At the End there is a Beginning

This is Elixir’s last post. My decision to quit blogging comes from long consideration and  research into why people abandon their blogs. Like many others, I found the routine of writing a regular post onerous and I have also lost interest in my topic.

Blogging is a new genre with its own sub genres, literary styles and rules. The expectations of both readers and bloggers are different to the expectations of novelists or short story writers, and their readers. Authors usually encounter their readers through letters or emails, writing festivals or book launches and although most modern authors acknowledge the writer/reader relationship is more embodied and frequent than in the past, bloggers depend on ongoing, long term and immediate responses from their readers/subscribers.

I began this blog because I wanted to find such an audience – and, thanks to my subscribers I have – but blogging is a reciprocal art; a successful blogger is also an avid reader of other blogs, something I didn’t know before I started this blog. Networking is an extrovert’s idea of heaven but I’ve become more introverted in the last three years, so networking is my definition of hell. I’ve also discovered that the upside of the close and direct writer/reader relationship is immediate and honest feedback, while the downside is the temptation to write for the audience, instead of writing from the heart, or taking artistic and creative risks.

I also prefer reading books than blogs, and as I’ve only ever written one letter to a novelist (a friend of mine) I am not invested in contacting every writer I admire.  Keeping up with other blogs steals time I prefer to spend reading books, writing flash fiction and short stories and working on my novel.

I’ve been blogging for two and a half years, the recommended period for giving a blog a ‘good try’. I once looked forward to writing my  blog; I now find it a chore akin to driving to work or attending a meeting out of habit rather than necessity.

I will continue to write. As regular readers of Elixir know, I’ve written all my life, but only recently called myself a writer who spends her days writing. I am working on several short stories, a novel, two ideas for a play, and an essay. What I am working on may never find readers, but that’s not the point. At the risk of sounding pretentious – oh, what the heck, I don’t care if I sound pretentious – it’s the artistic endeavour I enjoy. I love the act of fitting words together, composing appealing sentences, and forming clear, resolute and provocative thoughts and ideas that excite me. Blogging no longer fulfils that need.

As the title of this post indicates, I don’t see starting and quitting this blog as a failure but an opportunity to grow and learn as a writer. I am moving on to a new phase of learning. I am not sure what that entails but I’m excited by the prospect.Tote

In this last blog I want to acknowledge my generous readers, particularly Cheryl over at Impromptu Promptlings and Peculiar Ponderings, my dear friend C who inspired this blog and my partner who encouraged me and edited my posts. You have challenged and inspired me; your friendships are like charming, pleasant and challenging sentences that give me pause and spur me on. I will forever cherish your support.

Thanks also to my other readers and to the bloggers whose posts I have read. I am sorry if I did not always respond to what you wrote but I have enjoyed your blogs and wish you joy with your writing.

 

 

 

 

Four Quotes about Therapeutic Writing and what they Mean to Me

I cannot remember the last time I wrote a post specifically related to therapeutic writing. Most of my posts are reflective, but the chief impetus for creating this blog has faded somewhat.  Today, while tidying up and relocating old files, I reflected on the five years I spent researching the power of creative writing to heal, or at least assuage, grief, loss and trauma. As I sorted through my files I found the following quotations from people I consider experts in the field of therapeutic writing and I decided to share them.

Art allows a safe revisiting of that place of revulsion. (1)

cta7f7bwt5o-serge-esteveThis is a confronting assertion. Who wants to return to a place of fear and loathing, who wants to expose themselves to memories of pain and sorrow? How is reliving the bad times healing? Research demonstrates that when we relive a trauma on the page, when the power of a pen (or computer keyboard) is in our hands, when we say what we want to say, feel what we need to feel, share as little or as much as we choose, we can find relief. Reliving and retelling the story of our suffering gives us the power to interpret, engage with and revise that story. Writing is a way of standing up and facing the demon and telling it to back off.

