On Loss, Grief, Ideas, Small Successes and Gratitude

As the title of this post suggests, I have a lot to share today.

Loss

Fear not, cherished reader, it’s not as bad as it looks. My loss is, in the scheme of things, amore irritating than tragic, more time consuming than debilitating. This blog, however, is based on the notion that writing is healing so in that spirit …

… Most of the photographs I so carefully chose to accompany my posts have been swallowed by the internet. See, I told you it wasn’t important, although it has messed up the appearance and tone of my earlier posts.

It’s all my fault. I deleted a selection of photos from my media library. ‘Save some space,’ I thought, ‘avoid scrolling through photographs trying to remember which photos I have used and which I tucked away in the library for future use.’ The lesson is: ‘Don’t do this at home boys and girls’. For pictures to remain firmly adhered to your posts they must forever linger in your media library and while I wish someone had told me, I am more annoyed by the fact I should have known that!

matthew-wiebe01It didn’t help that I, as you would have noticed, changed my theme. I was aiming for a leaner, cleaner look, which I unwittingly achieved and then some. I’ve managed to return a few photographs to their rightful place but there are many more to go. It will probably take a week, maybe more … that will teach me to be more careful.

Grief

This minor loss lead me to ask: ‘Why is change, even welcomed, planned change, confronting?’ It’s a cliché, I know, but change is the only part of life we can rely on. Children grow and leave home, friends move interstate, people die.  The helplessness we experience when our world changes is rooted, says Buddha, in clinging to what we know and our aversion to the unknown. Let’s face it, the loss of a few pictures on a blog is hardly a cause for grief, but let’s also be real; most of us will experience, in our lifetime, a desperate and debilitating grief. When this happened to me, I learned grief is a normal and natural reaction. That doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt, mentally, emotionally and physically. Living with and through grief is the fearless labour of the harrowed soul; it is, possibly, the most important work we are called to do. I discovered two therapies (of many) that helped me when I experience a grief far more serious than the trifling disappearance of a few photographs. I offer them only as suggestions to explore, not as advice to be followed; if you are struggling with grief and it’s consequences, please see your medical practitioner.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy

Back in 2013 it was suggested that

MBCT appears to reduce depressive symptoms in … sample(s) of elderly bereaved people, but further studies of the effects of MBCT in this population are needed for firm conclusions.

More recently, in her chapter titled ‘When the Unthinkable Happens: A Mindfulness Approach to Perinatal and Pediatric Death’,  Joanne Cacciatore examines and analyses numerous studies of the benefits of MBCT (and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction MBSR) for grieving parents. She concludes that

preliminary data suggest these methods present less potential harm, are more cost effective, and may be highly effacious (sic) in helping bereaved parents, and they may also be protective for providers who are at high risk of negative psychological outcomes.

She adds, however, that more research is always beneficial. If you are interested in learning more about MBCT, you may find these sites interesting:

Therapeutic Writing

A photo by Matthew Wiebe. unsplash.com/photos/kX9lb7LUDWc

My own research confirmed writing about grief and loss can have positive outcomes. While searching for references into writing and grief (other than this), I discovered an assignment I wrote in 2003, while studying for my Diploma in Professional Counselling. I examined how writing a letter to a lost loved one, or writing about about the experience of grief, felt ‘cathartic and therefore difficult’ but the technique helped me gain a better understanding of an experience that occurred decades before. More recent links to information about the benefits of therapeutic writing can be found here:

Ideas

My home town loves to party; we stage (not all at the same time) the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Adelaide Guitar Festival, Adelaide Film Festival, Feast Festival, OzAsia,  the Sala Festival  and then there’s the GrandMama of them all the Adelaide Festival of Arts and her often wayward, always endearing offspring, the Fringe Festival. While the latter two are on we also host Womadelaide and Adelaide Writer’s Week all of which take place during what we locals call ‘Mad March’. This link should connect you to all of them and I assure you, Adelaide in March is particularly beautiful.dsc_9757

This weekend my partner and I attended one of the more staid, but just as stimulating, festivals, the Adelaide Festival of Ideas.  Thinkers and innovators, media mavens and determined disputers  descend on our town the way pixels coalesce on a computer screen. They enlightened and provoked, informed and, at times, depressed; the world, we decided, is in a parlous state but as long as we have ideas, and the people to implement them, we will survive.

Seventy separate sessions were held over two days and all but three were free and open to the public. Of those seventy sessions, I attended eleven. I ‘covered’ both ageing and the arts, in particular the grievous situation caused by the radical and cruel cuts to arts funding in Australia.

