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.

Red Gum Forest River Shows Us How to Weather a Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A 1983 study of anger and aggression claims that

anger is a response to some perceived misdeed.

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

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

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

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

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References

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

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

Writers and Self Compassion

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

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

Kristen Neff defines self compassion as

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

self-compassionThat’s something worth writing about.

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

REFERENCES

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

Of Family and other Connections

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

Can ragged bonds ever be reforged?

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

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

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

Of those, only four remain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Journals, Blogging, Letters and Constructing the (Writing) Self

The other day I was trying to catch up on reading the blogs I follow. One of the first things you learn as a blogger is the need to connect with other bloggers and read their posts. It’s not as easy as it sounds especially if, like me, you discover a blog, read one or two posts then follow it because it’s so interesting and well written and the blogger sounds like an astounding person you’d love to meet one day.

One of my former colleagues believes blogging is the offshoot of the personal diary or journal. I’m not so sure.  dsc_0319
I started keeping a journal thirty years before my colleague was born and I’d never write a post that even remotely resembles my journal entries. There are some things that just shouldn’t be made public. Granted, a lot of blogs are tell-all rants about the seedy and not so seedy side of life. Plenty of bloggers share moments of misery and loss, but I question whether this means blogging and writing a journal is the same thing. I will admit bloggers, like the folk who write a journal, are in the business of ‘constructing the self’, which is academic-speak for creating a persona, a fabricated self a blogger feels comfortable about appearing on a screen thousands of kilometres from home. I believe, however, that the self I have constructed for my blog is more carefully drawn than the self that inhabits the abandoned pages of my journals.

The other reason I don’t think writing a blog post is the same as writing a journal entry is because I feel blog posts are similar to letters. I have 80 or more followers (thank you, one and all) and I probably follow as many blogs. Not all my readers read all of my posts and I certainly don’t read every blog I follow – while I was catching up the other day I was interrupted – but, as all writers are admonished, I believe most of us learn to write, as much as possible, for our readers. This means, in the case of a blog post, writing so our readers feel it was written specifically for them.  Blogging, in much the same way as writing a novel, and unlike journal writing, is about supply and demand, specifically meeting the demands of readers. Yes, there are plenty of instances where journal writers share their private musings (or they are read, often clandestinely, by lovers, intrusive parents or inquisitive siblings) but bloggers want to be read, they want to form connections, they want to be shared.

Bloggers develop blogging friendships. I certainly have, and I’ve renewed old relationships (Hi, Kathy), so I often feel as if I’m writing a letter to my friends.   dsc_0323Not a newsy, chatty letter about the family’s latest escapades, but a letter that shares my ideas, the issues that concern me, my interest in therapeutic writing … which raises another point …

… is blogging therapeutic? I think it can be; shaping an event or feeling and sharing it with others can, if handled well,  help with healing. I doubt many bloggers feel they are alone in the world; for most of us there will be someone out there who’s interested in what we have to say, who reads what we write and who cares. Keeping a journal, while it helped in many ways, didn’t stop me from feeling alone, which is what writing for no one but oneself can do. My journal became a self-fulfilling rehash of personal (often self-induced) misery, which is why, despite intending to, I barely referred to my journals when I wrote my memoir.

The woman who wrote those journals is a mere echo of the woman I am now and I am an echo of the woman I will be. janetp03Blogging, as confessional and personal as it might be,  is a larger act of rebellion than writing a private journal ever was and believe me, I thought journal writing was truly rebellious. I was even advised by one counsellor to stop because she believed it would harm my relationship.

It’s hard to grasp exactly how massive the ‘blogosphere’ is, let alone imagine how many mega-millions of words are written and shared via blog posts. I am nevertheless content in my minuscule corner of it. I have readers, bloggers and otherwise, that I feel obligated to, not in an onerous, ‘dear me is it time to write another post?’ way, but  in a ‘I wonder what so and so is up to, and if they’d be interested in …’ way. More importantly, and this is a revelation born of knowing I do have readers, I look forward to sharing the (constructed) self who writes my blog; a self now past middle-age, an occasionally confused writer, by turns cynical and sentimental who is grateful to be a part of a sphere where readers and writers are not afraid to be whatever self they choose.

What about you? Are you writing a personal journal that you make public, a letter to far flung or nearby friends or something else entirely?

Developing Your Eye Day Five

Today’s Task: Connect

To connect we must fasten, physically unite, join. We must tie and bind, relate and associate, we must as E. M. Forster has said, ‘Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.’

#developingyoureye: 'Connect'
#developingyoureye: ‘Connect’

Yet the connection made possible by these lines and wires is fragmentary, temporal, tenuous.

