Enlightened by fairy lights

I have recently taken an interest in Buddhism, so decided to learn more by going to a festival called Buddhafest. I expected this to be a place bursting with (partially) enlightened Buddhists with whom I could chat into the night about life and philosophy. With a name like Buddhafest, I expected to find a field of Buddhists, but as it turns out, Buddhafest is about as authentically Buddhist as the average Buddha bar, or even Budapest. Somewhere along the way the word ‘Buddhist’ seems to have become confused with ‘overly spiritual extreme eco-warrior. The majority of the festival space was taken up with holistic workshops and environmental talks offered by people with names such as ‘Celestial-one’ and ‘Ruby-Skygazer’. The actual Buddhists (of which there were about three) were positioned in the far corner, strangely out of sight, and sadly, downwind from the toilets.

 

Despite the lack of official Buddhism, the opening ceremony of the festival included a cult-like attempt at a Buddhist ceremony. The climactic finale of this strange experience came with the revealing (by removal of a large, stained bedsheet) of a giant mass produced plastic Buddha adorned in Christmas fairy lights. At the same time, people dressed in cheesecloth chanted ‘Om Shanti om’ whilst randomly smiling at each other with the kind of crazed acceptance you’d only see in a Victorian psychiatric unit.

 

By the end of this mass initiation, I was certain that I had accidentally joined a cult, and felt apprehensive about integrating myself. I therefore hid in my tent for a couple of hours to acclimatise myself and calm down. As I sat there, secretly munching on my contraband beef jerky, I could not help but overhear the conversations around me. One of these was a greeting between two friends. On being asked “How are you, what have you been up to?”, the other responded “Wonderful man, I have been really busy spreading positive vibrations. My chakras are wide open. It must be to do with Jupiter crossing mercury. I can’t wait to see what the universe has in store for me”. This was welcomed with a “Ohhh yeah…  Mmm… That really resonates man”. The most worrying part of this interaction was that they appeared to be completely sober. Buddhafest folk are friendly in that special way that people are friendly when they are coming up on acid; all of their speech and body movements are exaggerated and occur in slow motion, or as if they are underwater.

 

Buddhafest took place about five hours drive from Brighton, in the middle of the Dorset countryside. This seemed quite odd, as nearly everyone there was from Brighton. In fact I think that nearly every true Brightonian might have been there. On realising this, I imagined my hometown, deserted apart from office workers and tourists, all wandering the streets wondering where the smell of Nag Champa had gone. Maybe they’d open a few more gastropubs in everyone’s absence. It also seemed quite ironic that in this festival, devoted to saving the planet and minimising pollution, that about 3000 of us, all from Brighton, decided to drive 200 miles to the Dorset countryside for a big meeting about using less petrol.

 

I expected there to be a hippy vibe at Buddhafest, so I made sure to pack clothes that I thought would make me blend in. With flowy skirts and oversized Alladin trousers at the ready, I thought I was safe. However, there seems to be a level of hippy that I wasn’t aware of, even though I live in Brighton. There also seems to be a dress code, which requires all clothing to be entirely made of hemp, lama wool, or recycled rubbish. The bohemian clothing in my wardrobe did not adhere to these rules. I may as well have been wearing a suit and tie, as I stood out like chairman Mao at a human rights protest. I would have been better off ditching the ‘Boho’ in favour of ‘Hobo’. To compensate, I purchased a headdress of plastic flowers with which to adorn myself. I noticed a few nudists walking around, and briefly considered the option of simply removing my all of my own clothes, but decided against it.

 

We were quite lucky to have hot weather during our stay, with the sun shining its celestial beams onto our happy cult. Unfortunately, the rising heat meant that I needed several rounds of therapy to combat the trauma I suffered from using, or indeed merely witnessing, the toilet facilities. Being a vegan festival, the only food options consisted of beans, pulses, and chickpeas (or a tasteless brown concoction of all three). As time went on it was clear that a strict diet of these main ingredients was enough to turn anyone is bowels into a gurgling, flatulent mess. By day 4, even the most hardened vegan had been turned into a sweating and squitting wreck of a human shell at risk of dysentery. Being an eco-haven, the only facilities were compost toilets… ths meant that there were only some delicate wood shavings as a barrier between the wrath of one toilet user’s derriere and the next visitor. Waiting in the toilet queue whilst downwind was worse than waiting for execution on death row. The ladies urinal was no better. It resembled a cattle feeding station, requiring women to squat with their feet on either side of a long metal trough and aim at the middle, with no regard of who might be looking at this barbaric lack of dignity unfold.

