Otherwise

A wise woman reassesses her priorities. She stops occasionally to work out what is important, what her values are. A wise woman knows life is a matter of fine-tuning. She takes stock and either polishes life or discards that which undermines her well being. I find myself in that moment: I am in need of space; I need a break. What was important nearly two years ago, when I started this blog, warrants recalibration. I look out of my window and I see the season is shifting; I drink coffee with a friend as she weighs up her options while burdened with many, too many, anxieties trying to crush her audacious spirit. 

Life is change; mindfulness is accepting change, even daunting, scarifying change. As I attempt to think this through, the word ‘otherwise’ comes to mind. From the Old English ‘on othre wisan, the prefix ‘other’ implies ‘distinct or different from’, while the archaic meaning of ‘wise’ is ‘the manner or extent of something’ as in ‘he did it this wise’. The word is related to ‘wit’, which means ‘to have knowledge … to see.’ I find I have a new knowledge of myself and my writing, different to the knowledge I had of my self and of writing in 2015. My ‘season’ as a writer, has changed. I can do little more than abide the change.

I am going to take a ‘blog break’ for the next seven weeks. I need to mind my health and prepare for a challenging and liberating journey to the other side of the world. I want, in addition, to draw on and clarify the confidence my blog, and my readers, have given me.

I do this with a deep sense of gratitude. Thank you for reading this blog. Thank you for your comments. Thank you for your support. If I decide, at the end of my break, to change direction please know it is because this blog, my readers and the experience of being part of this amazing community has shown me that,

… all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

to rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

‘Ulysses’ Alfred Lord Tennyson

Pain: A Reflection

Two days ago, I drafted a post describing my struggle with a herniated disc and the resulting pain. Yesterday, still dealing with pain and under the influence of supposedly helpful pain relievers, I accidentally deleted the document.

I wrote about feeling trapped on an island of pain, how being left (due to a set of unavoidable circumstances), alone for several hours to fend for myself, it felt as if my friends and family were swimming through the shoals of my pain and batting the seaweed of my frustration and anger aside as they headed for their own islands.

It’s probably just as well I lost the file. I was feeling sorry for myself and needed to rant, although writing the draft helped me come to terms with my predicament. Losing it helped me to understand that nothing is permanent including my pain, which hasn’t quite dissipated but has reduced, thanks to the ministrations of a good physiotherapist, the gentle restorative exercises he suggested, and plenty of rest.  

I found another self on that island of pain, a self that swung too readily between binary opposites of hope and despair, a self who fell into the trap of believing life was either a vale of tears or a pain-free paradise. Why, I moaned, was I forced to endure the former when I craved the latter? This led me to reflect on the Buddhist notion that life is suffering, an inescapable misery rather than an occasion for learning, growing, and feeling compassion for myself and others.

Mindfulness techniques helped me cope; I sent my breath to the afflicted area, imagining it became suffused with a healing light and the relief, though momentary, was sweet. I also did a little research on neurological explanations of pain. In my situation, as I understand it, the nerve endings located in or around my herniated (and thinning) disc, alerted my brain to a potential problem; something was about to, or had, gone wrong. My brain then interpreted and sent the message on and I experienced debilitating pain. According to Norman Doidge , however, my experience was

an opinion on the organism’s state of health rather than a mere reflexive response to injury.

This means, I think, that in the process of collecting and sharing the relevant information, pain is little more than a construct of my brain. Could this explain why military personnel and highly trained athletes deal with pain better than most of us? They don’t ignore the brain’s signals, they recognise it as a construct and manage it differently than the rest of us.

As a result of my research I started a conversation with my brain, telling it my physiotherapist said I needed to move, that I would be careful and my brain didn’t need to tell me moving would hurt; it could also please ‘turn down’ the hurt, or reduce the length of time it hurt. Because, as Doidge reveals, that

neurons that fire together wire together,

and due to our brain’s remarkable plasticity,

neurons that fire apart wire apart-or neurons out of sync fail to link,

I attempted to reconfigure the neuronal link between what was occurring in my spine and the way my reactionary brain ‘read’ the information and conveyed it to me.

As I result, I found movement a little easier. This is not, however, a recommendation for dealing with pain, just a game my brain and I played, a narrative, if you will, I constructed to address the inconvenience of my situation.

As my pain recedes I ask myself once more who am I and do I believe life is suffering or is it a mindful awareness of both suffering and joy; a dance between the two?  I called my original blog, ‘The Loneliness of Pain’ because, over the weekend, I felt utterly alone. My research, the meditations I did and my reflections on the idea of universal suffering helped me acknowledge that everyone experiences pain. As we move closer to understanding, from a scientific and neurological perspective, the nature and significance of that universal suffering maybe we will become more compassionate, loving human beings.

