Are you a Peaceful Warrior?

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yoga matsNot so long ago, I was fortunate to be able to take part in a weekend long workshop devoted to yoga. My first. The retreat was based around The Peaceful Warrior also known as Virabhadrasana. My dedicated teacher Sara explained to the group that these particular set of poses can teach: how to act with wisdom, courage, and cultivate a resolute focus. Oh, I thought, I’ll have some of that please!  I was excited about the weekend ahead, as some of my favourite standing yoga asanas or postures include the different variations of the Warrior Pose; I’m also a huge fan of twisting poses especially Half Lord of the Fishes (but that’s another story!).  Before we launched into the series of challenges ahead, Sara spoke to us about the origins of these beautiful postures, setting the scene wonderfully for a room full of very eager warriors!

We got ourselves ready and I must say how good my new purple yoga mat looked amongst the rainbow coloured assortment that surrounded it.  Purple, how lovely. A quick surreptitious glance around the room, confirmed that I was in the company of some very experienced yoginis, I had my work cut out for me! I did, however, feel very proud to part of a group of women, who were not only willing to challenge their bodies BUT also their minds, ideas, and egos.  Being, what I would consider a complete-beginner, I found myself staring at a 60 something year old woman as she threw herself into her first pose with such gusto, and then when I spotted a fresh faced 20 something year old put a carton of coconut water beside her mat, I knew I was only a baby in the world of yoga, so much to learn, so much to try and where to begin?  At least I was trying, right? I even had a DVD at home – the latest ten-minute solution to my daily yoga needs – but by golly the DVD didn’t have anything like the poses Sara was putting us through.

After only four asanas, I was sweating profusely willing my yoga-buddy next to me to pass the coconut water! Telepathy it seemed would be for another day. I reassured myself that I wasn’t just there to stretch, bend, flex and contort my body; I was also there to let go and give my ego permission to go sit in the corner for a bit and let me just be.  So I continued to stretch, bend and sweat! And then some. Sara explained and demonstrated the position we should find ourselves in and then walked around the room making minor adjustments to us females who needed it; no DVD could ever, not in a million years, be equal to having a real guru show us how it was done. Sara, not only imparted her knowledge to us, but her presence was like a light guiding us along the path to spiritual freedom and confidence.  She was also very kind, opened the window several times and offered us fresh water straight from the tap in her kitchen! Yes, please!  Being part of such a mixed group made no difference at all and that’s exactly what I love about yoga, it is completely available to anybody who is willing to accept it, regardless of age, ability or creed.  In actual fact, I think it is the daily practice of yoga that keeps us truly young not just physically but especially young at heart; my favourite type of young – as far as I’m concerned much more important than fighting the yearly appearance of crow’s feet, or stray sliver-grey hairs.

That day in February, the room was full of Peaceful Warriors each of us willing to invite wisdom into our daily lives.  I’m aware of and often talk with other women about just how hectic modern life is; inevitably leading to unbalance -physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.   But at least I am, we are, trying to re-address these aspects of our lives and that can only be a good thing.  Otherwise, not only will continue to hold unnecessary tension in our bodies but our actions too. We will never find our centre but remain off-centre. I know which I aspire to. 

If I was to sum up the overall effects my retreat afforded me it would this: Comfort. Being part of this class re-assured me no end; I was amid a group of Peaceful Warriors on our journey to enlightenment. A journey we are all on – destination unknown. A friend of mine (not a yoga practitioner) asked me, “Why is there a Warrior Pose in yoga? Isn’t yoga the practice of nonviolence?”  And yes, I can understand her confusion somewhat, but I explained that the Warrior Poses can teach us about bringing wisdom into our every day actions.  The idea being that the more it is practiced the chances are quite high that the heart of a peaceful warrior will emerge and reveal itself.

Our world needs powerful women both in spirit and in mind.  We need young, vibrant women who will take inspiration from older women; we need mothers who will nurture and rear children who will become the citizens of a future world where each person will be a Peaceful Warrior. We need older ladies and grandmothers who will impart their wisdom and help teach us that in the end we must all strive to become the change we wish to see in the world.  And that it doesn’t matter how old you are, if the mind is willing the body will follow. And stretch. And bend. And sweat.

Nameste.

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Kate Colquhoun: Did She Kill Him?

