Weekly Reading Report

Last weekend I gave a talk at the NSW Dickens Society, and they very kindly gave me a $50 gift voucher at Abbey's Bookshop. I wanted to use it quickly, as I have a tendency to let vouchers sit around. So on Wednesday, after my Odyssey class, I went down to Abbey's to use it up. There were plenty of things I wanted, but I saw they had Nicola Barker's The Cauliflower.

I have wanted this book for a while, since my friend Robert at the Vedanta Centre mentioned it to me. I have been very interested in Sri Ramakrishna for about twenty years, and have read many books about him - including Christopher Isherwood's Ramakrishna and His Disciples and Romain Rolland's The Life of Ramakrishna. I am very interested in seeing what a 21st century author might have to say about him in a work of fiction.

I still had money left on the voucher, so I also got the new Edmund White novel, Our Young Man. Of course, I started on that one almost immediately, and am just about halfway through it. It's odd. But I adore Edmund White, and even when he's odd he's incredibly, compulsively readable. Lots of handsome men, sex and real estate. What more does one want in a book? But I have to admit that these days I enjoy White's memoir more than his fiction.

I gave a talk on Noel Coward at Ashfield Library on Saturday, and a very sweet friend came along and brought me little pile of books she had found for me at second-hand sales. It was a lovely gesture, and exactly the sort of thing to delight my heart. If only people knew how deliriously happy I am with a couple of second-hand books. Better than emerald rings (which are mentioned in White's book).

Most importantly she gave me the most exquisite, mint-condition, first edition of Cecil Beaton's Fair Lady, a collection of the diary entries he made while making that film. Seriously, it's such a fine edition it looks brand new, even though it was printed in 1964.

She also gave me a paperback of Beaton in the Sixties, a 2003 collection of his unexpurgated diaries. Both of these are handy and of great interest at the moment because I am putting together a talk for September on Cecil Beaton. Of course, I have always loved the man.

The only other book I am giving some time to at the moment is Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic. I have been reading it very slowly, mostly because you can. I really enjoy whatever I do read - it seems to be an excellent book. Useful, too, because I am giving a couple of workshops at the SA Writers Centre this week, so I am always looking for new inspiration.

Weekly Reading Report

I am giving a talk on my beloved Noel Coward on Saturday June 18, so I am totally absorbed in The Autobiography of Noel Coward. This is a collection of Coward's two published autobiographies, Present Indicative and Future Indefinite, along with the ten extant pages of his unfinished work of memoir, Past Conditional. It is, of course, all you would expect from Coward - funny, camp and sophisticated, and strangely honest (despite his avoidance of the constant question of his sexuality). I look forward to returning to the book each day.

While randomly picking up books at home doing my research for Coward, I found myself immersed in Tennessee Williams: An Intimate Biography by his brother Dakin Williams. I am always interested in anything to do with Williams, and now I keep picking this book up, "just to read a couple of pages." It helped me find out that Noel Coward starred in the film of one of Williams' plays, in a part originally written for a woman. Seems perfect.

The book in my bag is a new self-help title from the revered Louise Hay. Life Loves You is an absolute delight, though it's a bit cheeky as a publishing project - it is basically an account of chats between Hay and the book's real author, Robert Holden. That said, it's terrific fun, and I have found it incredibly inspiring and helpful. I recommend you grab a copy and, like me, keep it in your bag. It's the perfect pick-me-up when you are waiting for a train. 

The final book I have been dipping into this week is Richard Ellmann's Oscar Wilde. this is, of course, one of my favourite books, and it had an enormous influence on me in my youth. I have promised to re-read it this year, but every time I pick it up it seems so enormous that i find it difficult to commit myself. Even still, every time I read a couple of pages I am reminded of some fascinating fact I have forgotten, or some unexpected 19th century connection I had never really made before. It really is a superb book.


Writing Your Prayers

Sit quietly for a minute and think of a person or situation your think might need your prayers and your spiritual support.

Perhaps you have a few, your head is filled with people - it doesn't matter, just write them down as they come to you.

Now, write down what you would normally think or say if you were praying or sending them good wishes.

Write your hopes for them down simply and honestly – no-one is marking or checking it.

Put down on paper the prayer you might otherwise be carrying in your head.