I have no doubt that I, and my lower spine, will recover. Back exercises will become a daily routine, as will being aware of how I move my body now it has fully entered the ageing process.

I understand now that the island I thought I was on is only a peninsula. Feeling isolated by my pain, or by any experience of loss or grief, is an illusion; to suffer is human and because we are human, we never truly suffer alone.

 

Awash with Emails

I purchased a new laptop last week. The old one is still working, but it is slow and I’ve always had trouble with its dodgy space bar. That’s not the main reason, however; my partner and I are off on an adventure in late May and I plan to share my reflections on the new sights, experiences and different climes we’ll experience. The old laptop is too heavy to cart across the planet, hence the recent purchase. airplane

I’m a baby boomer but I know my way around most of my computer’s settings. I’m also reasonably skilled in problem solving (aka ‘trouble shooting’), mostly with the help of Google and YouTube. Is there no question these two sites can’t answer? I decided, therefore, I’d configure the new laptop myself. I didn’t want to bother my eldest son, my youngest son is off with his wife on their adventure and my partner is not, shall I say, as confident with computers as I am. I therefore cheerfully launched into setting up my little laptop, thinking it would take, at the most, a day or two.

That was a week ago.

Scrivener and I handled the transition superbly. Dropbox likewise. My precious photographs were transposed safely (I saved them to a USB just to be sure) and my word processing package seemed to settle into its new home with its numerous files intact. Facebook … well, Facebook is Facebook. Like water, it seeps into the tightest of crevices. And if you’re reading this then the WordPress platform also handled the shift well.

And then there was the email. It should have been simple. I felt I did my part: I planned my approach; I saved important emails; I followed the instructions, but to no avail. I’ve spent the last four days grappling with the beast that is my ‘personal information manager’ while my blog and other writing has languished.emails

I decided to pay a visit to my old laptop this morning, to check my email. One hundred and ninety five emails were downloading, the very emails I managed to head off on the new laptop. Yes, dear reader, I faced down an email tsunami, one I somehow caused but had no idea how I’d done so. Naturally, I did what every semiskilled computer user does; I panicked, shut the old laptop down and disabled the email platform on the new laptop. It’s obvious now that I need a son (or two) to help me undo whatever I’ve done. In the meantime, I can check emails on the Internet. And my phone. And my iPad.

martin_szajaThe point of this post is not my wounded Boomer pride but the irony of the situation. I am a born communicator who failed to set up a simple communication network. I don’t venture into the world and talk to actual human beings as much as I used to and I certainly don’t teach communication skills any more; I connect to the world through emails. I love writing emails, more often little stories tolerated, for the most part, by my friends. I have turned some of these missives into blog posts. But even though I can still communicate with the outside world, maybe it’s time to reflect on my relationship to my emails. I believe the real problem is not that I enjoy communicating via email, it’s the volume of email traffic that swamps my computer, emails I organise under cunningly named labels so I can locate and read them later. The other problem is, as well as my WordPress subscriptions, I subscribe to several (to tell the truth, dozens), of literary and writing websites. I suspect I accrue the equivalent of three large book’s worth of emails to read each week. Of course I can’t keep up; I simply file an email under its label and tell myself I get back to it one day.

Maybe the Email Goddess is trying to tell me something. Is it time to unsubscribe, yet again, from a few sites? Should I delete emails from before (and after) 2013? Will I ever read them? And yet, as I sorted, prior to the email deluge, through my old emails, I found some interesting stuff: notes concerning my PhD research that I’d forgotten I had; early photographs of my precious granddaughter; emails to and from my partner when we were courting; emails to my children and three emails from my father, written just before he died.  Among the polluted polynya that is my email cache, there are a few gems I’d like to scoop up and put to good use if possible.  antarctica-1987579__340

If it’s not possible, I have to accept that a part of my life is undergoing a thorough purge. But before I do that I’ll call my son and ask when he can visit me and work out what I’ve done and how to fix it.

 

How confident are you with managing your computer? Do you receive dozens of emails a week that you never read? Have you found old gems among your email or other files?

 

At Ease, Ease off or Ease Together?

I don’t meditate as often as I’d like but when I do I use one of the several meditation apps I’ve downloaded to my mobile phone. The other day I chose Meditation Studio’s meditation, ‘Ease with Everything’ by Noah Levine. It was the first meditation I’ve done that specifically used the word ‘ease’ (or it was the first time I consciously registered that word). The meditation suggested I ‘be at ease with myself just as I am.’

