Transition Girl

Why transition girl?... Best answered by a quote from the Iliad....."The soul was not made to dwell in a thing; and when forced to it, there is no part of that soul but suffers violence."

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

reflections on grief

Last kiss (n) - slipped away at the speed of light. lips to forehead. children to mother. sleepless dearest farewell to our beloved departed.

My mother passed away suddenly a bit over a week ago. I use the phrase suddenly loosely as she has been ill for a long time, in and out of hospital for almost as long. The disease that took her away from me and my two brothers in the end and far too quickly was something none of us expected, as was the idea that she might not come out of hospital like she had always done before. You get used to a pattern and when it breaks it can only knock you about in its brutality.

A faulty heart valve, a range of blood related immune disorders, the genetics inherited by her (and by me in nuclear-mode), we were told by her doctors this time last year to prepare ourselves for the worst. The family's blood curse that cast a long shadow is a few generations old and it gives the entire family a false sense of bravado that we believe we are prepared for that outcome. Maybe, maybe not. You can see the speeding train coming towards you, you can even jump off the tracks and avoid the full brunt of a bone-breaking impact, but the force of its movement as it sweeps by you still knocks you senseless.

My brothers experience dreams of mum going into hospital and never returning in the weeks preceding her latest and last admittance. I dream of a white cat, which I steadfastly refuse to mention to her because she believes it is bad luck. In bed all of Easter, taken to hospital a week later, taken to another bigger hospital to an ICU and a bone marrow biopsy that would reveal her fate. Perkier after a blood transfusion one day, a doctor telling her the next day that the blood cancer she has is particularly aggressive and advanced to the point where her life expectancy is a matter of days and any treatment will do no more than give her a few hours on a ventilator at best.

The family locally based (those on the same continent) rallied to her location, from Queensland and Victoria we travelled with haste to the Wollongong hospital in New South Wales to be by her side. We Skype our mother's family in Italy as they too want to be with her as best they can with the benefits of modern technology to help us with our last crusade.

Two days to say goodbye, two days to watch her slip away with dignity. She died in the early hours of Monday 20th, less than 60 hours after she was given the news and refused any further treatment. Devastated is an understatement of how we feel seeing the stillness of her form. Yet I am also struck by how calm and peaceful she appears to be, the most it seems to me that I have seen in years on her face.

As we each kiss her forehead to say our last goodbye before the doctors take her away, the words at the top of this blog and the extended version below start to come together and float about inside my head. The words have no time to leak out of me, desperate though I am to commit my darkness to paper, expunge it from its confinement, trapped among the million thoughts of what next, and what do we do now. I have long accepted my writing comes best from my moments of melancholy, the void is converted to light paradoxically as I release any sadness dispersing it into the worlds I create in my fiction writing. I understand how it happens, the cleansing of my spirit when it needs a thorough wash; I have never fully understood why it happens, it is what we writers do best.

It is almost a week before I can create the poem below to express how I feel. A week in auto-pilot sorting through her things, organising and attending her funeral, talking to her friends the folk I haven't seen since I was a child. She was loved by a great number of others and that of itself is strangely reassuring. There are others who have a hole in their heart from the huge loss her passing has left behind.

Her body is still warm.
Less than an hour has passed
since she embraced her everlasting peace.
The witching hour rain a drizzling rhythm.
The only other sound sterile monitors chirping
feeding the surrounding sleeplessness of
those dearest belonging to our beloved departed.
Her skin is clean smooth and soft to touch.
A snapshot of youth in this final moment.
The grey haired crown almost invisible.
All we see is the child she once was long ago.

Seconds slipped away at the speed of light.
One last kiss.
Lips to forehead.
Children to mother.


We talked a lot during her final hours about our collective history. Stories of her, stories of us. We talked a lot in the days afterwards about how we will honour her memory as we reminisce more about the journeys of our lives. My brothers and I despair over her passing and whether we will ever be ready for when the family's bad blood will strike another one of us down. The words below (not my own, inspired by Stan Lee) resonate now in the hour of my grief.

