Category Archives: Writing

The Song That Broke The Band

There are some songs that stay with you, not just for the week that they might be on high rotation on the radio, but for a lifetime. Songs are highly emotive creatures. They plug into us for all kinds of reasons.

I was very young when I first heard this song and yet it’s stayed with me through the years.

I was reminded of the song and of the writer, Greg Quill, when I read this article about a new tribute album recorded in his honour – Some Lonesome Picker.

If you know Gypsy Queen you’ll know why it’s such a special song. If not this quote from the article might help.

Gypsy Queen is a song of the road no less than the poem Walt Whitman wrote a century earlier. It was a song about going on an adventure where your horizons would be expanded, and you’d live a larger life because of it.

But for me it has extraordinary significance. Why? This is the song that caused the demise of my band.

If you’ve read Sex, Drugs & Meditation you’ll know how devastated I was when my band broke up. The story behind the story is that we’d been playing together for years, touring and releasing CDs but we’d never really cut through. I had the idea of recording a cover version of this song, it was perfect for us with our line up and stunning harmonies. We’d never released a song written by anyone else – all originals up until that point – but I thought this song was worth it. It was such a brilliant idea that one member of the band quit. Why? Because she knew it would work, that we’d get airplay with it and therefore success and she didn’t want us to succeed. She wanted out. She wanted to pursue a solo career. And thus our band became an ex-band.

Ironically a few years later Adam Harvey recorded a cover version of this song and had a hit with it but by that time I was well ensconced in the world of radio and being a music director I got to decide what got played on radio and what didn’t.

When it comes down to it I’m grateful. If the band hadn’t broken up I never would have got into radio, I might never have started writing books instead of songs and I definitely wouldn’t have the superannuation that enabled me to retire early and have the freedom I now have – to write more books and to pick up my guitar whenever I feel like it.

And all these years later, I still love this song.

“I’m singing for the dark and lonely highway, I’m singing for the rivers and the trees, I’m singing for the country roads and byways, And I wonder as I go, Is there anyone I know, Who’ll sing for me.”

The Six Peas of Me

Thank you to Nene Davies for inviting me to her Six Peas blog. I love the concept – six questions all starting with P which she tailors to her guest. My six P’s are Performing, Presenting, Passion, Personal, Publishing, and Plans. I thought they were Perfect 🙂
If you read to the end you’ll get a sneak peek at what I’m up to now.

Performing

Can you tell us a little about your time in the music industry and how you turned the disappointment of that ending into a highly successful career in radio?

As soon as I finished school I left my home town and headed to the big smoke, Sydney. I lived in Kings Cross and hung out with drug dealers, punks and low-lifes. The music scene there was thriving and edgy and I became fascinated by it. A gig by The Stranglers at the State Theatre (before it was renovated) changed my life. As soon as I heard that bass sound I knew what I wanted to be – a bass player.

After someone I knew was murdered over a drug deal, I left Sydney and went back home to Hobart. I bought my first bass guitar, had a few lessons and dived into the world of playing in bands. At my first gig I stuffed up every single song but they didn’t kick me out and eventually I became quite a good player, in a naive kind of way. I also started writing songs.

A few years later I moved to Melbourne to study acting at the Victorian College of the Arts, but much preferred playing in the bands I was in while I was there. Then I moved back to Hobart for a bit of acting and playing in more bands, and then to Sydney where I stayed for many years.

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In Sydney my songwriting really blossomed. I formed a couple of bands based around those songs and we toured and recorded CDs. The last band I was in I loved with all my heart and soul. All my time, energy and money went into that band. (If you think writing doesn’t pay, you should try making music!) When the band broke up I was devastated, the lying on the floor in the foetal position sobbing kind of devastated.

I had no idea what to do next. The only qualification I had was in acting and the only jobs I’d ever worked in were of the dead-end variety. There I was, a thirty-something woman, exhausted, broke as well as broken-hearted, and with no prospects. It wasn’t pretty. That’s when radio rode in on a white horse and saved the day.