I write these down as they come to me – I start a fresh page in my journal and record one or two lines, whatever I feel is needed. And each morning and evening I go to these pages and send my love to these people and wish them the best. It is a simple, private, routine.

But it is profound – and I know it makes a difference.

Start keeping a spiritual diary and use it to get systematic about your spiritual study.

I know you are all behind in your spiritual reading. I certainly am - it's going to take me a couple of hundred years to catch up on it all.

This year I hope you set yourself some ambitious goals around reading – and your spiritual journal is where you can record this. By writing these goals down you are recording and creating a self-guided course in spiritual development.

Keep a list of books you want to read on your spiritual journey, and keep a list of those you have read. Do always remember to date them.

This seemingly mundane ritual is one that can have an enormous impact, and it is a great gift to yourself later on. You can reflect on how you grew through reading.

And it goes without saying that you should keep notes as you read, jotting down meaningful passages in your journal.

Weekly Reading Report

In an effort to force me to write on my blog and to bring some freshness to it, I have decided to offer up, each Sunday, a weekly reading report, letting you all know what I am reading and why.

So, here's what's been keeping me from reaching my physical fitness goals over the past seven days:

I've been reading Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood very slowly and carefully because on Saturday June 11 I am giving a talk about it at the NSW Dickens Society. This has been backed up by trips to the NSW State Library to read the commentary and criticism around the book (there's a lot!) and it really has been the most fascinating exercise. I have decided I am going to do this every year - read and study one of Dickens' novels closely and give a talk about it. The Mystery of Edwin Drood happens to be the NSW Dickens' Society's Book of the Year, so a few dozen people at least have been reading it in Sydney. Absolutely fascinating, especially because it is unfinished - poor old Dickens died while writing it.

I have also been reading the Walter Shewring translation of The Odyssey because I am doing an 8-week course on it at the Sydney WEA. It is quite a fascinating exercise, and I am enjoying it, though the reading can be rather slow at times. One thing is certain - once you start reading The Odyssey you realise just how much of our culture is linked to it. Names, stories, ideas - they keep popping up in my life again and again.

I have been keeping myself inspired with Alana Fairchild's 55 Keys, a beautiful book meant for small nibbles. Alana is a friend of mine, and I admire her work very much. This little hardcover is filled with inspiring stories and ideas, and keeps me focused on the good things in life. I think I will just keep reading it all year, constantly turning it back to the beginning.

And finally, I have been sent to review one of the most massive books I have seen in ages. It is The Miracle Power of Your Mind: The Joseph Murphy Treasury and it is big - really big! Break-your-foot big, hard-to-hold-up-in-bed big. And utterly fabulous - I love that Tarcher Penguin have done this, collecting together the greatest works of one of the greatest New Thought writers. I have read and re-read Murphy's The Power of Your Subconscious Mind over the years (it was a great favourite among the staff at the old Adyar Bookshop), so I look forward to reading his books together and in context. I may need to tape up my forearms though.

The Spiritual Journal - 1 Day Retreat at Vedanta Hall, Croydon, Sydney - Sunday 15 May, 2016

This month I am conducting a one-day spiritual journaling retreat at Vedanta Hall in Croydon, Sydney, and I would love to invite you along.

Sunday 15 May

9.30am - 4.00pm
The Spiritual Journal - a 1 Day Retreat in Vedanta Hall

A workshop combining the insights of meditation & mindfulness to create your own spiritual journal. Under the direction of Walter Mason and Relaxation & Breathing Exercises with Hiroko Yanamoto-Symonds
Lunch, Morning & Afternoon Tea provided.
Donation for Retreat: $20

Please bring your journal along, or just paper and pen if you don't have one yet.

This workshop is open to all - just come along.

at Vedanta Hall, 15 Liverpool Rd, Croydon NSW 2132

Writer Helen O'Neill on Daffodils, Notebooks and Inspiration

A couple of years ago I met the charming writer Helen O'Neill soon after she'd published her exquisite illustrated biography of Harry Seidler. I interviewed her and went on to read all of her beautifully produced and illustrated books. Helen has carved out a niche all of her own in Australian books, one characterised by beautiful images, fascinating prose and handsome finished product. I was fascinated to discover that her latest book is on the daffodil, and fell in love with the idea right from the beginning. I had a chat with Helen about this book and several other things:

What made you decide to write a book entirely devoted to a single flower? 