Now, I know we’re not meant to analyse our meditations but experience them and relax into their bounty. The word ease, however, and its use as a goal of meditation, intrigued me. I’m a wordsmith. I write because I love choosing  words that clearly convey my understanding of, feelings about and attitude towards a subject. I decided to explore the meaning of ease so I can better understand why my recent meditation was so positive.

My dictionary of etymology tells me the word ease was in use before 1200CE and was probably borrowed from the Old French aise, meaning comfort or pleasure. That led me to The Oxford Dictionary of English (on line) where I discovered that indeed, ease is from the:

old French eise, aise (modern aise) feminine, cognate with Provençal ais, Italian agio (formerly also asio), Portuguese azo masculine; late Latin type asia, asium, of uncertain origin. The earliest sense of French aise appear to be: 1. Elbow-room […and …]: 2. opportunity. It has been suggested … that *asia, *asium may be … āsa, a recorded vulgar form of Latin ansa, handle, used figuratively in sense [of] ‘opportunity, occasion’. With reference to the sense ‘elbow-room’, it is remarked that ansātus, ‘furnished with handles’ is used in Latin for ‘having the arms akimbo’. This is not very satisfactory, but it does not appear that any equally plausible alternative has yet been proposed.

I wonder if this is the origin of the military injunction to ‘stand at ease’, a command that means to stand with feet shoulder-width apart, hands clasped behind the back. soldier-1713107__340  This means the arms, or more specifically elbows, will invariably be at some degree of ‘akimbo’ (a term possibly related to the idea of a ‘jug handle’ or ‘pot handle’).

To paraphrase the rest of the entry in The Oxford Dictionary, being at ease means the chance, or skill, to perform a role or action,  or to experience contentment or freedom from anxiety or anguish. For some, ease comes in the form of an appliance that does their work for them so they don’t need to exert themselves. For others it means release from life’s  tribulations through apathy, heartlessness or lack of moral accountability. It is also, and this is a personal favourite, the

freedom from […] embarrassment or awkwardness in social behaviour.

I wonder if the ability to feel at ease in our world has been lost? Our leaders are almost universally rude to their opponents. Both sides of the political divide behave like bullies, bringing the worst of the schoolyard to the very places where measured, properly informed, congenial discussions should prevail. The extreme vagaries of the weather feel like a portent of the devastating climate change many scientists have, for decades, tried to warn us about. Poverty, racial discrimination and gender inequality make me wonder if we can ever be ‘at ease’ again. And yet, my meditation app instructs me to feel at ease with myself and where I find myself. meditate-1851165__340

Who benefits from such injunctions? Is there an alternative to meditation that can achieve the change – and the ease – we desperately seek? I am not against meditation; I’d like to develop a regular practice, I’d like to sit for longer than ten minutes, to focus on my breath, to accept my anxieties instead of fighting them or keeping them at bay. But I also wonder if my attempts are another form of burying my head in the sand?

A dear friend admires the collectivism of the early to mid 20th Century, a political movement born partly from the terrible loss of life in two world wars. Collectivism reached its apotheosis in the 1960s and 70s but was superseded by the rugged individualism that swelled in the 80s and 90s to the present time, and whose current avatar is the newly elected President of the United States. Mindfulness has, in the last two decades, been adopted in the west as the new hope for mental health, an ideal with which I concur. Is it, however, aligned with individualism, with the cult of the self, with the potential failure to understand that many of our problems are created by our current economic and political system?

My friend added that he feels most at ease when with others: at the theatre, for instance, or a gathering of friends or family. I, on the other hand, am more of an introvert. I am at ease with my family, and certainly while babysitting my granddaughter. Despite my having to be responsible for her well-being and therefore cautious about what she does, where she is and what she eats, her artless, innocent, exploration of the world gives me most ease. I don’t enjoy large parties, preferring small and intimate dinners where everyone’s voice is heard. I also find peace when I’m reading, although that, too, is communicating and connecting with the mind and heart of the author and her characters. Compare these forms of ease to mindfulness and meditation as an aid to mental wellbeing. How does meditation fit with our obligations, as members of society, to the collective? Whose ease are we expected to care about, ours or others?

Giving ease is to

render more comfortable, relieve from pain, … refresh with repose or food, … entertain, accommodate hospitably, … give relief to (any one suffering from oppression, or burdened with expenses or laborious duties), in wider sense: to benefit, help, assist … to relieve, lighten, set free (a person, etc.) … from burden, pain, anxiety, or trouble,

but it also means to ‘ease off, or to release or reduce one’s efforts’.

