Author Archives: Delia

Descent into Darkness

I haven’t been as active here for the past year, but I have a very good reason and that reason is writing. Between knowing that this is what I want to do, and doubting myself, there was quite an abyss. Some days I would cross it and manage to write something, but on other days I would just stare into it, unable to get away. Well, no more. I wrote a few stories. One of them, The Door, is in this short story anthology, together with stories by 19 other indie writers.

Having a story published in a book is a dream come true and I’m incredibly excited. It’s a dream I’ve postponed and pushed aside for later because of fear. What if it’s not good enough? What if people will hate it? All insecurities about writing, you name them, I’ve had them all. But when this opportunity came up, I jumped right in.

The idea for The Door came to me when I saw a writing prompt on the internet. I had been talking to a writer friend about inspiration and ideas, and he said, why don’t you look up some writing prompts online. So I did and found this:

“You know…there is nothing as tempting as a locked door.”

Illustration by David Schmidt

Some horror fans like zombies, vampires, or ghosts. I’m irresistibly drawn to old houses, and especially doors. There is something intriguing about a locked door. I began to wonder. Why was that door locked? Was it to keep someone from going in? Was it to keep something from coming out? Were there any people living in that house? How did the locked door affect their daily lives? And so the prompt became the first line in the story. I didn’t have a plan, just the questions, so there was a lot of going back and forth on ideas. I decided to keep the story simple, with very few characters. I wanted to create doubt, apprehension, a feeling of mental discomfort. But I also wanted to write a story that would leave the reader satisfied with the ending. Maybe it’s not the ending they suspected (or maybe I wasn’t as clever as I thought I was) but I wanted to give the story closure. I even wrote a short blurb:

Not all doors are meant to be opened.

An unknown writer catapults into fame after he moves into a mysterious house with a locked door. An ambitious young journalist is sent to interview the writer, in the hope that she can find out if the rumors are true. Did the writer’s wife leave him or has something sinister happened to her? And why hasn’t the writer left the house in years? But the house is not about to reveal its dark secret without a price. Will she be willing to pay it?

And here’s a snippet from the story:

“A locked door, a red scarf, a tiny key, an old paperback. I say these words again and again, a litany of sorts, or a spell meant to reveal something. The devil is in the details. And yet there are no revelations.”

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Almost two years ago I wrote a short flash fiction piece called The Great Hall. You can read it HERE. Not surprisingly, it involves a door.

If you’d like an ARC copy of Descent into Darkness, just leave me a message and I’ll get back to you. All I ask is that you write a review either on Amazon or Goodreads (or both if you can). I would also be grateful if you could help spread the word about the book – a repost on Twitter, a note on Facebook, every small thing counts.
To find out more about the book and the authors, click HERE.
The book is now available on Amazon.

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A Stephen King fest: The Dark Tower, It, Gwendy’s Button Box

The weekend The Dark Tower came out in cinemas here I watched it twice. As a long time fan of Stephen King’s writing, I’ve waited with increasing excitement for what I imagined was going to be nothing short of a perfect visual translation of the seven books that make up the original series. Then I read a few reviews online and I’m glad I did. I should have known that it was not really feasible to squeeze seven books into a ninety-five minute movie. People were complaining the movie was not faithful to the series, that it was too different. They were right, and I was glad I was forewarned because it would have been disappointing to go to the cinema expecting an epic tale. But the movie worked, because it wasn’t really The Dark Tower in its splendid world-crossing, ka-tet camaraderie and trying adventures.

At first I thought the movie was a distillation of the books, a paring down to their very essence. It reminded me of that time years ago when I watched a modern reinterpretation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in which all the actors wore pajamas. Was it good? Yes, it was. The words were there, the story was there, but it was different from the play. And yet in many ways it was the same.

The basic story of The Dark Tower is summed up in the first sentence of the first book, The Gunslinger:

The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.

Roland, the last gunslinger, is trying to prevent the man in black, Walter, from destroying The Tower. Should The Tower fall, chaos and destruction would follow. The seven books (plus one he wrote as a stand-alone) give a detailed account of Roland’s journey to the Dark Tower, of friends he makes along the way, of the epic quest which is one of many he has undertaken before, all with the same purpose, all ending the same way.

I’ve read The Dark Tower books so many years ago that I can only remember fragments, so an in-depth comparison is out of the question. What I did not expect was this: the movie actually picks up where the last book left off – and here I don’t want to spoil it for you so I won’t go into details. Let me just say that when I got the end of that last book I felt cheated and incredibly frustrated, but in retrospective there couldn’t have been a better ending.
In the movie, the cast is reduced to three important characters – Roland the gunslinger, the boy Jake, and Walter, the man in black and Roland’s nemesis. Jake’s dad was a fireman who died on the job – here I couldn’t help but wonder if that was a nod to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or to Joe Hill’s recent novel, The Fireman (Joe Hill is King’s son). Maybe it was both or maybe neither.

It’s obvious the movie was made to accommodate a large audience. People who are new to Stephen King’s work will get a good vs evil action movie with nice special effects and a good story line. Long time fans, those who have read the books the movie is based on, will get so much more out if it (or less, depends on who you’re talking to). For me it was a pleasure to spot references to Christine, It, and The Shining. A passing reference to Oy, a dog-like creature with limited speech abilities, was but a fleeting sequence, but I was happy it was there. I remember Oy in the books – he was one of my favorite characters and I was heartbroken when he died.

