Time...and time again
A reunion of old friends, a story from the same time, and ongoing lessons towards a good life
This post is going out slightly late - hence the timepieces - at the end of a week that highlighted the passage (or the illusion) of time.
Last Saturday, I attended an online reunion with some old friends from my Hughes Parry Hall days (1987-1988), the first year I came to London as a postgraduate student. For most of us, that year was the first time we had left our home towns and families, so we made up our home-from-home in the small contingent of international students among the majority of more than 300 British-born youngsters. We sat together for meals at a long table along the window facing Cartwright Gardens; we had come together for this one year, then scattered across the world: Switzerland, United States, Singapore, Egypt, Italy, Greece, New Zealand, only me in London.
For a moment it felt as if were all in our twenties again: the smiles were all exactly as I remembered them. Ulf said that even if we had lost touch, we have carried each other in us all those years. He is right: the excitement of the first year in London is intertwined with the presence of these friends.
Coincidentally (or maybe not), this week I found out that my short story about the time I arrived in London was highly commended for the Borough of Ealing in the Spread The Word City of Stories competition. The story Where the Hand Is captures the magic of London from childhood until now: the smells and sights of a brand-new place in early youth, the pain of missing loved ones, the excitement of tracing the steps of famous writers, and the demolition of certainties. In the online workshops that Spread the Word organised, I pulled together the strands that make up one writing life.
I’ll be reading my short story at the Ealing Central Library celebration event on Tuesday 28 June 2022, 2-4 pm. Do come along for my reading, pick up a free copy of the anthology, and take part in a short creative writing session. Book your free space here.
And the rest of the strands…
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK (9-15 May 2022)
Kathryn Koromilas is hosting 7 days of mindfulness with Marcus Aurelius during this week. If Kathryn’s previous events are anything to go by, this will be a real treat!
Neil French and The Eckhart Tolle “The Power of Now” Meetup offer a free online event on “Freedom from Depression” on Friday 14 May, 2-4 pm. I attended a live event with Neil French a couple of weeks ago for the very first time: he brought together total strangers with his calm energy that transformed the room in the beautiful Rudolf Steiner House.
52 Weeks towards a Good Life
The friendly, supportive community at the Stoic Salon has been working through the Live Like a Stoic: 52 Exercises towards a Good Life book, and has met live on zoom three times so far.
The weekly lessons go on:
Week 9 Be careful about what you call “good” and “bad” (27 March 2022)
This lesson linked with my life-long interest in how language really can shape our world and the way we look at it.
In my teaching days, I told my students to replace generic words like ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘awful’, ‘brilliant’ with more precise adjectives. Back then it seemed to be a stylistic choice, but now that I think more about it, it was an encouragement to look at their experience more closely, and to sharpen their language tool to create a fine-grained image.
As for this week’s lesson: during a visit by friends, one of them made a comment that I would normally label as ‘bad’, and ‘filed’ it to discuss (gossip?) with my family on the following day. I still labelled it in my mind, but caught myself as I was about to start the lunchtime conversation. Instead, I told myself, his behaviour is an expression of his own ego; your behaviour stems from your own (good) character. It seemed to do the trick, at that moment at least.
Week 10 Act the opposite of your first impulse (3 April 2022)
I tried to resist the inclination, almost impulse, to interrupt, or to jump in while another person speaks and complete their sentence, or at best, to have a response ready as soon as they have finished speaking. I know where this comes from: competitive conversational style in the family, where I find it hard to claim the floor because others are more assertive. I am still working on resisting this inclination, but at least I am aware of the pattern.
Week 11 Moderate at mealtime (10 April 2022)
This week was the second week of Ramadan. I came across a mystical description of the Ramadan fast as a restraint for the ego that allows the spirit to bypass the needs of the ego and opens up the space to flourish. This description reminded me of the Stoic lesson of Week 5 (Minor physical hardships – the one I did not do well on and continue not to do well on) and Week 10 (Act the opposite of your urge).
