Saved by the journal?

Sunday Blog 15, 12 December 2021

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in a funk. With the wise words of Tara Brach in my head, I thought I would seek true refuge in journalling. Not a false refuge (e.g. bingeing on Netflix, drinking wine, compulsively numbing through doing, working my way through an impossibly large to-do list) but a true refuge. My journals have been my companion for four decades now. Their pages let me wrestle with my raging emotions and detangle the knots of heartache, shame, failure, confusion.

Journals are also the place I can go to unlock a feeling of calm and wellbeing, unleashed just by the act of my pen moving across the page.

So I reached for my journal anticipating this calm, but it fell open at a 2018 entry. The paragraph my eye fell on was almost word for word what I was just about to write. The journal sucker-punched me with the realisation that I am stuck in the hamster wheel of work, spinning faster and faster but getting nowhere.

I began to laugh, then cry, then just ugly cry. Later that day I recollected I had the recently published Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle on my kindle. What leapt out at me was the sentence “Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you.”

Indeed. And so my journal has propelled me on this journey of discovery to find out what my life needs to look like to get off that darned hamster wheel. Stay tuned.

The next generation…

This is the mosaic image I used on the cover of my memoir Not My Story. Because when the vase breaks we can fix it and leave it looking vulnerable or we can create a mosaic, that uses all the broken pieces (and maybe some new ones) and rearranges them in a sturdy, transformed, stunning new framework which is stronger, beautiful and different from before.

Sunday Blog 14, 28th November 2021

Here’s a warning – this post talks about violence against women. If this is not what you want to think about just now, please take care of yourself and scroll on.

As part of my day job, I was invited to a roundtable to create a new strategy for the prevention of violence against women. It felt quite frustrating because no matter how well thought-through that policy may be, the end result is a document. Creating a policy is a bit like creating a diet plan you intend to follow but it’s certainly not actually lost weight. It is only the potential or promise of losing weight. And we all know how difficult it is to lose and keep weight off.

Policy feels like an alternative to doing something that would make real change for women. Like politicians or even Prime Ministers wearing white ribbons and simultaneously de-funding women’s refuges.

I want to create an alternative to our current system where the gaps between police, victim support, health and justice services are reduced from yawning chasms to small, easily navigable steps. Where reporting an assault doesn’t mean agreeing to put yourself into a legal blender and be pulverized in the hope of an outcome that sees justice served and possibly safety for other women.

I may or may not have made a bit of a pest of myself throughout the session, suggesting that a policy might not be as important as an action plan of the many past recommendations from Inquiries that are yet to be implemented (a bit like those retained kilos.) I don’t consider these insights on gaps in the system and trauma by the justice system to be new revelations, or in any way unknown to policymakers and funders. It’s hard for me to see why action can’t happen right now.

Throughout the morning I insisted on how important it is to ensure people with lived experience are involved every step of the way of new policies and services. That we are at the decision-making table and shape the service from the inside out as true, equal partners. To highlight that the answer to every problem is not necessarily a service run by professionals with qualifications (learned experience) but also programs and initiatives run by those who have survived and have practical insights, and who embody a message of the hope of post-traumatic growth (lived experience).

What was so wonderful for me that morning was spotting the woman who has been working on the Young Women Against Sexual Violence initiative. Getting introduced, exchanging cards. Losing her card and finding it again a week later.

It’s nearly twenty years since I survived this experience and seven years since I self-published my memoir on the topic. I have since posted a copy of my book to her. We’re going to start to meet up. I may not be invited back to the next government policy conversation but at least I can re-connect with the grassroots work happening right now to support women.

Twenty years ago…

Sunday Blog 13, 21 November 2021

I moved into my new little cottage I had recently bought. Only I wasn’t sure if I was buying the cottage or it was claiming me – it had felt like home from the moment I saw it just four weeks earlier. I was making a permanent home for my then three-year-old daughter who had lived in two continents and six houses in her short life. I would meet my fate just days after when the man who lived across the road invited me over for a cup of tea. I would fall in love with him over that cup of tea. Six months after that I would meet another fate when a man crept in through the unlocked back door and assaulted me.

Would I change that fate? Would I relinquish the husband I eventually secured after seven years of convincing him marriage would be a great idea?

