REFLECTIONS OF A LIFELONG STUDENT

Here in Australia, the academic year is drawing to a close. This means I have been grading papers, attending meetings and dealing with administrative issues, none of which, as a part timer, is onerous, but I have wondered how I managed when I worked full time. I have also been cleaning out my office cubicle, deciding which teaching resources to keep (and if I don’t intend to teach again why am I bothering?) and coming to terms with the idea that I have entered the final weeks of a 45 year career in education.

Anyone who has faced a major life transformation (and that’s all of us) knows a major change brings waves of excitement followed by a deluge of doubts. Will I regret my decision? Will I get bored? How will we pay the bills? Most of my friends are retired, some because of ill-health, others because, despite loving their work, they want to take things easy and enjoy life while they can. A few, like me, retired because they no longer found their work satisfying. Teaching was not my career choice, it was my mother’s and although I have occasionally resented it, I have to admit she was right. Teaching is a good career, mostly because you meet interesting, caring people from all walks of life. I started teacher’s college in 1970 where I met two extraordinary women who have remained dear friends. I have also had the privilege of teaching some delightful people. I started teaching junior primary (aka elementary) students. One of them became a lifelong friend of my youngest son. I moved on, in the late eighties, to teaching women returning to work or study. Many of these women had, to say the least, difficult lives. The stories I heard, the courage I witnessed, the hope these women expressed, was humbling. I am currently working with first year university students wishing to improve their written English skills, so I have had a varied and fascinating career. Working with dedicated and talented colleagues meant I have learnt a lot about myself, life and other people. I think that is why stayed with teaching; I love to learn. I am, in fact, a bit of a ‘learning junkie’. I have a teaching diploma from way back in last century, a graduate diploma in teaching (with a major in women’s education), a diploma in counselling, a creative arts degree and now a doctorate but I am already thinking about classes I can enrol in after I retire. Dancing classes, perhaps? French? Photography? A course in setting up and managing a website?

I am not much of a traveller; I don’t like flying so I tend to travel in my mind. Looking up one word in the dictionary leads me to a dozen others; a reference at the bottom of an article leads me to five other papers, usually unrelated to my research. I will sit at the computer for hours, tracking down books, articles and websites on a range of subjects. Why do I have such an inquiring mind? I am not sure, but I recently started reading about neuroscience and brain plasticity (a new passion; I have even contemplated doing a degree in it). Experts in neuroplasticity confirm something every mother knows; a baby’s mind is amazingly open and receptive, and what he or she learns at the beginning of life shapes the remainder of their years.

I spent the first four years of my life living in a house with four adults: my parents and my paternal grandparents. I was surrounded by loving people who talked (and often argued, but that’s another story) constantly to each other, and to me. My grandfather and my mother loved to read. My mother, particularly, always had a book nearby. My grandmother played the piano and enjoyed singing. She was a milliner and dressmaker and was constantly sewing, as was my mother who made all of my, and her, clothes. My father was one of the funniest, kindest and most patient of men who enjoyed solving problems and repairing things.  My grandparents held parties where food, drink and conversation flowed around and above me; no one moderated their words just because I was nearby. Unlike a lot of toddlers of my era, I was not alone at home with my mother, a few siblings and a father I saw only on week nights and weekends. I spent my early years in a stimulating, vociferous, creative environment and I thrived. My mind as well as my body was nourished; I could read when I was three and conversed confidently with adults who seemed happy enough to talk with me. I also had a clutch of cousins, from both sides of my family, to play with although I always felt more comfortable with adults. No wonder I was unhappy when I started school; it must have seemed boring alongside the fascinating comings and goings I witnessed at home. I was also blessed on my mother’s side. My maternal grandfather was Welsh and my grandmother was a Scot;  a visit to their home meant freshly baked bread, Dundee cake, songs from their homelands and stories of their new life in outback South Australia in the 1920s. Mine was a rich childhood that, I believe, fostered a lifelong love of learning, although I often wonder if that is because I am still trying to figure out why adults behave the way they do. Maybe a degree in psychology would help?