The earth is a beast tethered by humankind’s inability to endure solitude; there is nothing wrong with connection, what needs to be questioned is the motivation for, and the quality and cost of, the connection. We no longer reach out a hand to another, we press a button. We text but never talk; fearful of our impurities we share only what we can photoshop.

The monolith rising above my house gives me the world on a screen even as it ties me to my throttled patch of the planet … and yet, and yet … how else to re-calibrate the fibres of our subjectivity than by assenting to this thready connection with an Other?

I cannot answer that question.

I don’t have to answer that question.

I can, through laptop, cable and satellite, connect to the world, ask that question and hope for a reply.

The Art of Resilience

The reason I started this blog was to share my interest in therapeutic writing. As many of you know, this focus has changed slightly but today I want to return to a topic that remains important to me: therapeutic writing and resilience. I will begin, however,  with what creates the impetus, the need, to develop resilience: trauma and suffering.

Suffering happens. Trauma causes lasting, ongoing distress. Bearing witness to trauma and suffering helps us recognise, acknowledge and relieve the pain. Being resilient is understanding trauma, knowing that it results in alienation as well as dissociation from the traumatic event itself. Resilience is being aware of how trauma disconnects us from our self and our perceptions. Trauma flays friendships, undoes families and leaves us at the mercy of others; to advocate resilience is to acknowledge the struggle to comprehend or change the situation, to acknowledge that trauma makes us feel like ‘a nobody’.

Well-meaning suggestions about how to respond to trauma, and claims that our trauma is less traumatic than another’s, serve only to undermine our survival, suggest our story is not worth sharing or we haven’t ‘suffered enough’. Comments like this rob us of the ability to decide, for ourselves, the personal quality and potency of our suffering; they turn us away from resilience and back to the trauma.

Does defining trauma as

unspeakable [and thus] resistant to representation

silence us, leave us powerless to deal with or learn from the trauma? When trauma is endlessly reproduced and recycled by the media, either for entertainment or as ‘news’, are we being conditioned to accept trauma and suffering as ‘normal’? When groups of people are traumatised, do we know those groups, know individual members of the group, only by their trauma, only by their suffering?

Who benefits from labelling individuals and entire cultures, as ‘traumatised’? Who gains by robbing individuals and entire cultures of their agency, their ability to heal from trauma?

If we study and understand the impact of trauma, shouldn’t we also study and understand how to heal from trauma?

There are some who believe in

the transformative potential of trauma itself […] the possibilities of psychic regrowth

that is a possible outcome of trauma.

Art makes healing from trauma possible. Art is an act of survival. Art builds resilience.

Why art? Because nothing else is strong enough to contain the destruction of the self.

Art doesn’t theorise suffering, it engages with it. Trauma can not

properly be grasped in a purely cognitive manner … its … chaotic and meaningless character

must be encountered through writing, painting, music, drama and movement.

   What of the risk? What if by ‘re-creating’ the trauma we are ‘re-traumatised’? Memory, as it is newly understood, is a process of

selection, emphasis and amplification.

Is it possible that by drawing on our memories of trauma, actively choosing how to represent our trauma, what to represent, what to amplify and what to ignore, we can regain agency? Can remodelling our trauma provide us with the means to craft our recovery and learn to take control of our lives?

Therapeutic writing builds resilience. It helps us discover our meaning of the trauma, and reject meanings imposed by others. Therapeutic writing, like any writing, is an exacting art. It needs the support of a counsellor, who is also a reasonably skilled writer, to witness and guide the process of safely remembering and reconstructing the traumatic event. It needs someone who knows that resilience is flexibility, plasticity and strength. It needs someone who understands that the story of trauma inherently contains a story of survival and the story of suffering is a story of resilience.


The views expressed here are not not meant to serve as medical advice or replace consultation with your physician or mental health professional. The information contained in this blog should not be used to diagnose or treat a mental health problem. If you have experienced trauma you should consult with your medical practitioner or a qualified mental health care provider about your personal questions or concerns.

References

Emily Ashman, ‘Psychic Resilience in the Fragile Images of A Petal: A Post-Jungian Perspective on Retraumatisation’, in Trauma Narratives and Herstory, ed. by Sonya Andermahr and Silvier Pellicer-Ortin (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), pp. 171-187.

Sonya Andermahr and Silvier Pellicer-Ortin, ‘Trauma Narratives and Herstory’ in Trauma Narratives and Herstory, ed. by Sonya Andermahr and Silvier Pellicer-Ortin (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), pp. 1-12, p. 7.

Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery from Domestic Abuse and Political Terror (London: Pandora, 2010), p. 52.

