Stillness

In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside you. Deepak Chopra

I’m learning to be still. It isn’t easy for me. I’m the sort of person who tries to multi-task, who leaps from one thing to another, perhaps not physically but almost always mentally. I will begin writing and rewriting my manuscript, or reading or sorting through daily tasks such as paying bills and my mind will wander, skipping to the next chapter or book or job until I can no longer concentrate on what I’m doing. Open a computer in front of me and I will leap from website to website, reading a bit here and a bit there. I might begin to sort the laundry and become distracted by cleaning out my wardrobe, or organizing my jewellery. I am rarely without noise in my life. At home I have the television on whether I’m watching it or not. Or I turn on music, or listen to podcasts. Going to work there is the noise of the traffic. At work the office hums with voices and telephones.

So, at the beginning of the year, I decided it was time to learn the skill of stillness. And it is a skill. For someone who has always been on the move, flitting from one thing to another, surrounded by sound, stillness and silence is an effort.

For nearly a year I have begun every day by meditating. On work day mornings I have little time, so my meditation is short, a mere five minutes. On weekends I always double that, sometimes even triple it. I have a meditation app on my phone with a timer. It has several recorded meditations but I prefer to set the timer and do it myself. For the last few weeks, I have been working through a self-guided chakra meditation each morning.

Travelling to work by public transport gives me the opportunity to catch up on my reading. As it is not possible to change books or pick up other tasks on a tram or train, I have to focus on what I’m reading. Sometimes I read for information; self-help books or books which contain research for my writing, and sometimes I read for pleasure; mostly crime novels. I love this time, alone among others, lost in stories. Around me there might be noise, but within me there is stillness.

In the evenings, I’ve resisted the urge to turn on the television or the computer as soon as I walk in the door. I try to spend some time unwinding, changing into more comfortable clothes, shaking the work of the day from my shoulders. Often I will pause to watch the world pass by my window.

I find cooking very relaxing. Preparing the evening meal, chopping fresh vegetables, and then bringing flavours together to create something tasty is a way for me to de-stress. I still haven’t worked out how to make the decision of what to cook less stressful!

Right now the world around us is chaotic and often beyond comprehension. I hope that by learning to be still, I will become more resilient and less prone to stress.

Childhood Memories

“Because memories fall apart too. And then you’re left with nothing, left not even with a ghost but with its shadow.” John Green

Part of the rewriting process I’m going through with my manuscript includes writing at least three new chapters, which I must fill with childhood memories of my father, my family and growing up.

The problem is I don’t have very many memories.

Of course, I have a few memories, scattered fragments of childhood, tattered remnants of teenage years. Sometimes they are a sequence of pictures, like a grainy slideshow which jumps about on the screen. More often each memory is a single image without any movement, without a soundtrack. Sometimes I even doubt these memories, thinking that perhaps I have stolen them from someone else. Or maybe my parents gave me these images with their words, handed them to me to tend to as my own. I just don’t know.

My very first memory is of me as a three-year-old, sitting on the floor in front of a black and white television set watching the assassination of John F Kennedy over and over again. In this memory, there is no room around me, although I know I was in my grandparent’s living room as we did not own a television. If you can imagine a black and white photograph of a very young girl sitting cross legged on the floor of a living room in an apartment, on a wooden floor covered by a Persian rug, watching an old black and white television which was in a white walled corner; and you take that photograph and gently tear around the girl and the television, ripping away the rest of the room with its sofa, armchairs, coffee table and bookshelves, you would be left with my memory.

A couple of years ago I returned to another apartment we used to live in. I hoped that standing in the rooms where I spent some of the years of my childhood would bring back a few more memories. But there was nothing. Although it was familiar to me and my bedroom looked much smaller than I thought it would have been.

I’ve heard certain smells can trigger memory but I haven’t had the fortune to experience it. The more I try to remember, the less comes to mind. And it isn’t just childhood. I can’t remember much of my teenage years either, nor can I remember the significant milestones my babies went through, as can most other mothers.

A few people have suggested I see a hypnotist to see if they can uncover my memories for me. It’s something I’m seriously considering. In the meantime, I hope starting to write about the few memories I have will perhaps help me to remember more of them.

Catalyst

For all of you writers out there, what is your catalyst for writing a book, an article, a blog post? Do you know what sparks your yearning to put thoughts on paper? Can you remember the first time you thought you were on the right path?

As mentioned in my last blog post, the catalyst which prompted me to pound furiously at my keyboard was the anger I felt toward my father and, to a lesser degree, my mother. When I walked into my father’s home after his death, I was faced with the enormous task of clearing the house of everything stored in it so that it could be put on the market. I had no option as, despite telling me in previous conversations, that he had left me the house in his will, my father had not. So, our family home had to be sold in order to break up his estate into the different percentages he had designated in his will. I also had limited time in which to complete my task. We had lived on opposite sides of the country, so I did not have the leisure of being able to clear bits and pieces after work or on the weekends. I took a month of leave from work, four weeks in which to sort out a lifetime of hoarding as well as decide what to do with it.

I am an only child. Without my three sons and the generosity of one of my parents’ neighbours, it would have been almost impossible to complete what I had to do in the given timeframe.

Four weeks is not a huge amount of time in which to sort through a lifetime of collecting, organise a funeral, interview real estate agents, oversee the sale of a house while dealing with grief and anger and regret. I’m certain I threw out, gave away or sold items which I should have kept. I know I didn’t spend enough time holding the things my parents found precious enough to keep. Of course, I regret this, but I can’t let myself constantly dwell on it.

