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.

On Being Concise

new-pic-2Elixir was created from a desire to reflect on therapeutic writing and its benefits. Its reception has been encouraging and I have enjoyed writing the blog and reading your comments.

Elixir helped me test and develop my writing skills, and gave me the confidence to continue.

I believe, however, that it no longer fulfils my needs as a writer.

Perhaps it’s time stop taking medicine and accept the healing has happened?

Elixir has a companion page, ‘Sparks’, containing five short, short stories or, as I like to call them, hint fiction. ‘The Listening Place’ and ‘Neo Natal’ were recently read at the Quart Short Literary Reading Nights, Autumn Shorts 2017. Another of my pieces of flash fiction, ‘Underpass’ has been published in Landmarks. These modest successes reflect my passion for condensed, intense, concentrated stories, a genre that promotes carefully constructed, abbreviated but powerful narrative moments.

Elixir, therefore, will give way to Concise, an occasional magazine of flash fiction, hint fiction and short stories.  I will initially publish my own work, then gradually introduce the work of friends and fellow enthusiasts of the genre. Later this year I will call for written ‘pitches’ of no more than 500 words. Should your pitch be successful I will ask you to send your short story and, if it is suitable, publish it in Concise although I won’t be able to pay writers.

But more of that later; for now, expect to see, in the next week or two, changes to the look and content of this blog. If, because of the change in name, you lose the link, you will find me here: janetgthomas.com

An elixir was thought capable of curing all ills as well as being a mythical substance with the power to create gold from base metals. Concise is not a quest for gold; it is a search for compact, creative, evocative and meaningful short narratives that will challenge, inspire and entertain. Being concise is a potent way to share our precious and provocative moments.

The Chairman

Photo: Caleb George

Everyone hoped he’d make some changes, do the right thing because Jacinta was one of the 30%: tall, attractive, well-educated and highly motivated.

‘Jacinta handled her promotion exceptionally well,’ he said finally.  ‘She did exactly what we asked. Pruned the  inefficient members of her team without too big a stir. Shifted three more staff into different departments and dealt competently with the complaints. The new work practices she introduced are spot on. I thought them unusual at the time but productivity has certainly improved.

work-practices
Photo: Jeffrey Betts

I’m going to ask her to run an in-house seminar. Outline her methods, give the department heads an idea of what’s possible. She can help them implement her ideas. Her people skills are excellent. Her entire staff attended her wedding last month, as did I. Great food and an excellent band. Yes, Jacinta Freeman, now Mrs Jacinta Walton, has served this company well.’

chairman_board
Photo Mary Whitney

The board held its collective breath. ‘So I’m positive Jacinta will understand; it’s Geoff Hardcastle’s turn, despite his recent troubles.  When your wife gives birth to twins, that makes things … difficult. But the twins are, what? A year old now? Mia Hardcastle was at Jacinta’s wedding, she was beaming, coping,  she said, really well.’ He didn’t add that Mia looked great in that low-cut dress now her figure was back, or that she told anyone who’d listen she’s looking forward to returning to work. Made a point of including him in her smile, almost winking at him. Of course, there was that unaccountable little incident when Geoff danced with the new girl from sales, but only a few people saw it. Jacinta whisked Mia off, made sure she had another coffee and extra cake and everything was fine again with no one the wiser. And Geoff? He’s solid, a good man in a scrum.

‘Yes,’ said the Chairman, ‘Geoff is on track again and deserves a break.’ And again he didn’t say what he was thinking, that Jacinta is married, probably a mother herself soon; he saw her cooing over photographs of the twins on Mia’s mobile. ‘I’m giving it to Hardcastle,’ he told the waiting board. ‘Hardcastle’s the man for the job.’

Sparks

At first only sparks, fragments of light that died and died again. Finally, despite her shuddering hands, a flicker, a glint of flame that swung wildly, spluttered then settled into something more.

