Footnote to Self-Compassion

Experts suggest there are six emotions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise.

Buddhists believe the best response to another’s sadness, fear and even anger is compassion, the ability to understand another person’s suffering and to ease their distress. For Laura D’Olimpio, empathy,

feeling the feelings of another or imaginatively reconstructing the feelings of another

and sympathy, the ability to identify

with the other based on feelings of common humanity,

are both components of compassion, but they can also be problematic. Empathy risks triggering self-misery, while sympathy assumes it is possible to experience the feelings of another. Neither guarantee mercy nor aid. It is too easy to stand by and say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible, I know what you’re going through,’ or ‘poor you, my condolences.’ girl phoneReal change, the kind of change that reduces human distress, takes effort. A compassionate individual refuses to stand by, wring their hands and offer meaningless platitudes. Compassion is ‘fellow feeling’, understanding the misery, fear or anger of a fellow human. It calls us to end or relieve suffering. More importantly,

everyone has the capacity to be compassionate: to treat others as you would wish to be treated. To be kind and tender, generous and forgiving, hospitable, helpful and attentive, curious, listening and present, empathic and connected, respectful, understanding and acknowledging. It takes courage, self-reflection and self-compassion.

https://charterforcompassion.org/images/menus/Healthcare/PDFs/CompassionforCare.pdf

For Dr Kristin Neff, compassion is

feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience.

Why, then, was self-compassion mentioned in the definition from The Charter for Compassion? Self-compassion, according to Neff, is

acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?

http://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/

So, while compassion requires change on a communal, collective and global level, self-compassion implies a willingness to change on a personal level.

One way we can be more compassionate towards our self, is to learn how to regulate the six emotions listed above, a process of checking in on and altering (not repressing or denying), one’s feelings, thoughts, actions, words and even physiological responses. Emotional regulation also allows us to interact and communicate with the rest of society in a healthy, peaceful and meaningful way.

Emotion regulation (ER) is regarded as a crucial factor in well-being, in the popular literature, clinical psychological practice, and scientific research alike.

Nyklícek, Ivan, Ad Vingerhoets, and Marcel Zeelenberg. Emotion Regulation and Well-Being. New York, Springer, 2011, p. 2.

Neither emotional regulation nor self-compassion can stop us from feeling sad, angry or fearful. Emotional regulation will (particularly if combined with mindfulness), help us to recognise, understand and accept difficult situations and deal with them rationally.

sisters-bmewett
Photo:B Mewett

Self-compassion combined with emotional regulation soothes and comforts the inner self. It can help us find appropriate and loving support from those around us, but in our worst moments, when we feel utterly abandoned, self-compassion, self-care and mindful awareness is a powerful, healthy and humane response. Why? Kristen Neff believes compassion for others begins with self-compassion. Humanity is not ‘us and them’, it is just us’. If we fail to care compassionately for ourselves, how can we begin to care for others?

Today’s Footnote: Do you yell at the television because you’re irritated by the politician being interviewed? Do you turn away from your partner and refuse to speak to them for a week when they question your decisions? Do you slam the door to put a full stop to your arguments? Do you hang out the car window and hurl thunderbolts of rage at the driver of the car in front of you?  If so, maybe a hearty meal of emotional regulation served with a side of compassion and topped by the sweet sauce of self-compassion will give you the perspective you need.

 

 

Travelling Goldilocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

At Ease, Ease off or Ease Together?

I don’t meditate as often as I’d like but when I do I use one of the several meditation apps I’ve downloaded to my mobile phone. The other day I chose Meditation Studio’s meditation, ‘Ease with Everything’ by Noah Levine. It was the first meditation I’ve done that specifically used the word ‘ease’ (or it was the first time I consciously registered that word). The meditation suggested I ‘be at ease with myself just as I am.’

