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East AND West: Re-arranged

October 30, 2013

By Angela Jeffs

October 2013

It seemed cyclical somehow to return to Provence for a repeat of Leonard Jacobson’s  retreat-vacation ‘Heaven on Earth’ one year on. It had not been an easy week in October 2012; how would it be second time around?

On October 4 I found myself on the train from Paris, again heading south to Avignon, but this time sitting backwards (to the engine and the past) facing forwards (towards Scotland).

The French capital was cold and rain swept when we drew out of Gare du Lyon.

As mountains and medieval hilltop villages of the Massif Central rose to either side sunshine broke through, leaving in our wake a majestic rainbow. Soon enough we were south of northern damp and cold. My body responded to the shift in temperature; bones and joints stopped complaining, began loosening, flexing.

But I could not relax. There were things on my mind.

It had begun with a meeting of an organisation (local to Perthshire) established to support women developing independent businesses: GrowBiz.  Asked about the fees I charged for my writing programme, I realised (not for the first time but in this case well and truly put on the spot) how hard it has always been to value my work in monetary terms.

Fired up to be more realistic, I mailed a woman I’d been happily counseling for free by phone and skype and laid out my charges. I lost her on the spot.

This was upsetting enough; such a mis-judgement on my part rocked me.  No sooner had I picked myself up than it was time to pack for the retreat, only to be knocked back all over again.

It was at Edinburgh Airport that I discovered my bank card was not in my wallet.

Nor did the pin code listed on my iPad for my VISA card appear valid.  Akii secured some cash for me, but I knew it would be far from enough. (And here’s another thought-provoking thing:  however much money I carry when travelling, it’s never enough.)

I tried several ATM machines at Charles de Gaulle Airport, but none would accept it. Finally I got lucky at the Postale (Post Office), down in the basement: took out 500 euros, changed borrowed Akii’s Scottish pounds into useable currency and took stock.

Not having the card with which I’d paid online, I settled the hotel booking in cash and ate out, frugally. Then the next morning bought my travel ticket also in cash, and boarded the train. I did have enough, I estimated, to pay for the accommodation at Les Belles Heures, where the retreat was to be held and we were to stay.  In addition I put aside the sum required to get me back to Paris and stay the night of return as planned.

This left me 25 euros to survive the week, self-catering, and with bills to pay for taxi fares, a communal dinner and an excursion.

Not for the first time, I felt shaky. Not as shaky as I proved to be in South America in 1999, when I was dipped for my credit card in Chile and mugged for just about everything else in Uruguay.

No, it’s not the first time that I’ve been stripped and reduced. Yet there was a difference this time round: as I had recorded on my iPad on the plane: “What a fuck up. Maybe I ought not to have boarded. But I keep telling my self that all is fine right now, in each and every moment, remember my own advice: all shall be well, etc. Very hard though… the money lessons keep serving themselves up.”

This is what had got me through the first year of transition: faith that all things would pass, that all would (ultimately) be fine.  The trick was not to get caught up in the drama of the situation – memories of the past, anxiety about the future, allowing them to carry me into nostalgia, unhappiness and fear. What I was feeling on this part of my journey however was not fear, but bewildered embarrassment and shame as to why I was in this position all over again. Another pattern, I realized, and one that my soul/psyche/call it what you will, had set me up to deal with on the retreat. Nothing happens by accident. A grand plan was afoot, and I needed to face and accept it.

But other things came first. Initially my reluctant move from the bedroom I had chosen in our cottage on arrival to one much smaller up a steep flight of stairs, to give way to a late arrival: a woman using a cane who claimed it as her own. As I heaved my case upwards, I heard a furious muttering: “I know I’m being graceless but have to say I’m very pissed off about this, VERY pissed off.”

I did not feel proud of myself. Careless, disorganized AND graceless.

The next morning, walking to the village Maire (Mayor’s office) where we assembled to start work, I saw the Japanese woman who had been on the retreat the previous year and approached her all smiles. As it turned out she was less happy to see me, and told me so in no uncertain words. She had not liked me. All I had wanted to talk about was Japan and Fukushima. And then because she did not, I had ignored her.

The misunderstanding – again the mis-judgement – was astounding to me.  I explained that the reason I had stayed away was because of my acute embarrassment not to be fluent in Japanese after so many years. Being Japanese – or perhaps simply being from Japan – she was the one person with whom I identified and wanted to spend time (which on reflection I realize was crazy). Yet I stayed away, becoming increasingly aloof as my shame grew, and so did she.

It was not an edifying start to the week.  Careless, disorganized, graceless and now embarrassed and guilty. As old childhood feelings of being misunderstood and emotionally abandoned came flooding back, I became increasingly wobbly, in session and out.

By Monday I was near to broke, money less. It’s easy to survive on tomatoes, cheese and baquettes in such a place, such a climate, but being surrounded by vineyards (and Chateauneuf  du Pape just down the road) wine called and I could not afford even the cheapest bottle. The other women in my house were proving to be a joy, especially the two Danes who I had met on the May retreat, who cooked the most marvelous meals and never failed to include me. But the generosity was so one-sided. I could not bear to feel so reduced, so diminished.  They said they liked having me around because I made them laugh. But for some reason it didn’t feel enough.

I decided I had to come clean about my dilemma. It was, I realized, what I had come for, to face: my deep sense of shame. Shame to be a woman of my age, intelligence and experience in such ridiculous situation.

