Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Pregnant with expectation

This was my entry in this year's NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. They gave me the criteria: 2000 words in the comedy genre, including a perfectionist and a baby shower.

Natalia checked the time on her phone: three minutes to spare. She silently felt a wave of self-congratulation rising through her. So far on this day, she’d managed to walk the dog around the lake, down a superfood smoothie, cycle 13 kilometres to the city in the heat of the desert wind, knock over two of the 85 tasks on her list of things to do at work this year, and thrash out an afternoon body combat gym session. All that with enough time to arrive at number 85 Lansdowne Terrace by 6.30pm, showered and dressed in a casual-yet-elegant silk shirt-dress and three-quarter tights.

This was the scene of a new workshop, which Natalia had learnt of via a sponsored link on her social media feed. The online network had correctly identified her as an expectant first-time mother who, for now, remained immune to the bust cycle by which her current city was besieged. Iron ore prices had dropped, and the prevailing view, that “the arse was falling out of the real estate market”, was now evidenced by the rows of “For Lease” signs lining this prestigious strip of three-storey office buildings.

However, despite the economic downtown, Natalia was OK. Her partner was OK. Their dog was OK. She was grateful for that. And she was determined to maintain her fitness regimen for as long as she could hold out.

Natalia entered the building, typical for this part of town. Shiny steel balustrades, immaculate glass windows, and purpose-designed landscaping characterised the mostly empty edifices. Across the street, one office was occupied by a conservative federal politician, the outspoken Minister for Women: a self-professed anti-feminist woman. Natalia made her way up the stairs.

She spotted a sign: “Baby Showers by Design”. On popping her head around the adjacent doorway, Natalia found her friend Valeria and proceeded to take a seat beside her. She had invited Val because traditionally, Natalia had read in her online research, a baby shower ought to be orchestrated by a friend or family member of the expectant mother.

Val was the perfect candidate, Natalia realised, because Val felt indebted to her for the occasional Saturday morning when Natalia, her partner and their dog would alleviate Val of her unfortunate lot as a single mother struggling to raise her child in an inflated market. Natalia enjoyed these three-hour excursions with Val’s son, Dan, because they offered her a taste of what it would be like to raise a child with her beloved partner, inspiring confidence that this nuclear relationship would last (despite the incursion of a small, dependent, non-verbal human person), and that she would be spared the desperate fate that had befallen her friend. Thankfully, Natalia’s partner was on Dan-minding duties this evening.

While still remaining afloat of the collapsed market, Natalia had some fears about starting a family on the west coast. She had followed her partner here just one year after they had met in their hometown of Sydney. He’d come across to kickstart his late-blooming career as an architect. During their long-distance phase, she’d certainly considered ending the relationship, but decided eventually that he was a catch – down to earth, practical, relatively attentive, perfect father material. And so she left her network of family and friends to follow her partner more than 3000 kilometres across the country to the most isolated city on the planet.

Perth, Australia: where discrepancies between rich and poor seemed to coexist in closer proximity than in any other place on the continent, or any other place she had been, for that matter. But she avoided Chinatown, which seemed to harbour most of the inner-city’s unsavoury street creatures. Else, you had to travel to the extremities of the conurbation to find those left behind by the most recent iron ore frenzy emanating from China.

Natalia had been here for just a year. Working as she did in a nine-to-five professional office job, Natalia did not have much time to forge meaningful friendships. So far, she had connected with only one work colleague, Christina, from Scotland. But Christina had departed to follow her husband, one the many international mining and finance specialists flown into town for little more than two years, before following the money to the next career destination. Theirs had happened to be Abu Dhabi. Natalia was lucky to have Val really, an old friend of her partner from back on the east coast. It was just that Val’s neediness did sometimes feel like a tax on her free time – though she would never say that to Val, nor to her partner, nor even their dog. That would be bad karma, and it would make her look like a bitch.

The cell phone said 6.30pm. The workshop was about to begin. Susan, the facilitator, ran a one-woman show. As a stay-at-home mother of toddlers, Susan had not long graduated from the initiation rite of baby showers, and recognised an untapped niche market in this mineral-based economy, which still managed to fuel considerably high disposable incomes despite the doubling of median house prices within the space of five years.