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Kate Colquhoun is the author of a number of books including, ‘Mr Briggs Hat’, ‘A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary life of Joseph Paxton’ and most recently Did She Kill Him? I caught up with Kate to talk about her latest book and discover what inspired her to tell the captivating story of the Victorian woman, Florence Maybrick, who in 1889 stood trial for the alleged arsenic poisoning of her much older husband.Image

On a recent visit to the resplendent Lismore Castle, Kate gave a talk on her remarkable biography of Joseph Paxton, the Victorian horticulturist and designer of Crystal Palace, a fitting setting then to talk with her about her latest Victorian story Did She Kill Him? My first question was about why the Victorian era intrigued and compelled her to write the stories of historical figures?  Kate explained, “It’s partly that the 19th Century is so recognisable to us through its wealth of novels. Partly that we are similarly living through an age in revolution – not industrial but digital. Partly that they recorded their lives so completely in diaries, letters, newspapers – they were terribly self conscious. There are so many ways to punch a hole in time and peer at those particular periods of the past”.

Writing historical stories requires a great deal of skill and research. I ask Kate how she approaches this side of her writing?  “I only take on stories that have a wealth of primary source material available to me; sometimes in private archives, sometimes in the National Archives. Then,  it’s just about diligence and being prepared to turn the same stone over several times just to be sure that what’s under it is really there”.

Kate ColquhounThe Maybrick case it seems had the makings of a modern day fatal attraction; I wonder what prompted Kate to write about Florence’s story: “Every book starts with a small shock: did that really happen? If the story doesn’t have that to start with it’s ‘just another story’. The hook has to go in, and to work its way deeper every time you approach the story. Also I wanted to write about a woman so my antennae were out for that. Finally, the story’s themes added up to more than the sum of their parts – so the lonely transatlantic marriage, adultery, arsenic, the women’s movement and the New Woman of the 1880s and 90s, the moral hypocrisy of the age, the burgeoning of Liverpool as an industrial city, Port of Empire – the Henry James-ian nature of it all. The story punches a hole in time and lets us, momentarily, hold hands with the past in an extraordinarily intimate way” she says.

It is easy to think that it is the 21st Century that has created the insatiable thirst for sensationalism in the media; however, the Maybrick case was something of a Victorian sensation that attracted considerable newspaper coverage on both sides of the Atlantic. Why does Kate think this trial captured the imagination of two nations? “Well, England loved and was educated in sensation and the ‘new journalism’ of the 1860s on fuelled moral outrage, fear and anxiety through its coverage of crime because it sold papers. More than that, progress was so speedy – much like our own age – that perceived certainties were crumbling, people were anxious. In such times, we focus particularly on crimes that seem to suggest that the price to be paid for all this new wealth etc is the possibility of one’s ordinary day descending into a kind of existentialist hell. Are we safe? Can our law enforcers root out evil? And, of course, if it’s happening to someone else, it can’t be happening to me. So sensational crime titillated but it also served to give the impression that similar tragedy was unlikely in one’s own life”.

Of course, accusations of extra-marital affairs will almost certainly help sensationalise any murder case and it appears that such allegations were certainly enough to blacken Florence’s reputation. I ask Kate if there was any thought given to the fact that James Maybrick too, was also involved in affairs. She smiles “Florence asked for the fact of James’s adultery to be played down to protect the reputation of her children. I don’t think she understood that she would be judged more harshly for her infidelity than her husband was; I think she believed that the scientific proof, or lack of it, would take precedence in court. In this she – and perhaps her lawyer too – were naive – a double standard held sway when it came to morality and the Victorian bourgeoisie was up to its neck in its persistent hypocrisies.”

Yet, despite new evidence in the 1890s there was no possibility of an appeal for Florence. Kate explained, “the Court of Criminal Appeal was not set up until the early 20th Century. Until then the only option was to beg for the Queen’s mercy through the Home Secretary. Florence’s sentence was commuted so that she was not executed, but she still served 15 years, effectively for attempted murder – a charge on which she was not tried”.  I ask Kate if she thinks Florence ever had a chance of a fair trial? “Our notions of ‘Fair Trial’ are very different from those in the 19th Century. However, I think she DID stand a chance of it. Clearly the trial judge’s sanity was questionable – and although he was accused of befuddlement, it was several years until a breakdown confirmed his mental decline. Further, the trial occurred in an atmosphere of moral revivalism so that society, the authorities etc. were particularly sensitised to perceived immorality and intent on flushing it out for the greater good of society”.  I wondered if Florence had any supporters, others who believed in her innocence? “Her mother,” said Kate.

