The lights go down, and the actors file in and sit on the chairs.

Into the darkness a disembodied man’s voice, amplified and distorted, begins speaking, “My name is Don Miguel, and when I was born, I started laughing. My shouts of joy have crossed the mountains and stretched over the sea. I am the king of time, generated at the beginning. I am the cry of life that wants to live.”

The script is written by Italian playwright Francesco Botti and story adapted by Botti and Kellam from the theatrical interlude El Retablo de Las Maravillis (The Marvellous Puppet Show), written in 1615 by no less than Miguel de Cervantes. The adaptation is set in a dystopian near-future, and begins when three foreign actors and con artists—the leader Chanfalla, his lover and companion Chirinos, and Rabelin, a young man learning their trade—crash their motorcycle and sidecar near a town encircled by a tall, white wall of salt. They are met outside of the walls by the elite of the town, upon whom the actors decide to practice their con: They offer to stage a performance of a magical play created by a mysterious sorcerer, Don Miguel, filled with beautiful images and astonishing feats of performance, circus, song, and dance: The Marvellous Puppet Show.

But as Chanfalla explains to the town elders, the show is visible only to those who are racially pure and born in wedlock. The town elders agree. Of course, the con is that there is no show, and when the show is “staged,” nobody sees anything. Chaos ensues, breaking apart the town’s repressive social order and revealing the lies upon which the community has been built. Botti and Kellam have woven a new love story into Cervantes’s plot, as the young actor Rabelin falls in love with Teresa, the rebellious daughter of the town’s powerful matriarch, Juana.

Cervantes’s tale, a variant of the Emperor’s New Clothes, feels deeply relevant in our current era of politics, with its own ridiculous naked emperors and deeply beguiled and deluded followers. It thus makes an ideal subject for a theatre wishing to play a dynamic social role in these strange times, as we teeter on the edge of a future that is beginning to feel possibly dystopian, with racism, xenophobia, and populism bubbling to the surface. SALT‘s fanciful yet sharp satire zeroes in on the hypocrisy inherent in racism, and mocks its underlying myth of the “pure.”

After the opening monologue from the mystical Don Miguel, the lights come up, the musicians begin a passionate, high-energy, guitar- and drum-filled Latin number, and the company leaps off their chairs into a raucous dance, shouting, “Ah, Dio! Ah, Dio! Ah, Dio!” along with the music. As the company spin, leap and whirl, we see their white-painted faces, bright red lips, and fantastic costumes, designed by Chiara Barlassina with Livia Morelli. They both evoke the show’s futuristic dystopian setting and subtly reference Cervantes’s Renaissance Spain.

This powerful, engaging, and delightful show leaves many striking impressions upon me. The first is its larger-than-life mode of physical expression, beginning with the story’s opening motorcycle crash. The runs, tumbles, gestures and poses throughout are like big, bold, colorful brushstrokes, or like moving 3-D paintings telling the show’s story loudly through the body. Sara Bellodi is superb as Chirinos, her movement infused with a highly developed sexual responsiveness, making her character feel symbolic of a divine, feminine force of nature. The wordless movement tableaux depicting the romance between the lovers, Rabelin and Teresa, are sensitive and nuanced physical portrayals of new, unfolding love, beautifully performed by Sebastiano Sicurezza and Anna Rasero.

When I speak later with Kellam about the characteristics of Superdrama and the ways in which it differs from its progenitor, the Style, I learn that physical conditioning/movement and applying Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints and the theatre Noh principle of Jo-ha-kyū are some of its key points of departure. He tells me, “One of the things we didn’t pay much attention to in the Style was how we condition and warm up. My questions as a practitioner were, specifically, Do we warm up the voice? Do we stretch? Do we condition? And, if we do, does that change what the Style is? Does it change the resulting work?” His answers, after years of study and work, is yes.

Jon Kellam.

Kellam says he had been convinced of the power of body conditioning methodologies for years, and that he began to incorporate systems such as Laban, Viewpoints and Suzuki into his previous work as a director with the Actors’ Gang. He explained, “When the [conditioned] actor enters the space, they command much more dynamic attention, because they are completely bodily focused—they’re whole. They’re like dancers who talk.”

For SALT Kellam chose to collaborate with Madeleine Dahm to heighten this mode of physical expression in the show. Her influence on the creative product is profound; the range of expressive movement from all of the performers in SALT has a thoughtful precision and storytelling power which super-charges the other elements of theatre in the production.

When I ask Kellam about the origin of the name Superdrama, he tells me the term was coined by the early 20th-century Alsatian-German Expressionist poet and dramatic writer Yvan Göll, who insisted upon society’s need for an “enormous” theatre with the power to shock the audience into a new state of mind and rouse them to social and political action. Kellam explains that this is the primary purpose of the Superdrama method, which it shares with the Style. At this point in our conversation, I remark that the goal of the ancient Athenian theatre was to produce states of “awe” and “catharsis,” and Kellam tells me, “It’s interesting to think about the Greeks, because that is what Göll wanted to bring back—the audience of Euripides and Aeschylus staggering out of the theatre, blown away by what they’ve just experienced.”

The most disquieting and overtly political ingredient in SALT is the character of Mushi, played by Marco Giancomini, a downtrodden worker in the town’s salt mine, styled here as a young Hitler, with black, center-parted hair, a small moustache, Bavarian shorts, suspenders, and jackboots. The angry young populists in our world don’t look much different from Mushi, as the downward pressure and derision of the elite above him hardens his inner state of fear and confusion, distorting it into righteousness and hatred of the Other. Mushi, watching the three foreign actors, says darkly from the show’s sidelines, “No foreigners, no theatre.”

Another significant element of the show is its overall sense of pace and musicality. As the first few scenes play, I become somewhat astonished that this is a work-in-progress performance, because it seems so precise and well-developed. The rises and falls in the pitch of the actors’ voices, the patterns of their physical movement, the percussive sounds of their feet hitting the floor—all are playing out as if to a running musical time signature, and it is perfectly coordinated with the script, movement, and actual music, in a way that creates a larger theatrical harmony. At one point, I think: It is as if the performers are even breathing in unison.

Afterward, speaking with various members of the cast, I ask each of them, “How did you feel the performance went?”, and every single cast member says, “It needs to be tighter.”

I can see later, after Kellam explains the use of Noh and Viewpoints as vital components of Superdrama, that this deeply engaging theatre “music” has been created by the application of these methodologies in combination. It is clear that the show paid homage to the idea of the essential. There was no scrap—nothing unconnected to the whole vision, nothing unconsidered.

The peak of the show’s Jo-ha-kyū arc comes when the puppet-show-within-the-show is “staged” at the wedding of Juanita, the daughter of the town’s most powerful woman, Juana. Just before this, at the height of the story’s tension, the company disappears to the sides, the lighting changes, and Chanfalla (Andrès Aguirre Fernandez), the leader of the foreign actors’ troupe, goes to the black hoop resting against the stage wall, picks it up, inserts himself into it, and begins a spinning acrobatic interlude. A significant change from the established fictional reality and expressive movement established thus far in the show, the moment is surreal, exhilarating in its prowess, and extremely beautiful. This set piece also has deep symbolic resonance within the plot of the story: The wheel of fate is turning for this community, a portal is opening, a bad spell breaking.

Andrès Aguirre Fernandez in “SALT (The Marvellous Puppet Show)” by Bämsemble. (Photo by Mario Lensi)

This acrobatic depiction of chaos, maelstrom, magic, and change is one of the most interesting and powerful moments of the show. Afterwards when the puppet show is “presented” to the townspeople, who of course see nothing, they devolve into states of madness and breakdown, and the dark truths at the heart of the society come spilling out. The tone of Botti’s script shifts back to the mystical at the end, suffusing the final scenes with an otherworldly luminosity that shines through the bittersweet ending.

As I meditate on the various influences and styles reflected in Kellam’s new method, it occurs to me that the compulsion to classify these comes from a desire to understand the power of theatre. The question, “Why is this theatre powerful?” leads us to ask next, “How was it made?” But while the answer to my original question—whether Kellam and his Bämsemble collaborators have made gold out of their new methodological alchemy—is a resounding “yes,” my conviction  comes from what I experienced of SALT‘s power, not my knowledge of its creation..

