Lessons Learned in Perth

I left Perth over three weeks ago and each day since has been a challenge leavened by jubilance and flavoured with  regrets.

Jubilance, because that’s what it is to sleep in one’s own bed, eat at one’s own table and catch up with friends and family. Regrets because as the Zen saying goes,

Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment chop wood, carry water.

Not that I experienced anything near enlightenment while in Perth. There were, however, many useful lessons being left to your own resources and wresting with inner demons can provide. I find it difficult, however, to meaningfully share the lessons I learned while in Perth because I am still working through what my time alone taught me. The following list may fail to convey the insights gleaned from spending five weeks alone because such experiences are personal and profound only for the individual involved, but perhaps this list and the questions attached will give you pause …

  • It is easy for me to be alone. Sometimes too easy. (How easy or difficult is it for you to be alone for a long period of time?)
  • I am braver than I think but not always, and that is okay. (When was the last time you felt brave?)
  • I can be stressed, unhappy and exhausted but I can still examine, analyse, reflect, plan and problem solve … though exhaustion slows the process. (How do you work through the hard times?)
  • My family and friends have a unique knack of saying and doing the right thing at the right time. (When was the last time a friend or loved one came through for you just at the right moment?)
  • Relative strangers are a felicitous blessing. (How has a stranger helped you?)

One of the highlights of my stay occurred at the end of the five weeks. I was invited to lunch by a family member (by marriage), a woman I admire but don’t know well. Two other couples made up our party of seven. The three men sat outside, on the patio, the tenor of their voices a contrast to the gentle, determined chortling and harrumphing that accompanied our women’s way of poking fun at life and our shared experiences. We laughed together, knowing that unmentioned tears were shed in the past and more would flow in the future. Those unmentioned, implicitly acknowledged, tears nuzzled against our mirth adding a salt to our tales of family, friends, cities and countries loved and left.

These women, these couples, have known each other for decades but they welcomed me into their world and I  was fed, respected and accepted for who I am. Every woman present that day is a grandmother; magic happens when grandmothers break bread together. Superficial barriers melt, lives are celebrated and we are blessed by mutual respect and compassion. On that day we did what grandmothers do best: we cast a strong thread around our circle, a thread coloured by our places of birth, our religions, our lives, our triumphs and our losses.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The lesson I had that day is one I will never forget.

 

An Unexpected Lesson

Window_mugEarlier this week I unexpectedly spent an hour or so reviewing Elixir. In addition to searching for examples of my Flash Fiction to determine which of my ‘story shards’ I am unable to send to competitions (because many publications consider posting a piece on one’s personal blog  is ‘publication’), I found myself reading through random posts.

I think I’ve broken most of the rules of blogging. Elixir began with a specific focus but I deviated, after the first year, from sharing my research in Therapeutic Writing to writing posts on a range of issues including holidays, local weather events, my creative process and examples of my work. I don’t post regularly and I’m not good at looking after my readers (aka, I don’t often reply immediately to comments) and I regret to say I find connecting with other bloggers and nurturing my blogging network a challenge, mostly because of time constraints.

So my unplanned review taught me several things:

  1. Blogging is hard work, much harder than I imagined,
  2. Elixir has, at times, languished,
  3. I’ve announced, at least once, that I am going to quit blogging,
  4. I have created posts that are clear, evocative, logical and well written,
  5. It’s impossible to write a post that interests, inspires or engages everyone,
  6. Most posts have been important to me as an individual and as a writer.

In other words, quality is more important to me than quantity, which is why blogging has taught me a lot about being a writer.

I have decided starting Elixir was one of my better ideas and so I will continue to write unscheduled posts about the things that interest, excite, intrigue or annoy me. And I will be more relaxed about what I write, though not how. I’m looking forward to discovering what else Elixir has to offer me and my readers (bless you all).

Have you looked back over your previous blog posts? If so, what did you learn about yourself and your writing? If you have considered giving up, what prompted this thought? Why did you decide to continue blogging?Yeah

Footnote: Thanks to my friend Cate who pointed out today how much I enjoy communicating and connecting with friends through this blog and other social media, and who, therefore, inspired this post.

At the End there is a Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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.

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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?

 

 

 

On Loss, Grief, Ideas, Small Successes and Gratitude

As the title of this post suggests, I have a lot to share today.

Loss

Fear not, cherished reader, it’s not as bad as it looks. My loss is, in the scheme of things, amore irritating than tragic, more time consuming than debilitating. This blog, however, is based on the notion that writing is healing so in that spirit …

… Most of the photographs I so carefully chose to accompany my posts have been swallowed by the internet. See, I told you it wasn’t important, although it has messed up the appearance and tone of my earlier posts.