As a reader, James Maybrick does not seem to be a warm individual which leads to me ask Kate what type of man she thinks he was? Or more importantly did Florence have an idea of his true nature before marrying him? “She certainly didn’t know he was an addict. It doesn’t matter whether he was cold or kind, addiction makes people unreliable, illogical, wayward, mendacious, untrustworthy and unloving. I imagine he was at least a cocktail of all these, with a good dollop of middle class Pride”.

I am keen to learn about Florence’s life after such traumatic events. After her release Florence wrote a book about her experiences, I ask Kate if she thinks life for Florence could ever be the same again?  Kate smiles “I’m sure she tried. I’m sure she was changed forever, as the world around her was also changing. She was left behind and unfitted for independence”.

And what advice would Kate have for writers who have found an interesting historical figure with an untold story? The best advice for any writer is to read, read, read. Novels, other histories, immerse yourself in the world you are writing about by reading the novels of the time, listening to the music, walking the cities with old maps, reading the newspapers (most of which are in handy digital form now). And find primary source material – letters, diaries, etc that are available to you. It’s almost impossible to work without that,” she says.

I’m being a little cheeky but I must ask, “Kate, did she kill him?”…. “Well that’s the point of the book…so you’ll have to make up your own minds! I have considered evidence that has never previously been discussed. In the end, just as validly, one might ask ‘Would YOU have killed him?”

I leave Kate, wondering would I have done the same as Florence?

Did She Kill Him? Is for sale in all good book shops and online here.

Kate Colquhoun was born in Ireland in 1964. Her first book A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton (4th Estate, 2003) was short-listed for the Duff Cooper Prize, nominated for the Samuel Johnson Award and was a Radio 4 Book of the Week. Other books include: Taste, The History of Britain Through its Cooking (Bloomsbury, 2007) and The Thrifty Cookbook476 Ways to Eat Well with Leftovers (Bloomsbury, 2009). In 2011, she published Thomas Briggs’ Hat (Little Brown). Her new book Did She Kill Him?(Little Brown) is out now.  Follow Kate on Twitter @wearyhousewife

(c) Maria E.FitzGerald, 2014
Twitter: @mariaebelle

A huge thanks to Kate Colquhoun for granting me this interview and many thanks to Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin for publishing this interview on writing.ie

Mother’s Permission to Write!

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ImageI’ve cleaned and so, the house gleams. The floors are sparkling free of dirt and Golden Retriever hair, the carpets have been vigorously vacuumed, the windows like mirrors, the counter tops free from all clutter. I’ve played with my daughter, I’ve played with the dogs.

We walked in the nearby forest the living green-carpet crinkled and snapped beneath feet and paws. The sun kept us warm, no need for gloves today, our wellingtons squelched and slipped on a top layer of mud and when my daughter placed her ten year old palm into mine I felt like I was on top of the world.

We found shy baby primroses their heads poked through springy lime-green moss beneath the shelter of an elder Ash, a perfect home. She climbed along the length of a seventy year old ivy dressed tree nature provided her with the best assault course all around new challenges testing and tested by her. We looked into the huge hole the tree left when it fell a perfect Hobbit she said. Is Gandalf watching us from afar?

We walked through the grounds of an ancient monastery no monks now only mossy clad stones strewn throughout the corner of a perfect site where the peaceful air surrounded us like an elegantly textured envelope. We wondered what would happen to the fallen trees? Years of firewood she said.  I imagined our stove stuffed with the wood we looked at now. Next year we would be warm.

We entered a clearing a huge patch of square land with the sun on our backs we squinted and smiled and admired our beautiful dogs, our pals as they stretched in the damp grass, they tried hard to cool down their warm breaths climbed the air like smoke signals. Three magpies floated by-three for a girl.

We climbed over the aluminium gate and watched as our youngest pal found a dirty mud filled puddle she looked like she was dipped in chocolate, dip-dyed in the sacred sauce of the cocoa bean. No fire for her tonight! My little girl put her hand back into my forty year old palm and closed her eyes we walked hand in hand.  She picked up a long crooked stick and told me someday she’d be that tall. Someday, I said. No hurry, I said. We reached the stream at the foot of the sunny hill. The drill? Down to the water for a quick dip and clean before tea.

