Red Gum Forest River Shows Us How to Weather a Storm

The first month of spring has been wet and cold. A recent storm swelled the Karra Wirra Parri, a creek non-indigenous South Australians call the ‘River Torrens’, scouring its banks and dropping rubbish along the way. The morning after the storm I took several photographs with my phone. Later that week I took shots that show the aftermath of the flood.

Anger is a storm of human emotion. The social atmosphere transforms, there is a build up, a flurry, an inhuman howl, the ‘eye of the anger-storm’ when rage is momentarily blunted, and the final onslaught.

If you know an angry person you’ll know, like the storms that afflict a city or town, human storms threaten or destroy relationships. If you are prone to angry outbursts you know the shame an angry word, a thoughtless action or a slammed door can cause. Only tunnelling through to the reasons behind the anger, the patterns of thought, fears and unmet needs that swamp you, will soothe your tempestuous spirit.

Meditation also helps, as does articulating and asserting one’s needs but this is lonely, confronting work; only we can change ourselves.

Women are not supposed to express their anger and many women cannot accommodate their fury, but as Robin Morgan points out,

women are not inherently passive or peaceful. We’re not inherently anything but human.

Women’s rage was, and is, perceived as more destructive than it actually is. Angry men were, and are, seen as protective and assertive. Angry women were, and are, called Harpies, shrill or crazy. Both ideas are prejudiced and false. Yes, anger can be destructive. It can also be a powerful agent of change. We have seen the damage angry men inflict; we have witnessed the changes to women’s lives angry women have wrought.

A 1983 study of anger and aggression claims that

anger is a response to some perceived misdeed.

A recent study indicates the ‘misdeed’ usually involves a person stopping us from getting what we want. In other words, when our desires are thwarted we get angry. While this seems obvious to most people, especially those who have lived with a toddler, it doesn’t explain why anger is not considered a natural, though intemperate and potentially destructive, part of our emotional weather.

I’m not condoning or encouraging angry outbursts. Far from it: I am an adult survivor of my mother’s rages and I have struggled, in my adult life, to hold my temper. I have forgiven my mother and I’m working on forgiving myself. I have also learned anger  needs to be understood.

Last Saturday, when I took the second batch of photographs, it was slightly warmer than a mild winter’s day, nothing like early spring weather we are used to at this time of year. Low branches and bank hugging trees harboured giant nests of broken reeds, shards of wood, sheets of shredded plastic shopping bags, and red, blue and green lids separated from their water-crushed bottles by the floodwaters. Other parts of the river banks were swept clean. Fresh tips of grass pushed up from the chocolatey mud deposited by the flood. The Golden Wattle was in bloom and a few Vanilla Lillies along the higher banks survived.

Anger is like that. Once it’s passed you can feel scoured, eroded and you need to clear away the mess you’ve made. But everyone gets angry from time to time, usually for good reason so should this normal emotion be repressed? Healthy anger, appropriately acknowledged as part of our psychological weather pattern can promote new methods of communicating our needs. If we respect anger instead of suppressing it, if we interrogate its cause, if its expression is tempered, if apologies and reparations are made, won’t that lead to positive change? Is it wise to suppress our anger? Does judging a person who openly expresses their anger help them, or us?  Should we punish a person because they are angry?

20160924_072202175_ios-2

 

References

Averill, James R. “Studies on anger and aggression: Implications for theories of emotion.” American Psychologist 38.11 (1983), 1145.

Carver, Charles S., and Eddie Harmon-Jones. “Anger is an approach-related affect: evidence and implications.” Psychological Bulletin 135.2 (2009), 183.

Writers and Self Compassion

Several months ago I met a woman who challenged me to investigate the meaning of selfishness. Part of me was intrigued, part of me was irritated; we all know what being selfish means, don’t we? Most of us have met self absorbed, self-interested people whose chief concern is getting what they want when they want it. For some reason, however, the word and it’s significance continued to niggle at me. As well as looking the word up in the dictionary and reflecting on it’s meaning I did a little extra digging and chanced upon the idea of self compassion.Dino Reichmuth

Since last November I have found the tension between art and life is no longer an abstract issue but a very real concern. I’ve struggled to find a comfortable balance between the two, and my friends and family are casualties of the struggle. That bothers me more than I can say. It also feels extremely selfish. My exploration of self compassion is incomplete but I am interested in how it might help me establish a more convivial balance.

