undressed in aachen

Undressed in Aachen

I’m in a tropical downpour.  At first the rain is soft and warm but then it starts pelting down heavily, the rain needle-sharp and coming at me from all directions in cool streams.  It stops abruptly and I step out of the curved tiled space I’m standing in and consider where I will go next in Aachen’s famous and fabulous Carolus Mineral Spa. The Tropical Shower is just the beginning, and here I am, naked in public once more.

The spa brochure tells me there are sound health reasons for requiring guests to go unbekleidert in the sauna areas.   While it’s acceptable to walk around in a bathrobe and waterproof sandals, complete nudity is obligatory within the shower areas, saunas, steam rooms and in the pools.  It goes on to say that for those women who prefer greater privacy, there is a very pleasant Feminarium sauna and steam room, however the majority of the spa offerings are open to both men and women together.  And it’s this which makes me pause.  Apart from segregated sports changing rooms, public nudity is unknown in South Africa.

But I am a visitor in a strange city, I know only the 2 friends I am staying with, Michaela and Gabriele, and the idea of being naked in front of strangers doesn’t seem all that troubling to me.   In fact, looking around on this very quiet Monday afternoon, I see mostly elderly men and women, walking around quite uninhibitedly naked.  Their nudity is neutral and has no sexual undertones; it all feels very unthreatening and gemütlich.

I start with the indoor saunas and select one which offers an intriguing AufgussHoney Unction.  It starts at 4 30 and I see the time is just after.  I step inside quickly and immediately 12 pairs of naked eyes swivel towards me and then narrow with disapproval.   I’m late, I know it. Rapidly I find a place, lay out my towel and sit down. Looking around me, I see men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes, some on their own, some in couples. They look vulnerable in their nakedness, their skin glowing palely in the twilight mist of the sauna.

Why do they all keep staring at me like that?

 Then I realise: I’m still wearing my bathrobe and I begin to appreciate that context is everything.  It’s the exact opposite of those dreams when you’re at a formal business meeting and look down to see you’re in some mortifying state of undress.  I only just have time to tear off my bathrobe and scrunch it into a ball behind me, when a Spa assistant enters bearing a tray.  “Please put your feet on your towels,” she advises.  She appears to be addressing the space above our heads but she’s really talking to me for I see I still have my rubber shoes on. Embarrassed, I shove them out of sight beneath the wooden slatted bench I’m on and pull my feet up onto my towel.

Now she hands out small containers filled with pure honey, mixed with finely crushed almond shells.  The honey, she explains, has excellent skin beautifying properties and the pulverised almond shells make a wonderful skin scrub.

As soon as we’ve all smeared ourselves with honey (some of us more thoroughly than others; the grey-haired well-built man lying next to me with knees splayed apart has spent a long slow time voluptuously rubbing the honey mixture into his hairy nether region), the assistant returns with a bowl of herb scented water which she throws onto the hot sauna stones. Immediately, a delicious cloud of steam erupts and we’re all bathed for several minutes in wafts of herb-scented mist.  It’s so hot, my outbreath sears my upper lip and whenever I blink, my eyeballs feel scorched.  With the air hot and redolent with the sweet stickiness of honey, I close my eyes and lie back, relishing the warmth of honey melting into my skin, inhaling the steamy green fragrance of herbs and  begin to fret about my shoes dissolving into a rubbery puddle beneath me.

After 15 minutes of honey-saturated bliss, I retrieve my well-baked but still recognisable shoes and emerge in search of a shower.

Undressed in Aachen 2

Outside, there’s a notice informing me of the next treatment in 30 minutes.  But penis-fondler is idling around too and I decide to give Yoghurt and Tropical Fruit Unction a miss. There’s so much else still to explore and I head off outdoors.


In the Baltic Saunaland, the décor is Finnish stone and timber-cabin style and the sauna rooms are situated in pretty flower-filled gardens where the roofs have grasses and wildflowers growing on them.  I decide on a sauna called Bakoven.  The name suggests a particularly hot sauna but I haven’t taken into account the German penchant for literal-minded practicality.  I discover it has in fact a baking oven built right inside it. The notice outside announces that in a short while Brödchen will be baked and whoever happens to be there will receive a freshly baked snack straight from the oven. It sounds delightful!

Having hung up my bathrobe (I’m learning fast), I open the door and instantly freeze – if such a thing is possible at 75°C.  What I see makes every instinct scream at me to turn around and flee at once.  Inside the small sauna, 3 enormous naked men are talking boisterously.  Two are shaven-headed and heavily tattooed all over:  the one, dark, swarthy and Hispanic looking is covered in a jumbled cacophony of designs, the other is ginger-bearded and menacingly illustrated with a huge leering skull on one shoulder. The third man is blonde with a Wagnerian Norse look to him – he’s clearly built to take medieval armour –  and has only one tattoo on his chest in the form of a gigantic lock over his heart. He also has two large solid black stretcher flesh plugs in his earlobes and a flaming gothic dragon winging its way down one thigh.  It feels as if I’ve stumbled into the Götterdammerung version of a Druglord’s den and much as I remind myself I’m in a fake Baltic timber-cabin called Bakoven with breadrolls in the oven for godssakethe cognitive dissonance continues to jangle.

The thing is, I’m standing in the doorway and can’t back out now without feeling ridiculous. So assuming an air of worldly assuredness and with all of my naked middle-aged years cringing, I step inside.  The Druglords register my entrance with barely a flick of a sideways glance and continue their conversation.  I try to arrange myself as far away as possible and settle down to eavesdrop since I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter.  Thor the Norseman is speaking and Swarthy Dark and Ginger-beard listen intently.

“So there was this time where I took a really big tough guy into the sauna and he was like hey, I’m so tough, I can take this heat, this is easy. But you see, he hadn’t drunk enough water beforehand during the day and there he was showing off how tough he is.  Then he refused to leave when it was getting too hot for him and eventually he gets up, goes out the door and the next thing, I hear this big crash, and boom – he’s down, fainted from overheating!” Thor sniggers and slaps his great gothic thigh.  “Hope you guys have drunk enough water today!”  The other men laugh uneasily.