Now, I know we’re not meant to analyse our meditations but experience them and relax into their bounty. The word ease, however, and its use as a goal of meditation, intrigued me. I’m a wordsmith. I write because I love choosing  words that clearly convey my understanding of, feelings about and attitude towards a subject. I decided to explore the meaning of ease so I can better understand why my recent meditation was so positive.

My dictionary of etymology tells me the word ease was in use before 1200CE and was probably borrowed from the Old French aise, meaning comfort or pleasure. That led me to The Oxford Dictionary of English (on line) where I discovered that indeed, ease is from the:

old French eise, aise (modern aise) feminine, cognate with Provençal ais, Italian agio (formerly also asio), Portuguese azo masculine; late Latin type asia, asium, of uncertain origin. The earliest sense of French aise appear to be: 1. Elbow-room […and …]: 2. opportunity. It has been suggested … that *asia, *asium may be … āsa, a recorded vulgar form of Latin ansa, handle, used figuratively in sense [of] ‘opportunity, occasion’. With reference to the sense ‘elbow-room’, it is remarked that ansātus, ‘furnished with handles’ is used in Latin for ‘having the arms akimbo’. This is not very satisfactory, but it does not appear that any equally plausible alternative has yet been proposed.

I wonder if this is the origin of the military injunction to ‘stand at ease’, a command that means to stand with feet shoulder-width apart, hands clasped behind the back. soldier-1713107__340  This means the arms, or more specifically elbows, will invariably be at some degree of ‘akimbo’ (a term possibly related to the idea of a ‘jug handle’ or ‘pot handle’).

To paraphrase the rest of the entry in The Oxford Dictionary, being at ease means the chance, or skill, to perform a role or action,  or to experience contentment or freedom from anxiety or anguish. For some, ease comes in the form of an appliance that does their work for them so they don’t need to exert themselves. For others it means release from life’s  tribulations through apathy, heartlessness or lack of moral accountability. It is also, and this is a personal favourite, the

freedom from […] embarrassment or awkwardness in social behaviour.

I wonder if the ability to feel at ease in our world has been lost? Our leaders are almost universally rude to their opponents. Both sides of the political divide behave like bullies, bringing the worst of the schoolyard to the very places where measured, properly informed, congenial discussions should prevail. The extreme vagaries of the weather feel like a portent of the devastating climate change many scientists have, for decades, tried to warn us about. Poverty, racial discrimination and gender inequality make me wonder if we can ever be ‘at ease’ again. And yet, my meditation app instructs me to feel at ease with myself and where I find myself. meditate-1851165__340

Who benefits from such injunctions? Is there an alternative to meditation that can achieve the change – and the ease – we desperately seek? I am not against meditation; I’d like to develop a regular practice, I’d like to sit for longer than ten minutes, to focus on my breath, to accept my anxieties instead of fighting them or keeping them at bay. But I also wonder if my attempts are another form of burying my head in the sand?

A dear friend admires the collectivism of the early to mid 20th Century, a political movement born partly from the terrible loss of life in two world wars. Collectivism reached its apotheosis in the 1960s and 70s but was superseded by the rugged individualism that swelled in the 80s and 90s to the present time, and whose current avatar is the newly elected President of the United States. Mindfulness has, in the last two decades, been adopted in the west as the new hope for mental health, an ideal with which I concur. Is it, however, aligned with individualism, with the cult of the self, with the potential failure to understand that many of our problems are created by our current economic and political system?

My friend added that he feels most at ease when with others: at the theatre, for instance, or a gathering of friends or family. I, on the other hand, am more of an introvert. I am at ease with my family, and certainly while babysitting my granddaughter. Despite my having to be responsible for her well-being and therefore cautious about what she does, where she is and what she eats, her artless, innocent, exploration of the world gives me most ease. I don’t enjoy large parties, preferring small and intimate dinners where everyone’s voice is heard. I also find peace when I’m reading, although that, too, is communicating and connecting with the mind and heart of the author and her characters. Compare these forms of ease to mindfulness and meditation as an aid to mental wellbeing. How does meditation fit with our obligations, as members of society, to the collective? Whose ease are we expected to care about, ours or others?

