The Thrifty Fictionista Attempts Gratitude

Lockdown be like…

Lockdown Day 28.

Sigh.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to write when most of the people you know are experiencing exactly the same thing as you are. For me it’s the same four walls, the same family members, the same walk to the surf club and back — just to check the entire Pacific Ocean hasn’t mysteriously disappeared overnight.

The Bloke, knowing full well that I am generally the family member who jollies everyone else along, deadpanned that I should embrace gratitude during Lockdown.

Pfffft…

Then again, he has a point, and I do know I am indeed fortunate.

I am fully vaccinated, and The Bloke not far behind me (though the kids are yet to have a vaccine approved for them).

I am gainfully employed (though my work is being frequently interrupted by helping my children with home schooling).

I am happily married (though my anniversary present to The Bloke this year was booking in his second Pfizer shot).

You see the recurring theme, I’m sure — especially if you have a child in Year 5 and have been working through number patterns and algebra problems with them.

Yes, but

For every upside, it seems there is an inevitable downside.

Sick of the same four walls?

I’m trying to go back to the things I have learned from tapping away at the keys in this, my little patch of cyberspace. I’m looking for moments of delight. I’m attempting to put into practice the Divine Qualities I began exploring at the beginning of this year. That said, I also freely admit I have uncharacteristically shelved my project to continue looking into them throughout 2021: if past Lockdown experiences taught me anything, it’s that it’s OK to let go of things if it they are adding pressure to my existence rather than relieving it.

As a family, we’re trying to do things together that make us laugh — like watching old episodes of Travel Guides, which not only lets us explore the world from the comfort or our armchairs, but also has us simultaneously giggling and cringing at the antics of the various participants. For example, we watched the South African episode last night, and while we were in hysterics at some of the commentary during the safari portion of the show, we were downright mystified that some of the travel guides had never heard of Nelson Mandela?

There it is again. Yes, but

You see my dilemma?

I suspect I am not alone in this predicament, and that many parents across the Northern Beaches, across Sydney, and across Australia are, too.

So taking The Bloke’s advice to heart this time, I have challenged myself to come up with a list (in no particular order) of some of the things that I am purely grateful for — no ifs, no buts, no strings attached.

At least The Bloke still puts up with me…
  1. Our Cat, Tauriel the Exceedingly Magnificent.
  2. Ducted heating in the bedrooms of our house.
  3. Dark chocolate.
  4. FaceTime.
  5. Unexpected gifts, particularly a care package from my uncle at Canungra Creek Finger Limes.
  6. Baked potatoes and pumpkin. Baked lasagne. Baked apple and rhubarb crumble. Baked anything, really.
  7. A reliable internet connection, Netflix and Spotify.
  8. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy (specifically) and fiction (generally).
  9. Piping hot tea, coffee and showers.
  10. Words, and being able to read them, speak them, write them and wield them.

I suppose, given that in a few weeks it will be fifteen years since we tied the knot, I should add The Bloke to the list too — if only so I can publicly proclaim that I do take his advice from time to time. (Pun deliberate, and Dad-joke worthy.)

Hang in there, people!

Mind yourselves, and each other,

BJx

The Thrifty Fictionista Adds to Cart…

Shoulda got up…

Lockdown Day 4…

I knew surrendering to the doona on Sunday afternoon was a mistake. Naturally, every last one of the weather gods took note of my devil may care attitude to the sunny weather they had provided, and proceeded to drench the Northern Beaches in several of days of rain. Admittedly, there was a splash of variety to said rain: it was either steady and incessant, or squally and hitting when you least expected it, but the fact remains that it was still rain. On the one occasion I actually left the house (for 2 of the 4 allowable reasons under the current stay at home orders), I even drove through pouring rain in bright sunlight…which is a seriously weird experience even when one is not in Lockdown.

Anyway, after a shaky start (replete with yelling from all sides), both of my children appear to have adapted to this new regime reasonably well — which is rather a relief, given The Bloke and I are both working from home in finance-related jobs and Lockdown has conincided with EOFY. Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop have been keeping each other admirably entertained, including boisterous exercise sessions outside and plenty of creative pursuits inside, and have sometimes even remembering to clean up after themselves. Needless to say, I have issued an open invitation to all family members to empty the dishwasher whenever they find it full of shiny, clean crockery and cutlery, but sadly so far only The Bloke has taken me up on this salacious offer. OK…it’s not even remotely salacious, it’s just flipping necessary…

WFH anyone?