“Man, I am so hot” mutters Swarthy Dark under his breath shaking his head as sweat streams down his face.  He’s the man closest to me and his tattoos gleam in a sheen of sweat, shining with iridescence as he shifts uncomfortably on his towel.  “This is my first time in a sauna and man…I don’t think I’ve drunk enough water… man it is hot!”  He casts a queasy smile in my direction. I return the smile, uncertainly.  Am I being invited into the conversation?  I’m unsure of sauna etiquette with Druglords.

A trim good-looking man enters and Swarthy Dark darts a longing look at the door feeling the brief drop in temperature but then visibly checks himself. Nah. He’s tough.

“It’s the weirdest thing,” says Ginger-beard  “but every one of my girlfriends loved saunas and was also a vegan.”  At which point all 3 Druglords begin discussing favourite vegan restaurants they have been to.  Some ironic grinning thing prods at me inside as I listen. Vegan?  It’s painfully obvious my assumptions about heavily tattooed men are flummoxed by such placid dining preferences.

“Man! It’s too hot! I just gotta get outta here!” blurts Swarthy Dark suddenly and bolts out the door.  The other two smirk at each other.

“Well I haven’t heard a crash yet, so I guess he must be ok,” says Thor after a moment’s silence.  Ginger-beard mops sweat from his face. “You think maybe we should go check up on him?”  There’s a note of hopefulness in his voice.

“Yeah, sure!” says Thor knowingly.  And both Druglords depart, leaving me alone with Handsome Forty-something.  The oven clicks with heat and I think with pleasure of the rolls baking inside.  An electric mechanism now hums softly, activating a copper bowl which has been collecting drops of water, moves it slowly along a copper rod, tilts the bowl so the water gets poured onto the sauna hot stones, raising the heat.  A brief hissing and then silence.

“So,” says Handsome Forty-Something who is sitting on the level above where I’m lying.  “You must be Nina from Cape Town.”

I think if I can survive being naked in the presence of Druglords, I can survive being stunned by this new turn of events. I turn my head towards him.

“How,” I say very carefully “do you know this?” He laughs.

“Ah, they announced it in today’s Aachen newspapers!” I lie there bemused.

“No, really.” I say.  “How the hell do you know who I am?”  He chuckles again.

“Actually, I bumped into my friend Gabriele outside on my way in and she told me I’d find you in here.”

Hah! I smile. Wicked Gabriele.

Feeling at a disadvantage, I sit up. “Then since you already know who I am, perhaps you’d like to introduce yourself?” He grins.

“I’m Georg.”  And we shake hands. Do I need to say that this is the first time I’ve ever met someone socially stark naked?

I notice I’m holding my towel in front of me, suddenly shy. Absurdly, it seems I can manage being naked in front of strangers, but the moment we’ve introduced ourselves I have to cover up.  Are my breasts suddenly more modest now they’re attached to Nina from Cape Town?  Am I sexualising nudity and would I feel the same meeting another woman?

As Georg and I chat, a Spa staff member is taking hot steaming bread rolls out of the oven and putting them into a basket.  He offers them to us.  They are perfectly formed, darling little rolls sprinkled with some salt and look adorable nestled in their basket.

Georg and I exchange the usual social histories – our respective professions, our travels, our shared acquaintances and once again, I’m struck by the quick intimacy that being naked encourages. The social cues of clothing are absent and there’s no image to uphold. Together, we nibble on delicious Brödchen and laugh, bantering pleasantries back and forth for all the world as if we’re at some cocktail party.

“It’s too hot. I need to get out of here.” I say after a while. I’ve finally reached my own limit for absorbing heat.

Once outside, I stand in the cool refreshing air and catch sight of the Druglords disporting themselves in the outdoor pool. Even at their most playful splashing about in the water, their tattoos writhe and twist, projecting an aggressive rippling confidence, an unmistakeable aura of sleek, dangerous masculine power.

Georg emerges from the sauna and casts an appraising eye over the Druglords.

“At least one of them is gay,” he observes and laughs merrily at my doubt when he tells me which one, for secretly I believe I know better.


I end my day at the Odorium, a fragrant dimly lit sanctuary where herbal and floral scents are released into the warm air as you relax on comfortable reclining chairs.

And I contemplate all the different ways we undress ourselves, what we allow others to see and what we keep covered up. I see how people wear even their nudity as they might their clothing; it can be just as much of a disguise.  Naked, we may feel exposed or empowered, but we can just as easily hide in our nakedness.  And while the naked body shows something of our inner being, I think we say more in how and when we choose to cover ourselves, hide what we don’t want to be seen.  Wrapping my turquoise oriental flower print bathrobe around me, I wonder what I reveal to perfect strangers when I write about how I got undressed in Aachen.

I suspect it may be more than I imagine. And perhaps mean a lot less than I think.



the language of moonlight

Moonlight’s Children by Jeanie Tomanek.

It’s a traveller’s legend that no matter what, there will always be one crucial item you didn’t pack because you thought you wouldn’t need it.

I was on a writing tour with a small group in rural Japan.  Our last stop was the tiny high mountain village of Kamikatzu in the Tokushima Prefecture and we were staying in a guest lodge overlooking lush green paddy fields surrounded by mountains. It was there I found out that sure enough, I’d packed for every eventuality except that one, the one I hadn’t foreseen.

On an evening brimming with aliveness, a full dazzling moon floated in paddy fields thick with stars. The air was luminous with the fragrance of night flowers and the warm darkness hummed, throbbing with primordial frogsong. That night it seemed as if the whole world were paying homage to the moon, including my own body because the following morning there it was; the unscheduled bright spot of blood heralding problems I’d been quite certain wouldn’t be mine.

My writer friend Deirdre and I were sharing a room. It was a large and airy light space furnished only with tatami mats, our two futons on the floor and a breath-taking view of the mountains.   The futon and duvet, which had delighted me with their plush snowy whiteness, now struck me with horrible foreboding. Incredulous that this should be happening to me, I asked Deirdre if she had brought any tampons. She hadn’t.

Nor had Anne, the third woman in our group. My disbelief grew; this wasn’t natural. Not a single tampon between 3 women?  It peeved me too, that neither seemed the slightest bit concerned about my plight, in fact they seemed to think it was rather funny.  Thank the moon goddess they didn’t have the problem I imagined them thinking to themselves, smug and untroubled by their bodies.