‘Minuscule flame,’ she intoned , ‘stay alive, stay alive…’

A sound from beyond the night: familiar footsteps, the flood of stamping feet dislodging snow from the sole, and the door opened. Her body defended the flame but once the door shut she turned. He held a tight pyramid of dried logs in his arms. ‘It needs time to grow,’ she said, ‘before we can load one of those onto it.’ She pulled kindling toward her, fertilised the flame with it. Under her breath she repeated her prayer, ‘Stay alive, stay alive …’ this time with vigour, the energy of her words driving the flame into the farther corners of the hearth, into the frosted marrow of her bones.

They ate well that night; a small portion of the meat, some of the root vegetables. They slept warm before the hearth  while winds clawed at their door. He lay swaddled in their sleep, muttering through the dreams, ‘Stay alive, stay alive, stay alive …’

On Haibun and Markets

As well as flash or hint fiction, I’ve been studying and writing haibun, contradictory snippets of descriptive narrative (i.e. flash or hint fiction containing poetic images and heightened language, or an an unabashed, self declared  prose poem) accompanied by a haiku. Sometimes wry, often serious, always finely crafted, haibun is a blend of image and observation that appeals to the senses and the intellect. This unorthodox form also plays with structure; the haiku usually appears at the end of the short piece of prose but it sometimes appears at the beginning and, depending on the writer,  can occasionally break into the middle of the prose.  In other words, haibun refuses limitation and restraint. If you’re interested in learning more about them try the links below or check out this book:

journeys-2015

I wrote this haibun yesterday, after a trip to the market:

Adelaide Market, June

Porcini balls, kangaroo and rabbit meat, buffalo milk mozzarella. A world of smiling people, Indian, Pakistani, African, Lebanese, Chinese, Korean and more, slide past, their shopping bags rustling with intent. Students, eastern suburb matrons with severe haircuts and, from the west, the scrabblers, their kids in footy jumpers and gnawing on lollipops, amble past Persian love cakes, gluten free protein balls and plush warm planks of lavash. Teenagers watch a bearded chef spread batter on a slightly domed, counter top pancake griddle. The cooked crepe, wrapped around fruit or filling of choice and folded into a paper cone, is handed into the care of eager, still chubby, fists. Bright green, chocolate filled, peppermint sweets; cappuccino, latte, chai; shopping trolleys, pushed or dragged by greyed baby boomers. A middle aged woman croons quietly in the aisle of multiple choice pasta; a man lifts his baby, warm in a furry brown all-in-one, from the pram, raises the smiling cub above the sauntering crowd. A popup book store; a busker plays la Vi’en Rose on her accordion and I am in an antipodean Paris. Wine merchants, jewellery from Nepal, indigenous art, the ardent smell of ripe cheese and, when we return to our car, in the Mercedes next to us, nestled in the cup holder between the front seats, a delicately flowered china mug.

At the market
We walk along aisles of memory,
Feed our spirit.

Market

If you live outside of town and fancy a virtual visit to the Adelaide Central Market, follow this link.

 

 

 

 

References

Doll Family

She had a family of docile, stoic dolls who spent their daylight hours in her thrall. The biggest one, Julie, was a twenty-two inch walking doll who arrived one Christmas morning dressed as a bride. Julie’s wedding dress was gathered at the waist, with deep frills at the neck and hem. She had a bunch of white and pink rosebuds tied to her hand and a long, white tulle veil hung from a rosebud halo pinned to her long brown hair.