Practitioners and advocates of mindfulness assert that it will help me to be calmer and more at ease with myself and allow me to confidently venture out to the world so I can help others. I have no doubt this is true. I have already found, even doing one or two brief meditations a week, that my writing has taken on a more collective tone, particularly in my blog posts. I want my words to make a difference to the lives of others. tea-lights-1901005__340

My mother was a gifted dressmaker who, I believe, was most at ease when sitting in front of her sewing machine. She taught me to sew when I was young, so I was interested to find, as I scrolled through the entries on the on-line version of The Oxford Dictionary, a definition of ease I heard many times as a girl:

To join two pieces of material whose edges are of unequal length in such a way that the extra fullness of the larger section is distributed evenly along the join.

I want to adopt this definition as a mantra for my meditation practice. While I find mental and emotional ease through breathing, centring, contemplating and reflecting I am, in a sense, the shorter piece of the two sections of fabric. The collective, my tribe, my community, is the larger piece. Meditative and reflective writing has the potential to stitch the scarcity of the individual to the immensity of the collective and create a healthy, functioning whole.  By writing meditatively, I can share my belief that ignoring our community means we renounce the right to wear the garment of humanity.

What or who puts you at ease? How do you ease the lives of others? Where are you most at ease?couture-1896454__340

 

Four Quotes about Therapeutic Writing and what they Mean to Me

I cannot remember the last time I wrote a post specifically related to therapeutic writing. Most of my posts are reflective, but the chief impetus for creating this blog has faded somewhat.  Today, while tidying up and relocating old files, I reflected on the five years I spent researching the power of creative writing to heal, or at least assuage, grief, loss and trauma. As I sorted through my files I found the following quotations from people I consider experts in the field of therapeutic writing and I decided to share them.

Art allows a safe revisiting of that place of revulsion. (1)

cta7f7bwt5o-serge-esteveThis is a confronting assertion. Who wants to return to a place of fear and loathing, who wants to expose themselves to memories of pain and sorrow? How is reliving the bad times healing? Research demonstrates that when we relive a trauma on the page, when the power of a pen (or computer keyboard) is in our hands, when we say what we want to say, feel what we need to feel, share as little or as much as we choose, we can find relief. Reliving and retelling the story of our suffering gives us the power to interpret, engage with and revise that story. Writing is a way of standing up and facing the demon and telling it to back off.

The etymological roots of the word `record’ are `re’, meaning again, and `cord’, meaning heart (Oxford English Dictionary). Recording is getting closer to what is in the heart. The writer is their own first reader, their own primary interlocutor. So, writing, in the first instance, is a private communication with the heart of the self. (2)

Never one to take anything as given, I checked Bolton’s claim and she is right. The heart is not a site of revulsion, pain is what happens to us while our heart keeps beating. The body and the psyche may be scarred but the heart remains the animating principle. To survive is to cherish our heart beat no matter what happens to us, no matter how others treat us. This is therapeutic writing as a stethoscope (from the Greek, stethos; breast: skopien, look). Therapeutic writing is a way to look within our heart and record what is found there. It is also, in terms of the verb to breast, a way to press on confidently, to struggle with, and to overcome or conquer.  If we examine the word interlocutor we find it means ‘conversationalist’; to write therapeutically is not to converse with either the pain we experience or who or what caused our suffering, but to converse with the self that has survived, that will survive, the pain. Once again, the power is placed back with the therapeutic writer. We are no longer victims, we claim instead a profound tool: the power to record not only how we endured our pain but how we survived it. cropped-u3ges0susni-jeff-sheldon-e1485849771431.jpg

In every case, the writing on the page speaks back to its writer, offering resolution, solace or posing more questions about life and writing. (3)

Here we are then, at a place of power, offering the surviving self comfort and the means to resolve our trauma and move on, to be curious once more about life and what we can do with the life we fought so hard to keep.

