‘Dump’ or ‘Craft’?

I’ve spent most of the last three months ‘dumping’ my thoughts onto the blank page, or in my case, blank computer screen. This is despite Louise de Salvo’s belief that we have a better chance of benefiting from

detailed, organized, compelling, vivid and lucid

(2001, p.49)

writing, otherwise known as ‘crafting’, than from simply writing what we feel.

I’ve been a ‘dumper’ for most of my life and owe a lot to the process. It helps me to: understand what is bothering me; clear my head; and constructively deal with my feelings, thoughts and anxieties.

But in my thesis, now almost five years old, I agreed with de Salvo. I asserted that autobiographical writing can be more healing if we reflect on our memories and turn them into readable, enjoyable, evocative material meant for public consumption. When I’m not stuck in a ‘dumping phase’ I can spend days and weeks ‘crafting’ my work, editing, reflecting on, and thinking through what I write. The result is occasionally  something I’m proud to share with others, and I find the crafting process as therapeutic as my ‘daily moan’.

So, which am I, a ‘Dumper’ or a ‘Crafter? Crafting is harder than dumping, but I’m not sure dumping is always beneficial. On the other hand, writing ‘Daily Pages’ is lauded by most writers as a preeminent example of ‘turning up at the page’, and a valuable source of raw material to shape into a polished piece of ‘creative’ writing.

In other words, a writer can, perhaps should, be both a ‘Dumper’ and a ‘Crafter’. The problem is, while writing my thesis, and more recently, my critical inner voice insisted I stop wasting time ‘Dumping’ and get serious about ‘Crafting’. Then, when I’m crafting a piece, my inner critic hisses, ‘This will never work,’ or, ‘why write a blog about dumping or crafting? Everyone knows about this, it will be boring, no one will read it. You are wasting your time.’

I was recently asked about blogging and gathering ‘likes’, the snare social media uses to keep us logged on-line. But what, exactly, is a ‘like’ worth and has it become a measure of self-worth? Can a ‘like’ substitute for ‘Well done,’ for an invitation to share coffee, or for a virtual chat about your blog? Is a ‘like’ less affirming than the ‘holy grail’ of a ‘comment’ because a comment implies a reader wants to engage with you on your topic or idea? And what are comments compared to high sales figures and literary prizes, bait that lures authors and novelists into believing they are the exemplars of the craft of writing?

accomplishment ceremony education graduation
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m not saying approval, credit and prizes are bad things but, to return to ‘dumping’ your feelings and problems on the page, I do suggest rereading these ‘rants’ can yield one of two insights: either the writer unwittingly created something remarkable and satisfying, or they are confronted by a vindictive, angry, suffering person who should either hide their aberrations and discontent or seek professional support.

Like writers, anyone is capable of being a demon and an angel, a saint and a sinner a ‘Dumper’ or ‘Crafter’. It depends on whether or not we choose to work on ourselves. The raw material we have to work with is the human creature we are. Sure, we can dump our rage on another person, as if they are a blank page forced to accept our negative thoughts, feeling and ideas. We can also ‘craft’ ourselves into a kind, affectionate, honest and honourable person, someone others want to engage with and by crafting the self it’s possible we can heal ourselves (and silence the inner critic). Crafting the self may also help us heal the world.

Dumper or Crafter or both? It’s up to you.

The Source

It’s too easy to let things slip, to think ‘I can come back to that,’ or ‘I’ll have time tomorrow for…’. Yet, when everything seems important, imperative or imminent, little feels rewarding.

In my very small garden is a tub of red geraniums. The petals, robust flags of red, clump comfortably together, the blooms, unhurried in their blooming, are languid in their display.

Elixir is nothing like my red geranium. It has not bloomed in my mind or heart for several months. It has failed, unlike my strumpet geranium, to grab my attention, and so I ask myself, ‘Why did I start Elixir? What did I want to achieve? Why, indeed,  write a blog?’

In Writing as a Way of Healing, Louise de Salvo asks,

…what if writing were a simple, significant, yet necessary way to achieve spiritual, emotional and psychic wholeness? To synthesize thought and feeling, to understand how feeling relates to events in our lives and vice versa? p6.

writing-as-a-way-of-healing Elixir started as a blog about therapeutic writing. Then it changed and, perhaps, lost its way. What kind of blogger loses control of her blog?

Hauling Elixir back to its original premise, a blog about the power of writing to heal, feels right. It feels simple and significant and necessary and it feels like Elixir has returned to its source:

My interest has never been in end results, but in the process of creation and expression…(*)

What have you resurrected lately?