Susan had managed to instate a $200 price-tag per mother-to-be at the workshop, and get away with it. This had given her a constant sense of self-congratulation since she’d conceived the idea the previous year. Inspiration had struck after she downloaded a year planner and workbook aimed at the “whole-hearted business creatrix”. So far, she already had filled five of these workshops, and was sure she had them down to a fine art.

Natalia felt another wave of self-congratulation too, that she had snared the deal that admitted two participants – she and Val – to the workshop for the price of one. She was always in search of great deals.

The workshop began. Susan introduced herself as a mother of two troublesome toddlers, and asked if any of the participants were expecting their first child. All but one of the 10 expectant mothers in the room was a first-timer, and more than half had brought a friend or sister. Natalia felt a hopeful smile begin to spread across her face. Here was a brand new chance to forge some meaningful friendships.

Susan went on to introduce the concept of a baby shower. “I invite you to complete this sentence,” she said, as she wrote in black marker on a whiteboard: ‘The purpose of a baby shower is to shower a woman with ...’.  “You can come up with more than one answer,” she said. “Just take out your notebook and write down whatever comes to mind.”

“Gifts,” wrote Natalia. It seemed obvious. And gifts were what she needed too. Yes, she was relatively successful, but her cash flow did leave a lot to be desired. Natalia was pouring most of her income into her two investment properties in Sydney. And her partner, though starting to do well now, was making up for his late entry into professional careerism. This was an occasional source of tension between them, but Natalia had resolved to accept him, warts and all. As others at the workshop, continued to write answers (What could they possibly be writing?) her mind drifted to afternoons at the dog-friendly beach, where she would witness distant sunsets over the Indian Ocean, her partner silhouetted fishing off the rocks, and her dog panting happily in the shallows.

Susan interrupted the reverie. “Now, we’ll go around the group so you can introduce yourself,” the host beckoned. “Just say your name, perhaps where you’re up to in your pregnancy or whether you’re here with a mum-to-be, and any ideas about how to finish the sentence. We’ll start with you.” Susan was gently raising her hand in the direction of Val.

“Hi, my name’s Val, I’m here with my friend Natalia. And the purpose of a baby shower is to shower a woman with love.”

“Wonderful. Thanks, Val,” said Susan.

Love? thought Natalia. Oh no, I’ve fucked up. I’ve totally fucked up.

Natalia surreptitiously turned the page of her notebook so no one would see her original and let’s face it – correct – answer. The focus of the room turned toward her. She quickly steadied her breathing. “Hi, I’m Natalia, I’m 16-weeks pregnant and my answer is ... ‘joy’.”

“Joy. Yes, indeed – motherhood is all about joy, with just a few tears along the way,” Susan winked.

Is she taking the piss out of me? thought Natalia. No, stop that! Wait a minute. Breathe. Breathe. Just relax – this is going to be great. We’re all on this together. Were like sisters, all of us in this room.

Natalia smiled and offered a dainty NB-LOL (which she had learnt meant “nose breathing laughing out loud”), as she looked around at the group. Everyone else was smiling back at her. Excellent ... Success!

As the others introduced themselves, the answers were similarly wishy-washy: self-belief; self-love; community; happiness; sisterhood; and so on. Well, all of this seemed to go against the etymological definition that Natalia had read on Wikipedia. Evidently, Natalia surmised, this workshop would be process-driven rather than fact-based. Fantastic, she thought, as she worked to find the positive in the situation. It’s just like pregnancy, just like the journey of motherhood. She hoped that they also would get advice on choosing venues, party games and menus, before the night wore on too much longer.

The next exercise affirmed the process-driven path. Susan asked the participants to choose one of the words they had written down, close their eyes, embody that word, and visualise for five minutes how they could imagine that feeling playing out in their life right now. Susan explained this was an ancient technique that raised one’s energetic vibrations to bring in the desires of your higher self.

Oh yeah, that “Secret” shit, thought Natalia. But she was determined to be open to the experience and get her money’s worth. She was tempted to go with the word “gifts” in the hope of manifesting the products on her wish list, but erred on the side of caution, lest she be invited, once again, to share with the group.

Okay, joy ... joy. Natalia concentrated, as Susan guided them towards relaxation. “Feel the ground beneath you, under your sit bones, beneath your feet. Notice your breath. And begin to surrender to Mother Earth,” Susan proposed hypnotically. “Let your face relax.” Natalia gradually unfurrowed her brow.