The etymological roots of the word `record’ are `re’, meaning again, and `cord’, meaning heart (Oxford English Dictionary). Recording is getting closer to what is in the heart. The writer is their own first reader, their own primary interlocutor. So, writing, in the first instance, is a private communication with the heart of the self. (2)

Never one to take anything as given, I checked Bolton’s claim and she is right. The heart is not a site of revulsion, pain is what happens to us while our heart keeps beating. The body and the psyche may be scarred but the heart remains the animating principle. To survive is to cherish our heart beat no matter what happens to us, no matter how others treat us. This is therapeutic writing as a stethoscope (from the Greek, stethos; breast: skopien, look). Therapeutic writing is a way to look within our heart and record what is found there. It is also, in terms of the verb to breast, a way to press on confidently, to struggle with, and to overcome or conquer.  If we examine the word interlocutor we find it means ‘conversationalist’; to write therapeutically is not to converse with either the pain we experience or who or what caused our suffering, but to converse with the self that has survived, that will survive, the pain. Once again, the power is placed back with the therapeutic writer. We are no longer victims, we claim instead a profound tool: the power to record not only how we endured our pain but how we survived it. cropped-u3ges0susni-jeff-sheldon-e1485849771431.jpg

In every case, the writing on the page speaks back to its writer, offering resolution, solace or posing more questions about life and writing. (3)

Here we are then, at a place of power, offering the surviving self comfort and the means to resolve our trauma and move on, to be curious once more about life and what we can do with the life we fought so hard to keep.

Our days are filled with moments. Most of these never get written and usually that doesn’t matter but sometimes it feels like it does. Sometimes a moment happens that causes a jarring, a disturbance, a confusion or such an explosion of feeling that you know you will have to re-live that moment in nondescript jolts and shivers, shakes of the head or blinks of the eyes unless you find a way to process and make sense of it in some other way. (4)

Yes, most moments are fleeting; we are unmindful of their passing and they are lost forever. Other moments, however, the moment a loved one takes her or his last breath, the moment a car swerves into our path, the moment someone harms us, those moment are seared into us, we are forever branded with them. Therapeutic writing is one way to do the crucial work of processing these scorching, indelible moments. To process means taking a series of actions or steps to achieve an outcome.  It is an operation, a procedure, a treatment, but it is first and foremost an action, one we can perform, with the help of a trained counsellor, on the page.

window-855371__340As I muse on these quotations and play with words, I remember reading, early last year, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. While I cannot say with certainty that Porter wrote the book as a form of therapy, it is based on his experience, when only six, of losing his father. His book is, for me, an almost perfect expression of profound loss, crippling grief and the essential work required to survive, not just for ourselves but for those who love us. The book describes moments of recovery, of survival that never nullify the moment of grief but honour and dignify that loss. Not everyone, of course, will see loss and grief this way but Porter’s novel demonstrates the possibility.

When I wrote, as part of my thesis, my memoir I discovered a mature, feisty, woman comfortable with breaking the rules. She always existed, of course, but she either hid away, for fear of censure, or expressed her pluck in inappropriate ways. I also rediscovered my mother, who experienced a profound loss and trauma, one I believe she never processed. If this blog can, in some small way,  demonstrate to one person the power and potential of therapeutic writing, then I have honoured my mother, her trauma and the little brother that she loved deeply and lost.

References

(1) Gillie Bolton, quoting from a participant, Teenage Cancer Trust Unit, Camden Palliative Care Unit, King’s College London Arts and Medicine Unit (English Department) in Bolton, Gillie, Write Yourself: Creative Writing and Personal Development, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2011, Kindle Edition, loc. 89.
(2) Bolton, Gillie, Write Yourself: Creative Writing and Personal Development, loc. 94.
(3) ‘Preface’, by Gillie Bolton, Victoria Field, Kate Thompson, with a Postscript by Fiona Hamilton, in Writing Routes: A Resource Handbook of Therapeutic Writing (Writing for Therapy or Personal Development), Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Kindle Edition, loc. 157.
(4) Cheryl Moskowitz, ‘Letter to a Stranger – Processing the Momentary’ in Field, Victoria, Kate Thompson, and Gillie Bolton, Writing Routes: A Resource Handbook of Therapeutic Writing, loc. 826.