Would I change the expansion of my understanding from the narrow circle of privilege? I had emerged from a sheltered childhood and adulthood of opportunity. This horror had enlarged this narrow circle to something a bit more aligned with what many people go through day after day, year after year.

No, I would not change my fate. But I still take a moment each year to feel the sadness of being at the end of an unprovoked attack, in the wrong place in someone else’s messed up life trajectory.

And understand I will never live in that house again.

Books are replaceable…

My copy of Pride and Prejudice missing since 1997 in Salonika –
very similar to the copy of Persuasion in this picture -have you seen it??

Sunday Blog 12 – 14th November 2021

So said author and bookstore owner Ann Patchett, when talking on The Australian ABC’s Bookshelf podcast in a recent episode. It struck me as true, in a very brutal real way. “What that book has to give me, it has given me” – once the story is told, the ideas shared, the book itself is a husk that can be re-gifted.

When I left my flat after six years in London and traveled to Greece in 1996, I left most of my books, but I did take my hardback copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with me. It soothed me to re-read it, and I figured having spent just four weeks learning how to be a teacher before getting my first teaching English as a foreign language gig in Greece, well, I would need some soothing.

Almost immediately on my arrival in Greece, I knew I should have packed the whole bookshelf. Getting hold of something good to read in Greece in that far away pre-Google, very-early internet world was an expensive and often fruitless endeavour. I re-read Pride and Prejudice because yes, I needed soothing but also because I often had nothing much else to read.

Another feature of mid-1990s Greece was that phone boxes were a big part of my life. I had no mobile, no landline, just public phone boxes at my disposal. Buying a phone card from the kiosk, dialling the many numbers to reach the other side of the world, not getting it all said before the phone card ran out – these were regular occurrences. Back and forth I might go sometimes, between phone and kiosk, trying to get all the conversations I needed to have.

One particularly trying day in a particularly trying period (the teaching was every bit as hard as you would expect, with such a short training course) I had my sacred copy of Pride and Prejudice with me when I made the trek to the phone box. Somehow in the miasma of unfinished conversations and a fug of homesickness, I walked away from the phone box, leaving the book there.

It took me a few blocks to realise, and I rushed back breathless – it was gone. I know if it had been me who arrived at that phone booth I would have stashed it away like so much gold and scurried back home as soon as I could.

Once I left Greece and returned to Australia, I was once again able to immerse myself in books. I read many more different books and learned the truth of Ann Patchett’s pronouncement. Books are replaceable.

But still, if anyone has seen it out there, do let me know…

Rest…

Sunday Blog 11 – 7th November 2021

The night before last something very strange happened to me. I went to sleep at 8.30pm, and I awoke at 5.30am. In between, I had laid in bed all night, asleep. Eyes closed. No toilet trips. Nothing.

That may be your night every night, but for me, it felt like a miracle.

Last week my daughter turned 23, and it’s fairly safe to say since then, I have slept right through the night about as many times as I have fingers on my left hand.

Sleeplessness began in the obvious way, tending to a baby human’s need for survival, then became a habit when the baby no longer awoke but the sweet peacefulness of the wee hours was so enticing I stayed awake. Some nights I get up and do things, others I listen to podcasts, or read books. When I am feeling really rebellious I might scroll through socials, although that’s not much fun because you don’t want to like or comment and out yourself as the night owl you are.

Long ago I have learned how much can be achieved with little sleep. But as menopause is now upon me, I have let the period of early parenting natural wakefulness elongate right into menopausal sleeplessness. Plus, I have been slowly realising that what I can manage on four hours’ sleep is not what it used to be.

So the night before last I tried something revolutionary. I actually heeded the advice of the many sleep books out there. I didn’t look at a screen and let myself fall asleep naturally.

While not exactly able to pull the miracle off two nights running (because all those episodes of Grace and Frankie won’t watch themselves) it does feel important that I turn over a new leaf, pay attention to habits the support good sleep.

Then when listening to Martha Beck’s new podcast, Bewilderment (right at the end of Episode 4 if you want to know) the quote in the image for this blog leaped out at me. It does take courage to rest, to stop, to relax. Turn off the screens and let natural sleep do its thang.

