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Disco lights

Excerpt #1 from Stars Light the Dark (my new novel)

1 March 2021…

This is the beginning of the novel.

“There is a light ahead and a choice.

I choose…her…and then there are different lights. Red, yellow, green, blue – and they’re spinning. Then I see her again, gold hair flying and face shining with sweat, in the middle of a crowded dancefloor. I feel curious, light as air, and my body is gone, but I’m still me, somehow. Everything is permeated by a vibration that I recognise from brief moments during my, I guess, former human life. The vibration joins with the music, the molecules of matter in the walls, chairs, pint glasses, people, disco ball and colours; it’s in the sound of the joyous crowd…it’s in everything. It’s like a note, a light?, a something sounding, occurring, all around. It feels, overwhelmingly, like love. I couldn’t sense it before. No – I definitely could not feel all this love, before. But now I know that it was always there…it is always here.

A figure is watching her from the bar. He downs the last of his pint, then moves into the crowd and dances towards her, weaving through the other jumping bodies. He’s taller than I was, lanky, and with a rocker’s mane of dark hair. His brown eyes are intent, and she is oblivious. He positions himself to be right in front of her for the chorus. When her eyes open next, they focus on him, and along with the rest of the crowd, the two scream-sing into each other’s faces, ‘I wanna live like common people, I wanna do whatever common people do, wanna sleep with common people, wanna sleep with common people, like you.’ At this, he arcs his body, pointing emphatically at her, and she throws her head back, laughing. In the noisy tumult at the end of the song, they grin at each other, and then he asks her if she wants a cigarette.

We move into the cool night air outside under tall streetlights, and I realise I can feel how the air feels on her skin. Strangely, I can also feel how the bricks feel, inside themselves, as particles of stone, as she leans back against the building. Everything is so much more alive than I realised, before.

The fresh air washes over her, and she feels relieved. She also feels self-conscious, too hot and sweaty. It’s quieter out on the street, just the chatter of people under clouds of smoke, and the noise of car engines approaching and receding. Not too many – it’s late now. Then I can hear her next thought, My face feels like it’s dripping. My mascara must be in puddles under my eyes by now.

Listening to this is a revelation. I always wished I knew what she was thinking, before.”

 

 

Disco lights

Excerpt #2 from Stars Light the Dark (my new novel)

1 March 2021.

The novel is narrated by Tom, a ghost, the ex-lover of Stella, a lighting designer for the theatre. Tom observes Stella, unable to let go of her, as she grapples with the grief of his death and the sadness of her past, amidst the high risks of new love with astro-physicist Walter Thompson. In this excerpt, Tom, our ghost-narrator, is observing Walter, soon after Walter has broken up with Stella…

“Walter works at the Battcock Centre for Experimental Physics, which is part of a development built in the 1970s on the western edge of Cambridge, where the city turns into meadows and farmland, on Madingley Road. The square, modern buildings of the Madingley Rise site sit amongst the trees of a pretty woodland – hidden, peaceful, and out of the city proper. Walter’s building is tucked into the middle of the site, behind the Institute of Astronomy, which is across from a large meadow holding grazing horses.

It’s been a week since Walter has broken up with Stella. He steps out of the entrance of the Battcock Centre at 10:30am and walks down a small flagstone path that leads him around to the front of the nearby Astronomy building. He crosses the road there, a small drive that runs through the site, and steps onto the grassy verge, to the fence bordering the horses’ field. Two of them pick up their heads and amble slowly over to him. It’s a cold March day with a white-grey sky, and the horses are still wearing their winter blankets. The grey dappled mare is wearing a worn, dirty, blue blanket, and the small bay gelding is wearing a black, slightly newer-looking one. Their coats are shaggy with winter growth. Walter puts his hand out flat with a sugar cube in it, one for each horse in turn, then he strokes the grey mare’s soft, wide cheek. He feels uncomfortable meeting the calm gaze of her brown eye today – somehow it sharpens his awareness of how wrong he feels inside.

The horses know. In their different minds, in their pure intuition, his disrupted emotional pathways appear as discordant pulses radiating out from him. But the horses exist in an energetic field of wellbeing which is more powerful than the discord radiating from humans. They are tuned in perfect harmony with The Energy. That is why all of nature has the same feeling, the same tone. Nature is in the key of The Energy. The two flows of energy meet and eddy as Walter strokes her cheek, the horse’s unstoppable love swirling around Walter’s belief in the absence of love. Then he abruptly puts his hand down, ignoring the waiting bay, who whickers a gentle protest as Walter turns and walks away.