I watched as they played in the cold fresh water the smell of wild daffodils came through the air to greet me. Narcissus, how proud.  I watched the saplings along the stream sides their raised heads to the heavens a deep wish to grow. I watched my sapling splash and giggle in the Spring evening sun long legs wet, pink polka dot wellingtons keeping her agile feet dry. I raised my head to Heaven a silent prayer, thank you. The floors are clean the windows are sparkling the plants have all been watered the dinner is in the oven the stove is lighting and we are warm.

Is it time to write?

Benevolent Eyes

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A traveller was passing through a village and asked someone standing by: “What’s the next village like? Is it friendly?”

The person asked in return: “How was the village you have just come from?”

“Oh, it was awful; people there were unfriendly and indifferent, some even hostile ,” said the traveller.

“The next village is similar,” was the reply. So the traveller walked on with an anxious frown.

After a while another traveller stopped to ask the same question: “What’s the next village like?”

The same person replied with the same question: “How did you find the previous village?”

This time the response was different: “Oh, it was good; people were friendly, helpful and hospitable,” said the traveller. The person in the village replied: “You will find the next village similar.”

What a simple story with a wonderful moral. If we open our eyes, and “project benevolence we will receive benevolence in return“. Satish Kumar’s message of benevolence is quite simple, not at all complicated.  When we read the above story, it all seems perfectly achievable. Yet, in the real world things are not so simple. The world in which we live is one of conflict: racial, religious, national and international conflicts are rife, so we lose our confidence, try to protect ourselves and look the other way.

I once heard a grandmother ask her grandson “Where are your eyes gone?” The boy, 14 years old and a hotchpotch of teenage angst, looked at his grandmother as if she had just lost her mind “Nowhere!” he replied. “So, open them” she yelled at the confused looking boy.

It is really that simple. Open our eyes, look, really look at what’s happening around us. Instead of turning a blind eye, shrugging our shoulders and giving-up, let’s try to open our eyes and see what we really need to see. What have we got to lose?

Soil, Soul, Society by Satish Kumar (Ivy Press).

Time to Grow some Roots

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Stories, stories everywhere

Grow some Roots!The Seed by Pawel Jonca

When I was five years old, I got the leading role in my primary school play, Nature. To this day, I don’t know why I got that much coveted role (yes, aged five there were quite a few divas around me, who so wanted it!) but it was to be mine.

Each morning after 11am break, for two weeks, we smallies got into line, each with an index finger to our lips thus preventing unwanted chitter-chatter!  We walked along the dimly lit hall into what was called the assembly hall; a cavernous square shaped space filled with light from six huge south facing windows.  The ceiling was at least twenty feet high, perfect then for the voices of 40 children! We remained in our lines until we were called onto the stage by our teacher – the red velour curtains edged with gold thread reminded me of…

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Time to Grow some Roots

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Grow some Roots!The Seed by Pawel Jonca

When I was five years old, I got the leading role in my primary school play, Nature. To this day, I don’t know why I got that much coveted role (yes, aged five there were quite a few divas around me, who so wanted it!) but it was to be mine.

Each morning after 11am break, for two weeks, we smallies got into line, each with an index finger to our lips thus preventing unwanted chitter-chatter!  We walked along the dimly lit hall into what was called the assembly hall; a cavernous square shaped space filled with light from six huge south facing windows.  The ceiling was at least twenty feet high, perfect then for the voices of 40 children! We remained in our lines until we were called onto the stage by our teacher – the red velour curtains edged with gold thread reminded me of crushed raspberries. It was what you could say, very theatrical.  To get up onto the maple floored stage, we needed to climb eight steep steps – to the left of the stage – the curtain hung so generously that the steps were hidden from the audience’s eyes. I remember the excitement of pulling that curtain aside, getting lost in its folds, and wrapped in velvet each time.  The smell of damp suffused the air, but in those days, I didn’t know what damp was, to me that smell was theatre!

Even though I had the starring role, I still didn’t get onto the stage until three-quarters way to the end – some starring role!  So, along with my classmates, I waited until my turn came.  We were not called onto the stage by our Christian names but by part names – which looking back was a wonderful, clever way of getting us into our roles – a sort of 1970s method acting technique!  Thus, when wind was called Mary Power would go on, when summer sun was called, Claudia Murphy ran on, and when thunder and lightening were called, the burly Smith twins went tumbling out there!  And then it was my turn, little Seed.