I tried to resist the urge to snack at odd times while the others are fasting: the fact that I can’t fast (for medical reasons) does not mean that I cannot develop my very own practice. These were my two items of practice for Week 11 (and beyond):
I tried to avoid snacking in-between meals, and observe what triggers the impulse to snack. After I have resisted it for a bit, I find I am better able to work out what is happening. Partly succeeded.
I tried to limit the amount of food taken during meals – again, partly succeeded.
Not there yet.
Week 12 Put temptations out of sight (17 April 2022)
In other words, put the snacks away!
In true providential fashion, the universe came to my aid in reverse: I was removed from the temptations. Living room and library (my working space) are being repainted, so I and essentials have temporarily decamped in my son’s room in the garden building. (I’ve been here since Wednesday and will probably be here until early next week). This move has meant that after breakfast, I take a coffee flask and water bottle to the bottom of the garden and stay there until lunchtime; I can’t be bothered to keep popping back to the kitchen every few minutes (and snack!)
I will keep an eye for what happens when I move back to the library, but at this point I think I might try this trick: close the library door and tell myself it can’t be opened until lunch.
Week 13 Start practicing minimalism (24 April 2022)
I must confess I am guilty of collecting too many books, even though over the years I have given away probably more books than I now have.
At the beginning of the week I intended to clear out the three bookcases and give out what I no longer need; I haven’t done it yet, but not because I’ve changed my mind, but because the bookcases were blocked by stuff during the decoration work. On Thursday I was tempted to buy another book in a charity shop, but managed to think myself out of it: I don't have time to read it; I can always find it when I do (probably never); put it back, Sofia, it's fine. I count this a triumph for myself.
I managed to clear out some clothes though – especially two blouses that I hardly wear but couldn’t bring myself to give away – so I am feeling pleased with myself. Another point that relates to minimalism: I was working in my son’s room at the bottom of the garden until yesterday afternoon, which helped me see what the bare essentials for everyday work are. It’s always good to know one can bet by on much less than one is accustomed to.
Week 14 Evaluate your goals (1 May 2022)
In the past I have evaluated unrealistic goals, and realised that even if I had achieved them, I would not have been happy. This week I thought about my writing: I keep setting myself writing goals, and I keep not meeting them because other, attractive and absorbing tasks come up (although, they may be attractive and absorbing because they stop me from writing.) At the back of my mind, I reprimand myself for not keeping to the writing schedule.
This week I decided to allow the shift towards creating connections and being present in this moment, in whatever I do, as I am writing this post, as I connect with others. If I can maintain presence, everything else will follow, or won’t, as the universe decides. It feels like freedom. In other words, I flipped the switch towards going with the flow: if there is no writing this week, or next, or never, so be it; but when I feel the urge to write, I will write in the moment, without a second thought on how it will be received by the world. I feel that this flip has freed some mental energy that has allowed me not only to do some little writing, but also to open to other directions. I wonder whether I should let go of the concept of 'goals' altogether.
My general takeaways from the Stoic practice:
the weekly focus on one lesson helps keep it at the forefront of my mind for that week
the previous lessons remain ‘active’ and ready to be applied, as if the ongoing practice is putting together a large mosaic, tile by tile.
there seems to be some synchronicity between the weekly lesson and what is happening in my life most weeks
journaling (if not daily, at least a couple of times in the week) helps open up the space for reflection and creates a record of the process
We are now at the beginning of Week 15 (38 weeks to go) but you can still join us in the Stoic Salon - a few new friends join us every week. Just click here.
The heart meets the (left) hand and they both embrace imperfection
For years and years the heart sought the Holy Grail,
begging of strangers the very thing itself possessed
(Hafiz, 14th c. Persian mystic poet, reformulation mine)
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Your post has inspired me to buy the Live Like a Stoic book Sofia, sounds like some stuff there I really need to put into practice!