Joy, hey? Natalia’s mind went back to that idyllic picture: the sunset, the fishing, the dog. [Don’t forget to reset the mortgage payments on the second property FIRST THING TOMORROW!] Joy. How can I feel joy right now? Natalia asked.

And they answered.

Did they? Yes ... she was sure of it.

The small, dependant, non-verbal human person answered. But they were non-verbal, that’s the thing. The answer wasn’t a word. It was in fact a feeling, a knowing. The thought began to form: I can feel joy right now by seeing the world through the eyes of an unborn child.

Her image of the Indian Ocean afternoons broke into memories: moments when she would wrap her hands around the foul-smelling burley as she packed it into the coil on the fishing line, so her partner had a better chance of catching a mackerel for dinner. Moments when she would retrieve the dog’s ball from the waves and fall in fully clothed. Moments when she wasn’t afraid of anything. Moments when she didn’t want anything. A tear ran down her cheek.

“You can open your eyes,” said Susan.

Natalia wiped her cheek and realised she felt like she’d just arrived back from a free holiday in Bali. Shit, she thought, I don’t have any answers to say out loud. Please don’t ask us to share. Please don’t ask us to share.

“I’m not going to ask you to share that experience – that’s just for you to hold on to,” Susan said. “Now, we begin to move toward your personal baby shower experience.”

Susan asked the women to choose whether they wanted to work alone, with their chaperone, or in groups. Val – just Val. She looked at her best female friend in this lonely city and smiled. Val smiled back. They were ready for the task at hand.

“We’re going to start workshopping ideas. So keeping these feelings with you – the embodiment of these feelings, I want you to start brainstorming, one by one, ideas for each of these categories.” Susan wrote on the board the words ‘Setting’, ‘Guests’, ‘Food and drinks’, ‘Activities’, ‘Time of day’.

“I’ll just let you know, I’ll be giving you advice on all of these things later in the evening, but this is a moment for you to come up with your own initial ideas about what you want your special day to look like,” Susan foreshadowed.

Suddenly, the answer was simple, obvious and, Natalia realised with enormous relief, real.

“Val,” she began in a low tone. “I know this workshop cost $200, and to be honest, I was hoping to work out how I could invite as many acquaintances as possible without feeling awkward about asking them to buy from a gift registry.” Val, taken aback at Natalia’s honesty, let out an NB-LOL. Val had always wondered why her dear old friend was with this control freak, but had put it down to the fact that he was so laid-back, he needed the complementary structure and drive of such a personality. But now she caught a glimpse of something else.

“All I want, Val, is to go down to the beach with you, Dan, Andrew and the dog, sit, sip tea or champagne or whatever you like, and watch the sun set. I just want a moment that lasts longer than five seconds to appreciate this fucking miracle.” Tears ran down her face. She released a couple of sobs from her tight chest. She was confused by this behaviour, but hormones were strange things, and her emotions had been even more out of control than usual lately.

Val opened her arms and embraced this newfound friend. Susan, partly in damage control and partly excited to see some emotion arising from her guided meditation skills, rushed over and whispered, “Are you OK?”

“Yes, I think I am,” replied Natalia. “But I think it’s time to go now. Val, do you mind if we go?”

The two friends left the room, descended the stairs of 85 Lansdowne Terrace, exiting through the externally-locking glass door and walked down the empty street, arm in arm, relishing the onset of the cool, south-westerly breeze.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Preparations for Mother's Day: an open letter

Being an adult without a child to call "our own": in 2016, is this something we as a community need to discuss? If you have something to say about it, please do ...

Dear everybody,

Soon it will be May, and we’ll have Mother’s Day. For many, this can be a day of love and appreciation.

For others, it can be a festival of difficult emotions ... for those whose mothers have passed, for those who never knew their mother or child due to adoption, for those who feel they are failing as mothers due to whatever impossible situations face them and their children. It can be a day when women mourn for children lost.

