New Year Resolutions – to do or not to do?

As usual I begin the New Year in a blaze of good intentions. I’m eternally optimistic and the dazzling sunshine and shiny red berries from my walk today cheer me on.

My inner skeptic has her doubts about my resolutions. She scoffs at the Wim Hof inspired cold showers – and my quest to uncover my heart’s desire in daily meditation. Apparently I’m both an austere Victorian and an indulgent hippy.

In particular my promise to write a daily blog met with a volley of criticism. “We’ll see how long that lasts. You’ll have nothing to say. Who’s interested. You’re just setting yourself up for failure.”

Sure enough at 9pm today, New Year’s Day, I was sipping whisky by the fire, chuckling at Pride & Prejudice on the telly, with no drive or desire to shift from the sofa to write this.

It was tempting to let things slip, to ditch the resolution. After all, I can’t presume any value in what I write. Overwhelmed by the brilliance of other writers, it is easier to surrender to my inner skeptic and sloth.

But I have learned that life without commitment and purpose makes me anxious. Things feel meaningful when I actively strive to fulfil a goal, even if the goal is futile.

“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it,” said Mahatma Gandi. The message is powerfully reinforced in Gandi’s spiritual reference book. the epic poem Bhagavad Gita.

“It is better to do one’s own work imperfectly, than to do another’s work perfectly” Chapter 18.

Admittedly it is hard to justify doing things – imperfectly — for ourselves in a world where everything we need is mass produced – perfectly – for us.

But when so much modern life is lived vicariously, virtually, passively – it becomes increasingly important to take small autonomous acts for ourselves. It’s the way to flex our muscles against futility. So even a botched resolution is a small revolution.

Life in a man cave – part three

Cave man is a mega telly addict. And to be honest I’m beginning to envy his obsession.

I flit from task to task, engaging with the hum drum he devotes night and day to the box. Without deviation or interruption.

With a gargantuan appetite, he devours episode after episode, series after series. I’ve yet to discover the thing that would consume me in this way.

A bewildering kaleidoscope of colours and mutant life forms flicker over the cave walls. Armageddon with pearly teeth, frowny-faced men throwing punches and grenades, pencil slim women frozen in youth.  Behind their pretty visage desperation glitters. Multiple screens are permanently on – one is just not enough.

Telly addiction eclipses all other hunger. Black coffee, sugar and toast satisfies the basic nutritional requirements. There’s barely a need to pee let alone chat. The bedroom was abandoned long ago in favour of slipping in and out of sleep on the sofa.

Shrouded in tobacco smoke, things have lost their defined shape, linear time is circumvented. Hitler wins the war.  

Telly is as relentless as the seasons, 

rolling night into day, non stop,

Whether you like it or not. 

Addiction allows no time to pause, savour the details or anticipate what comes next. In the temple of the telly god, devotion is slavish and questions are discouraged. No picking apart the plot, analysing the subtext, nothing must pierce this bubble.

Grey skies of Ulster are overhead, but you wouldn’t know it here because the blinds are tight shut.

I have come to respect this escapism. I’m even wondering if I should jump ship — what’s the point of persevering with reality. Is it madness to stick with the month by month adventure of making ends meet, keeping reasonable hours, trying to find sense in it all.

At night the house squeals and shudders with bomb blasts and screeching brakes, emotional reunions and showdowns, searing violins and gruffly voices. 

But cave man slumbers sweetly with the cat dozing on his chest. And I am left to toss and turn and wonder – why I am the only one not sleeping.

Life in a man cave – part two

With lockdown restrictions ruling out the pub – festivities came to the man cave last night.

From early evening onwards, blokes tramp through the front door, hollering greetings and hauling crates of Guinness.

Soon everyone was by the fire watching YouTube videos of BOLTR destroying power tools. The house is filled with sounds of grunting, cussing and reminiscing for a lost age when “when men were men and sheep were scared.”