Miss Malaprop and I have indulged in a spot of Lockdown Baking — no, not sourdough — which is hardly surprising as we are both rather fond of bunging things in the oven and being able to eat them in the not too distant future. Spotting a claw of increasingly blackened bananas darkening the kitchen fruit bowl, we made Banana Bread. Not just ANY garden variety banana bread, but Yotam Ottolenghi’s Banana Bread featuring roasted pecans, if you don’t mind, which is why this particular baked offering requires the use of Capitals…so la dee dah..

Recalling her recent online shopping for new jeans, the Thrifty Fictionista has resolved not to bake too much during Lockdown, lest she find herself unable to fit into said jeans, which are yet to wend their way to my doorstop. That has not, however, stopped her from ummm… well, from ordering…a few, no…a largish pile, let’s see… shall we say “several other” things online? They’ve all been necessary purchases, of course, like a lovely tartan woollen blanket. And an iPad case. And two sweatshirts. And the Nespresso pods that are due to arrive this afternoon. You cannot seriously expect me to endure Lockdown with coffee, can you?! Besides, it’s not like I’m rushing to the nearest supermarket to panic buy toilet paper…

Too much Baking…

So far, despite adding many things to cart when I probably should have said, nay shouted at the top of my lungs: “NO! Begone, tempting online shopping demons of the Interwebs!“, the Thrifty Fictionista is rather proud of herself for not purchasing any more books — with the (exceedingly) permissible exception of some small tomes she sent to New Zealand for a friend’s upcoming birthday. Resisting the seductive siren song of Booktopia and the Book Grocer and all those other sublime online book retailers has not been easy, but I am pleased to announce that managed to apply myself and diligently finished the Nureyev biography (which I struggled to complete, simply because I knew it would have to end inevitably with his demise and that’s not the cheeriest subject matter to confront while unable to freely leave your house for the foreseeable future).

Next, however, the Thrifty Fictionista took her own advice and cracked open the very beautiful (hardbacked and bookmark ribboned) Hilary Mantel box set I had been waiting to devour. Quite honestly, I am relishing every single moment I am spending with Thomas Cromwell in Tudor England.

Right from the opening line of Wolf Hall, the first book, I was entranced all over again:

So now get up…

A box set, you say…

It’s not such a bad suggestion, and one I probably should have heeded last Sunday instead of allowing the doona to welcome me as its own.

So now get up…

It really did remind me that Lockdown doesn’t have to be all bad. It doesn’t have to mean forgetting to shower on a regular basis, or spending days in your pj’s because you can’t be bothered getting dressed, or lamenting the fact that you can’t do anything.

Because there’s always something to do, somewhere, if you’re willing to look for it.

So now get up…

And mind yourselves,

The Thrifty Fictionista (aka Blue Jai) xxx

The Thrifty Fictionista in Lockdown (again)

How I imagine I look…

Lockdown Day 1, and the Thrifty Fictionista has once again taken to her bed.

Not because I’m sick, not because I’m occasionally inclined towards melodrama, but because it’s vaguely cold out — meaning it’s fine and sunny and not the slightest bit windy, but the temperature has dipped below 20 degrees Celcius, which is regarded quite decidedly as ugg boot weather in my part of the Antipodes. We’re not wimps, really we’re not…

Besides, now that Greater Sydney has been placed into Lockdown (again) there is literally no chance anyone is going to come knocking on our door, so there’s nothing to stop me from typing away on my trusty laptop under the cover of my delightfully warm doona. The Bloke and the kids are down the other end of the house, and given we are going to be trapped together for the next thirteen days none of them is feeling the need to interrupt me (yet). I even have a hot cup of peppermint tea on my bedside table, though that did require me to give one of my two TBR piles a bit of a shove so it would fit. TBR, for the uninitiated, stands for “To Be Read”, which is both a sacred and dreadful practice of stacking large quantities of books you plan to read on your bedside table, the precipitous nature of which may or may not impede your spouse’s ability to successfully procure clothing from their side of the wardrobe.

Lockdown level annoyed…

At the top of the nearer TBR pile is a biography of Rudolf Nureyev I dived into after writing my last post, the reading of which I have been interspersing with bellyflops into romance novels of dubious quality (not usually a genre I pay the slightest bit of attention to, but every now and then my brain craves a book that is the mental equivalent of chewing gum).