For the past couple of years, as I’ve entered my late 30s, despite my best intentions to be supremely beyond the grasp of human emotion, Mother’s Day has evoked sharp feelings of discomfort. Last year, I was out with my mother and two of my sisters - who are busy mothers, teachers and artists - for a bright morning of coffee and high art. I couldn’t seem to escape the shadow of difficult emotions, and I beat myself up for it (double flagellation – yeah!). I posted something about my feelings on Facebook, and a few people piped up to air their experience of similar feelings.

This week, I met with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. The topic came up of where we're at – being women in our latter 30s, single, without children. We both work with children, we both love children, and we have none of our own. This was something she could barely speak about in public due to feelings of shame, as if she had “failed at being human”.

There are so many reasons why people don’t have children (which, I’ve realised, are often examined more closely than the reasons why people do have children). My reasons for not ending up with a tribe of offspring at this time in my life are very personal, and I don’t feel ready to air them publicly. Suffice to say, I walked away from the opportunity several times, in the interests of walking away from toxic relationships and/or potentially impossible situations. 

Someone said to me recently, "When you have children ..." and I thought, "Are you mad?" This is a huge departure from my thoughts a few years ago. I’ve been through some times of grieving as I’ve entered my late 30s. I’ve begun to question whether I can be OK with not having children. I’ve had to tease out the social expectations from the biological drive, from the least obvious factor – what do I really want at this point in my life? 

For the past couple of weeks, sharp feelings have been coming up. There were several triggers, and then I started support work with a new person in a new neighbourhood. Her family history is one of fostering, from a long lineage of mothers having babies beyond their capacity. The neighbourhood is a world of poverty, violence, people embedded in the welfare system for generations. With the triggers in place, my thoughts started to turn dark. Experiencing this world made me think I could have made a go of those impossible situations that confronted me – I was at least lucky to have capacity, to know what care feels like, to know what health feels like.

And then my thoughts turned again, and I realised that I would personally know more than 100 women who don’t have children. And yet, from conversations I’ve had over the past few years, women believe that if they don’t have children, there is something wrong with them, that they have failed, they are not complete. We struggle to untangle ourselves from these stories, and it seems we’re sometimes struggling individually, alone. Maybe there is a need for this, but maybe there is a need for something else as well.

I’m wondering if this is something we need to look at. I’m wondering how it’s an issue for people of other genders. I’m wondering if it’s a huge phenomenon, happening in these pockets of isolation, throughout our society. I'm wondering if many of us are scared off from having children by the individualism of our social structures. 

I'm wondering whether we need to come together to tell new stories.

I’m mindful that I don’t want this conversation to be exclusive. It’s possibly not just about women. It’s possibly not just about people who haven’t had children. It’s possibly a broader conversation about dismantling ideas about traditional family structures, and community structures. 

It's possibly an opportunity for a new story about our entire society, where the child is not "your child" or "my child", but "our child".

If you want to say something about this (and because I'm interested to gauge the mood), you can post comments, or email me at justine.reilly@gmail.com

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Divinely inspired

Towerland, South Africa
The title of this post is the root meaning of the word "enthusiasm". Inspired by what is. Inspired by what is alive, what I am receptive to, what I am able to process and pass through me: perhaps, a pile of effluent (which, by pure definition, is a stream flowing out of a body of water ... which isn't that bad).

However, producing effluent for all the world to see - or ignore - that's the risk you take when you create.

In the interests of embarking on this new venture entitled "acting doggedly" (ie. sticking to a path of creativity that is writing ... not singing, dancing, plucking, photographing, reading snippets of everything, talking, travelling, drinking coffee, etc etc etc), I shall take a moment to reflect on writers.

Regarding writers who have inspired me ...

A handful jumps to mind because of the internal resonance that I feel with them, and because I would be glad to enact the kind of catalysing that they have brought to life for me. They are Jean Rhys, Doris Lessing and Robyn Davidson. A few others who have come up in the past have been Janet Frame, Nadine Gordimer, Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins and John Irving.

What is the commonality? What do they bring through their writing that I value?

They bring the truth of their experience. In particular, many of them are not afraid to depict the world through the prism that is an awareness of subtle sexism (or to bring up lots of the subtle unseen). I once heard a man (a member of my family, in fact) say that he couldn't read the word of female authors because he didn't understand their world view. Perhaps he was talking about the view that is able to perceive subtle sexism.