Preparations for the party began earlier in the day. Blankets on the sofa straightened, windows in the spare room opened, things moved around and a sudden rare sighting of my fellow cave dweller with a vacuum cleaner sucking cobwebs from the ceiling.

This is the man cave version of house proud. Things don’t get cleaned up – shit just gets moved around. Items turn up in surprising locations. Yesterday an ornate corner cabinet, appeared next to the kitchen kettle with a jar of coffee on top and couple of saucepans on the bottom shelf. The spindly, heavily varnished structure was still caked with grime.

“Perhaps not ideal having cookware next to the cat dish,” I point out. Hostile silence follows – and I realise I have over stepped the mark.

Later I find the spindly unit next to the dustbins with an axe in it. Soon it will kindling on the fire.

To be honest I was wary about joining last night’s festivities. On the one hand I need to be incredibly thick skinned, immune to all manner of blokey bluntness. On the other hand I must tread sensitively around their sensibilities. It’s a minefield.

For example, cave man loves making loud sexist comments about woman. But seems genuinely hurt when I don’t find them hilarious, or if I yawn loudly and call him a Jim Davidson throwback. I am doubtful the jokes are going to get any funnier after a crate or two of Guinness.

The occasion calls for a bucket of Cava. After a couple of glasses, I begin to feel an inebriated glow, and pluck up courage to step into the man throng.

The big brother has arrived. They are in the middle of a quiz on male actors winning Oscars for playing real life characters. Conversation turns to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote and then to Dostoyevsky. Everyone agrees their favourite novel is Crime & Punishment.

As though the atmosphere is dangerously convivial, the subject switches abruptly to female authors. Big brother addresses me directly.

“I don’t like writing by women.”

I’m taken aback because until now he has not said hello.

“Fair enough. I have heard women say the same about male writers.” I am unruffled, taking care not to be provoked.

The big brother is a man used to an audience. The room goes silent while he assumes the pose of Rodin’s thinker, straining to remember an anecdote that typifies the ‘feminine story’.

Finally he speaks, confidently, borrowing the authority of John Steinbeck with a snippet from The Winter of our Discontent.

Two women meet. One cries, “What have you done with your hair? It looks like a wig.” “It is a wig.” “Well, you’d never know it.”

Until now I have been listening patiently, trying to follow the thread of his thought, waiting for subtlety of insight. I’m gob smacked to discover that this is just a vacuous anecdote about hair. Apparently he believes it is the only thing women think about.

“It’s the cunning… the way women make a sudden change tack to approval,” explains the brother. “I don’t want any part in their story. I never want to be there.”

Judging by the empty cans in the grate, he’s had a good few drinks, but even so, I am shocked by the force of his disdain.

Moments pass. It takes time for his words to sink in. When I reply it is to ask him if this is his definitive view on women.

“Don’t you think we are all evolving?”

“No” he snaps back.

Once again the room is silent for his opinion.

I try to question him but he has no interest in further debate. The subject is closed and the conversation roars on.

Losing the plot -writing beyond reason

My Duck is your Duck: Deborah Eisenberg

The Zen riddle which inspired the title of Deborah Eisenberg’s new book evades the grasp of reason. This is also true for the six stories in her eagerly awaited fifth collection. Slippery and elusive as a Buddhist koan, they tear through illusions of the world as reliable and unchanging.

In the title story ‘My Duck is Your Duck’ an artist narrator pines for her lover in a remote mountain retreat. She conjures him in hallucinations and delirious 3am emails. But does the man she mourns really exist? Even she is doubtful. ‘If I’d ever loved him it was the Graham of my own devising….I longed not for him but for the apparition he fell so far short of.’

Eisenberg, who lives in New York, has been hailed the chronicler of American madness. Her characters inhabit delusions ranging from love sickness and fantasy to delirium and ‘vivid punishing dreams’. The result is a tenuous grip on reality and a jittery humour. A doctor tells an insomniac to find out why she’s not sleeping. ‘What’s there to figure out?’ she snaps.