In my defence, my brain probably does deserve a bit of a break. A large chunk of my morning (in between moaning about being in Lockdown again) was spent rescheduling the holiday we had planned to take next week, cancelling the cat sitter, and working out how to make my elder daughter’s 13th birthday next week feel less like she’s spending in Long Bay Jail?

I only meant to read one…

Apologies — am just back from a spot of online shopping; I had to throw out my favourite pair of blue jeans the other day due to the development of a hole in an unmentionable place, and since I can’t go to the Mall or anywhere else for the next two weeks, needs must. I suspect this digression may also enlighten you, dear reader, to the state of my mind at the moment and why I am resorting to reading trashy romances. It’s like a tin of worms in there, folks. Or maybe a bag of fleas?

Anyhooooo….the Thrifty Fictionista, currently warm and toasty but evidently sporting the attention span of a gnat, has now finally recalled the real reason she began tapping away at her keyboard on this fine, sunny, slightly cold but doona-covered afternoon: if you’re boxed in, the best solution is a box set.

YASS QUEEN! It worked for me last time we were in Lockdown (or was it the time before that?), when I cracked through an enormous box set of Sarah J Maas fantasy novels, tomes weighty enough to anchor the QE2 in Sydney Harbour…were it not for the fact that we have closed our international borders indefinitely and the mere sighting of a cruise ship off the coast is likely to send most Sydneysiders into a panic faster than you can say “Ruby Princess”…

Quality lockdown reading…

This time the box set I have chosen is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. I suspect I’ve already read the first two (the ones that both won the Booker Prize) a long time ago, and the third one — well, it’s as gigantic as the others, and I am looking forward to reading all three. At its best, historical fiction is immersive, and what better time than Lockdown to lose yourself in another time and (hopefully not plague-ridden) place?

And we’re not really all expected to clean our houses from top to bottom all over again are we?

No, seriously — are we?

The Truth Will Set You Free

Telling the truth.

It’s a basic building block of society. A moral imperative. Something we raise our kids to do; something we expect of each other. And yet, in an era where Fake News is a real and troublesome thing, it’s good to be reminded every now and then of how important telling the truth acutally is.

Truthfulness, not surprisingly, is one the Divine Qualities mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita, and while I’ve written about truth before, having the opportunity to view all sorts of virtues through a different lens has kept me interested in exploring the Divine Qualities during the course of this year. And, having spent last year focusing on delight in all its myriad and unexpected forms and often finding joy the tiniest of details, it is equally unsuprising to me that a couple of things have happend to me lately that inspired me to view truthfulness via…ballet.

Yes, ballet.

Relax, please relax — I’m not about to include video footage of myself or anyone else explaining truth via interpretative dance.

Rather, the first oddly inspirational thing that happened was that I didn’t go to the Ballet, even though I had planned to see the Australian Ballet’s final Sydney peformance of Counterpointe. The truth, difficult as it was to admit to myself, was that I was simply too tired to go. Circumstances (think sick kids, a bunch of meetings, various deadlines, a whole pile of domestic detritus and an emergency call to the Fire Brigade when my car unexpectedly started spewing petrol from its undercarriage) conspired against me, and I was exhausted.

So I owned it.

And I didn’t go.

I didn’t go, even though I would have genuinely loved to. I didn’t go, despite the fact it meant I missed out on the first live performance I’d planned to see since COVID hit. I didn’t go, which means I haven’t ventured across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in well over a year.

Most importantly, I didn’t go because I was honest with myself — and, as a result, was dressed for bed before the dancers stepped on stage and was slumbering well before the final curtain fell. I deliberately chose not agonise over my decision to stay home, so I slept soundly. I did not succumb to the sickness my kids had brought home, because I consciously prioritised rest. And that meant…drumroll please…that I was free to do the things I wanted to in the days that followed.

It may not sound like much — going to bed instead of going to the ballet — but, if 2020 taught me anything, it was that the little things are often the ones that really count.

Except when you’re Rudolf Nureyev, and then the BIG things count.

And, of course, that brings me to my second inspirational thing: watching Jacqui and David Morris’ 2018 documentary Nureyev. Even though the film has its flaws (when Rachel Saltz reviewed it for the New York Times she noted in her title “His Life was High Drama: this Film Could Use More”), all of the footage depicting Nureyev is transfixing. Regardless of whether he was performing on stage, being interviewed on television, or simply walking down the street, Nureyev commanded attention — and deservedly so.

