Selected Writing

This pages contains selections of my writing, mostly inspired by world travel and spiritual culture. I hope you enjoy it.

Migrations of Love

Sri Andal accepted as a bride by Lord Vishnu, sustainer of the universe in Hindu mythology.
Prologue from the Book

On the first day in the month of early dew Andal woke long before the sun. It was the hour of Brahma, when the gods were nearest, so close you might feel a breath brush your cheek. The birds were still asleep in their nests, heads tucked into wings, eggs cosseted. Moon-flecked shadows of tree branches and tall houses laced the earthen streets outside her window. Andal lay for a moment in this quietest hour of all, sensing the imminence of something or someone quilting the air of her room, breathing into her, pounding her temples, beating at her ribs.

Stars still crowded the dark square of sky above the courtyard as she drew a pail from the well. The water was cold and she braced herself before splashing her face. She combed coconut oil through her raven curls and twirled them on top of her head, then tied a length of homespun cloth round her tiny waist, pleating the end and tucking it in at the back. She laced her bodice and wrapped a shawl round her shoulders. She was twelve years old now, of a marriageable age, so she veiled her head before stepping outside. The oil lamps had burned dry, leaving the streets in delicious darkness. Andal felt reprieved, for a little longer, before the buds of the moon lilies closed in her father’s garden, before the pleas of her mother, the neighbours’ gossip and, from the only one who mattered, His stubborn silence.

Except for the occasional bell of a foraging water buffalo and the skip of her feet through the night jasmine air, nothing else was perceptible. In the company of so many stars Andal felt an uncomplicated joy. But as they began to disappear the familiar despair pooled again in her throat like a pinch of salt dropped into a tumbler of water. Like the circle of ripples only ever rumouring His reflection at the bottom of her well.

She followed Villiputtur’s wide main street, skipping faster to leave the thought behind, past the entrances of its two-storey houses flanked by carvings of dragons rearing twice her height. Those giant elephant trunks hanging from their sculpted mouths – how she had shrieked with fear and delight hearing her father describe these guardians with their crocodile head and lion legs, their monkey eyes and peacock’s tail. She passed the scents of sacred basil and roses, pungent and sweet, hanging in the air above her Appa’s temple garden and, on the other side of the wall, the gateway of a thousand gods leading to Lord Tirumal’s temple. Then through the labyrinth of alleyways and thatched dwellings she skipped to the edge of town.

Andal balanced across the bunds of two paddy fields, stopping halfway at a place that was, for her, both the middle of nowhere and the centre of everything. Here you could see for miles in ten directions. She looked to the eastern horizon beyond which, people said, the waves of a great sea washed. The faintest hint of light had appeared and while all the other stars faded, one bright star rose as if it, and not the sun, claimed that particular morning. Venus. She turned around to face the dark red-rimmed peaks of the Western Ghats. Hovering in the crevice of two mountains was another bright star, Jupiter. After watching its descent, Andal turned again to Venus but she too had disappeared.

The women were gathered already at the low stone temple on the banks of the sacred river. Its source was a spring bubbling up through the floor of a cave deep in the ylang ylang forests of the mountains. From Villiputtur it snaked a slow path across the plains to the sea. For the next thirty dawns in this early dew month of Margazhi they bathed in its chilly waters offering rituals to Katyayani, the goddess their ancestors had invoked since the beginning of time. But now their drumbeats and incantations summoned the presence of a god as well – a blue-skinned god who flew between worlds on the back of an eagle and made his bed on the coils of a snake.

It was He who swung the pendulum of stars that morning with four arms raised to hold his conch, lotus, mace and discus. He watched Andal unable to contain her excitement, standing midpoint in this rare conjunction of Venus and Jupiter.

Excerpt from Chapter 11

Andal’s temple entrance was awash with water and milky disinfectant, a sure sign a festival was imminent. In the stables by the first mandapam hall old women stooped back and forth with brooms and buckets, slushing the stones until water the colour of cow dung and urine spilled onto the thoroughfare. I left my sandals at the entrance and followed the line of pilgrims, tip-toeing through the puddles wondering what strength of bleach had been used while everyone else sloshed through, oblivious to all but the Goddess awaiting them. Perhaps they think, as they enter her temple, here everything, even chemicals, is transformed into the sacred.