I had lunch with a radio presenter who’d interviewed me many times and even used one of my songs as the theme song for his show. When he asked me what I was going to do now my band had broken up I told him I had no idea. He said to me ‘You want to be in radio.’

The effect was electrifying. I literally felt as though a lightbulb had just been switched on. ‘That’s so true,’ I said. ‘But I didn’t know it until this instant. How did you know?’

‘Because I know radio, and I know you,’ he said. ‘It’s a perfect fit.’

From that moment on every door on my path to being a radio presenter swung open. It was uncanny. I studied at AFTRS, got my first job in commercial radio in Tamworth then moved to Townsville and then landed my dream job with the ABC on the Sunshine Coast. And yes, radio was the perfect fit. All my years performing on stage as a musician and an actor and my knowledge of music fed straight into my work as a presenter and Music Director. There’s a lot more to this story and you can read all the details in my memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation.

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Presenting

Having worked in commercial radio and for many years as a presenter with ABC Sunshine Coast, what made you decide to write a book?

Unlike most writers I never dreamt of being a writer when I was younger. I wanted to be a rock star, or at least a famous singer/songwriter. I went on a music lover’s tour of the USA many years ago and came back with 12 very fuzzy photos to show for my travels. A colleague at the ABC said, ‘Clearly photography’s not your thing, why don’t you write about it instead.’

So I did. He liked it and recommended my writing to a friend of his who worked at the local paper. As a result I wrote a weekly column for over four years. It was the perfect apprenticeship.

That led to writing short stories, going to writing workshops and eventually starting the book that would become Sex, Drugs and MeditationI decided to write the book because I’ve always loved the case studies in self help books. In fact I would hardly ever read the theory in those books, or do the exercises, but I would always read the case studies because they were such great stories. After I realised that my life read like a case study I wondered if other people might like to read my story. Like a lot of wanna be writers I was good at starting projects but not as good at finishing them. So I saved up my money and self-funded six months leave without pay to see if I could finish a book. The answer was yes. Even better, I discovered that I loved the process so much that I wanted to keep writing. I’ve completed four books now, two memoirs and two novels, and I’ve started writing the fifth.

Passion

I know that you’ve now left the world of presenting to write fiction about playing in bands. Full circle! What would you say is your creative passion? Music, writing…or both? 

It’s writing, hands down, no doubt about it. I feel blessed in that I loved being a musician and all that entailed and then I moved into radio which I loved even more, and it paid better! And now I’ve moved onto something else again that I love better than either of those. (Acting was in there somewhere as well but to tell you the truth I was never in love with acting.) So I’ve been able to give my full attention and passion to three things in my life that have been fulfilling and exciting. And the best thing of all is that they all feed into what I’m doing now and not only in the stories I’m telling. Writing is more than sitting at a computer for hours on end, it includes speaking in front of people, doing author talks, writers’ panels, interviews and publicity. All my time as a performer of one kind or another makes that part of the job second nature to me.

And there’s a bonus. I didn’t do this intentionally to start with but now it’s a signature of my work. Every book I write has a song or two in it that I’ve written. So when I do events I often whip out my guitar and play a song.

Personal

What is your number one tip for authors wanting to write a memoir? 

Get honest. It’s terrifying but it’s vital. I had some interest early on for Sex, Drugs and Meditation but the interest went cold when I sent them everything I’d written at the time. I was told that the book had promise but I had to get really honest and stop avoiding the truth. The idea of doing that scared me so much I ran away and wrote a novel instead. (I regard that novel as my practice book. I learnt a lot by writing it.) Years later I found my courage and wrote the book that needed to be written. The result was a publishing deal.

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Publishing

How did you go about publishing your books?

I submitted Sex, Drugs and Meditation through the open submission process most Australian publishing houses have these days. Pan Macmillan picked up the manuscript and, to my enormous gratitude and terror, published it. Sex, Drugs and Meditation is the true story of how I changed my life, saved my job and found myself a husband. The sequel, How To Stay Married, is the truth behind the happy ever after. Pan Macmillan liked How To Stay Married and were keen to publish but, and here’s the truth about publishing, it didn’t get through sales and marketing. It doesn’t matter if a publisher likes your book, if the sales team says no then that’s the end of it. Because I had a completed manuscript I decided to publish it anyway. I jumped into the world of self publishing and released the book on the date of my tenth wedding anniversary.