By far my favorite parts in the movie were those when Roland said the gunslinger’s creed, something that to me sounds like a cross between a mantra and a prayer. Just seeing that on the screen, after having to imagine it when I read the books, made the movie worth watching. In fact, that was what made me love it. Idris Elba gave a great performance as Roland. I remember being excited when I read about him being cast in the role of the gunslinger. He did not fit with the image I had in mind but I like surprises. He did not disappoint and neither did Tom Taylor who played Jake, one of the members of the group that joined Roland on his quest to the Dark Tower.
As usual, King’s references to pop culture – guns, moral values, soft drinks, medicine, physical appearance, were a nice touch and I loved them all. You should see Roland’s face when he drank a can of soda for the first time. That made me laugh.

Many thanks to richysmalls via Instagram for allowing me to use his art. The entire picture is hand made using dots. Amazing, isn’t it?

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IT

Not long after I watched The Dark Tower, another Stephen King movie adaptation made it to the big screen. IT, based on the novel with the same name, is about a group of seven children who call themselves The Losers Club, who band together to fight the evil that is haunting their town. The evil is Pennywise, a clown who’s been kidnapping children and who appears to each of the seven children in the shape they fear the most.

I’ve read IT too long ago to remember many details and it wasn’t one of my favorite King novels. I found it disturbing, which is an understatement when it comes to King’s books, but this one even more so because it involves children. I’m glad one of the scenes in the book didn’t make it on the big screen. It would have been awful.

The movie is not your family-friendly type. There’s blood and mutilation and dirty jokes told by some very young boys. The most disturbing part for me was the woman in the painting which makes a couple of appearances, and that was far creepier to me than Pennywise himself. At least with him we know he’s supposed to be an evil entity, but that painting was something so unexpected it made me nearly jump out of my skin. I thought the children actors did a great job, especially Sophia Lillis in the role of Beverly Marsh, the only girl in the Losers Club. My favorite parts were the interactions between the seven friends. I look forward to the next installment which is going to be about the children who grow up and come back to their town to rid it of Pennywise once and for all.

I didn’t find Pennywise all that scary. Sure, he has some teeth worthy of a creature from Alien but to me he’s just a weird clown. What I found scary (apart from that weird-looking woman in the painting) was the way the adults behaved towards the children – an overbearing mother, a harsh teacher, a sleazy father, they were the true aliens (I will not call them monsters, except maybe for the father, who made my skin crawl).

It’s interesting that Pennywise’s lair is in an old abandoned house. I remembered a similar construction in The Dark Tower, which serves as a portal to another world. The building were nearly identical in my mind but then I’ll have to wait for the movies to come out on CD so I can take a closer look.

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Gwendy’s Button Box

I was looking forward to reading this book for two reasons: the first and obvious one because it’s Stephen King and I’d read almost anything he writes, and the second because I was intrigued by the other author name on the front cover – Richard Chizmar. He is the founder of Cemetery Dance magazine (in 1988), and Cemetery Dance Publications (in 1992) which has published several of King’s books.
Whenever I see two names on the cover of a book I wonder whose voice is going to be the prominent one. I haven’t read anything by Richard Chizmar, but I can say this book had King’s unmistakable easy-going style with dashes of humor all over it. The man can spin a story like no other author I’ve read before.

What would you do with a box with magical powers? Would you take it? Would you destroy it to remove temptation?
This is the story of a young girl, Gwendy, who’s given a box by mysterious Mr. Farris. Gwendy is reluctant to take anything from a stranger at first, but Mr Farris can be quite charming and persuasive. It’s not just a regular box that he gives her, but one with powers. A sort of Pandora’s box with instructions and buttons you can push. Some of those buttons can be used for good. Others can do some nasty things. And the box gives out treats, sweet delicious treats. Who wouldn’t want to spend time playing with it?

It’s obvious that what happens in this book goes beyond being just a story. Sometimes you push a button just to see what happens. Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you make a mess. And you learn things, not only about the box but about yourself and your limits.
As usual I loved King’s pop culture references, especially the one right at the beginning about women’s bodies.

The media says, ‘Girls, women, you can be anything you want to be in this brave new world of equality, as long as you can still see your toes when you stand up straight.’

Aldous Huxley, you will live forever.

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Catherine, Her Book – John Wheatcroft

I really think you should read “Wuthering Heights” before you give this book a try. It will make a lot more sense if you do.

“Sometimes I lay in the loft of the barn. Sometimes I lay in the dimple of the shade. Sometimes I lay in the fairy cave under Penistone Crags. Sometimes I lay, gasping for breath, under the black water of the pool at the bottom of the gorge. I was always alone, wanting Heathcliff.”

“Often I burned and shivered together, fire within, wind without.”

This is one of the books I bought a couple of months ago at a library sale. I’ve been working my way through the pile, saving this one like a fine morsel to be tasted and enjoyed later. When that time came I devoured it in a few days, pacing myself even though I wanted to rush through the story like the storm on a summer night. The old fashioned writing style (which I love and crave every now and then) called for a slowing down of my reading, something I was reluctant to do.