The Bämsemble Company, having performed SALT (The Marvellous Puppet Show) as a work-in-progress at various venues in Italy, staged a performance in Turin in May 2018 and a subsequent performance at Milan’s Teatro Franco Parenti in December 2018, where it will have an extended run in December 2019. In the meantime, Kellam, Dahm, and the Bämsemble Company continue to offer workshops as they further develop the Superdrama method and Dahm’s technique of dynamic conditioning. The company is presently making plans to tour the show in Italy and Europe.

This article was originally published in American Theatre magazine on 29 January 2019 under the title ‘It’s Noh, It’s Viewpoints – It’s Superdrama’


Serendipity Story #1: The Sign of the Pilgrim

31 Oct 2017.

When I visited St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, in July 2016, I didn’t know that I was visiting as a pilgrim-to-be. My tall, wild French boyfriend drove me there in his vintage Citroën Mehari. Holding hands (not able not to hold hands), we walked through the hilly, winding, cobbled streets, and he explained to me that St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, this small town in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, is the famous starting place for spiritual pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail, which ends in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

We saw many people in serious hiking clothes carrying rucksacks. They were in small groups and pairs, mostly, and there was the occasional lone pilgrim. We walked past the open door of the pilgrimage registration office, where pilgrims clustered, speaking to the administrators inside who would record the beginning of each pilgrim’s journey and give them the information they needed. On the wall of the office was a giant map showing the trail, curving from this little French village down through the mountains of northern Spain, and ending at the sea on Spain’s northwest coast. I stepped inside to take a picture of the map.

Everywhere we looked in the town we saw seashells: scallop shells, to be more precise. There were paving stones under our feet carved in the shape of scallop shells, scallop shells on restaurant awnings stretching out over the sidewalks, and scallop shells in every shop window. My Frenchman explained that this was the symbol of the pilgrimage trail. Then I noticed that the pilgrims all wore the scallop shell symbol somewhere on their person: as a patch sewn onto their rucksacks or coats, or hanging around their necks on a lanyard. I was laughing and laughing about seeing all of these shells, because later that night we were going to a costume party in our campsite, and I was dressing up as a mermaid and had a scallop-shell bra to wear.

My mermaid bra was made out of real scallop shells. When I assembled my mermaid costume in preparation for my upcoming camping trip in France with the Frenchman, I was living in Cambridge and having a long-distance relationship with him. I worked at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is across the street from the Loch Fyne seafood restaurant. I stepped across the street one day during my lunch break to ask the restaurant if they had any scallop shells I could use for a mermaid bra. The young man I spoke to said they no longer had a dish with scallop shells on the menu. He was standing behind a brightly-lit, refrigerated display case holding fresh seafood on ice. Both our eyes travelled down to the selection of oysters there, whose shells were the right shape. He said I could give you some oyster shells, and then he paused, genuinely intent on helping me with my quest, then said, but they’re [looking at my chest analytically] not big enough. Then he realised what he had said, and we both burst out laughing. Then he went to the kitchen to ask the chefs, and he came back with two scallop shells which they had kept for display.

At the Fitzwilliam I worked with the conservators and technicians who handle and display the precious objects in the museum, so I knew girls with drills and delicate skills. My friend Charis kindly drilled three small holes in each shell, so I could lace some string through them, and voilà, I had my mermaid bra.

I didn’t plan my pilgrimage ahead of time, like the well-equipped pilgrims I had seen in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The Frenchman had said, I love you. Come live with me. I will build a room for you to write in. Something has happened in my heart that has never happened before. Something had happened in my heart that had never happened before, too. Being with the Frenchman was like having magic injected into my blood. It was like being gently on fire at all times.

The cross-Channel ferry was booked for 5 August 2016, one month after our camping trip in the Pyrenees. The Frenchman arrived in Cambridge a few days before this to help me pack up my things, this time driving a vintage Citroën CX station wagon hauling a trailer. I had trained my replacement at the museum and said goodbye to my colleagues there. I had a big party to say goodbye to all my friends, and everybody came to hug me, wish me luck in my new life in France and have one final disco in my kitchen. I remember that the Frenchman and I both wore red to the party – I wore a red dress, and he wore a red shirt.

The plan was to hand over the keys of the rented shared house I had lived in for 11 years on the morning on 5 August, and then we would drive to Newhaven and take the evening ferry to Dieppe.

But [dear Reader…you have been able to sense where this story is going, haven’t you?] we had a catastrophic argument on the evening of 4 August, and broke up. The next morning, instead of driving to Newhaven to catch the ferry to France, we drove his car and trailer, loaded with all my possessions, to a storage box unit in an industrial estate around the corner from my former home in Cambridge.

I kept one big, red suitcase and a small backpack with me, and there I was, no home, no job, no relationship – all gone in one night.

This first part felt fiery, like a violent blood-letting, like falling and crashing. But… But… How can I describe to you how deeply I felt the hand of God on my life at this time? And how this felt beautiful? The falling and then the crashing, with my losses scattered and burning on the ground around me, showed me more deeply than anything before ever had, that all those burning things are not ME, and then I felt ME in a new way, as an intangible something that was indestructible and deeply connected to God. I knew right away that I was being ushered into a radical spiritual transformation. I saw how deeply I had nestled into my little burrow-life in Cambridge in a way that had changed from safe and stable to stagnant. I had been like a seed, still alive, but so…still. And so afraid…so unconsciously afraid of life.

All of my friends know that I have been on a deep and conscious spiritual path for years. For fifteen years, as this little seed, I soaked in theory and drank words, concepts, and ideas from spiritual writers from many different mystical traditions: Christian, Native American, Buddhist, Hindu, Yogic, New Age. And then on 5 August 2016, the great clock of the universe rang its bell, and suddenly it was time for pilgrimage, experience, practice, doing, transformation. It was time for me to be tossed out into the rich soil, water and sunlight of the outside world.

One of the most beautiful things that happened was discovering how many loving hands reached out to cushion my fall, to hold me afterwards when I cried, to offer me beds and sofas, to feed me, and just be near me, in quiet support. I hadn’t realised how loved I was. I hadn’t been particularly good at asking for help before.

From that moment, I started the deep learning of my pilgrim lessons. The first lesson was ‘Trust’. Trust God. Trust intuition. Trust friends. Trust that the path will appear, and you will be guided by what your heart tells you. Trust your own path, and don’t look over at anyone else’s. I knew that the right thing for me to do was to start traveling.

It is over a year later now, and I have had many beautiful spiritual experiences, and my faith and trust in this loving universe have been rewarded again and again, so that now I trust trust.

I know that discovering and deepening my connection to God was worth every single painful, burning moment of loss, fear and loneliness that I went through. I learned by going through this fire that those things are not really true things, and that when you realise God is inside you as you, and also everywhere around us, then we learn that we are never alone, and everything is okay, and we are all simply on a path of discovery each day, towards a deeper understanding of love, the nature of reality and God.

As I drop more and more deeply into my own understanding, I sense that the universe is conscious, attentive, loving and quietly waiting for us to wake up and notice this. It is sending us love notes in the form of little daily magics: serendipities, things that look like coincidences, or a mermaid bra made of scallop shells, but which are really a wink, hug, guide, a blessing from divine love, which say, ‘I’m here. I’m watching. I’m listening. I love you, Pilgrim. Everything is okay, no matter what your path looks like today.’

Serendipity Story #2 Coming Soon…

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Originally published on on 31 Oct 2017

'Aquamarine Cobb', Used Courtesy of Artist Hilary Buckley

Serendipity Story #2: The List of Dreams

10 October 2017…

It was early August 2016, a few days after I put all my worldly possessions in a storage unit at Cambridge’s Newmarket Road industrial estate and watched the Frenchman drive away in his vintage Citroen station wagon, hauling a now-empty trailer and bound for the ferry at Newhaven, alone.

I was at Peter and Rafael’s flat in Cambridge, wondering what to do, where to go next. I had with me one big, red suitcase (‘Big Red’) and a blue backpack (‘Little Blue’). I had a good pair of brown leather Timberland hiking boots, only two months old. My urge to leave Cambridge was strong. The urge was composed of embarrassment, a sense of failure, a desire to hide and a longing for somewhere quiet, beautiful and solitary. The streets of Cambridge felt too full of memories, associations and people. It also felt like I was still being propelled by the course I had been following so eagerly: go, start a new life in a different place. This was like a tatter, still active, still readable, from the old story I had been living, recently thrown into a fireplace and slowly burning up.