‘You are entering God,’ a voice said. It sounded an odd thing to say but it made sense too, as if the woman straightening up beneath the second gateway was answering my thoughts. She held a bowl of white rice powder and stood back from the kolam she had drawn with her fingers, a mandala of lotus petals covering the flagstones leading in. The giant stone Yali on the column behind her, rearing its lion body and grasping the elephant trunk swinging from its fanged mouth, seemed almost a warning: this was not a woman to be tampered with. She looked me up and down, placing the other hand on her ample hip, taking note of my new toe rings, my clothes, the messy way I had pulled my hair back, the red tilak on my forehead. But then she smiled.

‘You coming from?’
‘Srirangam’
‘Staying?’

She didn’t wait for my reply. ‘Come to my house later.’ She pointed back to the temple entrance and to the right. ‘Ask for Kartika.’ Then she waved me on over her lotus mandala and through the dark corridor to the next mandapam. A shaft of light beamed down through an opening in the temple’s roof, bathing the golden flagpole towering through the centre of it. Hundreds of tiny flames from ghee lamps flickered at its base. The golden pole reminded me of an antenna, a sort of cosmic connector, perhaps, between earth and heaven, if heaven existed. Quite possibly Kartika was right, something godly was there. Men flurried around it and up and down on bamboo scaffolding decorating every inch with palm fronds and strings of marigolds. The pilgrims in front of me were already prostrated on the ground.

The man from the ticket desk got up from his chair. He was tall and very lanky. He looked down at me, squinting through the glasses perched on his nose. They didn’t have any lenses in them. ‘This is the purifying place,’ he said, suggesting none too subtly with a tilt of his chin that I should join them, the pilgrims on the stones.
‘All bad karmas you will be leaving here.’

Excerpt from Chapter 22

‘Look, all the cows are lying down,’ I said. ‘Where I come from it’s a sure sign of rain.’

He took my face in his hands, looked into my eyes and swam his head. ‘A good omen, then.’Light rain began to fall as I reached the stairs to my room, a mango shower Tamilians say for its teases of coolness and orchards of green fruit growing tantalisingly heavy. Any day now there’d be blushes of gold and the hint of perfume, just a hint, and at night the scent will intensify. I stood under the palm leaf shelter of my rooftop breathing in the rain-sweetened air, listening to the sounds of life: bicycle bells from the dark streets below, and behind lit-up windows, rooms filled with animated conversations and the clangs of cooking pots. Does India ever sleep? The chides of a mother and the wail of her little one from a house across the road muted by the patter of water on rooftops. Husbands and wives, children, grandmothers and grandfathers. I was an outsider, perhaps I always would be, but I was comforted.

I thought of Vasur in his tree house on the edge of town, the only sounds for him raindrops on leaf and tarpaulin, the occasional low of a cow, the crackle of flames. A lone man and the constancy of his fire.

‘And what do you see?’ Vasur’s words played again inside my head as I turned the key to my spartan home. It seemed like forever, but was barely two weeks ago, the night he was suddenly standing beside me as I looked down into Andal’s well. The back of my neck tingled just as it did then. I unhooked the padlock and pushed open my door, shook the rain from my hair before stepping inside.
All I needed was there – the thin mattress on the floor, a pillow and a mosquito net, a candle and For the Love of God on a small table, my clothes folded on a shelf and doubled up on three coat hangers. The picture of Andal Bhavati had taped to my wall, white cows at her feet, the tree behind her alive with birds and squirrels; Krishna standing underneath. Her rosebud smile, the garland of flowers draping her shoulders and a green parrot perched on her hand. I imagined her on her secret way to the well. Looking into its dark water.

I took my small mirror from its nail and held it to my face, inquisitive as much as anything, wanting to know who it was Vasur saw. Mostly I gave mirrors a cursory glance, neither liking or disliking, and the older I became the less I was inclined to check, the less the temptation to glance at myself passing a shop front or my refection backlit in a train window as it hurtled through a tunnel. Was it a lack of ego or denial of age? Or was I simply confounded by this body I inhabited?