 

The only available shower was a cold water hose at one end of the field helpfully held by a naked man with a beard like Gandalf and a smile like the Cheshire cat, things got rather fruity. Workshops in any of the smaller tents, or any requiring movement, required high doses of anti-emetics. One example of this was my experience of laughter yoga. I had never previously realised how much heat is given off by a person when they laugh hysterically. At the end of the laughter yoga session, we were required to lie on the floor in a crisis cross pile, each with our head on a fellow festival goers tummy, like a human woven basket. This was the ‘freestyle’ part of the workshop where laughter flows naturally in waves as everyone gets the giggles. With each laughter wave came a tsunami of heat from the people surrounding me, along with a near suffocating hot body odour from the nearest armpits. It was so strong that I could taste it. It tasted like a vegetable curry that had been left in the sun for several days. Whilst I applaud everyone who defies media body image ideals, on this occasion I felt the strong urge to find a hedge trimmer and attend to everyone’s armpit hair as I was certain that much of the noxious stench was being contained – and emitted – from these unwashed masses of human foliage. When the vomit reached my throat, I departed from the human basket and escaped for air.

 

How and why did Buddhism become so synonymous with eco-warriors? Did Buddha preach about the perils of using plastic bags?! It seems people need to be reminded that attending a yoga class does not make them a Buddhist. There seems to be a strange irony about vehemently rejecting oppressive religious dogma only to replace the word ‘god’ with ‘the universe’…and openly preach the same message, only with slightly different words and a fixed smug expression. Likewise, recreating symbols of non-materialism in mass-produced plastic and selling them for a profit seems to me, to miss the point. So, I trundled back home, no more enlightened than when I left, but looking forward to the most liberating shower I’d ever have in my life.

 

 

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Burglars

 

I’m sitting contentedly on the 185 bus from Harrow-on-the-Hill. As I gaze out of the bus window, taking in the usual sights of the journey home that I’ve taken twice a day for nearly 70 years, I notice a very strange sight indeed.

 

As the bus stops at the traffic lights at the top of the Pinner road, a very elderly woman wearing a bright pink dressing gown is running with the fury of an escaped convict, but at the speed of a tortoise, in the opposite direction to the bus. The enormous effort it takes her to move this fast is etched along the deep lines of her face. Her lips are curled back as she pants heavily, revealing a full set of oddly immaculate dentures that glare ahead like bright headlights warning people out of her way. Her arms are flailing wide as she tries to defy the laws of physics and ageing to gain speed, as she very slowly overtakes the static bus. Despite her apparent vigor, her legs seem to be buckling with every successive step. She grinds to a halt, her legs now merely useless anchors. Still determined, her arms continue to swing wildly as if she is on a treadmill going nowhere fast.

 

As the lights turn green and bus rumbles back to life I catch sight of two people a short distance behind her wearing light blue uniforms with name badges. She must be one of those old loonies from the care home up the street. The poor old dear, how do they end up so confused? Is that what happens to all of us in the end?

 

As I settle back into my seat, I mull over the day so far. Like any other day, I got the 185 to get my food shopping, ran some errands and leisurely made my way home. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Lydia keeps saying I do too much, that I need to slow down. I don’t need to slow down. I might be a bit old, but I’m not an invalid. She keeps going on about doing the shopping for me once a week, and then threatening to order it on the interweb and have a man in a van deliver it. I couldn’t think of anything worse. I want to be able to choose my own fruit and vegetables. I don’t want some strange man poking at my carrots. I like my routines, and I like to get out and about. I don’t want to be rattling around at home on my own all day, stuck inside like a hermit. I’ve seen what happens to people when they stop going out. People always say they’ll visit but they never do. Always too busy with their own lives.

 

As we near the post box at the top of my road that’s always been the landmark for my stop, I press the bell and gather my… What on earth? Where’s my shopping? Has someone stolen it? It was here a moment ago. I did go shopping, didn’t I? Yes, I remember going to the supermarket and having difficulty with the bags as I got on the bus. But they’re not under the seat.

‘Are you alright madam?’ A man’s voice. A concerned face.

‘Yes I’m fine, I’ve just mislaid my…

Of course, I must have left my shopping bags on the rack at the front of the bus so it’d be easier when I get off.

‘It’s fine, I just need to get my shopping’. 

I make my way over to the door and feel awash with relief as I catch sight of the shopping bags in the rack. I swiftly lift them up and carefully step off the bus. My balance isn’t so good these days and the bags are a lot heavier than I thought they were. They must feel heavier because my arms are tired. That’s strange, I don’t remember noticing the bright pink colour of these bags earlier on. It seems a bit garish for Waitrose. I catch my breath and wait until the bus to pull away so I can cross the busy road.