As little Seed, my part was all about growth. I came onto the middle of the stage and curled up into a little ball – foetal like, thus becoming the seed in the ground awaiting germination.  My costume was an ensemble of a grass-like Hawaiian skirt, white t-shirt with little bits and pieces of I don’t know what attached to it.  However, it was my headdress that was the piece de résistance: a headband covered with lots of different petals from all sorts of flowers. Beautiful.

Now, as most of us know, no seed can germinate in isolation it needs the correct conditions. But, I was a lucky seed, as the narrator told the story to a packed hall full of proud parents smiling and nodding, the right amount of sun, rain, soil came to my aid – my classmates of course.  They each peppered their magic powers about me, and after a decisive cue-nod from my teacher I would uncurl little by little…at the peak of my performance I stood four feet tall and proud. I even saw my Dad at the back of the hall.  In essence, what I represented that evening all those years ago was the miracle and beauty of life. Now I see it, then I merely played my part, as best I could.

A seed, any seed is a miracle of life.  Everything a particular seed needs is encapsulated in its protective shell. But, not until conditions are perfect, this stage of life is held back – full of possibilities- until the seed gives itself to its environment. It cannot become a plant unless it gives itself up to its isolation.  How the seed develops depends on what it meets in growing out into the environment.  So it needs roots, a foremost activity.  When the plant connects with the soil it anchors itself in life thus developing further.

It is these roots that will strengthen and sustain the plant for its lifetime – constantly growing it is through the roots that the plant establishes vital contact with the soil around it.  But, the plant has another job to do – it must grow towards the light, upward – a whole new way of experiencing its environment – another way of being.  Upwards, means a host of new qualities: light, air, weather and of course other plants i.e. competition.  The presence of light and sun assists the stem and leaves in greening thus in turn allowing the plant to feed itself, returning vital food. Over time the plant becomes a powerhouse of life, energy cursing through its cells. The plant lives its life through connecting with the place in which it grows, and not only that but the place in which the plant grows and lives interacts with it – a constant interactive relationship.

Human beings exist in a similar way, we do not however, necessarily think of our life like this. You could say we are disconnected from the growing, living world that surrounds us, the one that begs for our attention.   But, without the life-giving properties of nature, we would cease to exist.  Our world is a rich one, yet very few of us live in relation to the world around us. It is time we open ourselves, just like the shot above ground, and actively become receptive to our world, we must engage with what we discover: good and bad. If, we root ourselves in the soil that feeds all life on Earth, the barriers between ourselves and all others will lessen.  In becoming more receptive and awake to the world, we might just find that we save ourselves.

All those years ago, my performance of the little Seed, triggered and gave birth to something deep inside me.  It helped me become receptive to the living world around me. It helped me look, really look at a flower or a plant – I could almost imagine the headquarters of the plant deep beneath the soil sending out its commands: grow out, grow up.

Overtime, I realised that my life would be a series of germination and provided I received the correct constellation of love, nurture, friendship, joy and food then hopefully each of my seeds would germinate and let me experience the richness of life on this beautiful planet, Mother Earth.

Go, grow some roots!

These is my Words – Nancy E. Turner

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I first read this story in early 2000 – The Millennium. I read it again recently and loved it just as much as I did all those years ago. Based on the real-life exploits of the author’s great-grandmother, this fictionalized diary vividly details one woman’s struggles with life and love in frontier Arizona towards the end of the 19th Century.

This is Sarah’s story. A girl, whose no-nonsense strength draws you in and makes you fall in love with her! Her honesty and outlook on life are lessons in themselves; she inspires and delights.
There are a multitude of themes weaved throughout the story: love (yes, there is a love interest!), empowerment, adventure, motherhood, disappointment, despair, hope, joy and fear. The joys and struggles Sarah experienced throughout her lifetime transcend time and place.

If you would like to meet a real heroine – please, let me introduce you to Sarah! Not only will you fall in love with her, she will help you dig inside and discover your own gold; the hero that resides in us all. These Is My Words wonderfully brings a forgotten world back to life again.

I will leave you with this quote from Sarah:

“Mama told me to make a special point to remember the best times of my life. There are so many hard things to live through, and latching on to the good things will give you strength to endure, she says. So I must remember this day. It is beautiful and this seems like the best time to live and the best place”.

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See this review on writing.ie