Mirror, mirror on the wall who is the most beautiful – words etched into the psyche of every western girl. The lure of being beautiful, for whom? When I first read of Andal’s visits to the well it struck me as more fairytale than myth. But then I saw a popular print at one of the temple arcade shops. Her hair gathered into a beehive knot circled with jasmine, a spangled skirt pleated at her hips, the red bodice barely covering her voluptuousness. All the ornaments befitting a bride were there, and a garland, the garland, meant only for god. She was posing in front of a mirror, admiring her reflection. All of this I saw until one day, passing time, skimming the bangles and baubles of a goddess’s marketplace, I stopped and looked again. In the mirror’s reflection stood Krishna, wearing the same garland, a peacock feather in his crown and an adoring turn to his lips. It was just as Vasur had said – ‘twilight language’ in a painting. Krishna in place of Andal’s reflection. She was absorbed into him, into the mystery of the divine, her deepest desire realised. A kind of death by love if you think about it – her self surrendered.
Melt my heart. Pour him into me, she says.

The Way is a River of Stars

Excerpt from Chapter 8 – “Alice Through the Laundry”

I unlatch the gate to a small garden of knee high zinnias and a green front door. “Por favor, iglesia?” “Momento,” the lady at the door whistles through a gap in her front teeth. She returns with a key and takes my elbow as we walk back to the church. Inside is a perfectly proportioned octagonal chapel and I am drawn to the middle of the room. Reminiscent of Eunate, it is all the more enchanting because it is empty. Its frame of Islamic style arches and cupola have a symmetry that defies the gravity of stone. Were it not for the crucifix, austere and angular, hanging in the altar niche I could be standing in a mosque. Nowadays it is often only in the marriage of architecture that poignant reminders of true religious harmony are found. I imagine, in this unadorned space, a service where Christians and Muslims prostrate together each to their own God for this is how both religions prayed thousands of centuries ago in Byzantine Europe.

I look up to the dome, across to the unadorned arches and crucifix and down to the smooth stones at my feet. What mortar is strong enough to hold all these elements together? Could it be as simple as Mathew’s message, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” or Shantideva’s words, “Give away yourself for others, holding others dear as now you do yourself.” I feel the nape of my neck lengthen as if pulled by a fine string to the dome’s centre. Thoughts arise and then burst like soap bubbles in this ingenious configuration of stone and space; science and spirit. Two chattering pilgrims enter and the spell is broken. The old lady returns to her table near the entrance with a fresh vase of flowers and taps her fingers on the donation tin. With a shaky hand she dates the Santo Sepulcro stamp in my passport and I drop three Euros into her fountain.

Excerpt from Chapter 19 – “Tathata”

The precise moment between sleeping and waking escapes me. On insight meditation retreats by day six or seven life has slowed down to a snail’s pace. I can almost catch that elusive slip back into consciousness. Almost. The split second transition between a dream and awake is slippery as a fish. But through the day, as awareness fine tunes, the relationship between the intentions of the mind and the actions that follow begin to be more accurately witnessed – the way a fisherman knows, as he flicks his rod, the hook will land where the fish are biting. Nothing is exempt from this arc of mindfulness. It’s as if we walk, sit, see, hear, and eat with an internal microscope scanning out from our mind to our fingertips, our ears, nose, eyes and tongue. We begin to observe how relentless the bombardment of sensory information is and how the mind perpetually busies itself finding ways to relate. It is, at first, a disquieting realisation.

Eventually, even the microscope drops away. After a day fraught with knee pain and restlessness, I’d return to the hall for one last meditation before bed; slowly plump up my cushion, cross my legs and start over. Breathing in, noticing my abdomen rising, breathing out and noticing it fall. Breathing in, hearing the bell, noting ‘hearing’ then back to the ‘rising’ of my abdomen then breathing out and noting “falling.” Cumulative hours of effort, of ease then frustration or boredom, sharp mind, dull and daydreaming mind – all are building blocks for what happens next.

I like to think of it as a rough idling motor car on an ice cold morning. Once you warm up the engine you pull out of the driveway. You travel through familiar and unfamiliar territory until eventually you come to a place where you can take your hand off the wheel, your foot off the accelerator. Momentum happens by itself. Effortless effort replaces effort. From this place of non-doing tathata arises. It’s another one of those Pali words difficult to translate. Things are as they are. A state of absolute presence or “suchness”, a relationship with life as light as the weight of a dragonfly on a willow leaf and as encompassing as the sky.