I’m hurtling through time, strapped to an explosive device, 

my life. It’s not so hard to figure out why I’m not sleeping. What I can’t figure out is why everyone else is not sleeping.

In Eisenberg’s universe ‘reality’ is pure invention and even so called ‘realists’ have lost the plot. The band of accountants who arrive at the mountain retreat are outlandish caricatures in ‘exhaustingly playful ties’. In an unfathomable language called ‘specialised English’ they exchange anecdotes about ‘credit swaps’ and explode into ‘raucous laughter like reams of paper shredded’. 

Meanwhile it is the crazy artist Amos, who turns bats into drones in eccentric puppet operas, who grasps what’s going on. He sees the exploitation of the mountain village and accurately predicts environmental disaster. No one is free from delusion but the artists are honest even in their elaborate fantasies. 

‘Taj Mahal’ exposes the behind the scenes manipulations that shape reality. A group of retired actors meet for lunch to share ludicrously different accounts of the past and deconstruct the idea of themselves.

You know this business of pretending to be other people all the time is quite all right. It get’s harder to learn the lines, but at least there are lines. Pretending to be other people is fine. It’s pretending to be oneself that’s exhausting.

The story begins with a biographical extract about a long lost film director friend written by his grandson. But this fiction purporting to be truth is merely a collection of ‘patchy memories’ combined with the ‘self-flattering fantasies of a dull-witted child.’

In this wavering and capricious world, Eisenberg’s protagonists display an enormous capacity for sensitivity and suffering. The account of a teenage girl in hospital with psychosis in ‘The Third Tower’ is rendered in voluptuous prose which reads like a surrealist fable. Loving attention to detail means even a humdrum train ride is a shimmering, spiritual adventure. With a ‘slight, thrilling jolt’ her heart ‘lifts as the wheels begin to purr along the tracks.’  This febrile imagination conjures an unseen city with ‘glistening towers and monuments…magnificent shop windows, great heavy strands of gems, twinkling away on velvet’.

The young girl’s so called sickness is in fact a highly original and ecstatic encounter with language. ‘Fugitives the word erupts from its casing, flaring up like a rocket, fanning out, fracturing the air into prisms and splintered mirror.’ Is this madness or unbounded consciousness? We are left wondering.

Eisenberg’s fiction is delicate and complex, blending the unsettling extremes of angst and sensuousness within the microcosm of a sentence. With a narrative voice ‘like a harsh silver ribbon glinting in the fleecy dark’ it is little wonder each story takes a year to craft.

Life in a man cave – part one

Heidi Yoga Shiatsu Scotland - life in a man cave

One surprising outcome of the pandemic is that I have forsaken a pretty cottage for a man cave. Man caves are in vogue these days but let me assure you, new age ones have nothing in common with the underworld I inhabit. 

Modern man caves are equipped with gadgets and fripperies, according to The Gentleman’s Journal. Must have features include crystal whisky decanters, chesterfields, wet bars, sporting memorabilia and luxury grooming products. 

Now I must state that the above bears no resemblance to my new habitat which is…errr…  it is a err…sort of a CAVE. And there is a big beardy bloke in it, with booming voice and disdain of conversation. A CAVE man type.

Life here is paired down to the bone, away from familiar faces and genteel society. Primitive elements, fire, food, circadian rhythms, rule our descent into winter. Rats roam the perimeter (plastic models not real ones) strategically placed to discourage visitors and mania of the outside world.  

Axes, a shovel, a heap of rusty nails and a black cat glow by the fire. Black hands rummage in the tool box by a stack of items waiting for repair.

Heidi Yoga Shiatsu Scotland
Swapped a cottage for a cave

Living here is an adjustment, especially when you consider my previous dwelling, a charming cottage, with flowers bordering a path to a red front door. These worlds are yin and yang, polar opposites. I crave light and growth while my fellow cave dweller yields to entropy.