Left to my own devices, I considered my options. The obvious thing to do was to tell Andy our group leader and writing teacher. He was fluent in Japanese and our life-line in a country where little English is spoken.  He’d easily arrange what I needed in a matter of minutes. And why not?  Our many conversations had revealed him to be a warm and sincere man and of course he’d be only too willing to help. But in my mind’s eye, I imagined myself asking him, saw him valiantly strive not to be that Klutzy Guy Who Can’t Handle A Menstruating Woman, saw him solicitous and kind, being everything I could possible need him to be.  And I couldn’t stand the thought.

I know.

So while in this irrational state why not approach the Japanese wife of the guest house owner?  But I baulked at the undignified sign language I’d have to use to make myself understood. In the end I decided to visit the two general stores both within easy walking distance of the lodge. At least one of them must have what I needed and I had made purchases there before without needing to exchange a single word.

In the first store I wandered up and down the aisles scanning the shelves for what I needed.  Amongst the tinned soups and noodles, I discovered to my joy what looked like familiar packaging but joy quickly turned to dismay. For one thing, all the packages were covered in a light film of dust and it occurred to me that in this village of postmenopausal women, there was probably little call for this sort of thing. There appeared to be just the one brand. The packages were soft and bulky, and they were pads, not the tampons I was really after.

Secondly, labelled as they were in Japanese kanji, I had no idea what size or thickness they might be. I turned them over and over, feeling them, prodding at them, trying to decode their contents; and then noticed out of the corner of my eye the elderly shop assistant shuffling towards me, enquiry and possibly concern at how I was mauling the merchandise beaming out of his kind old face.  He was asking if he could help me.  “Are these extra-large sanitary pads and would you happen to stock tampons? “  I did not say.  Instead I panicked and bowing and smiling, backed out and bolted in the direction of the other general store. There had to be an easier way.

The second shop was instantly more promising. I was encouraged to see a full set of three shelves devoted to personal hygiene with the usual soap, dental and hair care stuff. And best of all 5 different brands of sanitary pads.   No sign of tampons though but still, I felt closer to my goal.  I was greeted by the sales assistant, this time a spotty adolescent boy of oh…17 maybe?

I was starting to feel more than a little desperate.

“Look.” I said firmly. In English. “Is there a woman I can talk to here?”  He gazed at me, rapt, as if frozen by my words and unable to move until he’d extracted their meaning. Finally he nodded.

“I will ask my mother,” he said in carefully articulated English. Heaven be praised for Japanese school English! At which he turned around and walked out leaving me alone. Well, I had to assume he was fetching her.  I looked over the rest of the shop as I waited, marvelling at the Japanese capacity for trust, thinking I could scoop up whatever I wanted and walk out the store and there’d be no one to stop me.

Some moments later the boy’s mother arrived, bowing and smiling.  Konnichiwa.  But behind her smile I could see apprehension as she wondered what linguistic feats beyond her abilities she might be asked to perform. I was pretty much wondering the same thing about myself. The boy had vanished. I smiled, took a deep breath, and pointing to the sanitary pads said:

“Tampon. Tamp. On.”

Looking back I realise it wasn’t that the power of logic was defective in me so much as it had defected altogether. It had quite understandably fled, taking up residence in a much more receptive mind elsewhere.

With my thumb and forefinger I indicated the length of a tampon. Waving this imaginary tampon about, I now gestured – not too precisely I admit – in the direction of my lower abdomen and then as an afterthought and for greater clarity added a short upward thrusting motion. The woman tracked the movements of my hands with great attention nodding all the time with an expression of wide-eyed wonder. I began to feel hopeful. Then without pausing, the nodding abruptly turned into shaking and now her eyes narrowed as she regarded me with doubt and some suspicion.  How could she not get it?  I rubbed out the previous gesture in the air and tried miming again with more graphic emphasis. At the same time I said Ta. Am. Pon. enunciating each syllable with care.

There’s a curious belief held by tourists everywhere that when in a country where your mother tongue isn’t spoken, breaking down already unintelligible words into their basic syllables and pronouncing them slowly and loudly will have the magical effect of reversing their unintelligibility making them suddenly understood. I’m here to tell you this does not work. For the poor woman’s perplexity only deepened and it dawned on me that I should be worried – what with all the upward thrusting motions I was making – that she may begin to think I was asking for some kind of sex toy.

I gave up on the tampons.

“Ok, let’s look at these pads.”  I said and taking a packet down indicated with my hands, “how big?”

Her face brightened immediately. This she understood.

“Oh big!” she said gesturing a length of some 20 cms. I stared hard at the package which was smallish and compact. Either these pads were folded into origami-like minuteness and there were just 3 in the box or we both understood the word “big” differently.  “I need to know size,” I said pointing to my eyes and then at the box. “How big – please can I see?” This too, she understood. For without further ado, she eagerly began ripping open the box. And before I could stop her, she reached up and grabbing a different brand, began tearing that one open too, now accompanying her actions with a voluble running commentary. I couldn’t imagine what she might be saying with such forcefulness.  Despite all my burbling protestations (which she seemed to interpret as me urging her on) within no time I had five open packages standing before me.

There was a stunned silence as we looked at each other across the boxes. Me in astonishment, she with triumph.

Then came another great flurry of activity as she excitedly displayed each different pad for my inspection.  “Oh yes!” I could see her thinking to herself, eyes blazing in a passion of shopkeeper’s zeal “I will not to be confounded by a mad gaijin’s strange requests.” Indeed, I had to agree, this was Japanese service at its unstinting best.  With great guilt mixed with profound gratitude, I chose two brands. They were both more or less the same, in bulk quantities it was true, but they would do the job and I took two because I felt terrible about leaving the 3 other opened packages – surely she couldn’t sell those now they’d been opened?  Unless there was a trade in single servings of sanitary pads I could know nothing of.

I walked back to the lodge with my hard won bulky purchases. These were not the inconspicuous little boxes I had hoped for. Anyone could see I’d been shopping and I prayed I wouldn’t meet anyone inquisitive on my way to our room.