(*) Judy Clinton, in Writing Works: A Resource Handbook for Therapeutic Writing Workshops, p. 217.

 

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).

 

Thinking: Why I love to Write, Part 2

What happens when you put a writer into a fMRI Scanner and map their brain while they write? A team from the Functional Imaging Unit, at the Institute for Diagnostic Radiology and Neuroradiology, and their colleagues from the Institute for Creative Writing and Cultural Journalism, both in Germany, had twenty-eight writers to do just that. (1)  The researchers wanted to know which areas of the brain ‘light up’ during a creative writing session. Each writer brainstormed a story and then wrote ‘a new and creative continuation of a given literary text’,(2). The task is based on a modified version of Linda Flower and John R. Hayes’s model of the process involved in creative writing.

It was found that

 ‘‘brainstorming’’ involves fronto-parieto-temporal brain activity for generating novel and original ideas and composing the concept of the story. The observed premotor activity in ‘‘brainstorming’’ indicates the integrated preparation of the writing process. ‘‘Creative writing’’ combines handwriting processes and cognitive writing processes, which are predominantly associated with episodic memory, semantic integration, and a free associative and spontaneous cognitive text production. (p13)

The researchers also investigated the verbal aspect of ‘‘creative writing’’ and found it involved the left fronto-temporal network.

I’m not a neuroscientist, so the significance of these specific networks is lost on me, and Flower and Hayes’ theory of how writers approach their craft is not the only one. The point is, science confirms what writers have always known: writers are thinkers and writing is thinking on the page. It’s tempting to associate ‘creativity’ with magic, mysticism and even ‘divine inspiration’. It can certainly feel like that when writing goes well. Scientific studies confirm, however, that creative writing is the result of perception, learning, reason, analysis and critical thinking.

As studies of the brain continue, neuroscientists will provide detailed information about how writers write. I hope these studies are combined with investigations into how the brain develops, reacts to and heals post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems. Maybe then we will understand why and how therapeutic writing works. For now, to paraphrase John Lennon, it is enough to know that when writers write their brains ‘shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun’ and that is why I love to write.

 

References

Flower, Linda, and John R. Hayes, ‘A cognitive process theory of writing’ in College composition and communication, 32.4 (1981), pp. 365-387.

Shah, Carolin, et al. ‘Neural correlates of creative writing: an fMRI study’ in Human Brain Mapping, 34.5 (2013), pp. 1088-1101.

Decisions and Revisions

There is time

for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. (1)

2017 has been quite a year. I contracted a virus on the 1st January, which was followed by back problems that began the week the virus released its grip. Naturally, keeping a blog let alone maintaining a ‘normal’ life has been a challenge.

As a result, I decided to take a break from writing and considered suspending Elixir and focusing on creative writing, specifically Flash, Hint and Short fiction. However, when it came to deleting my posts and letting go of Elixir and the significance of therapeutic writing, I just couldn’t do it.

I have, therefore, revised my decision; Concise will be a companion blog to Elixir. The former will be an outlet for my own, and I hope others’, creative short fiction. The latter will continue to be personal and reflective, and explore the growing significance of therapeutic writing and art therapy as a healing tool. I want to research and share information about organisations like Art Therapy Without Borders, which provides hope and assistance to a range of people; Lapidus, which focusses specifically on writing for wellbeing; and The Institute for Creative Health, an

independent, not for-profit Australian organisation that advocates for the arts to be delivered within health and social service organisations and the broader community.

 

Elixir has also connected me to blogs like Impromptu Promptlings and Peculiar Ponderings and a positive friendship with the inimitable Calensariel. Through WordPress I discovered Dr Sharon Blackie’s blog, website, books and courses. Closer to home is Raili at Soul Gifts, who creates magic with words, and sites like Spoon You Fork Me. There are dozens of other fascinating blogs listed to the right of this post that expand my universe and enliven my days.

Blogging is, indeed, a blessing.

But like any task, writing a blog can be a curse. There’s the unforgiving blank page; the words that, when they finally arrive, refuse to arrange themselves coherently. How, then, can I imagine I will write two blogs? That’s the point, I can’t imagine it so I won’t try. I’ll give it a go and see what happens. I can’t let go of Elixir and I can’t shake off the idea of Concise so I have to explore the possibility of writing both.

One of my favourite poems, from which the line at the beginning of this blog is taken, is T. S. Elliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ (I wonder what the ‘J’ stands for?) Prufrock is, like me, growing old and he laments the often tedious ‘evenings, mornings, afternoons …’ he has spent and wonders how he will

spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

other than to be what he has always been:

an attendant lord … Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse.

