On Winter Chills and Federal Elections

It’s almost winter in this part of the world and that means head colds and flu. Both my partner and I have come down with the latter at the same time. As I put on my Facebook page, it’s sniffles in stereo around here and I can’t make up my mind which is worst;  suffering alone from a bad cold (as my daughter, who lives interstate, did last week) or suffering at the same time as your partner. I mean, in both cases, who fixes the hot drinks, picks up supplies from the store, cooks the meals?

We’ve decided to take turns as our colds are mild and our needs few. We’ve spent the morning sitting in the family room, where a weak sun occasionally peeks in at us past the clouds and through the windows. We’ve shared snippets of information from Facebook, sneezed together and gently commiserated with each other. We’re planning to watch a couple of DVDs this afternoon, or maybe just snooze; there’s not a lot can be done about a cold except wait it out, drink plenty of fluids, and rest.

It just occurred to me, as I wrote the first two paragraphs, that my entire country has a head cold at the moment, otherwise known as a general federal election. The symptoms are similar; Australian’s collective heads are  pounding with the clichés, slogans and promises made and broken from the last election. After only three weeks, and with five more to go, our energy is depleted, our political antibodies, while still fighting the good fight, need help. Check this link, for example, to see the effect last night’s ‘great debate’ had on Laura Tingle, one of Australia’s perceptive and respected journalists.

Australia is suffering. It needs to stock up on paracetamols laced with ‘beta blockers guaranteed to eliminate polli speak.’ Even a few of the candidates are starting to sound husky, the result of too much talking and not enough thinking. Many of us hope they’ll soon see sense and stop talking altogether. It will be better for them and a bonus for us. It’s also apparent that most of our candidates have misdiagnosed our ailments; ‘Fix the economy,’ they insist, forgetting that a human’s hopes, dreams and needs are not column entries on a financial spread sheet. Some of us reckon the problem goes deeper, that the real source of our malaise is Australia’s soul. Our collective health is poor because we imprison the innocent (our ‘solution’ for refugees) and decimate arts funding. Maybe it’s my sore head, but my poor country is ailing; we used to pride ourselves on being the land of the ‘fair go’, we believed in giving those worse off a helping hand. Then again, we failed too many times to heal the damage we did to original custodians of this beautiful country.

Maybe Australia needs antibiotics, a good dose of statesmen and stateswomen to flush the politicians out of our system and make room for people of principle: creative thinkers; leaders who recognise our strengths as well as our weaknesses; problem solvers who believe every Australian is a valued member of society no matter their religious beliefs, gender alignment, race, class or education level. We need leaders who listen, not functionaries who think they know who we are and what we want. We need to strengthen our immune system so we can right the wrongs made in our name. It’s the people who wield the syringe that will deliver the medicine; it’s called an election. We have five more weeks before it’s ‘roll up your sleeves, Messers Turnbull and Shorten. Time to take your medicine’.

You have to love democracy; if nothing else, it’s a chance to play doctor to what, or who, ails us.

And now I’m off to make some soup while my partner dozes on the couch.

Doll Family

She had a family of docile, stoic dolls who spent their daylight hours in her thrall. The biggest one, Julie, was a twenty-two inch walking doll who arrived one Christmas morning dressed as a bride. Julie’s wedding dress was gathered at the waist, with deep frills at the neck and hem. She had a bunch of white and pink rosebuds tied to her hand and a long, white tulle veil hung from a rosebud halo pinned to her long brown hair.

