Z is for Zen

Z is for Zen

A quick scan of the internet shows that the definition of the word Zen is a troublesome one. The most basic, factual one is this: a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition rather than ritual worship or study of scriptures.

Urban dictionary comes up with a nice one: One way to think of zen is this: a total state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind. Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts.

Sun is warm, grass is green.” http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=zen

The Cambridge dictionary’ s version is pretty poor: relaxed and not worrying about things that you cannot change:

Don’t worry about doing the right thing with your baby – be more zen about it and you’ll be happier.

I tend towards the Urban dictionary version and it’s pretty much what I felt when I began this blog. Walking a tightrope is a powerful metaphor for the way my life is; ages back, someone suggested just letting myself fall. It scared me; it still scares me. My collection of essays from this blog, Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking, is my account of my discoveries and explorations of a life dominated by depression; my recent collection of poems A Box of Darkness is intended as a treasury of what I have found in that darkness.

I thought of the blog title several years before I began blogging; it sprang to mind instantly. There have been a number of blogs using Zen in the title; many are using it in a very different way. Some reflect the philosophy of Zen and the Art of Archey, some Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (reviewed here). But I am proud of my blog. This, by remarkable coincidence, is my 1000th post here. Z is indeed for Zen, and it’s also the end of this A-Z not-a-challenge. I hope you have enjoyed my meanderings and excursions.

<departs left, pursued by a bear>

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L is for Lists

L is for Lists

I like a list, me. Not useful ones like shopping lists where each item is carefully inscribed onto the back of an envelope; no, most of us know what we need when we go to the supermarket. You know how it goes: bread, milk, cucumbers, cat food, loo roll... the same old same old. I only tend to make lists now for things that are not bought each and every time a grocery shop is done: hot pepper sauce, Gentleman’s Relish, wet wipes for the car, shoe polish, memory stick.

When I am packing to go away, I make a list of the things that need to be included, the things that it would be disastrous to forget: underwear, sufficient changes of clothes, medication, phone charger, passport. You know the drill. When we used to go camping on a regular basis, I’d make lists in the run up, of things that needed to be done before we left, clothing to be laundered, or equipment that needed to be disinterred from the loft, then when that list had reached a certain size and half of the items/tasks were ticked off, I’d make a second list (List, son of list) and repeat the process. We usually got to great great grandson of List by the day of departure.

Some folks have a To Do list. I often do this but one important thing that is very useful if, like me, you are not 100% well. Make sure that the first items on the to do list are things you have already done (get up, shower, brush teeth, drink tea) because there’s a lift to be gained from ticking several items off the list before the day has really got going. You’re more likely to do some of the other tasks if you feel you’ve already accomplished something that day. On a bad day, seeing that you’ve ticked off four things on a list of ten, can sometimes make the difference between going to bed beating yourself up and going to bed feeling you did something that day.

Which brings me to the next list. This is the Ta Dah* list. Instead of making a list of the things you have to do, make one of things you have done. You can do it daily, weekly or whatever. Just as a To Do list accumulates masses and masses of things as you contemplate the enormous mountain of stuff you feel you have to do (believe me, it becomes a snowball rolling down a hill, the way it just gets bigger and bigger), so to does the Ta Dah* list. If you find yourself feeling despondent about how useless you are (I frequently feel this way) a Ta Dah* list soon puts it into perspective. A couple of years ago, I started making a monthly spreadsheet where I filled in each day how far I’d walked, how many minutes at the gym doing which exercise, if I’d done any writing, or other creative activity. It gave me a bit of a shock after a few months, because even when I thought I was doing nothing, it turns out I was doing rather a lot, and far more than I gave myself credit for.

I’m not going to do Hit Lists…we’d be here all day.

*Ta Dah is meant to be said with a flourish and an exclamation mark and that gesture with the hands that goes with magicians extracting weary tame rabbits from top hats.

Gerhardt the Monster-Hunter

 

Gerhardt the Monster-Hunter

Gerhardt’s obsession with the paranormal that led to him becoming a semi-professional monster hunter began when he was barely four years old. His eccentric aunt Grethe invited the whole extended family to stay at her rambling, ranshackle old mansion for Halloween one year. It was a wonderful chance for family to catch up and for the hordes of cousins to meet each other. Much of the family was dispersed over great distances, so this was the first time Gerhardt had ever met most of the cousins who came to stay. The house seemed packed to the rafters with people, and at four, he found himself feeling rather shy and overwhelmed. A huge array of costumes had been provided for the children to find themselves outfits; Gerhardt opted to don a bright orange pumpkin-shaped beret. He’d never seen a pumpkin before and a gigantic one dominated the dining room where it peered over the room from the mantle-piece. In the carved face someone had put an old glass eye; it fascinated him with its shine and the way it seemed to follow him, and when no one was looking, he prised it out of the vegetable socket and popped it in his pocket. Years later, when much else had faded, he still kept the eye, on a little stand on his desk, as a kind of talisman against doubts.