If you're a cis male, I guess that perception may be difficult to glean. And perhaps that's a whole audience who won't want to read my work - I don't know. Maybe no one will want to read my work - I don't know. But that is getting ahead and getting grandiose. Time to go back to ground and humble myself before the greatness of writers who have gone before me, and the divinity of inspiration.

What do these writers have in common? That have an arresting combination of a "fuck off" attitude and an almost embarrassing degree of vulnerability - an honesty about their own position in the world.

For example, the main character in Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist is a woman who wants to be mother to the anarchists, while wanting desperately to rebel against her own mother. She wants to be a feminist, but her male partner constantly takes advantage of her kind and maternal nature in a way that she cannot see. She is sucked into the self-serving needs of her immature, barely house-trained comrades and forgets herself. She is reliving her mother's story, just in a different context. She is the most practical person in the movement, and sees herself as its saviour, but has no idea of the violent actions being planned within the movement. She cannot see what others see of her. And what others see of her differs from person to person - be they the overworked, underpaid handyman who has been wrangled into the cause - the only person with income from a job (bringing up the fraught conundrum of living in a capitalist market system) and the person seemingly with least self-worth. Or be they the queer couple, the tough one of whom is the most traumatised and skittish character on site. There is complex set of paradoxes in each character.

And in the main character, there is a struggle to be within the nexus of various political and social movements that happen to be pulsing through the timeline of her young adulthood.

Similarly, Jean Rhys ...

Ah gad. This feels like a Year 11 English assignment (which would be fine, except I found English stifling).

What I'm attempting to do is just describe my tribe, my literary Canon. However, my Canon isn't just about literature. It takes in visual art and bold statements, such as the simple concept of the photographic series depicting an Aboriginal kids' ministry, by Richard Bell, to re-imagine the priorities of this continent back to humanistic and environmental values. It takes in the majestic whining of Thom Yorke's voice as his heart seems to risk bursting out of his chest, something I luckily had a chance to emulate in a Hanoi karaoke booth with a bunch of French strangers once. It takes in the dances and songs of corroboree and the elemental powers they invoke. It takes in the stories of underground theatre and their disregard for approval by Norm.

It's all kind of subversive. It's all kind of being the plaintiff without apology. It's all shouting out but in a way that isn't just noise, in a way that demands to be seen and heard (by me, at least). Why does it demand to be seen and heard? Because of what it offers the witness: healing, resolution, solace, a feeling they are not alone in their dilemmas associated with being human now.

All of these forms of inspiration are related to creativity that taps into the universal mind, the mind that is not just I-me-my; the mind that is a much larger network, of which the I-me-my is a player, but not the whole show. The whole show is the universal mind, the society, the environment, the weather, the animals, the world, the universe. If that sounds like hippy shit, whatever, I don't care. We don't breathe without the wider world. We don't see without the wider world. We can't be heard without the wider world around us. Or the world within us. All of this is dawning on me consciously, gradually, though it probably has been there since long before I was born as such.

So, we come back to enthusiasm and divine inspiration. How to get beyond potential criticisms of too broad / specific. Too self-indulgent / impersonal. Too incomprehensible / boring. How to have the patience with myself to keep coming back to this flow of words / This sometimes staccato stop-start of words.

This is just the beginning, of practice. Practice will lead to greater and greater coherence, until I am ready to say something which must be heard.

It is all within and around me. The experiences I have absorbed in this lifetime so far are enough, let alone those to come as this practice begins and continues.

Continues - that word scares me. Continues - that is the vow, the commitment I must make to myself to honour the experiences - the deep grief, the paralysing self-doubt based on the memory of past "terrible" decisions, the unbearable freedom to make decisions that will be remembered as "terrible", the affliction of being interested in everything, being like an omnidirectional microphone. I honour all of these wonderful / awful things about myself by continuing, continuing to focus, practise, focus, practise. Turning up. Wrangling with my ancient computer. Turning up. Starting and finishing a soliloquy on a random thought. Turning up. Until discipline doesn't come into it.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

What I have been learning about sovereignty

Big roo woz ere. Path to the Keyholes, Minjerriba
(reflections and reporting on a turbulent time including discussions at Clancestry 2015)

What is happening in this country goes right back to the initial invasion. If you don't know what that means, you might like to read on.

