A Certain Pride?

She thinks it’s here again. The signs are familiar: sleeping well but waking up exhausted; not eating properly; not exercising; refusing social invitations. She promises herself she’ll resume a regular working routine, but sits at her computer for hours, playing Solitaire or reading blogs about  … depression.

She can’t remember the first time she thought, ‘I am depressed,’ but she remembers the first time she knew she’d beaten depression. She was eating dinner with friends, women friends, and she laughed at something one of them said and was surprised by the feel of laughter deep in her stomach where the depression once lodged.

This is a lie, of course. She had postnatal depression once, but she never counts that because, well …  hormones, the middle of winter, one small child and a baby that cried a lot, a cold house, her mother visiting, not to help but to sit at the kitchen table and reassure her, ‘everything will be fine as soon as you establish a routine,’ before demanding coffee, cake and attention.

People always want her attention.

She gives them what they need.

So, this new incarnation: depression number four. Or maybe five. Six? Why bother counting. It’s best to deal with it (she has learned not to say ‘cure’). She’s had counselling. Three times? Four? CBT the third time, mindfulness-based the last time. That helped. And for postnatal depression, hypnotism, which worked well. For a time.

She refuses to take drugs. Both she and her mother appear genetically compromised by antidepressants. They aggravate the malady, in her case to the point of paranoia. The doctors tell her to give it time, let the drugs work, but she throws them away. She knows people who have been on antidepressants almost their entire adult life.  She does not condemn, simply knows drugs are her highway to mental incapacity.

Maybe she’s learned to be a functioning depressive the way addicts function on a diet of alcohol, a load of cannabis or a needle full of heroin?

Maybe depression is her drug of choice?

She’ll stick to meditation, mindfulness, start exercising again, eating properly, call a friend and share lunch with them.

Or not. She learned to be quiet and read while her mother wept in the bedroom. She learned to disappear into her head when her mother raged at her, told her she was a naughty, ungrateful, undeserving, selfish monster.

But she could never completely vanish.

She takes a certain pride in surviving bouts of  depression. She thought of suicide once, when she lived close to the railway and decided to take a blanket, lie across the rails and sleep, let the 5:00 am from the coast finish her off, but she knew she’d hear the rumble of the coming train, change her mind, struggle with the blanket and the stones between the rails, scramble up in an undignified pyjama-clad effort to live and the train wouldn’t stop. She gave the idea away.

If depression is a function of the mind (or is it the brain?), then she uses her mind/brain to solve her problem. She knows the systemic causes of her depression: being a woman in a patriarchal society; the insidious backward bend of world politics to Fascism; the lack of gainful employment.

And knowing she is never good enough or clever as, witty as, compassionate as and as careful as everyone she knows, and thousands more people she will never know.

She decides to research the Four Temperaments (she once dabbled in Astrology – an ancient gesture towards counselling) and believes she can, occasionally, be Sanguine or confidently optimistic and cheerful. She’s more often moved to anger, so she’s probably Choleric and certainly Phlegmatic; she is rarely composed and willingly displays and shares her emotions.  Maybe, she thinks, expressing emotions and Melancholia go together? Is that why some friends, family, and colleagues prefer she not ‘wear her heart on her sleeve’.

But why have a heart if you cannot display it?

Like everything, Astrology failed to provide an answer her mind could accept.  Astrology is the art of variables. She loved its subtleties, how it drew her down wondrous paths to glorious revelation or dry dead ends. But Astrology couldn’t answer all her questions.

Like an aesthete revisiting her favourite cathedral or a beloved painting, she decides to embrace Melancholia. To hold the child she was, she is, in loving regard, to soothe and indulge, to wipe away and store each tear in her cask of wisdom.

She knows it’s here again: depression. She  must welcome it, absorb its lessons, let it fold her in a mutual embrace.

Today’s Footnote: ‘I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy.’ Charles Baudelaire


Please note: The above is a work of fiction and this blog in no way argues against the taking of prescribed antidepressants. If you suffer from depression, seek help from your doctor, counselor or local Lifeline or Mental Health Agency.