I’ve always loved flowers but daffodils are special. I grew up in southern England where they blaze across the landscape every spring so they have been part of my life for as long as I can remember.  Daffodils took on a different meaning after I became ill some years ago and found myself plunged into a deep personal winter. To keep my spirits up friends and family kept sending me daffodils in different forms – in cards, photographs and sweet little pins. As I recovered I began to realise that not only is the daffodil one of the world’s most powerful flowers – this bloom has raised millions for medical research – but that it has a truly remarkable story to tell. 

Narcissus Poeticus, one of Helen O'Neill's favourite daffodils. Photo taken at her mother's garden in England

Did you ever want to be a florist? If you weren’t a writer, what job would you pursue?

That question made me laugh out loud because I flashbacked to an instant when I did think that becoming a florist might be very cool. The moment passed, perhaps because I then quickly remembered that I get hayfever and some flowers make me sneeze uncontrollably. Daffodils never have.

Do you keep a diary, or a writer’s notebook?

My life as a journalist and author is punctuated by spiral-bound notebooks. I generally have at least two on the go simultaneously as I seem often to be working on multiple projects. My notebooks are precious indeed; they contain records of interviews conducted, facts collected and impressions gathered. I would be lost without them.

How do you keep yourself inspired, creative and writing?

Inspiration is not a problem for me, if anything the issue is time. There are so many people and topics I want to write about, and I’m continually discovering more. 

Who have you met in your life that has inspired you as a writer?

Where to begin? Journalists are in the wonderful position of meeting new people and tackling fresh topics constantly but in my experience great ideas can also emerge from the most personal moments of everyday life – which is what happened with my Daffodil book. As British designer Paul Smith put it: you can find inspiration in everything – and if you can’t, look again.

Are you a methodical writer? Do you have a daily writing schedule?

Writing is a job as well as a joy for me. I am pretty organised and keep my work-life highly structured. That said, when I’m in the grip of a subject as fascinating and surprising as Daffodil – Biography of a Flower I lose track of time completely and my working hours can get right out of hand.

Helen O'Neill's latest book Daffodil – Biography of a Flower is out now and available online and at all good bookshops.

Helen O'Neill will be in conversation with Suzanne Leal at Waverley Library on the 21st April, 2016

Helen will be speaking about her daffodil book at Ashfield Library on Monday 2nd of May, 2016

Buddhist Concepts: The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths are the central ideas behind Buddhism, the "four pillars" on which the entire structure of the Buddhist religion are built. These were the four realisations that the Buddha Sakyamuni arrived at while sitting under the Bodhi tree, and they are a kind of distillation of his enlightenment experience. They are:

  1. There is suffering (dukkha).
  2. There is a cause of suffering (craving).
  3. There is the cessation of suffering (nirvana).
  4. There is the eightfold path leading to the cessation of suffering.
Pretty dry stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. It is hardly the kind of revelation that would set the world alight, and yet it is exactly this measured and un-dramatic insight that converted the first group of monks to the Buddha's philosophy, and spawned a worldwide religion that is still going strong 2600 years later.

The first truth - that life is suffering - is normally the one pointed to with scorn by the critics of Buddhism. "Not very positive," they say, "hardly the kind of thing to fill someone with hope." It is this brutally realistic assertion that has caused some to accuse Buddhism of being nihilistic, a religion absent of grace and devoid of promise for the future. But it must be said that such a frank assessment of reality does contain some charm - it avoids the magical-thinking of most religion, and instead slaps people in the face with a real party-downer right from the very beginning. It can only ever be uphill from that observation.

Stephen Batchelor prefers to call them the "four ennobling truths," because he sees in them a kind of inspirational call to action: we mustn't sit about and let things be horrid, but instead we are bound to pursue a path out of the suffering which is so obvious all about us.

And of course, in the end it's all about the third truth - there IS an end to all of this, and it's called nirvana. But unlike most religious traditions, this opposite of suffering is not heaven, but an unconditioned state of existence in which nothing can exist. It is an extinction of the self.

No-one ever said Buddhism was easy.

The wording of the Truths cited here comes from Wikipedia

If you are interested in exploring Buddhism further, check out my 4-week Buddhism a Cultural History course at the Sydney WEA. It starts May 2, 2016, and there are spaces available. 
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