Our days are filled with moments. Most of these never get written and usually that doesn’t matter but sometimes it feels like it does. Sometimes a moment happens that causes a jarring, a disturbance, a confusion or such an explosion of feeling that you know you will have to re-live that moment in nondescript jolts and shivers, shakes of the head or blinks of the eyes unless you find a way to process and make sense of it in some other way. (4)

Yes, most moments are fleeting; we are unmindful of their passing and they are lost forever. Other moments, however, the moment a loved one takes her or his last breath, the moment a car swerves into our path, the moment someone harms us, those moment are seared into us, we are forever branded with them. Therapeutic writing is one way to do the crucial work of processing these scorching, indelible moments. To process means taking a series of actions or steps to achieve an outcome.  It is an operation, a procedure, a treatment, but it is first and foremost an action, one we can perform, with the help of a trained counsellor, on the page.

window-855371__340As I muse on these quotations and play with words, I remember reading, early last year, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. While I cannot say with certainty that Porter wrote the book as a form of therapy, it is based on his experience, when only six, of losing his father. His book is, for me, an almost perfect expression of profound loss, crippling grief and the essential work required to survive, not just for ourselves but for those who love us. The book describes moments of recovery, of survival that never nullify the moment of grief but honour and dignify that loss. Not everyone, of course, will see loss and grief this way but Porter’s novel demonstrates the possibility.

When I wrote, as part of my thesis, my memoir I discovered a mature, feisty, woman comfortable with breaking the rules. She always existed, of course, but she either hid away, for fear of censure, or expressed her pluck in inappropriate ways. I also rediscovered my mother, who experienced a profound loss and trauma, one I believe she never processed. If this blog can, in some small way,  demonstrate to one person the power and potential of therapeutic writing, then I have honoured my mother, her trauma and the little brother that she loved deeply and lost.

References

(1) Gillie Bolton, quoting from a participant, Teenage Cancer Trust Unit, Camden Palliative Care Unit, King’s College London Arts and Medicine Unit (English Department) in Bolton, Gillie, Write Yourself: Creative Writing and Personal Development, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2011, Kindle Edition, loc. 89.
(2) Bolton, Gillie, Write Yourself: Creative Writing and Personal Development, loc. 94.
(3) ‘Preface’, by Gillie Bolton, Victoria Field, Kate Thompson, with a Postscript by Fiona Hamilton, in Writing Routes: A Resource Handbook of Therapeutic Writing (Writing for Therapy or Personal Development), Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Kindle Edition, loc. 157.
(4) Cheryl Moskowitz, ‘Letter to a Stranger – Processing the Momentary’ in Field, Victoria, Kate Thompson, and Gillie Bolton, Writing Routes: A Resource Handbook of Therapeutic Writing, loc. 826.

Averting One’s Face.

I’m spending too much time on Facebook and not enough time writing or with my partner. It’s not that I have Facebook open all day, respond to every notification or read all the articles that land on my page. In fact, it’s more about the quality of my time on line, rather than the quantity.

I joined Facebook in 2007 when a friend posted photographs of her overseas trip on what was to me the new and somewhat intimidating social platform. When I met my partner three years later and subsequently announced our relationship on Facebook, I added many of his friends and family to my growing list of ‘friends’. In the ten years since I registered, Facebook has ‘helped’ me reconnect with many family members who, for a range of reasons, were once lost to me. I admit I relished the careful refortifying, albeit mostly on line, of these precious family ties and I’ve loved seeing, in ‘real time’, several cousins and aunts, something that might not have happened without Facebook. I also enjoy the opportunity to connect with other writers and writing sites.

social_mediaOver the last couple of weeks, however, some of my friends have decided to take time off from Facebook or leave altogether. One of them explicitly cited the current political situation in the USA, and its alarming resemblance to Germany in the 1930s, as a reason for his decision.

I tend to agree with his position. We can compare, at the very least, Hitler’s appeal to sections of German society through speeches full of clichés, catch phrases and promises to reclaim Germany’s lost glory, to the emotionally laden rhetoric of Donald Trump. His promise to restore ‘order’, the way he targets and scapegoats people from different ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds is terrifyingly familiar, and implies the same inevitable conclusion; to appease one group, another group must be eliminated. As described on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website,

Nazis demanded that Germans accept the premises of the Nazi worldview and live their lives accordingly. They tolerated no criticism, dissent, or nonconformity … Guided by racist and totalitarian principles, the Nazis eliminated individual freedoms and pronounced the creation of the national community, in whose name they seized every opportunity to turn Germany into a unified racial collective … Hitler’s political opponents were the first victims of systematic Nazi persecution.

Recent Facebook posts describe the potential for public servants to feel morally compromised when they implement the new policies. If they refuse, they risk losing their jobs. This and the cavalier creation of poorly conceived and potentially dangerous policies and executive orders, are two instances that, I believe, have caused several of my friends personal despair. I can empathise. The negative and destructive actions of the government of the United States, and of my own government, is indefensible; I want no part of it. I too, am considering closing my Facebook account. But is this a rational decision?