Something I heard at Clancestry last night: sovereignty can never be ceded, when sovereignty is understood as the life force of the land that is carried through people's bloodlines to country. The land's life force cannot be destroyed, no matter how much it is battered and bruised by the consumer society that has landed and developed upon it.

Settler culture - the structures, buildings, concepts, rules - are "surface". These things have been placed on the surface, but don't regard or understand the bloodlines, connections back to creation beings. The surface culture doesn't have time to find out about the unexplored forms of knowledge and understanding that have existed is this place. However, this surface culture is being challenged by urgent evidence such as climate change, rising seas, poisoned creeks, droughts.

Aboriginal people - especially Elders - are worried. Their culture, their lives are still under threat. It's an achievement to live past 60. Many Elders are mourned and missed. Aboriginal rates of incarceration have risen, even after the Black Deaths in Custody report of the 1980s. Children are being taken from their families at an alarming rate, sometimes because they're not wearing shoes or because there's barely any food in the fridge, even after the Bringing Them Home Report of the 1990s.

As a person descended from white settler bloodlines, it's difficult to know how to be in this. I'm a person who was born on this land with the invisible cloak of white privilege. But there is a deep understanding as well about being compromised by this culture: my mother's bloodline was broken by a forced adoption based on the premise that the woman was too young to respectably have a child. And so it was done in secret and the young woman never shared this secret with anyone except her parents. This trauma - and plenty of unknown traumas - have been handed down through this culture where personal sovereignty, particularly that of the woman, has been so fragile for many generations.


In 2009, I inadvertently landed a role in the Queensland department responsible for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy - I was kind of steered there from another job in the massive Communities department.

I was in that role when the department was implementing Alcohol Management Plans (restrictions) in remote Queensland communities, and I felt uneasy about such a random and untested "strategy". About that time, the NT intervention was going on as well, where Aboriginal men were getting the blanket branding in the media of sexual predators and land rights were again compromised. A couple of high profile people were claiming to speak for every mob across the continent. And they really weren't, and anyone who asked an indigenous person knew it.

Elders say, what was predicted at the time of those policies is happening now. An ice epidemic has been unleashed on Aboriginal communities. Band aids can work for surface scrapes, but they don't work for deep wounds and broken bones. Sometimes, if you try to heal things at the surface, the deep wound will fester and get infected, and the problem will get bigger than you could have imagined.

It all goes back to that initial invasion. It goes back to how we see ourselves as descendants of the settlers. It goes back to how we see this land.

Aboriginal people, who I've heard speaking over the past two days, feel there is still an intention - be it conscious or unconscious - to make them extinct. Right now, they feel unseen, as though they already don't exist in the eyes of this settler culture.

It's an unusual situation. As Vernon Ah Kee said, when travelling and talking about sovereignty with people around the world, the idea of not having sovereignty is unusual. Most people don't know what it feels like to not have sovereignty because they've always had it.

A moment of self-reflection: I too have rarely felt in this society, in this place, that I have real sovereignty. It's probably true to say that the times I have felt sovereignty have been times when I've been connected to nature, when I've tread gently through unspoilt lands to reach a remote lake on a sand island or a waterfall in a range of mountains. I've been alone, or with some fellow travellers who have felt similar respect and awe for the encounter. I've had barely any possessions with me at those times.

There is a dilemma. Who is my tribe? Who are my people? And if I "have" people, do any of us appreciate or understand what that means? This is where I feel the personal effect of the settler culture, the surface culture. I don't engage that well with small talk. Again, I'm not sure where I fit in. I get confused about the expectations of rights and responsibilities to the point where I enter martyrdom or enter resentment. It's difficult to find balance, a struggle to find reciprocity that satisfies everyone.


One of the most interesting points made during the discussions of the past couple of nights: when people talk about land rights, they are talking about an alien concept. The settler concept of "rights" is alien to the indigenous culture of Australia. Connection to country through bloodline just is. Sovereignty is in being.

And this brought me to hear, what was said to be the basis of Aboriginal culture: that all things are equal - humans, marsupials, fish, reptiles, rocks, waters - we are all equal, no more and no less. We need to honour all of these things in order to honour ourselves. And we need to honour ourselves in order to honour other people.