I can only summarise a few of the sessions I attended, but here are several things I learned last weekend:

  •  In  ‘Sleepwalking to the Future’, Professor Justin O’Connor suggested culture is, in Australia, viewed as unnecessary and our public conversations about the arts are stifled and muted. We need, declared Professor O’Connor, a positive and  affirming narrative that addresses this ‘cultural annihilation’. Part of the problem, O’Connor believes,  is very few artisans, and barely any of their ‘rituals’ of art practice/art making, are featured in Australia’s media. When art and artistic practices (other than ballet, opera, classical music and what can be viewed in large, regional art galleries), disappear from public view, Australians are hoodwinked into believing the value of making, and witnessing the making, of art is linked only to making money.  As you’ll see in the final point of this section, the association of art and money is, to say the least, dodgy.
  • In the next session, Dr Fiona Kerr discussed how the brain is shaped. She described how we develop a vast neurophysiological map of the world, and our experience of that world, chiefly through interconnecting with other brains. Dr Kerr emphasised that our map will be stunted if we are not encouraged, from the moment of birth, to connect with others. Physical touch and ‘eye gaze’, looking at and being looked at by our primary caregiver, has a profound effect on our map’s development, and on how we heal when ill. Eye gaze can calm a person, particularly when we know and trust that person. This means, in terms of the connection between humans and technology, we need to be more informed of the disconnect experienced by new brains, the ones developing inside a growing baby and child, if they spend hours on their tablets, computers. Likewise adolescent brains, whose maps are jeopardised through excessive use of their mobile phones. I also learned, in this session, that deep or intense mental work, or ‘thinking’, should be done while offline!! (I believe this means all my devices and phone should be turned off next month, if I’m to have any hope of getting through NaNoWriMo. )
  • I attended two sessions where the Australian moral philosopher and author Raimond Gaita spoke. (For an exquisite measure of the man and his majestic humanity read this article by the equally majestic Helen Garner). In Professor Gaita’s second session, which he shared with Nick Drake, I learned that when we accept the opportunity to ‘de-normalise’ our life, to leave the known world and explore natural wildernesses, we experience the beauty of our planet and reflect deeply on our relationship with it. Professor Gaita hopes our children will be exposed to art as well as to the wilder reaches of our world. For him, metaphysics is about love of the world, and is an evocation of the ‘spirit of love’ that is, in reality, an expression of gratitude for the gift of life. This echoed the challenge Gaita gave us in his first session: to accept the intrinsic, inarguable humanity that resides in every human on this planet, even those whose actions we believe are abhorrent.
  • The next day I went to the ‘wrong’ session; instead of learning who leads the ‘energy transition’, I mistakenly sat in on a discussion about  Joan of Arc. Ali Alizadeh believes Joan’s story makes us think about who we want, who we should choose, as a hero, particularly when it comes to political change and political action. This session rekindled my love of Medieval literature and I’m looking forward to reading Alizadeh’s forthcoming book.
  • In the final session (featuring Professor Julian Meyrick, Rebecca Evans, and Justin O’Connor) I went back to where I started, lamentations about culture, which instead of being the last thing we should access in our ‘hierarchy of needs’, is humanity’s base need. Culture, agreed the speakers, is the foundation of our being, the parchment, as Fiona Kerr might say, on which our neurophysiological map is drawn, the figurative and symbolic expression of beauty that is life on earth, the generator of our heroic (and not so heroic) archetypes. It is, as I believe Gaita suggested, the truest expression of the soul, a word he said he is more than comfortable with.

These sessions left me exhausted and exulted; so few of our current political discussions are dignified by the careful, deliberate, informed and unfettered thinking I witnessed last Saturday and Sunday. As festivals go, it is one of the best.

Small Successes

I learned several weeks ago – but can only now share the news – that one of my hint fictions is among the finalists in the NFW /Joanne Burns Award 2016. I am proud to be a part of this event, mostly because I enjoy reading and writing flash and micro fiction. It also means the risk I took leaving work to write full-time was worth it. Awards are recognition, not for the writing but for the work, for the sometimes loving, often desperate attention paid to practising art. I normally don’t share information like this, but having come from the Festival of Ideas and learning how close we are to losing the unique Australian cultural expression so dear to me and my partner, I want to expand, ever so slightly the cultural narrative; I am a 64 year old woman starting a much longed for career as a writer. My small success is possible for anyone on this glorious little planet.

And now I need to somehow pull this post together, to make sense of the last few days, to share what my blogging ‘accident’ and my experience at the Festival of Ideas mean to me.