As well as a wedding dress, Julie came with a lawn petticoat and pale apricot knickers trimmed with lace. In a separate box was a little pink ‘day dress’ for when Julie was bored with being a bride. She and Julie spent their first day together walking down the aisle. A hundred times along the hall, around the dining room table, past the Christmas tree, into and out of the hot kitchen and back down the hall.  She guided Julie, her hands on Julie’s cold shoulders, shifting Julie’s weight, left and right and left again, matching Julie’s pace – one step forward stop, tilt, one step forward, stop, tilt, another step forward and another, on and on through all of Christmas, but Julie never learned to walk by herself.  Julie (2)

Patsy was her baby doll who came with a bottle and a plastic pacifier. She put real milk in the bottle and fed it to Patsy who peed milk into a nappy her mother had cut from a scrap of flannel. Some of the milk stayed inside Patsy and went sour and she smelled bad. Her mother pushed Patsy into the bath and they both watched as little bubbles sprang from Patsy’s mouth and the hole in her bottom. Her father squeezed as much water from Patsy’s rubbery body as he could, and shook her until she rattled, her blue eyes opening and closing like the shutters of Grandapa’s box brownie camera. When her father had shaken enough water out of Patsy’s smelly insides, he left her draining on the edge of the bath. She wasn’t allowed to comfort or play with Patsy, who sat alone and naked in the cold bathroom, periodically tilted, shaken and squeezed to extract more water. Eventually she was allowed to dress Patsy and take her to bed; after that Patsy was put on a starvation diet and could drink only water from her tiny bottle.

Sometimes she made Patsy have a bath with her. She’d hold Patsy under the water and watch the twin columns of bubbles float up from the holes at either end of her body. Patsy’s stony eyes would stare back at her through the soapy water. Patsy 02 (2)

Wise Words and Comforting Suggestions

I have been planning to share a range of ideas about writing as therapy for some time. The links below lead to diverse opinions concerning the benefits of therapeutic writing although none of them provide conclusive evidence that therapeutic writing is an effective therapeutic tool.  I hope you enjoy them.

cropped-to-write-224591_1920-2.jpg

  • JR White points out in this first link that therapeutic writing is useful because, ‘instead of turning to others for wise words or comforting suggestions, your inner wisdom has a chance to voice itself.’ See what else White has to say at: Writing Away Your Worries
  •  Margarita Tartakovsky’s main point is that ‘writing helps us track our spinning thoughts and feelings.’ For more information go to: The Power of Writing: 3 Types of Therapeutic Writing 
  • This article by Gina McColl points out that whether or not it is ‘the inky cousin of selfie culture or long tail of the creative writing mania, writing as therapy is having a moment.’ More about the healing power of writing can be found here: Writing as therapy: how blogs and memoirs can help the sick and traumatized. I also suggest you follow McColl’s link to Jane Turner Goldsmith’s useful summary of research into therapeutic writing.
  • Although the next article is about creative writing, I’ve included it because I’m interested in the connection between brain plasticity and therapeutic writing. While, as Stephen Pinker comments at the end of the article, ‘creativity is a perversely difficult thing to study,’ I found this New York Times article fascinating. I wonder what researchers would find if they scanned the brains of therapeutic writers as they wrote? See what you think at: This Is Your Brain on Writing
  • Finally, Tara DaPra’s Writing Memoir and Writing for Therapy An Inquiry on the Functions of Reflection is moving and beautifully written.

MES5X81ZYII’d love to know of your reactions. Do you find writing therapeutic, and how would you describe its benefits, or do you think therapeutic writing has had its ‘moment’ and is just a fad?

 

Nothing

I’ve got nothing today; nichts, nada, rien. Searching through my ‘writing ideas file’ hasn’t helped. Writing a response to quotes for instance. What can you do with,

How marvelous books are, crossing worlds and centuries, defeating ignorance and, finally, cruel time itself.  Gore Vidal

or

It is good people who make good places.  Anna Sewell

that the authors haven’t already done? As for prompts, not even these stir my writer’s soul:

What are three things you’re grateful for …

Write a note to someone you miss …

There’s nothing I wanted more than to …

and beautiful or quirky images leave me cold:

Most of us, I would venture to say all of us who write, have days like these. Not writing can be a result of poor health, concern for a friend, an argument with a loved one,  too little sleep, depressing political situations (Australia is in the early throes of a Federal election. Many of us are beginning to flounder and we still have six weeks of electioneering to go!) I used to believe not writing was writer’s block, a terminal disease that, if it struck, spelled the end of a writer’s dreams. I no longer subscribe to that idea because I’ve learned that writing, like any other job’ is sometimes a drag. It’s hard for me to admit that; when I ‘retired’ I believed my writing life would be more interesting, more stimulating and more rewarding than teaching, and it is, but like teaching, like any job, can also be a chore. I feel guilty as I write this because it’s like saying, ‘Yes, motherhood is wonderful but can I stop now? It’s a bit of a chore, just like any other job really, and who wants a job?’