Travelling Goldilocks

When I was a child I lay in bed at night wondering when the bad people would come and murder my parents, or take me away, or bomb my house. These fears, I believe, were the result of an over active imagination and going to the movies with my parents; I was an only child for ten years and my parents enjoyed watching films, so I’d go with them, often falling asleep on my father’s lap. They favoured war movies, stories of heroes from the Second World War, a war that lasted through most of their adolescence. In addition, my mother listened to the radio so I heard news bulletins about Czechoslovakia, Korea, and the Bay of Pigs crisis. Us Baby Boomers grew up knowing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for an imaginative, well-read child who spent most of her time with adults, it was easy to imagine the worst because the worst had happened in the decade before her birth. 

Alone in my bed, my anxieties would get the better of me. I’d start to weep, call my parents, and tell them my fears. They did their best to soothe me, ‘Don’t be silly,’ they’d say, ‘you’re safe with us. No one is going to hurt you. Go to sleep and stop worrying about nothing.’ My parents never wanted to make things worse, my night fears worried them, but words like ‘silly’ and ‘nothing’ facilitate anxiety instead of quenching it. I grew up ignoring my anxieties and berating myself for having them. Instead of being properly addressed, my unwelcome, unhelpful worries were fed with ‘what if?’, ‘look out,’ ‘take care’, ‘this will never work’ and ‘I’m afraid to…’.

Teaching revealed one way to cope; responsibility for the well-being and education of, initially, young children and later, adults, turned me into a manager and organiser. I learnt how to anticipate, plan for and manage contingencies. I developed, at least professionally, a range of strategies that helped me control any situation. Addressing the insidious ‘what ifs?’ became proof of my skills and an indication that I took my job and responsibilities seriously.

Personally, however, my anxieties were a liability. Firm management, detailed organisation and making sure everything goes as planned is not easy where children and family are concerned and my need for control lead to bitter conflicts.

And so, my ‘default program’ became an innate, distrustful wariness. Predators lurked on every street corner, the trappings of civilisation such as road rules, regulations concerning food, personal hygiene, and travel, to name a few, seemed like illusions designed to negate my fears, not address them.

As I age, particularly given the potentially dire state of the world, my anxiety is getting worse. A decade ago I stepped outside my comfort zone and thrived, but now I feel less inclined to do so. I recognise my methods of coping no longer work so I meditate and use mindful breathing, rational thinking and writing to help me cope.

These skills are crucial because, in the next couple of days, I am leaping out of my comfort zone and heading, with my partner, to Europe on my first major trip overseas. We’re visiting five countries in seven weeks and while this prospect is thrilling, the little girl in me wants to cower beneath her blankets and stay put.

But cowering is something I’ve done most my life. I’ve embraced the known, stuck with what is safe and celebrated the familiar and remained where I have a degree of control.

When I was researching and writing my memoir, I drew heavily on a story my parents read to me when I was three years old. I knew Goldilocks and the Three Bears by heart. If my mother changed the wording I’d correct her. As part of my doctorate I wrote a research paper that accompanied my memoir, ‘Reading Goldilocks’. I wrote that Goldilocks, ‘is a feisty, assertive, determined, [and] resourceful’ child because she refused to let an unanswered door get in her way. This aspect of Goldilocks helped me explore and embrace my skills and identity as a writer.

I have decided, therefore, to take Goldilocks with me, metaphorically at least, to Europe. If anyone knows how to walk away from what’s known and secure, it’s Goldilocks. Together we will dispel the anxiety that has hounded my preparations for this trip; we will stray far from home, enter forests made of steel and concrete or trees and glades. Yes, we will encounter a bear or two. Some beds will be too hard and while I hope we won’t break any chairs, I will want my porridge gluten free. Goldilocks and I will have a companion, my partner, to walk the trails with us. The three of us will do our best to make this trip ‘just right,’ and if we are menaced by an occasional grumpy bear we will be okay; Goldilocks knows how to safely leap from a window.