Or think of the violent floundering of a drowning woman; if instead of struggling she lies on her back, opens her arms and breathes. She is held afloat by the very ocean that at first terrified her. Tenderness, too, is implicit in the experience of  tathata. Having never given birth I can only imagine how a mother touches the skin of her child for the first time. Like this.

In the seventeenth century a monk called Brother Lawrence was assigned his first job in a monastery as cook for a hundred mouths. After fifteen years he was moved to the office of sandal repairs. Despite a crippling war injury and chronic pain he found a way to go about his work, much like the mindfulness practice of vipassana. ‘Keeping my mind in His holy presence and recalling it as often as I found it wandered from Him. I made this my business every hour, every minute.’ In his letters, “The Practice of the Presence of God”, he goes on to explain the outcome of such a life, one that in many ways parallels tathata. ‘In my affectionate regard for God I find myself often attached with greater sweetness and delight than that of an infant at the mother’s breast. If at any time, my thoughts wander from this state, from necessity or infirmity, I am presently recalled by inward emotions so charming and delicious that I cannot find words to describe them.’

Brother Lawrence speaks of the grace of God and the Buddha speaks of Dharmakaya, that omnipresent and boundless state of truth. Are these truths really so very different? Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Everyone who sins is a slave of sin. If you obey my teaching, you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” What are sins but actions propelled by the loop of desire and hatred. The Buddha’s antidote for this endless cycle of craving and aversion came in a teaching called the Four Noble Truths.

The bell is softly struck ending the hour; you slowly open your eyes to one candle flame in a room filled with the shapes of other meditators. You uncross your pins and needles legs and wait for feeling to return before bowing and standing up, not needing to mentally note each intention and movement because there is only sensation and presence. Outside is a galaxy of stars and you are not separate from them. Then you see the Southern Cross; the mind jumps in and labels it, “Southern Cross.” The union of seer and seen is broken. So you return to noting. “Seeing … thinking …right foot …  left”, all the way back to your room. The noting continues – brushing teeth, toilet, climbing into bed, lying down until the final task of the day comes, watching through that internal microscope each sensation in the transition from waking to sleeping. Consciousness to unconsciousness.

I can only imagine what I dreamt last night. The wind howled and whistled under the eaves outside and the yard full of tents, straining at their ropes and pegs, billowed in and out like a collective blue lung. Half my mattress bobbed over the stairwell like a boat adrift in a black void and I remember nestling close to the wall for stability. Did I dream of sirens I wonder pulling me down to the ocean floor or a Templar knight throwing me an anchor?

Waking up this morning was not an easy transition. My awareness surfaced like a heavy weight well after my body. I did what I always do: dress, roll my sleeping bag into a tight ball and pack it away, splash my face with cold water, put on my boots, walk out to the road and turn west. It’s neither night nor day and an unforgiving concrete path runs parallel to a bitumen road, past a meat factory and through wasteland. On the horizon, where the sun should be, looms a nuclear station, its white funnel ominously shaped like a sandglass and flanked by chimney stacks spewing out jets of vapour. I yearn for the wilderness of yesterday.

Further along, in the small village of Campo I cup my hands and take a long drink from its ancient stone fountain. Cool water tasting of mineral. It’s as if I needed to drink from the earth in order to quench my separation from it and I’m comfortable again with the weight of my pack; happy to be walking with the dawn. The last lights of Ponferrada twinkle in the distance and I choose the longer route down a country lane.

 

Travel Blog

Thoughts from a Rooftop, Tiruvanamalai, South India – 29 August, 2015

It seems in India there are simultaneous worlds of experience happening; always. Except perhaps in the sultry hours after noon when the sun vents full force. Even the crows’ cries are sleepy.

Today the sun is nowhere to be seen. Thunder claps fade, and the aftermath of a monsoon shower chlorophylls the air. Langur monkeys will be descending their mountain, swinging through the forest trees on their long tails, to drink at the ancient stone dam. It is the English hour for tea. I am awake while Jimmy the dog dozes, curled up on the bench beside me.