Seriously, who wants a job? I once knew a man who said his life’s goal was to sit on a beach and read, and I recently met another man who believes those of us who work in offices or have ‘careers’ are all ‘wage slaves’. Both of them have managed to live long and relatively productive lives, though the former waited until retirement to achieve his goal. I also think working is good for us. I don’t subscribe to the idea that labour defines us but, and this depends on our job, work is one way we contribute to society. It also puts food on the table.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Nothing to write, nothing to say, the words won’t come, no ideas except …

… I’ve managed to churn out around 400 words, include two interesting quotations, three prompts, five photographs, a whinge about politics (and by association, politicians) and an anecdote about two acquaintances and their attitude to work. It’s a blog post and it demonstrates, in its own small way, Jayne Anne Phillips’ comment that image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then there is William W. Purkey’s popular quotation, one of my favourites:

You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching,
Love like you’ll never be hurt,
Sing like there’s nobody listening,
And live like it’s heaven on earth.

I write here, about how much I love to dance, so, in the spirit of Purkey’s quote, and going well against the grain of writing a blog, This is my advice, to myself of course, when I’ve got nothing: image

 

 

 

 

Jayne Anne Phillips, ‘Cheers: (or) How I Taught Myself to Write’ in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field, ed. by Tara L Masih Rose Metal Press.

 

Back to Square One

I can’t remember how old I was when my mother taught me to knit. She always had a knitting project on the go; each winter she knitted cardigans and pullovers for the family and, when my first son was born, presented me with a creamy knitted baby’s shawl. I wrapped my babies in the shawl when we brought them home from hospital and I hope one day one of my grandbabies will be swaddled in it too.

While I was never as proficient as my mother, by my early teens I could make simple garments: a lavender and green vest, a long line jacket that took ages to complete and a particular favourite, this shawl.   Shawl

Both the shawl and the pattern have, alas, long since gone. If anyone has a copy of the pattern and are happy to share it with me, I’d be very grateful.

Lately I find I need to do something with my hands at night, when my partner and I are watching television. I haven’t knitted anything for ages, apart from a scarf I started almost ten years ago, which still needs a fringe added to it. I have several balls of eight ply left over from the scarf so I decided to make a rug, nothing fancy, something fashioned from either 10 or 20 cm squares, or why not both? After playing about with tension and needles and visiting the local wool shop to buy more wool I’ve got this far: 

The small ones are really just tension squares (if you’re a knitter you’ll know what I mean by that). I’m not going to stick to garter stitch; once I’ve got a few plain squares under my belt I’ll branch out and try to remember how to do cable, basket weave and pennant stitch and maybe add a lacy panel into the mix. I hope the finished product will be a big, warm, knitted patchwork made up of different sized, coloured and patterned squares, so that each time you look at it you’ll see something new.

While knitting the first three squares, I’ve been thinking about flash or, my favourite name for it, hint fiction. Before the knitting bug bit I read two books of flash fiction; I’m still reading books about the history of flash fiction and creative non-fiction flash pieces. I become ever more fascinated with this kind of writing, not because it’s easy and quick to write. Far from it. Tara L. Masih says in her book The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction that ‘flash is simply a story in miniature, a work of art carved on a grain of rice—something of import to the artist or writer that is confined and reduced, by design or outcome, into a small square space using the structural devices of prose line and paragraph form with the purpose of creating an intense emotional impact.’  FF_Book

While knitting my little squares I’ve reflected on my new-found interest in small, intense, emotional packages of words and of wool. Is there a connection and what is it? Maybe it’s my age, maybe I’m finally settling into retirement and focusing on projects worthy of my time and energy, maybe it’s the intensity of life as it swirls around me. Perhaps it’s just the result of writing short bi-weekly blog posts.

