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."

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.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

the fun stuff

Beach hermit, town hermit, country road hermit - here I am pondering the ways I will squirrel myself away over the next two years as the drafting of my next novel begins in earnest. Beyond where I may choose to spend my days writing, I am also thinking about what I may choose to write.

I am in that in-between time between major projects that is a lot of fun, not because it is free time to rest and play but rather because it is that moment in time when my mind wanders unimpeded through a myriad of creative possibilities. It is the time when my discipline shackles are tossed aside and my thoughts explore so many creative ideas I expect my mind may explode from the stimulation. It is the freedom before a new storyboard is completed and the next two years of my writing life are mapped out with rigour.

I have been in a good head space the last month for a few reasons.

First, a short story I wrote mid-year about my cancer experience, Operation Ditching Rupert, was short-listed for a short story award. It really was a silver lining considering how challenging that pancreatic tumour made my life for much of this year. All the more amazing was that I wrote the story while on uber-strong pain medication. Perhaps there is something to the cliche that the best work from a writer really does come from a place of angst. The emotional impact of the experience still sends ripples through my writing as any reader of my blog will have noticed in the postings over the last few months.

Second, a small collection of my short stories, Dialecticoma Dreaming, has been released and is now available on Amazon and other reputable American booksellers. The above-mentioned short story is the last story in the collection. Thematically, the collection is based on stories inspired by dreams (nightmares and daydreams). My personal favourite is the one called Hunger, which was based on a recurring nightmare I had as a teenager. I live in hope that some producer / director will find at least two or three of the stories worth making into a film (short or long).

Finally, a road trip I took a couple of weekends ago has inspired my mind down a whole new path - producing a pearl of an idea that just might have the legs to be the story for my next novel. There is nothing better than being in the middle of nowhere to fuel your creativity. I love long drives and bush walks for this reason. I have been in a frenzy of thought experients since then fleshing out potential plots, sub-plots, characters and the conflicts between them, as well as the key design features of the story's world. To say I am excited is an understatement - I am gorging myself with colourful candy and the sugar rush is intoxicating and addictive.

I face one dilemma though. I had originally planned my next project to be the fourth part of the Panopticon series. I have had a good break from my family of characters in that series. Gabriel, my chief protagonist, is waiting to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. But the above-mentioned road trip seems to have produced a potential competitor for my time. I cannot write both at once - it is har enough emersing yourself in one alternative world, let alone two. So, I will spend the next several weeks working up the storyboards for both novels and make a decision by Christmas as to which of the two I want as my new dance partner for the next two years during my upcoming stretch of writer's hermitude.

Friday, September 20, 2013

identity

“The strongest guard is placed at the gateway to nothing, maybe because the condition of emptiness is too shameful to be divulged.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have been a little out of sorts since my operation to ditch Rupert was executed successfully. The pesky little pancreatic tumor continues to cast a long shadow even though he is gone. Mostly the Zen-like acceptance state I managed to acquire during my lengthy hospital sojourn has stayed with me. Yet I have the odd day now and then when my life seems suddenly not quite right to me. I cannot place my finger on why this is so.

I understand the whole "near death experiences can change you" concept, sort of. I have been in that place of sleep without dreams, the peaceful sleep of a thousand sleeps, and surrounded by black nothingness before. Revived after my heart stopped beating, I have no memory of the engulfing darkness itself, only of the ghost of a dead friend standing at the foot of my bed smiling after I opened my eyes. It was as if he was there to reassure me that everything would be all right. The mind can play serious tricks when you are doped to the hilt on morphine, lying fragile in intensive care with too many tubes to count piercing your skin, surrounded by fussing nurses. That joyful event, which marked my passing and rebirth, occurred shortly after my 27th birthday. It is the reason why I tell people that twenty seven is my spiritual age. In my mind, I have been that age since I was given a second chance at life. I felt out of sorts then, too.

I am in the realm of existential crisis, questioning the very foundations of my life: whether my life has any meaning, purpose or value. It just doesn't feel like a crisis. As Soren Kierkegaard suggested, the individual is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely. Life is short. Life is the vacation. I am just "a ghost driving a meat coated skeleton made from stardust". What do I have to be scared of? I can be in the moment, appreciating all that life has to offer, unburdened by the checkered past, and untroubled by an uncertain future. I am the one who chooses what I want to be.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the life-threatening events trigger moments where I contemplate changing aspects of my life that (arguably) aren't quite working. I consider moving house, moving jobs, taking up a new hobby, reducing the clutter in my life, and embracing a Buddhist philosophy with verve. These changes do not really alter who I am so I have learned to ride out the uneasiness as the moments have come and gone. In lieu of fresh flowers (which I do not like receiving because I loathe watching them die slowly), a good Spring clean works wonders for cathartic release.