Giving ease is to

render more comfortable, relieve from pain, … refresh with repose or food, … entertain, accommodate hospitably, … give relief to (any one suffering from oppression, or burdened with expenses or laborious duties), in wider sense: to benefit, help, assist … to relieve, lighten, set free (a person, etc.) … from burden, pain, anxiety, or trouble,

but it also means to ‘ease off, or to release or reduce one’s efforts’.

Practitioners and advocates of mindfulness assert that it will help me to be calmer and more at ease with myself and allow me to confidently venture out to the world so I can help others. I have no doubt this is true. I have already found, even doing one or two brief meditations a week, that my writing has taken on a more collective tone, particularly in my blog posts. I want my words to make a difference to the lives of others. tea-lights-1901005__340

My mother was a gifted dressmaker who, I believe, was most at ease when sitting in front of her sewing machine. She taught me to sew when I was young, so I was interested to find, as I scrolled through the entries on the on-line version of The Oxford Dictionary, a definition of ease I heard many times as a girl:

To join two pieces of material whose edges are of unequal length in such a way that the extra fullness of the larger section is distributed evenly along the join.

I want to adopt this definition as a mantra for my meditation practice. While I find mental and emotional ease through breathing, centring, contemplating and reflecting I am, in a sense, the shorter piece of the two sections of fabric. The collective, my tribe, my community, is the larger piece. Meditative and reflective writing has the potential to stitch the scarcity of the individual to the immensity of the collective and create a healthy, functioning whole.  By writing meditatively, I can share my belief that ignoring our community means we renounce the right to wear the garment of humanity.

What or who puts you at ease? How do you ease the lives of others? Where are you most at ease?couture-1896454__340

 

Four Quotes about Therapeutic Writing and what they Mean to Me

I cannot remember the last time I wrote a post specifically related to therapeutic writing. Most of my posts are reflective, but the chief impetus for creating this blog has faded somewhat.  Today, while tidying up and relocating old files, I reflected on the five years I spent researching the power of creative writing to heal, or at least assuage, grief, loss and trauma. As I sorted through my files I found the following quotations from people I consider experts in the field of therapeutic writing and I decided to share them.

Art allows a safe revisiting of that place of revulsion. (1)

cta7f7bwt5o-serge-esteveThis is a confronting assertion. Who wants to return to a place of fear and loathing, who wants to expose themselves to memories of pain and sorrow? How is reliving the bad times healing? Research demonstrates that when we relive a trauma on the page, when the power of a pen (or computer keyboard) is in our hands, when we say what we want to say, feel what we need to feel, share as little or as much as we choose, we can find relief. Reliving and retelling the story of our suffering gives us the power to interpret, engage with and revise that story. Writing is a way of standing up and facing the demon and telling it to back off.

The etymological roots of the word `record’ are `re’, meaning again, and `cord’, meaning heart (Oxford English Dictionary). Recording is getting closer to what is in the heart. The writer is their own first reader, their own primary interlocutor. So, writing, in the first instance, is a private communication with the heart of the self. (2)

Never one to take anything as given, I checked Bolton’s claim and she is right. The heart is not a site of revulsion, pain is what happens to us while our heart keeps beating. The body and the psyche may be scarred but the heart remains the animating principle. To survive is to cherish our heart beat no matter what happens to us, no matter how others treat us. This is therapeutic writing as a stethoscope (from the Greek, stethos; breast: skopien, look). Therapeutic writing is a way to look within our heart and record what is found there. It is also, in terms of the verb to breast, a way to press on confidently, to struggle with, and to overcome or conquer.  If we examine the word interlocutor we find it means ‘conversationalist’; to write therapeutically is not to converse with either the pain we experience or who or what caused our suffering, but to converse with the self that has survived, that will survive, the pain. Once again, the power is placed back with the therapeutic writer. We are no longer victims, we claim instead a profound tool: the power to record not only how we endured our pain but how we survived it. cropped-u3ges0susni-jeff-sheldon-e1485849771431.jpg

In every case, the writing on the page speaks back to its writer, offering resolution, solace or posing more questions about life and writing. (3)

Here we are then, at a place of power, offering the surviving self comfort and the means to resolve our trauma and move on, to be curious once more about life and what we can do with the life we fought so hard to keep.