My prayer answered, I slipped unseen through the paper sliding doors back into the privacy of our room. Deirdre was sitting on her futon writing in her journal and looked at my large packages with interest.  When I finally unfolded the super-sized super absorbent vast sanitary pad I had bought, she collapsed in a heap of helpless laughter.  Well, we both did. I mean, it was the mother of all sanitary pads. The size of a healthy toddler’s nappy and of a sturdy robustness I could easily have given birth into.

I squashed the sudden unwelcome suspicion that perhaps these really were nappies I’d gone and bought. What on earth had possessed me, Deirdre wanted to know?  But of course it was the futons I was thinking of. Feeling like John Wayne, I waddled down the stairs to lunch followed by Deirdre snorting with mirth behind me.

Later that day, a more subdued Deirdre sidled up to me and muttered out of the side of her mouth, “Guess what?”  It wasn’t hard to figure out. That night, as we lay under our beautiful pristine duvets it was a shared discomfort that neither of us could quite close her legs.

The following morning when I went down to breakfast, I found Anne alone in the dining room gazing out of the window. She swivelled round and immediately launched herself at me.

You!” she hissed, waving a finger in my face, “You are responsible for changing my whole cycle!  What are you, some kind of Alpha Woman?” And then clutching my arm she whispered fiercely:

“Did you manage to find any tampons?”

“Well, no.” I said and her face fell. “Not exactly.” Little did she know what lay in store for her.

“Hey! What’s happening guys?” asked Andy as he sauntered in, catching the tail end of our conversation.

I wasn’t about to tell him.

“We are all indisposed.” I said with Victorian obliqueness and left the room together with Anne, leaving Andy scratching his head.

Alpha Woman?

I didn’t think so.  It was the moon, that goddess of shadows. She may be subtle, her tarnished silver light casting mystery on everything she touches, but she won’t hide you.

Instead she laughs as we drop our boxes into trolleys in the fluorescent glow of our supermarket nonchalance, thinking just because we’re well lit we’ve nailed our shame.  Still pretending it’s not happening, not showing a thing.

And then she has us tell the truth, own it, makes us write it in our own blood.

Acknowledgements: Paintings used with kind permission by Jeanie Tomanek. See more of her magical and evocative work here: http://www.jeanietomanek.com/frameset_newwork.html

travels in a story without borders

dinner combo

I never thought I’d do this. But it was because of my enjoyable interactions with Misha which got me thinking about how planes, trains and the internet connect us to people who live elsewhere and yet enter our lives bringing in a whole new atmosphere. This story begins with food, but it’s also about what happens when people’s inner worlds collide and we find ourselves tipped into a new country.   

We were expecting an interesting guest for dinner – a visitor who’d arrived from the Netherlands.  He’s a well-travelled medical doctor who now does wonderful work in organic farming development.  A man who has met both kings, queens and farmers in remote rural areas in the course of his work, and who was instrumental in pioneering the first Dutch health insurance scheme in the 1980’s to accept alternative practices such as homeopathy, chiropractic and acupuncture.

And being the cook of the family, I begin to muse on that maddeningly unresolved-until-the-last-minute daily question: what to make for dinner?

Short on time, I look in the fridge to see what remains of the weekly organic Harvest of Hope veggie box we subscribe to: a pack of gooseberries, an avocado. Sweet potatoes. Some lettuce leaves.  Dash to the shops to buy other ingredients. And what emerges is this: a sweet potato recipe remembered from reading a foodie magazine years ago.  Now I’m no good with quantities so please don’t ask me. Just sweet potatoes – I like the orange Beauregard best,  chopped and baked with a little olive oil and salt in the oven covered until just tender and then uncovered for 30 minutes to brown-roast them a little.

Meanwhile mix a good wedge of butter – oh gosh, I don’t know – 4-6 tablespoons? – with a bunch of freshly chopped chives, a grated thumb of ginger, the zest of one orange, 3 or 4 cloves of garlic and some salt.  Add this mixture to the sweet potatoes as soon as they come out of the oven and let it stand so the butter melts and the flavours meld.   When you taste this, you will want to say to yourself: mmmm it’s the garlic which makes it so… no…wait… actually it’s the orange zest….although no …  really it’s the interesting addition of the ginger… and of course it’s no one of those ingredients. It’s in the mix.

The Japanese have a wonderful expression for the indescribable good taste of something that isn’t just salty, sweet, sour or bitter: it’s a fifth taste they’ve called umami. Roughly translated as yummy deliciousness, or a pleasant savouriness.

It looked so pretty when it came out of the oven I decided to take a picture. Which made me think of Misha and his wonderful blog the poor man’s kitchen. I’ve enjoyed reading his recipe stories and have even tried a few of the Japanese ones myself – albeit taking great improvisational liberties in following them. We’ve pleasantly exchanged a comment or two. But here’s the thing; it’s because of those exchanges that I’m writing about food,  something I never thought I’d do.

Sweet potato dish

But that’s not all.

It seemed we had a visitor at the table who knew how to tell a good tale and the story which unfolds is unexpectedly personal. Riveting. Deep. By the time he’s half-way done we have all stopped eating.

Our guest pauses in his narrative and takes a mouthful of guacamole with warm melted cheese-drizzled nachos. He pronounces it to be very good.  The crunch of the nachos a satisfying complement to the soft creaminess of avocado.  This somehow gives us all permission to eat some more, spellbound as we have been with the story.  I have – weirdly I know but it was because of the avocado in the fridge – chosen this along with a fresh salad and a dish of olives to accompany the sweet potatoes.  The guacamole I make, with its usual ingredients of avocado, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper, is probably not to be reconciled with its Mexican origins including as it does dried black olives, fresh diced baby tomatoes, roughly chopped piquant coriander leaves and slices of soft goat’s cheese. The trick – taught to me many years ago by a friend –  is to mix these ingredients together very minimally so the avocado is still chunky and the different tastes – and colours – don’t get smudged into each other.

Guacamole 4 1500 x1125

Once told, his story lingers and although we began the evening as relative strangers,  it now feels as if we’ve stepped over the borders of each other’s lives. As the dishes are cleared and I prepare the next course,  I think about how we open a window to ourselves in our stories.  And perhaps because our guest is a man of a certain age who has traveled a long way bringing his story with him,  I am reminded of how another stranger offered me just such a vivid glimpse into his life that remains with me still.

