On a (Not Writing) Retreat: Somewhere in Perth Part 4

In the first post of this series I wrote, ‘Part of my plan is to “report”, via Elixir, my progress… to… share what challenged me… how I stayed, or failed to stay, on track…’. I can, this week, share that I’ve haven’t achieved what I set out to do. I have, however, started another utterly unexpected quest. My writing dried up, but I unwittingly began a deeply personal, psychological and spiritual investigation.

‘Retreats’ writes Jules Evans in his recent blog,

are not the chill-fests people imagine. When you remove external distractions, you come face-to-face with your inner restlessness and dissatisfaction in its rawest form. You see all the spikes of your likes and dislikes. Outside, you think you could easily be happy if it wasn’t for all the idiots around you. Inside, you begin to see the problem might be you.

Alone in the silence, bereft of ideas for my novel, let alone the motivation or inclination to work on it, I devoted myself to writing my Daily Pages. As a result I fell, like an aged and jaded Alice, into a rabbit hole of profound introspection, personal assessment, and discovery.

pexels-photo-268092Evans is right; the time, space and silence integral to a retreat invariably confront participants with the imperfect, often monstrous and usually querulous inner self…the being we hide not only from others but from ourselves. Such a confrontation is no task for the faint hearted.

I won’t go in to the grisly details of my ‘adventure’. I will say I’ve been, at times, angry, anxious, and acutely aware a change in attitude…in my attitude and my perspective… is needed.

Here’s some of what I learned in the last week:

  • The support, in the form of phone calls, text messages and emails, from several women in my life has been astonishing. While none were aware of what I was dealing with, they all contacted me at the exactly right time. I am grateful for their sensitive, generous and compassionate spirits. They each, in their own way, helped me get through the difficult days,
  • Over the last few months I’ve tried to build a regular meditation regime. During my stay in Perth I’ve explored and practiced familiar and new meditation techniques. I read a book and several articles about self-compassion and started reading a book about women in Buddhism. I am, therefore, grateful to the men and women who wrote this material. When Lynette Benton’s Brevity Essay arrived in my in-box late last week I gained a much-needed perspective on why I write, and my hopes and dreams concerning my writing.

During the difficult times I consoled myself by:

  • Listening to women jazz vocalists and exploring classical music (something I neglected in my youth). It’s a marvelous way to soothe and uplift the troubled ‘retreater’,
  • Getting out of the house even to just go shopping. My trip to Perth’s Art Gallery was an enormous boost to my troubled spirit,
  • Writing my ‘Daily Pages’ helped me explore my experience and gave me the means to express it coherently. I returned to journaling, after a long break, late last year and I approach it differently to when I was a young woman. I start each day’s journal entry with ‘what made me happy today?’. This supplies a much-needed perspective, while reading back over happy or pleasurable moments keeps me balanced,
  • Planning and writing blog posts helped me stay mindful and grounded and,
  • Reading the biography of Mary Shelley, and a novel, helped me appreciate different perspectives and allowed me to stop focusing on my problems.

I’ve always wanted to go on a ‘proper’ retreat, one run by an experienced meditation practitioner. Part of me, however, has been afraid of what I might learn about myself. Because the intended focus of this retreat, working on my novel, didn’t work out as planned, my time alone has morphed into a rich, confronting and rewarding discovery of the ‘inner woman’ who dwells in the very heart of my writing.

I can’t wait to see what next week brings.

accessory balance blur close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Have you ever started one task only for it to become something completely different? What prompted the change and how did it feel?

Have you been on a retreat? Do you agree or disagree with Jules Evans’ comment and why?

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.


On Poetry, Friendship and Straitjackets

On the 29th of April, I was privileged to attend the launch my friend, Louise Nicholas’, collection of poems, The List of Last Remaining.  

Image by Robert Rath
Image by Robert Rath

I’ve been invited, over the years, to a number of book launches but this was the best I’ve attended, due, I believe, to the warmth, humour and general all round goodness of Louise and her family.