Nureyev wasn’t just a star, he was more like a comet blazing through the skies.

His story has everything: childhood poverty, Stalinist persecution, rising fame across the Soviet Union, defection to the West at the height of the Cold War, global stardom, tumultuous relationships on and off stage and, finally, death from an AIDS related illness. He was a man in motion, from the moment of his birth — on a train, en route to Siberia in 1938 — and he lived and danced with an instantly recognisable intensity. The documentary does show some archival footage of Nureyev dancing, rehearsing and teaching, and also includes some memorable still photographs taken by Richard Avedon, but somehow the audience is still left wanting more — more Nureyev, more, more more.

And yet, despite its shortcomings, a couple of moments in the film took my breath away.

The first was during an interview, when Dick Cavett asks Nureyev (resplendent in a snakeskin tunic and matching thigh-high platform boots) whether he remembers the first time he knew he wanted to be a dancer. The camera switches to Nureyev’s face, capturing the exact moment when his dark brown eyes begin to gleam as he nods his head slowly, recollecting the occasion, and no doubt the feeling, of knowing that was what he wanted to do.

The truth in this exchange — not verbalised, but demonstrated — is palpable, and beautiful.

The second was when the film explored Nureyev’s defection to the West in 1961, an incredibly dramatic event not particularly well rendered visually in the documentary, but memorable because of the voiceover providing the words of Nureyev himself. Faced with the choice of returning to an uncertain future (and possible imprisonment) in the Soviet Union or remaining in Paris, Nureyev calls on the one person he thinks may be able to help him: French socialite Clara Saint, who at the time was engaged to the son of the French Minister for Culture. It is Clara who alerts the gendarmes at the airport that there is a Soviet dancer who may be wanting to defect, and it is also she who explains to Nureyev what he has to do in order to gain their protection.

You have to tell them what you want to do.

In other words: truth.

You have to tell the truth.

Nureyev then tells the French police:

I want to stay here.

And with those words, the truth set Nureyev free.

Sometimes, truth can be found in the tiniest things.

Other times, it’s in the very greatest things of all.

Ahimsa

I’ve been trying to write this post for weeks, trying to find the words for my next exploration of the Divine Qualities from the Bhagavad Gita. Various things have happened around me recently, however, that have resulted in me struggling to find the right words, and have also necessitated me applying a trigger warning to this post for anyone impacted by suicide.

Ahimsa translates most simply as non-violence but resonates with much deeper meaning, embodying the premise that since every living being contains the spark of divine energy, if you hurt any other living being you also hurt yourself. Mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita and many other ancient texts from the subcontinent, it is one of the core values adhered and aspired to by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains.

I would argue Ahimsa is a quality worth embracing by anyone and everyone, regardless of your religious or spiritual persuasion. You don’t have to be Gandhi to know that actively respecting all living beings is a worthy goal. Choosing a non-violent path is, in my view, a no brainer. Simply put: no one gets hurt.

Recent events in my life have, however, made me wonder — what of non-violence with ourselves?

A couple of weeks ago I was, unfortunately, confronted by the death of someone who had reached such a depth of despair that they no longer recognised the spark of divinity within themselves. This person was a complete stranger to me, but by choosing to end their life outside my workplace they have become someone I have had to find a way — some way, any way — to understand.

I know, in general terms, what they did and where they did it.

I definitely don’t know why they did.

I don’t even know their name.

But I do know that their actions have had unintended consequences — not all of them positive — on me and on those who work with me and around me and, against the odds, I am doing my best to see all of these through the lens of gratitude.

I’m grateful for the woman who works next door to me, for stopping me from going into my office and seeing something I would not be able to unsee, and for giving me a much needed hug after I had dealt with the police and paramedics.

I’m grateful for my boss, who — despite being directly impacted herself — has not only been flexible with my work hours, but has also been someone I can talk to and make sense of this tragedy with.

I’m grateful for my children’s music teacher, who knew what happened and that I didn’t want to tell my kids, and who made music lessons that afternoon as normal as possible even as I sat, trying not to fall to pieces, on her sofa.

I am grateful for my mother, who has let me get every last emotion and reaction off my chest in response to this awful event, and who didn’t need me to explain how difficult this experience was for me because we lost a beloved member of our own family member exactly the same way.