The party was filled with games and jokes and everyone dressed up, including all the adults. Cousin Colin had found a vampire outfit and looked very scary with his fangs and dripping blood; aunt Grethe was a very convincing witch. Ghosts in sheets, zombies, wizards, ghouls and werewolves all gorged on sweets and cakes. By bedtime, Gerhardt had consumed almost his own body weight in candy. As his parents snored away in the big bed and the house fell first quiet and then silent, a raging thirst began to torment him, and taking Teddy and his blanky in hand, he ventured out to find some water.

Houses always seem very different at night, but even so, Gerhardt wandered down what seemed like countless corridors and stair cases, becoming more and more confused and lost in the semi-darkness. A few dim bulbs glowed in cobweb-bestrewn shades, creating more shadows than they banished. Behind him, he was sure he could hear footsteps but he told himself it was just the echo of his own feet on the bare wood floors. He clutched Teddy tighter, because as we all know, teddy-bears are guardians of frightened children and talismans against evil. A night wind blew through the passage way, catching the gauzy curtains and making them billow out as if someone were behind them. The sound of rasping breath from the end of the corridor were the darkness was deepest, made him hold his own breath and hear his heart begin to pound like jungle drums. As his nerves reached breaking point, from the deep shadows stepped two stooping figures. Dressed identically in old-fashioned school frocks, their long lank and dirty hair falling over their faces so that even their eyes were hidden, two thin girls lurched towards him, arms held out and fingers wriggling at him.

It was too much; Gerhardt fled screaming, pyjamas damp with the sudden shock, and ran away as fast as his legs would carry him. Later, his twin cousins Jessica and Jennifer confessed that they had also been out of bed, wandering the house in search of candy their other cousins had missed, but by then Gerhardt and his parents had gone home, and the family became estranged for all sorts of very trivial reasons, so that for Gerhardt, this became the only family gathering he ever attended.

The experience that night scarred him; he became a geography teacher. He took refuge in the routine, the mundane and the predictable for many years; yet a seed had begun to grow, and he started to explore the paranormal. A hobby at first, ordering books from the library, subscribing to many magazines and joining various groups, the arrival of the internet was a great boon to his studies. Eventually, his website dedicated to seeking monsters and spooks, became very successful, possibly due to being targeted by trolls, though not the type that live under bridges and eat goats.

He learned to be very cautious about how he responded to the many messages inviting him to investigate hauntings and sightings of paranormal beasts. Most proved to be pranks or misguided people who probably needed to get their spectacles checked. But sometimes there were ones that seemed so promising he followed them up, laden with his (mostly self-built) equipment and accompanied by his faithful ghost-hunting pooch Bob. Knowing that animals generally sense the presence of departed spirits and discarnate entities, Gerhardt had considered both cats and dogs, but eventually settled on Bob the dog because if nothing else, Bob would always give him an excuse to be out at night without looking like a prowler or a weirdo.

The email from a young couple who had stumbled upon a ruined church and a forgotten crypt intrigued him. The church had become ruinous many years ago, shortly after the final interment in the crypt of a lady whose family had been massacred by an axe-wielding maniac. Unable to forget what she had seen, she had fallen to her death in the river; compassionate lee-way was given to her regarding her burial in hallowed ground, and once the family crypt was resealed, building work hid the entrance. Like many remote country churches it fell into disuse, then disrepair and finally, the lead nicked from the roof, it more or less fell down. But the young couple had found the crypt entrance and had gone down with torches only to see phantoms and figures flitting around. Would Gerhardt like to come and investigate further?

So, weighed down with devices and protective amulets (the old glass eye tucked in his pocket) and with Bob the dog prancing along, Gerhardt arrived at twilight in the overgrown churchyard. There was no sign of his hosts, so he picked his way among the gravestones and table tombs, and tried not to trip up as the ground descended steeply towards the shadowy shell of a church. The ghost-monitor was beeping loudly, and the ectoplasm sensor was blinking, but Bob seemed unperturbed, so he carried on, picking his path with care as the darkness grew ever deeper.