Eliot was none of this; he was a consummate poet. I do not (for many reasons) aspire to be like Eliot. I am content, like Prufrock, to be

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous-

Almost, at times, the Fool …

If it is foolish to write two blogs, one reflective and personal the other a collection of self-published short, narrative fiction, then so be it. I understand that in both cases it may be ‘impossible to say just what I mean’ but I believe it is foolish to give up entirely, to let go of my dreams. Like Prufrock, I cannot help listening to the mermaid’s song, I cannot know what is feels like to lose myself in the mystical, magical and creative ‘chambers of the sea.’

sea-running

‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot.

Find the first edition of Concise here: https://concisedotblog.wordpress.com/

 

Pain: A Reflection

Two days ago, I drafted a post describing my struggle with a herniated disc and the resulting pain. Yesterday, still dealing with pain and under the influence of supposedly helpful pain relievers, I accidentally deleted the document.

I wrote about feeling trapped on an island of pain, how being left (due to a set of unavoidable circumstances), alone for several hours to fend for myself, it felt as if my friends and family were swimming through the shoals of my pain and batting the seaweed of my frustration and anger aside as they headed for their own islands.

It’s probably just as well I lost the file. I was feeling sorry for myself and needed to rant, although writing the draft helped me come to terms with my predicament. Losing it helped me to understand that nothing is permanent including my pain, which hasn’t quite dissipated but has reduced, thanks to the ministrations of a good physiotherapist, the gentle restorative exercises he suggested, and plenty of rest.  

I found another self on that island of pain, a self that swung too readily between binary opposites of hope and despair, a self who fell into the trap of believing life was either a vale of tears or a pain-free paradise. Why, I moaned, was I forced to endure the former when I craved the latter? This led me to reflect on the Buddhist notion that life is suffering, an inescapable misery rather than an occasion for learning, growing, and feeling compassion for myself and others.

Mindfulness techniques helped me cope; I sent my breath to the afflicted area, imagining it became suffused with a healing light and the relief, though momentary, was sweet. I also did a little research on neurological explanations of pain. In my situation, as I understand it, the nerve endings located in or around my herniated (and thinning) disc, alerted my brain to a potential problem; something was about to, or had, gone wrong. My brain then interpreted and sent the message on and I experienced debilitating pain. According to Norman Doidge , however, my experience was

an opinion on the organism’s state of health rather than a mere reflexive response to injury.

This means, I think, that in the process of collecting and sharing the relevant information, pain is little more than a construct of my brain. Could this explain why military personnel and highly trained athletes deal with pain better than most of us? They don’t ignore the brain’s signals, they recognise it as a construct and manage it differently than the rest of us.

As a result of my research I started a conversation with my brain, telling it my physiotherapist said I needed to move, that I would be careful and my brain didn’t need to tell me moving would hurt; it could also please ‘turn down’ the hurt, or reduce the length of time it hurt. Because, as Doidge reveals, that

neurons that fire together wire together,

and due to our brain’s remarkable plasticity,

neurons that fire apart wire apart-or neurons out of sync fail to link,

I attempted to reconfigure the neuronal link between what was occurring in my spine and the way my reactionary brain ‘read’ the information and conveyed it to me.

As I result, I found movement a little easier. This is not, however, a recommendation for dealing with pain, just a game my brain and I played, a narrative, if you will, I constructed to address the inconvenience of my situation.

As my pain recedes I ask myself once more who am I and do I believe life is suffering or is it a mindful awareness of both suffering and joy; a dance between the two?  I called my original blog, ‘The Loneliness of Pain’ because, over the weekend, I felt utterly alone. My research, the meditations I did and my reflections on the idea of universal suffering helped me acknowledge that everyone experiences pain. As we move closer to understanding, from a scientific and neurological perspective, the nature and significance of that universal suffering maybe we will become more compassionate, loving human beings.

I have no doubt that I, and my lower spine, will recover. Back exercises will become a daily routine, as will being aware of how I move my body now it has fully entered the ageing process.

I understand now that the island I thought I was on is only a peninsula. Feeling isolated by my pain, or by any experience of loss or grief, is an illusion; to suffer is human and because we are human, we never truly suffer alone.

 

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.

It’s Always Fun until Someone is Hurt

Humans tend to form tribes because they make us, generally, feel safe. There is nothing wrong with being part of a tribe, which is only a large and probably more rambunctious, potentially more supportive, family.