The Greek myth of Persephone springs to mind. In the story Hades bursts through a cleft in the ground to snatch her away to the gloomy underworld. Mother Earth goes into mourning for the loss of the goddess. Growth and harvests cease, the world goes into endless winter.  

Finally Zeus steps in to to avert disaster. A deal is struck to let Persephone move between the two worlds. A surprising detail of this story, is that Persephone chooses to make the underworld her winter residence for six months of the year.  This decision is symbolised by her eating pomegranate seeds offered by Hades.

It has always puzzled me that she did this. Why would she want to hang out with gloomy old Hades when she could return to eternal summer on earth?

The story accounts for changing seasons, masculine and feminine and the transactions and bargaining that must be done for extremes to coexist. It describes loss, change and transformation, compromise. 

These days I live in myth, biding my time until spring.  Lockdown keeps me here this winter. I’m missing my garden and female friendship. No woman has set foot in this place for a long time.

This is an entrenched male domain. Blokes arrive in pick-up trucks to swap chain saws and borrow trailers. They tramp about in boots shouting greetings. I have abandoned attempts to make a mark here. 

Talk is discouraged but it’s warm and not unfriendly. Black cat pushes soft and persistent against my shins. “Awwwww look how sweet Bob is.” “The wee bastard just wants fed,” cave man roars back crushing foolish sentiment. 

If this was my demesne I would be scattering my energies, making a home, sowing seeds, putting down roots.  But souls in the underworld don’t age or change or lead any active life because the idea of progress does not exist. 

Inertia is peaceful. There is relief from intrusive neighbours and a dodgy landlord. My mind is more settled than it has been in a long time — so I can write this.

Pomegranates are in season. I bite into the tart pink juicy flesh — and decide to like it here.

Yoga: befriending the body

Yoga & Shiatsu with Heidi Dore in Newport on Tay, Balmerino, Dundee & Fife

As with many other women, from a young age I was plagued by doubts and worries about my body.

Self consciousness began at school where kids took the Mickey out of my jumble sale clothes and wrinkly hands. Before long I didn’t need the critique of others because I became so good damning myself – hairy legs, too fat, too thin, freaky feet blah, blah, blah, blah.

It is a depressingly familiar tale – and for so many women it spirals into life long battle with self loathing or self harm. Luckily I got into yoga.

I have a memory of rolling around in a yoga class, back in the 1990s. I was so thoroughly absorbed by the contortion that when I glimpsed my feet overhead it was a shock. They loomed before me in such a weird unexpected angle, I didn’t even recognise they were mine.

The really interesting thing about the experience, is there was none of the usual criticism in it. My hooves appeared in a unique new light – unclouded by judgement, beyond good and evil.

And in that moment I was suffused with compassion for my feet. I’m not claiming they would inspire a Quentin Tarantino fetish – but they were my feet and they mattered.

More than 20 years on, the memory shines as a break through in my consciousness. I believe it is the crux of what is great about yoga.

When I am deeply absorbed in the sensations of the body, my thinking, criticising, analytical brain goes offline – and I am released into a rich and enjoyable experience.

Yoga scholar and clinical psychologist Richard Miller explainsYoga shuts down the thinking brain by developing our powers of Introception which is the ability to feel the subtleties of the body.

The mind is programmed to think about the body as having a boundary – to which we attach reductive judgements, says Miller.

“When we close our eyes and feel the body, the sense of a boundary begins to dissolve. As we pay closer attention to the body sense, it begins to expand as a radiant field, vibratory, pulsing, shimmering….”

Introception is one of the essential principles of yoga, according to ancient texts. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali call it Svadhyaya or self study. Many believe this ability to feel is more important than form. “The main teaching is to get out of striving towards a particular form and use the forms to awaken sensation in the body,” says Miller.