Bob leapt up at him, startling him, and gave a little woof. Something or someone was watching them. Gerhadrt stiffened, a cold sweat breaking out beneath his tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches. Doggedly, he plodded on, when the earth broke open around a tomb with a terrific roar and from the blackness emerged a tall gaunt figure. Red-silk lined the heavy black cloak that swirled around the apparition, whose bloody fangs and white-streaked locks proclaimed his identity as a vampire.

Too scared to even squeak, Gerhardt cringed away, but Bob the dog bounced over and began to jump up at the figure to lick at the hands.

Oh excellent!” said the vampire. “You’re here in good time. Just in time for dinner too!”

Gerhardt reeled, his heart leaping in his chest, and he staggered back, as the vampire stepped from the hole and came towards him, hand held out.

It must be almost forty years,” he said. “You have no idea how hard we had to try and track you down. Family feuds are so last century, aren’t they? You can’t have got any letters. Or surely you would have replied.”

Gerhardt felt his skin crawling as if a million ants were running all over him; his eyes began to roll as the greyness flowed over him.

You’ve not changed a bit,” said the vampire. “Surely you must remember me? I’m Cousin Colin. See, the fangs come out-”

But Gerhardt had fainted. When he came to, Colin had managed to drag him to the terrace of the old mansion, and someone else had fetched a deck chair and some refreshments. Colin held out a goblet of faintly luminous green liquid.

Here, have some lime juice,” he said. “You’ll feel much better in a minute and then you can come and meet everyone. When Aunt Grethe passed away, she left the house to all of us and we decided to turn it into a themed hotel. We’ve had such smashing Trip Advisor reviews already. Tonight’s our first Halloween since we opened. We all wanted you to be here, so we concocted that tale of the crypt to winkle you out of your hermitage somehow. Come on in, the party is just getting started…”

© Vivienne Tuffnell October 2016

(a story inspired by the Story World Tales of the Haunted House, by Caitlin and John Matthews. A collaborative brain-storming by me, Graham Edge and Elaine Blath Feainnewedd October 28th 2016)

This is the first piece of fiction I’ve shared on the blog for simply ages. I’ve been saving up my short fiction to make into another collection. There’s one in the offing that’s going to be modern fables for grown-ups and another collection of ghostly tales that might be out in time for Halloween next year.

If you fancy some proper spooky stories for this Halloween, you could always try one of the following. Or all of them.

The Hedgeway 

The Moth’s Kiss 

The Wild Hunt and Other Tales 

Strangers and Pilgrims is set during the Halloween period but it’s not a ghost story. Away With The Fairies has themes that tie in with this time of year and is decidedly spooky at times too.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Eight

Day 8

Red lipstick

Perhaps this is one that is best suited to the female of the species, but I won’t judge you; if Johnny Depp can rock the whole kohl-around-the-eyes scene, I’m sure there’s room for lads in lippy.

Winter is the only time of year I tend to wear red lipstick. There’s reasons for that; changes in the light, being under artificial bulbs, being winter-pale, and also, frankly craving a bit of colour. There’s an awful saying that after 40, women have to steer clear of bright colours especially in make-up. I say, rubbish; if it suits you, wear it whatever your age.

But there is a trick to finding the right red, and it depends on skin tone. I’m very fair but only reds with a blue undertone work for me. Reds with an orange undertone make me look like a jaundiced bride of Dracula. My favourite ever red hasn’t existed for sale for a LONG time; it was called Dragon’s Blood, came in a little glass pot and was made by the company that later morphed into Lush. It was a deep rich blue-toned red with gold in it. I still have my tiny pot, though I think it’s mostly for sentimental reasons.

Red lipstick is festive, cheerful, and if you pick the right shade, can light up your smile. And heaven knows we need a few more smiles. Did you know that during WW2, lipstick was available from the NAAFI for women in the armed forces, because it was discovered to be such a morale booster, and that it was seen as essential to the national morale? So pucker up ladies (and lads!) and layer on the lippy!

The Aurochs in the Mist

The aurochs in the mist (October 6th 2015)

It’s the print in the black mud,

So fresh it steams and bubbles,

Vast hoof-print holding water

Like a dark clay vessel cupping

The rain as it cascades off my hat,

That tells me I am not alone.

Further up the path, I smell him,

Rich, musky dung in shining heaps

More evidence of his passing,

Though the mist obscures the sight.

If I go forward, we will surely meet

And I, poor feeble human, will

Perhaps be mashed into the mud,

Trampled by razor-tipped hooves

Tossed on coat-rack horns

And discarded as easily as the bracken

That catches on those lethal spears.

