Includes book reviews and bits from writer's journal. For the professional stuff, see website link below left.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Writer's Journal (exercise): Walking Down Wellington Street

You are 10. Go out your front gate, turn right, and tell us about your walk.

It’s the first time I’m allowed to walk to the shops on my own — the big shops down in town, not the little one on the corner where I have always been allowed to go. Mum has given me an errand; I am to bring back nails from the hardware store. She has an air of suppressed or restrained impatience as she gives me the instruction. It’s momentous that I am being trusted with this task, and it’s even a kind of test. I know this and she knows it, and we both know that the other knows, but we are not saying so; we pretend it's all casual and normal.

As I go out the gate and turn right, it is as if the very air is holding its breath. Well, it is quite a warm day, not much breeze. There is that stillness of summer afternoons, beautiful afternoons with the warmest part of the day still to come. I walk swiftly, feeling self-important and indulging it now that I’m away from Mum’s eye and the pretence. A magpie struts on the nature strip, its beak raised. It’s a fine, plump bird and seems to know that by its stance. I start to feel excitement, and give a little skip. The magpie warbles as if in accompaniment. A breeze begins, a very light breeze, just enough to ruffle my hair and the leaves in the trees in the gardens I pass.

Wellington Street is a long street, but ‘your little legs are younger than mine’ adults always say when they want me to fetch something for them, so I rejoice now in my young legs and walk along almost singing with happiness (except I never sing in case someone hears me and tells me to keep in tune — I never know what they’re talking about when they say that. I am in tune to me.) But I sing inside my head, and smile secretly to myself as the clouds ripple across the sky in the breeze, and change their shapes.

The sunlight sparkles, the lawns in the gardens I pass are a fresh, bright green. The flowers nod and bob gently in the breeze. I touch all their different colours. A little dog rushes a fence, behind which he is safely shut in, not aggressively but with playful little barks, his stumpy tail wagging. ‘Hello, boy,’ I say to him as I go on past. I think that on the way back I might see if he’ll let me pat him. I know I have to get him to sniff my fingers first.

I straighten my back. I am alone, I am responsible, I am confident. I walk int the hardware shop and go straight up to the counter. When it is my turn, I speak in a strong voice. The man smiles at me. I am 10. I am big now. I am almost grown up.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Writer's Journal (exercise): Who Is That Man?

(Imagine a person, and watch him walk along a street.)

Who is that old fellow there? I watch from the Balcony CafĂ© as I sip my long black, lazily observing the passers-by. Something about this bloke intrigues me. He shuffles slowly, so I have time to watch him a while. As well as being bent and slow, his gait tells me he is angry. Yes, he shuffles, yet his legs move in a jerky kind of way. And his back, bent as it is, is held rigid. It is his arms which give away the most. The fists are clenched, and I don’t think it’s from arthritis. As he gets closer, I see that his lips are moving silently and his forehead is creased in a frown. I wonder what he is muttering to himself, but there is no sound coming from those moving lips. However they are very busy, as if he is almost spitting the silent words.

He is lost in his own world of rage, I think. It’s a wonder he doesn't collide with someone or trip over the pavement, but he doesn’t. He seems to have enough awareness of his surroundings to avoid that. In fact he has a sort of purposeful air, with that energy that anger can sometimes give. Shuffling angrily and purposefully, what a contradiction. But he is walking in a very straight line. I realise that the reason he collides with no-one is that people are getting out of his way, giving him nervous looks as they navigate around him. He is not seeing them, or not with any great attention, as far as I can tell. Those fists are flexing, and his frown is ferocious. I wouldn’t like to be whoever he is going to meet. If he was a young man, I’d say he’d be on his way to beat someone up. As it is, maybe he is going to tell someone off. Or maybe he is already telling them, in his silent monologue, the things he can’t say to their face.

I wonder if he has dementia. Most of us don’t display our emotions so overtly on the street. Maybe he is a bit deranged. He is right below me now and I can see that his shoulders are twitching, in an apparently involuntary tic. Poor fellow! He must be very, very upset about something. Does he live alone? Has he got anyone to take care of him? Now that I look closer still, I see that his clothes are rather unkempt, don’t look as if they have been washed or mended in quite some time. But if he is alone in the world, if he is deranged, what is he doing wandering this street in such a rage? Has he escaped from a care facility? Or does he live with family?