Our days are filled with moments. Most of these never get written and usually that doesn’t matter but sometimes it feels like it does. Sometimes a moment happens that causes a jarring, a disturbance, a confusion or such an explosion of feeling that you know you will have to re-live that moment in nondescript jolts and shivers, shakes of the head or blinks of the eyes unless you find a way to process and make sense of it in some other way. (4)

Yes, most moments are fleeting; we are unmindful of their passing and they are lost forever. Other moments, however, the moment a loved one takes her or his last breath, the moment a car swerves into our path, the moment someone harms us, those moment are seared into us, we are forever branded with them. Therapeutic writing is one way to do the crucial work of processing these scorching, indelible moments. To process means taking a series of actions or steps to achieve an outcome.  It is an operation, a procedure, a treatment, but it is first and foremost an action, one we can perform, with the help of a trained counsellor, on the page.

window-855371__340As I muse on these quotations and play with words, I remember reading, early last year, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. While I cannot say with certainty that Porter wrote the book as a form of therapy, it is based on his experience, when only six, of losing his father. His book is, for me, an almost perfect expression of profound loss, crippling grief and the essential work required to survive, not just for ourselves but for those who love us. The book describes moments of recovery, of survival that never nullify the moment of grief but honour and dignify that loss. Not everyone, of course, will see loss and grief this way but Porter’s novel demonstrates the possibility.

When I wrote, as part of my thesis, my memoir I discovered a mature, feisty, woman comfortable with breaking the rules. She always existed, of course, but she either hid away, for fear of censure, or expressed her pluck in inappropriate ways. I also rediscovered my mother, who experienced a profound loss and trauma, one I believe she never processed. If this blog can, in some small way,  demonstrate to one person the power and potential of therapeutic writing, then I have honoured my mother, her trauma and the little brother that she loved deeply and lost.

References

(1) Gillie Bolton, quoting from a participant, Teenage Cancer Trust Unit, Camden Palliative Care Unit, King’s College London Arts and Medicine Unit (English Department) in Bolton, Gillie, Write Yourself: Creative Writing and Personal Development, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2011, Kindle Edition, loc. 89.
(2) Bolton, Gillie, Write Yourself: Creative Writing and Personal Development, loc. 94.
(3) ‘Preface’, by Gillie Bolton, Victoria Field, Kate Thompson, with a Postscript by Fiona Hamilton, in Writing Routes: A Resource Handbook of Therapeutic Writing (Writing for Therapy or Personal Development), Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Kindle Edition, loc. 157.
(4) Cheryl Moskowitz, ‘Letter to a Stranger – Processing the Momentary’ in Field, Victoria, Kate Thompson, and Gillie Bolton, Writing Routes: A Resource Handbook of Therapeutic Writing, loc. 826.

Averting One’s Face.

I’m spending too much time on Facebook and not enough time writing or with my partner. It’s not that I have Facebook open all day, respond to every notification or read all the articles that land on my page. In fact, it’s more about the quality of my time on line, rather than the quantity.

I joined Facebook in 2007 when a friend posted photographs of her overseas trip on what was to me the new and somewhat intimidating social platform. When I met my partner three years later and subsequently announced our relationship on Facebook, I added many of his friends and family to my growing list of ‘friends’. In the ten years since I registered, Facebook has ‘helped’ me reconnect with many family members who, for a range of reasons, were once lost to me. I admit I relished the careful refortifying, albeit mostly on line, of these precious family ties and I’ve loved seeing, in ‘real time’, several cousins and aunts, something that might not have happened without Facebook. I also enjoy the opportunity to connect with other writers and writing sites.

social_mediaOver the last couple of weeks, however, some of my friends have decided to take time off from Facebook or leave altogether. One of them explicitly cited the current political situation in the USA, and its alarming resemblance to Germany in the 1930s, as a reason for his decision.