At a little under 200 pages, the book tells about a segment from Catherine Earnshaw’s life after she marries Edgar Linton and moves to Thrushcross Grange. She’s not a happy bride, even if Edgar appears to be the perfect husband. She longs for Heathcliff and the days they spent together. A love like theirs, burning with an unquenchable fire, cannot allow one to live a domestic life, apart from the other. In an attempt to find something to fill her days with and banish the demons that torment her, Catherine starts transcribing her old diary, pages and pages of scribbling jotted down in the margins of old books. It’s her story, detailing her relationship with Heathcliff , and the bond they developed over the years.

Who was Nelly, the trusted servant at the Wuthering Heights, and why is Mr Earnshaw so fond of her and Heathcliff while barely acknowledging his daughter Catherine and son Hindley? And why does he allow Joseph, who’s little more than a servant, to constantly preach about the wrath of God while verbally abusing the young children at every opportunity?

Catherine, who has an astute sense of observation, stumbles upon and sometimes only guesses at the mysteries surrounding the Earnshaw family – the tomb on the family estate, a tiny physical resemblance, an accidental witnessing of a lovers’ meeting. Wheatcroft skillfully fills in some of the gaps that bring more closure to the story in “Wuthering Heights”. The biggest mystery, however, concerning Heathcliff’s birth and parentage, is at best suspected but never confirmed. Heathcliff himself remains a secluded character, viewed mostly through Catherine’s eyes. Their relationship is tumultuous, passionate and dramatic. Sexuality plays a significant role and some passages are quite graphic. While not as intricate in action as “Wuthering Heights”, the story provides plenty of drama and anguish.

Not one to give up on a book because of bad reviews, I didn’t even check for the Goodreads rating first. When I did, I was surprised to see the book didn’t get much love. But that’s ok, it got plenty from me. I thought Wheatcroft managed to write a sequel that answers plenty of questions while at the same time leaving some things shrouded in mystery. Where did Heathcliff go during the 3 years he was away from Wuthering Height? Who were his parents? How did he become rich? And why, in the name of love, didn’t he just declare his feelings for Catherine and marry her? Actually I may know the answer to that last question if Catherine’s suspicions prove right. But that’s quite a big “if” and I’m not entirely convinced. Like in “Wuthering Heights”, there are patterns to this narrative as well. It was enough to partially satisfy my craving for answers but not quite enough to lay it all in the open. If you’re a fan of “Wuthering Height”s and would like to revisit your favorite characters, give this book a try.

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I was curious to find out more about the author. John Wheatcroft (I love this perfect old fashioned name) was born 92 years ago today. What a coincidence that I finished writing this review on his birthday! I would have liked to write to him and tell him how much I enjoyed his book but I was late by a few months. He died in March this year. He was an American writer and teacher who served in World War II. “Catherine, Her Book”, was published in 1983 but Wheatcroft’s work has started appearing in print since 1967 – “Prodigal Son” – and the most recent, “The Portrait of a Lover”, in 2011.

My rating 5/5 stars
Read in July 2017

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The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood

When everything goes to hell, sex and booze is all we want.

I came to this conclusion after reading “The Heart Goes Last” in which Atwood describes a dystopian world quite close to reality. Charmaine and Stan are a young married couple trying to make ends meet after a big financial crash left them with no jobs and living in their car. Charmaine found work in a bar (because, after all, when everything goes to hell, sex and booze is all we want) and Stan’s main occupation is to make sure nobody steals their car. It’s a derelict existence. It’s survival. It’s not much of a life. That is until Charmaine sees an ad on TV in the bar where she works. There is a city named Consilience/Positron and anybody can apply to live there. There are jobs to be had, a free house, food and clothes, everything that was taken away by the crash. A clean bed with ironed sheets! Heck, a bed! Even that seems like a dream. The catch: once you’re in, you can’t get out. But Charmaine is a “glass full” kind of person and she wants in. Why wouldn’t she, when every night she sleeps in fear of her life as the violence has escalated and she’s always afraid of being beaten or raped or God knows what. So she convinces Stan and they get in.
For Charmaine, it’s a perfect place. She finds comfort in routine, in the cleanliness of the house, in cooking meals, in doing her job. It’s a routine, yes but this is so much better than their other life. So, so much better. Until it isn’t.

There is so much going on but things really start to get weird in the second half of the book. It’s like this book has double personality – half grim, half really funny. It was really depressing to read the first half and I seriously considered giving up but then I hoped things would pick up later. No city is perfect, especially one that’s so perfect on the outside. I imagined the place looked like in the video for “Chained to the Rhythm” by Katy Perry. Even the lyrics match. I wanted to quote them here but I’m not sure it’s allowed.

My patience was rewarded. The gloomy Orwellian atmosphere was dispelled. There were prostibots, Marilyns and Elvises, vampire references, a prison, and teddy bears. The blue, knitted ones, the kind you’d give a child. But oh, how Atwood twisted that into something disturbing and hilarious. It’s very likely next time I’ll see one in real life I’ll burst out laughing.

I enjoyed following Stan’s thought process as he was faced with some hard decisions. Charmaine was tough but in a superficial way – she seemed like a no-nonsense woman when it came to making sacrifices and it was entertaining and at times scary to watch how far she would go and the lies she would tell herself so she could keep what she had. There’s some trauma in her past but it’s only hinted at, a possible explanation to why she seemed so willing to accept anything to stay in Consilience/Positron.