If you cannot clear the head of trash, do the next best thing - sweep away the tangible refuse. So begins a major purge, ridding myself of stuff that fills my home, to sweep away the haunting ghost of Rupert. I have hired a large bin (two and a half cubic metres) and I am throwing out items that have survived previous culls - some older than my thirty-something housemate. This includes letters I received from pen pals as a teenager, scrap books, university texts and notes, novels read long ago, and bric-a-brac strewn around the house. I am excited to be purging because, to me, it feels like I am purifying my psyche.

A few of my friends who know I am cleaning out cobwebs believe I am throwing out pieces of my identity with these items and are urging me to reconsider what items find their way into the rubbish. These items do not define me. These items are not even likely to be value if I survive to old age and find myself being shown things from my past, to prompt my memory of who I once was, should I be cursed with dementia. The only time I ever look at these items is when I am Spring cleaning and deciding what to throw away.

I am doing all of this at the same time as I am editing the completed first draft of my short story collection, Dilecticoma Dreaming, before I send it formally to the actual editor. Reading and reworking the stories to be included in the first volume, cover to cover, I am struck by the number of stories that touch upon themes of death and rebirth in some form or another. One could be forgiven for thinking it is more than coincidence and instead a gothic-obsession, but death has nipped at my heels my whole life. Run as I am chased, I cannot avoid what the events in my life have inspired in my writing.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

mentoree virtues

It has been a while since my last confession.

This always was my favourite line at the start of that catholic ritual inside a warm velvet and stained timber box with a priest (along with his identity) secure behind a separating partition. Truth is I actually barely attended church given my father was an atheist. For the single year though he allowed my Catholic mother to send me and my brothers to Sunday school and receive communion at least once before the expiry of his one and only concession to my mother's religious beliefs. So it has been a VERY LONG time since my last 'real' confession.

I have of course confessed many a sin many times since the pre-tween church confessions including at length in my last blog. It would be fair to wonder if writing is a form of confession for a writer no matter what genre they choose. There is as much a separating chasm between me now in my quiet workspace and any reader of my work in a different time and space. I do not write to confess, I write to tell a story. There is no guilt in my sin, only the pleasure and relief of my creative process.

But this is not what I want to confess today.

I admit that I don't like talking with other fiction writers. I much prefer the company of editors when I want to bounce around ideas for improving the quality of my work. I confess this dislike stems from one bad experience in my younger days when another writer stole my idea for a story and sold it as their own. It has made me guarded ever since then when I do speak with another writer. I know it is not particularly rational - I am never short of ideas for stories and what harm is there in sharing them? Part of the answer lies in the most significant character flaw of every writer...All writers (myself included) also have a bad habit of wanting to tell your story in a completely different way - generally peppering the content with alternative themes over which they are more interested. (Editors in contrast take your theme as a given and then suggest ways to improve how you tell your story.) If I want to talk with you about my work, don't tell me what to write, guide me on how to write. This means I avoid writers' festivals as if they were the plague.

That said, I do see some value in one-on-one mentoring. I have been fighting against my anti-writer instinct noted above lately by catching up once a month with another small group of writers. The mentor leading this group is a full time professional writer and, notwithstanding some square black-rimmed glasses hipster leanings, is of sufficient age to offer pearls of wisdom and experience related insights for me to consider.

The sharing of experiences is the best part of a mentor-mentoree relationship. This alone has made the monthly lessons worth the effort. I have liked the impromptu writing exercises that we do to practice technique - spending 10 minutes writing about some random subject to work on perspective and the like. It is quite amazing how these efforts peak my enthusiasm for the writing process. Even a simple task of describing my surroundings reminds me to look around and really make the effort to observe what my senses are telling me about my environment.

Two classes down, three to go.

I still haven't shared any of my ideas with the other writers.






Friday, July 05, 2013

the examined life

I just finished reading an incredible book by Stephen Grosz called "The Examined Life - How We Lose and Find Ourselves". The book is no more than a collection of observations by a career psychoanalyst of the insights offered by his patients over the course of his career. Life told in small stories. It is a potent book.  