The Frenchman owned an eco-house and smallholding in South West France, and he often hosted people who were traveling on the Workaway programme. This is a low-budget way of traveling, where travellers stay with a host and are provided with food and board in exchange for a few hours of work every day. It seemed like a good way to go somewhere, and I knew God was looking after me. I knew wherever I went, it would be okay.

Sitting at Peter and Rafa’s kitchen table, I logged onto the Workaway website, created a profile, thought to myself, I want to go somewhere in the UK by a beach, and applied for four different situation postings in coastal towns. Only a few hours later, I heard from Deborah in Branscombe, Devon, offering for me to come and stay with her for two weeks.

I started to breathe more easily as soon as I was on the train west from Cambridge, and my solar plexus was humming with a vibration of rightness. I enjoyed seeing the big, green, round hills of the West Country appear after a couple hours of traveling due west. Past Teignmouth, there are sea views from the train. Deborah, Debbie, met me when I got off the train, and we loaded my bags into her station wagon with the seagulls screeching around us in the parking lot and the sea in the distance. She exuded a nearly palpable aura of love and kindness. She was a similar age to me, but a couple of years older, and petite, with gently curling brown hair and a very beautiful face. She told me that she had turned down something like 15 applications for her Workaway advertisement, but knew right away that I was the right person when she saw my message and profile.

I was in two minds about telling Debbie what had just happened in my life, but my instinct urged me to tell her in the car, on the way to her house. This only caused a deeper outpouring of kindness from her. She made a delicious, healthy meal for dinner, and as she handed a laden plate to me on that first night, she said Feed your soul with love, Joy. And I knew I was in the right place, doing the right thing, with the right person.

She lived in a huge, rambling old stone house on a hill that was an eight-minute walk from Branscombe Beach.  She showed me to a self-contained room with its own door and key set into the hill just below the main house. It had a big double bed, pretty views from the windows and floor space for yoga. The job she had for me to do was to scrape, sand and paint a black iron staircase winding up the outside of the house, which had been weathering the salty sea air and south coast storms for too long. There were white, fluffy sheep grazing on the green hills on either side of the house, and from the top of the staircase, I could see the sea.

I was ready for the hard work. I learned on the first day that the rusty old paint scrapings from the staircase would land on my hair and skin and become fused to the layer of sunscreen I wore, forming a black, dusty paste, so that I looked like a coal miner, or some creature from the bowels of the earth. This felt good, correct, satisfying. Like I had shed my old Cambridge skin, pretty clothes, culture job and persona. I was something primal, raw and earthy now. It also felt good to begin working the tragedy out of my system using my muscles. It took a full 40 minutes and an actual scrub brush to clean myself at the end of each morning of work. After lunch, I would spend time weeping in my bedroom and talking to God about everything, and then I would go to the beach in the late afternoon. I was still in a state of shock and turbulence, and the work each morning, beach and Debbie’s love were the healing agents at play during this first painful stage of the pilgrimage.

On the fifth day after I arrived at Debbie’s, I got an email from the Frenchman saying that he had made a mistake and wanted me back. Going through the fire of losing everything had burned my vision into a state of greater clarity, although I was still shocked and emotional. I wanted a relationship built on the rock of truth, and although it was painful to sift through the broken illusions of my relationship with him, I could begin to see now that maybe I had been a salve for his loneliness. I began to wonder whether he had loved ME or just loved my presence in his life, attentive and female, but not necessarily specific. I wondered if I were just a somebody to him, rather than Joy. I began to wonder What is love, anyway? What is a relationship? What did we have, and what did we lose, for real? I was suspicious, in a good way, a new way…I felt awakened to a deeper interrogation of the true nature of love. I felt that the Frenchman, having arrived back in France and realising that now he was single again, wanted to be un-single. It was impossible to imagine getting back together with someone who had bombed my life to rubble so thoroughly. I said no, with many questions in my heart and mind about what had happened, about him, myself and love in general.

My pilgrim path was still glittering with serendipity and magic, all around me and ahead of me. One afternoon at Debbie’s, I had said to the Universe, Please show me the way. If it is best for me to keep going like this, show me how and where… The Universe answered through the Workaway website again, immediately: I saw an advertisement for a four-month situation, house and dog-sitting in the Lake District of England, from November to March. It would be just me and the dog, in peaceful, beautiful surroundings. Perfect for writing. I applied and was immediately accepted. I knew this was the answer, the path, the way to go forwards.

The Universe had another helping of magic for me in Devon. I learned on the first day that Branscombe is only a couple of harbours along the south coast of England from Lyme Regis. I did my Masters’ degree research on Jane Austen, totally adore her writing and have read all her books multiple times. There is a passage in Persuasion where she, very unusually, pauses for a moment in her authorial narration to describe a place of natural beauty and exhorts the reader to visit it. This place is Lyme Regis. I have written about the scenes in Persuasion which are set on the seafront at Lyme Regis, called ‘The Cobb’, in my research. When I learned how close I was to Lyme Regis, I reflected that on the list of things I have always wanted to do, visiting Lyme Regis was right at the top, the first thing. And then it occurred to me that this list had been sitting dusty in the far archive rooms of my mind, for years. I couldn’t remember the last time I had checked in with my List of Dreams.

I had forgotten entirely that a person should have a List of Dreams and be working their way down it, making the dreams come true, small ones and big ones. I had lots of lovely experiences during my time living in Cambridge, but I realised that I was often tagging along with other people on their lists of dreams.

So it was exhilarating to catch the double-decker countryside bus from Branscombe to Lyme Regis the next Saturday and to be living out one of my dreams. Amusingly, I climbed aboard, and the bus was totally occupied by men and women in 18th century clothing, as there was a Town Crier competition afoot in nearby Axminster. It was a beautiful day, with blue sky and sunshine, and hot enough for a sleeveless dress. I felt like I was traveling into the novel Persuasion as the bus drove into Lyme Regis. I walked the Cobb on the seafront, looked around the town, had fish and chips for lunch, then sat on the beach and basked in the sun during the afternoon, before catching the bus back to Branscombe.

I marvelled at the loving way the Universe had brought me to Devon, given me Debbie for two weeks, an Earth Angel if ever I saw one, and shown me the path forwards. I was glad my illusions about love with the Frenchman had been shattered, because the truth is so precious to me. And even though I felt raw in body and spirit, I could feel God’s love shining everywhere around: in the rocks, trees, streams and sea, in Debbie, in the serendipity of running away in pain totally at random and finding that I had run back to myself in some crucial and temporarily forgotten way…back to my list of dreams.

Featured Image: ‘Aquamarine Cobb’ by Hilary Buckley. Please visit her website here.

Serendipity Story #3 Coming Soon…

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Originally published on on 10 Nov 2017

'Spot of Tea' by Dolly Mohr

Serendipity Story #3: A Joke

6 December 2017…

During my stay in Branscombe, Devon in August 2016, serendipity delivered the idea for how my life might shape up as a wandering pilgrim. I had secured a four-month house sit for the coming winter: from November to March I would be staying in a closed-for-the-winter Bn’B, looking after a border collie in England’s Lake District. With this large chunk of upcoming time now allotted, I could fill in the rest of my schedule with visits to friends around the country and other short Workaway and house-sitting assignments. It could work, and I would write my novel, at this point just begun, from a moveable desk.

But it was still only August, and I needed to find somewhere to go until November. At this point, the many hands that had reached out to cushion my recent fall started proffering invitations for me to stay, and I gratefully began to accept them. I reflected that this situation was pressing on a withered internal psychological muscle, and I was being put through the paces of a new, specific strength: ask for help/accept help/ask for help/accept help/ask for help/accept help. This felt terrible to me. Both asking for and accepting help made me feel sick, green, low and wrong. I could starkly see the big slab of unworthiness lying underneath these feelings – the core belief that gave rise to them.