Writer's Journal (exercise): Silence

... is golden, they say. They also say speech is silver. Monetary values. Silly. But I do like silence. I like great big gobs of it in my life. That is because I like thinking, and noises can interfere with thinking. You can train yourself, though, to tune them out. When I had young kids, I had to do that in order to write. I had to have enough of my attention available to them to know if they needed immediate help, but to be able to allow their chatter and play noises to go on as a background and be with my own thoughts all the same. Now, I don't do that so easily.

Well, it is because there’s only Andrew and me, so when he wants to talk it’s me he wants to talk to. I need to remind myself of the thing I learned in the Communication Workshop all those years ago, a sort of switching attention technique. Stop / Change / Start. You deliberately, consciously stop what you're doing, give your whole attention to the interruption, and when that is completed you can do the 'stop start change' thing again and give your whole attention once more to the original activity.

Most of us give only half-hearted attention to the interruption and try to keep all our attention on what we were engaged with before, and end up not retaining either very well. Yes, I should remind myself of that. Instead I act as if my private thoughts are much more important than anything Andrew might have to say. Shame on me!

Good resolutions, good resolutions. I WILL change, I resolve it! We shall see. It did used to work in the long ago days when I learnt that trick and actually used it, so I suppose it would work now too if I did.

Writer's Journal (exercise): Letter To My 16-Year-Old Self

It’ll pass, I promise. You WILL get out of this! One more year and you can escape. And your brother will get away too, because the bitch will kick him out. Best thing she could do for him; and you’ll still be together in a much nicer home from home. You’ll never set eyes on your stepmother again, and good riddance. The aunty you go to will become your beloved 'second Mum' for the rest of her long life.

You might as well save yourself the trouble of telling all those lies to the girls at school about your fictitious boyfriend. They know you're making it up, even though they smile politely.

And you really should stop with the cigarettes now, not 30 years later.

But don’t worry, it’ll all work out in the end. You will even be a published poet eventually.

Writer's Journal (exercise): Rubber Gloves

The name Ansell springs to mind. That’s a brand name but it could be the name of a character in a story. What genre is it? With a topic like rubber gloves, it could be about midwifery. Hmm, I don’t think so. How about crime? Someone wears rubber gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints. Or it could be a horror story. Under the rubber gloves were two dismembered hands, still bleeding. It would be difficult to use them in a romance unless it was a porn story, and we won’t go there,. A medical romance, perhaps? The handsome young doctor peeled off his rubber gloves turned to the pretty young nurse and said…..

So it may be true that you can adapt anything to any genre. War story? The only thing left after the bomb hit was an old pair of rubber gloves at the bottom of the metal laundry trough. Yes, you can do it with anything.

Children’s story. Once upon a time there were these two little rubber gloves called Ansell and Coles.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Writer's Journal (exercise): In Search of Eddie's Mind

(after he claimed to have lost it)

I go in with my flashlight. Yes, the skull cavity looks reassuringly normal. The brain is here, folded over upon itself in all the requisite tucks and tangles. Nothing unusual there. But when I look for the mind that is supposed to be housed therein, well it just ain’t present. That’s a bit of a shock, I can tell you. I know I know, he said it was gone, but you can’t trust every idiot that tells you that. Usually there’s one in there somewhere, just not being used the right way, or blocked somehow. But this one — it really is just plain gone. Disconcerting!

I look around for sign of exit holes. Or did it simply evaporate? I see no signs of lingering mist or gaseous vapours. No, I’d say it got out whole. Entire I mean. THROUGH a hole of some kind. Could it have slipped down his throat? Well no, the brain has no direct entry into the gullet. Perhaps into the spinal cord? I take a gander, as far down as I can see. Not a trace. Of course it’s hard to see around all those knobs and things, but you’d find some evidence of the spine having been discombobulated a trifle, or maybe the nerves would have swelled up as the mind transformed entirely into nervous impulses.

Nope. Get it, it’s truly really GONE. Not here. Absent. Left this place. Room vacant.

There’s a worry. If it’s left, what will arrive to occupy the space? Where IS that hole? I’ve got to plug it up quick. You never know what might come through.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Writer's Journal (exercise): What if the frog didn’t want the princess to kiss him?