My latest novel is under consideration by a major publisher. However even if they green light it I’m only expecting an ebook deal. With all the changes in publishing (and more to come if the changes to PIR go ahead) the majors are playing it safe these days. Often they’ll offer ebook only deals. If the book sells well in that format then they may offer a print deal.

Plans

What’s next?

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been many things in my life including a musician, a songwriter, an actor, a radio presenter and an author. All of these come together in my latest passion, writing fiction about women who rock.

Here’s a brief glimpse of the first one, Rock Candy:

Georgia Hill’s star has crashed. Her band has broken up, her best friend has betrayed her and worst of all, at the age of 28, she’s living back home with her parents. When her song Sweetie is used in an advertising campaign against her will it gives her some much-needed cash…but robs her of any remaining credibility. Unable to return to the world she loves, Georgia travels to The Park, a mysterious community in Scotland where Jax, a rock star she admires, is in hiding. 

Rock Candy is the first in the Rock Chick series. Novels planned so far include:

Rock Slide. Suzie Smith is a major star but she wants out. Her plan to leave it all behind unravels in ways she could never imagine.

Rock Salt. Three sisters, one stellar career and the man who brings it all crashing down.

Rock Fall. On the eve of her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the skeletons come tumbling out of Lena Stanley’s capacious closet.

Rock Hard. The all girl rock band Bitumen have fought hard to be taken seriously and become successful. What will they have to sacrifice to reach their ultimate goal?

I’ve started writing Rock Slide and once again it’s a wonderful process. I love writing fiction and imbuing it with the knowledge of the life I used to live. Not that I’ve ever been a rock star but sometimes, when I was on stage with a guitar in my hands, I could almost believe that I was.

I’m excited about these books and also have plans to record the songs that are included in them.

I would love for people to keep in touch either through my Facebook page, my website, or by joining my email list.

Rock on!

How to Get Into Writers Festivals for Nothing

Love writers festivals but can’t afford to go? This one’s for you.

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I worked in radio for 18 years. It was a great gig and I loved it, most of the time. I also loved all the free stuff that would come my way, anything from books and CDs to food and tickets to events. I’ve attended many festivals over the years as a radio presenter, musician, and writer, and never had to pay. In fact most of the time they paid me.

But all that has changed. I resigned from my radio job, I haven’t played in a band for years and I don’t have a new book out…yet. And now I’m no longer working I don’t have much spare cash to spend on luxuries like writers festivals – even though I love them.

So, what’s a girl to do? Easy. When I heard about a brand new writers festival starting up on the Sunshine Coast I got in touch with them and offered my services, not as an author (because I don’t have a new book out….yet) but as a volunteer. Festivals always need volunteers, they couldn’t exist without them. Everything from checking tickets to looking after the authors is usually done by volunteers. And in return, we get free tickets. Hooray!

If you want to get involved here’s the website to the Sunshine Coast International Readers and Writers Festival.

http://sunshinecoastreadersandwritersfestival.com  

Or if you’re on the Coast come along to the Program Launch on Wednesday 6th July, 10am at Tickle Park Coolum Beach. Introduce yourself and offer your services. It’s that easy.

The Byron Writers Festival is still looking for people to help set up parking bays and the Brisbane Writers Festival will be doing a volunteer call out soon. For other areas just keep an eye on their websites. Before too long you’ll be swanning about at the festivals, listening to fascinating authors and being helpful to boot. That’s a win-win in anyone’s language.

Happy freebies.

xx Mary-Lou

Scraping Off The Barnacles

Grey_whales_43_face_barnacles.560x496It’s my three month anniversary. Three months ago I retired from my work in radio. Only now have I the capacity to think beyond bed, couch, TV, reading. I’ve finally learnt how to say no. (My first month of retirement was crammed with doing writing favours for people for free because I couldn’t say no.) Now my life is a blank canvas. I get to decide what I do, every day. Such freedom.