 

The cars hurtle past. Why do they have to drive so fast, it feels like they’re coming at me from all directions. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people get grey hairs waiting so long to cross. Eventually there’s a safe gap and I trundle across, making my way down the street that holds so many memories. That’s number 10 where Alice and Derek live, number 15 with Mrs what’s her name… I always forget her name. It sounds foreign and I always struggle to remember it. Goodness knows how anyone spells it properly. And here’s me, number 20.

 

I put down the heavy bags and notice a large packet of nappies in one of the bags. What on earth did I buy nappies for? There must have been a reason. Maybe Lydia’s bringing the grandchildren over this weekend. Although you’d think they wouldn’t need nappies now they’re 10 and 11. And what’s that pointing out, some kind of electronic device I don’t remember buying. Oh well, I’ll go through it later.

 

Now, where are my keys. I seem to have everything in my handbag except my bloomin’ keys! Why is there so much stuff in here, I seem to have enough receipts and bits of paper to fill up a pillow with. Ah, here they are! Wait no, these aren’t my keys. Whose keys are these? My keys have the cherry shaped key fob that little Daniel got me from Malaga on our summer holiday last year. Or was it the year before… But this is a plain set with just two keys on a bare key ring. Mine should have three keys. Of course, it must be from last week when Lydia cut an extra set. She must have kept mine and accidentally given me the new copy. Anyway, home sweet home.

 

Why won’t they go in. Newly cut keys never seem to work at first. For goodness sake, it’s starting to rain and the shopping’s getting wet. At last, the silver one goes in, but it won’t turn. There must be a knack to it. I try to push the door then turn the key. No use. I pull the handle then turn the key the other way, then lift the handle then turn, but it just won’t go. I’ll have to get Lydia to change them right away. This is useless. I told her to go to the proper locksmith, not that cheap high street shop that always does a bad job. It’s a false economy, by the time you’ve been back there to make a fuss and get them changed you might as well have paid the extra to do it properly in the first place. What a complete nuisance.

 

Suddenly a light comes on in the hall. Who on earth is in my house?! I’m not due any visitors and how would they have got in? Lydia didn’t say she was coming. She must have been driving past and decided to stop off. Well thank you very much for the warning, I hate it when she doesn’t let me know she’s coming. She always says what a mess the house is if I don’t get around to cleaning up before she arrives, and even when I do manage it, I know she secretly cleans when I’m in the other room.

 

The door opens and a woman I don’t recognise stands facing me.

‘Who are you?’ I ask defiantly at this stranger in my domain.

She sighs unusually and looks at me with none of the surprise I have for her.

‘Dave, can you call Mayfield’ she calls to someone in the other room.

‘What? Who is that? Who are you? Get out, I haven’t invited guests over. I haven’t even tidied up, look at all that mess. Please leave, I need to put my shopping away’

‘No Mrs Levy, you have to go back to Mayfield now. Just wait outside and they’ll be here soon’ and she slowly closed the door. My front door.

A stranger has shut me out of my own house. How dare she?! Who does she think she is?

 

This must be some sort of scam. There’s always people trying to scam the elderly. Hang on, how did they get in? They must be burglars. I’m being burgled! I bet they’re taking everything out the back door and loading it up in a van in the back alley. I abandon my shopping, scurry out of the porch and look into the front room window, arching my hands over my eyebrows to get a better look in.

 

The front room is a mess, there are toys everywhere. They must have made the mess trying to look for jewelry and valuables. Where did all these toys come from? I look around to see what they’ve taken already. The walls are distinctly bare. Where are my plates? Oh no, they’ve stolen my beautiful 1940’s Cornish decorative plates! I hope they haven’t broken them, they’re ever so fragile. What else is missing? I dart my eyes around the room trying to match up the itinerary in my mind with the items I can see, but nothing seems to tally up. Everything loks the same, but everything is different. There’s a sofa where it should be, but the fabric is different. Somethings not right. To my relief the TV is still there at least, but to my astonishment it is turned on and two children are watching it. Burglars bringing their children with them while they do their burgling? What has the world come to. They must be stark raving mad!

 

I bang on the window furiously. 

 

‘Get out of my house!! I’m calling the police!!’ 

 

The woman jumps and then cautiously walks towards the window as if advancing towards a wild animal that could strike at any moment. That bloody thieving woman. Why doesn’t she leave? With a resigned look of sadness of her face that doesn’t fit the situation as I see it, she gently closes the curtains so I can’t see in. The audacity of it! I can’t believe this. That’s it, I’m calling the police. I’ll use that mobile telephone that Lydia got me for emergencies. If this isn’t an emergency, then what is!