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In Australia, schools, colleges and universities are now called institutions, and education is just another industry whose purpose is making a profit. I am uncomfortable with this. Places of learning are where people gather, where minds, and sometimes bodies and souls, are fed, stimulated and comforted, where ideas are exchanged, examined, discussed, argued, and laughed over. When we think of schools as ‘institutions’ and education as an ‘industry’ we lose sight of the joy on a child’s face when those marks on a page suddenly make perfect sense, or when a woman casts off the shackles of abuse, takes charge of her own life and decides, at 30 and raising four children on her own, to enrol at university and earn her degree. Can an institution know what it feels like to be awarded your doctorate, to have your two year old granddaughter attend the graduation ceremony and tell her she can, if she chooses, have one of these one day?

The last 45 years have taught me something precious; people learn best when their skills are recognised, when they are respected, and when they are valued. Institutions don’t do that, people do.

What do you think? Is learning important to you? Who, or what, fostered your love of learning?

OF DRESSMAKERS AND POCKET DREAMS

Last Friday evening my friend Glory and I saw The Dressmaker, a wildly funny and moving new Australian film directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse and based on the novel by Rosalie Ham. After the response to last week’s post, and in the light of the movie, I have decided to share a little more about my mother. There is a moment in The Dressmaker, between Tilly, played by Kate Winslet, and her mother, played by Judy Davis, that reminded me of a moment between my mother and me, one I described in my memoir, Reading Goldilocks. I think the passage captures a little of the thrall she held me in and the complex nature of our bond. I wrote my memoir in both first and third person narrative voice; the following excerpt is from one of the chapters told by the third person narrator, Goldilocks  from the The Three Bears. This Goldilocks has grown up and is assertive, independent, feisty, and opinionated. She hates it when she knocks on a door and no one answers; a bit like the original Goldilocks really, only older, wiser and even more determined. Here is the excerpt:

There was one day when Janet, reading my story, stopped at the page where the little bear was being a cry baby about his chair (he was too big for it anyway),  looked up from the book and watched Sapphire, sitting before her sewing machine stitching together pieces of fabric she had cut from a length of material.

‘These are big pockets,’ Sapphire said as she pinned a pocket piece to the front section of skirt.

‘Big enough for me to fit in?’ said Janet. She put the book down, walked over to her mother and stood next to the sewing machine.

‘Oh, yes,’ said Sapphire. She sewed the pocket to the skirt, clipped the thread, laid the half-finished skirt to one side and lifted Janet onto her knee. Janet gazed at the sewing machine, its shining metal foot with its two toes, the thread carrier that held the white line of thread in its proper place and the needle that moved up and down and made the stitches. Hidden away, Janet knew, below the sewing plate, was the bobbin. She thought that was a pretty name for the round metal donut that carried the bottom thread. Janet shifted her gaze to the tension dial; Sapphire told her she needed to alter the dial according to the thickness of the fabric, a precise adjustment required prior to every new project.

‘Would you like me to make you a dress like this, with big pockets?’ Sapphire’s arms reached around Janet as she picked up the second pocket piece, gingerly plucked a pin from the round metal pin tin and pinned the pocket to the skirt. Janet sat very still, hardly breathing.

‘That would be nice,’ she replied, lowering her voice and matching Sapphire’s dreamy, soft tone. Janet could feel her mother’s heart beating against the left side of her small, tight back. It felt as if Janet had two hearts, one that beat in her own chest and a pilot heart, an original heart drumming her heart into being.

In the part of my story Janet was reading before she stopped to help her mother with the pockets, I was upstairs and asleep in Baby Bear’s bed, so maybe this image of Janet and her mother sitting together at the sewing machine didn’t happen? Maybe Janet’s two hearts are just a dream I had as I slept in Baby Bear’s bed? Maybe every quiet moment between Janet and Sapphire was a dream, like the dream Janet had that her mother was happy instead of sad or angry.