SNORT

Breath in clouds,

He emerges from the mist

A she, lesser in size,

Docile as her grand-sire

Was assuredly not,

Pauses at the sight of me

Standing in her path,

Tosses her head, not me,

Before turning back

And returning whence she came.

Méchant Loup

Méchant Loup

The wolf-whistle cut across the cool evening air, shrill and insistent but the girl in red did not respond. Instead, her pace picked up as her shiny red shoes clattered along the path.

From a dozen yards away, the man in the wolf costume bristled with indignation as his bid to gain her attention failed. The heels of the shoes were too high for her to walk fast enough to get out of sight quickly, and the height of them made her wobble in a way he found most appealing. Glancing at her retreating figure he watched as her long legs in fishnet stockings tried to stride, but the combination of short, tight skirt and those absurd high heels meant she could not take more than short steps. The percussive sound of the heels on the concrete path was music to his ears(the real ones under the furry ones) and he levered himself off the bench and started to saunter after the retreating girl. His long loping gait caught her up in a very short time and he saw that she was indeed a real prize worth pursuing.

She glanced back at him as he caught her up, sweet, heart-shaped little face hidden amid the folds of the crimson hood. He smelled her scent, warm and woody and with a hint of hazelnuts and saw that under the short cloak, she was carrying a wicker basket filled with nuts and fruits. Apples and pears jostled with walnuts and chestnuts and hazelnuts and their mingled fragrance added to the enticing aroma of warm woman.

Going somewhere nice?” he said but she tried to ignore him.

Don’t be like that,” he called as she broke into an awkward run. “I’m only being friendly. What’s the matter with you? Bet you look so lovely when you smile!”

The path dipped into a wooded area, and the light from the park lamps dimmed. The girl was only a few paces ahead, stalled by cramp and doubled over panting.

Leave me alone,” she said, her voice hoarse and quivering with fear.

I’m just being friendly,” he said again.

The girl slid her shoes off, placed them in the basket, and took off like a hare, red cloak flapping. She’d hitched her skirt up so as she ran he could see the tops of her stockings. He licked his lips, appreciatively. The path wound into the spinney at the end of the park, twisting and turning in the town planner’s attempt to make the park seem huge and wild. Her nylon-clad feet made a dull thudding as she ran into the trees before vanishing from sight.

He set off after her, letting out a wild howl of enthusiasm, his trainers scuffling through the fallen leaves. He liked the howl, so he did it again and again, feeling the pulse of blood through his body, exciting and primeval. The joy of the hunt, he thought, in delight.

After about five seconds of running he stopped dead in his tracks as his howl was answered by one that was so much wilder it made his heart skip a beat. It’s a dog, he said, but when it came again, louder and closer, he knew with ancient instinct it was no such thing. Around him, the trees seemed to close in, cutting out the light and sounds of the city beyond the park. The path ahead of him had vanished amid nettles and brambles so dense there was no way through. He pushed back the wolf’s head of fake fur and lolling comedy tongue and tried to see what was going on.

He was surrounded by black forest, huge trees and tight undergrowth, and his breath hung in clouds around him. Frost coated the carpet of fallen leaves and as he marvelled at the sudden drop in temperature, he heard the growl.

Deep shining eyes, tinted with scarlet, were watching him, and the breathing of the creature was mixed with a low, menacing growl. His nerve broke and he started to run, pell-mell, not looking where he was going, his whole being consumed with survival instinct. He didn’t stop running until he floundered into the oozy black mud of the boating lake, drained for the winter, and fell on his face into it.

As the foul-smelling mud seeped into his costume, he listened, hoping that he was hidden from the thing that chased him. When nothing happened he eased himself up from the muck and headed homeward, Hallow E’en party and girl forgotten. As he reached the park entrance, he stopped for a moment, reeking with filth and with fear. A howl rang out, long and mournful, the sound muffled as if by trees, and ended in a peal of what sounded very much like laughter.

Sexy Beast

Sexy Beast

Spring, you sexy beast, you’re back!
Blowing hot and cold again,
From pheromones and feathers fluttering,
Pistils and stamens at it,
Hammer and tongs,
To nights that end in ice,
Frosted grass and ruined plants
Pricked out too soon, too tender.
You’re so full of juice
You might explode with green.
Stiff new leaves, quivering catkins
Open-mouthed flowers
And frantic frogs, a-courting,
Birds, oblivious of envious eyes,
Bill and coo and shag.
That’s a bird, too, right?