The question is, why do we objectify, hate and attempt to destroy other tribes? Is it, ‘get them before they get us’? Is it because, ‘they’re standing in the way of what we want’? Is it because they threaten us first, which sets off the amygdala, often described as the part of the brain whose

primary purpose is to govern the emotion of fear,

but whose function may well be

to evaluate the relevance of stimuli, and then to tune the individual’s overall cognitive and emotional response (emphasis added)?

There is nothing wrong with feeling fear, just as there is nothing wrong with feeling proud of and loyal to our tribe and slightly suspicious of other tribes. They are, after all, an unknown quantity. But what about the reasonably well established idea that every human on the planet, regardless of the tribe they belong to, all want the same thing: to feel safe and warm; to be well fed; to watch their children grow to secure adulthood; and, if those things are satisfied, explore the world through travel and communication with others, often through the medium of art and crafts?Paints

If this is true, when different tribes fall into conflict it is not because they want different things; they want the same thing but they have different methods to achieve those things, and herein lies the problem.

The other significant thing about tribes is they usually include a leader.

It’s a truism that the quality of the tribe (by which I mean, what they want, why they want it, and what they are prepared to do to get it), determines the quality of the leader. By extension, the quality of the leader will have a similar impact on the quality of the tribe.

Good leaders listen to every member of their tribe (and good members of the tribe make it their business to share their ideas with their leader, and listen carefully to that leader). A leader’s job is also, given members of a tribe rarely agree, to make wise, considered choices about which parts of a tribe’s agenda are sound and which need more work. Only then can the leader proceed to implement the tribe’s goals and needs.

What does this have to do with disliking an opposing tribe? If our methods for meeting our needs  don’t get in the way of an opposing tribe, and vice versa, why do we get involved in a wasteful conflict with other tribes?

Is it because leaders coerce, convince and cajole their members (who have morphed into ‘followers’, which is quite a different thing), into hating the opposing tribe? If this is true, being tribal is not the problem; the problem may well be our leaders. If we believe the amygdala regulates ‘the emotion of fear’ we are easily seduced into believing, for example, that ‘racial hatred is biologically ingrained and therefore beyond individual control’. When our leaders say other tribes laugh and sneer at us, hate our food, the way we talk, who we sleep with, how we spend our down time, they are manipulating our fears. How do leaders do this? In the way they speak to us. There are three basic ways a leader can talk to us: they can use reason, emotion or focus on character and a sense of belonging. 6K07J9234Y

Let’s look at reason first. This is where a leader logically makes his or her case, provides evidence to back up that case and offers conclusions based on that evidence (a good leader will also listen to conclusions other members of the tribe might have made based on the evidence). In terms of character, a leader might focus on their own standing within the tribe, how their membership of that tribe brings status and honour to the tribe. And then there is the appeal to emotion. Of all the ways a leader can describe the tribe to itself, describe him or herself as a leader, and describe the other tribe and their leader, emotion is the most powerful and the most divisive. There is no logic and no evidence provided, there is no talk of upright moral behaviour, there is just the rawness of feelings. Two year olds are masters at expressing their emotions; they believe in them because they feel them then and there; emotions feel real, they feel reasonable, they are all encompassing. And then they are gone, ‘oh, look, a butterfly …’

How can a tribe distinguish between logic, character and emotions (also known as, since the Greeks first thought democracy might be a good way to get tribes to think about their place in the world, as Logos, Ethos and Pathos)? The answer is to listen carefully to the words the leader uses. Logos is not about saying, ‘I have empirical evidence’ it’s about outlining and explaining the evidence and analysing it. A leader who does this might use words like, ‘research, exploration, data, measurements, comparison, contrast, examination’. In an appeal to Ethos the key words are usually ‘I, me, we, us, them, they, our community, society, ethnic, class, clan, family, tribe, good character, poor character, proper, right, moral, correct, wrong, deviant, evil and not like us’. Some of these words may also be used when the leader employs Pathos, along with other words such as ‘threat, danger, safety, force, take, give, leave, lose, anger, love, cry, hate’.

What can the assembled tribe do as they listen to their leaders trying to convince them that their way of seeing the world, and getting what they want, is the right and proper way?

A friend of mine, an American I deeply respect has, over the years, shared two significant insights with me. The first was, ‘Janet, who is speaking, for whom, and on whose authority?’ I didn’t initially understand her meaning. In the context of today’s post, however, the first part of her question could relate to Ethos; ‘Who is doing the talking, what do they believe, why are they the leader, what do they know, where did they get their information? What are their biases, their prejudices?’ The second is simply a way of remembering they are talking to us: thinking beings with our own ideas, thoughts, experiences and feelings. We need to ask ourselves if the leader is truly reflecting our experiences, or merely acting as if they care about our lives and what we want.