In June 1973 I moved to Whyalla, a large country town (or, depending on your outlook, a small regional city), to take up my first Junior Primary (elementary) teaching appointment. I had never lived away from home but back then the education department supplied low rent, semi-detached housing for up to three teachers (either young women or young men, there was strictly no mixing genders, even in the last third of the 20th Century, and especially in provincial South Australia). On my first night at my new digs, one of the teachers from next door asked me to join her and her flat mates for a drink. As I walked into the neighbours’ kitchen I met a young woman with a long, shining veil of black hair falling across her cheek. She was bent over her knitting, but looked up at me, smiled a hello and invited me to sit down. I also knitted in those days so I was eager to see what she was working on. It was an intricate lacy pattern using three or four ply aqua blue wool. I distinctly remember gazing at her long fingers and beautifully shaped nails as she worked the wool and knitting needles together to create the pattern. One of the other residents poured my drink and we spent the evening chatting and drinking cheap white wine. I learned about the school I’d been posted to, the other staff, and the students. It was probably the best introduction to country teaching a naïve twenty-year-old like me could have had. I also learned she had recently returned from a year in Israel and could speak and write Hebrew. That young woman was Louise, and her generosity, humour and finely honed intelligence has continued to astound and succour me ever since.  Ours is a friendship that’s lasted for … well you do the maths; it’s a long time.

In the first years of our friendship Lou taught me things about teaching you never learn at teacher’s college: how to program a term’s work, how to deal with difficult children, how to finesse regulation bound principals, how to soothe irate parents and, most important of all, how to laugh at myself and the often strange situations a young teacher finds herself in. Louise was the first to notice the engagement ring I wore the day my intended and I announced our engagement and, years later, one of the first to offer support (laced with her wry and perceptive sense of humour) when my marriage broke up. Louise and I have, for the last ten or more years, met fortnightly to share and discuss our writing (as well as discuss our families, our discontents, our successes and sometimes  whatever is currently driving us crazy). She also patiently edited the final draft of my memoir.

So, I hope you’ve got the picture; I was as excited as Louise, back on the 29th April, when her friends, family, and fellow poets celebrated the launch of her book. And while the dry facts about Lou can be found here, there is more to her and her wonderful poetry than can be summarised in a few short words. Being a writer isn’t always easy. Being a woman and a writer, a working woman and a writer, a working mother and a writer is like wearing a straitjacket and being walled in a five by five enclosure, or it’s like that for some women. Louise not only managed to make art from the straitjacket and the wall, she pokes fun at both.

I could try to repeat the glowing comments both Jude Aquilina and Jan Owen made the night Louise’s book was launched, but as perceptive and accurate as those comments were, it is difficult to represent the hard work, long hours and emotion poets, prose writers and playwrights put into their art. Artists like Louise experience many obstacles while attempting to knit their observations, ideas and perceptions into poems. Those obstacle are, however, no reason to stop writing, no matter how hard it is.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that I’ve used the so-called domestic, ‘womanly’ craft of knitting to describe Louise’s art? Some women might criticise me for that. Women’s skills, women’s work, women’s lives are too often characterised by allusions to domesticity, to motherhood, friendship, caring and nurturing, as if there is something wrong with that, as if those things are not as important as poetry. I think we should add poetry to the list of things women do. I think poetry is women’s work.

And if we did that, we might just change the world.

I’ll leave you with one of Louise’s poems and with this exhortation: buy her collection of poems. It’s available here. You’ll see for yourself that poetry is, indeed, women’s work.

Sunday Afternoon Arts
Sometimes, a great man will be interviewed
sitting in his room, elbow resting
on the lower lip of the grand piano,
shirt-sleeve adrift at the wrist
and over his shoulder, fixed
in the picture window, a cedar tree. grass needing mowing, perhaps
a bird bath, sometimes with a cherub
but mostly, not.
And from the left of the window,
almost from the great man’s inner ear,
a woman will appear.
She’ll pick her way across the lawn
head down as though looking for something
small and elusive-a four-leafed clover perhaps
or the last line of a poem;
more likely, the button from his shirt.
And the light will catch the white of her dress
and beam into the room like a revelation.
Then she’s gone

and you haven’t heard a word he’s said.

Louise Nicholas



Image by Penny Cowell
Image by Penny Cowell

Louise was born in Port Lincoln and has taught in regional and city schools. She has published: The Red Shoes (Wakefield Press and Friendly Street Poets) as part of the ‘New Poets’ series; WomanSpeak, (Wakefield Press, with friend and fellow poet Jude Aquilina); Large (Garron Publishing), a chapbook; three other chapbooks of humorous verse, and edited Friendly Street Thirty with rob walker (who doesn’t use capitals for his name).

Louise has been involved with Friendly Street Poets, a community based organisation that has, for 41 years, nurtured numerous South Australian poets through its monthly open-mic poetry readings. Louise has not only read her poetry at Friendly Street but actively encourages emerging poets and has served on the committee. She has also been involved with The SA Writers’ Centre Inc, which supports South Australian writers of all genres.