I’m grateful for my husband, who has patiently borne with me as I’ve navigated the flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms that have inevitably arisen over the past few weeks, and who has encouraged me to rest when I’ve needed to, paticularly when hypervigilance has amped up and overwhelmed me.

Life is precious.

So precious.

Nothing is more important than nourishing the spark of the divine within us, and of encouraging to burn that fire to burn brightly within those around us.

And even when we struggle — really struggle — to get on with people, it is essential that we make an effort to find a way to silently say Namaste and acknowledge the divinity within them, even if we can’t see it for all the world.

Be gentle with yourselves and each other, friends.

BJx

Not Backward in Coming Forward

I’m not quite sure what it is about April, but it can’t be a coincidence that around Easter each year, many of my intentions end up becoming just that: intentions, not actions. I’ve written about it before, the irony being that in April three years ago, I’d even selected “Intention” as my Word of the Month. Perhaps it’s because the autumn school holidays often fall in April down here in the Great Southern Land, and many of my regular routines go out the window. Or maybe it’s simply because after keeping all the balls in the air for the duration of a ten week term, I’m well and truly ready to let them drop.

Regardless of the reason, as the years go by I am finding it far easier to forgive myself when my intentions do not manifest themselves into fullblown technicolour actions. So when I realised it had been over a month since I had last posted here — despite my intention to examine a Divine Quality from the Bhagavad Gita every two weeks — I was not particularly fazed. Rather than stressing about it (which I probably…no, let’s make that DEFINITELY…would have done in the past), my response recently has been far more Imma let dat go

And believe me, folks, my new approach is a far more liberating and wholesome response than the riot of mental chatter and self-chastisement that I would have engaged in previously. Not only have I decided that fretting over something I haven’t done is not worth my time or effort, but I’ve also elected not to try to make up for my shortcomings. Yes, I had planned to look into a couple more Divine Qualities — I think they were meant to be Religious Rites (and seriously, when it comes to those, you do you), and Self-discipline (which I generally have in spades, though once again I appreciate the irony of the timing), but now?

Nup. Not gonna.

“Simples,” as those funny meerkats on the TV would say.

Which brings me, without fuss, to the Divine Quality I am going to look at — Straighforwardness.

Oh, you didn’t get those posts done? So what. Move on. What’s the next Divine Quality?

STRAIGHTFORWARDNESS.

I know, right?

Delicious irony, yet again.

It’s a bit like Fearlessness, the Divine Quality that inspired this whole dive into the Vedas. Straightforwardness is a quality I really did not expect to find on the list. I mean, growing up Catholic I knew that there was a Saint for just about everything — Saint Vitus for sore throats, Saint Florian for chimneysweeps, even an Egyptian hermit called Saint Anthony the Abbot who is apparently the patron saint of pizza makers, fire fighters and pigs.

St Anthony the Abbot and a…pig…

But a Patron Saint of Straightforwardness?

Nup. Not ever.

How good would it be, though, if straightforwardness was heralded as a virtue more often? How amazing would it be if politicians gave straightforward answers? If the pundits explained things simply? If my children actually acknowledged, up front, that they were not going to clean their rooms?

Maybe it’s because I’ve never been backward in coming forward that I find straightforwardness so appealing as a Divine Quality. Honestly, the fact that the Bhagavad Gita suggests that being straighforward brings you closer to the divine truly tickles my fancy. It’s so…practical.

Just tell it like it is, and walk your talk, and you’ll be on the path to divinity? That’s awesome! Bring it on.

Because life is messy.

Regarless of our intentions — good, bad, indifferent — I suspect life will ALWAYS be messy. Probably at least twenty seven kinds of messy all at once, if I’m honest.

So if you ever feel like you’re hurtling towards the abyss, or you find yourself mimicking a meercat in a cravat and ruby-coloured crushed velvet dressing gown, or (even worse) you end up hunched on a riverbank an in ill-fitting robe beside a pig, try a little straightforwardness.

With yourself.

With the people you live with.

Hell, you can even try it with your pet pig.

Mind yourselves,

BJx

All or Nothing?

By some small miracle, I managed to wend my way through the shitshow that was 2020 without consuming a single drop of alcohol. It was a conscious choice, and one that I adjusted to astonishingly quickly, surprising no one more than myself.