It was interesting to me that crashing and breaking apart like this allowed me to see the constituent parts of myself so much more clearly. It brought to light things that had been down in my depths, unseen and unconscious. It had been very painful to break apart, but I was beginning to see that I had also broken open, and that in this there was a beautiful chance for healing – that now these formerly closed spaces were open to the sweet breath of the universe, to light, air, warmth and sight. I could more clearly discern two separate parts of myself: a suffering, confused, human part, and a clear, bright, loving, observing part of me that adored the truth, no matter what shape it took. The truth-adoring part of me didn’t actually mind any of this new homeless wandering, grieving for a relationship, or uncertainty about how I would support myself – the truth-adoring part of me was eager for the darkened spaces in myself to be cleared and brightened, and delighted, exhilarated even, about the potential in this situation for turning darkness into light.

The place I wanted to go first, and most, was to visit Jane and her husband Maxwell in Kent. They live in the countryside next to a huge commercial apple orchard, in a tiny hamlet just inland from the white cliffs and seaside towns of Deal and Dover. Jane is the mother of one of my best friends in Cambridge, and I have been generously welcomed into her family as a sort of extra daughter for years, as she knows I am on the other side of the ocean from my American family. She was watching over me closely as the situation with the Frenchman developed, and then dive-bombed. She is one of the wisest and most loving people I have ever met. She emits love at an unusually powerful magnitude, like a star, and simply being in her presence is a healing experience. I have thought for many years that she is an example of ‘everyday enlightenment’. She draws love from a powerful connection to the divine Source and beams this outward, lighting up her daily circles of family, friends, students and colleagues. She teaches horse riding.

The day I left Devon to travel to Jane in Kent, my kind host Debbie dropped me off in the town of Seaton. I would catch the countryside bus from Seaton to Axminster, and there I would get on a train to Kent. At the beginning of my journey, after Debbie dropped me off in Seaton, I went to the cash machine around the corner from the bus stop.

It was raining, and I hurried, worried about catching the bus in time, with my umbrella in one hand and pulling my big red suitcase in the other. At the cash machine, I noticed that there was something a bit strange about my account balance as it appeared on the screen – there should have been more money there – but I was able to withdraw the £10 I needed for my bus fare, and I figured it was probably just a technical glitch of some sort. I had already bought my train ticket, so all I needed was this £10 for the bus, the first leg of my journey.

I caught the bus in time, after a short wait in the plexiglass-covered bus stop in front of the grey, rainy sea. Shortly after I got on the bus, my phone rang, and it turned out to be my bank. The woman on the other end of the phone explained that a hacker had breached their security, and a batch of accounts, mine included, had had their money stolen. The first thought that flashed across my mind was, ‘I have always been so afraid of that happening, and now it IS happening, while I am traveling and technically homeless.’

I didn’t handle this situation gracefully. At first, I was able to speak in a controlled manner to the woman from the bank. But after she told me she had cancelled my bank card, and asked me where to send a new card, my frustration and fear about my entire situation – the recent overnight loss of my home, job and relationship – culminated, crested and broke in a wave of emotion, and I said, ‘I don’t HAVE an address. I don’t have a home! I don’t know where I am going to be in 7 – 10 working days. Oh God!’ And then I started sobbing uncontrollably. The people on the bus were all British and politely looked away. The lady from the bank was a kind woman and said soothing things patiently until I calmed down, and then we slowly worked through the details. Of course I would get all the stolen funds back, after speaking to the fraud team and signing and posting a form to them, but for now, all I had was the £3 change from my bus fare, and my ticket to Jane’s.

I mulled this situation pensively for the rest of the bus journey to Axminster, where I caught my train to Kent. The train was more comfortable than the bus had been, warm with luxurious seats, and I had a table area all to myself, with a big window showing the rainy, green West Country flash by. When the porter came through the carriage with the tea trolley, I felt that nothing would help me at this moment as much as a cup of tea, and I asked for hot water in a cup, which the porter kindly gave me for free, and I rummaged in my backpack for the stash of teabags I carried.

I pulled out an individually-wrapped Yogi Licorice Tea bag, unwrapped it, and dropped it into the cardboard cup of steaming water. Yogi brand teabags always have a pithy spiritual message inscribed on the little dark red label attached to the string. This one said, ‘Prosperity is within us’. I sensed the Universe all around me, loving, conscious, poised and watching to see if I would laugh at this divine joke.

Reader, I did. Of course, I did…my name is Joy, after all, and joy is the very deepest and truest layer of my being. I let the joke carry me away, and as the ripples of comedy washed through me, and eventually soothed me, they led me to the calm thought that I was currently living through one of the fears sitting crouched at the bottom of my psyche, but I was okay. It was happening, but it was okay. I didn’t know where I was going to live until November, but that was okay, too. I knew where I was going to live for the next week, which was at Jane’s house in Kent. I had £3, but that was okay, because I would have all my meals for the next week with Jane and Maxwell. While I was at their house, the next step would be revealed, and eventually the stolen money would be returned to me, and everything was okay.

Hugging Jane in her kitchen when I arrived was one of the best hugs of my life. She embodied and radiated this spiritual message of unconditional okay-ness: You are okay, deeply okay. Life is safe, life is okay. Anything that happens, is okay. During the next week, we had many cups of tea, talks and walks in the orchard, where the trees were heavy with their crop of new apples. Jane’s vision of me as beloved and valuable shone upon the unworthiness that was revealed when I was forced to ask for help, and for a while they were two competing forces inside me, one light, one dark. But I kept seeing all around me Jane’s love, acceptance and warmth, and I trusted her more than I trusted the dark thoughts whispered by the unworthiness. I began to realise that although the unworthiness felt potent, and real, that it wasn’t necessarily true. Jane was demonstrating in each moment that I was worthy of care, attention, assistance and love. The clear, bright observer inside me, my soul, told me to trust the light, love and warmth, and distrust the dark whispers of unworthiness. Jane’s love shone on me all week like the sun, showing me how to use love as a power to dismantle the untrue darkness inside myself. And when I told her about my moment on the train with the tea, we laughed and laughed and laughed.

Serendipity Story #4 coming soon…

The featured image is ‘Spot of Tea’ by Dolly Mohr. Visit her website here.

If you have enjoyed reading this and would like to donate, please click here:

Originally published on mirrorlamp,co,uk on 6 December 2017

Vladimir Kush 'Butterfly Mother in a Book'

Serendipity Story #4: Before You Are a Butterfly, You Have to Be a Chrysalis

6 March 2018.

So, where was I? My home, job and relationship had vanished overnight on 5 August 2016. After placing everything I owned into storage, at first I dragged myself and my big red suitcase to Devon, where I re-discovered that I had a list of dreams inside me, dusty and faint, nearly forgotten, but still there. Then I wandered to Kent, to visit the most unconditionally loving person I knew. After that, I made a little circuit of friends’ spare rooms for several weeks, and on the day we pick the story back up, it was mid-September, and I was sitting in a sun-drenched bedroom just north of the river in Cambridge, with the window open. I had my laptop open in front of me, and I was wondering what I should do with my life and where I should go next. I had a home arranged in England’s Lake District from November, but I needed to fill the time until then.

I was reflecting on how special it had been to visit Lyme Regis, in connection with my love for Jane Austen. I asked myself, ‘what is the next item on the list of things I have always wanted to do?’ The answer came immediately: ‘Hear Mooji teach in person’.

Mooji is a spiritual master in the Advaita Zen tradition, which is a contemplative branch of Hinduism. He is an older Jamaican man with long dreadlocks, a big Buddha belly, skin that shines like polished wood and a very merry soul. There is a treasure trove of video clips on YouTube of Mooji speaking about spirituality and awakening. During my years huddling in a quiet, stable, yet increasingly stagnant state in Cambridge, I had never thought it would be possible to meet Mooji in person. For a long time – too long – I viewed myself and the world through a warped lens of unworthiness, which somehow made all dreams appear out of reach.