As well as a wedding dress, Julie came with a lawn petticoat and pale apricot knickers trimmed with lace. In a separate box was a little pink ‘day dress’ for when Julie was bored with being a bride. She and Julie spent their first day together walking down the aisle. A hundred times along the hall, around the dining room table, past the Christmas tree, into and out of the hot kitchen and back down the hall.  She guided Julie, her hands on Julie’s cold shoulders, shifting Julie’s weight, left and right and left again, matching Julie’s pace – one step forward stop, tilt, one step forward, stop, tilt, another step forward and another, on and on through all of Christmas, but Julie never learned to walk by herself.  Julie (2)

Patsy was her baby doll who came with a bottle and a plastic pacifier. She put real milk in the bottle and fed it to Patsy who peed milk into a nappy her mother had cut from a scrap of flannel. Some of the milk stayed inside Patsy and went sour and she smelled bad. Her mother pushed Patsy into the bath and they both watched as little bubbles sprang from Patsy’s mouth and the hole in her bottom. Her father squeezed as much water from Patsy’s rubbery body as he could, and shook her until she rattled, her blue eyes opening and closing like the shutters of Grandapa’s box brownie camera. When her father had shaken enough water out of Patsy’s smelly insides, he left her draining on the edge of the bath. She wasn’t allowed to comfort or play with Patsy, who sat alone and naked in the cold bathroom, periodically tilted, shaken and squeezed to extract more water. Eventually she was allowed to dress Patsy and take her to bed; after that Patsy was put on a starvation diet and could drink only water from her tiny bottle.

Sometimes she made Patsy have a bath with her. She’d hold Patsy under the water and watch the twin columns of bubbles float up from the holes at either end of her body. Patsy’s stony eyes would stare back at her through the soapy water. Patsy 02 (2)

Back to Square One

I can’t remember how old I was when my mother taught me to knit. She always had a knitting project on the go; each winter she knitted cardigans and pullovers for the family and, when my first son was born, presented me with a creamy knitted baby’s shawl. I wrapped my babies in the shawl when we brought them home from hospital and I hope one day one of my grandbabies will be swaddled in it too.

While I was never as proficient as my mother, by my early teens I could make simple garments: a lavender and green vest, a long line jacket that took ages to complete and a particular favourite, this shawl.   Shawl

Both the shawl and the pattern have, alas, long since gone. If anyone has a copy of the pattern and are happy to share it with me, I’d be very grateful.

Lately I find I need to do something with my hands at night, when my partner and I are watching television. I haven’t knitted anything for ages, apart from a scarf I started almost ten years ago, which still needs a fringe added to it. I have several balls of eight ply left over from the scarf so I decided to make a rug, nothing fancy, something fashioned from either 10 or 20 cm squares, or why not both? After playing about with tension and needles and visiting the local wool shop to buy more wool I’ve got this far: 

The small ones are really just tension squares (if you’re a knitter you’ll know what I mean by that). I’m not going to stick to garter stitch; once I’ve got a few plain squares under my belt I’ll branch out and try to remember how to do cable, basket weave and pennant stitch and maybe add a lacy panel into the mix. I hope the finished product will be a big, warm, knitted patchwork made up of different sized, coloured and patterned squares, so that each time you look at it you’ll see something new.

While knitting the first three squares, I’ve been thinking about flash or, my favourite name for it, hint fiction. Before the knitting bug bit I read two books of flash fiction; I’m still reading books about the history of flash fiction and creative non-fiction flash pieces. I become ever more fascinated with this kind of writing, not because it’s easy and quick to write. Far from it. Tara L. Masih says in her book The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction that ‘flash is simply a story in miniature, a work of art carved on a grain of rice—something of import to the artist or writer that is confined and reduced, by design or outcome, into a small square space using the structural devices of prose line and paragraph form with the purpose of creating an intense emotional impact.’  FF_Book

While knitting my little squares I’ve reflected on my new-found interest in small, intense, emotional packages of words and of wool. Is there a connection and what is it? Maybe it’s my age, maybe I’m finally settling into retirement and focusing on projects worthy of my time and energy, maybe it’s the intensity of life as it swirls around me. Perhaps it’s just the result of writing short bi-weekly blog posts.

I recently read that life isn’t really about plots (and, at my age we learn that sometimes the best of plans, or preferred life-plots, are all too easily undone). It seems life is more about moments stitched together to form some kind of pattern; even if that pattern is haphazard, eccentric, or out of kilter there is always some kind of meaning to be gained from it.