When 2021 rolled around, however, I found myself wrestling with whether I should continue on being alcohol free, or have the occasional drink? Facing this choice, weirdly, was impacting my peace of mind more than going through 2020 (of all years) without alcohol. The prospect of having my “first drink” after more than a year of abstinence loomed large in my consciousness, turning it a much bigger deal than it actually was. Better to get it over with, I thought, than have that first drink loaded with “meaning” or “consequence” — I could still, I reasoned, go back to being alcohol free just as easily as I did the first time around.

And so, on holidays after our Christmas lockdown, I had a glass of wine. I didn’t feel the need for a second glass; in fact, I didn’t have another glass at all until some weeks later.

But then, more recently, I found myself slipping back into old habits. Having one drink on a Friday evening was followed by three glasses of wine on a Saturday night.

And so, I’ve stopped again. Point blank — because I’ve discovered that’s the best way for me to do it.

Ironically, the next Divine Quality from the Bhagavad Gita I am looking into is self-restraint, which relates specifically to physical self-restraint. I am aware the timing, given my alcohol dilemma, could not be more perfect: for me, drinking is one of the only things in my life that seems to require an all or nothing approach, and it’s probably good for me to review my relationship with alcohol through that lens.

Gretchen Rubin, after conducting extensive research into habit formation, happiness and a bunch of other interesting things, has written at length about Abstainers and Moderators — you can read more about her insights here. Simply put, some people need to give things up completely to achieve their goals, while others are able to pursue their goals while indulging moderately.

You see, most of the time I am a classic Moderator: I’m really good at savouring things and exercising deliberate self-restraint. I can buy a block of chocolate and eat it piece by piece over several weeks. I can curb my intake of all sorts of things: sugar, caffeine, wheat, whatever. I have even been known to deliberately slow my (usually breakneck) reading pace to make a book I am loving last longer. At home and at work I live by the mantra of “do what you have to do, then do what you want to do”, and as a result I get a lot done. Admittedly, sometimes there is not as much “doing what I want to do” as I would like, but after many years of being rigorously self-restrained and self-disciplined in both these spheres, I am also learning to include and prioritise self-care in my routine.

When it comes to alcohol, however, I have discovered my situation is quite different. Drinking seems to be the only thing I am unable to moderate with the degree of self-restraint I would like (and believe me, coming from a long line of drama queens and control freaks, that is a big admission). Don’t get me wrong: I don’t drink myself into oblivion; I haven’t been drunk in a long time. In fact, the vast majority of the time I don’t drink at all. But after being alcohol free for a year, I am now able to see — very clearly — what was much more hazy before: that drinking inhibits the ability of my usually vigilant inner Moderator to do its job. And when my inner Moderator is unable to perform at its peak, I find it works best for me to bring out the Big Gun: the Abstainer.

Knowing yourself, said Aristotle, centuries ago, is the beginning of wisdom.

I’m grateful I now know myself well enough to understand that in most things, it is easy for me to find and walk the middle ground, to be a Moderator. I am also glad to have discovered that alcohol is the one thing that undermines my ability to exercise self-restraint, and that my best approach with drinking is to be an Abstainer.

I have also realised I no longer need to ask myself why it is that I can successfully moderate my behaviour in almost every way, but I don’t feel like I can when I drink? I no longer need to feel shame or embarrassment that my inner Moderator gets sabotaged by alcohol — because that’s what drinking does: it removes our inhibitions. And knowing this, I can choose to approach drinking differently.

Knowing yourself takes time than we’d like to admit, coupled with a willingess to observe ourselves keenly and confront what we see — even if sometimes we’d prefer not to. But I suspect no matter how unpleasant it is to stare those hard truths in the face, it’s always worth doing in the end.

Sweet Charity

Almsgiving.

The word seems such a far cry from fearlessness, the first of the Divine Qualities from the Bhagavad Gita I set out to explore in this, my year of journeying through twenty-six qualities and how they may (or may not?!) apply to me and my life.

Fearlessness is exciting: it shouts in triumph, and I strongly suspect it has wings. Big, powerful wings.

But almsgiving? It’s reserved. It feels far more likely to speak in a whisper, and to shuffle along in the shadows…

For me, the mere mention of the word almsgiving immediately conjures vivid images of darkly hooded monks holding empty wooden bowls, moving in silent procession along dimly lit cloisters. It seems archaic, and somehow austere, not to mention (from where I’m sitting) very Catholic. Almsgiving always reminds me of religion classes in primary school, when our teachers felt the need to regurgitate the same explanation each and every year when they distributed our cardboard Project Compassion boxes that Lent is a time we were meant to give alms, not arms: the Good Lord wanted our money, not our body parts.