Mooji teaches about something called the ‘Pure Self’, which he would describe as a unique piece of a divine consciousness that is lodged within each person. The ‘Pure Self’ is perfect, whole, loving, divine, immortal. He describes the human being as a combination of Pure Self and the egoic identity, which is the superficial information we know about ourselves, who we take ourselves to be: our self-concept, name, gender, nationality, body, job, personality. He asks over and over, ‘Who are you?’, ‘Who is speaking right now?’ ‘Are you speaking as the Pure Self, or your egoic identity?’  He describes awakening as recognising, being, and seeing from this divine, aware space inside yourself. I had been watching his videos for about four years, and his ideas were only occasional light touchstones for me. In the middle of a sleepless, anxious night, I would put on a recording of him speaking about peace and feel comforted, but I didn’t understand his teachings deeply or experientially at all at that point.

I typed ‘Mooji teaching’ into a search engine and was directed to his organisation’s website, where large letters announced on the home page that registration was now open for a seven-day silent meditation retreat with Mooji in Zmar, Portugal, in several weeks’ time. Perfect timing. I felt a rush of joy and again the sense that this was my path unfolding in front of me, another serendipity. I consulted my bank account, weighed this with the cost of the retreat and the clamouring of my soul, considered for a moment, and then used the money I had been saving in case I needed a rental deposit on a new room somewhere. I had a temporary work contract lined up which would shortly replenish any money I spent on the retreat. I signed up for a bunk bed in a room shared with other women. I remember that just before I pressed the ‘book’ button on the website, a swarm of bees passed by the window, buzzing loudly at second-storey height, where I was, and I thought of the Frenchman briefly, and then clicked ‘book’.

The Frenchman kept bees, you see. The Frenchman had changed his mind about us, and had been regularly in touch. I can hear the wise ones of you out there shouting, ‘No, Joy, no! You must never go back to him after what he did to you!’ And you are right. But I did.

I want to explain something about the Frenchman, who appears to be the villain of this story so far, and about myself. There is a tangle of various threads that needs to be smoothed out. When I was dating the Frenchman, and for all my life before that, I was really unconscious of the distortions on my perspective and behaviour in relationships as a result of pain. Eckhart Tolle, the spiritual teacher and author of The Power of Now, calls the manifestation of darkness in each person ‘the pain body’ and characterises it as an entity that takes us over, like a bad spell, or a monster living inside us. He says it wakes up periodically and desires to live and grow, which it does by experiencing pain and creating more pain, so it throws a dark, distorted filter over our thinking and behaviour, and then we see everything around us through a cloud of hurt, fear, anger, sadness or unworthiness.

I suppose this is true of every pain monster, but mine is the only one I know intimately, and she is truly monstrous. She is angry, sometimes abusively so, fearful, critical, obsessive and immature. In the short time I had dated the Frenchman, our two pain monsters had tangled incessantly in a dark dance, and by the time he ended things so dramatically, we had fired about equal rounds of unconscious bullets at each other, and we were both bleeding inwardly. Stepping over a threshold into new love had woken up this dark side of me, and I became fearful and upset over everything, with my dark cloud of fear ballooning around me at the slightest provocation from him. The way he acted at the end, dropping me after I had already given up my job and house to go live with him, was nuclear…but it was a part of an ongoing war in which I played my part. It was also, as I sensed deeply at the time and firmly believe now, part of a larger story that God was writing upon my life, a strong, necessary and right story, although cataclysmic and painful to experience.

So around the time I was preparing for my trip to see Mooji in Portugal, the Frenchman and I were still connected and circling each other, and I decided to go see him in France after Mooji’s retreat. I know, I know…it was a bad idea – but it was also, strangely, the right thing to do. I think that is because the rhythm of growth proceeds according to a music in which a certain amount of tension and darkness is necessary to create enough force in the compulsion to evolve. The timings and character of this music, I imagine, are unique to every person.

There was also an administrative snafu in my temp agency’s office at this time, which delayed the start of the temporary contract I had been offered while we awaited the arrival of a form confirming my right to work in the UK, a technicality. The amount of pay I lost as a result of this was exactly the same amount I had kept saved for a rental deposit and exactly the same cost of the Mooji retreat. I found this interesting, though it was extremely frustrating. I couldn’t help but see it in a spiritual light, ultimately…it was as if God kept emptying me of everything I had been holding onto in life, my cords to safety, my attachments to stable structures like money, house, job, city, relationship. I was growing increasingly pliable, moistened by tears and in constant flux.

Since I was already flying to Portugal to see Mooji, I decided to go a week early and spend time visiting the beaches of the Algarve before traveling inland to the mountains for the retreat at Zmar. I booked a private room in a youth hostel on a provincial highway in the middle of nowhere. It was cheap because of its undesirable location, but it was perfect for me, because it was within walking distance of a coastal path that led to many quiet and beautiful beaches.

Staying in a private room for a whole week after enduring a ragged spirit in other people’s living spaces for two months was indescribably blissful. As much as I love the friends I stayed with and appreciated the many gifts of beds and rooms, those temporary resting places never really felt like my own space. That private room was mine in some deeply important way which I badly needed at that moment. The days I spent hiking the coastal path and stopping at new beaches to swim and sunbathe were some of the best in my entire life. It was like a gift I had given to myself. I was alone, in peace, with the freedom to think, pray, cry and rest when I needed.

Every morning I would eat muesli, fruit and yoghurt for breakfast in the hostel’s little kitchen, and then prepare a vegetable and pasta salad. I would pack this with some fruit and water into my little blue backpack, and start the two-mile walk to the coast path. On the second day, I noticed a small blue tile with a yellow scallop shell symbol painted on it nailed to a concrete wall next to the arterial highway where my hostel was situated. My walk to the ocean every day happened along a Portuguese stretch of a pilgrimage trail.

Beholding the Algarve beaches produced a continuous state of awe and wonder in me for the beauty of nature; these Algarve beaches were the most like paradise that I had ever seen in my life. Swimming was like being miraculously suspended in a cool, blue, liquid crystal, other world. The sandy walking path was lined with temperate maritime plants, succulents, scrubby low bushes, and Mediterranean pine trees bent into interesting shapes by the wind. These sights were, of course, backdropped by ocean vistas in both directions, as the path, for the most part, wound along high clifftops. There were grand, strange, dark brown rock formations, and places where the rocky coast folded in upon itself to make secret halls of rock and sand, with the ocean swirling into these through caves and crevasses. It was late October, and it was baking hot, the last week of the autumn to be so before the weather turned.

On the day I travelled to Zmar for the retreat, I kept seeing butterflies everywhere, the symbol of transformation. There was one printed on the doormat as I walked into the train station café and one printed on my cardboard coffee cup. A real butterfly, bright blue, drifted past me while I waited for the train, and then after I boarded, there was one tattooed on the arm of a woman sleeping across the aisle. I guessed that she was going to Zmar, too. A few days before, my friend Rafa had sent me a quote by Maya Angelou: ‘We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty’. I think that the days of lying in the hot Portugal sun before the retreat were the final melting of an old version of me as I was entering chrysalis. It was peaceful, loving, a gift from God.

The seven-day silent meditation retreat with Mooji was held on a large eco resort called Zmar, which is inland, just north of the Algarve beaches where I had been. It is a large, green, dusty site atop a sparsely forested foothill, with little villages of wooden cabins arranged around a central communal area holding structures for gathering, eating, swimming and relaxing. There was one massive, white, elegant, auditorium-sized tent where the 700 of us attending the retreat would go to hear Mooji speak twice a day. We, however, would not speak, make eye contact with each other, read books, listen to music, use mobile phones or contact the outside world for a full week. The point of this was to immerse our attention fully in the Pure Self. There was another smaller white tent made into a meditation and yoga space, scattered with mats, cushions, blankets and sofas.

There had been a large, disastrous fire at Zmar several weeks before the retreat, and it had been touch-and-go whether the retreat would go ahead. The usual dining hall, administrative offices, therapy rooms and swimming pool were charred, black and roped-off. There was water in the swimming pool, but it was the wrong colour, green with unhealthy yellow clouds. It was fascinating to observe the deconstructed buildings – to see rubble, fallen walls and the toxic substances released into the pool, while I was experiencing the deconstruction of my own material world and beginning to melt into a chrysalis state internally.

I found it interesting that I didn’t mind about not being able to speak, swim or read, etc. at all, because hearing Mooji speak in person was like swimming in a stream of pure love for about five to six hours a day (one two or three-hour session in the morning, and another in the evening). His words felt like pure love, and they called out to the part of myself that is also that, and during the week, I slowly began to discover and understand this space inside of me…as the real me.