I found interesting the duality of things – the city for a start, Consilience/Positron has a double name because everybody lives a dual life: for one month they live in their beautiful houses, then other month in prison. The irony does not escape me.
Life in prison is seen more like a succession of chores: there’s a laundry section, a knitting circle (for knitting blue teddy bears), even exercise classes. The city is soon to be franchised, there’s big money to be made and possibilities are endless. Just like possibilibots, life-like sex robots that are being made in the city. Because when the world goes to hell, yes, sex and booze is all we want. And maybe headless chickens, just because it’s better if we don’t have to decapitate them in order to eat them. More humane.

It’s interesting that Atwood sees only two possibilities: either a harsh life where everything is volatile, your job, your money, your transport, but you at least have your freedom, or a secure, sedate, domesticated version of a life where you get what you want but you’ll have to follow the rules. However, the human race being what it is, unpredictable, rules are broken and things really go to hell. There is no middle ground, unless you’re willing to compromise because every bit of comfort and happiness has a price. And you pay and pay and pay until there’s nothing left of you to pay with, no dignity, and no personal freedom.
Some of the things I saw coming but they were still entertaining to read and they had a satisfying twist. There are endless topics for discussion but that would mean giving away more of the plot and I’d rather not do that. I recommend it if you like dystopian fiction with a lot of swear words thrown in.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in June, 2017

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The 10-day silent meditation retreat at Wat Suan Mokkh – Things to consider and practical advice

I wrote about my experience at Wat Suan Mokkh in 3 previous posts. You can find them here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. This is the final post with practical advice and things I wish I knew before going there.

The hot spring. Bliss for my aching back.

Bring comfortable, loose fitting clothes. You can also buy clothes and toiletries at the meditation place. You can also wash your clothes there, in the dorm.
Bathroom conditions are a bit unusual. Women have to wear a sarong while bathing (a piece of cloth wrapped around the body – you can buy that at the retreat) and men have to wear shorts. There are no showers, but a big water basin and plastic bowls. It’s not comfortable but it’s doable and after a couple of showers you get used to it. Cold water only, but Thailand is a hot place anyway and after a day spent outside, cold water can be quite refreshing. Women and men have separate bathrooms.
Try the hot springs. There are two separate hot springs, one for women and the other for men. Women have to wear a sarong, same as when taking a shower. The place looks like a cross between a swimming pool, with steps leading to the water, and a spring. The water is hot, about 40 degrees Celsius and might be a bit of a shock at first but it helps a lot with the aches and pains, especially after sitting meditation. I went there twice a day and every time I felt like a new person.
Follow the schedule. Every day the schedule is posted in the dining hall and in the dorms. You don’t need to have a copy with you, just follow the others and you’ll be fine.
Free drinking water is provided and even a plastic bottle if you don’t have one. The water is filtered – you can’t buy bottled water or food so make sure you’re ok with that.
No food in the dorms. Not unless you want a whole colony of ants to come for a visit. And since you can’t use any kind of insecticide (remember loving kindness), you’d better not risk it. One guy found an entire army of ants in his backpack. I don’t know if it was because of food, but he had to change the room.
Bring a flashlight. You have one of those old fashioned lanterns in your room, complete with candle and matches but if you’re lucky like I was, you’ll break the candle and your matches won’t light because of the damp.
Bring slippers/flip flops and a bath towel.
Get lots of mosquito repellent. You can buy this at the retreat.
Bring a yoga mat. Unless you really want to have the full experience – that means the concrete bed and wooden pillow – make sure you get an extra thick yoga mat. Also an inflatable pillow. You can use the mat for the yoga sessions in the morning.
Don’t use makeup, perfume, body spray or any other beauty products. You’re supposed to give these up for the duration of the retreat. Besides, you’ll be spending all day outside and it’s too hot for makeup anyway. I did use deodorant because I don’t consider this a beauty product but a necessity. It’s not fun walking around smelling of sweat.
Don’t worry about having only two meals a day. You don’t need a lot of food because you don’t do any physical effort. The most strenuous thing you’ll do is your daily chore – either sweeping, mopping, washing toilets or wiping the tables in the dining hall.
Arrive one day early if you can. The retreat starts on the 1st of every month, but the registration takes place one day earlier. It’s nice to get to know some people before you stop talking for 10 days.
Don’t be afraid of the creatures. During the retreat I saw frogs, spiders, big geckos, centipedes, a snake, a monitor lizard and a tiny dead scorpion. In the event that you get bitten or stung, the people who are in charge of the retreat will help you. When I was there they said last time a guy was stung by a scorpion was 3 years ago. He spent the day in the infirmary and was in a lot of pain but he survived. They claim to have a cure for a scorpion sting so you should be fine.
Accept the fact that it’s going to be challenging. I don’t want to say difficult because it’s not the same for everybody, but it’s definitely going to be different to what you’re used to, especially if this is your first time doing this kind of retreat.
Don’t give yourself a hard time if you can’t meditate for more than two minutes. 🙂 I know I didn’t. I wanted to go to this place to relax. Everything else was just a bonus.
Ask questions. The organizers of the retreat and the monks in charge will be happy to talk to you, whether it’s a question about meditation or life in the monastery. Don’t expect an hour-long conversation but more like a quick chat.
Be respectful and helpful. That means follow the rules, no smoking or drinking and absolutely no drugs or sex. Also, no chatting with the other participants at the retreat. If you break these rules you might be asked to leave.
Take plenty of pictures before you hand in your camera. I only took a few and on the last day it rained, so that was it. No more pictures.
Remember this is only 10 days of your life. You may go through a whole range of emotions before the end but this is normal. This is a time of introspection, of spending time with yourself. It could be uncomfortable but it can be done.
One of the girls had a really hard time at the retreat. She would walk around in her own world of sadness. The organizers tried to help her, to convince her to stay on. She left on the seventh day. Many people will leave. It’s a fact. You’ll see the empty seats in the meditation hall and you’ll wonder where they are. Before I left I asked one of the organizers how many people were at the retreat. I was told 120. By the end there were about 93 left. You can leave at any time but I really encourage you to stay.