He crosses the road and walks back down the flagstone path to his own building. He pulls open the door and goes into the foyer, then into the large conference room off reception where the morning tea trolley has been wheeled in, stocked with tall silver urns filled with coffee, tea and hot chocolate, large plates of biscuits, small jugs of milk and sugar bowls – the source of Walter’s sugar cubes for the horses. His colleagues are arriving, walking into the room and busily filling teacups, taking biscuits and settling into conversation groups, some standing in circles, some seated in the room’s chairs. The sounds in the room are of clinking porcelain and teaspoons clanging as they stir, and the rumble of voices, mostly male. Walter surveys the scene and is decidedly not in the mood to talk to his fellow physicists. But he wants a cup of coffee.

He could pour himself a cup and take it back to his office, but he decides to walk over to the Astronomy Institute’s morning tea trolley instead. Tea trolley, twice a day, at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., is an old Cambridge tradition that Walter found both funny and charming when he first arrived at his job two years ago. Today he feels desperation seeping up out of the emotional containment field he has imposed on himself for the past week. He can’t focus on any of his work tasks and doesn’t even want to try. From 9.30 – 10.21 today he sat at his desk, just staring at his laptop screen, forcing himself to sit there, pretending to work for the look of it, watching the time. When his computer clock showed 10.21, he got up like a spring released from a constraining strap and went in search of sugar cubes for the horses.

Now he opens the pale wooden door of the Astronomy department and says hello to Shirley, the receptionist, as he walks in. She is in her late forties, with brown horn-rimmed glasses and shoulder-length wavy brown hair gradually turning to grey. She has a full cup of tea to the left of the computer keyboard on her desk, and she is staring at her computer screen, with a bourbon crème biscuit in her right hand. She looks up briefly to acknowledge Walter’s greeting and smile at him, then takes her eyes back to the screen, taking a bite of her biscuit. She is a visual artist, a painter, whose day job in the Institute of Astronomy, though pleasant, is like being asleep compared to the vibrancy of the evenings and weekends she spends engrossed by her canvases in the spare room at her small flat. Today, she is avidly reading an article on her computer about the next Biennale in Venice and trying to decide whether she can afford to go.

Walter stands in front of her desk, observing the scene, which is nearly identical to the one in his building, save for the shape of the room. The reception area here is larger, octagonal, and lit by natural light coming from windows on several of the octagon’s sides. The horses’ green paddock is visible through a floor-to-ceiling glass window next to the reception desk. The stocked tea trolley in the middle of the room, and the standing and seated groups of mostly men, talking and drinking tea and coffee, are the same.

Walter looks for his friend Paul but doesn’t see him. It doesn’t matter – here Walter can blend quietly into someone else’s conversation without being prodded into participation, or drift out to watch the horses. The astronomers are a peaceful, almost mystical, sort of scientist. Walter has always been struck by the difference in feeling between the two departments, often thinking, I guess they take the long view on things over here.

He walks over to Astronomy’s shining stainless-steel trolley, takes a white porcelain cup and saucer from the lower level and fills it with coffee from the tallest silver urn. He doesn’t bother with milk or sugar; he takes it black. Then he turns and walks over to the wall to the left of the building’s entrance doors. This wall is a row of offices leading down one of the arterial corridors of the ground floor. Stretching away deeper into the building, in between each office, is a series of huge, framed photographs of space, each nearly as tall as a person.

Walter stands in front of the photograph nearest to him and takes a sip of his coffee. The large, square expanse of this photo is mostly black, and shows the moon blocking the sun, a total solar eclipse. Around the moon’s crisp circular black edge are the diffused rays of light from the sun behind it, like a halo of white light around the blackened moon. Walter looks at the photo, which he knows well, then shifts his attention to the exhibition text next to it:

In 1919, Newton’s law of universal gravity still dominated scientific discourse, as it provided extremely accurate explanations of physical observations. But Einstein had a major issue with Newton’s theory: It was not consistent with his own special theory of relativity, which predicted that space and time were relative, forming a four-dimensional continuum called spacetime. He conceived a general theory of relativity, in which gravitational fields would cause warps in spacetime, thus causing light to bend around large objects and weaving gravity into the continuum.  