Stephen K. Levine, Poiesis: The Language and the Speech of the Soul (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers 1997), p. 120.

Stephen K. Levine, Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy: The Arts and Human Suffering (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009), pp. 38-41

Gillian Whitlock and Kate Douglas, ‘Trauma Texts: Reading Trauma in the Twenty-First Century’ in Trauma Texts ed. by Gillian Whitlock and Kate Douglas (Oxon: Routledge, 2009), pp. 1–8, (p. 1).

Photo Credit: Pixabay

 

Gathering at the Well: An Anniversary Post

I posted my first blog twelve months ago today and I’ve been pondering what to write for this occasion.  9QEVP5YHO3I considered describing the steep learning curve I experienced over the last twelve months and the mistakes I have made. I thought I might summarise the year’s posts, explain what I hoped to do and assess whether or not I achieved my goals. I considered celebrating what I see as my ‘coming of age’ (finally) as a writer and sharing what I’ve learned about myself as a result.

None of these ideas appealed.

I’ve decided, therefore, to resort to a tried a true blogging technique: a list. This list is, however, a bit different. I want to express my gratitude for the interest in and support of Elixir. It is my attempt to give back what twelve months of blogging has given me.

  • Thanks WordPress. You’ve been sensational. From creating my first blog, to Discover and BlogU, the support you offer and the hassle free connection with other bloggers has been exceptional. I am deeply grateful for your existence.
  • Thanks to my partner who patiently reads and edits my posts, who shares my enthusiasm and sympathises when the writing doesn’t go well and who has, for the last seven months, been my patron as well as my lover and friend. You are … astonishing.
  • To the friend who inspired the first post, when the blog’s main focus was therapeutic writing. It’s been ten years since your diagnosis and recover, but we missed the celebration this month because I’ve been busy writing. You have nevertheless been much in my thoughts. Thanks for your inspiration, for understanding writing takes up a lot of my time now and for being a steadfast friend. I owe you a champagne.
  • To the woman I met one June day in 1970 who is now a lifelong friend and confidante. On the day I published my first post you wrote, ‘I am so very proud’. Those words meant the world to me. You’re in the US right now, visiting family but I think of you every day and hope I can continue to make you proud.
  • To my many other friends who’ve read my posts, liked the posts via Facebook or commented on the posts in person, thank you. I am privileged to call you my friends. I’ve not seen as many of you in the last few months as I would have liked. I’ve become so focused on my writing since retiring but please know each and every one of you inspire me with your wisdom, intelligence, warmth and generosity. I may emerge from this self-devised writing intensive one day. When I do I hope we can catch up.
  • Special thanks to my first Guest Blogger, Barbara Brown. Thank you for writing something that inspired this and one other post. Not only are you a wonderful writer, your untiring work for refugees is an inspiration. I’m also grateful that you started a Book Club, Barb. Long may it live. cropped-80ryzdj8ue.jpg
  • Thanks to the members of my newly formed and growing-stronger-every-month writing group. We found each other by accident, but what a happy accident. We support and challenge each other and make the long hours at the computer worthwhile. You’re amazing writers; don’t ever stop writing.
  • Thanks also to my longtime Writing Buddy Louise. You’ve stuck with me through my various incarnations as a writer: dilettante; hopeful beginner; student. I love your poetry, admire your wit and am astounded by your wisdom.
  • Thank you from the bottom of my heart to my readers. Who are you guys? I want to invite you around for dinner! I particularly want to thank Calensariel Impromptu Promptings and peculiar ponderings. You have followed me almost from the start and I have learned a lot from reading your blog. I hope that, despite the kilometres of sea and land that separate us, we have become friends not only because we just ‘clicked’ somehow, but because you are a loving, compassionate, curious human being and you make me think. Raili over at Soul Gifts has also been a staunch follower, and … well I have 75 followers and I am rather gobsmacked by you all. Thank you for making it ‘real’ for me, for making me sit down at the computer and for the wisdom I read in your blogs.
  • Finally, thank you to my children. Your mother has always been a mite strange, but you’re accustomed to me now and you seem to cope exceptionally well with having a mother (and mother-in-law) who blogs. I promise I will continue to honour your privacy and share as little of your shenanigans as possible, unless you do something completely weird and then I promise nothing.

As I prepared my first blog post I remember feeling excited and uncertain. I worried that I would become caught up in a passing fad. I’ve since learned that blogging is not only about sharing my thoughts and ideas it’s about engaging with a variety of new and different thoughts and ideas. Blogging connects people.  Credit: Saved from images.search.yahoo.comIt is the equivalent of the village well, a meeting place where we draw sustenance from those also gathered at the well, where we offer succour to others, where we relate and  listen, where we strive to understand our lives and our world. I am honoured to be a part of this community.