Kristen Neff defines self compassion as

being touched by and open to one’s own suffering, not avoiding or disconnecting from it, generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering and to heal oneself with kindness. Self compassion also involves offering non judgemental understanding to one’s pain, inadequacies and failures, so that one’s experience is seen as part of the larger human experience.

Exercising self compassion, claims Dr Neff, is knowing the difference between self-kindness and self judgement, between feeling isolated and excluded and acknowledging our shared humanity, and between being mindful of our difficulties and ruminating or worrying about them. This is how I suggest self compassion can help writers:

  1. We need to acknowledge that writing is hard. It is really hard. It is exhausting, painful, soul destroyingly hard. This is not a new idea. Talk to your nearest friendly writer (if they’re not writing) and even the most optimistic and successful will admit there a days when writing a reasonable sentence is a chore, let alone trying to write a novel. A self compassionate writer will acknowledge the difficulty and understand all writers share this experience. Being creative is a glorious, absorbing, exciting, rewarding chore. It feels like consorting with the gods one day and burying yourself in a pit of foul self-loathing the next. To pretend otherwise is to disconnect from the self and from making art. Writers need to be kind to themselves. Most writers are their own worst enemy; they are scions of self judgement and superstars of self criticism. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong with our stories, novels, plays or poems we need to look for what is right with them (and work from there). We need to celebrate sentences, praise the standout line from poems, and honour the hours we spent honing that chapter.
  2. We need to understand we are not alone. I suspect that’s one reason writers blog. Bogging is connection, blogging is sharing, blogging is knowing someone on the other side of the planet is awake and has stumbled onto your blog and noticed that you, like they, are miserable. Clusters of writers are found at writer’s festivals chatting about their latest projects; at workshops learning how to write intelligently, sensitively and knowledgeably about indigenous people, people with a disability or transgendered folk; in suburban lounges reading their latest poem or a draft chapter of their novel. We are a supportive community. The image of the lone writer ripping sheets of paper from the typewriter in an orgy of writerly frustration must be laid to rest. The self compassionate writer seeks other writers, seeks the comfort of shared problems and shared celebrations when writing goes well.
  3. The self compassionate writer is a mindful writer. Novels are rarely written by a committee. Even writers who belong to a writing group write alone in the quiet of their study or a corner of a coffee shop where they are undisturbed, apart from the waiter discretely placing the fifth cup of coffee on the table.  Padurariu AlexandruSelf compassionate mindfulness acknowledges and releases the self critical judgements that loop through your brain, replacing them with your plot, the rhythm of your sentences and the delicacy of your images. How to do this? Meditation. Regular breaks. Going for long walks (with a pen and notebook). Reading, lots of reading. Eating properly. Getting a good night’s rest. Spending time with writers, artists, dancers, actors and other creative folk; going to an art gallery, a play, a movie. And did I say meditation?

I admit I don’t always practice self compassion. I believe I am the only writer to create tedious, ungrammatical, poorly punctuated sentences. As a perfectionist I have self criticism down to a fine art. Despite being a member of a writing group and living with an actor (who patiently waits and watches as I discover all of this), I feel isolated and adrift from fellow writers and intimidated when I meet other artists. I forget to be mindful, I forget to meditate, I forget to go for a walk. I sit in front of a keyboard for hours and forget to eat or drink.

It’s time I stopped thinking and reading about self compassion and started practising it regularly. It’s time I stopped confusing selfishness with self compassion. It’s time to acknowledge that writers, artists of any kind, constantly balance their need to make art with the rest of their lives and that’s okay.

If, says Neff, we lack self compassion we risk becoming self-esteem junkies hooked on the marvel of our amazing selves, our accomplishments, our gifts and our talents. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what teachers and parents have tried to do since the late 1960s? Raise children who believe in themselves, who are confident in their abilities? In her article, Neff demonstrates that good self esteem is no longer the positive achievement we thought it was. Self esteem fosters narcissism, self-absorption, self-centredness and a lack of concern for others. Being told we aren’t successful in our job, we failed a test, or did poorly on the playing field threatens our sense of self and triggers negative emotions. Neff further explains that self esteem is founded on comparisons; we feel good about ourselves because we compare ourselves to others. By reinforcing our self esteem we put others down.