Gratitude

I live in one of the best cities in one of the best countries on one of the best (there’s an assumption right there!) planets. How can I not be grateful? How can we not be grateful even as we do the work of grief, do the work of addressing our mistakes, do the work of political action, do the work of repairing the planet, do the work of forgiving humans for forgetting their shared and sacred humanity? As we form, deep among our neurons, dendrites and axons, the map that is our brain something else is formed, something numinous and mysterious; the puzzle that is our mind.  Our brain is too preoccupied with making sure we breathe, digest our food, avoid accidents and get to the toilet in time to be interested in our mind. It is not our brain, but our mind that undoes us. Whatever our ‘conscious mind’ is, it tangles us in knots of anxiety and depression, anger and despair, folly and illusion. Might the only way to unpick these snarls be through the simple, powerful act of gratitude? Alice Walker believes it is:

‘Thank you’ is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.

I am learning, slowly and surely, to be thankful for this inexplicable, wondrous gift of life.

When was the last time you said ‘thank you’ to your mistakes, thank you for a loss, thank you to those that vexed you, when you gave thanks for your life despite everything?

References

Joanne Cacciatore, ‘When the Unthinkable Happens: A Mindfulness Approach to Perinatal and Pediatric Death,’  in Black, Beth P, Patricia M. Wright, and Rana K. Limbo, Perinatal and Pediatric Bereavement in Nursing and Other Health Professions (New York: Springer Publishing Company), 2016, p 106.
O’Connor, Maja, Jacob Piet, and Esben Hougaard, ‘The effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy on depressive symptoms in elderly bereaved people with loss-related distress: A controlled pilot study, Mindfulness 5.4 (2014): 400-409.

Sauce

He mustered the ingredients, fished the saucepan and measuring jug from the cupboard and the wooden spoon from the drawer, then challenged her. ‘Okay, show me how you do it.’

She warmed the butter until it was a golden puddle roosting in the bottom of the saucepan. Reducing the flame, she added the flour then turned off the gas. Her spoon was a paddle battering flour and butter to a roux.

‘The milk,’ she said, ‘is added slowly.’ She melded a bare dessertspoonful of white liquid to the flour and butter, a process repeated and repeated until the mixture became a slithery white ink.

‘This is the tricky part.’ Her left hand and wrist worked the spoon, her right gripped the pan’s handle. ‘It’s tempting, at this point, to add the milk too quickly. It’s important not to rush.’

More milk, more stirring, though the bruising had ceased. Time, he thought, it’s taking too much time. I’d be done by now.

Then it was over. The last of the milk fell into the pan. She returned the pan to the stove, reignited the flame and the stirring resumed.

‘You’ll never get a sauce from that,’ he said, ‘it’s back to the consistency of milk. You’ve made it too thin.’

She stirred, her hips swinging slightly, her breasts bedevilling the bodice of her dress, her silence a censure. It was a waste; butter, flour, milk, all wasted. He’d have to start again.

The wooden spoon circumnavigated the pan. A bulge appeared in the surface of the liquid, the discharge a sigh more than a ‘pop.’ He peered into the pan. There was a sauce, a thick, lambent creamy sauce. She lifted the coated spoon, slid her finger along its back, forged a pathway through the sauce. She turned to him, placed the sauce painted finger in her mouth, watched him as he watched her slowly withdraw it.

The spoon clattered on the bench top. She turned off the heat and walked away. ‘That’s how I do it,’ she said.

utensils

Sparks

At first only sparks, fragments of light that died and died again. Finally, despite her shuddering hands, a flicker, a glint of flame that swung wildly, spluttered then settled into something more.

‘Minuscule flame,’ she intoned , ‘stay alive, stay alive…’

A sound from beyond the night: familiar footsteps, the flood of stamping feet dislodging snow from the sole, and the door opened. Her body defended the flame but once the door shut she turned. He held a tight pyramid of dried logs in his arms. ‘It needs time to grow,’ she said, ‘before we can load one of those onto it.’ She pulled kindling toward her, fertilised the flame with it. Under her breath she repeated her prayer, ‘Stay alive, stay alive …’ this time with vigour, the energy of her words driving the flame into the farther corners of the hearth, into the frosted marrow of her bones.

They ate well that night; a small portion of the meat, some of the root vegetables. They slept warm before the hearth  while winds clawed at their door. He lay swaddled in their sleep, muttering through the dreams, ‘Stay alive, stay alive, stay alive …’

On Freedom, Emails and Paul McCartney*

*This post has been edited.

It’s been quite a week; two celebrations, one done and dusted for the year and another tomorrow afternoon, plus a bout of feeling poorly. The first celebration was associated with a Beatles favourite, of reaching a time in life when ‘will you still need me, will you still feed me?’ is no longer asked in jest but is a reality. (Readers, yes, he will still need and feed me.)