It reached out to me much more than most of the psychology books I've read over the years because it recognised just how much "we all make stories to make sense of our lives. But it is not enough to tell tales. There must be someone to listen." Someone "to listen for the hidden meaning behind some of our most baffling behaviour".  

The stories in the book are elegant and simple - engaging the writer himself to reflect about his own self as much as he helped his patients. As a reader, I found myself in many moments of self-reflection as well. Gut wrenching at times. I would read a statement and my tear ducts filled in an instant ready to pour freely. I have reproduced below some of those statements that ripped into my chest with a visceral immediacy as if there was no flesh or bone to penetrate at all.  Do not read further if you are lacking in mood for a bombardment of self-reflection by this writer. 

“All of us try to make sense of our lives by telling our stories, but some are possessed by a story that they cannot tell.”

I sometimes wonder if my (almost entire) lifelong desire to write is a form of possession. I have always told others that writing is my tried and true means to alleviate stress. My form of escape. I have been driven to understand the answer to the obvious question this illuminates - escape from what? 

"At one time or another, we all try to silence painful emotions. But when we succeed in feeling nothing we lose the only means we have of knowing what hurts us, and why."

The voice of my emotions is often on the written page rather than inside of or articulated directly by me. I purge the pain into words spoken by my stories' characters. I wonder whether this a fair substitute for experiencing the real thing?

"She seemed to be crying for the self she’d lost, grieving for the little girl who wasn’t allowed to have her feelings."

The parenting I experienced during my childhood involved a flat out denial of the punctured psyches that fractured each and every member of my family (myself included). An aloof father prone to unpredictable bursts of emotion (the entire spectrum including rage) was far too intimidating for a Bambi-like silent mother. Intelligent discourse encouraged, emotional revelations not, the behaviour I learned from this lethal combination was to forcefully and regularly suppress any healthy release of cathartic fluids.  

“We can take on a catastrophe to stop ourselves feeling and thinking – to avoid responsibility for our own intimate acts of destruction.”

In my working life, I am afflicted by something I call Martyr-Brothers Syndrome. (Aside: it is not a real disease though the concept is probably more familiarly known as workaholic.) Choosing a highly stressful career, where my days are full of crises to solve for demanding political masters, and a willingness to sacrifice excessive hours of my life to get the job done for them. My own well-being sometimes suffers for the cause but who can say no when it means avoiding the far more difficult things that life has to offer. Over time, I have gotten much better at striking a balance between work and play. Replacing one passion (policy advising) for another (writing fiction) helps me to do that (sort of). A niggling doubt remains though that I am still making the same emotional mistakes I made forty years ago. Could it be that (even with all the writing) those fractures in my psyche born during my youth continue to be triggered (and, with that, behaviours worthy of striking a foetal position pose such is the regression). I am my own worst enemy.

“His fear that if he was known, if he was seen as he believes he truly is, he would be found dirty, broken. And being dirty and broken – how could he love, or be loved.”

Replace "he" with "she" in the above statement and it is the perfect summary of the story of my life. Find me a person who does not think they are flawed in some way and I will certify them as the rarest of creatures ever to walk the earth. I often ask myself how someone intelligent can ever lack self-esteem. I believe some of the answer has its roots in those moments in the past when another intelligent being (let's say a parent though it can as easily be anyone in your life with some ability to influence you) belittled my achievements in an effort to encourage that child to strive to be better.  The driven child becomes the driven adult who often feels (though rarely reveals it) as if no one could ever love them.

"We were at an impasse because neither of us would bear the thought that we were irreparably damaged. And it was only when we were both able to be sad, to despair because we couldn’t fix what was broken, the pain we had inflicted [upon each other] stopped serving its purpose and we were able to move forward.”

The driven adult tried to find love in a marriage. With the benefit of hindsight, I now readily admit that I never gave myself entirely to the commitment I made to my then partner. Afraid of loving and being loved in return, I sleepwalked through the ten year interlude. It took a long time to step away from something with plenty of embers to spark alight a fire but ultimately devoid of the sustaining heat needed to survive through a long winter.

“We are waiting around anxious about our situation. We want change. But we are standing around waiting – for what?”

I do not believe I am in the minority when it comes to taking action to adjust things in my life that are not working for me. We are all notoriously slow in seeking and embracing change. Most of the time shit happens and some folk seem to be better at treating that as an opportunity rather than a setback. It was a slow and painful adjustment when my partner abandoned me though I am now cantering along nicely in a different city that has offered many opportunities to repair my fractured psyche.