In 1917 Sir Frank Watson Dyson, the Astronomer Royal of Britain, created the first experiment to test Einstein’s theory: A total solar eclipse on May 29, 1919, would occur just as the sun was crossing the bright Hyades star cluster. Dyson realized that the light from the stars would have to pass through the sun’s gravitational field on its way to Earth, yet would be visible due to the darkness of the eclipse. This would allow accurate measurements of the stars’ gravity-shifted positions in the sky.

Sir Arthur Eddington, leading two teams of astronomers from Cambridge University, travelled to the remote island of Principe in the Gulf of Guinea off the west coast of Africa, to measure the stars’ positions during the eclipse. The astronomers took several photographs of the star cluster during the six minutes of the eclipse, of which this is the most famous. Eddington published his findings on 6 November 1919. Einstein became the most famous scientist in the world, overnight. [1]

A voice breaks into Walter’s contemplation, ‘Walter is that you? I thought it was!’ Walter looks up from the small placard to see Roger MacIntyre, whom he met at the Girton formal hall several months ago, the night he met Stella.

Roger is half a head shorter than Walter and wearing blue jeans, brown hiking boots and a sky-blue button-down shirt, neatly tucked in. His blue eyes are lively behind his metal-framed glasses, and his bright white hair and beard are both trimmed close. He is holding a red jacket in his hand, and with the other hand reaches out to grasp Walter’s upper arm briefly in a firm, friendly way, smiling pleasantly at him.

Roger says, ‘I take it you’ve defected from your own department for tea as well?’

Walter says, ‘That’s right – you’re nearby, in the British Antarctic Survey?’

‘Yes, well-remembered. I’m retired, but I still come and help out with things from time to time, like today – hang on; let me get a cup of tea. Back in a second.’

Walter takes a large swallow of his coffee and watches as Roger greets several of the older astronomers jovially on his way to the trolley.

After depositing his coat onto a chair and making himself a strong tea with milk, Roger returns to where Walter is standing by the large photograph, cup and saucer in hand. Roger says, ‘I often came over here when I was working down the road. There’s something about the astronomers, isn’t there? They’re not like the other kids.’

Walter shakes his head in agreement, and something makes him take a deep breath just then, and sigh. More emotion comes out in the sigh than he meant to show, and Roger looks curiously at him.

On the night of the Girton formal hall, Roger had enjoyed meeting Walter immensely. Walter had a quality that reminded him of his old friend Ted, an American researcher he had spent time with in Antarctica. Ted and Walter were physically similar-looking, both dark-haired, with a boyish squareness in their faces, and tallish. But beyond that, they both had a similarly joyous looseness, a willingness to fall straight into a joke as soon as it presented itself. Walter is expansive, like Ted was, Roger had thought that night. His smiles come fast and stay long – generous smilesand his eyes dart around – he wants to take in everything around him, but so he can understand it as fully as possible, and then get down to enjoying it. Roger had particularly enjoyed observing Walter’s pursuit of Stella that night. During dinner, while keeping pace with his wife Zora’s remarks and the couple on their other side, he had also kept an ear out for what Walter had said to Stella. For his own amusement, he had been running an internal commentary on Walter’s moves: Good. Teasing is always a quick in. Gets them annoyed. They love being annoyed with you.

Today Roger can plainly see that there is something wrong with Walter. Roger has noticed that Walter hasn’t shaved, but it isn’t the thoughtful stubble worn for fashion by some younger men these days – it’s uneven, neglected-looking.

Roger says, ‘Hey, do you want to go for a little walk? I’ve been sitting down too much already today. I need to stretch my legs.’

It’s exactly what Walter wants to do. It’s the first thing that he has felt he genuinely wants to do in a week. He nods. Roger drinks his tea in several large swallows, heartily, and Walter tips up the last of his coffee. They walk over to the trolley and put their cups on the lower level, then Roger picks up his jacket from a nearby chair, and they turn and head towards the Reception doors.

Outside, Roger, noting that Walter is only wearing a black jumper over his jeans, asks him, ‘Do you want to get a coat?’

Walter shrugs and says, ‘Nah. I don’t mind the cold.’