Night night.

The ordinary moments…

Sunday Blog 10 – 31st October 2021

I was on the road this weekend, and my Podcast app was scrolling through to whatever was next on the playlist. It landed on a re-run of an episode I had listened to some time ago – Brene Brown’s first interview with Oprah Winfrey. As the episode unfolded again, several times I almost pulled over to write down some notes as I was listening. I had to go back later that evening for another run-through. If you are not familiar with Brene Brown, she is an American research professor who has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. Her TEDx talk from 2010 catapulted her to fame.

In the many, many interviews Brene has done with research participants over two decades, she gleans insights, very often counter-intuitive, about humans and how we work. Through careful sifting and theming of research stories, she uncovers wisdom. She has then shared in her books and podcasts as practical, actionable strategies for us to use every day. For example, empathy is a teachable skill. Having difficult conversations, teachable skill. Being authentic – not an innate characteristic at all, but a teachable skill we choose every day, or every hour of every day.

The insight that got me rewinding the tape later to listen again, was that it is not the big moments, it’s the small, everyday moments that we miss when someone we love is gone. She summarised and riffed on the many stories she has heard through her research:

“I miss hearing the screen door slam and knowing my husband’s home from work.”

“I miss hearing my kids fighting in the backyard.”

“I miss the way my wife sets the table”

And Brene reminds us “these are the moments that are in front of us every day and we can stop and say “God, I’m grateful for this.”

She shared the story of a man whose wife of 40 years died in a car accident. He had always been the kind of man who never got too excited about anything – no highs but no real lows either. The moment he realised he’d lost his wife he said, “I should have leaned harder into those moments of joy, because not leaning into them hasn’t protected me from what I’m feeling now.”

The cultivation of gratitude and joy is the way home, Brene says. And it’s right under our noses, hidden in plain sight of our everyday lives.

So no more nit-picking for me, or not getting too excited in case I come across as not cool.

It’s gratitude and joy for the everyday moments for me all the way.

Ram Dass Reflections

Sunday Blog 9 – 24th October 2021

Last night I was perusing one of our excellent independent bookshops, already clutching a couple of eclectic choices, when I saw a hardcover copy of Being Ram Dass. This is a memoir written not long before Ram Dass’ death in 2019, and I plucked it off the shelf, shrugging off the price on the back. Because supporting your local bookshops is always a good thing. Even if the shelves at home already groan with a to-be-read pile.

For several weeks now I have been listening to the Ram Dass Here and Now podcast, so it would have been churlish to leave this memoir languishing on the shelf.

If you have never heard of Ram Dass, he was born Richard Alpert in 1930s America, partnered with the infamous Timothy Leary in pioneering LSD research in the 1960s, and went off to India to find a high he didn’t come down from. He found among other things, yoga and meditation, which he brought back to the Western world.

The podcast Ram Dass Here and Now is chopped up recordings of the many talks he gave in the 1960s and 1970s. One of his friends who originally travelled to India with him in the 1960s introduces each podcast, (I’ve learned to fast forward through those bits) and then Ram Dass cuts in and I am treated to Ram Dass’s resonant voice rolling out contemporary slang phrases, such as “dig it.”

He’s quite funny, as evidenced in the picture quote above. I’ve just spent an evening with my family and so any illusion of being enlightened has been wiped clean. (Only kidding, it was a lovely evening – and not a week, so…) I drove home from the family home listening to him talk about the importance of appreciating uniqueness, rather than having preferences. Using the analogy of trees, he notes that we don’t start judging trees when they’re different – we appreciate their different qualities. But this appreciation vanishes as soon as it’s humans rather than trees. We immediately judge and criticise and find wanting. Think of people as trees, he suggests. Celebrate their unique qualities, have no preferences about people. Good advice.

As well as the amusing reflection on enlightenment and families of origins, he is famous for describing our relationship to each other as “we’re all just walking each other home.”

I love that.

Re-reading The Collector

Sunday Blog 8 – 17th October 2021

Sunday night melancholy cloaks me like a miasma. I blame the 1963 book The Collector which I ploughed through over the weekend. The last time I read it was 1982 when I was 17 and finishing school – three decades later it is still a recommended reading text for English. I am currently part of an Emerging Writers Program and my mentor suggested I might want to read it as I toil away at the latest iteration of my manuscript, and flesh out my narrator’s voice.