I recently read that life isn’t really about plots (and, at my age we learn that sometimes the best of plans, or preferred life-plots, are all too easily undone). It seems life is more about moments stitched together to form some kind of pattern; even if that pattern is haphazard, eccentric, or out of kilter there is always some kind of meaning to be gained from it.

I’m eager to know  where this need to knit small squares and write elfin pieces of fiction will take me. Every day for the last week I’ve written a draft piece of flash fiction. As a writer still learning her craft, I find, when trying to write long form stories, I meander, lose focus, or sacrifice symbolism and imagery to the plot. I’m not saying hint fiction can’t hint at a plot but when I write shorter pieces every word, and where I place it, is significant and I’m compelled to find images, evoke one of the five senses or hone in on an idea in order to make my point. I’m enjoying the challenge. I also enjoy targeting the significant moments of my life, like an image I have of my mother, sitting in her lounge chair, knitting. She had a habit, when she finished a row, of taking the recently emptied knitting needle and tapping one end of it on her knee before starting the next row. I don’t know why she did it but I do know it’s the little habits and quirks, the things that make us who we are, that turn into cherished moments, the ones we savour when we think of our loved ones.

Your turn: Is life a narrative, with one main plot, or is it a series of moments? What moments from your past do you cherish?  Could you condense that moment to 100 words or less?

On Poetry, Friendship and Straitjackets

On the 29th of April, I was privileged to attend the launch my friend, Louise Nicholas’, collection of poems, The List of Last Remaining.  

Image by Robert Rath
Image by Robert Rath

I’ve been invited, over the years, to a number of book launches but this was the best I’ve attended, due, I believe, to the warmth, humour and general all round goodness of Louise and her family.

In June 1973 I moved to Whyalla, a large country town (or, depending on your outlook, a small regional city), to take up my first Junior Primary (elementary) teaching appointment. I had never lived away from home but back then the education department supplied low rent, semi-detached housing for up to three teachers (either young women or young men, there was strictly no mixing genders, even in the last third of the 20th Century, and especially in provincial South Australia). On my first night at my new digs, one of the teachers from next door asked me to join her and her flat mates for a drink. As I walked into the neighbours’ kitchen I met a young woman with a long, shining veil of black hair falling across her cheek. She was bent over her knitting, but looked up at me, smiled a hello and invited me to sit down. I also knitted in those days so I was eager to see what she was working on. It was an intricate lacy pattern using three or four ply aqua blue wool. I distinctly remember gazing at her long fingers and beautifully shaped nails as she worked the wool and knitting needles together to create the pattern. One of the other residents poured my drink and we spent the evening chatting and drinking cheap white wine. I learned about the school I’d been posted to, the other staff, and the students. It was probably the best introduction to country teaching a naïve twenty-year-old like me could have had. I also learned she had recently returned from a year in Israel and could speak and write Hebrew. That young woman was Louise, and her generosity, humour and finely honed intelligence has continued to astound and succour me ever since.  Ours is a friendship that’s lasted for … well you do the maths; it’s a long time.

In the first years of our friendship Lou taught me things about teaching you never learn at teacher’s college: how to program a term’s work, how to deal with difficult children, how to finesse regulation bound principals, how to soothe irate parents and, most important of all, how to laugh at myself and the often strange situations a young teacher finds herself in. Louise was the first to notice the engagement ring I wore the day my intended and I announced our engagement and, years later, one of the first to offer support (laced with her wry and perceptive sense of humour) when my marriage broke up. Louise and I have, for the last ten or more years, met fortnightly to share and discuss our writing (as well as discuss our families, our discontents, our successes and sometimes  whatever is currently driving us crazy). She also patiently edited the final draft of my memoir.