‘We’ll go to the shops tomorrow and look for a pattern and fabric for you, but for now,’ Sapphire gently slid Janet off her lap, ‘I need to finish this dress and then you can help me make Daddy some dinner.’

‘Mummy, until you make my dress, can I get into your pocket and go to parties with you?’

Was it the dream Sapphire or the real Sapphire who smiled her beautiful smile and replied, ‘You are already in my pocket, my love, you already are’?

 

Photo Credit: João Paulo Corrêa de Carvalho
Photo Credit:
João Paulo Corrêa de Carvalho

My memory of this incident is vague, and it may even be a compilation of many moments that passed between my mother and me. My mother taught me to sew and I remember those lessons as harmonious and loving. By writing sections of my memoir in third person narrative voice I was able to be more objective about those harmonious interludes, as well as the difficult times. I was able to appreciate my mother’s many skills and her innate tenderness. Goldilocks helped me see my mother, not as a daughter sees a mother but as one woman sees another. Through Goldilocks and her narrative I witnessed the suffering and struggle of another woman. I think this is one of the reasons writing part of my memoir in third person was therapeutic.

Have you ever written about one of your experiences from a first person perspective and then switched and rewrote it in third person narrative voice? What happened? Did you experience a sense of detachment and objectivity? How did that affect your perspective about the experience?

Shedding a Light on Mental Well Being

During the last week, Australia’s public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has produced and aired a series of programs about living with mental health. Under the title of ‘Mental As’, television, radio and on-line programs covering different aspects of mental health graced our airwaves and dignified our web pages. The subtitle for Mental As is,  ‘talk, give, seek’, which also summarises the ABC’s goals; raising awareness by encouraging people living with mental  health problems to tell their stories; raising money for research into mental health; and encouraging people with mental health issues, and their friends and family, to find help when they need it. Although there are inherent problems with devoting but one week per year to this issue, the ABC has opened discussions about mental health, how it feels to suffer from a mental illness and has encouraged Australians to think about the growing number of people who live with mental health problems.

In the spirit of the ABC’s goals, and as indicated in earlier posts, I have dealt with depression for most of my life. Sometimes it has been so severe I have had to take time off work. At other times it is like a faint stain on the fabric of my being, something I try to wash away but never completely eliminate. The initial causes of the depression are not important; this blog is not about the traumas, the tribulations, the stress, the wrong-headed decisions, or the disasters that darkened and swelled the stain. The focus of Reflective and Therapeutic Writing is healing, how to live with and learn from depression. I will say, however, that I believe working in a job not of my choosing, and ignoring my desire to write, contributed to my persistent melancholia, while the false starts, frustrated attempts at stories, incomplete poems and the feeling I have missed my chance to have a writing career, have led to bouts of depression.

My mother also experienced poor mental health. She was born in 1930, the second child and eldest daughter of a Scottish mother and Welsh father, both newly arrived from the United Kingdom. My grandmother had twelve pregnancies and raised nine children. The family survived the Depression because they had enough land to grow vegetables, keep chickens, cows, ducks and geese, make their own cream and butter, bake their own bread and sell the milk, eggs and vegetables they could spare. My mother helped my grandmother with these tasks; when she was twelve she cooked a roast dinner for her entire family. Apart from being a gifted cook, gardener and seamstress, my mother was beautiful, elegant and intelligent. She was also a tormented, troubled woman. My mother never sought help for her condition. No one in our family was allowed to think, let alone say, my mother had problems coping with life and both my parents distrusted psychologists and therapy of any kind. There was no doubt my mother loved me, but when I was a teenager I start to challenge her behaviour, and our relationship became, at times, difficult and often destructive. Despite that, I owe her a great deal; she taught me to read when I was three and she was determined I used my intelligence and my education. My mother was diagnosed with emphysema in the late 1990s and with Alzheimer’s in the early 2000s. My father and she refused to accept the latter diagnosis; both abhorred the idea anything could be wrong with my mother’s fine, erratic, shrewd and at times, extraordinarily wise, mind.