I hope you will follow us on our journey; I plan to share our adventure here on Elixir because, as Thomas Moore has written,

Standing in a doorway, you are forced into the imagination, wondering what you will find on the other side. It is a place full of expectant fantasy […] Anything of moment takes place in these intercises.

By stepping over my threshold and sharing it with you, I hope we can embrace the benefits of being mindful, and learn to live in the moment instead of suffering from illusions born of our fear.

Thomas Moore, ‘Neither Here Nor There’, Parabola, 25.1 (2000), 34-39 (p. 34).

 

Elixir has a Companion

Sometimes being concise, to the point or sparing, achieves more than being long winded or verbose.

Regular readers will remember I enjoy writing and reading short, short fiction, otherwise known as Nano, Micro, Flash or Hint fiction.  I had a modicum of success with this genre last year when one of my stories was longlisted for the joanne burns Award.

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It was published last month in Landmarks and to celebrate I decided to create Elixir’s sister blog, Concise.

THE NEW SITE is tottering about on unsteady feet at the moment but I hope to add more stories in the next few weeks and eventually open it to other writers of short, short fiction. In the meantime, I am shamelessly flogging my new creation to all and sundry in an effort to make it feel welcome. Feel free to visit, read the stories, comment, follow the blog and share the site with your friends.

Thank you,

Janet

Reading: Why I Love to Write, Part 5

I love to write because (not that I need a reason), writing is a good reason to read …

…widely,

… deeply,

… outside my comfort zone,

… alone, on a bus, in a cafe, every day, several times a day, upon waking and before going to bed.

Reading_Library

For me, a world without books is a night sky without stars.

It’s been said before, but a writer who doesn’t read is like a cello player who refuses to practice. There is little point in picking up the bow that is a writer’s instrument, a pen, unless the hand that grips the pen (or plies the keyboard) has a book close by. If you want to write, don’t listen to anyone who tells you to avoid reading books because books will ‘influence you’, or because you may unconsciously ‘copy’ the author’s voice or style. Books, plays and poems are your teachers, even poorly constructed, banal books will teach you something valuable; what not to do. This means you must read critically, mindfully, analytically but also with abandon.

This is the final blog on this topic. A friend told me last night he was pleased I acknowledged the positive side of writing. Our world seems, lately, to strain under the weight of negativity. We know things could be better and many of us seek a path through and around our despondency. May your path be strewn with books, may it be a paper trail at the end of which is a fountain spilling over with your lovingly collected, collated and celebrated words.

Happy Writing

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You are welcome to share: What was your happiest writing experience?

 

 

 

Imagination: Why I love to Write, Part 4

Imagine is an ancient word, borrowed from the Old French, from the Latin ‘imaginari’, which means, ‘to picture oneself’ although imagine currently means to form a picture in one’s mind.

To write is to imagine, not just an image but an idea, thought, impression, place, even a feeling. Can you imagine being present when the words below were first uttered or written? What or who do you imagine prompted them?  What happened next?

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.

Henry David Thoreau

The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.

Albert Einstein

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power to that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

J. K. Rowling

Communication: Why I love to Write, Part 3

I love to write because I am fascinated by the process of communication.

Some of us are born communicators: for these folk, starting a conversation with a stranger is easy and listening to a friend’s woes comes naturally. I learned to communicate when I trained as a junior primary (elementary) teacher, because my job meant I would have to walk into a classroom, ‘engage the learner’ and, in the process, teach that learner how to communicate via both the spoken and written word. But that doesn’t mean communicating with others is easy for me, it’s just a skill I acquired.

I was told communication is made up of three basic components: the Sender, the Receiver and the Message. Several years later, at a communication workshop, I discovered it’s not that simple. There are many things that interfere with the clear, harmonious exchange of information, ideas and feelings:

  • The Sender’s intent, mood, attitude, education, language skills and even their appearance,
  • The Receiver’s willingness to hear the message, their  mood, attitude, education, command of language, their appearance and relationship with the sender,
  • How the Message is sent, whether verbally or via a letter, text, email, photograph or emoji,
  • How skillfully, or otherwise, the Message is composed; its content, tone and the style of language used. In the case of written messages, the quality of the grammar and punctuation is crucial. In one-to-one verbal communication the receiver and sender’s ‘non-verbal’ language, what we used to call ‘body language,’ is a major part of the message exchange, which is why it has been replaced, in texts and emails, by emojis.
Given these variables, it is a wonder we manage to communicate with each other at all.