At the moment, under the settler culture, those links of honour are broken. My challenge - perhaps our challenge - is to mend them.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What I am learning about creativity: some practicalities

My niece and nephews in time and space.
No one is an expert in creativity. It is something that emerges when you are open to learning.

The creative genie (or whatever you want to call it) can start busting out of its bottle at any age. It doesn't care how old you are.

Creativity requires you to somehow offer it time and space.

Sometimes, it requires you to create dedicated time and space where you feel you can experiment freely.

If that seems too hard because you have kids, or you have parents, or you don't have spare cash, or your work drains all of your energy, or, or ... this may actually be an opportunity to shift your perspective and see new options you hadn't considered before. It may open up a whole new field where you can meander through questions such as, is this job right for me? Am I getting enough support from my loved ones and if not, what can I / we actually do about it? Do I really need more money to create the time and space and if I really really do (which maybe I don't), is there some clever way that I can make it, is there some opportunity I'm not seeing (which is possibly staring me in the face)?

If any or all of those questions are too hard, be patient with yourself.

Once you have created time and space, it helps to step into it with an intention. For instance, I will sit down and write; I will sit down and play a guitar; I will sit down and sketch a leaf; I will sit down and study a leaf; I will sit down and flesh out this song into something more than a couple of lines; I will do a little dance sequence to a phrase of music; I will paint; I will dream, read etc.

It also may help to set yourself a duration of time that feels really easy, eg. 10 or 20 minutes, and see if the wave of creation takes you beyond that.

Also, you can create time and space among the happenings of everyday life. Whatever is happening at any given moment can be the source of inspiration, if you choose to pay attention and grab a snippet of time and space which, if you look for it, you might just find. For instance, 20 seconds, 20 minutes. Let's see it as a nutritious snack for the hungry genie. It just requires a slight shift in perception, a way of listening for listening's sake.

Once you have begun to enter this space, finding your creativity can involve some pain or discomfort. This can arise from various things.

Breaching blocks that have been in the way can set forth some grief you've been suppressing while you've been simultaneously suppressing / neglecting your genie, keeping it locked in its bottle. That's just unblocking. That's healthy. Tears relieve stress.

Showing your genie / soul to others can make you feel exposed and open to judgement / criticism. This may be an inevitable part of the process. However, it would seem, it's a matter of just doing your thing, doing your thing, doing your thing, until you keep finding more and more what your thing is, and the criticism becomes silent to you.

Creativity can draw you to other people who also have started a conversation with their genie, who have given into the force of uncorking the bottle. At first, it can be daunting to be around such people; you may get into comparing. They may seem further along the journey of meeting their genie than you are. They may have found more time and space than you have. That's ok. As long as you're all open to learning, you're likely to find some common ground. *This, to be honest, is an area that is difficult when (like me) you have a story about being behind the 8-ball! Myths such as the "brilliance of youth" and the "degeneration of age" and "it's too late" can get people stuck forever and ever amen. Just remember the youth/age myth comes from things like the covers of gossip magazines, and get over it.

I've probably learnt more about creativity than that. But that's all I can remember right now. Thank you to Helen Franzmann for today's insights xx

Sunday, November 22, 2015


Path to Las Negras, Andalucia
Writing. This week I've been told by someone very close to me that writing is my primary form of expression, that I've been running, ducking and weaving to avoid it; shielding myself occasionally with a guitar, racing around recording melodies, giving myself over to the crushing responsibility of intensive support work, becoming sometime carer for people who for a long time cared for me. Entering old age with my parents. Watching the world around me speed up, slow down, give birth to children, leave this life behind. Counting pennies, paying debts slowly. Been studying the mind and the body and gradually undoing the belief that they are separate, though that seems a lifelong process. Been working out how to place myself at the centre of my universe, not an easy task for one who grew up watching the theatre of a massive, chaotic / controlled, Catholic family. Been sometimes remembering to reconnect all of the loose ends, a deep affinity with plant life, animal life, water life, rock life, a deep affinity we all share but sometimes lose along the way.

So how does one fit in writing? How does one fit in? Writing. How does one fit into writing?