 

A thought crosses my mind and I stop in my tracks. Bloody hell, maybe they’re not burglars, maybe they’re squatters! I’ve read about those in the newspaper, bloody pests they are. They squat down in the bushes of nice neighbourhoods and watch the houses from a distance with binoculars. They wait until you’ve gone out, break in and claim the place as their own. Well not this time, I’m not having it.

 

It’s still raining and my clothes are getting soaked through. Why didn’t I put a rain coat on? I must have checked the forecast this morning, I always do. These clothes aren’t going to keep me – wait, what on earth am I wearing. Are those my slippers? Oh my, I’ve gone out in my slippers. What an idiot, that bloody woman better not have seen, I don’t want to give her the pleasure of seeing one of my mishaps. I seem to be having quite a few mishaps lately. Hopefully no one else has noticed. No one seems to notice anything these days.

 

Anyway, what was I looking for… Ah yes my notepad. Now where is it? What are all these papers in my handbag? I seem to have enough to make a whole new notepad.  And why do I have so many bottle tops in here? There seems to be dozens of them. Little Daniel must be collecting them for one of those competitions again. What’s this? I pull out a white hard object from my bag and stare at it. I know what it is but I don’t know what it is. Just as I start to get the word on the tip of my tongue it emits an ungodly high pitched noise like one of those snazzy electronic alarm clocks and buzzes unnaturally like a demented bumble bee. It slips out of my hand and drops into the damp flower bed under the window. As I bend down to pick it up I catch the woman peering from behind the curtain and I pout angrily back at her.

You just wait. Don’t you do any of your squatting on my carpet!!’ 

She frowns and disappears behind the curtain again. When I get my hands on her… Suddenly I notice that the curtains are different. These have stripes. My curtains don’t have stripes. For a split second I panic and think I’m at the wrong house. That would explain everything. I step back and look at the building. All these terraced houses look the same. But no, this is mine. It’s number 20. That’s my porch. I planted that bush. That’s my gate.

 

‘What have you done with my curtains! It’s bad enough that you’ve stolen my house, without violating it from the inside as well’ 

How did she put them up so fast? I’ve only been to the shops for half an hour, maybe an hour at the most.

I remember choosing those curtains in the summer of 1972 when Richard and I had just gotten married. They were beautiful quality, and the brightly coloured pink, orange and lavender floral print brought colour to the whole room. Now that maniac has replaced them with what looks like poor quality ticking tape that should belong on the mattresses of a psychiatric institution.

She probably got hers from that blue warehouse that all of the young ones are obsessed with. Why anyone would pay more money for low quality origami furniture made of cardboard that you have to assemble yourself, I will never understand.

 

What on earth is that noise, it sounds like a burglar alarm and it’s coming from my hand. The god awful noise is still coming out of the flashing white box with the numbers on it. Somehow I instinctively remember, green to speak, red to hang up. I press the green button.

 

‘Mum?!’

‘Hello?’

‘Mum, is that you?’

‘Hello? Who is this?’

‘Mum, it’s Lydia, where are you? I’ve had a call from Mayfield, are you at the house again?’

‘Call the police, I’m being burgled!’

‘No Mum, you’re -‘

‘Call the police, I’m being held hostage! I mean… There’s a woman. She’s stolen my house and she’s using my things! My house and my things are being held hostage!!’

‘Mum, wait there, I’ll be 2 minutes’

‘Are the police on their way? … Hello? Lydia?’

 

This is absolutely ridiculous, what an absolute mess of a day. I don’t want to be stuck out here against my will. It’s nearly four o’clock and all I want to do is watch Bargain Hunt with a nice cup of tea before I get the children’s dinner ready. Talking of which, why isn’t Lydia at school? She shouldn’t be calling me at this time of day, she should be in lessons. I must have a word with her head teacher. She really is getting too big for her boots, that young lady. I know, I’ll go and see Alice at number 15 and call the police from there.

 

As I turn to leave the front garden, a large middle aged woman in a ghastly flowery dress walks up the garden path.

 

‘No more squatters! There’s enough of them in there already!! Move along please, this is my house!’ 

‘Mum, it’s me’

‘Don’t try and trick me, lady, I know your type.’

‘Mum it’s me, Lydia’

‘Lydia?! What have you done to her, eaten her?!’

‘Mum, I am your daughter Lydia’

Like waking from a dream I realise the woman before me is my daughter Lydia, and relief washes over me.