As the Pure Love rose in me, I think it began a slow deconstruction of the false parts of me, in a process that has felt driven by grace, by serendipity. As I look back at that last sentence, I realise it is quite a gentle summary of what has actually been a long, hard, painful process that only had its very first beginnings at Zmar and which is still continuing now. During this process, the false and dark parts of myself have repeatedly engulfed me, and my work has been to observe what is happening and take my attention again and again to the space of Pure Love inside myself, and hold a steady focus, while feeling the strange, confusing, often agonising pains of a false self burning away in the presence of divine love. During these moments, I have cried and cried with grief, and felt like life wasn’t worth living, and felt more alone than I thought possible, and felt weak, crazy, confused, worthless. But the practice of meditation and self-enquiry came to me at exactly the right moment for me to handle these dark tides. I discovered the light of Pure Love inside myself well enough to hold onto it and trust it to guide me through the darkness every time.

Mooji lovingly explained to us that the ego doesn’t want to lose its power over us, so it puts up a fight when the Pure Self shows up. I have always been spit out the other side of these showdowns with less darkness and more light in my being, and afterwards I feel a glorious sense of peace, love and clarity. It feels like a shifting of balance, or ascendancy, inside my being, from darkness to light. I think that this has always been taking place inside me in gradual steps, but it feels like my week with Mooji accelerated my personal process. Mooji continually pointed out the nature of the ego – its tricks, bad smells and ugly feelings. He worked tirelessly to guide us out of the deceptions of the egoic mind into the space of Pure Love inside ourselves.

There were two or three times when this shift in perception happened for me during the first five days of the retreat, but that was all, just two or three brief glimpses. However, the teaching sessions, called satsangs, were structured in a question and answer format, so after Mooji entered and was seated on the stage of the hall, everyone would raise their hands, then he would choose someone, and they would come to speak into one of the microphones set up in the aisles between chairs. The person would ask Mooji a question about the spiritual path, and he would respond. He always took this opportunity to attempt to guide the questioner, and the rest of us, to experience the space of Pure Love inside ourselves, so I was continually hearing Mooji and the people he worked with describe this space, what it felt like, and what they saw. They almost always mentioned that they saw everything and everyone in the world as oneness, connected, a whole, and that the substance of everything tangible in the world was actually love. This resonated on a deep level with me every time I heard it, although I did not have a significant experience of it.

On the last day of the retreat, I had the opportunity to be one of the people who speaks directly to Mooji. I had noticed that whenever Mooji held these conversations, he unearthed something unconscious to the questioner, and spun the exposed darkness back into light for them, in exactly the way that they needed. I investigated my own inner world ceaselessly, mentally, egoically, and I was burning with curiosity about what Mooji would find in me that I couldn’t see.

I felt pulled along very powerfully by the forces of serendipity on the last day: to skip early morning yoga and sit in meditation instead, to go to breakfast at a certain time, to skip going back to my cabin for a shower and instead line up early at a certain entrance to the teaching hall before the morning session. When the time came to file into the big, white tent, I found a seat only a few rows back from Mooji’s chair on the stage, by far the closest I had been to him all week. At a certain point early in the session that day, my hand raised as if of its own volition, and Mooji called me up to the microphone, and we spoke.

I was horrified to hear the worst parts I knew of myself show up, and other previously unconscious worst parts, all stumblingly spoken and amplified by sound equipment in front of Mooji and 700 people, and with cameras trained upon me, transmitting to thousands of people watching live online, and unable to control what spilled out of my mouth. I saw childishness, manipulative flattery, arrogance and unworthiness, pretension, competitiveness. It was also mixed with my good stuff, but it was a hard and embarrassing moment.

Mooji began responding to me, and actually, I couldn’t take in what he was saying. It was like my ears were stuffed with wool. I closed my eyes, and then my shame and self-criticism, which felt fiery, gradually began burning…away. It didn’t matter that these dark parts of me existed. They exist for everybody, in different forms. I felt, more strongly than I have ever felt before, the part of me that is a piece of God. This part of me is always there. It looks calmly, lovingly and non-judgmentally on the whole of me and everything and everyone else in life. This part of me knew in that moment that Mooji, the people watching in the hall, and the thousands of people watching the retreat online, were all ME, the real ME. Separation isn’t real. 

My eyes opened and my ears un-stuffed to hear the most important thing Mooji said to me, my medicine to take away: ‘The grip of egoic identity is slipping, like a piece of ice in a bowl of warm water. A melting is taking place automatically. The ice doesn’t have to think about it. It doesn’t have to say, ‘melt, melt, melt’. It is happening anyway.’

This released me at once from the fierce and unhelpful mental churning I had been applying to ideas all week, and all my life, really, and I realised I could surrender to a process of grace. I would still need to learn how to direct my attention, but this was a different thing than using my egoic mind to try to force itself to melt. I felt such a sweet sense of relief.

And then the nicest thing happened. He finished speaking after this and smiled at me, and then I asked him if I could come up on stage and get a hug. All week, the questioners had been getting hugs. He gestured me up, and I went up the steps to the stage and over to his chair, and I remember the way he threw his arms wide with a huge smile, still sitting in his chair, and I leaned down to hug him. It felt like all the love in the universe, embodied, hugging me. He smelled wonderful, of incense and cologne, healthy and fresh, and I realised he was beautifully groomed. A small part of me realised I had been associating the walking of my spiritual path lately with a departure from all the conventional norms of society, and I realised, laughing at myself a bit, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to groom, Joy; and I saw that I was this unwashed, dishevelled woman in ragged clothes…but it was okay. It was funny. Mooji was hugging and shaking me, saying ‘wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful’, and I said, ‘I love you, Mooji. Thank you so much for answering my question’. He replied, still hugging me, ‘Oh, pure love, my darling, pure love, my darling, pure love.’

I had my eyes closed, and an image entered my mind at that point of a blue line of light, which traced a new border between my Pure Self and ego. They were still fused together, but now I could see which was which. It was extraordinary. I went back to my seat and stayed in a state of profound peace, love and clarity for the rest of the day, wandering around the site, looking at trees. My embarrassment came back periodically, but then kept burning away again, as soon as I recognised that it was on the other side of the glowing blue line.

The next day I got up before dawn to travel to the airport, to go see the Frenchman. I caught a flight from Lisbon to Bordeaux. I remember that the last teaching Mooji gave us was to hang on to everything we had learned, and I remember a very insistent thought tugging at my awareness: that my desire to see the Frenchman was somehow at odds with what I had been learning from Mooji all week. I can put that clearly into words in hindsight, but at the time, this was just an uncomfortable blot, a suppression, a not-wanting-to-see feeling floating around inside myself. I was compulsively, blindly still acting on old programming.

It was delicious to see the Frenchman again, like being presented with something that you love to eat that is really, really bad for you. Chocolate cake to a diabetic. I was immediately whisked out of my meditative clarity into a heavy appetite for romantic entangling, sex, him. We went camping for a week in Menigoute, France to attend the nature documentary film festival there. Serendipitously, it was the perfect environment for me to transition out of a week in silence, because we were either in a beautiful, ancient French forest with a lake, mossy trees and giant boulders, or in a dark auditorium in comfortable seats, watching films exquisitely capturing the natural world, for the most part in French. I have only about 20% comprehension of French, so I interacted with the films mainly as images, and it was extremely peaceful hearing the soothing, rolling commentaries in a different language.

Although I was swamped by a matrix of false attachment and sensual blindness at the beginning, the old problems still existed between us, and I saw that the Frenchman’s behaviour triggered my insecurities and pain again and again. My new awareness told me, ‘it’s not him, it’s you…that is your trigger…this isn’t his fault, he is just being himself’. My new awareness helped me understand that it was best to take my burning, confused, triggered self away from the field of combat and sit quietly alone until I felt peaceful again. I saw the perfection of the situation, that I had been given the most perfect practice conditions possible for my new lessons, including rich exercise material.

This was a painful week of spiritual practice, not a week of sweet new love being born. Nothing worked. He saw it before I did…my attachment to the dream of being with him was still too strong, and I still hoped. I had one big outpouring in the car as he drove me back to the airport at the end of my visit, where I broke down and sobbed out my grief and sadness at the way he had broken up with me and how it had felt to lose all the structures in my life overnight. I felt him truly see it, and he responded with deep compassion and regret, and we hugged goodbye in a genuine moment of connection at the airport.