I went away for the weekend and happened upon it in my sister’s bookcase, plucked it out and dived in. I finished it on the drive home, its miserable conclusion colouring my view out the window. The lush green paddocks and lone farmhouses whizzed by the car. Instead of appearing charming and rustic, I kept picturing a forgotten Miranda locked into each one of their basements.

Trying to process the awful feelings from this book, I looked for reviews. Imagine my horror when I read in the author’s own words that the inspiration from the book echoed his own author’s own fantasies. Would this book even be published now, with the author confessing the origin of the book and spending half of it colonising the woman victim’s voice? I can only hope not…

The generosity of writers

Sunday Blog 7 – 10th October 2021

If I remember correctly, I saw Michael Robotham speak at the Margaret River Writers’ Festival a few years ago – or perhaps the Perth Writer’s Festival. My memory is notoriously unreliable. For me, there’s nothing I like more than a Writers’ Festival where you can buy all sorts of books you may never get to read with a conscience as clear as rainwater. Because, supporting the arts, right? Plus once you have heard someone speak live, it would be churlish not to buy their novel. Then, you might get a chance to have a chat with the author as they scrawl your name and move to the next keen reader.

Michael Robotham seemed like such a personable man and spoke at some length of that moment in 2002 when his manuscript of his first novel The Suspect set off a bidding war, and how the resulting contract changed his life. He was also very candid about how he hadn’t fully looked at the fine print of this life-changing contract, which asked him to produce books in the same genre as The Suspect. His Great Australian Novel – a literary fiction unfinished potential masterpiece – has had to continue languishing in his bottom drawer. He was very self-deprecating about His Great Australian Novel but it got me thinking.

I am still a very long way away from any kind of publishing contract, with or without a bidding war. But when I find myself in the position of signing a publishing contract, I will be very careful not to sign away my creative licence to try – and possibly fail – at a number of different genres.

I happened to find Michael at the signing desk during a lull when he had enough time for me to very quickly outline my current situation of working almost full time and squeezing in writing on the weekends. He picked up his pen and with a flourish exhorted me to keep finding time to write. It just seemed so kind.

This is just one of the many instances I encounter in the writer’s world – just how generous and encouraging writers are to writers.

I keep this on my desk. I keep finding time to write.

Dirty linen

Sunday Blog 6 – 3 October 2021

“It will involve a free trip to Sydney”, I told my daughter. “All we have to do is air our dirty linen on national television.”

Luckily, I had her at “Free trip to Sydney.”

Clearly, I’m writing about long, long ago, in a pre-Covid world of 2018. Somebody from SBS Insight had read one of my Facebook posts which was on the topic of unplanned pregnancies, and she had replied and asked me to contact her. They were exploring the topic in an episode entitled “Unplanned”

Our dirty linen was that I fell pregnant with my daughter in 1998 on a third date with a tall (as in, 2 metres tall) Greek man when I was living and working in Greece. We did date for a while and even tried to make a go of it, but while we have stayed in touch over the decades essentially I have almost always been a solo mum.

After my first conversation with the SBS Insight researcher, who sounded interested she called me back and asked me if my daughter, then 18 would also come on the show. It was a free trip, and we did.

The travel together to Sydney was fabulous, as always. We sat in the studio for the filming which took two hours, only half of which made it into the program. At about the one hour 50 minutes mark into the filming we began to feel quite uncomfortable that SBS Insight had thrown their money away on us as they still hadn’t asked us a question. We hadn’t been bored in that time – we had been enthralled, watching the stories unfold. These were new and raw stories, with small babies or young children. We had been invited onto the show to give a longer-term view of the unplanned pregnancy scenario.

If you want to watch the episode we appear at the 47.23 mark of a 50-minute episode, and everything we said made it onto the film.

I certainly questioned why I had wanted to be on it, and also drag my daughter into the dirty linen airing too. But something came out of it I hadn’t anticipated. One of the featured stories – Catrina – with pink hair – messaged me afterwards. She said I gave her hope about raising her daughter alone. Ah, the power of the stories we share.