“Better to be in the position of having lost something than to be something someone forgot.”

I have dated on and off in the last decade (mostly off as I remain gun shy). Of late, I have thought a lot about my lasting legacy. [Aside: the last three months have been a challenging time due to a life-threatening illness and this undoubtedly added to these thoughts.] I do not wish to slip quietly through an entire life time known as a person on the periphery and easily forgotten. The idea that the past might have shackled me so much that I might never shine as a blinding light to another living soul.

“For a minute, the fantasy frightened her, but ultimately this fear saved her from feeling alone. The thought ‘someone wants to kill me’ [even if only a dream] gave her the experience of being hated but not forgotten. She existed in the [dream]. Her paranoia shielded her from the catastrophe of indifference.”

A heaving breast of disinterest. I do not mind long stretches of time alone. There are days when I long for the silence. Days when I am lost in my writing. These are the glimpses of me at my happiest. But I am also lonely at times. I can be surrounded by people and feel completely adrift. These are the glimpses of me at my saddest.

“ 'I was there,’ says Hamm in Beckett’s Endgame, ‘Absent always. It all happened without me.’ Detours into the past were a haven from the present. Over and over, without knowing it, he was refusing to let the present matter.”

Let the past go. Live in the moment. Really connect with this minute in time. I would love to go on a holiday without a camera and with some way of medicinally preventing any memory past or present from holding me back from doing whatever I might choose to do. What would my holiday be if I was completely free to do as I pleased? What would my life be if I lived outside of myself?

“Closure is delusive – it is the false hope that we can deaden our living grief.”

Instead the choices I make in the now are tied by the invisible strings of the past. Cut the chords that bind me tight. But know that there will always be frayed pieces, draped fodder that adds to the drag of wind resistance, no matter how fast I sail across unchartered waters. I have long accepted my fractured psyche is part of who I am and I write better when I accept the grief that comes with that from time to time.

“He found he could more easily bear the idea of his death, accept the silence, because he felt himself alive in the mind of another.”

While I may not have a significant other to ponder the meaning of life with me in those long stretches of silence on any given day or night, I am content that I have shared enough of myself in my written words. Whether to dream, or to lie awake, or to sleep the sleep of a thousand sleeps, somewhere to someone the museum of my thoughts will take an infinite time to crumble to dust.

“When waking from a dream, I find myself reaching out, wanting to say one more thing.”

 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

guinea pigs


 "One day she would get into their heads, play with their imaginations, test their feelings." 

Now that I can see the other side of the tunnel after a challenging period of my life, I thought I'd write a transition blog resuming normal transmission writing about my writing experiences and covering some final commentary about the demise of the tumor (aka Rupert) that has occupied my world for the last few months. Loosely themed it is a "we are all guinea pigs" blog today.

The quote above epitomizes the sort of day that I strive for as a writer. To the extent I have made the decision to share my writing, the holy grail for me is for a reader to have their thoughts and feelings provoked as much I provoke my own when I write.

They do not have to be the same thoughts or feelings. Truth is that they would not even come close to being the same for we are all unique in the lens we view things. I am always interested to hear interpretations of my writing (where people have been kind enough to share) no matter how different those perspectives are from my own. That said, it is satisfying if an idea I was attempting to convey is actually seen by the majority of the readers with similar clarity.

I do not dare tell you HOW to think or feel. The same page can have a thousand different meanings to a thousand different readers. It is a wonder anyone can ever agree on anything.

I am writing this blog from hospital. The surgery to remove Rupert occurred on 15 May and it was a success (see picture below for summary).

But there have been some post operation complications so I am continuing in the leading role of guinea pig for the raft of specialists who have relished the joy of my unique body temple. Being 'special' is overrated. In spite of this, I still appreciate the quirky sense of humour dolled out by the Universe - both bitch slapped and feather ticked by this S&M dominatrix - what is there not to like?
 
I am even seeing the morbid pleasure of images in my blood drainage bag (see picture below):
 
The ghost of Rupert is haunting me as the last remnants of him drain away...
 
The fact that I am writing this blog is a good sign of my improving health. Home soon to my cats, and my stalwart housemate who is going to help me to learn to play the piano. I was asked yesterday if the last few months have led me to reflect about whether there is anything I would do differently now that I have 'survived' a cancer scare. The short answer to that question is that I have been reflecting all my life (writer remember!) but I promise I will reflect some more.