I mean, I get it — giving to those less fortunate than ourselves is part and parcel of spiritual traditions the world over. It’s what makes us decent human beings. It’s coins slipped quietly into donation boxes, dollars slid silently onto collection plates, online donations made without fanfare or fuss from the privacy of personal computer. And it’s important — I genuinely believe that.

But even so, almsgiving is not particularly…exciting?

And even though I did not — and still do not — plan to make any of these dives into the Divine Qualities a specifically religious exercise, it occurred to me that perhaps I need to shed yet more of the baggage I have been hauling around since suriving thirteen years of Catholic school?!

In the light of this conclusion, I sought out the secular — and where better to turn than to the silver screen, and to a beautiful, whimsical romantic comedy released twenty years ago this year,  Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, which is better known to English speaking audiences simply as Amélie.

I watched this (still delightful) film with my elder daughter a few weekends ago, and was struck by the fact that the title character, Amélie, is always trying to do the right thing by people. Being shy, she does so secretly, surreptitiously and — in the case of breaking into a neighbour’s apartment — downright stealthily. And even though Amélie doesn’t always get things quite right (let’s face it: the break in is completely illegal), for the most part she makes a genuine effort to improve the lives of the people around her, all while attempting to conquer her own feeling of isolation.

Weirdly, Amélie could almost be said to be about almsgiving in action: as Amélie cultivates generosity towards others, her insular world begins to open up. Without giving too much of the plot away, over the course of the film Amélie befriends a lonely old man, Raymond Dufayel, who lives in her apartment building, painting a copy of the same Renoir picture year after year. She walks a blind man across a street, rapidly telling him all the things she can see so he may get an impression of the hustle and bustle of Montmatre. She hatches a unique plan involving a garden gnome to encourage her father to broaden his horizons. She stands up for Lucien, the grocer’s assistant, who is regularly ridiculed by his boss. She reunites people with long lost possessions. And, ultimately, she falls in love and — with encouragement from Monsieur Dufayel — finds the courage to pursue Nino, the man she has fallen for, and to give him her heart.

Watching Amélie made me realise several things.

That almsgiving at its simplest and most perfunctory is making a donation of money or a possession we no longer require.

With greater thought and commitment, almsgiving may involve giving our services, our intellectual property, our time. You might prepare a hot meal for someone, or draft a letter for a person who doesn’t share your particular professional expertise (whether that be legal or financial or whatever), or you may offer to drive someone somewhere even though it’s out of your way.

Almsgiving doesn’t have to be as exciting as fearlessness for it to be fulfilling. And I think I can safely let go of the idea that almsgiving is something that has to be done — like it seemed to, with no small amount of drudgery, every Lent, every year when I was at school. It’s a choice, and the more thought and better the intention behind the choice, the more fulfilling the act.

Ultimately, there is true power doing things, however small, with great love.

Mind yourselves,

BJx

The Strangeness of Flames

Since I shamelessly borrowed Anne Lamott’s quote about drinking gin from the cat dish for my last post, I thought it entirely appropriate to turn to her again for inspiration in this, my next foray into the Bhagavad Gita. And, brilliant writer as Lamott is, it did not take me long to find words of hers that can easily be applied to the Divine Quality of Steadfastness.

Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.

ANNE LAMOTT

You see, there’s something quite paradoxical about steadfastness: it brings to mind words like immovable, unwavering, unchangeable; yet it requires persistence, tenacity and constant striving. How is it that staying the same requires such effort? And even though steadfastness suggests remaining fixed, doesn’t sustained effort end up producing a necessarily different result or state of being?

Steadfastness is sort of like a flame.

Flames, like hope, begin in the darkness.

Flames stay the same, in that they keep burning for as long as they have fuel. If a flame is given more fuel, it burns with greater heat, light and intensity. And yet – and this, for me, is where the strangeness of flames comes in – flames are always, sometimes imperceptibly, changing. They also seem to defy gravity: you can hold a flaming candle or branch any way you care to, tilting it this way or that, but the flame always burns upwards. It’s almost as though flames are here to tell us in their quiet, beautiful, mesmerising way, that if we persist and put effort into to whatever we’re striving for, we will not only remain alight, but we will also always rise.