I tend to agree with his position. We can compare, at the very least, Hitler’s appeal to sections of German society through speeches full of clichés, catch phrases and promises to reclaim Germany’s lost glory, to the emotionally laden rhetoric of Donald Trump. His promise to restore ‘order’, the way he targets and scapegoats people from different ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds is terrifyingly familiar, and implies the same inevitable conclusion; to appease one group, another group must be eliminated. As described on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website,

Nazis demanded that Germans accept the premises of the Nazi worldview and live their lives accordingly. They tolerated no criticism, dissent, or nonconformity … Guided by racist and totalitarian principles, the Nazis eliminated individual freedoms and pronounced the creation of the national community, in whose name they seized every opportunity to turn Germany into a unified racial collective … Hitler’s political opponents were the first victims of systematic Nazi persecution.

Recent Facebook posts describe the potential for public servants to feel morally compromised when they implement the new policies. If they refuse, they risk losing their jobs. This and the cavalier creation of poorly conceived and potentially dangerous policies and executive orders, are two instances that, I believe, have caused several of my friends personal despair. I can empathise. The negative and destructive actions of the government of the United States, and of my own government, is indefensible; I want no part of it. I too, am considering closing my Facebook account. But is this a rational decision?

Leaving Facebook may give me more time to write blog posts, work on my novel and my collection of flash fiction. I’ll have time to read more novels and reputable, balanced news feeds that back up their content with sound research and judicious investigation. One of the problems with Facebook’s continuous news feed is deciding if the content contains carefully researched facts, mere opinion or blatant lies. Rather than an open access to the world of ideas, much of what we read on Facebook exists within a bubble we, with Facebook’s help, create. Our newsfeed is a construction that confirms and reinforces the values and beliefs we already have. Quitting Facebook might give me more time to explore issues with my friends and family, rather than working out what they mean in their posts, or what they believe by clicking on sites they share. Leaving Facebook could also  mean that, rather than lamenting the gathering dark, I will have time to volunteer for the causes I support and light a few candles to illuminate and nullify the portents of doom. It seems to me that a time is looming when we will be asked to make actual (real time) changes in the world instead being satisfied with clicking on a sad or angry ’emoji’. Is it possible that, as an answer to every tragedy, every act of treachery, Facebook’s abbreviated method of response actually stops us from getting off our chairs and making real changes?

On the other hand, if I leave Facebook I may lose the ineffable connections with those I love best; family who live interstate. Yes, we can phone each other, we can get on a plane and visit, but sometimes it is nice to log on and see that my son is relaxing with friends, my daughter has managed to find a permanent home for an abandoned puppy, my daughter-in-law has organised another fund raising event. I also wonder how my leaving Facebook will disrupt the very things that could threaten my family’s well-being. Will deleting my Facebook account mean I am burying my head in the sand, refusing to see the world’s situation for what it, inexplicably and dangerously, is? By being ‘less informed’ about the plight of innocents might I be culpable for their suffering?

I cannot possibly answer these questions until and unless I decide what to do. But in a way, leaving Facebook is not the real question here. The real issue is how can I positively influence the state of the world? Is the turmoil and strife many of us fear inevitable? What can we do to prevent it?

To resist something is to hinder or prevent its progress, to oppose, to refuse to yield or comply. Those of us nervous, nay frightened, of recent events have a moral choice. We can comply or we can resist. Either option has its consequences. At the moment, we are exposed to rhetoric that focuses on one thing: America and its interests. In a recent post I pointed out that we are a family of nations. I know from bitter experience that when the needs of one member of a family are more important than the needs of other members, the family will be destroyed.