Averting One’s Face.

I’m spending too much time on Facebook and not enough time writing or with my partner. It’s not that I have Facebook open all day, respond to every notification or read all the articles that land on my page. In fact, it’s more about the quality of my time on line, rather than the quantity.

I joined Facebook in 2007 when a friend posted photographs of her overseas trip on what was to me the new and somewhat intimidating social platform. When I met my partner three years later and subsequently announced our relationship on Facebook, I added many of his friends and family to my growing list of ‘friends’. In the ten years since I registered, Facebook has ‘helped’ me reconnect with many family members who, for a range of reasons, were once lost to me. I admit I relished the careful refortifying, albeit mostly on line, of these precious family ties and I’ve loved seeing, in ‘real time’, several cousins and aunts, something that might not have happened without Facebook. I also enjoy the opportunity to connect with other writers and writing sites.

social_mediaOver the last couple of weeks, however, some of my friends have decided to take time off from Facebook or leave altogether. One of them explicitly cited the current political situation in the USA, and its alarming resemblance to Germany in the 1930s, as a reason for his decision.

I tend to agree with his position. We can compare, at the very least, Hitler’s appeal to sections of German society through speeches full of clichés, catch phrases and promises to reclaim Germany’s lost glory, to the emotionally laden rhetoric of Donald Trump. His promise to restore ‘order’, the way he targets and scapegoats people from different ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds is terrifyingly familiar, and implies the same inevitable conclusion; to appease one group, another group must be eliminated. As described on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website,

Nazis demanded that Germans accept the premises of the Nazi worldview and live their lives accordingly. They tolerated no criticism, dissent, or nonconformity … Guided by racist and totalitarian principles, the Nazis eliminated individual freedoms and pronounced the creation of the national community, in whose name they seized every opportunity to turn Germany into a unified racial collective … Hitler’s political opponents were the first victims of systematic Nazi persecution.

Recent Facebook posts describe the potential for public servants to feel morally compromised when they implement the new policies. If they refuse, they risk losing their jobs. This and the cavalier creation of poorly conceived and potentially dangerous policies and executive orders, are two instances that, I believe, have caused several of my friends personal despair. I can empathise. The negative and destructive actions of the government of the United States, and of my own government, is indefensible; I want no part of it. I too, am considering closing my Facebook account. But is this a rational decision?

Leaving Facebook may give me more time to write blog posts, work on my novel and my collection of flash fiction. I’ll have time to read more novels and reputable, balanced news feeds that back up their content with sound research and judicious investigation. One of the problems with Facebook’s continuous news feed is deciding if the content contains carefully researched facts, mere opinion or blatant lies. Rather than an open access to the world of ideas, much of what we read on Facebook exists within a bubble we, with Facebook’s help, create. Our newsfeed is a construction that confirms and reinforces the values and beliefs we already have. Quitting Facebook might give me more time to explore issues with my friends and family, rather than working out what they mean in their posts, or what they believe by clicking on sites they share. Leaving Facebook could also  mean that, rather than lamenting the gathering dark, I will have time to volunteer for the causes I support and light a few candles to illuminate and nullify the portents of doom. It seems to me that a time is looming when we will be asked to make actual (real time) changes in the world instead being satisfied with clicking on a sad or angry ’emoji’. Is it possible that, as an answer to every tragedy, every act of treachery, Facebook’s abbreviated method of response actually stops us from getting off our chairs and making real changes?

On the other hand, if I leave Facebook I may lose the ineffable connections with those I love best; family who live interstate. Yes, we can phone each other, we can get on a plane and visit, but sometimes it is nice to log on and see that my son is relaxing with friends, my daughter has managed to find a permanent home for an abandoned puppy, my daughter-in-law has organised another fund raising event. I also wonder how my leaving Facebook will disrupt the very things that could threaten my family’s well-being. Will deleting my Facebook account mean I am burying my head in the sand, refusing to see the world’s situation for what it, inexplicably and dangerously, is? By being ‘less informed’ about the plight of innocents might I be culpable for their suffering?