Roger’s coat has bright silver reflective patches on the arms and shoulders, and it’s embroidered with ‘British Antarctic Survey’ in white letters under a small Union Jack on the left breast. He says, shrugging it on but leaving it unzipped, ‘Okay. Let’s walk out towards the Brighton Building.’

Walter nods agreement, feeling passive, willing to be led by the older man.

They walk in silence at first, then Roger says, ‘Hey, did I tell you that night at dinner about my friend Ted? He’s American, too.’

Walter shakes his head, looking down at the ground as they walk down a small, paved path bordered by birch trees. Their branches still have the appearance of bareness, but close up, they are covered by small buds.

‘Yes, you remind me of him a bit. Not just because you’re American.’

‘Hmmh,’ says Walter, noncommittally.

They come to a fork in the path by a wooden signpost that has blue pointers stacked on top of each other, facing in three different directions. One says, ‘AG Brighton Building’, and that’s the direction Roger takes them, north.

He continues, ‘Let me tell you, did I have some good times with Ted – down in Antarctica, that is. Actually, I only saw him once when we weren’t in Antarctica, when he was visiting London for a conference. Don’t really remember much of that night, to be honest.’ Roger laughs a little.

‘Though we had plenty of fun down South, too. The last time I was posted there, Ted wasn’t supposed to be there, actually – I had had it in a letter from him just before I’d left, but then to my surprise he turned up. His wife had just left him.’

Walter winces internally when he hears this. The Energy has created this meeting for the three of us today, because Roger is going to say something important. Roger is a father who had a good father, who had a good father. He has something to tell us both.

Roger continues, ‘…and he begged his department head to send him on the next trip going, which happened to be just a few weeks later, and so there he was. Of course, I would have preferred for him to be happy, and still married, rather than with me for one last hurrah at the end of the earth, but there you go. Anyway, on that trip – funny story – there were three Ukrainian scientists in their national station, and they had been there for two years, which is a very, very long time to be posted down South. Well, their government kept squabbling over the funding for their return trip and delaying it. So they went on a work strike, grew their hair and beards out, started making vodka from a home-made still and turned their station into a bar! Hah! Vaidotas, Mikhailo and Pavlo. Cracking fellows, they were. It was exactly what Ted needed, just then. Ice, vodka, mad Ukrainians, and me, probably, to talk to. When you go through something like that – losing your wife – you need to talk things through a lot. You need your friends.’

Both men are looking forward, Walter mostly down at the ground, but he glances quickly sideways, when Roger says that. Walter clears his throat then says, ‘So, what are you working on at the moment?’

Roger says, ‘I’m helping advise on The Sir David Attenborough research ship. It’s being built in Liverpool at the moment. A team of engineers and ship-builders are coming for a meeting this afternoon.’

‘Oh’, Walter says.

Now they have reached the Brighton building, at the edge of the site, and Roger confidently takes the path that leads past it, to the meadows beyond.

They pass single file though a small wooden gate, and Roger chooses a path in the meadow through small hillocks in the direction of a country lane sheltered by an avenue of tall chestnut trees. Once they are in the privacy of the meadow, away from the buildings, Roger says, ‘I hope you don’t mind me saying, Walter, but you seem a bit down. Anything wrong?’

Walter thinks, I fucked up my job and things with Stella in one fucked-up fucking day, and now I can’t fucking stop fucking thinking about my FUCKING father. But he says, ‘I – my boss – my PI, I mean, gave me bad advice on my last round of experiments, and everything we did failed as a result, and now he’s blaming me, publicly.’

Roger says quietly, ‘I’m very sorry to hear that, Walter. He sounds like one of those psychopaths who climb to the top using the bodies of others for footholds. They’re about, you know – in Cambridge, in science, in life.’

‘Yeah, I guess I’m learning that.’

Roger says, ‘The up-side is that now you know what to look out for, what to avoid, next time. You can get another job. One with a better PI. It’s also worth remembering that a lot of people in your field will already know he’s like that and read between the lines of the situation.’

Walter says, ‘Huh. I never thought about it like that. That’s pretty useful to know. Thanks.’

Roger says, ‘I couldn’t help thinking when I saw you, there in the Astronomy building, of a certain young lady that you took a shine to that night at Girton. How did things go with her?’

Walter thinks, Aw fuck. How is it going to look that I broke up with her the same day as all this stupid shit went down?

He says, ‘Well, actually, we dated for a few months, but I think it ran its course, so I ended it recently.’