It’s been such a disappointment! Yes, he’s a handsome fellow all right, what he’s turned into, can’t complain there. Never mind that his eyes are a bit bulging and he’s a trifle prone to warts, all in all he’s easy on the eye. And nothing wrong with his brain, nor his physical agility come to that. It’s his attitude!

‘Why did you do it to me?’ he moans in that distinctive voice of his. 'I’d really rather be a frog. I miss my nice pond, and the underside of the water lily pads. I can’t go there any more, do you realise that?’

‘But you have ME,’ I tell him, ‘And a crown on your head and everything. You live in a palace and you can eat real food.’

He just sniffs and looks longingly at a passing fly.

Perhaps it will be better when summer comes and he can go swimming in the lake. That might settle him down a bit.

‘It wasn’t the kiss itself,’ he explains to me, ‘That was nice,’ And he smooches up so I do it again and again. ’It was just the after-effects of that first one, see.’ It feels very odd to be in this body. And the way people stare at me when I crouch down and hop on all fours, as if there was something wrong with that. It’s really the most natural form of locomotion. You should try it some time.’

I can’t help sighing. You would think, with all I bestowed upon him, he’d try a little harder to be happy. Even the prospect of a child doesn’t seem to help. I have a dreadful feeling he’d prefer a handful of tadpoles to emerge from my womb!

I wish I knew the way to turn him back.

Writer's Journal (exercise): Life as a Series of Pinpricks

Or so it seems now, after only a few days of adhering to a strict regime of jabbing him at certain times of day. Luckily it’s easier than I thought it would be. I freaked out at the idea of having to stick needles in him, but the diabetic educator met me at the hospital to instruct me and was very reassuring; then the nurses invited me to attend for a couple of mornings before he was allowed home, to practise under their supervision. Everyone says I’m doing brilliantly. But I was panicky at first, when I had to do it all on my own. Then I settled into the rhythm of it. ‘You should have been a nurse,’ the nurses told me. ‘

You’re such a good nurse,’ he himself says. The last thing I ever wanted to be! The second-last choice was teaching. And look, I’ve been teaching in various ways for many years now. When I was at school, girls could be teachers, nurses or secretaries. I was clear I didn’t want to be any. I’ve been a secretary too — did all my second husband’s secretarial work, and have been Secretary to various organisatons, from the Poets Union of Victoria to the Pottsville Beach Neighborhood Centre.

All I ever really wanted to be when I grew up was a poet. Well, that’s all right then: I managed that too.

'Life as a series of pinpricks' could also refer to minor irritations. The minor irritations are always with us, but the pinpricking isn’t so bad in practice.

Writer's Journal (exercise): Feeling Different

I always felt different when I was a kid, the one who didn’t fit in. And even into adulthood, come to think of it. The one whose clothes weren’t quite right, not like everyone else was wearing; the one who didn’t hang with the gang, didn’t like the same stuff as everyone else, couldn’t make small talk about the things that everyone else talked about, couldn’t make small talk at all, had no nous, no savoir faire.

But I wasn’t the kind of different that had everyone looking at me. I was the kind of different that rendered me invisible, unnoticed, passed over. I would pipe up to finally contribute something to a conversation, and it would be as if I had not spoken. Yes, I know I have a soft voice, but not that soft: not so soft that no-one thinks I’ve said a word. But that’s how everyone reacted — with a total lack of reaction, as if I didn’t exist. It wasn’t as if they did it pointedly to be nasty; they just genuinely didn’t notice me. I didn’t register.

When did I get over that? Somewhere in my twenties. There were individuals who noticed me, and I did have friends, but we were the outsiders, the weird ones, the daggy ones. At some point it changed. It was when I decided I didn’t want to be like the rest of them anyway.

Positive Thinking Be Damned

I spit me of positive thinking! 

Yes there may have been something in it the way Norman Vincent Peale first wrote about it, but these days it is too often interpreted in the shallowest terms. It has become just another New Age wank. I am so sick of people who think everything can be solved by being all sweetness and light, in the face of absolutely any trial or trauma that may come along. It’s not always intelligent or appropriate.

I’m sure that a habitually cheery nature probably has a good effect on one’s health and wellbeing and eases one’s social relationships — or at the very least must make it easier to bear the vicissitudes of fortune. I do believe that gratitude is a powerful force that attracts more good stuff to you.  But here’s the rub — you have to mean it, it must be genuine. It doesn’t work when it’s a form of denial.