"They say the past is etched in stone but it is not.
It is smoke trapped in a closed room and swirling, changing,
buffeted by the passing of the years and wishful thinking.
But even though our perception of it changes
one thing remains constant.
The past can never be completely erased.
It lingers.
Like the scent of burning wood."

Sunday, January 18, 2015

the motherload

It's been a while since my last confession. The truth is I've been floating in the sea of melancholy that comes with facing several weeks of uncertainty while my latest game of health-related Russian roulette is being played with my most malevolent mistress, the Universe.

Those who know me well know my level of resilience has been built up over many years of facing life-threatening bullets, trigger pulled time and time again, only to breathe a huge sigh of relief when the gun is fired and I survive the latest wayward shot. The time in-between each game seems to be getting shorter; I barely have time to relax and something new lurches my way. I sometimes wonder if this is the Universe's way of inspiring me creatively, after all most writers draw from their creative well and draw their best when it is angst-filled. I do not like that my words speak with a stronger voice when they have flowed out from a darker place. It makes me wonder if the pain would stop if I stopped writing. But then I realise that my escape into worlds I design in my mind have been my anchor to remaining calm about the things I have no hope of controlling. As I said at the start, a greater measure of sadness today while I wait for someone to tell me with greater certainty what the gun will be shooting in my direction in 2015.

I am in a better place today than I was five weeks ago. Really. The words that form the rest of this blog are basically the journey I've been travelling over these past weeks, the latest roller coaster ride I found myself forced to take when my body let me down. I am not too far away from reaching the place where my inner strength will hop back on board - the infamous stoic acceptance that shit just happens sometimes beyond anyone's ability to prevent and all that meant was it was time to get on with it - life that is. I can see it down the track. It isn't a mirage. I am close enough that I'll be fine soon enough. Just a little wobbly now from the ride but the feeling will pass.

My latest ride has forced me to face one of my greatest fears.

I have always feared that Alzheimer's would eventually come and take root in my brain. It's always been my number one fear as a writer. Not my work being rejected (as this is part of a normal landscape for any writer and even less of a worry for me because I write predominantly for myself), but rather losing my ability to write. Something altogether different to writer's block - the other great leveller for any writer - where it is always possible to break out of a rut with a little motivation.

A degenerative brain disorder struck me as the obvious choice for a bogeyman because what could possibly be worse than losing one's mind? No experiential memories to draw upon to paint a story picture in words. I could not imagine anything so disastrous a blow for the one constant that has given me so much pleasure and helped to channel my creativity to create worlds in which to escape. My sanctuary. The idea that a disease outside my control could steal such a precious treasure, it would truly be soul-destroying.

It turns out there is at least another worthy candidate for the role of destroyer. (In reality, there are many.) Multiple sclerosis (MS) - an autoimmune disorder affecting the central nervous system - losing my body first and eventually losing my mind as well. I suppose I should not fear it. I could be inspired by the fictional character from West Wing, President Bartlett. He managed a long and fruitful leading of a nation but then I would have to place faith in life imitating art.

I asked myself one question as I woke up well rested on New Year's day (while I thank Yarra City Council for making Edinburgh Gardens an alcohol free zone this year after last year's debacle, I wasn't willing to chance the noisy neighbourhood so had headed out of the city for my non-celebration). I was feeling the early signs of a new "episode". (This is the terms the doctor gave me to describe when the symptoms were playing up.) Is it better to be alone or to be in a relationship that is convenient? I knew the answer to the question long before that moment but I felt it again and the silence of solitude with Thoreau countryside my chosen alternative vista to home and my body beginning to numb. I cut my finger making lunch for the road trip home and did not feel it, only noticed the blood drops accidentally smeared across the chopping board. My heart, my body, my mind, they are not what they are supposed to be. Broken, flawed, cracked. It does not matter how I describe the things that sit in this Universe, in the here and now, I only know that I need to find my strength to fight (again) against Its cruelness.