Roger can see perfectly well that the two things are related, and his heart goes out to Walter. He can sense the confused little boy inside the tall man walking beside him, and he can tell Walter’s hurting. He says, ‘You know, Walter, times like this come in life sometimes, and when you get to my age, you look back on them and realise they’re valuable, they’re powerful. Actually, from one perspective, they’re positive.’

Walter hears these words through a cloud of pain, glances over at Roger with his brow furrowed and his eyes dark, then looks down at the ground again. They have just reached the country lane, and the tall trees on either side almost meet to form a canopy overhead. Their upper branches are waving in the gusts of March wind, high above the pair.

Roger continues, ‘Have you ever had a tour of the Brighton Building, back there?’

Walter shakes his head but doesn’t say anything.

Roger says, ‘Fascinating place. Full of rocks. Did you ever study geology?’

Walter shakes his head again.

‘You might find it interesting. Take carbon. Under conditions of extreme pressure and heat, carbon atoms adopt a different bonding structure, changing from graphite rings into a three-dimensional network of interlocking tetrahedra, called diamond.’

Walter doesn’t say anything, but his mind focusses on the pain he feels, then converts his understanding of it into pressure. He finds this recategorization interesting – it feels like a small rope or ladder leading up and away from the overwhelm of feeling that has been constantly threatening him.

Roger keeps going, ‘Now, I’m not saying to pretend you don’t feel something. You must feel. Too many men these days don’t realise you have to feel all the way through something to let it go.’

As Roger says this, the words ‘let it go’ run all the way through my airy consciousness, circulating through the me that is still me, like information through a network, like blood through a body. I still feel like I have a heart, and when ‘let it go’ tries to circulate there, it is stopped by a dark mass of resistance. I feel The Energy all around me, all around us, attentive, focused.

Roger continues, ‘Ted had to feel like he was in the teeth of a bear trap for a good year before he let go of his divorce. I’m just saying that it’s also a time when you can gain wisdom – and wisdom is power – if you look at it the right way, if you handle the pressure the right way.’

Roger looks up and around at the waving tree tops. He says, ‘You know, Walter, I was out on the ice taking a sounding once, and a sudden storm blew up, and although I was less than a mile from the stations, I couldn’t see a thing for snow. Couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.’ Roger puts his hand up and waves it, to demonstrate.

He goes on, ‘I picked up my radio to let the station know where I was, but I had accidentally taken one that was uncharged that day, and I had forgotten to test it before I left. Someone must have put it back onto the wrong rack. I knew this storm wasn’t on the forecast, so I hoped it was just a freak and would pass quickly. The right thing to do was to stay right where I was and wait it out. I had a small tent set up to cover my equipment, and it was just big enough for me, so I climbed in, zipped it up and sat still.’

Walter is really listening now. Like me, Walter grew up without a father, and it suddenly strikes him that fathering is pouring into him right now, unexpectedly, from Roger. He thinks, This moment is significant. This matters. I need this, and it’s here, happening right when I need it. There is a little vortex of loving energy surrounding the three of us, set in motion by Roger’s focused intention to show compassion to Walter. I can feel its movement around this area that feels like my old heart. It is beautiful. Suddenly, I see that it is The Energy, purely creating.

Roger goes on, ‘So, you know, I sat there, and the storm went on and on, for an hour, two hours, then five, then eight, and I got colder and colder, wondering how long it was going to last. First, I thought about what I had and didn’t have in terms of survival, what food I had with me, what layers, what warmth. I didn’t have the right kit with me, because I had, in a manner of speaking, just popped out onto the ice near the stations for a quick task. In fact, I could still see the stations from where I was before the storm blew up.

Then, the temperature really plummeted, and I could feel the cold starting to affect me, and then I thought about how hypothermia kills you, stage by stage. I started losing feeling in my hands and feet first. That’s the first stage – you go numb in your extremities, because your body diverts your blood, and all the warmth in it, to your vital organs, to your brain, your lungs, your heart. So I was sitting there, losing feeling in various parts of my body – feet, legs, hands and arms – and the strange thing was that I found it somewhat fascinating. I didn’t have anything to do but think, and I kept looking at my hand and seeing it, but not being able to feel it.’ Roger mimes the gesture now, holding his hand up and looking at it, turning it over.

