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

 

A Positive Voice

This is a first for my blog; I am reblogging a post from another site.  The Old Woman I Will Be was originally posted by Nancy Roman over at NotQuiteOld. I want to share her post because it is honest, gutsy and positive and because, as Nancy says, ‘being old is not so bad.’

Mind you, I’m not claiming that Nancy’s post is an example of therapeutic writing but I do think therapeutic writing can include positive assertions about who we are, what we have learned and that life is rewarding and satisfying as well as arduous and stressful. Anyway, have a look for yourself, visit her blog and read her other posts as well.

 

Reflections on the Writer’s Voice

Most of us want to be heard, to have a voice. Not being heard, not having the right to voice our feelings, our concerns, our opinions or our dissent can be dehumanizing.

From the time I was four or five I suffered from tonsillitis. My mother would send me to bed and phone the doctor. When he arrived he asked me how I felt. My mother answered his question because, by then, I simmered with fever and my throat was too swollen and sore for me to speak. After several years shilly-shallying around with antibiotics and ‘wait and see if it improves with age’, the doctor finally decided, when I was ten years old, to remove my tonsils.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about ‘voice’ in novels and stories. I’m not referring to first, second or third person point of view, also described as ‘first second or third person voice’. The best description of what I mean by ‘voice’ is Eudora Welty’s moving passage:

Ever since I was first read to, then started reading myself, there has never been a line read that I didn’t hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. It isn’t my mother’s voice, or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly that I listen to it. It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, the feeling that resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader-voice. I have supposed, but never found, that this is the case with all readers – to read as listeners – and with all writers, to write as listeners. It may be part of the desire to write. The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth for me. Whether I am right to trust so far I don’t know. By now I don’t know I could do either one, reading or writing, without the other. My own words, when I am at work on a story, I hear too as they go, in the same voice that I hear when I read in books. When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes. I have always trusted this voice.[1]

A writer chooses from a range of narrative tools (plot, setting, character and theme, narrative point of view and narrative voice), when writing a short story, poem or a novel. Janet Burroway suggests writers need to ask, when working on a new project, ‘who speaks … to whom … in what form … at what distance … and with what limitations?’[2]

My clearest memory of my battles with tonsillitis is recovery. I felt, once the pain and the fever receded, both weary and pure, as if I had been dipped, like Achilles, into a divine fire. I’d ask my mother to make mashed potatoes and homemade tomato soup because I liked the comfort of the smooth, warm potatoes followed by the acidic soup sliding down my throat, scouring away the pain and my silence.

As Welty reminds us, the voice we ‘hear’ when we read a short story or a novel is the voice of a narrator. But the idea of a ‘narrative voice’ is, for some people, troublesome, because it implies a person, or at least a personality behind, or even exceeding, the story.

My voice has always been a concern; during my teaching career, despite not having any tonsils, I periodically suffered from pharyngitis and had to take a week off work until my voice returned. My relationship with my voice, its production and meaning, has been characterised by my need to protect it, interrupted by painful and sporadic periods when using it became impossible. I think this is why I am anxious about not being heard and I imagine people don’t listen to me. When I was younger I lost my temper and raised my voice. I wanted to ensure I was heard so I spoke forcefully and not always wisely.

I define narrative voice as a narrative (or narrating) principle, an imprecisely understood ‘presence’ that accompanies a reading of a text. This presence is neither the author nor the protagonist of the story, but it is associated with the physical act of speaking. This, in turn, implies a relationship because to have a voice is to speak to, and be heard by, another individual. The writer ‘speaks to’ the reader through the ‘narrative voice’, which is why the quality, or otherwise, of that voice is related to the quality of the story or novel; it creates the ‘relationship’ between a writer and his or her reader.

I chose, in my thirties and forties to learn, and then teach, communication and assertiveness skills. When we express our emotions freely, openly and calmly; when we share what bothers us; when we listen to our loved one; when we feel our loved one listens to us and when we are willing to admit we are wrong, our relationships improve.

When we talk about a writer’s voice, we are talking about the writer’s ability to create an engaging, exciting, interesting, believable narrative voice. If a writer believes they have nothing to say, let alone the ability and confidence to say it, he will struggle to find and express his ‘voice’.

As a child I didn’t feel heard or listened to, partly because I periodically ‘lost’ my voice and because I lived with someone whose voice often drowned out mine. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes that, ‘to have lost one’s voice is not to keep silence: one keeps silence only when one can speak’[3]. I think this means I did not lose my voice, it was taken away from me; I did not keep silent, I was silenced. When we are prevented from doing what is natural we become frustrated and dejected .

We mourn the loss of potential, of possibility, only when we imagine that potential and dream of fulfilling it. I am not saying wanting something means we will automatically achieve our goals. It is not as easy as that. What I am suggesting is, if a desire exists, and if there is no risk of harm to others, then the skill and ability to fulfil the desire must also exist.

 

References

[1] Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), pp. 11-12.
[2] Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft 5th ed. (New York: Longman, 2000), p. 197.
[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception (London : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), 161.
[4] Suzanne Laba Cataldi, ‘The Body as a Basis for Being: Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’, in The Existential Philosophy of Simone De Beauvoir, ed. by Wendy O’Brien and Lester Embree (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001), pp 85 – 106 (p 94).