I’ve been decluttering. Scraping off the barnacles. Defoliating. It feels wonderful to shed things, stuff, excess. None of it is needed. I’d make a great minimalist. I like light and space. Time to breathe and heal. Much easier to do without being crushed by possessions and memorabilia. Out it goes. People assume I’ve read Mari Kondo’s books. I haven’t. I worked this stuff out for myself. It makes perfect energetic sense. I still have way too much stuff but I go gently, scraping off the layers of barnacles bit by bit. The more I let go the easier it becomes.

I still find it amazing, a miracle, that I don’t have to work for a living. That The Hubby and I have a small but sufficient income without having to do a thing. We’re both still revelling in it. It highlights how enslaved most of us are, working at jobs we don’t enjoy to buy stuff we don’t need in the hope it will make us feel better.  Sure I’d like a house with an extra bedroom and yes I’d love a Mustang but….I’d rather be free.

So the way I see this year unfolding is a gentle stepping into lightness and healing and the gaining of true energy – not that anxious, nervy, overexcited, avaricious energy that I’ve spent so much of my time dwelling in. That energy made me sick.  It will be an interesting path. I’m becoming aware of how much tension I hold in my body, it’s alarming. My jaw went out the other week because I’m always clenching it. My biggest challenge will be re-entering the writing world without drowning in the morass of anxiety.

I’ve had a break from writing and wondered if I’d ever want to do it again at all. I’ve put off doing the next draft of my latest novel and redoing the synopsis because I know what awaits me if it gets accepted for publication. Edits, deadlines, fear and anxiety. I’m so enjoying being free and I have so little energy still that the mere thought exhausts me.

However I had writing group recently and as I haven’t written anything new for ages I thought I’d just bang something out. And guess what? I really enjoyed it. It was fun. And then my mind started coming up with possible scenarios and plot lines and I remembered what I love about writing – that stepping into another world, other lives, where anything is possible. The power of the imagination is glorious and energising.

So that’s me. A work in progress. And if I never write another book that’s ok too. If I spend my time growing veggies and sewing (& I’ve taught myself to knit) all is well. The Hubby and I have plans to travel the world housesitting – inspired by a couple who are doing just that. We have to wait until The Dog dies before we can up sticks and she’s remarkably healthy for an old girl. We love her so that’s ok. All things in time.

I’ve been so ambitious in the past and it just made me resentful. There are other ways of living. I’m keen to explore them.

In the end what does it matter. We all die. I’d like to enjoy my life before then and not leave too much clutter behind for people to have to sort through 🙂

Have you joined my mailing list yet?  You’ll receive a copy of  my Seven Tips For Your Best Relationship Ever (and one tip from my mum). Just click here and we’ll get better acquainted. If you’re worried about giving me your email address please don’t be. I’m too lazy to spam anyone.

My Writing Space

My Writing SpaceWhen I first started writing I had to have absolute privacy and absolute quiet. I was extremely self-conscious about what I was doing. There was no way I could write in a cafe. I had to be somewhere where I wouldn’t be interrupted. Door closed writing. Through the years I’ve become a little more relaxed. I’ve had more practice and that makes it easier to write wherever I am. Some of my second book How To Stay Married was even written on the couch with The Hubby beside me.

I still prefer privacy though and these photos are of my writing space in the spare room. IMG_1426Yes there’s a bed in there in case I need a good lie down after a vigorous writing session. The Hubby and I have a signal when I don’t want to be disturbed, not even for a cup of tea. You see that beautiful hand-made felt chain of flowers hanging on my desk lamp? I put that on the door knob of my writing room to serve as a warning beacon. ‘Do not come in on pain of death.’ I feel like a teenager with a Keep Out sign on my door but without the confidence of being able to write freely my ability to get the words down on the page can often be inhibited.