What about you? How do you draw on the well that is blogging? What do you give and what have you gained since you started blogging?

Learning how to Change the World.

A little friend of mine had a big adventure last week: she went with her mother and father to a tropical island north of Australia. She travelled on a plane for the first time and is now a veteran of four flights. Each time the aircraft lifted off the ground my little friend cried ‘Wheeee’.Airplane

I have much to learn from this brave little girl.

Unfortunately, however, not everything worked out as planned. On the second evening of the eight-day holiday she fell and broke her collar bone.

Mummy and Daddy were, naturally, distraught and their family back home saddened to hear the holiday was spoiled. After receiving excellent help from the resort staff and advice from the local medical centre the family wisely chose to remain on the island resort and make the best of the situation.

Now, travelling with a three-year-old has its challenges, even with a three-year-old who loves, from the first moment, to fly. This holiday had, after the accident, more than the usual difficulties.  BeachSwimming in the pool or on the beach was out of the question. The excursion to the Great Barrier Reef was likewise cancelled; they couldn’t risk her overbalancing in the boat. Walking along the beach was fairly safe and there was a child’s activity room, but for a lot of the time the parents were faced with amusing a three-year-old while trying to contain her natural ebullience and help her understand that the sling compromised her balance and her ability to do things for herself. As any one who has had anything to do with a three-year-old knows, they have to do everything for themselves.

The result, sadly, was a frustrated little girl and a several days of temper tantrums.

Don’t get me wrong, this child is not a little angel; she has her moments. But these were serious, ear-splitting, toy throwing, hitting out, refusing to go to bed, refusing to do anything she was asked, tantrums.

Her parents are gentle, reasonable, perceptive people. This child is neither spoiled nor indulged and whatever discipline is needed is always explained, measured and reasoned. But Mummy and Daddy desperately needed a holiday, and their dream of a few blissful days with their little girl was ruined by the pain and grief of their thwarted expectations.

I’m not saying they didn’t handle it well, they did, but I could see the strain and exhaustion on all three faces when we picked them up from the airport last night.

How I wished I could have wrapped them in my arms and made it all go away.

I’ve thought a lot about what turned this usually affectionate and happy little girl into the monster her mother described to me as we trudged towards the carpark through Adelaide’s cold night.

Maybe it was the excitement of the trip, the anticipation and then the letdown of the accident and injury. Maybe it was the pain killers. As mild as they were, having to take them over several days can affect anyone, particularly a child. Maybe it was the unfamiliar situation. When we’re feeling poorly, we need the comforts of our home and our familiar toys. Perhaps it was the shock and pain occasioned by the fall; my little friend woke screaming several nights after the accident. Maybe it was a combination of all these things?

And maybe it was just raw fear. I’m no child psychologist (which is amazing, because any woman who’s raised three children is, of course, an expert on children), so I consulted Dr Google – specifically concerning children who hit out during temper tantrums. My intuition was confirmed.

We usually lash out at others when we are afraid. It’s part of the classic freeze, flight or fight reaction that comes from deep within what neurologists call our reptilian brain, an ancient section of the brain that controls our heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. The thing about three-year-olds (and most humans), is no matter how articulate, how well parented or how well behaved they are, fear inevitably triggers survival instincts and that results in defensive behaviour, in hitting out at others. There’s no irony in the fact that we often hit out at those we love, at those who hold our very survival in their hands, because we trust them to understand, without reacting negatively, our instinctive, automatic ferocity.

My little friend is probably one of the luckiest people I know. In her terror and pain she hit out at the very people she knew would cope with her behaviour. Her parents, despite being stressed themselves, found a way to understand, witness and try to soothe their frightened little girl’s inarticulate rage.

Not all girls or boys are so lucky.

I held back tears last night when I watched the exhausted father walking from the plane, holding his sleepy eyed baby in his arms. Their flights home were delayed and they’d spent the last 12 hours either waiting in airports or flying, but there she was, snuggled close to her Daddy, smiling at my partner and me, waving tentatively at us with her free hand.

Is this story a caution against travelling with children? Far from it. Accidents happen, tempers flare and misunderstandings occur wherever we are in the world. When I think of that couple alone in their resort room, relying on the goodwill of staff when the accident happened, and later receiving calls from concerned parents and grandparents across the width and breadth of Australia, I am reminded of how important family is, how we reach out to each other during times of travail and stress. This happens on a small scale, like it did this week with my family, but it also happens on a large scale.