On the platform waiting for the train into London at Heathrow, I stand next to a man from Bahrain.  I know he’s from Bahrain because I’ve overheard him telling someone on his phone that he left there yesterday.  He looks like a business-man, expensively dressed in a suit and coat, briefcase and carrier bag in one hand, his suitcase on wheels standing next to him. Although he has grey hair and appears to be in his mid-60’s, he has a smooth olive complexion and despite his dark melancholy eyes an air of anxious excitement.

“Are you going to Paddington Station?” he asks me.  I am and we exchange the relieved smiles of uncertain travellers who have confirmed with each other they are in the right place after all, and if they’re not, well there’s now at least two of them who have got it wrong.

He takes a peek inside the carrier bag he’s holding as if to check that what he’s bought is still the right thing, and impulsively shows me the purchase of an ipad he’s made at Duty Free.  “For my daughter, ”  he says and his eyes shine with a sudden intense reverence. “The one I thought I’d lost for 42 years,”  he adds, a huge smile of sheer happiness breaking open his face.  And now he has my full attention.  So it seems quite natural that when it arrives, we should sit next to each other on the Heathrow Express as it speeds us towards evening in London.

He begins. “Her mother and I…well…”  and then pauses, glancing at me as if to check with himself that he should be even telling me such intimate things.  Something in my face must have reassured him because he continues.

“It was not a successful romance.  So we parted ways and then she let me know she was pregnant. You can imagine,  I was beside myself.  I couldn’t stop thinking about this child of mine.  When it was born, she told me I had a daughter, only she refused to let me see her. I missed so much.” His face softens with regret, crumples momentarily.

“It was as if she were punishing me somehow, for the relationship not working out. That’s what I think now of course. At the time all I could see was her irrationally refusing to let me see my own child.”  He sighs heavily. Looks out of the train window at the shadowy landscape rushing by. Our reflections against the darkness.

“I begged her, you know. But she continued to refuse and one day she was no longer there. She simply disappeared and I lost all contact with her.”

He tells me of his ongoing struggles, his frustrations as he tried everything in his power to locate his daughter. “ Eventually, after 40 years of searching, I just gave up.”   We are silent for a moment.

“And then what happened?”

“What happened? Well, then a miracle happened!” he laughs at the memory.  “Two years later when I’d given up all hope, I receive a letter out of the blue.  It’s from her…my daughter!  Can you believe it?   For all those years I was searching for her, she was  looking for me too!”   And his eyes fill up suddenly.  Now we both have tears in our eyes and we look away from each other.  When he speaks again his voice sounds muffled.

Almost to himself, as if he can hardly believe his own ears he murmurs “and so of course I  immediately jumped on the next plane to the UK.”  He looks at me now, eyes bright. “Once I reach London I still have a way to travel to get all the way to Liverpool. That’s where she lives now. ”

At Paddington we say our farewells.  Incredibly, a brass band is playing on the platform as if to welcome us and my friend is waiting to greet me.   I turn to watch the man from Bahrain as he walks away clutching his carrier bag, his pale trench coat flying in the wind of departing trains.  He half turns then as if remembering something he forgot to say, as if he thinks he may have left something behind.

And  in a way he has.  I feel tilted, held for a moment at an odd angle to the earth by what he has told me. Because although he could not possibly have known this, he chose to tell his story to a woman who was exactly 42 when she went in search of and found her own unknown Japanese father. She too found him by writing just such a letter, a letter out of the blue.

We affect each other – sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly and often profoundly.  We need only walk into a room to change the mood of it. And even when we hurt each other, there’s redemption in it. We learn. We shift. The pain presses us into adopting a new position.  It’s just that sometimes we forget how much even the smallest of what we say and do can impact on another in a big way.

Stories have a way of meandering; they divide and multiply, straying along unforeseen paths ending up in the strangest territory.  How could the man from Bahrain ever have imagined a part of him would end up here.

And let’s not forget the gooseberries. They were cooked lightly with sugar and then blended with custard and thick cream to make gooseberry fool.  At the end of the meal the only sound was the clink of spoons scraping wistfully against empty dessert dishes.

There was nothing left over.

he’s not dying, only living more truly

Photo: Mike Visagie © www.mikevisagie.com

Photo: Mike Visagie © http://www.mikevisagie.com

There is a well-known Sufi saying which goes ” die before you die.”

How to make sense of this? I believe when we die, we leave behind only what we no longer need. We let go of this narrow earthly reality and go on to live in the wider truth of the spiritual world.  So too in life, if we can die to all that keeps us small and caged, die to our clever distractions keeping us from living purposefully, we might live the broader life our hearts and souls most long for.

I write this in tribute to my courageous 26 year old nephew who left us 3 days ago after a 5 year long struggle with  bone cancer, surviving numerous operations, gruelling chemotherapy and radiation treatment, an amputation of his shoulder and arm earlier this year, as well as a lifetime of profound deafness.

Despite tremendous discomfort, pain and ultimately a ravaged body, he met his life and what it brought him without flinching or self-pity, only open-eyed acceptance and steadfast clarity.  He was an extraordinary beautiful young man who was able to discern and set aside immediately all that was irrelevant and be guided only by where love took him, squeezing every drop of joyous juice he could out of his life to its fullest until his very last moment.

And then he flew.

When someone close is gravely ill or dying, something inside us softens and we’re able to say and do things we might shy away from otherwise.  How much more inclined we are to be gentle with one another, to say thank you,  I’m sorry, forgive me and I love you when we have a dying loved one in our midst.  We can more easily admit: I’m in pain. I’m in a difficult place. This is not easy. Please help me.  even as the dying have no other option but to be undeniably honest about what is happening in their lives.

As we draw together, our hearts rise to the surface of our lives instead of being walled away and armoured and for a short time we can tell the truth about ourselves.   Suddenly certain things no longer matter as much, things we felt strongly about before – our dignity perhaps, our pride, being right or nursing our grievances.  Our priorities change and everything unimportant falls away.  Being there and present for the dying person becomes paramount and we value above all else what we can now be least certain of: the life of the beloved person who is leaving us.

This is the gift of death and dying.  It strips us bare and brings us to our truth in a way little else can. Grief makes us honest.

Some weeks ago I wrote my nephew a letter which I am grateful he was able to receive in full consciousness. It may give a brief glimpse into the man he was and always will be as he lives on in my memory.