Then he continues, ‘I kept thinking, “There’s no feeling connecting me to my hand anymore, but I still feel like myself. Who am I then? Am I my body?” The answer that came to me in that tent was, “No, I’m not my body.” I kept asking myself questions, interrogating this idea that had occurred to me: “Am I my job? My age? My nationality? My name?” – and I found that I was none of those things. And then, you know, the damnedest thing happened.’

A note of pure joy has just entered Roger’s voice, and Walter glances up at Roger with a questioning, intense look in his eyes.

Walter says, ‘What happened?’

Roger, chuckling, says, ‘Oh, I still don’t really know – I just started laughing and laughing, right there at the edge of death. What tickled me, somehow, was the idea that I had thought I was my body, my name, my job, my relationship with Zora, my nationality, my identity. It just struck me as utterly ridiculous.’ He closes his eyes briefly, shakes his head, still chuckling. ‘And then I let go. I decided to let go of all of that. And you know, I felt so light. Right on the edge of life and death, I felt so happy.’

The swirling feeling around my old heart intensifies. The compassion emanating from Roger and The Energy holds me safe while the change occurs. I see it so clearly now: I didn’t have a father, or good love from a mother, and when I met Stella, all the new love that poured between us for those five years – the happiest of my life – somehow hardened into a need for her, and only her. That’s why life was intolerable for me at the end. The day I thought she almost died on the beach showed me clearly that if things ever changed, if she ever left me, or died, I couldn’t stand it, and after that I couldn’t stand anything about life anymore. Then I still couldn’t let go of her after I died. I didn’t know there was something else, after letting go.

Then, I realise that in the midst of everything I can see and sense and am now – oh it’s vast, The Energy, the love, the sight, the being – I realise how ridiculous it is to be holding on to anything, and particularly to the idea that I need Stella and only Stella. Ha! What a joke!

The mass of old need around my heart space breaks up first like chunks of concrete in a rumbling earthquake, and The Energy is laughing all around me, and then I’m there in Roger’s tiny tent on the ice 29 years, 241 days, 6 hours and 23 minutes ago from where we are in the earth time continuum, and I am laughing gloriously along with him. His face is bearded then, too, but it was reddish brown instead of white, and his face is encircled by the thick brown fur ringing his hood, and his glasses were horn-rimmed, instead of metal. Right then, his lips were blue. He is laughing so hard that he is falling sideways onto his backpack and pounding the hands he can’t feel joyously on the legs he can just about feel and the tent floor, howling with laughter, ‘AAAHHHHAAAHAAA!!!!’ – real screams of laughter, and I am right there with him, in the midst of more disembodied love and connection than anyone living can ever possibly ever even feel or know.

Walter says, ‘Then what happened?’

Roger says, ‘Well, the storm cleared off, and a rescue team arrived. I lost a little toe, but that’s all, and that’s virtually a rite of passage for an Antarctic explorer of any stripe.’ He chuckles.

Then he goes on, ‘What I’m saying, son, is that maybe it’s a good time to ask yourself what you are, and what you are not.’

Walter says, ‘Hmmh’, then stays quiet. He asks himself, Am I this work failure? The answer that comes immediately into his mind is NO. He sees it clearly for the first time: the separation between himself, and this situation. I am not this situation. This situation is separate to me. This makes the darkness he’s been carrying for a week lighten a bit. His mind processes the emotional change as an analytical measurement of the interplay of different forces and qualities in himself and this situation: If X (my identity and wellbeing resting in my identity) are not connected to N (my job), S (my relationship), T (my body), then any negative forces (-) exerted on those things (-N, -S, -T), do not ultimately negatively affect X (me) in any way. Then he asks himself the next logical thought, Who or what is X? Who am I?

The two men reach the end of the lane, and Walter says, as they turn around to head back, ‘Thanks, Roger. I think that was just what I needed to hear today.’

Roger smiles at him, his features lighting up, and Walter sees so much obvious care in it that he feels in danger of tears.

Roger thinks, I think I can get away with it – he’s American, after all, then he pulls Walter into a fierce, short hug, patting his back so hard that the percussive thumps almost feel like blows. Walter’s pain cloud shatters and disperses, and a few tears leak out of his eyes. He pulls out of the hug, hastily wipes away the tears, then says, ‘So tell me about the David Attenborough ship.’