We’ve learned, in the last dozen or so years, that there is but one race of humans and we came from the same mother. We are a very large, rambunctious, sometimes violent family and that violence usually comes from raw fear, from the ancient section of our brain that reacts first and thinks later.

My little friend is going to grow up to be an amazing woman.   P1020430 (2)She will gradually learn to moderate her reactions, to articulate her fears, to be mindful of her thoughts and, given the way her parents are raising her, to be compassionate when she witnesses another’s fear, another’s pain.

She may even change the world; she may find a way to end the fear that animates violence, because that’s the blessed potential of every child on the planet.

 

Where are all the Angry Women?

I recently heard two separate interviews, recorded at different times and in different locations, with the same woman writer. Both interviews were about her new book and in the second interview her comments were the same or similar to the first.

While there is nothing wrong with this, the second interview gave me a chance to reflect on the writer’s response to both interviews and her comments about how she wrote the book. I discovered I had several problems with what she said. While her book is in some ways shocking and disturbing, it contains only a couple of descriptions of overt violence. I applaud the writer’s decision regarding the depiction of violence. I am sickened by books (or movies) that graphically portray the abuse, torture and maiming of anyone, especially women. In the second interview, however, I detected a sense of squeamishness in the writer when it came to writing about violence and sexual intercourse. Again, the book has a couple of sex scenes, written with assurance and skill but also curiously detached. This may be a good thing; books with too much sex, even pleasurable, loving sex can be boring. After all, as a friend once said to me, how many ways can you write about the mechanics of sexual intercourse that aren’t, well, mechanical?

On the other hand, invasive sexual congress, which occurs when one of the partners (usually, in heterosexual intercourse, the woman) is for whatever reason coerced into having sex, makes me really angry. So does the abuse of women, be it their bodies, their minds, their self-respect or their sovereignty.

Am I reading the wrong books or is no one writing about women’s anger anymore and if not, why not?

I wonder if it is because there exists a clutch of women literary writers, many of them aged between thirty and forty-five, who are a tad fastidious about women’s suffering? Who shy away from the awful reality of most women’s lives? If this is true, if women are too refined to write the truth about woman’s suffering, does this reluctance condone women’s abuse? Does it allow the perpetrators of that abuse to get away with their crimes? Does the absence of anger silence the women who are forced to negotiate, on a daily basis, ways to survive their abuse and their abuser.

I also think too many women writers shy away from so-called ‘feral’ female protagonists. Medusa cover I don’t necessarily think we should all write feminist versions of ‘Lord of the Flies’ but I don’t want to read novels where women are complicit in their abuse even though our conditioning and living situations can mean we willingly accept the status quo.

How long will women remain compliant? In straightened circumstances women eventually behave like any other human: they access their power and they fight back, they openly and proudly assert their rights and express their anger and frustration. It’s also true that women can hurt others, be abusive and violent. To say otherwise repudiates women’s humanity, the first dictate of which is survival by any means.

Many women are angry about how they are treated. Anger, however, is not action. Anger motivates: it can be, when properly and wisely directed, a potent force for change. Women have resisted unequal treatment and fought for equality for centuries and many continue the fight.

Do I want a bunch of novels about angry, violent, abusive women popping up on our bookshelves? Can the current crop of young-to-middle-aged women writers express such anger? How is it possible for many of these women writers, university educated, upper middle class, quasi-radical feminists, to ignore the often horrific daily reality of the majority of women? Are they unable to understand this reality because their university education failed them or is it because they simply don’t want to be sullied by the truth that lies behind the statistics, the truth that sits outside their safe, theoretical books and journals?

Why is this important to me? Apart from having been a feminist for over thirty years (and lamenting the ongoing situation many women continue to endure), I am trying to write a themed collection of stories about angry women. It is hard to write about anger without being confronted by one’s own anger. I am wary of alienating a potential reader with my characters’ anger and I want to avoid being didactic. Nor do I want my characters’ anger to be the action but be the motivation for their behaviour. I know it’s vital to show (not tell) the anger and show (not tell) how my characters face, accept, and use their rage to make the change they wants to make.

Every woman, from birth, must have access to good health care, an education, financial independence, safe and accessible contraception and access to safe child-birth and child care. Every woman has the right to have a career, if they want one. Every woman should feel, at the end of their lives, respected and nurtured. I want to put my characters’ divine and justifiable rage out into the world, to represent anger as a legitimate, reasonable reaction to the intolerable fact that too many women are denied these basic rights.

It’s just that writing about anger can be as taxing as feeling angry.

What do you think? Are you angry? Are you comfortable with expressing your anger? Have you created an angry fictional character? What problems did you confront and how did you solve them? Do you know of any books where angry women characters feature?