What I don’t know is if deleting my Facebook adequately signals my refusal to accept the current status quo. If you leave a room while an argument is taking place, are you showing tacit acceptance of the situation, or exercising your right to directly resist a situation you can no longer abide?

A Four Year Old’s Christmas

Dear Velvet,
It’s Christmas Eve. You’ll spend your day thinking about a visit from Father Christmas, or as you have come to call him in your prematurely wise way of finding compromise, ‘Santa Christmas.’   stocksnap_a3gogu0bwf

Tomorrow Cadence and I will share lunch with you, Mummy and Daddy, your Adelaide uncles and, later in the afternoon, other friends and family. We’ll watch as you open your presents, refuse to taste the prawns Cadence will offer you, enjoy ice cream at the end of the meal and devour the after-dinner chocolates. It all sounds rather ordinary, doesn’t it, much like the Christmas I enjoyed sixty years ago, when I was four years old.

There will be differences though. You’ll talk to your Grandpa, Uncle and Aunts in Perth via Skype or Facetime, something I could never have imagined in 1956. The love your family feel for you will beam across Australia and through Daddy or Nannie’s devices. This will show you that families use any means possible to connect with each other, no matter the distance and circumstances.

I think, Velvet, that the Christmas you have when you’re four years old may well be your best Christmas; when you’re three the noise, the bright wrapping paper and so many unexpected gifts can be overwhelming. When you’re a savvy five year old, expectations can be heightened which could lead to the first of many small Christmastime disappointments that gather as the years pass. So, enjoy this special Christmas my darling, but there is something I think you need to know, maybe not this year or even the next, something important about tomorrow and how other little boys and girls across the world might spend their day.

Many children, who are as smart and as kind as you, won’t have a very happy time tomorrow. Some of them, like you, know about Father Christmas but he won’t leave them any presents. Others might find lots of presents under the Christmas tree but their parents will leave their children in a corner and expect them to be quiet and grateful while the grown-ups drink too much wine and end the day screaming at each other and the children, frightening the little ones so much they will grow up to hate Christmas.

There are other little children just like you who don’t know anything about Santa Claus but they do have a Mummy and Daddy and grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins who love them as much as we love you. All families want their children to enjoy a happy, peaceful day tomorrow and everyday, but some of those mummies and daddies will have to use their bodies to shelter their children from bombs and bullets. There will be other children, too many children, who will spend tomorrow hungry and tired and scared. Too many children will spend tomorrow alone because their parents have disappeared and too many children may not see tomorrow’s sunset.

8299680591_5061d4e91f_oI am grateful, Velvet, that you will not spend your tomorrow worrying about this. I pray your innocence will continue for another year or two more but I am also concerned, as are a lot of adults, about what 2017 may bring. It is sad to think that you may learn too soon how people can do terrible things to each other and you will be perplexed and maybe a little afraid. That’s why tomorrow is so special; your family will show you how important love and compassion is. We will teach you how to be tolerant towards every one you meet, we will help you understand that lots of people in the world think being kind and compassionate to each other is better than being mean and cruel.

There are many people who work hard everyday to change our world. Those people are good at imagining what it feels like to be another person. Here’s a game you can play one day to help you do this: pretend you are walking around in another person’s shoes; pretend you are that person; pretend their fears, their dreams and their memories, are yours. If you can do that you will understand everyone else, and yourself, better.

This, then, is my Christmas wish for you; on that terrible day when you learn other children suffer while you prosper, you won’t ignore their suffering. When you learn other children play with different toys and enjoy different celebrations than you, you won’t laugh at their games or beliefs. When you discover other children wear different clothes and don’t look like you, you won’t judge them and ridicule them, but respect and learn from them, you will play with them and, if they need it, or when they ask for it, you will help them whenever you can.