I was told by my GP on December 15th after an earlier visit to the doctor and a CAT scan that MS was one of a suite of possible diagnoses consistent with my symptoms. When I presented to the doctor in late November saying I could not feel my hands, my legs, my body, except for an aching skull, almost constant, that filled my head with the sound similar to a crackling bowl of Coco Pops, I could not understand why my doctor would then freak out. General practitioners are supposed to be calm. My GP has seen me survive incredible odds - the pancreatic tumour barely 18 months extracted and relegated to the annals of history in hospital waste - perhaps that explained why he would assume a whisper left behind might have become the roar of a fresh tumour. Inoperable brain tumour anyone? This was his initial belief. He had three patients die from pancreatic cancer before he brought his scythe to me, expecting I would be gone in weeks and then I survived 3/100,000 odds. He'd just had two patients with brain tumours in the weeks before my latest visit and then I showed up with the same symptoms.

I don't think he was relieved with what the alternative might be (most GPs know that tumours are not the worst thing that a person can be diagnosed with) when he read out loud what the CAT scan report actually said a couple of weeks into the festive season. I heard him say the words. I could hear the disappointment in his voice. He has seen me through some challenging diagnoses. He knew he would need to take me down another dark path. We need to add another specialist to your extensive posse - someone new - I wish I could offer you some solace for what will be another year of uncertainty for you. A small part of me wished it had been a tumour. I am used to those vermin invading my body. Cut it out, start again. But a degenerative genetic disease? And one I saw in my grandmother and how it ate away at her until there was nothing left? That was a new blow of randomness that made me even number than I already was from the shock.

News that my already shortened life-span (aside: perhaps it is not so odd that one of my goals in life is to survive to retirement age) would now have the added bonus prospect of a deteriorating quality of life in the mix. And of course getting that news during the festive season when most people who can answer the million questions my GP could not answer were taking their summer vacation. Somewhere exotic completely out of reach, I would have to wait four weeks before I would have any improvement in the level of certainty about what the diagnosis would actually be rather than a statement "it could be MS, it could be mini-strokes, it could be a virus...a neurologist will be able to give you some certainty."

There were some answers I didn't want to hear. It's progressive, like your grandmother's disease, you will be in a wheelchair in a year, or two at best. My headache got worse. I'm spending my Christmas thinking about whether I want a duck cane as a gift, whether I will have to move my home to a more disabled friendly layout. I can barely climb the stairs in my current home now. I'm using a food processor to cut my vegetables. I am finding scratches and bruises and cuts on my body from accidents I don't remember feeling at all. I have lost count of the number of aspirin I've taken "just in case" my mind is stroking - better to be cautious my GP tells me, if you're stroking the aspirins will help.

Everyone can't be happy all of the time. This I say to myself in one of my most melancholy moods. Even the happiest folk I've ever known had moments ever so brief of despair. Black dogs, black clouds hanging over us, sometimes the rain washes the cobwebs away. I went through the usual stages of grief with the anger phase a bit longer than usual. The waiting is the hardest part. Not knowing is worse than knowing. Don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise. Because your mind will always take you to the worst possible place until the real picture can be painted for you.

I finally saw the neurologist last Tuesday. He was an optimistic fellow. The specialist managed to rule off the potential diagnosis list the really bad options - mini strokes, progressive MS. Huge sigh of relief. Still on the list - relapsing remitting MS (the lesser of two evils) or some other genetic nerve deterioration auto-immune disorder (of which there are at least 20 possibilities) though he thought that given my current symptoms it would be some time and also low risk that it would lead to paralysis. Hooray for alternatives. He also said that I coincidentally and concurrently have had a very rare form of migraine (I think the stress of thinking about worst case scenarios over the preceding weeks has made it so myself!). He's given me medication to treat the migraine while he runs some more tests to narrow down the diagnosis from the 20+ nerve cell diseases currently on his list. Suffice to say, I am glad to have a less sore head.