A week ago in our shute room in Trichendur I held a complimentary bandaid and wondered, should I pack it? On weekends the hotels in seaside Trichendur fill with families come to worship at the temple by the ocean and to swim, the women in swathes of petticoat and meters of sari silk, for purification and blessings. We had planned to join them, but the only room left at the inn was a shute at double the price. I pictured a tunnel under a stairwell before the anomaly of Tamil accented English dropped. Upon arriving, it was in fact a suite! Four pillows instead of two, a bathroom large enough for an elephant and tiled with a mosaic of dolphins worthy of a Grecian bathhouse. There was twenty four hour hot water, two bed sheets instead of one and a strange, dimly lit, spartan sitting room at the entrance. The doorbell to our room played a selection of synthesized music – Jingle Bells, Happy Birthday, Moon River, and in the bathroom was a basket containing one bandaid and four cotton buds, a shower cap, plastic comb and two toothbrushes. These are the luxuries found in a Trichendur suite.

Jimmy has a red collar and clipped ear. He shares this rooftop with us overlooking a mountain rising from the plains like a rocky pyramid. Jimmy is sleeping deeply now. I can hear his breath above the sound of coconut, neem and custard apple leaves rustling in the twilight breeze. Long inhales, each exhale a quiet snore.

The rhesus monkeys are late. Has the rain delayed their daily scavenge? They come to our neighborhood each afternoon, for custard apples. Balancing on the concrete ledge of our roof they rip at the knobbled green skin with their teeth and bite into its hard white fruit, spitting seeds out as they go. There’s an urgency about them, with their Star Trek ears and grizzled little faces. Down the lane a woman tethers her cow for the night. I listen to the sound of reed brooms sweeping the entrance of every house, and breathe in rain washed air sullied by the clouds of swept dust.  Wood fire smoke, roasting cumin and coriander seeds, the pungent sizzle of curry leaves. I sweep through the sensations in my body.

Jimmy wakes at the sound of the bell on the milk seller’s bicycle. From house to house he pedals, buying milk from families who own a cow then selling it to those who don’t, ladling it from a metal pail tied to the back of his bike with rope. When the paddy fields are jewel green and the grass so long it falls down, a layer of cream settles at the top of my pitcher. Before the monsoon when the land is all rock and sienna and the riverbeds dry, the milk pours thin as water.

Two nights ago I walked across the rooftop, looking for the rising moon. With my eyes in the sky my feet bumped into sleeping Jimmy. He rose up in terror. He was a street dog once, all bones and fear. I felt the cold of a sharp tooth on my finger. After placating Jimmy’s barks, I noticed blood where his tooth had penetrated. He had been inoculated against rabies four  years ago so I was assured not to worry. But to be safe I should see a doctor, the head of the family downstairs said. ‘Better to get dog-bite needle.’

At the hospital the doctor said I needed three rabies shots as the dog is not immune. He needs an annual booster for that. The year Jimmy was inoculated was the year an animal sanctuary in town systematically gathered all stray and pet dogs for immunization. All was well again, the town was safe from rabid dogs and lapsed into a perception of permanence.  “Better you have five shots,” the doctor said, changing his mind. I wanted to bury my head in the grainy soil of the mountain.

As she prepared the syringe Mary, in her white sari and nurse’s cap, told me the miracle of her first conception at the age of forty after days and nights praying to God. She thought her baby would be a boy she said, rolling up my sleeve, but when she heard her baby’s first cry and looked down she saw it was a girl. A huge, beautiful girl. It is legal in India to have an abortion, but illegal to have a sex test during pregnancy. Girls carry the burden of a dowry. Boys, on the other hand, bring a wife and her dowry. “But I was so happy with God’s gift,” Mary said.

In the hospital’s waiting room a dog sleeps on its back under a bench, legs dangling in the air. An ancient grandmother stoops in on a young boy’s arm. An old man reeking of cigarette smoke hobbles past me with a bandaged ankle. A baby boy with oiled curly hair coughs over his mother’s shoulder. To mask his perfection he has a mole painted on his cheek. This will keep the evil eye and kidnappers away. Two women bent at the waist sweep the corridor with their reed brooms.

I squint into the last blazing of the setting sun, feeling the dull ache in my right arm from that dog-bite needle. I make sure the bandaid is firmly in place and wonder about the portent of that bandaid I decided to pack in Tiruchendur, just in case.