IMG_1425There are some treasures that surround me in here. Pebbles from the beach at Findhorn in Scotland, a little Eeyore (my favourite character from Winnie the Pooh), photos of my dad, my wedding and my former life as a singer/songwriter, a wooden writer’s organiser from The Hubby and various angels, hearts and paperweights given by friends. Oh, and copies of my books, reminding me that I can indeed write an entire book, look I’ve done it twice and that’s just the published ones.

I hope you can see how filthy the windows are. Proof that I’m not a procrastinator. IMG_1427I have friends who’ve cleaned their entire house and even the shed rather than sit down and write. Not me. But I am a very slow writer. I do a lot of pondering. It astounds me how slow I am. However I get the job done in the end.

Mary-Lou Stephens studied acting and played in bands before she got a proper job – in radio. Her memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation was published by Pan Macmillan in 2013. It tells the story of how she changed her life, saved her job and found a husband, all with the help of meditation. The sequel, How To Stay Married, is the truth about the happy ending. 

Mary-Lou is now writing fiction in her own special slow and pondering way.

Get your free copy of Mary-Lou’s  7 Tips For Your Best Relationship Ever 

*** This post was first written for Word Farm. Check it out and while you’re there why not give Word Farm a Like.  (PS My desk is now a lot messier 🙂 )

How To Stay Married – Your Free Review Copy

How To Stay Married ebookDo you love free stuff? I know I do. Now’s your chance to get a free review copy of my new book How To Stay Married. Just click on the link to the right and we’ll get better acquainted. If you’re worried about giving me your email address please don’t be. I’m too lazy to spam anyone.

The review copy is just for the first 100 but don’t worry. Everyone will get my Seven Tips For a Happy Marriage (and one tip from my mum).

How to Stay Married will be available for sale from the 6th of November which just happens to be my 10th wedding anniversary. There were times I never thought we’d make it but here we are, The Hubby and I, happier than ever.

My first book Sex, Drugs and Meditation chronicled how meditation changed my life, savedSex, Drugs and Meditation Front cover my job and helped me find a husband. How To Stay Married, is the truth behind the happy ending; a journey from fear, resentment and financial devastation, to a place of love, joy and trust.

How to Stay Married takes us around the world; from the glitter and glare of Las Vegas to the sub-zero temperatures of the French Alps and the tropical heat of Thailand, all with cabin luggage only.

The discoveries I made about myself and my marriage are a modern day parable about learning to travel light in life, love and relationships.

I hope you love it and write a review on Amazon for me. Just a line or two will do.

Thank you so much for joining me on this journey.

Lots of love

Mary-Lou

Win a Copy Of Sex, Drugs and Meditation.

 

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The sequel to Sex, Drugs and Meditation is being released in a couple of weeks. How to Stay Married is the truth about the happy ending.

To celebrate I’m giving away a signed copy of Sex, Drugs and Meditation.  Hooray!

All you need to do is sign up for my Newsletter. The sign up form is just over there on the right.  I’ll pick  a winner at random in the next week and a signed copy of Sex, Drugs and Meditation will be on its way to you.

Good luck.

x

Mary-Lou

Fear of Commitment Can Feel Like It’s Real. It’s Not

commitmentCommitment. Why do so many of us find it so hard? I spent many of the early years of my marriage terrified. It was exhausting. Yes, some of our problems were real but there were concrete things we could (and did) do to handle them. It was the things I made up in my head that I had trouble dealing with. Dreadful things. I battled with the demons in my mind.

My fears caused continual mental anguish and even physical pain. They sent me down dark hallways and spine-tingling crevasses. And, in a way, that was the point. Fortunately, thanks to years of work in Twelve Step Programs, counselling and especially meditation, I knew that these fears were not real. Through meditation I had discovered just how addicted I was to feeling bad; to having all these emotions coursing through my body, putting me on edge. It was like a drug and I used it to feel alive even though it was killing me on many levels. I would make things up and then react to them as if they were real. Madness? Yes. But boy did I get a kick out of it.