When my mother died it fell to me to write and deliver her eulogy. I had done the same for my father eight months earlier and I was not going to let her down but I agonised over what to say that was true to the woman she was. My mother always insisted we never speak ill of the dead. Was mentioning her mental well-being speaking ill of her? I was in the middle of my PhD at the time and aware of the power of therapeutic writing. Would sharing the struggles and triumphs of my mother’s life, diminish that life? I discussed the eulogy with my partner and my children then wrote, and several days later, delivered these words:

As most of mother’s family knew, my mother sometimes had her problems but back in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s – well for most of her life – such things were not talked about, most of all by my mother. These problems have, over the years, been labelled nervous breakdowns, depression, emotional disturbances and, now, ‘mental health issues’. Perhaps none of these terms applied to my mother but no matter how well she lived her life, how much she was loved, how accomplished she became, she often felt unhappy, unloved, and unaccomplished. She was also feisty, stubborn, determined and most of all mercurial: subject to sudden and often unpredictable changes of mood or mind.

My father was her lighthouse, casting a steady beam of love to my mother as she tossed on the seas of her sadness – or whatever it should be called. As Mum’s Alzheimer’s progressed, Dad’s light remained strong. It is easy to love someone when they are pleasant and even-tempered; for these reasons, and many others, my mother was easy to love. It is harder to love an agitated, anxious and difficult person and sometimes my mother’s behaviour made loving her a challenge.

There’s still a stigma attached to mental health issues: people are frightened of what they don’t understand, they feel out of their depth or helpless. I believe my mother was frightened of it too, which made it hard for her, as well as for her family, to accept, let alone address, what is an achingly common problem. Sometimes there are things that you can’t fix, but that does not mean you stop trying. My heroic father, with his unswerving love, could not fix my mother but he never stopped trying.

My Description

While I devoted the bulk of the eulogy to my mother’s skills and abilities, I am glad I also referred to her problems. Her surviving brother and sisters, and the nieces and nephews who were able to attend my mother’s funeral, supported my choice. Several weeks later, one of my cousins gave me an inkling of what might have triggered my mother’s moods by providing information about a tragic family loss and its devastating aftermath. No child could cope with what my mother experienced without loving support; in 1942 people were told it was best to get on with life. They were never told how to do that.

I like to think that programs like the ABC’s Mental As sparked discussions across Australia about our mental health, how precious it is, how we can support our loved ones when they experience loss, trauma or are unsettled to the point where they can’t cope. I heard Cold Play’s song, Fix You, just before my mother died and although it was not a song she knew I chose to play it at her funeral. Every time I hear it I think of my parents and their love story. No one can fix a loved one’s imperfections. Maybe all we can do is be the light that guides them home.

A SACRED SPACE

I spent several days this week converting our spare bedroom into my writing space because, as Virginia Woolf advised many years ago, a woman needs a ‘room of her own’ in order to write. The room isn’t complete yet: I need a few more shelves and I want to hang curtains, paintings and photographs. Nevertheless, today’s post is the first of many that will emanate from what my partner dubs ‘The Writing Studio.’

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Is a private writing space necessary? I knew a student who wrote most of his PhD while sitting in the university café; another friend writes her wry, astute poems in the local café. The staff know her children, her friends and the way she prefers her coffee. They are protective of her privacy and, I think, a little awed by her ability to concentrate surrounded by the noise and bustle of a busy restaurant on one of Adelaide’s well known tourist strips.

I have tried to cultivate the skill of writing in cafes but although I am better at it now than five years ago, I find noise and movement distracting. I also like to watch people, which is a useful habit for a writer to cultivate but also an excuse to not write.