‘Thank goodness! Lydia, there are people in our house, get them out’

‘Mum you don’t live here anymore. Everyone’s been looking for you, where have you been?’

‘Who’s been looking for me? I’ve been shopping, like I do every day.’ 

I gesticulate towards my shopping bags, not that I need to prove myself to my own daughter.

Lydia crouches down to look at my shopping

‘But you don’t have any money, how did you-‘

‘I’ve had enough of this, what is going on’

‘Mum, whose shopping is this? Did you pick up someone’s shopping bags from the front of the bus again?

‘What are you talking about, those are mine’

She opens one of the bags and removes items I have never seen before and would have no use for: Nappies, dummies, men’s razors, tampons and bright purple hair dye.

She looks at me with an exasperation that feels strangely familiar.

‘The nappies are for Daniel!’ I protest.

‘Not again. You’re more likely to use them than Daniel is. He’s thirty-two and quite capable of using his the toilet.’ 

She takes a deep breath than unsettles me and makes me feel like a naughty school child

‘You’ve taken someone else’s shopping again.’

‘Oh for goodness sake that’s impossible. Someone must have put those things in my trolley!’

‘Look, don’t worry, they’ll be here soon’

 

As I wonder who she’s talking about, a white and purple van with ‘Mayfield house care home’ written across the side of it pulls up outside the house. Instantly I know who they are and where they’ll be taking me. This isn’t my house anymore. They made me leave, just like they did to Alice before she died. They kept saying that I couldn’t look after myself, that it wasn’t safe. No, I won’t have it. I won’t go back there. I hate that place. The tea is too milky, the vegetables aren’t cooked properly and I can’t understand anyone’s accent. I want my life back, and if I can’t live in my own house then I’ll find another one.

 

Defiantly, I close my dressing gown and – why am I wearing a dressing gown? Blast. I close my dressing gown and use all the might I can muster to run away from this disastrous situation. Clenching my face with determination and using the momentum of my swinging arms, I run up the street as fast as I can. Despite my effort I seem to moving more slowly, than I should be. I glance over my shoulder and see two people in light blue uniforms, one a large bald headed man and the other a young woman with blonde hair. They are closing in on me but they’re not running, they’re walking. How can they be catching me up? I try to speed up. As I turn at the top of the road I nearly run straight into a bright red post box. It must be ones of the new ones that you’re supposed to put e-letters into. What kind of pen do you use to write an e-letter? Come to think of it, what is an e-letter?

Suddenly I realise that I’ve left my handbag behind. Oh no, I need my handbag, it’s got my…. My things… I can’t remember which things, but I know that they’re important. I need my things to remember. People keep telling me that my memory is on the blink and that I need to write note to myself as reminders. How will I know what to do if I don’t have my reminders?

 

My legs are really feeling it now and my run slows to a hurried shuffle, but I keep pumping my arms back and forth to try and get extra speed as I travel along the top of the road. I wish my legs could take me faster. How can they feel this heavy? It’s as though they’re made of lead.

 

Where am I going? Why am I running? Wouldn’t it be better to just walk? No, I have to keep running, must get away. With all of my strength I clench my teeth and curl my lips and use my flailing arms to get as much momentum as possible, but I can hear people closing in on me. People are catching me up and calling my name, urging me to slow down. I’m being chased.

 

‘Bastards!’ I shout as the 185 bus roars past in the opposite direction, young smirking faces staring out of its endless window.

Why can’t the window be smaller, I deserve some privacy. There’s no dignity in this nonsense. I remember when buses used to have curtains. I remember when I used to have curtains. My mind flashes back to the woman behind the red and white stripey monstrosity that shamefully adorned my own front window. What will the neighbours think? If you’re going to put horrible curtains up you should put them up at the back of the house, not the front.

 

It’s no use, my legs won’t go. First my key wouldn’t turn and now my legs won’t run. Nothing works any more. It’s no use.

‘Come on Myrtle, let’s take you back again.’

‘I want to go home! I have to cook dinner’

‘Don’t worry, dinner will be waiting for you when you get there. Then you can watch Bargain Hunt’.

 

How do they know I like Bargain Hunt? I could do with a cup of tea in front of the telly. I feel like I’ve run a marathon. Everything aches lately. Being old does that to you I suppose, but I’ve only been to the shops to get a few groceries. I wonder what time Lydia will be home from school.

 

Without any further warnings, my arms are grabbed, but more gently than I expected. I let them lead me and feel an unexpected sense of routine, a strange sense of déjà vu. Yes, time to go home.