Roger obliges him, and they talk about the new research ship all the way back to Walter’s department. As Roger leaves him, he gives him his phone number and says, ‘Call me anytime you want a pint. It’d be a pleasure.’”



[1] Credit article from Wired magazine by Lizzie Buchen, 05.29.09, 12:00 a.m.;

‘May 29, 1919: A Major Eclipse, Relatively Speaking’; All italicized are her words.

Disco lights

Excerpt #3 from Stars Light the Dark (my new novel)

1 March 2021…

In this excerpt, Stella is the lighting designer and technician for a performance art show by her friend Benjamin Tracey, called A Beautiful Kind of Annihilation. Walter has come to see the show at an arts festival in a small London theatre…

“Walter notices a ripple of movement go through the crowd outside, and then he looks at his watch and sees it is time for Stella’s show. He files into the building with people from the outside crowd, then up the stairs and into the small, black box theatre. He takes a seat on the third tier of risers, one in from the aisle, with a vague hope that maybe Stella will see him and come to sit next to him. Then he starts to look around for her. He finds her behind him, in the audience seating, two tiers further up, on the other side of the aisle, at the control desk. She is busy glancing between a notebook in her lap and a laptop on the desk, and simultaneously speaking into her microphone headset.

In the few minutes before the start of the show, Walter keeps looking back at her, trying to catch her eye, but then he realises that it’s probably not a good moment to let her know he’s here.

Then the house lights go down, the rumbling crowd quiets, and the theatre is in complete darkness, except for the glowing white ‘Exit’ sign over the door to the left of the audience. The back of the stage is a large screen, projected to be black, and then white text appears on it, in total silence, once sentence at a time:

I love this moment.

All these possibilities.

Everything could happen next.

(Nothing could also happen next. It’s performance art.)

The audience chuckles, the first real sound.

Is it possible that everything is nothing, and nothing is everything?

Close your eyes.

No, really, close your eyes.

I mean it – it’s necessary for the show – close your eyes.

Okay, you can open them again – hey, caught you!

This gets another laugh from the audience. The few people in the theatre who had closed their eyes open them at the laughter. Then Stella’s light effect of deconstruction deconstructs the blackness, and the stage is bathed in chaotic particles of light that outline Benjamin’s form like a man-shaped light sculpture at first, and then it is as if he is bathed in a sunrise, and finally a warm, bright light.

He is crouching on stage, and slowly straightens up, then shakes himself, says, ‘Ah, welcome, welcome — if you’re really here, that is.’ He is dressed in a black velvet suit over a black t-shirt, his wild-gelled dark hair hovering six inches up from his face, as usual.  He closes his eyes dramatically, screwing up his face around his closed eyes, to show what he is doing. ‘Nope, see, now you’re not here. This time, everybody, close your eyes.’ Most of the audience do.

‘See, now everything is gone.’ He opens one eye exaggeratedly, looking pointedly around at the audience.

‘Oh, some of you are cheating. We’ll need the lighting designer at this point.’ Then Stella cues the deconstruction effect, which fades the theatre back to pitch black, and Benjamin speaks. His rich-toned, performer’s voice booms out, velvety, in the darkness.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the show. I have a little question for you. Does this theatre exist outside your head, or inside your head?’

Walter feels his mind bend pleasantly at this, the same way it has been bending as he has contemplated atomic space over the past few weeks.

Then Stella brings the stage lights up again, warm and bright, and Benjamin walks over to a small table with a laptop on it, and a swivel stool. He sits at the table and turns toward the large screen hanging against the long black curtain at the back of the stage. He Skype-calls his ‘parents’, who appear as an elderly couple sitting on a sofa. They appear to be interacting with him live. He explains to them that he has always been a figment of their imagination. He argues gently with their confusion. Then he uses an old-fashioned rotary dial phone on the other side of the stage to break up with his ‘girlfriend’ in a telephone call, amusingly conveying her fictional rage through his half of the conversation, ‘If I have time to fuck myself before I cease to exist, I certainly will, darling. I’m ever so sorry.’ He puts on a safety mask, brings out a construction machine trailing its electricity cord, and drops his keys into it, to be destroyed with a piercing sound of metal being cut apart. He projects his Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts onto the screen, and deletes them all. He opens the laptop, projects his photos onto the screen, and deletes them. He sends an e-mail to his entire address book requesting that they wipe their memories of his existence. Then he deletes his e-mail account. Then he takes a sledgehammer to the laptop. He does everything accompanied by a light-hearted monologue in fictional conversation with the audience. He repeats one refrain several times, ‘You see, I met a wise man, or was he a wise woman? Anyway, he/she said, “You came from brilliancy. Destroy yourself and return to brilliancy. It made me curious”.’ At each destruction, Stella’s light effect, in various colours, deconstructs the audience’s perception of Benjamin while he transitions to the next stunt.