Reader, he is not the villain of this story. The space of Pure Love inside me that I have begun to learn to inhabit is overwhelmingly tranquil. When I am successful in focusing into this Pure Awareness within myself, it looks at the messy, confused, dark parts of the Frenchman, and me, and the events that happened between us, with tranquillity, acceptance and loveEverything that happened between us…was okay. It was a piece of divine music, a story, where darkness and tension happened and turned into light…eventually…just the way it was supposed to.

The spiritual path is full of paradox, and unconditional love is not the same thing as allowing dark behaviour from people in your life. People are mixes of light and dark, and sometimes dark prevails, and we shouldn’t stay to be hurt under a banner of ‘unconditional love’. But I am beginning to understand now that the Frenchman and I were a harmonic match. Our combinations of light and dark matched, for a while, and we mutually attracted each other, to learn some deep lessons.

The stuff of my being has been consistently changing from dark to light in a dynamic process since my experience with Mooji…and although I am a work-in-progress, I am much lighter now. I have a much more conscious relationship with my own darkness, and I feel that when it is time, the Universe will bring me a new relationship that is a reflection of the changes I have gone through. I feel that I will be with someone lighter, brighter and more conscious, and we will have a different kind of relationship…a loving and happy one.

As a parting thought, let me tell you something nice about the Frenchman. He is totally enchanted by flowers. I took him to the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens once, and he was absolutely transported. I have a collection of photographs from that day depicting the same sweet scene: the Frenchman leaning down, closely examining a flower, transfixed. The only variations in each photo are the type of flower and the changeful English sky behind him. The Frenchman has a space of Pure Love inside himself, too, which shines out into the world, occasionally clouded by darkness sometimes, but always there…just the same as the rest of us.

Serendipity Story #5 coming soon…

The featured image is ‘Butterfly Mother in a Book’ by Vladimir Kush.

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Meow Meow performs ‘The Little Mermaid’. Photo: Pia Johnson

Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Siren and Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (Sparkling, Comedic Shallows…Poignant Depths)

23 August 2017.

It just so happened that my last day of seeing shows in Edinburgh this year was entirely mermaid-themed. My middle name is Lorelei, which is the name of the siren who enchants sailors on the Rhine in 19th-century German songs and poetry, so siren stories have always held an extra allure for me.

The first was Siren, the debut musical play written by award-winning comedian David Elms, and directed by Thomas Martin. It’s a song-sprinkled two-hander with serious, poignant depths and sparkling, comedic shallows. It also has a dark edge – it is an exploration of the siren archetype, complete with the murderous elements from the ancient Greek tales and the sorrow of the Romantic-era mermaid’s longing for an immortal soul.

Rosa Robson is wonderful in the title role, as a siren cursed by fate to inhabit her little island alone: ‘we’re usually in pairs’ she explains sadly to one of her sailors. Styled as a 1950s, Esther Williams-type synchronised swimming pin-up, she oscillates between bright gaiety and the slowly-revealed cracking of her mind, caused by the heartbreaking loneliness of her island. ‘I’ve built a mound’, she tells us in one of her monologues, ‘that almost looks like another person from the right angle’. Her beautiful voice brought the show’s bright array of songs to life. Nicholas Masters also gives a strong performance as Robson’s counterpoint in this pas de deux, playing the variety of sailors who are pulled into her song’s compelling aura, as the show deftly and subtly unpacks various forms of attraction, desire, and love.

This is a beautifully-written show. Its bright and dark tones, its shallows and depths, are swirled in a story that feels particular and modern, but also universal and ancient. It unearthed psychological currents running powerfully underneath the siren archetype, exploring the sadness of broken forms of attraction and loving, longing and loneliness…and also, off in the distance, perhaps redemption and hope. I loved it.

After the enchanting Siren, it was time for Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid at the Edinburgh International FestivalI walked from Pleasance Dome, where Siren took place in a humble, tiny black box theatre, to a ballroom inside The Hub, which had a huge stage draped in streams of silver glitter, luxurious booths upholstered in crushed purple velvet, two bars, a live band with strings playing sexy bossa nova, and a packed, murmuring crowd.

This show is a cabaret performance in which Meow Meow is the immortal mermaid drenched in loneliness, singing and searching for true love…and the truth about love. Meow Meow, the Australian creator and performer of the show, is described variously as a singer, actress, dancer, cabaret performer and ‘international, kamikaze, post-punk superstar’. I would describe her as an artist, above all, for the brilliance of the show’s script. It has a story arc that, like Siren, is sourced from the deeper psychological octaves of the siren story, and which dropped, non-stop, beat by exhilarating beat, words that were gilded and diamond-encrusted with poetic meaning, falling perfectly within the grandiose, comedic style of cabaret, and the show’s poignant theme – like a fountain, or rain at sea.

The show starts with a riotous thunderstorm, and then Meow Meow comes on-stage sobbing.  She starts singing throatily, through her sobs, a lurching, slow rendition of Black’s ‘Wonderful Life’ (‘Here I go out to sea again/The sunshine fills my hair/And dreams hang in the air/You know it feels unfair/There’s magic everywhere/Look at me standing/Here on my own again…’).  She is accompanied by a mournful brass-heavy band. Then she gradually transitions from sobbing and singing into her first, sweet, skittering, chatty monologue filled with glittering wordplay, in which she finally snaps: ‘I feel like I’ve been travelling everywhere for 300 years looking for true love, but I can’t fucking find it!’…though, she tells us later, sometimes finding ‘Faux Love…Flove’.

She conjures the ocean onstage, telling us, as she looks upwards from the depths of the ocean floor, that ‘many church steeples piled upon each other would not reach the surface’. This is imagery that beautifully evokes the quiet, vast depths of the ocean, but also the Hans Christian Andersen mermaid’s longing to reach upwards to heaven, to become human, to find love, to have a soul.

Her most delightful theatrical magic trick is to conjure her subconscious on stage and rummage around in it in search of catharsis, which resonates grandly with the metaphor of the mysterious watery depths of the ocean…but which also feels resolutely practical, as if this is a mermaid ready to transcend her despair and loneliness, ready to break the spell.

Published in Exeunt Magazine 23 August 2017

Wild Bore image

Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Wild Bore (Oh My God, Look At Her Butt)

20 August 2017.

Wild Bore, the new show created and performed by Zoë Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott, is creating a bit of a stir at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. I felt an intriguing, ironic frisson personally as I took my seat and pulled out my pen and notebook to take notes for this review, knowing that the show was about theatre critics. The music playing as the audience settled in was ass-themed club music: ‘Anaconda’ by Nicki Minaj (‘oh my god, look at her butt/oh my god, look at her butt/oh my god, look-at-her-butt).  That song’s riotous energy and lyrics were a perfectly thoughtful precursor to the precisely orchestrated, deliciously sarcastic, intelligent and entertaining feminist study of theatre criticism that then unfolded.

The stage was set with a long table and three chairs, and at the start of the show, one by one, the artists’ bare asses appear at the table, and they talk, um, out of them, in rumbling, low-throated blusters, repeating excerpts from bad reviews that each of the three artists’ have received for their work, their hands reaching up to gesticulate, asses turning towards each other to nod and jiggle, animatedly mimicking the talking heads of critics.

During the show, the three artists work their way thoroughly through of the concept of theatrical criticism, exploring its facets via the theatrical language of performance art, including abundant, thematically-ringing gestures, comic soliloquy, vignettes, dance and meta-moments. The text for the show is based on a patchwork of actual, badly-written theatrical reviews, which are mined both for significant philosophical points and straight-up comedy.