It’s all my fault. I deleted a selection of photos from my media library. ‘Save some space,’ I thought, ‘avoid scrolling through photographs trying to remember which photos I have used and which I tucked away in the library for future use.’ The lesson is: ‘Don’t do this at home boys and girls’. For pictures to remain firmly adhered to your posts they must forever linger in your media library and while I wish someone had told me, I am more annoyed by the fact I should have known that!

matthew-wiebe01It didn’t help that I, as you would have noticed, changed my theme. I was aiming for a leaner, cleaner look, which I unwittingly achieved and then some. I’ve managed to return a few photographs to their rightful place but there are many more to go. It will probably take a week, maybe more … that will teach me to be more careful.

Grief

This minor loss lead me to ask: ‘Why is change, even welcomed, planned change, confronting?’ It’s a cliché, I know, but change is the only part of life we can rely on. Children grow and leave home, friends move interstate, people die.  The helplessness we experience when our world changes is rooted, says Buddha, in clinging to what we know and our aversion to the unknown. Let’s face it, the loss of a few pictures on a blog is hardly a cause for grief, but let’s also be real; most of us will experience, in our lifetime, a desperate and debilitating grief. When this happened to me, I learned grief is a normal and natural reaction. That doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt, mentally, emotionally and physically. Living with and through grief is the fearless labour of the harrowed soul; it is, possibly, the most important work we are called to do. I discovered two therapies (of many) that helped me when I experience a grief far more serious than the trifling disappearance of a few photographs. I offer them only as suggestions to explore, not as advice to be followed; if you are struggling with grief and it’s consequences, please see your medical practitioner.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy

Back in 2013 it was suggested that

MBCT appears to reduce depressive symptoms in … sample(s) of elderly bereaved people, but further studies of the effects of MBCT in this population are needed for firm conclusions.

More recently, in her chapter titled ‘When the Unthinkable Happens: A Mindfulness Approach to Perinatal and Pediatric Death’,  Joanne Cacciatore examines and analyses numerous studies of the benefits of MBCT (and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction MBSR) for grieving parents. She concludes that

preliminary data suggest these methods present less potential harm, are more cost effective, and may be highly effacious (sic) in helping bereaved parents, and they may also be protective for providers who are at high risk of negative psychological outcomes.

She adds, however, that more research is always beneficial. If you are interested in learning more about MBCT, you may find these sites interesting:

Therapeutic Writing

A photo by Matthew Wiebe. unsplash.com/photos/kX9lb7LUDWc

My own research confirmed writing about grief and loss can have positive outcomes. While searching for references into writing and grief (other than this), I discovered an assignment I wrote in 2003, while studying for my Diploma in Professional Counselling. I examined how writing a letter to a lost loved one, or writing about about the experience of grief, felt ‘cathartic and therefore difficult’ but the technique helped me gain a better understanding of an experience that occurred decades before. More recent links to information about the benefits of therapeutic writing can be found here:

Ideas

My home town loves to party; we stage (not all at the same time) the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Adelaide Guitar Festival, Adelaide Film Festival, Feast Festival, OzAsia,  the Sala Festival  and then there’s the GrandMama of them all the Adelaide Festival of Arts and her often wayward, always endearing offspring, the Fringe Festival. While the latter two are on we also host Womadelaide and Adelaide Writer’s Week all of which take place during what we locals call ‘Mad March’. This link should connect you to all of them and I assure you, Adelaide in March is particularly beautiful.dsc_9757

This weekend my partner and I attended one of the more staid, but just as stimulating, festivals, the Adelaide Festival of Ideas.  Thinkers and innovators, media mavens and determined disputers  descend on our town the way pixels coalesce on a computer screen. They enlightened and provoked, informed and, at times, depressed; the world, we decided, is in a parlous state but as long as we have ideas, and the people to implement them, we will survive.

Seventy separate sessions were held over two days and all but three were free and open to the public. Of those seventy sessions, I attended eleven. I ‘covered’ both ageing and the arts, in particular the grievous situation caused by the radical and cruel cuts to arts funding in Australia.

I can only summarise a few of the sessions I attended, but here are several things I learned last weekend:

