Arrivederci Kirchheim

Kirchheim is no more. Well the Hessonian village is still there, but the SeePark Hotel has filed insolvency papers. After twenty-four years of hosting Rigpa winter retreats it’s finally gone bust. Part of me feels I should summon some kind of regret or nostalgia for the place, but I can’t. The best I can say for Kirchheim is that it was the one retreat where I could count on having my own bathroom—a big thing for a sociopath like myself. Noone in their right mind could possibly regret much else.

Was there anything good about Kirchheim? Well, yes, of course. The teachings Sogyal Rinpoche gave were the point, not the physical conditions. 1998 was a very good year, I felt. Sogyal Rinpoche taught on Vajrasattva extremely thoroughly, and I’m a big fan of that practice (he was teaching the visualization in the photograph below). Many other Rinpoches visited too, although my rusty mind has failed to come up with a categorical list.

But practically speaking, Seepark never really made it into the 21st century. It barely made it past the 70s. Most years I had to strip off the plastic sheet on the bed before I got in because it was so thick and sweat-inducing, and made peculiar noises when you turned over. Who can forget the inevitable Kirchheim dreaded lurgy that would change shape each year, strike down at least half the retreat participants then linger until the spring.

And then there was the restaurant. But maybe, like me, you haven’t had breakfast yet, so perhaps you don’t need details about the plastic vegetables and processed cheese and the glutenous mulch that passed for ‘local dishes’. I clearly remember Ruth Seehausen prodding such a creation with a fork, then pushing the plate away, saying, “I never eat food I can’t positively identify.” A sensible girl, our Ruth.

The first time I went there was in 1986, the first ever Kirchheim retreat, a month after Phil and I got married. We’d met Sogyal Rinpoche in London and helped him with his packing. Rinpoche then gave me the key to his suitcase to take care of (some kind of test…) which I ostentatiously placed in a zipped pocket in my red filofax before his very eyes, and those of my new husband. Once we arrived in Kirchheim, having lost Phil’s wallet with all our money in it (a difficult feat to achieve in super-honest, super-rich Germany, especially back then) the key was no longer in the zipped pocket. Rinpoche didn’t seem surprised. I was mortified… was it a sign?


Auden (1)

George Osbourne wrote a biography of W.H. Auden that came out in 1980. In those days Auden’s reputation had diminished somewhat and his work was considered ‘second-rate.’ Then in the 90s Four Weddings and a Funeral used ‘Stop all the clocks’ and he became ‘popular’. But back in 1980, as I studied Benjamin Britten’s songs set to words by Auden, his writing entranced me. I think I’ll post some of it over the next weeks, but in the meantime, here’s a bit of the biography that, more than thirty years ago, wedged a splinter in the thumb of the material world I was being groomed for.

In the early summer of 1933, Auden experienced one of those rare moments of visionary or mystical insight which, fleeting though they are, can strangely persist as a lifelong influence. A feeling of intense, unearthly serenity, a moment of enlightenment which passes, but which leaves behind it the knowledge that, if only for a moment, the universe has made sense. These experiences do not translate easily to words, not even to the words of so skilful a manipulator of language as Auden, and verbal accounts of such occasions require to be read with a special sympathy. Auden’s account of his vision was written, or at any rate first published, a good thirty years later:

“On fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any one of us a sexual interest in another. Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself. I was also certain, though the conversation continued to be perfectly ordinary, that my three colleagues were having the same experience. (In the case of one of them, I was able later to confirm this.) My personal feelings towards them were unchanged‚they were still colleagues, not intimate friends—but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.

“I recalled with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but the immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as I was possessed by this spirit, it would be literally impossible for me deliberately to injure another human being. I also knew that the power would, of course, be withdrawn sooner or later and that, when it did, my greeds and self-regard would return. The experience lasted at its full intensity for about two hours when we said good-night to each other and went to bed. When I awoke the next morning, it was still present, though weaker, and it did not vanish completely for two days or so. The memory of the experience has not prevented me from making use of others, grossly and often, but it has made it much more difficult for me to deceive myself about what I am up to when I do. And among the various factors which several years later brought me back to the Christian faith in which I had been brought up, the memory of this experience and asking myself what it could mean was one of the most crucial, though, at the time it occurred, I thought I had done with Christianity for good.”