Thai monk in the library.

I really enjoyed my time at the retreat and would recommend this to anyone. The hardest part was dealing with the sleeping arrangement but after the third day I got used to that to some degree. However, I was never able to let go of a tiny fear of waking up in the middle of the night with a centipede or scorpion crawling inside the mosquito net. There was no insect screen at the window and I had to leave it open to get fresh air during the night.

Touring the monastery grounds. There’s a forest going up a hill at the back of the monastery. There’s also a pond with steps leading out to water. Very quiet and peaceful.

On the last day (day 11), I went on a tour at the main monastery. The purpose of the tour was to find out more about Ajarn Buddhadasa, the founder of the retreat. “Ajarn” is a term of respect and it means “teacher” in Thai, but not only in the strict school way. It’s also used when addressing someone who’s an expert in their field, or someone who has spent years studying and teaching a particular thing.
After becoming a Buddhist monk at the age of 20, Ajarn Buddhadasa wanted to build a retreat where international visitors could come and find out more about Buddhism, a place where people could go back to nature and simplicity, living a life based on a few basic principles.
We saw where he lived, the place where he was cremated, a library of sorts (it looked a bit like a church, with painted walls and pillars), but I didn’t see any books; a monk was there, available for questions. I didn’t ask any, my mind felt blank and relaxed and I just walked around looking at the inscriptions on the walls.
Coming back to Bangkok felt like slowly re-entering another world. I was not used to speaking loudly and the noise felt abrasive to my ears. For a few weeks afterwards I felt calm and relaxed, even though I didn’t practice meditating on my own, and even now, some of that calmness has stayed with me. I know I’ve said this before but I am very grateful to have participated in this retreat. I do believe I came out of it a better person.

Translated text of Ajarn Buddhadasa’s talks on Buddhism.

These are some of the books I got after the retreat, one of them “Life Should Be Harnessed By Two Bufflaoes” – I love that title.

This is the official page of the retreat Wat Suan Mokkh

Posted in From The Land of Smiles, Interesting Places, Travel, Updates | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Ten things I’ve learned from the retreat at Wat Suan Mokkh (part 3)

Part 1 and Part 2

Interesting musing. Any thoughts?