  •  In  ‘Sleepwalking to the Future’, Professor Justin O’Connor suggested culture is, in Australia, viewed as unnecessary and our public conversations about the arts are stifled and muted. We need, declared Professor O’Connor, a positive and  affirming narrative that addresses this ‘cultural annihilation’. Part of the problem, O’Connor believes,  is very few artisans, and barely any of their ‘rituals’ of art practice/art making, are featured in Australia’s media. When art and artistic practices (other than ballet, opera, classical music and what can be viewed in large, regional art galleries), disappear from public view, Australians are hoodwinked into believing the value of making, and witnessing the making, of art is linked only to making money.  As you’ll see in the final point of this section, the association of art and money is, to say the least, dodgy.
  • In the next session, Dr Fiona Kerr discussed how the brain is shaped. She described how we develop a vast neurophysiological map of the world, and our experience of that world, chiefly through interconnecting with other brains. Dr Kerr emphasised that our map will be stunted if we are not encouraged, from the moment of birth, to connect with others. Physical touch and ‘eye gaze’, looking at and being looked at by our primary caregiver, has a profound effect on our map’s development, and on how we heal when ill. Eye gaze can calm a person, particularly when we know and trust that person. This means, in terms of the connection between humans and technology, we need to be more informed of the disconnect experienced by new brains, the ones developing inside a growing baby and child, if they spend hours on their tablets, computers. Likewise adolescent brains, whose maps are jeopardised through excessive use of their mobile phones. I also learned, in this session, that deep or intense mental work, or ‘thinking’, should be done while offline!! (I believe this means all my devices and phone should be turned off next month, if I’m to have any hope of getting through NaNoWriMo. )
  • I attended two sessions where the Australian moral philosopher and author Raimond Gaita spoke. (For an exquisite measure of the man and his majestic humanity read this article by the equally majestic Helen Garner). In Professor Gaita’s second session, which he shared with Nick Drake, I learned that when we accept the opportunity to ‘de-normalise’ our life, to leave the known world and explore natural wildernesses, we experience the beauty of our planet and reflect deeply on our relationship with it. Professor Gaita hopes our children will be exposed to art as well as to the wilder reaches of our world. For him, metaphysics is about love of the world, and is an evocation of the ‘spirit of love’ that is, in reality, an expression of gratitude for the gift of life. This echoed the challenge Gaita gave us in his first session: to accept the intrinsic, inarguable humanity that resides in every human on this planet, even those whose actions we believe are abhorrent.
  • The next day I went to the ‘wrong’ session; instead of learning who leads the ‘energy transition’, I mistakenly sat in on a discussion about  Joan of Arc. Ali Alizadeh believes Joan’s story makes us think about who we want, who we should choose, as a hero, particularly when it comes to political change and political action. This session rekindled my love of Medieval literature and I’m looking forward to reading Alizadeh’s forthcoming book.
  • In the final session (featuring Professor Julian Meyrick, Rebecca Evans, and Justin O’Connor) I went back to where I started, lamentations about culture, which instead of being the last thing we should access in our ‘hierarchy of needs’, is humanity’s base need. Culture, agreed the speakers, is the foundation of our being, the parchment, as Fiona Kerr might say, on which our neurophysiological map is drawn, the figurative and symbolic expression of beauty that is life on earth, the generator of our heroic (and not so heroic) archetypes. It is, as I believe Gaita suggested, the truest expression of the soul, a word he said he is more than comfortable with.

These sessions left me exhausted and exulted; so few of our current political discussions are dignified by the careful, deliberate, informed and unfettered thinking I witnessed last Saturday and Sunday. As festivals go, it is one of the best.

Small Successes

I learned several weeks ago – but can only now share the news – that one of my hint fictions is among the finalists in the NFW /Joanne Burns Award 2016. I am proud to be a part of this event, mostly because I enjoy reading and writing flash and micro fiction. It also means the risk I took leaving work to write full-time was worth it. Awards are recognition, not for the writing but for the work, for the sometimes loving, often desperate attention paid to practising art. I normally don’t share information like this, but having come from the Festival of Ideas and learning how close we are to losing the unique Australian cultural expression so dear to me and my partner, I want to expand, ever so slightly the cultural narrative; I am a 64 year old woman starting a much longed for career as a writer. My small success is possible for anyone on this glorious little planet.

And now I need to somehow pull this post together, to make sense of the last few days, to share what my blogging ‘accident’ and my experience at the Festival of Ideas mean to me.

Gratitude

I live in one of the best cities in one of the best countries on one of the best (there’s an assumption right there!) planets. How can I not be grateful? How can we not be grateful even as we do the work of grief, do the work of addressing our mistakes, do the work of political action, do the work of repairing the planet, do the work of forgiving humans for forgetting their shared and sacred humanity? As we form, deep among our neurons, dendrites and axons, the map that is our brain something else is formed, something numinous and mysterious; the puzzle that is our mind.  Our brain is too preoccupied with making sure we breathe, digest our food, avoid accidents and get to the toilet in time to be interested in our mind. It is not our brain, but our mind that undoes us. Whatever our ‘conscious mind’ is, it tangles us in knots of anxiety and depression, anger and despair, folly and illusion. Might the only way to unpick these snarls be through the simple, powerful act of gratitude? Alice Walker believes it is:

‘Thank you’ is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.

I am learning, slowly and surely, to be thankful for this inexplicable, wondrous gift of life.

When was the last time you said ‘thank you’ to your mistakes, thank you for a loss, thank you to those that vexed you, when you gave thanks for your life despite everything?

References

Joanne Cacciatore, ‘When the Unthinkable Happens: A Mindfulness Approach to Perinatal and Pediatric Death,’  in Black, Beth P, Patricia M. Wright, and Rana K. Limbo, Perinatal and Pediatric Bereavement in Nursing and Other Health Professions (New York: Springer Publishing Company), 2016, p 106.
O’Connor, Maja, Jacob Piet, and Esben Hougaard, ‘The effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy on depressive symptoms in elderly bereaved people with loss-related distress: A controlled pilot study, Mindfulness 5.4 (2014): 400-409.