What has this got to do with writing, creative or otherwise? I am always aware, as I write, that I want to communicate something; an idea, a feeling, an image, an incident. I spend much of my writing time ensuring my message is ‘clear’ and easily understood. I realise this sometimes gets in the way of ‘art’ and I should forget about the receiver (my ‘ideal’ reader) and remain true to the creative impulse, to what compels me to write, to the act of creation …

… I’m writing at my dining table. The morning sun pours in but it’s nevertheless a cool winter’s day. I am anxious to finish this blog because I am meeting a friend for lunch. The palm outside the window casts spear shaped shadows across the batik table cloth. The spears distract me, irritate me. Looking through the glass I see the window is dirty, a cobweb defaces the upper right corner of the frame. When am I going to find the time to clean the windows and tidy the garden before we head to Europe? Yes, we’re going to Europe at the end of the month. I don’t like flying and I’m steeling myself for the flight. We’re visiting six countries in seven weeks; the longest time we’ll spend in one place is Ireland. Thrill and agitation sit at my shoulder as I prepare for this trip, as I am arrested by the burnished blue jewel that is my winter sky; friends tell me the first thing I’ll notice when I arrive in Glasgow is the quality of light. In less than a month, I will walk beneath northern skies. In France, Italy and Greece I will not possess any words, my messages will dissolve, I will hallucinate before each indecipherable sign. Who will I be if I cannot communicate …?

… I know I will learn. I trust I will find a way to communicate, just as I do every time I sit at my computer and write.

 

Thinking: Why I love to Write, Part 2

What happens when you put a writer into a fMRI Scanner and map their brain while they write? A team from the Functional Imaging Unit, at the Institute for Diagnostic Radiology and Neuroradiology, and their colleagues from the Institute for Creative Writing and Cultural Journalism, both in Germany, had twenty-eight writers to do just that. (1)  The researchers wanted to know which areas of the brain ‘light up’ during a creative writing session. Each writer brainstormed a story and then wrote ‘a new and creative continuation of a given literary text’,(2). The task is based on a modified version of Linda Flower and John R. Hayes’s model of the process involved in creative writing.

It was found that

 ‘‘brainstorming’’ involves fronto-parieto-temporal brain activity for generating novel and original ideas and composing the concept of the story. The observed premotor activity in ‘‘brainstorming’’ indicates the integrated preparation of the writing process. ‘‘Creative writing’’ combines handwriting processes and cognitive writing processes, which are predominantly associated with episodic memory, semantic integration, and a free associative and spontaneous cognitive text production. (p13)

The researchers also investigated the verbal aspect of ‘‘creative writing’’ and found it involved the left fronto-temporal network.

I’m not a neuroscientist, so the significance of these specific networks is lost on me, and Flower and Hayes’ theory of how writers approach their craft is not the only one. The point is, science confirms what writers have always known: writers are thinkers and writing is thinking on the page. It’s tempting to associate ‘creativity’ with magic, mysticism and even ‘divine inspiration’. It can certainly feel like that when writing goes well. Scientific studies confirm, however, that creative writing is the result of perception, learning, reason, analysis and critical thinking.

As studies of the brain continue, neuroscientists will provide detailed information about how writers write. I hope these studies are combined with investigations into how the brain develops, reacts to and heals post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems. Maybe then we will understand why and how therapeutic writing works. For now, to paraphrase John Lennon, it is enough to know that when writers write their brains ‘shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun’ and that is why I love to write.

 

References

Flower, Linda, and John R. Hayes, ‘A cognitive process theory of writing’ in College composition and communication, 32.4 (1981), pp. 365-387.