But that is a wish for your future, dear Velvet. It is not your task, this Christmas Eve, to wonder how the world can become a better place. You can leave that to the grownups. When it is your turn, I know your compassion and resilience, your resourcefulness and your magnificent imagination will help you create a world where all children feel as safe and as cherished as you feel today.
Love always,
Nannie

Do you remember your fourth Christmas? What important lessons did you learn around the table at Christmastime?

Finally, my dear readers, wherever you are and whatever you are doing on the 25th December I hope you will be with your loved ones, that you feel safe and cherished, and may peace sit lightly at your shoulder.

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.

Not Just an Hour, Not Just a Day: Meeting Your Needs

There are days when a woman needs to embrace what is important to her; a beloved child, a parent, her partner, a friend.

This is not one of those days. Today I wish to meet the needs of someone else. I take my cue from Brenda Ueland, who said meeting the needs of other people is …

… why the lives of most women are so vaguely unsatisfactory. They are always doing secondary and menial things (that do not require all their gifts and ability) for others and never anything for themselves. Society and husbands praise them for it (when they get too miserable or have nervous breakdowns) though always a little perplexedly and half-heartedly and just to be consoling. The poor wives are reminded that that is just why wives are so splendid — because they are so unselfish and self-sacrificing and that is the wonderful thing about them! But inwardly women know that something is wrong. They sense that if you are always doing something for others, like a servant or nurse, and never anything for yourself, you cannot do others any good. You make them physically more comfortable. But you cannot affect them spiritually in any way at all. For to teach, encourage, cheer up, console, amuse, stimulate or advise a husband or children or friends, you have to be something yourself. […] If you would shut your door against the children for an hour a day and say; ‘Mother is working on her five-act tragedy in blank verse!’ you would be surprised how they would respect you. They would probably all become playwrights.

Brenda Ueland

and from Michelle Obama:

Women in particular need to keep an eye on their physical and mental health, because if we’re scurrying to and from appointments and errands, we don’t have a lot of time to take care of ourselves. We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own “to do” list.

Michelle Obama

 Sky_Light_Cloud Today I am going to meet my needs. I am going to sit in my chair and absorb what little sun  there is. I will probably doze off over a book. I might knit another square for the blanket or I will meditate. Maybe I will just sit and do nothing.

Today I put myself on top of my list.

What will you do today, or tomorrow, to meet your needs, fulfil your dreams?

This post was, in part, inspired by Calensariel, over at  Impromptu Promptlings ~ and peculiar ponderings. Pay her a visit, you will be well rewarded.

The Creative Connection

Dino Reichmuth Do you yearn for connection but cannot fulfil that need? I once felt that ache, that emptiness, but the more I write, the more I immerse myself in the world of words and how to compose them, the less lonely I feel. Have I made that longed for connection? Maybe. What we long for, what is denied, what we often deny ourselves, scours our soul. When we stop denying it the hollow begins to fill.

When I write, I replenish the scoured sections of my soul.   Andi_Mai

Why is it so many people believe they aren’t creative? What if that belief was nothing more than a story we tell ourselves, a narrative we cling to? What if Virginia Woolf believed that narrative? J. K. Rowling, Margaret Attwood, Helen Garner? Maybe it’s what our parents, our lovers and our society want us to believe, because creative woman are dangerous. Creative women question the world, they challenge accepted social mores, they laugh at rules and regulations, they defy convention, they see problems and devise solutions and when those solutions don’t work they seek another solution and another and another.

Creativity is an inherent aspect of every single man, woman and child on this blighted little rock spinning in a vast, terrifying universe. I believe playing, creating, is the only way to vanquish the existential terror of being human.