Paris, December 1993

1993 was a very, very long time ago, but what a time! On and off for about a year I slept on the floor of the shrine room at the apartment in rue Burq that Babette lent to Sogyal Rinpoche as centre and home. It was a very old apartment, as run down and dilapidated as many I’ve seen in India in more recent times. And the public parts (the kitchen, the bathroom) were positively medieval. Yet, it was a magical place. Bang smack in the middle of Montmatre, we had on our doorstep: the gourmand’s paradise, Rue Lepic; the marvellous, if architecturally confused, Sacre Coeur Cathedral; the tourist trap that is the Moulin Rouge; and the brazenly outrageous transvestites of Pigalle. Something for everyone…

Sogyal Rinpoche had published the original English version of  The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying  the previous year, and it was time for the European editions to be launched. A team had been assembled to facilitate Rinpoche’s French tour and as a result some nights I slept with twenty human beings, snoring and farting their way to an early call, or just a phone and the shrine mice.

Patrick Gaffney was around quite a lot in those days, supporting Rinpoche as what, post The West Wing, we might now call his ‘speech writer’. Can you imagine him as Toby Ziegler to Rinpoche’s Jed Bartlett? Perhaps not. I found this photo of him the other day. A bit fuzzy, but it serves to oil those cogs that I’m so desperate to get moving again.

Anyway, as you know Patrick is a wonderful writer, translator and poet, and someone whose advice and opinion I wish I could seek more often. But he sets the bar very high indeed, and as part of some wonderful solicited advice he sent recently, he included the following quotation.

“Ariel and Chana Boch say in their The Song of Songs, A New Translation, New York: Random House, 1995, p. 41: ‘One of the major challenges facing a translator today is to find the proper register in English, neither too formal and stylized nor too breezy and colloquial—language that is fresh and urgent and passionate, and at the same time dignified.’ ”

It’s good, don’t you think? After the first, second and third readings I felt giddy with enthusiastic determination, inspiration surged through my previously atrophied creative channels and I knew I was the equal of this and any other challenge life threw at me. But once that initial light-headedness began to clear I started seriously thinking about how such advice might be put into practice. And now, some months later, the reality of the task ahead is so vivid and its horrors so tightly riveted to my already hyperbolic imagination that I am daily racked and terrorized by the mere thought of it. If ever a girl needed a ‘muse of fire’…

Jonas Kaufmann

If it’s early morning whereever you are when you look at this post, I recommend you listen to the link a little later. Act three of Tosca is really not morning music. Cavaradossi knows he is about die and in this aria, naturally enough I think, reflects on how much he loves Floria, and on how cruel it is to die when life is so sweet.

This man, Jonas Kaufmann, is special. A glorious voice and a musician: a very rare combination, especially in a world where music has become an ‘industry’. Sadly he has the misfortune to have to sing with some of the flabbiest divas ever to have existed on this earth, but somehow manages to encourage them to raise their game, albeit briefly.

By the way, please forgive the French oboe player for his desperately sentimental ornament. I think he got a bit a carried away.


If you read the piece I posted a couple of days ago about the Indian Juicer, would you mind casting your eye over the corrected version? I just realized that I am guilty of spreading misinformation, for which I apologize profusely. Sadly, such a slip is not unusual these days, despite my best efforts. India can be so confusing and middle-age so addling.

Les Mamelles de Tirésias

My first contact with the story of Therese’s breasts was through Poulenc’s wonderful one act opera. I saw it in 1979 at the ENO (therefore in English, not French) and adored it immediately. Such a welcome change from the tragic heroines I’d been living with during my first year or so of music college. The lovely Norma Burrowes was Tirésias and I still have a strong memory of her bursting two balloons (her breasts) at the point she changed from a woman into a man.

The reason this piece sprang to mind in the first place is that I sat through Woody Allen’s latest smudge of a movie on the plane back from Delhi. What a disaster! Owen Wilson doing a rather poor impersonation of Woody Allen himself, propped up by a cast of two dimensional, banal caricatures. Do your best to avoid it. Transformers 3 would probably be a better bet…

Part of the plot of the Allen movie, though, is that one of the caricatures wishes she had been born during La Belle Epoque, and for the first time in thirty years I found Apollinaire surfacing in my scrapbag of a mind. He wrote the play, Les Mamelles, but died young, at 38, when the flu pandemic of 1918 swept across Europe.

Anyway, for years I imagined he was the author of a poem I love, and was shocked to discover it was actually written by an English poet some fifty years after Apollinaire’s death. You would have thought I’d have noticed the difference in style, but no… I put the obvious stylistic contradictions down to ‘creative translation’. Clearly, I’m not much of a literary critic.

In the meantime, I haven’t stopped loving the poem, even though it was written by a man called Christopher Logue, not Guillaume Apollinaire. And it reminds me of life with Khyentse Rinpoche.

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
And they came
And he pushed
And they flew.