I would have liked to have started the year without a new health challenge. New fodder for inspiring my creative writing. Do I have a new year's resolution? Yes. To have the strength to ride yet another roller-coaster without throwing up. Wish me luck.












Saturday, November 22, 2014

rebooting the writing mojo

It turns out I cannot serve two masters in a 'day' job and find the space and time to feed my writing habit. A few week's shy of six months leading a different team of highly creative people took all I had to give. My physical tank, so empty at the end of each week, I barely had time to recover to start fresh each new week of the gig let alone sit at a computer screen to will myself to escape into and play in my story world.

The second job is now done. I finished on Friday, after two days of long goodbyes. Don't get me wrong. It was an amazing period of growth and mind stretch, with the folk I met along the way wonderful in so many ways I lost count. But my body simply could not handle the frenetic pace over the long haul. In farewelling the crew, I really felt their appreciation. The team needed some TLC and I gave it in spades. I came home with every muscle of my body aching from exhaustion and I am still in the recovery position, recuperating, hopeful that my body will heal itself after the bucketing of the months past that came with working 12-14 hour days.

Writing my first blog in a few months, I am starting the journey back to the discipline of dividing my life into one (and only one) 'day' job and the rest of my time beyond that job undivided creating the sixth novel. I wanted to spend my afternoon today writing a pivotal scene where a character delivers some troublesome news and then faces the receiver of that news tripping into meltdown. The proverbial Pandora's Box opened and nothing is going to put what pours out back into its formerly contained space. I can feel the scene coming, it's right on the tip of my fingers, but it's not quite ready to spill out of my head. It will be the first time anything decent has gushed out of me (beyond the odd micro-story here and there) for far too long.

I've been procrastinating for almost two months now. The Aerogramme Writers Studio knows my routine as if they have been living inside my head (as shown in the picture below).


So I have decided I need to pace myself. (I have convinced myself it is not procrastination as it will be a productive use of my time.) I will read over the detailed storyboard in the coming days (the roadmap for the novel) and rework the timeline, as well as spend some time fleshing out a scene-by-scene sequencing of the rest of the story. Four parts written, five parts to write, almost half of the story written, almost half to write. It will be a good way to reboot my writing mojo, figuring out where I need to head to build the crescendo as the rest of the story unfolds.

I have three weeks to find what I seem to have lost. Having a 'staycation' (mostly at home for a holiday) so plenty of time to spend immersed preparing and then moving the drafting forward.

I will not overdo the dvd binge viewing, tempted though I will be to slip away from the desk for short breaks...

Friday, August 29, 2014

the witching hours

I am waking up in the middle of the night as ideas leak out of my mind. (I can almost feel an ooze dripping from my ears.) I am convinced it is a bi-product of working far too long hours during the day, coming home exhausted each day, and for a few weeks now, uninspired to write during my normal writing time on a weekend in full recovery mode from the week that's been. There are certainly parts of the 'secondment' role I enjoy immensely, I just don't think my body is cut out to push itself though work days of teenage hours in length. This particular fire horse is a precious thoroughbred not a pack filly harnessed to an overloaded wagon.

I do not feel right because the words have not come in anything other than a deep feed starved of nutrients. The odd micro-story appears from nowhere, with my creative leaning desperate to free itself from its shackles. The words below slipped out of me during the witching hours a few nights ago.

"Not much for candles. Got a lot of them as birthday gifts from male friends when I was younger (read: they had no clue what to purchase and a giant phallic symbol seemed the Obvious choice as a advertising tool). Have a small number now only because they smell nice. Candles that is."