Yoga is sometimes mistaken as the pursuit of physical vanity. But grasping for an ideal shape, the perfect downward dog or back bend is discouraged in the Yoga Sutras.

I won’t pretend that yoga is a miracle cure for self criticism. I still lapse into doubt. But these days mean spirited inner voices have less of a grip on me than they used to. And I always find refuge in yoga. And the more I practice, the more peace permeates other parts of life.

Spooky hollows

Heidi's Run Yoga Shiatsu Scotland

November is exquisitely gloomy. I cheered up after a country run in County Derry. As usual I got side tracked, this time by bleak wilderness of Balteagh Graveyard. I just can’t get enough of time ravaged tombs with a back drop of skeleton trees. Check these out –

And then on to the Roe Country Park where I sprint up these beautiful old steps to O’Cahan’s castle. Very wet feet by the time I was home.

The Crown – why it gets under my skin

Is it me or is there a distinct emotional shift in the new series of The Crown

Suddenly I am engrossed. Until now I had been impressed by glossy interiors, entertaining cameos and interesting snippets of history. But nothing pierced my psyche or caused a sleepless night, not even Aberfan. 

So what is it about Diana’s story that gets under my skin? It is more than fascinators and fancy dresses – those big troubling eyes penetrate my dreams. 

Excavating my feelings, I am uncomfortably reminded of the little girl, watching the Royal Wedding in 1981. Even in a West Country backwater with a TV constantly on the blink, I couldn’t escape. Little girls everywhere were brainwashed by the romance of Prince Charming. 

Scratching beneath the surface there is anger and shame at this. “Silly Moo”  My Dad’s words for Diana wound me. They were a judgement on me too.  We were gullible. We were sucked into fantasy. Innocence is excruciating. 

Heidi Yoga Shiatsu Scotland
Young me 1997

In truth Diana got under everyone’s skin. It turned out that tough-minded cynics were as captivated as little girls. 

Early on the morning of her death in 1997, I was hauled out of bed by a phone call from my partner Damian. This was remarkable because he was notoriously bad at communication. Weeks into our relationship, he went cycling in the Alps for several months without contact. Not a postcard or phone call ( all we had in the days before social media). Missing, the song playing endlessly on the radio that summer, set the mood.

I picked up the phone cautiously, guessing an earth shattering event provoked his early morning call.  When he broke the news about Diana I was stunned, perhaps more by his reaction to her death, than her horrible untimely demise.   

A good few years older than me, Damian was irreverent of Church, Royalty and State. It seemed inconceivable that now he was reaching out to me over the death of a princess. 

Hard to recall the details of that conversation long ago. I dimly recollect dull skies and a view into the garden of my childhood. One thing I am very clear about. On the other end of the phone, Damian had lost his witty edge and was unnerved. Had something in him softened or was I gullible?

A few days later he called again, wondering when I was coming home.  I was helping my parents move house – remarkably he tracked down their new number. 

The death of the princess marked a distinct emotional shift in him. When I returned from my trip, he jumped on me from behind the front door. I still feel that hug.

Three weeks after Diana’s death, Damian collapsed and died. Two young people suddenly dead, it was shocking and improbable. 

I was spooked by the coincidence. For a long time I believed the tragedies were mysteriously connected. It was synchronicity. I looked for depth and meaning in random and cruel events.

In the short time between the two deaths we were blessed with an Indian Summer, endless days of warmth and brilliant light. We made plans. “I’m especially glad you’re mine,” he wrote in the goofy card he gave me on my birthday.

More than 20 years on, I am smiling at Diana’s disruptive power. Even from the grave, she stirs stuff up. She brings emotional depth to stodgy telly – just as she gave life to an ailing Monarchy.  Now I am shamelessly hooked on a show about the ghoulish royals. 

And I am reminded that the terrible circumstances of her death prompted a blossoming of tenderness in my partner during the last weeks of his life. Painful and touching to recall, but a great and enduring comfort. 