I’m eager to know  where this need to knit small squares and write elfin pieces of fiction will take me. Every day for the last week I’ve written a draft piece of flash fiction. As a writer still learning her craft, I find, when trying to write long form stories, I meander, lose focus, or sacrifice symbolism and imagery to the plot. I’m not saying hint fiction can’t hint at a plot but when I write shorter pieces every word, and where I place it, is significant and I’m compelled to find images, evoke one of the five senses or hone in on an idea in order to make my point. I’m enjoying the challenge. I also enjoy targeting the significant moments of my life, like an image I have of my mother, sitting in her lounge chair, knitting. She had a habit, when she finished a row, of taking the recently emptied knitting needle and tapping one end of it on her knee before starting the next row. I don’t know why she did it but I do know it’s the little habits and quirks, the things that make us who we are, that turn into cherished moments, the ones we savour when we think of our loved ones.

Your turn: Is life a narrative, with one main plot, or is it a series of moments? What moments from your past do you cherish?  Could you condense that moment to 100 words or less?

Songs of Earth and Sky

DSC_6818  When she was three the earth belonged to her. As she  trod the ground, stones sang and the earth hummed. Who is there in the world can say that?

From the day she was born, if she fussed, was scared or bewildered her mother would bend and say, ‘tell me what bothers you. Tell me what is happening,’ then hold her hand and wait until she found the words.

Find them she did. At two she said she felt sad, at three she didn’t want to play, didn’t like pizza anymore and didn’t need to sleep. Speaking, she was heard, and knew that if the earth wobbled, a voice, her voice, could still it.

Her father was a giant. He lifted her from the earth and set her in the sky, to dance with the clouds. When she fell he caught her and she’d say, ‘more, Daddy, do it again.’

‘Don’t drop her,’ mother cautioned, but Daddy would never let that happen. Mother came to understand a giant’s arms are safe for a child with words, a child who has learned the songs of earth and sky.

XW9XDRP5VQ

 

I never climbed,

I was lifted, and in being lifted,

I learned to climb.

A Moment More: The Challenge of Hint Fiction

At the end of March I posted three pieces of flash fiction (or, as I like to call it, ‘hint fiction’) and provided a short description of what hint fiction is. I’ve since found this article, which also describes the genre. Some of the books listed at the end of Laura I. Millar’s article, particularly the Margaret Atwood book, may be of interest to writers and readers who want to explore flash fiction.

220px-TentAtwood-200x300

In her comments on my post, my friend Calen, from Impromptu Promptlings and Peculiar Ponderings said:

I’ve read an awful lot of flash fiction on the blogs. I’m still kind of scratching my head about the whole trend. More often than not I want the stories to go on.

I replied that,

I also like stories that make me want more, but I’m going to take your comment as a challenge. I know you didn’t mean to challenge me but I’ll try to write a micro story that doesn’t leave its reader feeling as if they’ve missed something.

So, Calen, here it is. I tried to write it in the spirit of flash, or hint, fiction as well as fulfil requirements set out long ago to a very adventurous young woman by the name of Alice:

‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, very gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

RIMG0165 Hit Send

(A short, short story for Calensariel)

The door to her study had been left open and the air was icy. She shut the door, placed the cup of hot coffee next to the laptop, switched the heater on and sat heavily in the second-hand office chair. She took a deep breath, opened the file, and began to type.

Three hours later she picked up the coffee cup and took a tentative sip; the coffee, of course, was cold.

Two more hours passed before she finally hit ‘send’. Trembling slightly, she leant back in the chair and sighed. ‘Time for another cup of coffee,’ she said, though there was no one to hear her.

It was spring when the email arrived. She found it difficult to understand and had to read it several times.

When her husband arrived home he was greeted with champagne on ice, salmon steaks, a green salad and home made chocolate mousse. He also noticed the polished gleam of the refilled whisky decanter set next to the candles and the vase of Irises on the sideboard. He turned to her. ‘What’s this?’ he asked.