I guess it is better that something which plays with words escapes from my head than nothing at all. I would feel relieved if my long-form writing mojo returned to me some time soon. I also think every book I write has a different rhythm to it. I seem to reach a stalling point at different times in the process with each one. For example, my book - the Recidivist - took well into the 100th page before I felt I was going anywhere with the plot. In contrast, the book I'm writing now - the Peithosian Gift (working title) - the first 100 pages seem to write themselves and I find I cannot face the screen just when the plot is thickening so to speak. It's been two weeks since I set my fingers sore from typing too much.

Time to sweep away the procrastination blues.

Friday, June 06, 2014

two masters

I am about to add a third master to my already full dance card as I try my hand at a potential career change. In public service parlance (possibly private sector too) a 'secondment' is when you temporarily step into another role. The stated reasons anyone does such things is to see if there's something out there that you might enjoy with a 'safety net' - stepping outside your comfort zone without a door shutting behind you. Gosh - could I speak in any more clich├ęd terms? Sometimes trying something new leads to cathartic life changes. Sometimes it doesn't. The opportunity of itself is worth the uncomfortable feeling that you might be making a huge mistake or might just be stepping into your dream job.

I juggle two masters at the moment. Political whipping girl (read - public policy adviser subject to occasional flagellation from the elected representatives of the people) and part time speculative fiction writer. When one vortex sucks me in (usually the day job), it makes my other passion harder to pursue notwithstanding my hard core disciplined approach to time management. You don't get to the point where you're writing your sixth book in a dozen years without some measure of drive to squeeze as much into your day as possible. (This from a person who avoids working at night after a 12 hour working day.)

So you might ask - what on earth would possess me to accept an offer to take on a role (albeit temporarily) that is bound to fill my already overflowing time chalice to the brim? I realised a few weeks ago that I am approaching the 10 year anniversary in my current advising role. It's about the same length of time I was married. I don't like milestone anniversaries. Never have, never will either. It is akin to reaching that point where you are so comfortable, you are sleepwalking through your days. I don't want to be uncomfortable all the time but I do want to be challenged and a little stressed and creating something new. It reminds me I am alive.

The new role is among other things being a writer who advocates - building others' skills to sell the facts - to a bunch of people with disparate views about what the facts actually mean. I am rather excited by this opportunity - gives me a chance to use my talents in ways my current day job has never fully allowed me to do. Might be perfect for me, might be a nightmare. I will either come out the other end traumatised, or thriving in a role that might just become my next sea change.

So where am I with my most fervent master? The one who shakes me awake in the middle of the night filling my head with characters, story arcs, scenes, and fantastic journeys. My imagination is finding a wonderful home on the pages of my sixth book. I've written 33,000 words (about a third) of the book since I started writing it in January. I will complete the first substantive draft by this time next year. Most people I mention this timing to are gobsmacked by the amount of time and huge task I have ahead of me (not taking into account the editing to-and-fro time after that which adds another year before publication). I am writing the equivalent of a PhD thesis in half the time it takes to acquire that qualification. Sucker for punishment obviously - a slave to word play.

My collection of metaphorical whips grows by the day. Driven to beat down the fades.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

autumn of discontent

It does not have the same evocative impact as winter when it comes to discontent. There's something about winter's icy winds and freezing rain that soaks through to your bones no matter how hard you try to rug up against the elements. It's been three months since my last confession and winter has come early.

Autumn in Melbourne is actually my favourite season of the year. I like the vibrant colours of the leaves, the crisp mornings, and winds that aren't drenched in pollen (the most ruinous feature of the other season I like, spring, along with anaphylactic shock inducing bee stings). I like the plethora of festivals that fill the streets with throngs of people, especially the comedy festival. I like the spate of public holidays plumping up the cooling months to make exploration out of the city viable without the accompanying exhaustion of squeezing too much into a normal two day weekend.

I haven't liked this current season so much. My favourite housemate (the most lengthy stayer in decades) headed overseas for a long jaunt so the house felt suddenly quiet (except for the crying cats). My day job has been sucking the life out of me, more exhausting than usual. My dutiful daughter role is yet again draining my energy and bank balance. My first foray back into dating in two years has been hugely disappointing for the number of no-shows and, for those that are polite enough to make an appearance, a decided lack of connection with anyone remotely suitable.