The Science of Yoga Breathing – techniques to fight infection

The subtle art of yoga breathing
according to BKS Iyengar

In Yoga we breathe in and out through the nose to calm the nervous system and the mind. Ancient yogis believed breath was as precious and finite as life itself. They learned to conserve it by slowing the inhalation and stretching the exhalation.

Modern science confirms the yogis were right. Techniques using slow, deep, nasal breathing are the body’s first line of defence against airborne infection. Studies suggest they may even reduce the severity of Covid 19.

Breathing expert Patrick McKeown explains the science behind the techniques in his book The Oxygen Advantage. 

“All these things have often come from the East,” he said. “Yogis knew there was something behind this. They knew that it worked but they might not have known the science. But the science is catching up.”

Sterilise the air

Nasal breathing produces Nitric Oxide (NO) a powerful anti viral chemical that sterilises the air. NO reduces risk from infections because it is highly toxic to bacteria.

Reduce Blood Pressure

Nasal nitric Oxide is so important for immunity it was named chemical of the year in 1992. It reduces blood pressure and blood flow by relaxing blood vessels, causing them to widen.

The great news for Yogis is this mighty molecule is naturally produced in meditation and asana practice when we observe nasal breathing practices.

How to optimise breathing

Breathing is a skill – it’s important to get it right. For optimum production of Nitric Oxide, breathe soft, slow and deep into the diaphragm, so the lower ribs expand.

Place your hands on the lower ribs to encourage the lateral movement of the ribs as you breathe in. Don’t labour or force the breath. It should be easy. The slower you breathe the higher the concentration of nasal Nitric Oxide.

Ocean Breath, Ujjayi and Alternate Nostril Breathing, Nadi Shodana are two excellent practices for this.

Humming to supercharge

Research shows humming increases Nitric Oxide more than fifteen times compared with quiet exhalation.

Bee Breath / Brahmari or the mantra Om are the ideal because they oscillate the airflow, which dramatically increases nitric oxide.

Remember humming only gets results if air is inhaled back through the nasal cavity. Breathing through the mouth doesn’t produce NO. Vibrate the sinuses to get the most benefit from this.

Listen to Patrick McKeown’s fascinating talk on breathing in the video below.

donkeys, puddles & joy on a bike

News Flash!

Joy in Northern Ireland today. After days of rain and oppressive grey skies, a sudden, electrifying light.

Carpe Diem. I haul a rusty old bike from the shed, jump on and rattle past the gleaming mossy buttresses of the Drenagh Estate in County Derry.

On Bolea Road the gears clunk painfully until my feet find their rhythm. Then a smooth ascent past farms and old manor houses, a twisting route following a river.

I’m no Olympian. My bike rides are more devotional than sporting. Dawdling is my way of participating in creation.

I spot a tiny green house in a dell. Ivy grows on the roof – a bouffant hairdo glistening with brilliantine.

On days like this even muddy puddles have the power to dazzle. I stop to enjoy the complex criss crossing of light through trees and blue sky reflections.

At the wind farm on the hill I feel the full force of a North Atlantic blast. Remembering that Northern Ireland has the best wind resources in Europe – I wish I’d brought gloves.

There are a couple of gate posts near the junction at Murder Hole Road. On other days they are nondescript today they are luminous jewels, covered in intricate clusters of lichen.

I say hello to donkeys grazing in the shadow of the forest as I wind my way to the sea. I’d love to linger on the white sands of Downhill but I’ve a hill to climb before sunset.

Bishop Road has a one in five gradient – no surprise my legs are wobbly after that. It’s worth the huff and puff to get stunning views over the water to Donegal.

From Benevenagh mountain there is a long descent into the Roe Valley. I keep my head down. I want to be home before dark – but it is impossible to block out the loveliness of the last shards of light on silver birch.

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