And the final part? The word ‘authority’ is tricky here and I wish I could find a better one, but look at it this way; authority can mean giving orders and making decisions (in which case we go back to ‘who gave this person the right to speak?’). Another meaning of the word is an expert who therefore knows what they are talking about. One final meaning: freedom from doubt, assurance, self-confidence, which is not the same thing as speaking from an expert base or in a logical and sensible way but could be interpreted as ‘speaking for themselves’.

And the second thing my American friend said? It was a decade or two later, when I was struggling with my PhD. I was stuck and I didn’t know what to do with the information I’d uncovered, what it meant and how to structure it. She listened politely as I rambled on and when I took a breath she said, ‘Janet, think harder.’

fphbeu989xTribes will always complain about other tribes. We humans love a good rumble. But as I used to say to my three children when they play-wrestled together on the family room floor, ‘It’s always good fun until someone gets hurt.’

When the rumble is serious, when a leader, two leaders, emerge who think they can speak for us, on their own authority, and tell us the other tribe hate us and want us to disappear off the planet, they are ‘evaluating the relevance of stimuli’, for us. They are manipulating how we ‘tune’ into our ‘overall cognitive and emotional responses’.

How do we stop them from manipulating us? We need to listen carefully, note the words they use, the emphasis they place on those words and how those words are arranged. We need to sit down and think about our tribe, our leader and how he or she wields their authority. And then we need to think harder. We need to consider the other tribe, that weird bunch across the river who, after all, want the same things as we want.

 

 

Morality, Betrayal and the Power of Words

All I have is the power of words.book

‘The moral faculty,’ says  Professor Shaun Nichols, ‘is part of the mind most likely to be seen as the ultimate explanation for whether a person’s
identity endures or fades away.’ Is this a revision of the old saw, ‘Manners maketh the man‘?

Morality: what we, what I, believe is right or wrong. I am five, I am ten, I am fifteen and all the ages between; my parents’ mantra is, ‘do the right thing.’ What is the ‘right thing’? Right for me? Right for them? Right for someone else?

What do we mean by right? What do we mean by wrong? ‘Semantics,’ my father said. ‘Walk around in another person’s shoes,’ he advised. ‘Think of other’s needs first,’ cautioned my mother in what was my first inkling of irony.

Six months ago, as I grapple once more with depression, I am encouraged to ask ‘What are my needs?’ and put them first.

I think my father might have been heartened by Professor Nichols findings:

People regard morality as central to identity. Why might morality occupy such a place of privilege? One possibility is that our moral selves are central to what it means to be human …

One’s morals are more significant than any other trait? Down what well, then, does meditating on morality lead us? Is morally praiseworthy behaviour dependant on our motives? I think this was where my mother was heading.

And ethics?

“Ethics” leans towards decisions based upon individual character, and the more subjective understanding of right and wrong by individuals – whereas “morals” emphasises the widely-shared communal or societal norms about right and wrong.

Is betrayal immoral, unethical or both? If betrayal is about ethics then one who betrays may well have a confused understanding of the difference between right and wrong. If it is about morals, betrayal negates any contracts negotiated with loved ones, neighbours and colleagues. It derails trust, sabotages intimate relationships, disavows whatever we owe to these people.

All I have is the power of words and this image looping through my head, running, stopping, starting, over and over: a warrior woman, red hair bristling from beneath her helmet. In one muscled arm a sword, on the other a shield. She wears her anger like an annulus, but she circles and winds fruitlessly through my mind. Why does she stop and start? Why doesn’t she act? Maybe wisdom is more fearful than anger?

Wisdom: accrued knowledge, the ability to apply that knowledge, to apply insight gained from experience.

My mother once told me I had the power to wound her with my words. I was fifteen and I thought, but dare not say, ‘I garnered that power from you’.

MaskIf I feel betrayed, if I feel a loved one’s actions are morally and ethically questionable I can be, using words my mother loved, vituperative and vindictive. Or I can lean against the wisdom of my father, secure in his understanding of the difference between right and wrong, the nobility of his moral and ethical ruminations learned while watching, in his adolescence, men go stoically, foolishly to war.

What are my needs? To be secure in the knowledge that any contract with loved ones are honoured, that no betrayal, even that of the imagination or the mind, occurs.

I can wait. I can act when wise to do so. And I can call people who betray me to account. My mother passed her sword on to me. My father handed me the shield.

I have the power, and the wisdom, of my words.

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.