I’m reminded, when considering steadfastness, of Filippo Brunelleschi, the Renaissance era architect and engineer who managed to build the dome at the top of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence. Construction of the Cathedral began in 1296 but building work paused for fifty years when the original architect, Arnolfo di Cambio, died. Giotto added the campanile around 1330. The Black Death interrupted construction again in 1348. Finally, in 1418, Brunelleschi, backed by the influential Medici family, won a competition to build the Cathedral’s dome.

The challenges facing Brunelleschi were considerable. With a diameter of 48 metres, the octagonal dome was higher, wider and larger than any constructed since ancient times. Its sheer size prevented Brunelleschi from using rafters or scaffolding, it was not known how the dome could be built without collapsing under its own weight, and the Florentine city fathers had forbidden the use of butresses. Despite these obstacles, Brunelleschi held steadfastly to his aim: he revived old building techniques and invented new engineering technologies, he used his intellect and intuition to solve complex structural problems, and he employed hundreds of workers to transform 37,000 tonnes of material (including 4 million bricks) into a dome that rose steadily skyward from 1420 to 1436. Construction of the lantern at the dome’s apex, also designed by Brunelleschi, began shortly before his death in 1446 and was completed in 1461, before being topped with a copper ball and cross in 1469. To this day, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore dominates the skyline of Florence.

You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.

There are many kinds of steadfastness.

Steadfastness in Brunelleschi produced an architectural marvel. Steadfastness in a parent ensures a baby grows into childhood, and beyond. Steadfastness in a friend or life partner allows a relationship to weather the storms of life. Steadfastness in a gardener enables flowers to bloom.

Steadfastness can be found anywhere you need to show up, over and over again, even when you can’t immediately – or perhaps ever – see the results.

Steadfastness knows the dawn will come.

The dome will rise skyward.

The flame will always burn upwards.

Drinking Gin from the Cat Dish

You may well ask what drinking gin from the cat dish has to do with the Bhagavad Gita…but in this, my second foray into looking at the Divine Qualities, I’m looking into wholesome purities of mind and heart.

Still lost?

Well, this quote from one of my favourite writers, Anne Lamott, may help:

You see, I think most of us aspire to having pure minds and pure hearts, but there are times when what we think and feel doesn’t always reflect the best version of ourselves. Times when we criticise ourselves or others, or when we catastrophise, or when our thoughts descend into worries or jealousies or biases.

For me, this happens on a daily (if not hourly) basis: no matter how much I attempt to fix my mind on thinking the best of every situation and personal encounter I have, or how much I try to be open hearted and open minded, or how much I actively choose to see and experience life as it is without judging it, I fail.

And sometimes I, too, think thoughts so vile they would have Jesus (or Buddha or any other spiritually enlightened historical figure you care to mention) reaching for a cat dish full of gin.

I suspect, however, that the entire point of embracing wholesome purity of mind and heart as a Divine Quality is to keep aiming for it — after forgiving ourselves when we inevitably, humanly, fall short.

As I write this, I am waiting for a phone call from the hospital to let me know when I can collect my husband, because The Bloke had an altercation with his own surfboard this morning (on his first wave of the day, no less), split his lip and has required surgery. It has been a valuable experience in learning to let go, not knowing all the details of what has happened, how he is going, or when he can come home.

Today’s events have also reminded me how grateful I am that we have easy access to excellent health care. That The Bloke was so unfazed by what happened that he didn’t need painkillers when he got to Accident and Emergency. That he wasn’t injured more seriously. That because hadn’t eaten breakfast he was able be put straight under general anaesthetic. That a plastic surgeon was already at the hospital and made time to operate at short notice. That we are blessed with friends who took him to A & E, stayed with him until he went into theatre, brought his car home, and have checked in to see how he is going.

Writing, as always, has helped me to stay calm. To stop my monkey mind from taking over. To break the information I know down into small chunks so I can quietly process what has happened and realistically predict what is likely to happen next.

I still may end up drinking gin from the cat dish after The Bloke is safely home, but at least I know that will be entirely by choice, rather than because I’ve let unhelpful thoughts and feelings get the better of me.

And, naturally — because I suspect this is how the universe works — as soon as I have finished writing this, The Bloke has called and told me himself that he is OK.