So, I hope you’ve got the picture; I was as excited as Louise, back on the 29th April, when her friends, family, and fellow poets celebrated the launch of her book. And while the dry facts about Lou can be found here, there is more to her and her wonderful poetry than can be summarised in a few short words. Being a writer isn’t always easy. Being a woman and a writer, a working woman and a writer, a working mother and a writer is like wearing a straitjacket and being walled in a five by five enclosure, or it’s like that for some women. Louise not only managed to make art from the straitjacket and the wall, she pokes fun at both.

I could try to repeat the glowing comments both Jude Aquilina and Jan Owen made the night Louise’s book was launched, but as perceptive and accurate as those comments were, it is difficult to represent the hard work, long hours and emotion poets, prose writers and playwrights put into their art. Artists like Louise experience many obstacles while attempting to knit their observations, ideas and perceptions into poems. Those obstacle are, however, no reason to stop writing, no matter how hard it is.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that I’ve used the so-called domestic, ‘womanly’ craft of knitting to describe Louise’s art? Some women might criticise me for that. Women’s skills, women’s work, women’s lives are too often characterised by allusions to domesticity, to motherhood, friendship, caring and nurturing, as if there is something wrong with that, as if those things are not as important as poetry. I think we should add poetry to the list of things women do. I think poetry is women’s work.

And if we did that, we might just change the world.

I’ll leave you with one of Louise’s poems and with this exhortation: buy her collection of poems. It’s available here. You’ll see for yourself that poetry is, indeed, women’s work.

Sunday Afternoon Arts
Sometimes, a great man will be interviewed
sitting in his room, elbow resting
on the lower lip of the grand piano,
shirt-sleeve adrift at the wrist
and over his shoulder, fixed
in the picture window, a cedar tree. grass needing mowing, perhaps
a bird bath, sometimes with a cherub
but mostly, not.
And from the left of the window,
almost from the great man’s inner ear,
a woman will appear.
She’ll pick her way across the lawn
head down as though looking for something
small and elusive-a four-leafed clover perhaps
or the last line of a poem;
more likely, the button from his shirt.
And the light will catch the white of her dress
and beam into the room like a revelation.
Then she’s gone

and you haven’t heard a word he’s said.

Louise Nicholas

 

 

Image by Penny Cowell
Image by Penny Cowell

Louise was born in Port Lincoln and has taught in regional and city schools. She has published: The Red Shoes (Wakefield Press and Friendly Street Poets) as part of the ‘New Poets’ series; WomanSpeak, (Wakefield Press, with friend and fellow poet Jude Aquilina); Large (Garron Publishing), a chapbook; three other chapbooks of humorous verse, and edited Friendly Street Thirty with rob walker (who doesn’t use capitals for his name).

Louise has been involved with Friendly Street Poets, a community based organisation that has, for 41 years, nurtured numerous South Australian poets through its monthly open-mic poetry readings. Louise has not only read her poetry at Friendly Street but actively encourages emerging poets and has served on the committee. She has also been involved with The SA Writers’ Centre Inc, which supports South Australian writers of all genres.

Songs of Earth and Sky

DSC_6818  When she was three the earth belonged to her. As she  trod the ground, stones sang and the earth hummed. Who is there in the world can say that?

From the day she was born, if she fussed, was scared or bewildered her mother would bend and say, ‘tell me what bothers you. Tell me what is happening,’ then hold her hand and wait until she found the words.

Find them she did. At two she said she felt sad, at three she didn’t want to play, didn’t like pizza anymore and didn’t need to sleep. Speaking, she was heard, and knew that if the earth wobbled, a voice, her voice, could still it.

Her father was a giant. He lifted her from the earth and set her in the sky, to dance with the clouds. When she fell he caught her and she’d say, ‘more, Daddy, do it again.’

‘Don’t drop her,’ mother cautioned, but Daddy would never let that happen. Mother came to understand a giant’s arms are safe for a child with words, a child who has learned the songs of earth and sky.