Firstly I stood up in front of the 60+ people gathered from eleven nations and apologized to the Japanese woman for causing her so much distress. (It turned it she had actually spoken about it to others and there was a general consensus that I was a bit weird if not downright odd.  A shocking revelation in itself. Moi? Odd?)

Later, when the time seemed right (after the subject of shame and blame came up in sharings) I raised my hand again, and this time was invited to go sit beside Leonard. It felt both natural and un-natural, comfortable and un- comfortable. I could feel the attentive loving presence of the others which again was both reassuring and painful. And so he guided me seamlessly through the matters most troubling to me, leading me through long-held and deep feelings of shame and embarrassment through grief and tears into lightness and laughter.

My difficulties with money went back to a wartime and postwar childhood in which there was never enough… enough food, enough money. Learning to both love and hate money with equal passion I had stolen food from the family larder, pennies from my mother’s purse which left me with a strong sense of guilt disguised as bravado.  As I wrote (cleverly but crassly, unkindly I realise now) in my book, “Poverty became my father, but it never became me.”

I grew up determined to be financially independent but never ever stingy; make it and give it away (or let it drift through my fingers like sand) became my motto.  So I would experience famine or feast throughout my life, hating the very subject of money, money, money…  A surplus in the bank? Off we’d go (when my children were small) to the French Riviera and live like millionaires; not far from Roaix, I realize now. The next month we’d be back to living on baked beans and I’d be sleepless with anxiety as to how to pay the bills.

At the end of the session, I was over-whelmed with offers of help, cash and loans. Yet again I heard myself saying thank you but no.  But pride cometh before a fall. After the Postale in Vaison de Romaine (with a Tuesday market since the sixteenth century) refused to cough up (Citibank having become suspicious of all these attempts to get cash in so many different places) all I could afford to buy was a plastic bag in which to put all the lovely things I could not afford to purchase.

Another lesson in humility soon provided itself. Bumping into my house mate with the cane – we had been housed together as two Scots! –  she offered me a cup of coffee in a local café and I discovered more common ground than ever imagined. Judgement, I realised was still a monumental challenge…

A second lesson arrived soon enough when I stood up again in session and admitted defeat. If anyone was willing to repeat their offers of help, I would accept with deep gratitude.

One American turned round and gave me 3 euros, all she had in her pocket. Another pushed a 50 euro note into my pocket. A German woman handed me 20. This alone was more than enough to pay my debts and take me through to the end of the week, but still there was more.

The American who had given me the note – given, he emphasized, not lent – took me by the arm after the next morning session and led me to lunch at the bistro across the road. And on the day most went off on an excursion but half a dozen of us stayed behind  – for my part simply because I needed down time to try and process what was happening – the lovely woman from Venezuela who had been on the retreat in 2012 took me for another lunch, but this time in the local two star Michelin restaurant. Famine or feast indeed!

I felt a new lightness. An unconditional acceptance of my failings.  Accidents happen, everyone said (and which, of course, I – possibly from a position of spiritual complacency –  would have said to someone else in a similar situation). No one had shouted at me, ridiculed or held me to task, made me feel guilty and stupid. No-one had blamed me.

The rest of the retreat-vacation passed in what can only be described as a daze of enlightened relief.

Not only had Leonard and his partner Mary generously paid for various commitments to Les Belles Heures, but they chose to sit across the table from me at the communal dinner; suddenly I had not just one friend, but two. Last year, and in Denmark, I had witnessed Leonard offering immense patience and kindness to everyone else, but felt he was difficult, reserved and irritable with me. Although I responded to his generous tough love approach, I felt he did not really like me. Had he changed, or had I? Maybe I was the one who to him appeared difficult, reserved, irritable.  (I know he had identified me as spiritually complacent.)  This was more than a thought; it was a revelation.

You need to worry less about what other people think of you, he noted, snapping a photo of me. “You’re too bound up in self-image.”

Back here in Scotland, I look at photographs of myself, and it’s so true.  It’s rare to find one in which I don’t look self-conscious , unhappy with my self.  There are a couple in which the camera has caught me unaware, and I look a different person: light, happy, full of exuberance. Mostly though I appear to be trying to echo – please? –  my mother, who as a fashionista was 100 per cent caught up in self-image.

Suddenly it feels as if most of my life I have been in a dead zone.  And although I have had struggles since returning home – an aggrieved discontent fuelled by nightly deep and powerful dreams that initially left me exhausted but now I am beginning to allow to pass like clouds in an otherwise clear sky – I feel a settling, a quietening of mind, body and spirit.

As Leonard noted, all smiles, on the last morning: “Well what a difference. Just look what we have here. A re-arranged Angela.”

To which I replied: “Yes, thank you. I look forward to further re-arrangements.”

Which is why in large part I have abandoned the series title for 2012-2013, East TO West, and moved on to East AND West, which implies an accepting integration in itself.

 

About the author: After training in theatre and Laban dance, Angela Jeffs (http://www.angelajeffs.com/) stepped sideways into London publishing. She worked freelance as an editor from 1973, then reinvented herself in Japan as a journalist and writer from 1986. She was a weekly columnist for The Japan Times for 22 years, and Japan Correspondent for Asia Magazine in Hong Kong from 1989-1996. Her book Insider's Tokyo, commissioned from Singapore, was published in 2001. Since 2005 she has been developing and facilitating a programme of therapeutic creative writing under the title Drawing on The Writer Within (www.thewriterwithin.net/). Her latest book, Chasing Shooting Stars: A South American Paper Trail into the Past, can be ordered via Amazon.com.
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