Leaving Facebook may give me more time to write blog posts, work on my novel and my collection of flash fiction. I’ll have time to read more novels and reputable, balanced news feeds that back up their content with sound research and judicious investigation. One of the problems with Facebook’s continuous news feed is deciding if the content contains carefully researched facts, mere opinion or blatant lies. Rather than an open access to the world of ideas, much of what we read on Facebook exists within a bubble we, with Facebook’s help, create. Our newsfeed is a construction that confirms and reinforces the values and beliefs we already have. Quitting Facebook might give me more time to explore issues with my friends and family, rather than working out what they mean in their posts, or what they believe by clicking on sites they share. Leaving Facebook could also  mean that, rather than lamenting the gathering dark, I will have time to volunteer for the causes I support and light a few candles to illuminate and nullify the portents of doom. It seems to me that a time is looming when we will be asked to make actual (real time) changes in the world instead being satisfied with clicking on a sad or angry ’emoji’. Is it possible that, as an answer to every tragedy, every act of treachery, Facebook’s abbreviated method of response actually stops us from getting off our chairs and making real changes?

On the other hand, if I leave Facebook I may lose the ineffable connections with those I love best; family who live interstate. Yes, we can phone each other, we can get on a plane and visit, but sometimes it is nice to log on and see that my son is relaxing with friends, my daughter has managed to find a permanent home for an abandoned puppy, my daughter-in-law has organised another fund raising event. I also wonder how my leaving Facebook will disrupt the very things that could threaten my family’s well-being. Will deleting my Facebook account mean I am burying my head in the sand, refusing to see the world’s situation for what it, inexplicably and dangerously, is? By being ‘less informed’ about the plight of innocents might I be culpable for their suffering?

I cannot possibly answer these questions until and unless I decide what to do. But in a way, leaving Facebook is not the real question here. The real issue is how can I positively influence the state of the world? Is the turmoil and strife many of us fear inevitable? What can we do to prevent it?

To resist something is to hinder or prevent its progress, to oppose, to refuse to yield or comply. Those of us nervous, nay frightened, of recent events have a moral choice. We can comply or we can resist. Either option has its consequences. At the moment, we are exposed to rhetoric that focuses on one thing: America and its interests. In a recent post I pointed out that we are a family of nations. I know from bitter experience that when the needs of one member of a family are more important than the needs of other members, the family will be destroyed.

What I don’t know is if deleting my Facebook adequately signals my refusal to accept the current status quo. If you leave a room while an argument is taking place, are you showing tacit acceptance of the situation, or exercising your right to directly resist a situation you can no longer abide?

The Listening Place

On the last night, knowing every night was a last night, the musician played. No one knew he existed. He came, someone said, with the last wave. There had been over three hundred, and what each carried was ignored; some felt there were too many and argued for turning them away. Others said the end was upon everyone, three hundred more would make no difference. Sure enough, they were the last group and the old and young continued to die in the night, and on that last night, of all the last nights, the musician played.

It had been a while, he said, as he tuned the guitar. The mothers whose children were gone took the toddlers and babies, whose mothers were dead, into their laps. It didn’t matter by then. The older children sat at the front, the meagre firelight splashing their faces. The adults and the elderly sat or lay on the dead grass. Some wept. When the musician could play no more, a woman sang a song and then another and then one more. Three men stood and beat a rhythm on their thighs. Two boys danced along with the beat then sank into the clinch of wide-eyed children.

The musician played a final tune. The people clapped, some stood and some smiled. Most staggered back to their huts or blankets, others slept at the listening place, peace settling them on that last night.

In the morning the early risers dragged the dead to the pit, some were from the listening place, where music had dulled the suffering. One of the dead was the woman who sang. Others were hauled from their huts. The musician, mercifully, slept on, the guitar gathered in his arms.

When the last dead of the morning had been rolled into the pit, the last words and the keening done, the food and blankets were redistributed. A child, only ten, who had danced to the thrum of hand on thigh that last night, began to weep. A woman bent to him in comfort. ‘Who,’ said the boy, ‘will dance with me at the listening place, who will drag me to the pit if you go before me? Who will say the last words for me?’

last_night

Neo-Natal

neo-natalHe is barely ten hours old when the neo-natal retrieval team arrive. They attach him, my first-born, to an electrocardiograph, they wrap him in what looks like pliant aluminium foil, they place him in a space capsule on wheels. They turn on the oxygen. They close the lid. They will take him to the airport and to a city hospital where they will look after him. I watch him roll away from me, I listen to his heartbeat until the maternity ward’s wide doors close and he is gone.