Shah, Carolin, et al. ‘Neural correlates of creative writing: an fMRI study’ in Human Brain Mapping, 34.5 (2013), pp. 1088-1101.

Solitude: Why I love to Write, Part 1

I spend too much time complaining about writing instead of sharing its joys. Yes, writing is a gruelling task but because sitting in front of the computer and writing can be rewarding, the next few posts will celebrate writing and focus on its joys and benefits.

Let’s start with solitude. It’s good to spend time alone, to sit at a table, whether in an elegant, light-filled study or the local cafe, and relax, breathe, play with different methods of ordering and recording one’s thoughts and experience the thrill of catching an image, emotion or character. Writing is a way to listen deeply to the self and to the messages life scatters along our path: what to make of that recent dinner party? Why did that person behave so strangely? What were the elderly couple on the bus whispering to each other? Writing is a way to sift through the feelings, images and conversations of each day and share them with the page and maybe a reader or two.

William Wordsworth once wrote:

When from our better selves we have too long
been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
how gracious, how benign, is solitude.

‘The Prelude’, from Book IV “Summer Vacation”

The opportunity to write in solitude (even in a busy cafe) is a double blessing, and one of the many joys of writing.

Decisions and Revisions

There is time

for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. (1)

2017 has been quite a year. I contracted a virus on the 1st January, which was followed by back problems that began the week the virus released its grip. Naturally, keeping a blog let alone maintaining a ‘normal’ life has been a challenge.

As a result, I decided to take a break from writing and considered suspending Elixir and focusing on creative writing, specifically Flash, Hint and Short fiction. However, when it came to deleting my posts and letting go of Elixir and the significance of therapeutic writing, I just couldn’t do it.

I have, therefore, revised my decision; Concise will be a companion blog to Elixir. The former will be an outlet for my own, and I hope others’, creative short fiction. The latter will continue to be personal and reflective, and explore the growing significance of therapeutic writing and art therapy as a healing tool. I want to research and share information about organisations like Art Therapy Without Borders, which provides hope and assistance to a range of people; Lapidus, which focusses specifically on writing for wellbeing; and The Institute for Creative Health, an

independent, not for-profit Australian organisation that advocates for the arts to be delivered within health and social service organisations and the broader community.

 

Elixir has also connected me to blogs like Impromptu Promptlings and Peculiar Ponderings and a positive friendship with the inimitable Calensariel. Through WordPress I discovered Dr Sharon Blackie’s blog, website, books and courses. Closer to home is Raili at Soul Gifts, who creates magic with words, and sites like Spoon You Fork Me. There are dozens of other fascinating blogs listed to the right of this post that expand my universe and enliven my days.

Blogging is, indeed, a blessing.

But like any task, writing a blog can be a curse. There’s the unforgiving blank page; the words that, when they finally arrive, refuse to arrange themselves coherently. How, then, can I imagine I will write two blogs? That’s the point, I can’t imagine it so I won’t try. I’ll give it a go and see what happens. I can’t let go of Elixir and I can’t shake off the idea of Concise so I have to explore the possibility of writing both.

One of my favourite poems, from which the line at the beginning of this blog is taken, is T. S. Elliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ (I wonder what the ‘J’ stands for?) Prufrock is, like me, growing old and he laments the often tedious ‘evenings, mornings, afternoons …’ he has spent and wonders how he will

spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

other than to be what he has always been:

an attendant lord … Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse.

Eliot was none of this; he was a consummate poet. I do not (for many reasons) aspire to be like Eliot. I am content, like Prufrock, to be

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous-

Almost, at times, the Fool …

If it is foolish to write two blogs, one reflective and personal the other a collection of self-published short, narrative fiction, then so be it. I understand that in both cases it may be ‘impossible to say just what I mean’ but I believe it is foolish to give up entirely, to let go of my dreams. Like Prufrock, I cannot help listening to the mermaid’s song, I cannot know what is feels like to lose myself in the mystical, magical and creative ‘chambers of the sea.’

sea-running

‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot.

Find the first edition of Concise here: https://concisedotblog.wordpress.com/

 

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.