As I am always telling my clients and students, it’s no good stuffing a positive affirmation on top of a negative. The subconscious isn’t fooled for a moment. The example I use is: you say, ‘Oh I am so abundant!’ and your subconscious goes, ‘So how come you can’t afford those new tyres you need?’

You need to drag the negative thoughts out into the light of day first and have a look at them. Some are just things that float through the collective mind of the culture you live in. “All men are bastards’, ‘All politicians are crooks’, and so on. Them you can afford to dismiss. Say to those thoughts, ‘Thank you for sharing, you can go now.’ Others may be justified. If you really can’t afford new tyres that you need, better plan a way to have it happen rather than keep stewing in useless worry. And if it’s something that seems too big for you to deal with, you need to hand it over to a higher power. ‘OK mate, you fix this one; too big for me!’

I also believe in the old adage, ‘Trust in God and keep your powder dry / tether your horse’ — whichever version you were told. Or let’s put it this way: ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ We do have to do our bit. If a cyclone or a flood is coming, for instance, by all means hand it over to God; also you may well need to evacuate. (We have experienced both these events in Australia recently, so those examples spring to mind.) And if your commonsense or your intuition is giving you a warning, it might be more useful to take note than to ignore it in favour of thinking positive.

‘Don’t be so negative! We’ll find the money,’ says my beloved when he wants something we can’t afford. Yes, we very well might — but only if we budget for it. Spending beyond our income is not a good solution.  Running short of money is not a time to think positive, I reckon, so much as a time to pray. (And having prayed, then you can be positive enough to trust that your prayers will be answered, as indeed they always are.)

I’m particularly annoyed about this whole issue just now because a friend has cancer. It’s the second time she’s had it. I learned today that for some time she had been waking up in the night thinking that there was cancer back in her body, and everyone kept telling her, ‘No, it’s cured. Think positive’. So she put off going to the doctor. She is having treatment now, but would of course have preferred to catch it earlier.  As she said today, her body was trying to give her a message, and she was persuaded to ignore it.

‘Who told you that you were cured"?’ I asked, wondering if it was her doctors. She just repeated, ‘Everyone!’ So I am thinking she has a fair few New Age wankers around her. I mean, if someone told me they had such a worry, the first thing I’d say to them would be, ‘Well, get it checked out, if only to put your mind at rest.’

The next thing I’d say would be, ‘May I do some absent Reiki on you and ask your Higher Self what’s going on?’ I’m not allowed, by law, to diagnose, but I might find reason to say, ‘Yes, there does seem to be something the matter. It might not be what you think, but do get your doctor to have a look.’ I’m also likely to get a few clues about mental/emotional factors contributing to the problem, and could give the person something to work on at that level. Can’t hurt, could help. I would also, of course, continue with the Reiki to try and help heal the condition.

And if I didn't pick up anything? Then all I could say would be, 'Well, I didn't find anything alarming, but I'm not infallible. I think you should double-check with your doctor just in case.'

But really, what sort of friends would tell someone who had that kind of concern, someone who had previously had cancer, to just ignore it and think positive instead of getting medical advice?  I don’t at all understand that attitude.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Sorry or Not

Am I the only person in the world who thinks saying ‘sorry’ is over-rated?  Don’t get me wrong — if indigenous communities want and need an apology for the vile things done to them by colonial governments, they are entitled to it and should have it. Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal Australians was one of the most moving and powerful things I’ve ever witnessed! And it was absolutely necessary, because the people had been asking for it for decades, and because it was a public acknowledgment of the terrible wrong done to them. That I can understand. Further, his speech was comprehensive and detailed. He made it clear exactly what white Australia was apologising for, and why.

In my personal life, though, I notice that there are people who say ‘sorry’ without really meaning it. It’s almost like giving themselves a licence to do whatever-it-was again. A quick, slick ‘sorry’ means they never have to think about what they did. It is an acknowledgment that I have been offended, but not of why. I sometimes get the idea that they actually don’t understand why — or simply don’t care.

I myself don’t actually care if they feel sorry or not. Other people’s feelings are their own concern. I don’t want to guilt-trip anyone. If they’ve upset me, I would quite like them to understand why I am upset, and not to belittle or trivialise that — but even this is a secondary consideration.

What I want is the assurance that they won’t do whatever-it-was again.