While creating a space to write I thought about the act of writing, of being a creative person. Sheree Dukes Conrad suggests the ‘common-sense understanding’ of creativity, where writers, for example, record and expand a conversation they have overheard, or a writing prompt or exercise, is not a sufficient explanation. Conrad believes the artist finds and brings to life a story, novel, painting or song that is waiting to be written, painted or penned.

The story exists, in the sense that it makes demands upon the writer to write it … the writer has to find out what the story is by writing it.

This is why, she believes, modern audiences enjoy Shakespeare’s Hamlet; they have experienced and therefore understand the ‘meaning and logic of [Hamlet’s] grief’.

How is this relevant to making a space for writing, particularly therapeutic writing? According to the World Health Organisation (WHO):

 Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

I believe good health is the default position of the human organism; we are designed to be healthy, although how our particular body expresses its unique form of health is an individual phenomenon. I also believe when we are unwell, good health, like a painting or poem waiting for a writer, waits for us to find it, and we need to help the healing happen. Sadly, this may not always occur and I do not subscribe to the idea that ill-health is the fault of the sufferer; of course we all want to enjoy good health.

Perhaps my need for a writing space has something to do with spending years writing a private journal, writing for therapy and with my search for well-being. Whether it be in a group, a one on one writing session supervised by a therapist, or as part of an online counselling program I think therapeutic writing demands a certain quality of space, an empathetic, understanding, empowering, and protective environment.

In ancient times healing took place in an Asclepion, a healing temple sacred to Asclepius the Greek God of healing. While they are two different things, the Asclepion reminds me of a sanctuary. Derived from the Latin, sanctuarium, sanctuary originally meant a container that held a consecrated object or perhaps housed a holy individual. Now considered a safe refuge or asylum, a sanctuary is also a sacred space.

What could be more holy, or more in need of sanctum, than a person who is ill? Perhaps, to return to Dukes Conrad’s idea that a work of art waits to be discovered by the artist, an Asclepion or sanctuary is where healing awaits those who are suffering. The trick is finding, or creating, the appropriate sanctuary, but must it be a physical space? Is there an inner sanctum, an attitude of mind, we need to cultivate in order to find the poem that awaits us or the healing we deserve?

Over the years I have created several writing spaces. The first was in a corner of the master bedroom and, later, in the lounge room. When our children left home my ex-husband and I converted a bedroom into a shared office space. When we moved house I finally had my own space; the spare bedroom. More recently, I shared a small room with my new partner; now I have a writing and healing space once more. Despite organising these writing spaces, I soon learned it wasn’t just a physical space I needed. I had to cultivate an inner space where I allowed myself to believe in my writing and call myself a writer. I think this is why my two friends, and many other people, are able to write in cafes or busy marketplaces; they know they are writers, they trust the work and they confidently travel towards the novel or poem that demands to be written.

Maybe writing in a public space is difficult when we burrow into the obscure workings of the psyche, when we need to let the tears fall as we write, or pound the keyboard in anger as we let off steam. I think, however, any writing requires us to access and enter our sacred writing space. My favourite place has to be the eyrie overlooking the sea where I sought healing after my marriage ended. It was my space; tiny, cold in winter and hot in summer, I found it, paid for it, cried, laughed, grew and wrote in it.

Here I sit then, in the new, yet to be finished writing space. It contains my favourite writing books, a photo of my granddaughter and a framed painting, created by, found by, my granddaughter when she was just twelve months old. As I sit here I realise this is not ‘The Writing Studio’, it is ‘The Writing Sanctuary,’ a place of healing, a place to search for the next short story, novel, script, blog post or whatever else awaits.

Where does your writing await you? Which specific writing place, or process, works for you? Can you describe that space in ten words or less?

REFERENCES

Sheree Dukes Conrad, ‘Toward a phenomenological analysis of artistic creativity’, Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 21.2 (1990), 103-120, pp. 111-112.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (Malden, MA: 2015).

Jeannie Wright, ‘Online counselling: Learning from writing therapy,’ British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 30.3 (2002), 285-298.