Often I felt like a trapped animal. My partner was getting too close. It terrified me. And that’s the way I’d acted in many of my previous relationship. Fight or flight. Lashing out at those who got in my way. Yes, I had been hurt in the past –by other lovers, by my upbringing, by my friends –but this fear of commitment was irrational, mad, out of control terror. A base reaction. A lot of us think that when someone really gets to know us they won’t love us anymore. If that is the case, it’s far better they get to know you as soon as possible. Then if they can’t handle the truth at least you can move on quickly.

One of the fears that tormented me was the “but what if there’s someone better out there” kind. And, now I say, well, maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. You’re never going to be in a wonderful and loving relationship if that’s the way you approach it. I knew, deep in my heart that if I couldn’t be in a relationship with this man, I would never be able to make a relationship work with anyone, ever. He was very much in touch with himself and continued to do the work to clear his emotional baggage despite the constant setbacks we suffered. I had to show up and do the work too. I knew he would always support me in that.

But often I didn’t want to and acted like a spoilt brat. Sometimes, I must admit, I still do act like a spoiled brat. However these days I know the truth and the truth is where we always end up. We love each other. We are committed to each other on every level and it’s no longer terrifying.

Mary-Lou Stephens’  meditation memoir, Sex, Drugs and Meditation, is the  story of how meditation helped changed her life, save her job and find a husband. The sequel How To Stay Married will be released soon. It’s the truth about the happy ending.

Kill Your Darlings Part 4

I’ve finished the last draft of my next book. Not all the words I’ve written have made it into the next round. Instead of being in the book I’m turning my darlings into blog posts. Seems I can’t kill them after all.

You can bury me anywhere because I won’t be there

Mary statueYears later, after my brother died, his wife battled grief and guilt and the despair of two young daughters who no longer had a father. Among her many concerns was that she had no idea what to do with his ashes. Her youngest daughter needed a place to lay flowers for her daddy, but my sister-in-law was too exhausted by the last years of his life and his inevitable but cruel ending to arrange it. I asked if I could help. My brother had always been the bastion of family history; doing things as they should be done, upholding traditions.

I knew our grandfather’s ashes were in the war veterans’ section of the city cemetery and was pretty sure our grandmother’s and aunt’s ashes were somewhere in the same cemetery. If there was room with them I was sure that was what my brother would have wanted, surrounded by those he felt a kinship with and a shared sense of propriety and purpose. I made an appointment at the cemetery office. They were able to find Granny but there was no record of our aunt.

I was given a map and made my way to the rose garden. One slice of a circular bed was given to our grandmother but she was on her own. I could have sworn our aunt was supposed to be there with her.

I visited my mother and asked her. Poor old Mum, brittle and thin, the disease dissolving her substance like acid. Her face fell. “I’m sorry darling. I never picked up her ashes. I was so devastated after your father died, dealing with all that needed to be done. When my sister died I couldn’t face doing it all over again.”

I rang the Hobart Cemetery again. They searched through their records. They kept unclaimed ashes for a while, in some kind of archive, but eventually they were disposed of.

“Disposed of where?” I asked.

A sheepish young man told me they were scattered out the back of the office, in a small group of trees. My aunt’s ashes were mixed with those of strangers, fertilising the trees.

I told my mother. And also told her that I was arranging to have a plaque made for Aunty Deirdre to be placed in the same rose bed as Granny. Her ashes wouldn’t be there but at least she’d have some kind of memorial. I intended to pay for it myself, even after I discovered that tiny plinths and small plaques are very expensive.  Mum wouldn’t let me pay. It was the least she could do to assuage the guilt she had felt for all these years. Once my aunt’s plaque was organised we could go ahead with my brother’s.

And as for my Mum, what did she want? Her death was getting closer every day.

“Nothing darling. It doesn’t matter what you do with my ashes. I’ll be elsewhere.” She smiled, her thin face lighting up with hope and peace. She was on the way to getting her promotion.

Kill Your Darlings Part 3

I’ve finished the latest draft of my next book. Not all the words I’ve written have made it into the next round. Instead of being in the book I’m turning my darlings into blog posts. Seems I can’t kill them after all.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what goes on behind the scenes at a meditation retreat here’s your chance.