I know as soon as he is born there is something wrong. His first cry is a mewl of complaint, not wholesome newborn outrage. His stomach retracts with each breath, he pouts ferociously and for a legitimate reason. He is born too early. ‘Why,’ the retrieval team doctor asks, ‘was he induced two weeks early?’ I want to reply, ‘Because I trust my doctor,’ but offer only this; ‘My doctor said that even though it was two weeks overdue the foetus was too small.’

I join him 24 hours later. I am re-admitted to hospital. I endure, as all postpartum women must, the tedium of having my weight, height, blood pressure and other details recorded yet again. Finally, I visit the neo-natal intensive care suite. They have tied down my baby’s arms. A tube sprouts from his chest, just above his midget heart. He cries but I cannot hear him; another tube is threaded down his throat. ‘We have to restrain his arms, he keeps pulling at his tubes,’ the dark-haired nurse says. ‘He’s the biggest bub here at the moment. His lungs aren’t quite developed yet, but he’s a fighter.’ I am too easily read; she pauses then says, ‘It’s okay. You can touch him. Talk to him. He’ll recognise your voice.’

Later, exhausted, I sleep and dream. I take my baby to a staff meeting. My work mates are polite, they smile but we must work; there is no time to praise my newborn. There is only one place I can put my baby; an empty aquarium. I lower him into the glass casket and he sleeps. I contribute to the meeting, I watch him through the glass but the aquarium fills with water. His blankets are soaked, the water rises, the wet swaddling drags him under.

I wake before I can reach him.

Two hours later a doctor from the neo-natal unit walks into my room. My baby is fine, she says. The clip board with his medical details are her shield, a black pen her sword. ‘Tomorrow,’ she says, ‘we will try to feed him through a tube, one millilitre only of the breast milk you expressed for him. We won’t give him your milk today. There was a little problem this afternoon. Do you remember the tube that drains fluid from his lungs?’ I nod. ‘For some reason, it became blocked.’ She moves her shield so it covers her heart. ‘We had to drill a second hole in his chest and start the drainage again. There is nothing to worry about now.’

‘When,’ I ask, ‘did this happen?’ She tells me and I count the hours since I arrived at the hospital.

While I slept, my son almost drowned in his own mucus.

On Womankind

It’s too late to recap 2016 and the first twelve days of 2017 have slipped away, so chronicling my hopes and goals for the year seems redundant. Maybe it’s time for a cliché: where has the year gone?

In my case the year has been plagued by indifferent health. I haven’t been gravely ill, merely laid low with a mean, stubborn chest infection. I felt no desire to sit at my computer; editing the novel I drafted last November was beyond me and even reading a novel seemed too large a task. I turned, therefore, to my pile of mostly unread Womankind magazines and found the perfect companion for my convalescence.

Womankind, an Australian magazine, was launched in 2014. The first issue (the only issue I don’t have) featured Simone de Beauvoir who, I believe, would be happy to grace the cover of one of the few advertisement free, celebrity free magazines in the world.

Womankind is an advertising-free women’s magazine on self, identity and meaning in today’s society. (Its) aim is to introduce ideas that challenge contemporary thought and conditioning.

Womankind
Womankind Issue 10. Cover Illustration by Charis Tsevis

I purchase my copies from the local newsagent, but it is available through subscription in Australia, New Zealand (Aotearoa), Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. It is edited by Antonia Case and produced by the folk behind the New Philosopher, an

independent quarterly magazine devoted to exploring philosophical ideas from past and present thinkers on ways to live a more fulfilling life. (It) caters to those who have not studied philosophy, as well as philosophy students and academics.

New Philosopher is also advertisement free.

I like Womankind because it doesn’t talk down to its readers; it treats them like independent, intelligent and thoughtful women. While it covers difficult issues, it also explores a range of options that can help create a better world and it consistently encourages and validates women’s creativity. The images and ideas contained in its pages encourage readers to think differently about the world and themselves. In issue nine, for example, readers are asked to help the editors compile a list of life enhancing ‘mental attributes’ a person might be ‘diagnosed’ with. An only slightly tongue in cheek request, the idea is to counter the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a tome which describes the ever-growing range of mental and behavioural disorders, with more positive and life enhancing attributes. The editors cite ‘café cordiality – the joy of chatting to others, especially in cafés’ and ‘sky gazing compulsion’ as examples of attributes we might aspire to. My attribute would be ‘book hugging – the joy of embracing a book before, during and after reading it in appreciation of its insight and charm.’ What would your chosen attribute be?