1. It’s liberating not to place so much importance on the way I look, at least sometimes. At the retreat we all wore comfortable clothes, that means baggy pants and loose T-shirts. Shoulders needed be covered, no transparent outfits, and the pants or skirts had to reach below the knee. Nobody cared if you haven’t brushed your hair or you were so sleepy you were about to pass out during meditation. Many of us felt the same. I didn’t see my face in a mirror for 11 days. When I did see my face, in the airport restroom, I was surprised to see I had a tan but other than that I was pretty much myself. I don’t know what I expected. 🙂
2. Not talking for a while can be a blessing. You see so much more and your mind quiets down. Imagine you’re standing in line for lunch but the person in front of you is taking their sweet time getting the food. There’s no point in getting angry. You will eat, eventually. And there’s no hurry. It’s not like you have to be somewhere. So you let go of your irritation (because, remember, you can’t talk and tell the person in front of you to hurry up because you’re hungry) and you just wait for your turn.
3. Not wearing a watch can be liberating. Time was measured with the bell. I heard the bell and I knew I had to change the activity. The schedule was easy to follow and I didn’t even have to think, just follow the routine and if I forgot what was next, I just followed everybody else.
4. Complete silence would have been ten times harder. We listened to talks given by monks and laywomen and we chanted in Pali (the language of the Buddha). Actually the chanting was one of my favorite activities because the monk who guided us made some really good jokes (many of them involving the wooden pillow). I did not find the silence hard to deal with because there were always people around. Besides, I’m a quiet person by nature so this was actually quite nice. But not to hear another voice for ten days would have been a lot more challenging.
5. A smile is an amazing thing. It transforms people in incredible ways and makes them beautiful. One of the women at the retreat – she was tall and a bit scary and she always had this intimidating look on her face – she smiled at me one day and it was such an incredible thing, it transformed her completely. For a few moments she changed from a grumpy woman to an amazingly beautiful one. That smile lasted only a few seconds but it’s something I will remember for a long time. I smiled a lot, since this was the only means of communication with the other participants at the retreat. A smile can make someone’s day. I know it made mine.
6. Pain can come and go, like a visitor. We were told to try and acknowledge the pain, even make friends with it, then let it go. Pain is not ours so we should not hold on to it. Three days into the retreat I wanted to cry, that’s how much my back was hurting from sitting meditation. But I realized it was my fault for trying to keep a rigid posture. I relaxed, and in time the pain went away.
7. I don’t need as much food as I think I do. During this retreat I was able to distance myself from what I wanted and to eat only what I needed. It was one of the best things I learned and it changed my relationship with food. From eating for pleasure, I began to think of food as fuel for the body. It’s true that I’ve heard this countless of time – food is fuel – but it never quite got through me. I also lost a few kilos, something I haven’t been able to do in a long time, even after months of exercise.
8. Practice “loving kindness”. That means refraining from killing any creature, from the mosquito to the snake. Spiders don’t want to be in your room, cockroaches don’t hate you and snakes are not evil. They’re all creatures, trying to live, just like we do. This is a practice I’ve been familiar with and I try to follow as often as I can. I used to kill cockroaches – they give me the creeps, but I’ve become more tolerant of them now. That’s a big improvement for me.
At the retreat, I spent a few minutes every evening looking around the room, hoping there wasn’t anything in there bigger than a mosquito. There wasn’t. Some of the girls at the retreat really freaked out when they saw a spider or a frog. I really like frogs, and had fun removing a couple of them from windows and putting them away, in the grass. I don’t feel quite the same about spiders but they don’t freak me out as much as they used to.
9. Speaking in public is still not something I’m comfortable with but I can do it and I actually say things that make sense. On the last evening we were invited to share our experience at the retreat. Usually being in front of a microphone makes me incredibly anxious. My voice shakes and my palms get sweaty. But I got up and I went and said something and the next day people came to me and told me how much they enjoyed my speech. I don’t remember all of it. It’s like somebody else took over my voice. But people’s reactions made me happy.
10. I should keep trying new things, even sleeping on a hard bed with a wooden pillow. Monks and nuns sleep like that every night. The body gets used to it. (We visited the nuns’ house. The rooms look pretty much like cells, except there are no bars at the windows. Everything is clean, neat, no personal touches. It felt…oppressive.) Besides, unless you want to follow the monastic life, this is temporary. If they can do it for years, why can’t I at least try it for ten days? That’s what I told myself. Besides, you never know what life throws at you and maybe one day you can say “hey, this is nothing, I once slept on a wooden pillow.”  So I did sleep on the wooden pillow one day during nap time and then again for one whole night. I woke up a few times and wished that bell would ring because waking up at 4 a.m. was suddenly more appealing than putting my head on what I lovingly called “the chopping block”. But I’m glad I tried. I also cheated a little. In the storage room I found a thin sponge mat and together with my yoga mat they made for an acceptable bed. I also had a small inflatable pillow. It wasn’t the same as sleeping in a normal bed but it was an improvement.

I’m sure there are many things I’ve missed when putting together this list. It could have very well been 20 things instead of 10, but I tend to run away with the words and 10 seemed like a sensible number.

Next time I’m posting the 4th and final part: Things to consider and practical advice

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Ten Days at Wat Suan Mokkh (part 2)

CLICK HERE to read the first part.

4 a.m. – Rise and shine. Meditation eludes me. Silence.

After a night at the monastery I was looking forward to seeing The Dharma Hermitage. I went there in the morning with the other travelers, most of them in their 20’s and 30’s, backpacking through the world. It took about 20 minutes to walk there, while our bags were being brought up in a pickup truck. We went through the registration process which involves a short interview, picked a chore to do from a list and left our “distractions” (books, phone, camera) at the office. These 10 days are free from any form of technology, although some quick notes are permitted while listening to the talks. I wrote in a notebook nearly every day, in my room.

Inside the women’s dorm area. I loved waking up to see that tree just outside my door every morning.

The schedule was the same every day with small changes: rise, meditation, yoga, meditation, breakfast, chores, more meditation, talks about Buddhism and meditation, more meditation, lunch, chores, meditation, chanting, evening tea, more meditation, walking, meditation, lights out. You may think it’s a lot of meditation but all the activities are arranged in such a way that you don’t spend more than an hour doing each of them. Chores ranged from sweeping leaves to cleaning the toilets. I saw that chore list early on and because it’s a “first come first served” kind of thing, I was able to put my name down for sweeping the dining hall after breakfast and lunch. We also had some free time which I spent taking a nap. You can be sure that after waking up at 4 a.m. every morning, a nap was essential for my sanity and most of us made it a daily habit.

My bedroom for 10 days. That’s my backpack, my yoga mat, and in the corner it’s the old fashioned lantern with a candle.

I made some improvements. Notice my comfy mattress?

The famous wooden pillow. It’s not as bad as it sounds.

Waking up at 4 a.m. is challenging. The first couple of mornings I didn’t know where I was or where that terrible sound came from. It was the bell. But I learned quickly on that it was best to have my flashlight handy, look around before I got out of “bed”, and try to be awake and alert on the way to the bathroom (even if I was too sleepy to walk straight), because it was dark and I certainly didn’t want to step on a frog or spider or even a scorpion or a snake.

We were told the type of meditation we practiced at this retreat was called Anapanasiti (mindfullness of breathing). This means being aware of our breath and trying to focus on it. This was my first serious attempt and it was not easy, but I didn’t give myself a hard time over it. Breathing in and out, trying to visualize the air going through my body and back out without allowing my mind to wander was a hard task. My mind went like this:

Breathe in. Out.
In. Out.
Hey, this feels so relaxing.
I wonder what bird makes that shrill sound.
What time is it?
Breathe in. Out.
Slow. Don’t rush.
Oh, I could do this all day….this is not difficult at all.
How many people are in this hall? There are five rows on the women’s side, and it must be like 12 people in a row, so that means….
Don’t think! Just breathe, in and out.