Finally, he projects on the screen the forms he has registered to change his name from Benjamin Tracey to ‘ – .’ He says, ‘You can call me Dash Dot until the big moment comes…Oh, I think it is here now…’

Then Stella’s reality shimmers arrive, and now they are multi-coloured, and this time, instead of being focused on the stage, they flit gently over the entire theatre, starting at the back of the audience, causing many people to turn around to watch behind them. As the light expands slowly towards the stage to encompass him, Walter is startled, and he thinks that it’s like somehow like being in a cloud of butterflies. It’s curiously affecting, and he feels that somehow she has harnessed the naturalness of light, so that even inside a building, he feels like nature is gently touching him. It gently twists his mind again, via his senses.

As the multi-coloured cloud of deconstructing light particles approaches the stage, and just begins to engulf him, Benjamin’s confidence seems to fail him, his face changes, and he screams, ‘Wait, no!!!! I’m not ready yet! I don’t know what comes AFTERRRRR!!!!’ Then he falls to his knees, pleading and jabbering, as the light fades to black, ‘But all of my particles, my ventricles, my cuticles, and my defensiveness and feebleness and smarts and roars and tears and irises and memories and molecules and love and hate and sex…’

And then Benjamin sobs briefly in the total darkness for several moments. The theatre is tense, compassionate. Then he falls silent. The audience sits in complete darkness and silence for 30 seconds, then one minute, then two minutes, three.

Walter has never seen a show like this before. ‘Theatre’ to him has meant Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Neil Simon, Broadway. Actors playing fictional parts, acting out scripts and stories. He has never seen a performer adopt a persona that is essentially a version of themselves and play with the edge of reality, or use these kinds of effects.

Throughout the show, Walter’s mind has experienced each of Benjamin’s vignettes as an invitation to drop into the atomic space he has recently been exploring, going farther into the vast distances he knows exist between his particles.

When Benjamin’s confrontation with the final deconstruction happens, Walter’s heart feels like it cracks open and bleeds pain and fear for his own death, someday. He observes the movement of this emotion inside himself from the stillness imposed by the darkened theatre around him, until finally it drains away, and he feels empty.

Then he takes a deep breath. After three minutes, from somewhere mysterious a smile comes to him, and in the fourth minute, he receives the dark and silence as pure, abstract beauty, which feels as if it is both inside him and all around him.

After four minutes and thirty-three seconds, Stella unleashes a blast of floodlight directed blindingly into the audience’s faces, from what appear to be old-fashioned, round footlights, turned around to face them, instead of the stage. The moment is accompanied by a deafening D major chord on electric guitar, amplified violin and cello, in a grand crash of gorgeous, exhilarating harmony. Many of the audience have thrown their hands up to shield their eyes, and these can dimly see the outline of three musicians standing in front of the lights. Walter’s mouth drops open in amazement as the light washes over him and the amplified sound vibrates through him, while the musicians move through a stately progression of slow major chords. It is so loud that he feels as if he is inside the music, and not the other way around. Joy, pure, fierce joy, rises in him like he has never experienced before, and suddenly he feels like screaming in ecstasy.

When the spell of the fiction is broken, and the lights and music fade, and the audience realises it’s over, they rise to their feet in one motion and roar their approval, stamping, shouting, whistling. Walter stamps and hollers along, clapping his hands high overhead, then puts his fingers against his teeth to do a piercing whistle amidst the tumult.

Benjamin is taking bow after bow and gesturing to the musicians, Alec and Rosie, who are standing behind him, and pointing to Annie and Shaun in the front row, and Stella, at the lighting desk. Stella looks at the crowd around her now, and her eye finally alights on Walter in the moment when the whistle shrieks out of him. He looks back at her after that, his face transfigured with wonder, and sees that she has finally seen him.”

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’

Carlo_Crivelli_064

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 mirrorlamp.co.uk 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…

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

Originally published on mirrorlamp.co.uk 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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