Sunday, September 27, 2009

Beautiful lawyers



A colleague at university, who works in the area of literature and law, asked me if I was interested in the law. When studying English I did have meetings about switching my degree to law, ultimately deciding that I preferred the English reading list.
I now get my regular doses of law through my partner, who has set up the first pan-European environmental legal charity ClientEarth. He's fresh back from Geneva, a heady week of bringing the governments of the EU and UK to task before the United Nations for blocking citizens' access to environmental justice.
I'm used to newspapers taking nothing, distorting the facts, and spinning out opinion pieces. It was heartening to find this exception by Simon Barnes in yesterday's Times, brightly written, supportive and accurate. 'Beautiful, wonderful and extraordinary lawyers' is his quote on the group; were I a new writer with that blurb, I'd consider myself made.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Normal service

It was like being back in the monastery, clicking awake at 4.20 in the morning. Ah well, I told myself, it's a gift, it's writing time. The new academic term is kicking in, you've a meeting at 9.15, but start now and you can get a few hours in.
It started well, trimming and refining the voice of a new piece. After an hour my mind skipped off-task to play with a little self-congratulation. Instead of the piece to hand, it was composing a blog about how well the writing was going.
Back to work. This isn't that blog. This comes from the tired end of the day.
It's tempting to self-dramatize writing, to invest in 'being a writer'. It uses up the writing time.
Students are beginning to arrive on campus. I'm working in reverse, about to bounce off London for the weekend, but order is setting in. I'm installed in home and office here in Hull, the peripherals are emerging out of packing boxes, my data (ie books in progress) have been recovered from my crashed computer, and soon I'll be online at home (part of Hull's curiosity is its private telephone and broadband system, a quaint monopoly, that sees the city studded with white telephone boxes).
So this is just to let you know that service on this blog should resume shortly. I don't know if it will be normal, but it's what must pass for it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Brother Steindl-Rast


I'm just back in the UK from my week at the Zen Mountain Monastery, living the monastic schedule for a week. 'What do you do if you have a bad cold?' I asked before the final evening and early morning sitting sessions, hoping to be excused. Let the snot run down your face unwiped, so as not to disturb the stillness, I was told, and cover your mouth if you sneeze. I appreciated how many others had also risen at 4.20 in the morning to sit, despite heavy colds.
That cold, and moving up to my new home and office in Hull early in the morning, keeps me from a long posting but I thought I waould post this link, to the pages of Brother David Steindl-Rast:
Brother David Steindl-Rast's video page.
Brother David's a Catholic monk, and you'll see from the links on his page substantial engagement with Buddhism. I came to know him back in 1994, when for a while we were neighbours (he the resident at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. He's delightful company, and you should find a lot of gentle wisdom here.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Zen Mountain Monastery and Taizan Maezumi Roshi


Woodland paths lead up from the Zen Mountain Monastery, to a run of cabins with views out to twin peaks in this area of the Catskill Mountains - the peaks presumably of Mount Tremper, the name of the local village. Nestled beside the path is a graveyard, with this stupa to the Japanese Zen master Taizan Maezumi Roshi.
I met Maezumi just once, in the mountain setting of the Mountain Zen Center in California. He explained how his name Taizan meant 'Big Mountain', and how moutains were living beings to him. The abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery is John Daido Loori Roshi, a successor to Maezumi who has given his life to establishing that mountain strand of Zen. My journey here is my opening step in a project to write the biography of Maezumi Roshi. It's a process of taking full part in the daily order of the monastery, awaiting the opportunity to claim my interviews.
It's useful simply to have the time to enter into the spirit of the place. Someone asked me this morning whether I had a list of prepared questions, and that Daido might welcome such a thing. I had been presuming to run on initial reading plus intuition, but I took the question as wise prompting and now have these questions to hand. Whether or not I use them, it's been a useful exercise.
The place has been in a period of Hosan, essentially downtime. At 1.30 gongs will sound and a full and busy monastic round will doubtless surprise me. Preparation for this initial biographical foray has already been different ... I have new sandals, dark clothing and drawstring pants with me to facilitate the process of zazen, the sitting meditation that is at the heart of the practice. Otherwise for me it's a practice of preparedness and patience, waiting to see how this biography starts to reveal itself.
In the meantime it's sweet simply to be in a sacred space. I stepped out onto the lawns at dusk last night, three deer edging out of the forest to work a hesitant yet constant way toward and then around me to reach some fallen apples.

Friday, September 04, 2009

A writer's body


This has partly been a summer of mending. I was struck even as a relative youngster how physically gruelling writing can be, you wander off creating alternate worlds while your body's crabbed in this one. On finishing an early novel, literally the moment of putting down the pen, my legs gave in and I couldn't stand or walk for a couple of days.
Down in Plymouth I brought an acupuncturist, known as the Great Tang, into the game of reclaiming my body. As moxa burned down onto the needles sticking out of my feet he told me of his own novel. Unless you're a celebrity, he told me, to have your book come out in china you have to pay the publisher. He finished this first novel of his, a globe-trotting romance, during the course of treatment and had already published it online. Get a name that way, he says, and you have a real chance. I was touched by his dedication and self-belief, both vital assets.
As a farewell to Plymouth I took a cold dip in the Tinside Lido. Now my body's in London, and a young Thai woman on the Finchley Road has had a valuable turn at flipping and hammering it into shape in the massage tradition of Wat Po. It seems my body was tighter than any she's known. When it came round to my shoulders, she was ready to give in.
If you can't lodge your tension in your shoulders, where can it go? What's a writer to do?