I cannot possibly answer these questions until and unless I decide what to do. But in a way, leaving Facebook is not the real question here. The real issue is how can I positively influence the state of the world? Is the turmoil and strife many of us fear inevitable? What can we do to prevent it?

To resist something is to hinder or prevent its progress, to oppose, to refuse to yield or comply. Those of us nervous, nay frightened, of recent events have a moral choice. We can comply or we can resist. Either option has its consequences. At the moment, we are exposed to rhetoric that focuses on one thing: America and its interests. In a recent post I pointed out that we are a family of nations. I know from bitter experience that when the needs of one member of a family are more important than the needs of other members, the family will be destroyed.

What I don’t know is if deleting my Facebook adequately signals my refusal to accept the current status quo. If you leave a room while an argument is taking place, are you showing tacit acceptance of the situation, or exercising your right to directly resist a situation you can no longer abide?

The Listening Place

On the last night, knowing every night was a last night, the musician played. No one knew he existed. He came, someone said, with the last wave. There had been over three hundred, and what each carried was ignored; some felt there were too many and argued for turning them away. Others said the end was upon everyone, three hundred more would make no difference. Sure enough, they were the last group and the old and young continued to die in the night, and on that last night, of all the last nights, the musician played.

It had been a while, he said, as he tuned the guitar. The mothers whose children were gone took the toddlers and babies, whose mothers were dead, into their laps. It didn’t matter by then. The older children sat at the front, the meagre firelight splashing their faces. The adults and the elderly sat or lay on the dead grass. Some wept. When the musician could play no more, a woman sang a song and then another and then one more. Three men stood and beat a rhythm on their thighs. Two boys danced along with the beat then sank into the clinch of wide-eyed children.

The musician played a final tune. The people clapped, some stood and some smiled. Most staggered back to their huts or blankets, others slept at the listening place, peace settling them on that last night.

In the morning the early risers dragged the dead to the pit, some were from the listening place, where music had dulled the suffering. One of the dead was the woman who sang. Others were hauled from their huts. The musician, mercifully, slept on, the guitar gathered in his arms.

When the last dead of the morning had been rolled into the pit, the last words and the keening done, the food and blankets were redistributed. A child, only ten, who had danced to the thrum of hand on thigh that last night, began to weep. A woman bent to him in comfort. ‘Who,’ said the boy, ‘will dance with me at the listening place, who will drag me to the pit if you go before me? Who will say the last words for me?’

last_night

Neo-Natal

neo-natalHe is barely ten hours old when the neo-natal retrieval team arrive. They attach him, my first-born, to an electrocardiograph, they wrap him in what looks like pliant aluminium foil, they place him in a space capsule on wheels. They turn on the oxygen. They close the lid. They will take him to the airport and to a city hospital where they will look after him. I watch him roll away from me, I listen to his heartbeat until the maternity ward’s wide doors close and he is gone.

I know as soon as he is born there is something wrong. His first cry is a mewl of complaint, not wholesome newborn outrage. His stomach retracts with each breath, he pouts ferociously and for a legitimate reason. He is born too early. ‘Why,’ the retrieval team doctor asks, ‘was he induced two weeks early?’ I want to reply, ‘Because I trust my doctor,’ but offer only this; ‘My doctor said that even though it was two weeks overdue the foetus was too small.’

I join him 24 hours later. I am re-admitted to hospital. I endure, as all postpartum women must, the tedium of having my weight, height, blood pressure and other details recorded yet again. Finally, I visit the neo-natal intensive care suite. They have tied down my baby’s arms. A tube sprouts from his chest, just above his midget heart. He cries but I cannot hear him; another tube is threaded down his throat. ‘We have to restrain his arms, he keeps pulling at his tubes,’ the dark-haired nurse says. ‘He’s the biggest bub here at the moment. His lungs aren’t quite developed yet, but he’s a fighter.’ I am too easily read; she pauses then says, ‘It’s okay. You can touch him. Talk to him. He’ll recognise your voice.’