Dearest Keagan, I can’t imagine what you’re going through, facing what your life is now.  Nor do I have any idea if you’re about to leave this world or not. 

Miracles are always possibilities we haven’t yet believed in until they happen. 

What I do know is that when you go, you will do so whole. When I think of you, it’s as if your physical body fades and I see the essence of you. It is one of the many qualities I have always noticed  and been drawn to in you, the way your spirit shines through, never more so than lately. 

I guess it’s usual to think of your deafness as a handicap, a barrier to communications in the normal world.  But I think deafness can also remove a barrier between you and others.  You aren’t distracted  by how people present themselves through the words they wear.  Instead you see people as they are being.  I believe this is the gift you give to people around you – you see them truly. You aren’t deflected by the stories they tell about themselves, you just see them in a very pure way. That’s a powerfully attractive quality to have and why you are loved by so many.  While others get caught up in each other’s speeches,  you touch people with a generosity of feeling in a way not possible with words. That’s been my experience of you. 

I’m not wanting to diminish the tremendous difficulties you struggle with.     I know these are real too. 

When you were with us some years ago, I wrote a short poem about you and your mother.  Actually, it’s not so much a poem as a direct quote of your words which you sent her via text.  It’s called WHAT MATTERS, because it seemed to me then already that you had caught on to what’s important about life, both in the large awe-inspiring seriousness of it as well as the small wonder of it.  Here it is:   


Finally she had to leave him for the night. 

She left him in the hospital with 

her love
the cancer
some fruit 

And he sent back a message 

thank you
the pear
so delicious

You see, in choosing to savour  that one small precious moment in the face of so much else, you showed yourself able to live fully in the vast and splendid mystery of life.    I love that about you. The truth is we’re all on the same journey you’re on Keagan.  You bring our awareness to it so that we might learn to live as truly as you do now, to find out what matters.

It is the work of heartbreak to soften our edges, break us open. We need only allow our hearts to be broken. There is true purpose in that.

a romantic man

It's not what you look at which matters

There’s no such thing as a romantic man.

However hard we try to conjure him up. We’ll write him into novels, films and our darkest noir erotic fantasies. We want him alright.  God we want him. But the most romantic part is that we can’t have him. He’ll always be the one on the horizon, never stacking the dishwasher after dinner.

To the man reading this, I know you are the exception; you couldn’t live without romance and I so like that about you. But on the whole, we women are blind to the true romance of men’s nature, it’s invisible to us.  Although sometimes we’re able to catch a glimpse of it in our romantic encounters.

Caught in a sudden torrential downpour she runs into the tiny Izakaya under a Tokyo bridge and orders a sake mojito. The place is set in grey concrete. The lantern outside is dingy, a faded red.  He arrives only minutes after her, softens inside as he sees her still dishevelled from the rain, flustered. He doesn’t know she’s lost the precious moments she was looking forward to, the pleasurable agony of waiting for him. Their eyes meet and everything slows and at the same time bursts brilliantly into life. They can’t breathe. Out of the corner of her eye she is miraculously able to track the progress of a single glistening raindrop as it splashes into a puddle.  Eyes locked, her heart expands with inexplicable happiness, blossoming wide open to let in the radiance of his energy. Outside, time ceases.  For the man in the dark overcoat hunched over his drink, it’s a dreary night;  the storm’s held him up, he’ll be home late and his querulous wife won’t give him any peace.  But for them, the lantern outside glows crimson, charging the rainy night alive with sorcery.

While they are talking, an entirely other conversation is happening between their hands.  Words blur and hum in their ears, their real attention is focussed on the tips and lengths of his fingers as they stroke her hand, he’s breathless at the touch of her exquisitely attentive fingertips exploring the soft naked places between his fingers. They can hold hands like this all evening and never grow tired of it – that’s romantic.

There’s the first kiss, fiercely sexual, hungry, searing and bone-melting, maybe. But if it’s romantic it will barely be there, yet still feel like a momentous meeting of souls through the soft tender agency of lips.

All these words. Romance is love in the language of symbols.  Which is of course the poet’s arena – we have our favourite lines the best of which pierce our defences with heart-excavating exactitude. Unable to bear the intensity of our own encounters, we spy through poetry’s keyhole instead hoping for perspective.  But there’s no relief to be found here.  If anything, it strips your eyes naked with its over-dazzling images of new-found love, love lost and perhaps most painful of all, love in limbo with no place to go. Now you have to see what you pretend you don’t already know to be true.  And it’s delivered with more kick and a whole lot more burn than if you’d been left to your own inarticulate bumbling about.  How else to explain the uprooting jolt of melancholy in such lines as:

The piers sadden when the afternoon moors there.
My life grows tired, hungry to no purpose.
I love what I do not have.

(Pablo Neruda – Here I love you)

And what can signal romance more soulfully than music?  Our lives are studded with soundtracks announcing the arrivals and departures of those we once loved. Who has not been taken elsewhere by a song, an aching refrain, a haunting of the past that reverberates in the body long after the last note has sounded. We can’t help but resonate with our own memories when music plays them back to us.   I hear an orchestra tuning up and she appears instantly; the girl I used to be in another time, another place.  And there is an even greater romance in making music with another. For then each shared note becomes a touch,  harmonies weave and breathe together, sound becomes sensation we melt into as something greater than we know how to properly hold is being made between us. Love.

Romance inhabits the memory of times and places. “the first time we ever…” and “where we once…”  It lives in the symbols of time spent together. I know of a man who left a brand new dish-washing brush in a tree outside his girlfriend’s house.  A romantic gesture?  She happens to be particular about her dishwashing tools – liking them to be clean and fresh and not grungy-looking.  It’s the queen in her.  Leaving that brush for her was paying homage to her queenliness yes, but even more deeply it said “I know you. I know you in your greatness, but I also know you in your small ways. And I love and appreciate it all.”  It made her smile. It made her feel seen and known in an unmistakeably romantic way.  A dish washing brush as romantic artefact! Who would have thought it?