Well, you get the idea. I was actually amused to see how my mind went off in different directions. What I found really interesting was that I never got bored. I would remember things, visualize things and have these funny internal monologues, but it never got bored and I found this strange. I would get bored at home, with so many things to occupy me: books, movies, and that bottomless pit called THE INTERNET. But there, at the retreat, walking around barefoot under the trees, watching the birds and the bugs and just being in the moment, there was nothing but a feeling of contentment. I felt carefree, light, even happy.
It was during one of those moments when my mind was doing anything but meditating that I really understood what this retreat was about. What I got from this retreat was something so simple it could be condensed into one word: TIME. I had time to spend with myself, for myself, time away from distractions, from people (as much as I love people there are moments when I’d rather be alone), from obligations, from doing things that are expected of me. Time, this essential concept we never seem to get enough of these days. Time to breathe, to be alone, to be in the moment, to enjoy watching a bird or a tree. Having to follow a certain program every day can be monotonous but it also frees one’s mind from having to make decisions. You just go with the flow. It’s an incredible thing, to be able to give yourself to the present. Sometimes I forget that.

Next time: Ten things I’ve learned from this retreat

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Ten Days at Wat Suan Mokkh

Hello, again. I know it’s been a year since my last post but here I am, writing about something I’m excited to share with you. Don’t ask me what happened this past year. A lot has happened and most of it wasn’t that great. But what you’re about to read was (great, I mean).
In May I went on a silent meditation retreat for 10 days. I’ve never tried meditation before and I’m not Buddhist but ever since I’ve read about Wat Suan Mokkh in a book of travel essays called “To Thailand With Love”, I’ve wanted to go see this place for myself.
Because this was going to be a really long post I decided to split it into several parts and add a new one every few days.

“A retreat at the Suan Mokkh monastery is an emotional roller-coaster. But if you survive it, it will cleanse your soul.”

Colin Hinshelwood

For days I’ve been sitting in front of my computer trying to put my experience at Wat Suan Mokkh into words. It’s harder than I thought. There are so many things I want to say and to explain, but taken out of context they will probably mean little to anybody else. But I will try, hard as it is, to tell you about my personal experience.

That’s what I like to call “a letter to humanity”. Written by the founder of the retreat, who died over 20 years ago.

Even though I’ve spent nearly half my life in a Buddhist country I haven’t really paid much attention to Buddhism as a way of life. Sure, I knew some of the rules and what’s appropriate and not, especially when visiting temples, but not much more than that. I know Thai people who go to meditate at temples for a few days, but these temples are in Bangkok and frankly this city is such a tumultuous place that somehow, in my mind, it seems like the last place suitable for meditation. However, when I read about Wat Suan Mokkh something clicked in my mind. This, I told myself, this is where I should go. The prospect of spending 10 days in silence, sleeping on a hard bed with a wooden pillow and eating two vegetarian meals a day appealed to me. Okay, maybe not the hard bed part with the wooden pillow but the rest of it, especially the silence. I wanted something different, a bit of adventure, something I haven’t done before. A boot camp for the mind, I thought. As it turned out, Hinshelwood’s words were spot on.

I did my research – read anything I could find about the place and watched videos of people talking about their experience. I booked my ticket and flew to Surat Thani province (an hour away by plane from Bangkok and about 8 hours by train) two days before the retreat started.

Arrival. Abandon all worries, all who enter here. Chaiya
I arrived at Wat Suan Mokkh on the 29 of April, at around 10 a.m. I figured this would give me time to familiarize myself with the surroundings and prepare for the days ahead. The retreat starts on the 1st of every month but participants at the retreat need to be there before 3 p.m. on the previous day. I was so excited about this journey I just wanted an extra day.
There are two separate places – one is the monastery “headquarters”, where anyone can stay for up to 7 days, and the other one, called International Dharma Hermitage, is where the 10-day retreat takes place. They are within walking distance of each other.

Wat Suan Mokkh or “The Garden of Liberation” lives up to its name. As soon as I passed through the gates at the entrance to the monastery, the world seemed to have altered. I was in awe, the kind you feel when you’re seeing something extraordinary. There were trees everywhere, tall and green and loud with cicadas. Monks and visitors walked around. Everyone was smiling. I felt welcomed and relaxed instantly. I was so immersed in the atmosphere I almost forgot to take pictures. My relaxed attitude was somewhat altered when I saw “the room” where I was going to spend the night. Sure, I’ve seen pictures online, but reality still took me by surprise. The bed was a slab of concrete, and the wooden pillow its worthy companion. My first night felt a bit like sleeping in a crypt, which is no surprise considering how many vampire stories I read.

Chaiya, near the train station

That day I went to Chaiya with a couple of young American travelers I met at the monastery. A small town just a few kilometers away from the monastery, Chaiya’s most impressive feature is probably a coffee shop, which has Wi-Fi, fancy cakes and even fancier drinks. Think Starbucks on a smaller scale. There’s also a small train station, and the rest is just rows of town houses with shops on the ground floor.