I can and will, of course, find solutions to all of these things that fill me with discontent. Being a doer has its benefits. I remember quickly why I like the space of a home that has no need for compromises. I search for ways to strike work-life balance so that any job I do does not cause me stress. I resolve to take a break from the family. I readily slip back into my hermit shell with the realisation I am at my most content when I embrace my nature - an optimistic introvert who draws energy from the silence. Only then will my fractured heart's rhythm be restored to a gentle pace, erratic no more.

In the interim, as usual, the thing that keeps me from slipping, with a heavy chain and anchor binding my feet, into a muddy mire is my writing. It seems the creation of worlds to escape into has been my salvation my entire life. Working on my sixth novel now, the Peithosian Gift (working title) and it is going to be brilliant. I have never found the writing task as easy as this one. I love the story; I love the characters; I love getting up on a Sunday morning to enter my private sanctuary drawn by the excitement of discovering what happens next. If a reader eventually enjoys this story even half as much as I have been enjoying writing it, then I will know for certain that book number six is my swan song. It won't matter then if anything makes me discontent, the beacon of a beautiful story will always guide me back to joy.

Monday, December 30, 2013

at year's end

I have never really been one to make new year's resolutions. I just don't see the point of reflecting any more or less on a specific day of the year. "Continuous improvement" (apologies for using management-speak) makes much more sense to me - you should be willing to reflect at any time about any aspect of your life that is not working and take the necessary steps to change it, not wait to the 1st of January to write a list of "resolutions". If you did not have the will to follow-through at any other time of the year, why would the first day of a new year be any different?

I did a lot more reflection in the year past than my average kind of year - challenging near death experiences have a way of focussing your attention. Many of the fruits of that reflection are covered in blog posts of the last few months so I won't repeat them here. I managed to write most of those reflections without once quoting Thoreau though his words haunted me for much of this period and I will complete my last blog of the year with a quote and some observations of the man's most profound idea:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

I draw heavily below on a Thoreau reader, Rockford E. Toews, of Back Creek Books in Annapolis, Maryland as his discussion of Thoreau's idea is a perfect reminder that my year past served as an important catalyst for some life "recalibration".

Thoreau wanted to get the most from his life by determining what was really important, and he did that by removing himself somewhat from the normal life of Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840's. He wanted to live his life, rather than find out too late that it had, in fact, lived him. One side of this was economic: he reduced his material needs by living simply, so that he would not have to spend much time supporting a lifestyle that he did not need or care about. The other side was spiritual, not unlike the spiritual retreats of eastern and western religions.
And it worked. Thoreau liked it so much that he lived in his cabin for more than two years, and came back with a great story. He worked on this story for several years after leaving the Pond, until it became the Walden story we know today.

Rather than purposefully living, the vast majority of people's lives are little more than a series of reactions to events and forces outside themselves. That's not truly living. That's just survival. Yet most people willingly engage in simple survival today in the belief that they will get their chance at actual living tomorrow. If they can earn enough money now surely they will be able to retire one day and enjoy life. Those are long odds, however. Assuming you live long enough to try it, will you know how to enjoy life? Or be in good health?

We get very little help in finding our vocation. Our culture places the most stress on the monetary aspect of getting a living. To that end, our education system increasingly intends only to turn out workers with this or that set of specialized, salable skills. We then agree to spend the bulk of our lives trading these skills for money. If our greatest reward is the money, skilled as we may be we are still just spit-turning dogs. And that's the polite metaphor.

To live a purposeful life, it is such a simple idea. For some colour and movement, I'll add that equanimity is the foundation of Buddhism - steadfastness, intensity, curiosity. Ask questions, and learn. We may never really understand the meaning of life and it does not matter if we do not. The truly important thing is that we live it.