I have a friend who claims she isn’t creative, but I have watched her play; I was there when she challenged herself, and others, to create innovative and meaningful solutions to a problem. She is creative, and I cannot understand why she refuses to believe it. Is, however, my inability to understand why she refuses to accept her creativity any of my business? Surely she has the right to believe what she wants and the right to put her energy into something else? Only she knows why she believes the narrative that she isn’t creative. Only she can decide to accept her creativity and what form it will take.   Origami_Flower

Maybe people baulk at claiming their creativity because creating a poem, a painting, a business or a unique piece of furniture is hard work. I didn’t realise how hard, how painfully hard, being creative is but I’d rather write than not write. Dishonouring my creativity is more harrowing than sitting for hours trying to fix a messy sentence or make a paragraph do what I want. My hard work might mean one story, one essay or one blog post will worm its way into the heart and mind of another who will read my words and think, ‘She’s right. I need to look deeper into myself, I need to change my narrative, be the creative person I am meant to be.’

Luca_RIf I can do that for one person I will, for a moment, be happy. And then I’ll sit down in front of my computer and try to do it again because I am, like you and every other person on the planet, creative and because, after too many years of longing, I can not be anything else.

 

Tell me about your creativity; have you yearned for connection or have you always honoured your creative gifts?

Muses, Metaphors and Sunlight.

‘It started with a flash but will end with …’ What sort of prompt is that? Flash_01

This is so boring, like swimming towards a lifeboat while fighting for your last breath.

Hardly boring; more like survival. It might be futile but she’ll never give up. She lives on hope and she has a manuscript.

A half baked, self indulgent, weirdly structured memoir she spent five years writing and researching.

But it IS something.

What kind of something?

A finished something.

And now she’s back where she, where we, started.

Except this time she’s investigating the flash.

The what?

The prompt, above.

That was just a prompt. It’s of no consequence.

It might be serendipity or a message from the unconscious. She should let it agitate, let it develop. Something could come of it.

What?

Oh, for goodness sake. A flash. Or what the flash means.

Calm down. Let’s go back to the prompt: ‘It started with a flash …’ I’ll look up the word … Ooo, this IS interesting. It says here, ‘Origin: Middle English,  a marshy place …’

… Let me look at that. I suppose the dictionary can’t be wrong, but is it relevant?

You’re the one going on about messages from the unconscious. Marshes mean water, flow, creativity, you know, all that stuff. Pisces.

Pisces? A marsh is more Scorpio than Pisces …

… ‘a burst of light,’ but not necessarily from an explosion … Marshes can explode … so can flashlights, and there’s a newsflash, or … here … a ‘flash in time,’ or ‘a flash in the pan.’ It’s an adjective too. ‘Pertaining to thieves and prostitutes. Sporting and betting men. Gaudy and showy. Counterfeit. Sham. Knowing. Cheeky.’ Hee, hee, ‘a flash house is a brothel.’ And it’s a verb as well.

A verb?

‘The wave flashing … the roaring surf flashing up over … he flashed me, officer.’

Be serious. Our job is to provide inspiration and …

… Don’t you think we’ve done that? 

I know, I know, but think of the triumph when she’s finally published.

That’s not what she wants, and you know it.

You’re right. She wants to ‘say something’, she wants to save us, them – her kind. She wants to change things.

As if that will happen.

It might.

Has it ever? ‘This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a …’

You automatically reject anything that’s good. It stresses her.

You’re too soft on her. She enjoys it. Granted, she doesn’t enjoy how slow the process is but she’s finally got the idea of shifting between flow and … what is the opposite of flow?

Tedium?

That will do. Tedium: attending to every word, monitoring every full stop, every apostrophe. 

Flash_02  Hmm. Like watching the sunlight on gentle waves compared to sunlight striking the corner of your eye; contemplating beauty while having to peer through and around the shaft?

Well, I wouldn’t put it that way, but alright, it’s all about the light. So why the impatience? Instead of enjoying the process she’s forcing it.

Oh, I agree. Nothing happens if you push too soon, too hard or too late. She’s pushing instead of doing that shallow, puff puff breathing that releases the child. Deep breathing is the light on the waves; the newborn’s scream is sun hitting your eye.

Isn’t she a bit old for the childbirth metaphor and isn’t it time we had a cup of tea?

How about a hot chocolate?

It looks like it’s going to be a long day. Gin and Tonic?

Just the thing.

Flash_03