At the monastery, bedtime is 9.30 p.m. Facilities include individual showers with cold water, there is only soap so you have to bring your own toiletries, and something I found extraordinary: there were NO BINS anywhere! Isn’t that a scary thought? Visitors are responsible for disposing of their own trash. I had a vision of myself carrying a plastic bag with me for ten days. What if there were no bins at the meditation place? As it turned out, there were bins at the Dharma Hermitage. That was a relief. It did make me more aware of the trash I produce and I did my best to keep that to a minimum.

Next time: 4 a.m. – Rise and shine. Meditation eludes me. Silence.

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Musings on time & spine poetry

It took me a while to realize that time was not what it used to be. There’s less of it now or so it seems to me. That being said, instead of complaining that I don’t have an hour or two or four to write my next blog post, I’m going to steal pieces of time and use them to write shorter posts until I can manage to get a bigger chunk in which to think and dwell in order to find all the beautiful words I want to use to write my next review. Also, shorter sentences would probably be better. That, however, is a hard habit to break.

*

I saw the “book spine poetry” on a few blogs but it wasn’t until reading the ones on TJ’s blog that I suddenly got the urge to go and look at the books on my shelves. If you haven’t read them, go have a look. The second poem she posted made me smile. It’s perfect.

For each poem I wrote I chose a book. The first one had to include Winnetou, because it’s one of my favorite books which I’m hoping to re-read soon. For the second one, there was something about On the Holloway Road which called out to me. I quite enjoyed that book.

In the Desert
Our Mutual Friend
Winnetou
The Deer Slayer
Haunts
Weaveworld

Red Earth and Pouring Rain
On the Holloway Road
After Dark

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Mircea Cartarescu – Why We Love Women (De ce iubim femeile)

Mircea Cartarescu’s book is a collection of personal essays on women. I’m not sure why I picked it up; maybe it was the idea that soon enough I would be far away from Romanian literature (the odds of finding anything in this language in Bangkok are pretty slim) so I’d better take advantage of the time I had left and the books available. Strangely enough, a few days after finishing the book I found out about Romanian Writers Challenge hosted by Snow Feathers and thought this was too much of a coincidence. Hence the review.
I really liked this book up to the last story. That one robbed it of a 5 star rating. But bear with me, we’ll get there.

Mircea Cartarescu

Mircea Cartarescu

Twenty-one short essays about women – women who were unforgettable for different reason, some, because of their beauty, others because of what they did (or didn’t do), or the way they came back into the author’s life after a long time. Stories of lust, love, eroticism, betrayal, tragedy, all plucked from the folds of memory, dusted and printed on the page, ready to be smiled upon, frowned upon and even shed a tear upon. I smiled reading about Carturescu’s self-professed awkwardness and I can very well imagine the strange, thin youth who used to go around quoting favorite authors to the dismay of acquaintances and girls in particular. I kept smiling when he talked about finding a room filled with old books in a dilapidated building, and spending hours of pleasure immersed in reading, sealed away from the world until one day the room along with its treasure was gone.

It’s hard to describe with accuracy the tone of some of the stories. Imbued with the air of a long gone era – some of them take place during the communist regime that ended in 1989 – I found myself laughing at some of the expressions I found nearly impossible to translate. I wonder what the English translation of this book is like. Although Cartarescu is older than I am (he was born in 1956 and is still living), he talks about a Bucharest that doesn’t seem that old – a dilapidated house, a subway station, the gray apartment buildings rising tall and ugly (they’re still there), a black and white photograph (my parents still have those, where people look like ghosts printed on hard pieces of paper with jagged border all around), a big market that still exists where Gypsies are on the prowl for wallets belonging to inattentive customers. This is probably the main reason why I felt such a connection with these stories – he writes about the familiar, things and people I can readily imagine and accept because at some point I’ve seen/met them.

There are some stories that are not that personal – Zaraza is one of them. This is one of my favorites because it’s a tale of a love story so intense and dramatic I couldn’t help but be moved and immensely saddened by it. According to the author, this is a true story that happened in 1944 when Bucharest was caught in the grip of war and the nightlife was luxurious, loud and tumultuous. Two famous singers vied for public attention, Cristian Vasile si Zavaidoc. They were rivals and both under the protection of local gangs. Because they were so popular nobody would touch them, although Zavaidoc wished his rival’s death and even asked a local gangster to kill him. But the man liked Cristian Vasile’s music and refused to kill him. He killed his lover instead, the famous Gypsy woman Zaraza. Her death was the end of Cristian Vasile’s life as a singer. After she was cremated, he stole her ashes and ate them one spoon at a time, then tried to kill himself by drinking a toxic substance. He survived, lost his voice and kept on living, a broken man who made his living as a stagehand in a theatre, nearly voiceless and forgotten.
Probably his most famous song which bears the name of his beloved has survived and you can listen to it here:

The last essay in the book is an ode to women everywhere. Carturescu sees women as candid beings, sensual, sometimes difficult to understand but always great to be loved. He also shows a somewhat archaic understanding of women by claiming they don’t do things I’m sure most of them are familiar with. Here’s a 5 minute YouTube reading of that last essay. I found minute 4.20 particularly funny.

I enjoyed these stories/essays. They kept me alert, the writing is smooth and lyrical and sensual, with a pinch of the bizarre, and Cartarescu’s flair for the dramatic stands out. This is certainly a great book and one I recommend. You can find the English translation by following this link.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in February-March 2016

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