So often the romantic gestures of men go unnoticed by the very women they are aimed at.  I love men, their passionate can-do-ness, their inspired testosterone drive that longs to create something special for their beloved no other can.  I’ve seen men build fires and furniture, write love songs, verses and paint pictures,  grow gardens, trees and families, make cups of tea and hot water bottles all all all for their beloveds. To impress them, cherish, move them.   And we women?  How often we find fault.  The new table wobbles, the cup of tea grows cold, the poetry is dismissed as sentimental twaddle and we refuse to be impressed. I’m as guilty as any.

My mother acknowledges romance exists, but says it has no endurance.  Romance in a man, she declares, is A Limited Edition. In other words a hard-to-find rarity and short lived.  It‘s why we say “the romance has gone” when a relationship goes stale, when life with the other person becomes predictable. I can’t agree it’s impossible to keep a space always open for romance, but there’s something real she points to nonetheless – its fleeting evanescent nature.  Romance isn’t meant to be sustainable. It’s necessarily of the moment – anything else and it would become an institution. Like marriage.

A man whose thoughts I value says romance is being able to see the other in their highest state, see the star of their best selves shining through the cracks of their flaws and foibles. It’s how we’re able to worship and adore someone when others see only their ordinary humdrumness.  But more than anything, he says, romance lives in the mystery of the other. For with mystery, there is the unknown and within the unknown winks the glint of danger. It could be a blade, but also a jewel. It’s the thrill of risk that is so arousing, the smell of something hidden and alluring that propels us trembling into desires we haven’t yet met.  And here is the erotic dilemma. For paradoxically, as another man who is a friend tells me,  there is the magical romance of true deep intimacy, the willingness to be vulnerable and open as one shares one soul, heart and body with another –so becoming known.  Love, says Esther Perel in Mating in Captivity wants closeness.  Eros and romance thrive on distance. I can’t yet see a way to live in the tension of that paradox except through believing we can never fully discover another’s essential mystery.

What I know now is we’re looking for the wrong thing when we seek a romantic man. We’re hooked on the artificial version, the one that lives in the MSG-clogged sensory-overload of the shopping mall culture like a snack bar; always available at a price, always leaving us dissatisfied and wanting more.  Make no mistake, romance is nourishment, it’s soul-food and we shouldn’t live without it.  But we’ve been raised on a junk diet concocted in a consumer-culture lab;  we no longer recognise romance unless it comes wrapped in American Swiss advertorial and the soft-focus lens of the corner candle-lit table for two.

Now I’m not knocking candle-lit dinners for two. I’m a sucker for them – which just goes to show.   But real romance is found in the most ordinary of moments if your eyes have the heart to see it.  For then what appears mundane becomes exalted:  a piano spilling out a swelling river of emotion as you walk past an open window, an unexpected glance of appreciation from a stranger as you step off the bus at dusk,  a recklessly tender kiss on an escalator.  No, it’s not just in the tickets for two to Paris. Nor in the arrival of 48 red velvet roses hiding a diamond bracelet.  That’s commonplace, not just in its execution but in its currency as the romantic ideal. There is more romance to be found in the everyday than you know.  It’s not what you look at which matters so much as how you see it.

I know the archetype of the lover slips readily enough into the hearts of men, but men fear the scorn of women. The romantic man we expect them to live up to does not exist. But there are men who know how to speak the romantic tongue of symbol and mystery with genuine sincerity, giving their unpredictable gifts in ways that need only our recognition.  I love a man who can do that.

Finally though, while the glow of romance is unmistakable when you step into its tingling aura, it’s impossible to put your finger on it. I just tried; it dissolves and vanishes under scrutiny. And I’m glad of it.  How it holds its own mystery intact.


Resistence is fertile

I wanted to read this book when Angela Deutschman  wrote in a recent newsletter: “For a long time I’ve been wondering about a strange phenomenon that I regularly spot in myself and clients: that of being especially resistant to the very activity that will bring about our highest state of joy / purpose / service. And I’m not talking about just being mildly resistant but magnificently – impressively – able to concoct clever and justifiable reasons not to ever do it, or ever do it seriously anyway.  If this sounds like you, then I encourage you to read the two books that are turning this around for me: The War of Art and Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield. If you are getting tired of your own procrastination and excuses about why not to paint / write / start an NGO / create a new app / adopt a baby / start exercising then this will frame your resistance in a dramatic, though very useful, context.”

Mindful of my own quirks of resistance – endless procrastination is one – I ordered the War of Art immediately and when it arrived, collected it promptly. Knowing we were about to go away for a week’s holiday where all that would be required of me was to laze about, I planned to take it with me and was very much looking forward to reading it.  When it came time to pack however, the book was nowhere to be found. I searched everywhere. And I mean everywhere.   Eventually, after searching in all the obvious places,  I looked in the laundry basket, the rubbish bin and feeling incredibly irritated and foolish, even the fridge. In vain. I left without it in the end. Now if that isn’t a “magnificently impressive”  act of resistance, I don’t know what is. All week I secretly fretted over this book, knowing I had brought it into the house only for it to mysteriously vanish.

On returning home, I found it quite quickly. It was – predictably – in the linen cupboard. The memory of picking up the book at the same time as picking up some towels to put away en route came back to me with perfect clarity.  Once it was in my hands again, I read it in one sitting, lest I manage to lose it again.

Resistance, as Pressfield says so eloquently in highly readable short shots of distilled wisdom – is invisible, insidious, infallible and never sleeps. “Most of us” he writes  “have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance…You think Resistance isn’t real? Resistance will bury you. You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At 18, he took his inheritance and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.”

The truth of Pressfield’s insights hits you like a punch in the guts you didn’t see coming – it hurts and you aren’t able to dodge it. But it only hurts because you’ve let yourself go soft in the middle, molly-coddling yourself by not facing a far greater pain – that of not showing up in your own life.  It is exactly as Pressfield points out;  of the 11 potential activities he lists which elicit greatest resistance one of them is  “any activity whose aim is tighter abdominals.”