She beamed at him, unable to speak. It took several moments before he understood. ‘The publisher? They contacted you?’

His whoop was heard by their young neighbours who, momentarily alarmed, muted the television. When they realised it was only the strange couple next door, laughing and hollering fit to burst, they switched the sound back on and turned up the volume.

Alice_King

Photo Credit:http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/wp-content/uploads/1book0.jpg

Only a Moment to Read

Short fiction? Flash fiction? Micro fiction? Sudden fiction?  Quick fiction? Nano fiction? Hint fiction? It’s like naming a baby. What am I to call these experiments in story, barely more than a few short paragraphs long, that can, when well written, say so much? I rather like the term ‘hint fiction’ because very short stories are more suggestive than prescriptive. They are  distinct because of their length, but are also unstructured. They defy, thankfully, any ‘rules’ about how to write them. Maybe they are ‘unaffected fictions’ although the form demands the careful attention of both writer and the reader.

Perhaps their mystery is what attracts me?

Before I offer three of my ‘hint fictions’ I’d like to quote from Robert Shapard’s brief introduction to a special section of World Literature Today, ‘The Remarkable Reinvention of Very Short Fiction’:

If you are new to reading flashes and micros, be warned, they are so short they are easy to dismiss.  Grace Paley said they “should be read like a poem, that is, slowly”- and if you find one particularly troubling, or to your liking, one of the pleasures of very short fiction is that it takes only a moment to read and reflect.

Insect

A friend recently advised me to, ‘let each work choose its own form, usually you won’t know (poem, prose, prose poem) until you’re at the editing stage.’ I agree with him, but I like to play with and explore different forms. It’s like trying on different garments. Poets experiment with new forms all the time, it seems a pity to me that some fiction writers get stuck in a genre. I was stuck in a career for over thirty years so I’m enjoying playing with different short story forms. What do you think? Short or long form stories? Hint fiction, flash fiction or prose poetry? Does it matter?


IN VACUA

She could see the space around an object, the brief halt that preceded the next step, the lull before wing lift. She heard the beat between the notes and the silence that encircled every utterance.

She tried and failed to teach him. ‘Trust’, she said, ‘the pattern and the void, you’ll see that the world is cast from nothing.’ He looked and saw people walking along the street, gulls thieving pieces of bread, and heard only the sound of her voice saying, over and over, ‘how can you miss them, the spaces, the pauses, the silence?’ but he did not know how to listen to silence.

A LONG REIN

Sometimes she felt braided, like a rope, twisting and turning on herself, knotted but never secure.

She decided to learn to weave, set up a studio, bought a loom but in the end felt she was only imitating the mystery of warp and weft, that their constraint mocked her.

Finally, she unravelled the paradox of rope; when confident, rope curbs a parcel, submits the largest vessel to a wharf, fastens delicate veins with a simple hitch. Diffidence was discarded cords that tangled and snarled at people’s ankles.

She started running. After months of training she became thin, lithe, muscular, like a length of corded nylon.

POSTCARD FROM ARRAS

For Reginald Leslie Thomas, 1894-1966

In 1916 he wrote, ‘Dear Mother, I am still in the best of health,’ on the back of a postcard from Arras. On the front, grey and black buildings were consumed by salmon pink flames. He ended the note with, ‘Your Loving Son’.

When I was three, I’d sit on his lap and take small, cool sips from his glass of beer. He taught me how to wash a car, how to stand, listen, wait and never join an argument unless necessary. I usually fail that last lesson.

Years after his death he appeared in a dream, waiting sleepless and reassuring in a darkened lounge for a prowler who wanted to steal ornaments from the mantel above our fireplace.

I cannot write of his war; I cannot comprehend the sound of a gun fired at another human. I cannot fathom his sacrifice because sacrifice excludes anger and I am angry that his blameless self was unknown to me. War was the prowler who bequeathed to me a gentle, tired, beloved grandfather who could not speak the unspeakable, whose unspeakable war haunts us still.