Later, exhausted, I sleep and dream. I take my baby to a staff meeting. My work mates are polite, they smile but we must work; there is no time to praise my newborn. There is only one place I can put my baby; an empty aquarium. I lower him into the glass casket and he sleeps. I contribute to the meeting, I watch him through the glass but the aquarium fills with water. His blankets are soaked, the water rises, the wet swaddling drags him under.

I wake before I can reach him.

Two hours later a doctor from the neo-natal unit walks into my room. My baby is fine, she says. The clip board with his medical details are her shield, a black pen her sword. ‘Tomorrow,’ she says, ‘we will try to feed him through a tube, one millilitre only of the breast milk you expressed for him. We won’t give him your milk today. There was a little problem this afternoon. Do you remember the tube that drains fluid from his lungs?’ I nod. ‘For some reason, it became blocked.’ She moves her shield so it covers her heart. ‘We had to drill a second hole in his chest and start the drainage again. There is nothing to worry about now.’

‘When,’ I ask, ‘did this happen?’ She tells me and I count the hours since I arrived at the hospital.

While I slept, my son almost drowned in his own mucus.

On Womankind

It’s too late to recap 2016 and the first twelve days of 2017 have slipped away, so chronicling my hopes and goals for the year seems redundant. Maybe it’s time for a cliché: where has the year gone?

In my case the year has been plagued by indifferent health. I haven’t been gravely ill, merely laid low with a mean, stubborn chest infection. I felt no desire to sit at my computer; editing the novel I drafted last November was beyond me and even reading a novel seemed too large a task. I turned, therefore, to my pile of mostly unread Womankind magazines and found the perfect companion for my convalescence.

Womankind, an Australian magazine, was launched in 2014. The first issue (the only issue I don’t have) featured Simone de Beauvoir who, I believe, would be happy to grace the cover of one of the few advertisement free, celebrity free magazines in the world.

Womankind is an advertising-free women’s magazine on self, identity and meaning in today’s society. (Its) aim is to introduce ideas that challenge contemporary thought and conditioning.

Womankind
Womankind Issue 10. Cover Illustration by Charis Tsevis

I purchase my copies from the local newsagent, but it is available through subscription in Australia, New Zealand (Aotearoa), Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. It is edited by Antonia Case and produced by the folk behind the New Philosopher, an

independent quarterly magazine devoted to exploring philosophical ideas from past and present thinkers on ways to live a more fulfilling life. (It) caters to those who have not studied philosophy, as well as philosophy students and academics.

New Philosopher is also advertisement free.

I like Womankind because it doesn’t talk down to its readers; it treats them like independent, intelligent and thoughtful women. While it covers difficult issues, it also explores a range of options that can help create a better world and it consistently encourages and validates women’s creativity. The images and ideas contained in its pages encourage readers to think differently about the world and themselves. In issue nine, for example, readers are asked to help the editors compile a list of life enhancing ‘mental attributes’ a person might be ‘diagnosed’ with. An only slightly tongue in cheek request, the idea is to counter the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a tome which describes the ever-growing range of mental and behavioural disorders, with more positive and life enhancing attributes. The editors cite ‘café cordiality – the joy of chatting to others, especially in cafés’ and ‘sky gazing compulsion’ as examples of attributes we might aspire to. My attribute would be ‘book hugging – the joy of embracing a book before, during and after reading it in appreciation of its insight and charm.’ What would your chosen attribute be?

Womankind helped me make it through the first twelve difficult days of 2017, a year many of us are understandably wary of. Immersing myself in a graceful, thought provoking, beautifully produced and illustrated magazine that treats its readers with respect, gave me hope for the rest of the year. It encouraged me to take the time to meditate, to reflect and to rekindle my gratitude journal. It was like having a compassionate and gentle nurse constantly at my bedside, a companion who, during the drear days when I was forced to rest and battle whatever it was that ailed me, offered respite, nourished my mind and enriched my spirit.