We laughed, in 1967, the first time we heard Paul McCartney sing that question; we wonder now, his words ringing in our ears, how we suddenly arrived at this place (relatively) unscathed. Thus a memory of youth turns to a reflection on, and a blog about, the third age and the problem of emails.

emailsEmails? They didn’t exist in 1967 and for me, drifting through the shoals of early-ish elderdom, they have become a scourge. After returning to my computer from a three day absence I was greeted by 104 emails merrily disposing themselves among the 700 plus already in my inbox. It was obvious my subscriptions to numerous websites, blogs, clothing franchises, online journals and magazines had got out of hand.

I have at least two dozen books (the old-fashioned version, with pages, print and the glorious sedge like, fibrous smell only descendants of papyrus can emit) on my shelves to read. There are a dozen or more e-books begging for attention on my Kindle and half as many documents and books on my iPad demanding perusal. Numerous magazines mock me, their pages pressed together like the lips of a vexed vicar. I have, obviously, enough reading material to see me through the next sixty four years.

I therefore devoted my afternoon to unsubscribing from several sites (please don’t take it personally, it’s me, not you), deleting emails five or more years old and, I confess, relishing what will be forever known as the Great Email Purge.

Fifty six emails sit shocked into submission in my inbox. One hundred and eighteen are perched in the ‘To Read’ box, unaware they too are for the chop.

It’s not been an easy task but a necessary one. A writer must read, but she should be selective about what she reads to optimise the time spent reading. It feels somewhat immoral, however, to summarily delete what I think of as instruments of conviviality, knowledge and wisdom. It’s as if I walked into a party where the majority of guests are acquaintances who I forcibly evict so my close friends have more space. What if I failed to really know and understand that banished acquaintance? What if I missed their crucial insight into the world no one else could share?

Then again, what if Paul got it wrong? Skitter PhotoMaybe the third phase of life is not a question of being fed (endless pieces of information), or needed (wanted and loved)? Maybe this phase of life is a felicitous residence in one’s lived experience,  a reaching out to others, not from need but from confidence in one’s informed, measured and tranquil self-assurance.

What do you think, is taming one’s inbox a path to freedom or a reason for lament?

With thanks to Dr Steve Evans who pointed out to me I had incorrectly attributed ‘When I’m Sixty Four’, from the Beatles album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, to Ringo Starr when the song was written and sung by Paul McCartney. Steve was my supervisor when I did my PhD and is also a well known and respected Australian poet.

The Lifted Phone

My home town continues to experience the worst spring weather in more than twenty years. As those folk overseas who keep an eye on international news may have heard, the entire State of South Australia lost power last Wednesday. That’s 1.7 million people without electricity, apart from those who installed solar panels on their roof and are no longer attached to the networks that (supposedly) feed us power.

As the light faded, my partner used a torch and candle to illuminate the work he needed to complete. I wondered, when I saw his image reflected in our dining room window, how my neighbours, friends and family would cope with the long, dark night ahead.

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Later that evening I ventured out into the street. I could almost smell the silence. The dark houses were preternatural sentinels harbouring what I imagined were perplexed and slightly apprehensive neighbours. Fascinated by, rather than fearful of, the absence of light, I stood under the low, distended clouds. The wind streamed around me as I contemplated the neutered urban landscape. What, I wondered, was behind the desperate rhetoric of this storm?

Back in the house, the night was punctuated by the wind and the occasional waul of distant sirens, ambulances and police cars heading for a fresh accident or other urgency. I stood by the window and watched as the light of an incoming aircraft, sixty degrees North East of my home, descended from the clouds. I often watch planes coming in to land at night. From where I stand they look like remotely controlled miniatures under the guidance of a celestial pointsman. I tried to imagine what the pilots, crew and passengers thought of our grid shaped, eldritch shadowed city, dark except for a few public buildings and the spindles of light cast from cars threading their way along the black ribbons of road.

20160930_005755528_iosA day or two later we visited the river once more. Already swollen, the Torrens steamed along the abraded river bank like a water dragon pursuing its mate. People came, stood, watched, lifted their phones in supplication then, shivering, lowered their arms and retreated from the monster that was once a mere creek.

After a day’s respite the cold, the wind and the rain has returned. Sandbags bolster threatened homes; rising waters smother the roads and the extraordinary women and men of the South Australian Country Fire Service ignore the cold and the wet, busy themselves with preserving our lifestyle.

Meanwhile, in Canberra, men in dark suits and blue ties argue about what caused the blackout. No one is able to admit that, lest they confirm its truth, the very cities, the generators powering them, the cars scurrying through them, the planes circling them and the greed fueling it all are slowly, inevitably, relentlessly destroying everyone’s home.

earth