Each evening, after the meditators had gone to bed, the servers would gather in the meditation hall and sit with assistant teacher. Some times we’d have to kick the more determined meditators out before we could do so. One night a male student, who had the habit of wearing earplugs and a meditation shawl over his head, was deep in meditation and nothing we did could snap him out of it. Touching is forbidden so no one could give him a shake. One of the male servers resorted to doing a strange little dance around him, hoping the vibration would bring him out of his meditation. When that didn’t work he leaned in as close as he could without touching the student and spoke in his loudest quiet voice, shouting also being forbidden. Eventually the student stirred, rose from his seated position and left the hall without acknowledging any of us.

Once we were alone we would talk through the days events and any problems that had come up with the work or with the students. It was here I discovered the truth of what happens behind the scenes in a meditation centre. The dramas and intrigues. While we were burrowed away in the kitchen the male and female managers were on the frontline dealing with all kinds of bizarre scenarios. One of the male students had been asked to leave because his behaviour was out of control. He’d pretended to go but the male manager had discovered he was still at the centre, hiding. One of the other students had been smuggling him food. Then there was the incident involving two female students who broke one of the precepts. They had found it impossible to abstain from all sexual activity. I was shocked. What was wrong with these students? They were here to meditate. In the one and only course I’d done I was a stickler for the rules. Even though I managed to break every one of them, I never meant to.

And then there were the insects. The centre was full of them and they dominated our nightly get togethers. “One of the students says he has an insect in his ear,” the male manager said one night.

“Is it really an insect, or is it sensations?” The assistant teacher asked. We were up to the stage in the meditation course where students were observing their sensations.

The male manager hesitated. “I’m not sure. But he insists an insect has crawled into his ear. He can hear it constantly.”

“Does anyone have a possible solution?” The assistant teacher looked around at our small group.

“You can shine a torch into his ear,” I said. “Most insects are attracted to the light. It will head towards the torch and come out of his ear.”

“Not all insects head towards the light,” one of my kitchen team said. “Some try to hide from it. The insect might head further into his ear.”

“Well, you can always do the oil in the ear trick,” I suggested.

“What’s that?”

“Get him to put his head to the side and fill his ear with oil. The insect will float to the top.” How I became such an expert on getting insects out of ears I’m not sure.

“Won’t the insect drown?” the assistant teacher asked.

“Yes, but…..” I stopped, realising I’d just suggested killing a living creature, something the first precept expressly forbids. The assistant teacher frowned at me. I was overcome with the urge to laugh. I bit the inside of my cheeks to stop myself from giggling like a naughty school girl. Oh dear. I would never make a good Buddhist.

Some of the other servers were bolder than me. The problem of ticks came up quite often. The centre grounds were full of them and students often came to us with a tick’s head buried in their skin, the tick’s body bloated with their blood. The question was how to remove the ticks without killing them. I’d spent a few heated moments the day before with a half-naked male student in the small alcove outside the kitchen. He had a tick on his torso, just below his armpit, and was desperate to have it removed. I was the only one around, all the other servers resting at that time. He stripped off his shirt and I had attempted to remove the tick with a piece of cotton wrapped around its neck. It was a tricky process and one I wasn’t sure was successful. I had dabbed the area with tea tree oil, hoped for the best and sent the very good-looking young male student on his way.

At the nightly servers’ meeting the discussion about the best way to remove a tick became quite involved. Smothering them with Vaseline may kill them through suffocation, tea tree oil would certainly mean their demise, using tweezers would snap off the head, killing them as well as harming the student. One of my kitchen servers became agitated. She’d suffered from multiple tick bites when she’d worked on an organic farm. This resulted in her becoming very ill and she was  incapacitated for eighteen months. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But if it comes down to me or the tick, the tick’s going to cop it.”

The female manager admitted to me later that she had no compunction about killing any of the thousands of mosquitoes that annoyed us everyday. “The way I see it,” she said. “Is if you believe in the Buddhist theory and we are reincarnated after we die, then I’m just giving the mosquito a quick promotion.”