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I never climbed,

I was lifted, and in being lifted,

I learned to climb.

To shilly-shally, or not to shilly-shally?

image What do you do when you need to make a decision, settle a question, find in favour of one thing or another, resolve an issue, influence the outcome (of a contest), pronounce judgement, come to a determination or resolution? (I couldn’t decide which definition to include.)

Some folk are decisive. Other folk (myself, as I demonstrated above, included), are politely known as irresolute or hesitant. We waver and equivocate, we shilly-shally (or dilly-dally) about until the need to decide is eliminated (‘Oh, dear, that movie finished its run this weekend, I guess I’ll see the other one’), or taken from us (‘We’re going to this movie,’ he said, ‘I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.’)

If the issue is trifling, such as going to a movie, and the consequences insignificant, then it’s okay to let others decide for us, or to defer the decision (‘The other movie is still showing after all! Let’s see it this weekend and the second movie next weekend’). As those of you who follow this blog know, one of its ongoing motifs is the character Goldilocks. She nails decision making: walk right in; eat this bowl of porridge; sit in this chair; sleep in this bed; bolt when you’re discovered.

Life changing decisions need more care and thought: which university (college) to attend, who to marry; whether to buy a house, accept or leave a job or have a baby. You could apply the Goldilocks decision making technique, consult an astrologer, toss the dice, or lay out Tarot cards to help you make these important choices. These methods are, however, dubious at best, although Tarot and astrology could provide light relief or insight, derived from the mythology that informs these traditions, into the choices before you. No, important decisions, usually the hard ones, need a hard head, otherwise known as the ability to list, analyse, understand and weigh the consequences of each choice. There is a little fortune telling involved though. Truly life altering decisions involve projecting yourself into the future: ‘If I choose A, my life might be like this … If I choose B then my life might be … Hmm, can I call a friend?’

Why, you may ask, is Janet writing about this? Good question.

Two minutes after I woke up this morning, I realised I had to make a decision. Either finish the chapter I mentioned in my last blog or write today’s post.

I promised my friend I’d send her my chapter by January or February this year. She assured me there was no hurry, so I put it off, relishing my retirement, catching up on reading, seeing friends, going to the movies, and writing posts for this blog. Since my ‘mini blogathon’ (a modest effort compared to the amazing Calensariel over at Impromptu Promptlings and Peculiar Ponderings), I’ve managed to post something every Wednesday and Sunday. I didn’t write yesterday’s post because I took my granddaughter to the ballet in the morning and in the afternoon I worked on the chapter.

Hence my challenge this morning. Work on the chapter or write my next post? Obviously, you’re reading the result of my decision, but the next question is, why has it taken me so long to modify a chapter of my thesis and send it off to my very patient friend?

The reason I started this blog was to share my ideas and research about therapeutic writing and to claim that writing is a legitimate therapeutic tool. What I’ve discovered, however, is revisiting my thesis is like ‘picking at a scar that’s puckered and still tender.’ Is this why I’m procrastinating or is there another reason? Maybe I no longer think of myself as just a ‘therapeutic writer?’

Starting this blog was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Yes, I want to contribute to my friend’s anthology. Yes, I hope what I write will not always be confined to this site. But blogging is writing. Sure, sometimes it’s a chore. Sometimes I have no idea what to write; sometimes the posts hit my personal ‘well written’ mark and sometimes they drop like lead. Either way, aimages most bloggers know, it’s not about the number of visits, followers, likes or comments. It’s about sitting in front of the computer, thinking through an idea and deciding how to present it. It’s about playing with words, finding the ‘just right’ combination, hitting ‘publish’ and sending those words out into the world – and not bolting if you’re discovered.

That’s not therapy, that’s pleasure, that’s being ‘astonished at nothing’, that’s ‘the answer to everything’.

It’s time I made lunch (what shall I have?) and then get to work on that chapter.   image

 

Tell me about the last time you had to make a decision. How did you decide and what were the consequences of your choice?