Womankind helped me make it through the first twelve difficult days of 2017, a year many of us are understandably wary of. Immersing myself in a graceful, thought provoking, beautifully produced and illustrated magazine that treats its readers with respect, gave me hope for the rest of the year. It encouraged me to take the time to meditate, to reflect and to rekindle my gratitude journal. It was like having a compassionate and gentle nurse constantly at my bedside, a companion who, during the drear days when I was forced to rest and battle whatever it was that ailed me, offered respite, nourished my mind and enriched my spirit.

A Four Year Old’s Christmas

Dear Velvet,
It’s Christmas Eve. You’ll spend your day thinking about a visit from Father Christmas, or as you have come to call him in your prematurely wise way of finding compromise, ‘Santa Christmas.’   stocksnap_a3gogu0bwf

Tomorrow Cadence and I will share lunch with you, Mummy and Daddy, your Adelaide uncles and, later in the afternoon, other friends and family. We’ll watch as you open your presents, refuse to taste the prawns Cadence will offer you, enjoy ice cream at the end of the meal and devour the after-dinner chocolates. It all sounds rather ordinary, doesn’t it, much like the Christmas I enjoyed sixty years ago, when I was four years old.

There will be differences though. You’ll talk to your Grandpa, Uncle and Aunts in Perth via Skype or Facetime, something I could never have imagined in 1956. The love your family feel for you will beam across Australia and through Daddy or Nannie’s devices. This will show you that families use any means possible to connect with each other, no matter the distance and circumstances.

I think, Velvet, that the Christmas you have when you’re four years old may well be your best Christmas; when you’re three the noise, the bright wrapping paper and so many unexpected gifts can be overwhelming. When you’re a savvy five year old, expectations can be heightened which could lead to the first of many small Christmastime disappointments that gather as the years pass. So, enjoy this special Christmas my darling, but there is something I think you need to know, maybe not this year or even the next, something important about tomorrow and how other little boys and girls across the world might spend their day.

Many children, who are as smart and as kind as you, won’t have a very happy time tomorrow. Some of them, like you, know about Father Christmas but he won’t leave them any presents. Others might find lots of presents under the Christmas tree but their parents will leave their children in a corner and expect them to be quiet and grateful while the grown-ups drink too much wine and end the day screaming at each other and the children, frightening the little ones so much they will grow up to hate Christmas.

There are other little children just like you who don’t know anything about Santa Claus but they do have a Mummy and Daddy and grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins who love them as much as we love you. All families want their children to enjoy a happy, peaceful day tomorrow and everyday, but some of those mummies and daddies will have to use their bodies to shelter their children from bombs and bullets. There will be other children, too many children, who will spend tomorrow hungry and tired and scared. Too many children will spend tomorrow alone because their parents have disappeared and too many children may not see tomorrow’s sunset.

8299680591_5061d4e91f_oI am grateful, Velvet, that you will not spend your tomorrow worrying about this. I pray your innocence will continue for another year or two more but I am also concerned, as are a lot of adults, about what 2017 may bring. It is sad to think that you may learn too soon how people can do terrible things to each other and you will be perplexed and maybe a little afraid. That’s why tomorrow is so special; your family will show you how important love and compassion is. We will teach you how to be tolerant towards every one you meet, we will help you understand that lots of people in the world think being kind and compassionate to each other is better than being mean and cruel.

There are many people who work hard everyday to change our world. Those people are good at imagining what it feels like to be another person. Here’s a game you can play one day to help you do this: pretend you are walking around in another person’s shoes; pretend you are that person; pretend their fears, their dreams and their memories, are yours. If you can do that you will understand everyone else, and yourself, better.

This, then, is my Christmas wish for you; on that terrible day when you learn other children suffer while you prosper, you won’t ignore their suffering. When you learn other children play with different toys and enjoy different celebrations than you, you won’t laugh at their games or beliefs. When you discover other children wear different clothes and don’t look like you, you won’t judge them and ridicule them, but respect and learn from them, you will play with them and, if they need it, or when they ask for it, you will help them whenever you can.

But that is a wish for your future, dear Velvet. It is not your task, this Christmas Eve, to wonder how the world can become a better place. You can leave that to the grownups. When it is your turn, I know your compassion and resilience, your resourcefulness and your magnificent imagination will help you create a world where all children feel as safe and as cherished as you feel today.
Love always,
Nannie

Do you remember your fourth Christmas? What important lessons did you learn around the table at Christmastime?

Finally, my dear readers, wherever you are and whatever you are doing on the 25th December I hope you will be with your loved ones, that you feel safe and cherished, and may peace sit lightly at your shoulder.