The excuse goes, "But what would I write about?" The question probably should be, "How do I choose where to start?" Do I start with the dramatic events? The events of Brixton streets at night, where I'd sometimes make a connection from the Underground to the bus, where I'd be confronted with drug war lords, where once I even ended up counselling one such lost boy about his broken connection with his mother in Jamaica, mostly on account of his crack addiction. Where I once met a man called Andrew, who said he had just escaped Sudan via South Africa, who needed a place to sleep, who was telling me he was a political refugee, who I didn't know whether to believe because people were begging and telling you stories every day on the streets of London, and you developed a jungle eye, and you didn't really trust anybody.

Would I write about the boys I lived with temporarily soon after arriving in London, the boys who would smoke joints before going to play squash. The British one would complain to me when he was sick that all the immigrants were getting all the free healthcare and he couldn't get in to see a doctor till tomorrow! The Australian one would tell me about the untimely death of his mother, as I planted bulbs in the back garden. It was my only way of staying sane at that time; digging in the garden. I would never see those flowers grow and bloom, but I spent many hours arranging them beneath the soil to create a rainbow of colour in an otherwise dreary and neglected semi-attached block, full of booze and drugs and laziness.

Would I write about the gypsy musician who invited me to travel with him and his amigos to the caves of Granada? I was in a remote, forgotten corner of Andalucia, taking a break from heartache and confusion, disappointing other people, mammoth cities and addictions. I was reading about ancient myths and spontaneously practising yoga in the waters of the Mediterranean, learning Spanish from my camping neighbours and following my heart with almost nothing to lose. But I did not follow the gypsies to the caves because I am my mother's daughter and I fear catastrophes on the other side of the world. I returned to London and got a job.

Would I write about the day of the Underground bombs, when I met a woman from Essex who had been travelling across town to her job at the BBC? We were trying to find another way across town because Liverpool Street had just been closed  - but we didn't know why. Not even the police informing us knew why. We hoofed it to Aldgate: closed. My new friend, acquired in a busy street, began to receive text messages, began to understand that people were on trains with exploded bombs. We heard about the bomb on the red doubledecker bus. Streets were still, apart from the heaving masses on the footpaths and an occasional red doubledecker bus that would glide through. We flinched every time. We walked all the way back to my temporary accommodation on a comfortable sofa in an apartment in Bow, the heroin capital of London - picking up wine at the supermarket on the way - and we would sip wine all day as we watched the Underground bombs come to light on the TV.

Would I write about the following day, when most people didn't go to work, but I called my new boss, the chief subeditor on a magazine called Woman and Home, who would say in her most genuine cockney accent, "Why wouldn't you come to work?" So I got on the Underground with a handful of other souls and felt the quiet chill of the tunnels that day.

Would I write about the weeks and months that followed when any man of "Middle Eastern or Asian appearance" would be stopped at train stations and have their bags searched by heavily armed police?

Would I write about my invitation by the BBC friend to a Guy Fawkes fireworks party at her Essex home, and my default reaction - to decline. Too hard, too far, too tired, too ground down by 9 to 5, too shy.

Would I write about those things from long ago and far away? Or would I write about today, a conversation with a rarely seen but deeply connected friend about polarities, mental health, fear, courage, vulnerabilities, social anxiety. About letting your mind wander to the places it's scared to go, and just letting it hang out there without judgement. Would I write about the thought that crossed my mind tonight, that one form of terror is the fear of looking at oneself in complete honesty. And anyway, is that fear unfounded?

Memories of Doogie Howser MD / Carrie Bradshaw. How can I live with myself? A writer. A writer who has written stories that were not my choice to write, who has written stories I've been passionate about and privileged to write, who has avoided writing for a long, long time.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

When chaos comes to town

Why do you orbit me
in swirls seeming chaotic?
How do you arrive at
all the right times?

Why do you scare me,
calling from the darkness?
When you summon my attention,
why does it obey?

You land here so confident,
on my shaky permission.

You talk me around
you sing me around
past my head shaking
past my eyes rolling.

I stop asking questions.
You stop making excuses.
We stop time 
and for a moment
suspend my disbelief in you.

And then time starts again
And you can’t but move on
in another elliptical orbit.

‘Have a nice life,’ I say,
fractionally fragmented,
ready to want nothing

The world turns;
the night passes.
All I can do
is accept my choices.

All I can do is pretend not to care
until tomorrow
when fractionally,
and for the most part,
it comes true.

And so you become
what you may want to be:
a nocturnal myth
immortalised in poetry.