The use of the talking ass by artists to represent (bad) theatre critics is a brilliant symbolic gesture. It expresses the anger of the artist when the critic has failed to understand the point of the artist’s work and then derided the work and artist, publicly. It is a fast, funny and obvious skewer, spoken in the non-traditional artistic language that the critics being skewered seemingly struggled to comprehend: the shocking, female, nude, comic, gestural language of performance art. It’s a nuanced and blunt way to represent bluster: getting it wrong, but thinking you’ve got it right, and pronouncing judgement from a platform of power. The words of the misguided critic are blustery and muffled, because they are coming from the wrong place inside them, from error, from ego. It’s also a provocatively feminist symbol.  The three naked asses and genitalia on prominent display are female, which to me felt like a like a deeply feminist symbolic rebellion against the broken elements of a traditional style of theatre response that we have inherited from the patriarchy, which is struggling to see, accept and understand the unfolding edges of theatre, and which defaults to superiority and derision as a response to anything it doesn’t get.  Which is, aside from anything else, dishonest, and a misuse of the critic’s power.

Each of the three artists told the true story of a particular review they have received in the past that rubbished their work, in which the critic displayed an obvious lack of comprehension of the particular theatrical language they were using.  Ursula Martinez told the story of a critic reviewing a show of hers who said in his review that she began to build a breeze block wall between herself and the audience ‘for no apparent reason.’ Considering the blindingly obvious significance of the boundary and relationship between performer/stage and audience, the famous book by Peter Brook about it called The Fourth Wall, and the common adoption of this phrase to discuss this conceptual space, that is just really fucking lazy theatrical critique. This phrase, ‘for no apparent reason’ is picked up by the show and shouted as a refrain again and again, most memorably in the brilliant Shakespearean-style soliloquy performed by Martinez, dressed in a jester suit, which had the audience rolling in the aisles. The repetition of this phrase was always accompanied by a fierce glare out at the audience from Coombs Marr, Martinez and Truscott, which I read as a direct challenge to everyone in the audience to really think about what they were trying to tell us in, as they put it, ‘the secret coded language of theatre’.

I loved this show for many reasons.  It is beautifully tuned so that every detail and creative decision works in harmony with its themes.  But also, it is just hilarious, and expresses a joyous, earthy, healthy, don’t-give-a-fuck freedom, which I found totally exhilarating, and inspiring [fist raised, sisters, and brothers-becoming-sisters-or-brothers-who-also-seek-to-topple-the-goddamned-patriarchy].  Thank you, Zoë Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott.  And yes, I worked very hard on this review, because I took what you said to me via your asses really, really seriously.

P.S. The day before I saw Wild Bore, I heard an older, white, male critic begin to talk about it, and when I said, ‘I’m also writing about it and seeing it tomorrow, would you mind not talking about it in front of me?’, he didn’t register me as a) a person making a request desiring a response, or b) a fellow writer, and he carried on talking about it as if no one had spoken. I felt a little socially awkward about this and had to decide between getting up and leaving the pub table or putting my fingers in my ears, because it was important to me to encounter the show afresh, with no preconceived ideas.  I put my fingers in my ears, which I saw him dimly register, but to which he made no response.

The next day, two hours after I saw Wild Bore, a different, older, white, male critic decided to man-splain the concept of the avant-garde to me, having met me briefly the night before, and knowing nothing about me, my background, education or knowledge of theatre, culture, or the avant-garde…but obviously perceiving that I am female, blonde, and that I appear younger than him in the physical form that is my avatar in this life, though I suspect we are of a similar age (40s).  

Now that I have seen Wild Bore, the memories of their two voices has merged into a muffled, low, babbling, beyond words, having no sense or meaning, as if coming out of their asses from amidst a crumbling paradigm of outdated thinking about art, theatre and appearances…

Published in Exeunt Magazine 20 August 2017

P.S. Here are further thoughts of mine about this show, written for a feature dialogue piece amongst Exeunt critics, which didn’t end up being published in the magazine:

I thought Wild Bore was a wholly appropriate and timely theatrical bomb thrown at an already crumbling paradigm, which I have never personally identified with.  I don’t think the act of criticism, or my preferred word, ‘response’, is on its way out – just a particular style of it, that yes, has been adopted by many female writers working within an old, male-dominated and created paradigm: fairly short reviews published in newspapers and magazines that attempt to describe and give a quality rating to a piece of theatre, interpreting the work using a small numbers of words, for a specific readership, in an entertaining style.

I don’t think we are ever going to be able to restrain ourselves from describing, classifying and valuing the jewels of art/theatre, but I think Wild Bore was setting fire to the way it has been done by some: a tradition of a sort of journalism that sometimes doesn’t work very hard to discover the meaning or craft behind a work of art, especially something new and abstract, a tradition which has corseted the act of exploration and valuation with word-counts and a particular journalistic style. To me, this feels uncomfortable, restrictive, old, male.  It is a tradition that allows a critic who doesn’t understand or naturally resonate with something to dismiss it simply as bad quality, or nonsense, rather than saying, ‘I don’t understand or resonate with this. Maybe I am not the right person to act as interpreter for the wider public in a journalistic context.’  Which reminds me of values held by insecure teenage boys until they learn better: bluster and compete, bluster and compete. To me it just feels…dishonest. And there is a deep tradition of emotional remove and cynicism in this old style, which to me also feels dishonest.  Emotionally dishonest. It is not fashionable in the patriarchy-created style of criticism to love or resonate with a work of art in a warm, passionate, and well, female way.

I felt that the fuel for the wild energy underneath Wild Bore was a simmering rage about the moments of critical dismissals of the three artists’ work which were based on laziness, or an inability to peer into the meaning, depths, and the (relatively) new theatrical techniques and materials of performance art.  Remember the show’s emphatic, deliciously sarcastic repetition of a quote from one of Ursula Martinez’ critics, who wrote in his review that she built a breeze-block wall between herself and the audience, ‘FOR NO APPARENT REASON’? As I write in my published review of this show, and considering the resounding, obvious significance of The Fourth Wall in theatre, that is just totally fucking lazy thinking, which is acceptable, and normal even, in the old paradigm of criticism.  It seemed to me that they are calling bullshit on that. I don’t think they were having a pop at all criticism/response – just bad criticism, old criticism, and (with hand-on-heart, deep respect for my male colleagues who are thoughtful, clear-eyed explorers in the new style) it is a type of criticism that has been passed down to us from the patriarchy, from blustering, competitive teenage boys (and sometimes girls acting like the boys) who haven’t grown up, but who have blustered and competed their way into theatre critic jobs.


Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Frankie Vah by Luke Wright (Lush, Transporting, Poetic)

18 August 2017.

I felt as if, having come to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to drink from the magic fountain of Art, that at the end of my second day I was still en route to the metaphorical fountain at the centre of the festival, and still thirsty… Then I walked into a small black room at the Underbelly for Luke Wright’s new verse play Frankie Vah, which lit my heart on fire and gave me a good, long drink of what I came for. This is a mature, lyrical and politically relevant piece of poetic writing and, as a one-hour solo show, beautifully performed.

Frankie Vah is the performance poet’s second verse play. It is set among the dark, sticky-floored, hash smoke-pervaded ‘skuzzy indie venues and politics’ of 1980s Britain. Audiences are told the story of a vicar’s son, Simon Mortimer – politicised, disaffected, unhappy – and his transformation into a new self-created identity, Frankie Vah, flame-tongued performance poet extraordinaire, with rolled cuffs, Doc Martens, a platform opening for punk bands and the heady power to influence political debate.

His first transformation happens via love, with a woman named Eve. One of the most powerful aspects of this show is the way Frankie and Eve’s love story winds into and around its other narrative threads: the first steps that Frankie and Eve take as young artists; their resistance to Thatcherism in the run-up to the 1987 general election; Frankie’s rebellion against his father’s values and his confrontation with his personal demons and self-destructive behaviour.

The personal, political, social and philosophical dimensions of the show spin into each other in a moment of theatre that is lushly, transportingly poetic. It is also delicately nuanced, capturing with sensitivity the moments of tension in Frankie’s life that send his story down increasingly charged pathways, culminating in a finale that broke my heart wider open. the pacing of the unfolding story is effortlessly managed to create a smooth narrative ride, and the skill with which it comes together allows the listening mind the freedom to hear the deeper philosophical resonances of the work: how art dialogues with politics, how the personal dialogues with the political, how we are young, stupid, wonderful and broken, but learning and constantly turning into truer versions of ourselves. I watched and listened in awe and pleasure, just drinking, drinking, drinking in the beauty of this show.

Published in Exeunt Magazine on 18 August 2017