Perhaps most liberating was how the book got me to see things differently.   I’ve always seen Self-Doubt as an enemy, that nagging herald of self-sabotage who sidles in at your lowest point softly jeering “Are you really an artist? Do you really think you can pull off this new business venture?”   Instead, Pressfield reframes Self-doubt completely, calling it an ally.  Self-doubt, he says “ can serve as an indicator of aspiration.  It reflects love, love of something we dream of doing, and desire, desire to do it. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”

I’ve found my own resistance is strongest when it comes to doing anything compelled by the heart.  I know immediately when my heart is at work because it is then my mind steps in with its most powerful weapon: Irrefutable Logic. Logic as an opponent to the way of the heart is so cunning because you’re duped into trying to outwit it using the laws of its own language. But you can’t argue for the heart with language of the mind.  There is only one way out; through “senseless and true action”.  Logic has no power here.  So I sit here strumming my guitar working on a song even though logic tells me in step-by-step detail the pointlessness of my efforts. I allow love to find its way through, in circumstances that logic tells me are beyond redemption. I let go the thing that logic says is the best I’ll ever have and ask for more.

Pressfield is funny, pithy and annoyingly impervious to any rationalised exceptions you might try to apply to your own situation.  Rationalisation being of course, Resistance’s “right hand man and spin doctor”. Resistance is always coming up with new and ingenious ways to block your creative path, it’s abundantly fertile in its ability to change the scenery  daily so you’re always having to master a new landscape.  But it’s also at the point of greatest uncertainty that creativity thrives – out of the unknown comes something new.

I thought I was well on my way to digging myself out from under Resistance through my own efforts;  but this book reminds me I need help and have been receiving it all along in so many different ways.  We all need regular bursts of encouragement especially in our macho culture of being oh so swiss-army-knife self-sufficient.  The War of Art  has the warm bracing presence of someone offering you a steady hand whilst at the same time handing you the shovel to do the work for yourself.  In other words, a true friend.

Dark Summoning Beast vs Malevolent Nuzzler

The Battle You Won’t Win

 Yu-gi-oh! is a trading card game based on a Japanese TV series in which two players duel with each other according to a hugely complex set of elaborate rules. Children also swap cards or do  brisk business after school selling and buying individual cards.

When my son was 11, he fell in love with Yugioh. After school, I’d find him in a group with other small boys huddled over a table like eager gamblers, shuffling cards and muttering furtively about the right leg and arm of Exodia The Forbidden One.  Words like Ritual Monsters, Graveyards, Tribute Dolls and Trap cards were also part of this new schoolboy vocabulary: it all had a rather sinister ring to it.  Glancing at the cards, I saw the surface flash of glamour but didn’t find any of it appealing.  Grotesque and gothic, the images seemed unholy fusions of myth, machinery and monstrosities with a good bit of the occult thrown in.  What else to make of cards called Premature Burial ,  Dark Magician of Chaos,  Call of the Haunted and Tribe-infecting Virus?   And when you discover that the whole point of the game is to annihilate each other’s “life points” it seems obvious. These kids are trucking with the devil, right?

In my efforts to slow down my son’s ardour, I would casually dismiss Yugioh as a phase he would grow out of. I took to calling it  Yuckioh and Uglioh  – which only made Yugioh’s voodoo more potent.  Months passed. My son’s persistent devotion did not. He chipped away at me until my resistance caved in to that oldest and most mundane of ploys: the torture of relentless repetition.

I gave in; but not without a last token attempt to retrieve my credibility as a parental force to be reckoned with. There would be one condition.  And then I found myself in Wizards Book store, spending a whole heap of money (with a goodly contribution from my son’s carefully saved pocket money) on a Dragon Structure Pack.  Did I say a heap of money?  Make that two heaps.  The girl-child was with us and quite reasonably expected to get something out of this spree too.

Her choice was a magical crystal-encrusted fairy book all written in difficult-to-read old fashioned handwriting in brown ink. Full of mystery and sparkly bits, it was a treasure trove of tiny folded letters, secret pockets, teeny envelopes, one even containing a substance called  Invisible Fairy Lust.  I choked inwardly as an unexpected vision of uncensored Fairy Lust on the wing appeared without warning in my head. Good Grief! Is nothing sacred anymore?  On closer inspection it resolved itself into Invisible Fairy Dust (hence my fractious whinge about the handwriting). But by now you will have gotten the point. These entertaining toys for children nowadays are complex, elaborate beyond belief, expensive.

Sure, there were crazes when I was at school. We had yo-yo’s. Dingbats. Knockers.  But they went up and down, to and fro, backwards and forwards and made satisfyingly disruptive loud  noises that annoyed adults. You got the hang of it after trying it out once or twice. It was obvious. They did not turn your brain inside out trying to understand them.

You see, the condition I made was a foolish promise. I  would buy my son Yugioh cards on condition that I would figure out how this game works and play it with him because on the face of it, the whole thing was incomprehensible to me.  I wanted to understand what my boy was going to be spending his energy and attention on. I was totally confident that once I had a pack of cards and rule-book in my hands, my superior intellect and years of problem-solving abilities honed in corporate management would be sufficient to work it all out. Little – how easily we are tripped up by our own ignorant vanity  – did I know.

Googling Yugioh sites for help that night, I came across smug pronouncements like “Even if you are a rocket scientist or brain surgeon, you will still need the help of a 10 year old to explain the rules to you.” Hah! No kidding, people!  As another exasperated parent vented; the rules are designed to be totally impenetrable to grown-ups. Adult-proof.

Which is why I’m now asking you for help. So please – tell me what this means:

When this card is successfully Normal Summoned, Flip Summoned or Special Summoned, put one spell counter on a face-up card on the field that you can put a spell counter on. If this card is destroyed in battle, you can select 1 level 2 or lower spellcaster-type monster from your deck and special summon it to the field in face-down defense position.

Got it? Right.

You see.

And don’t even get me started on the addictively acquisitive nature of these games. This was a big deal for my son. He was truly thrilled and thankful to get these cards after lobbying for them for so long. This did not, however prevent him from settling down to examine his treasures once home and immediately announcing with urgent disappointment: “Ah no, mum, I’m missing a Mutant Mindmaster and a Polymerization card!”

Hellloooo? Gratitude? This was beyond built-in obsolescence. This was built-in dissatisfaction and a perpetual craving for more.

In the car afterwards driving home from this momentous purchase, my daughter caught my eye from the back in the rear view mirror.  She was looking at me sceptically. “You know mommy, you don’t actually look like a person who suits buying Yugioh cards for her child.”

Well there’s her first lesson in how appearances can be deceptive. I mean, could she ever be more wrong?

And what have I started?