If we feel compassion for ourselves, if we acknowledge our failures and weaknesses, if we understand that all of humanity suffers and grieves, we can turn to the person next to us and acknowledge their humanity. Self-compassion inspires compassion for all creatures, all beings. Self compassion encourages us to try to end our suffering and the suffering of others.

self-compassionThat’s something worth writing about.

What do you think? Is there a difference between selfishness and self compassion? Has the self-esteem train run off the rails? Do you practice self compassion?

REFERENCES

Neff, Kristin. ‘Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself.’ Self and identity 2.2 (2003), pp. 85-101.

Of Family and other Connections

Personal connections are easily lost. People move, people change, relationships end.

Can ragged bonds ever be reforged?

Five women aged from 48 to 63 sit around a table and chat about their lives and families. They share stories of how they, and their mothers or fathers, were named. They swap news about their children and grandchildren, the almost too numerous to count descendants of these women’s, these cousin’s, grandparents.

from-old-iphone-778-2The woman retell stories of arguments and the deeper pain of family members lost through death or the attrition of indifference.

At family gatherings I remember, our grandfather sat at the head of the table and after dinner he’d play his harmonica. He and the men, sons and sons-in-law, were served whisky. Daughters and daughters-in-law drank shandies or sherry. Our grandfather was Welsh. He worked his passage from the UK to Australia but instead of going on to Sydney, he jumped ship in South Australia, met our grandmother, married and fathered nine children.

Of those, only four remain.

We women, we cousins, are tickled pink with the idea that we are the descendants of a ‘boat person’.

At those same family gatherings our grandmother, a Scot, served Dundee cake. She came to Australia in the hope a warmer climate would improve her health. We women, we cousins, remember her rolling a cigarette with one hand and stirring a pot with the other.

One of the women tells us she makes Dundee cakes every Christmas. She bakes them in individually sized baking pans and sprinkles them, once they are removed from the oven, with Drambuie. When they are cool she wraps them and gives them to her friends.

I am the oldest of these women, these cousins; I remember them as babes, toddlers and beautiful girls full of gumption but I am also the daughter of a mother who caused more than her share of disruption and discomfort in her family. Aware of the pain my mother caused, we women, we cousins, acknowledge her behaviour; we have the words for it now.

The connection between family members can be as fragile as that between friends. A thoughtless word, an offhand comment or unintentional slight can strain the best relationship. Within families it is a brave fragility; the ties are wrought not, as in friendship, from common interests or shared attitudes but from something deeper, something less easily explained, a sense of almost knowing the familial other the way we almost know ourselves.

Five women, cousins aged from 48 to 63, tend the roots, feed the soil and admire the branches of their family tree. It is good work. It is brave work, it is work we promise to do again; it isn’t really work at all.

DSC_6813

Spring Walk

This morning my partner and I celebrated the first day of spring with a walk along our section of the Linear Park and I took a few photographs …

On arriving home I found the following information and poem on Trove, a site that collects and shares a vast range of information relating to Australia  including material from

libraries, museums, archives, repositories and other research and collecting organisations big and small.

Unfortunately our current government doesn’t consider this resource important and plans to cut its funding. If we lose Trove we lose an important resource: we lose our heritage including access to gems like Miss Veronica Mason’s poem.

A WATTLE POEM.
The wattle has inspired many Australian poets, from Henry Kendall, and
Adam Lindsay Gordon downwards, but it is very interesting to notice that one of
the prettiest poems about our national flower was written by one—Miss Veronica
Mason—who, though a Lancashire girl by birth, learned to know and love the wattle
during her residence in Tasmania. Here is her poem:—
The bush was grey
A week to-day
(Olive-green and brown and grey);
But now the spring has come this way,
With blossoms for the wattle.
It seems to be
A fairy tree;
It dances to a melody,
And sings a little song to me
(The graceful, swaying wattle).
See how it weaves
Its feathery sheaves!
Before the wind a maze it weaves,
A misty whirl of powdery leaves—
(The dainty, curtseying wattle)!
Its boughs uplift
An elfin gift;
A spray of yellow, downy drift,
Through which the sunbeams shower and
sift
Their gold-dust o’er the wattle.
The bush was grey
A week to-day
(Olive-green and brown and grey);
But now its sunny all the way,
For, oh! the spring has come to stay,
With blossom for the wattle!