I was still angry with my father, who had had nearly thirty years of retirement to sort out his mess, when I discovered letters which had been written to my father during WWII. They were in German so, each night in bed, just before dropping into an exhausted sleep, I used Google translate to interpret their meaning. They were love letters, written by a young girl in what would become the Eastern Zone, to my father, who was at the time a young Lieutenant in the German army. These letters would spur me to continue my writing long after my anger had dissipated. I would spend months and years having them professionally translated, while trying to find out what happened to the young girl. And I still wonder if she kept the letters my father wrote to her.

Later I discovered a notebook in which my father had jotted down a timeline of his life and that began a whole new tangent for my research.

 

In Hindsight

If I had known the effort which is required to rewrite my manuscript, would I have written it in the first place? I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that my initial effort took me four years. I have no doubt it will take me just as long to rewrite.

It isn’t simply a matter of changing the words in a sentence or deleting a paragraph or two. The editor I gave my manuscript to has suggested a total overhaul. I must find new words to fill up at least three chapters. Huge chunks of what I have already written will be torn out and thrown away. If we were talking about a home renovation, it would be the equivalent of gutting the place, taking down walls and redoing the floor plan.

When I began this manuscript, a memoir about my father and our relationship, I was filled with anger at him and at the mess he had left me to clean up when he died. It was so easy to pour my emotions onto the page. Then I started to become curious about documents and letters I found when clearing out his house. But now the anger has dissipated and although I am still trying to satisfy my curiousity, I don’t have the same intensity.

So how do I keep my writing and rewriting on track? I have already changed my weekly routine to free up my weekends for writing. I no longer spend my Sunday shopping and cooking for the week, I now do that in fits and bursts after work. I leave the television off and keep logged out of Facebook and Twitter. I limit Google to research. Despite my efforts I am still only on Chapter two.

But, how do I maintain the enthusiasm I once had for my memoir? This is not easy for me. I already know the ending. But I have found reading books with similar stories helps. And I still get excited if I discover the answer to one of the puzzles my father left behind.

Apparently, Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” At the moment, I feel as if I’ve been given a mountain of rock to sculpt with nothing but a small chisel to use.

Memory and Music

Music invokes memories. I know this from experience. Stairway to Heaven will forever transport me to my teenage years, lying in bed with the cassette player on the floor playing Led Zeppelin over and over again. Three Times a Lady takes me onto a dimly lit dance floor and into the arms of a long-forgotten love. Anthems such as Throw Your Arms Around Me and Working Class Man remind me of nights spent with friends at one pub or another, listening to cover bands and singing along very badly, with drunken abandonment.

At last Friday Night at the NGV, as part of the Van Gogh Four Seasons exhibition, the Blackeyed Susans played while the audience of mostly over 40s, swayed and bobbed and head banged their way through the songs. The music didn’t summon any memories for me as, at the peak of their success in the 90s, I was grooving to the sounds of the Wiggles and Don Spencer, along with my three sons. But it was obvious that most of the people at the National Gallery of Victoria that night were reliving their youth through the tunes being played. There were even groupies, if you can call them that; women dressed in clothes more reminiscent of their teens but in larger sizes, pushing through the crowd to reach the front of the stage and dancing in a way which they thought provocative.

All around me the grey haired, both men and women, forgot their daily worries, their slightly too much weight around the middle, their relationship problems, the work they hated, their mortgages and credit card debts and personal loans. The music soared over them, around them and through them, carrying them back in time to moments which were perhaps less fraught with difficulties, less responsible and a tad more fun.

Of course, music can also remind you of sad times. Marianne Faithfull’s The Ballad of Lucy Jordan, is my number one go to song whenever I’m feeling low. I can always listen to Tupac’s Until the End of Time, which triggers memories of randomly writing poetry full of angst, but lacking finesse. When I’m angry or frustrated the song in my head, reminding me that I can achieve my goals, never wavers from Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman. I want Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, along with Youth Group’s Forever Young played at my funeral, or my wake, or perhaps the party I have on my death bed so I can listen to them too.

And that’s the beauty of music. There is always a song to suit the occasion; to bring back the good old days, comfort you when you are miserable and lift your spirits in times of need. We all have a sound track to our lives, one which invokes memories and makes memories.

Women over 50 and Homelessness

I am very lucky. I have a home, a job, a family and friends. I can afford to pay the bills and eat. As I’m single, I am fortunate enough to be able to make my own decisions. If I feel like staying in pyjamas all day, I can. If I want to eat toast for dinner, I can. On the other hand, it would sometimes be nice to have someone to discuss my day with, or cuddle up to while watching a movie. But I am still so much better off than a lot of other women.

I was reminded of this when I flicked the TV over to The Drum last week and caught a discussion about women over 50 and homelessness. You can see it here: http://bit.ly/2rdXQn6 According to The Drum, there has been an increase of up to 44% of women over 50 seeking homeless services in the last five years. 44%!

There is always talk about the greedy baby boomers, who selfishly hold onto jobs and property, thereby denying younger generations. But, although there are definitely wealthy baby boomers around, there are also those who are struggling to survive and a high percentage of those are women. Many of these women stayed at home when they had children, which lead to a loss of income. By staying out of the workforce, they then found it difficult to reenter it when their children started school. Or, by that time they were caring for elderly parents. Or they were victims of domestic violence.

Many older females have practically no superannuation. It wasn’t until the 1980s that employer contributions to superannuation started and 1991 before the Superannuation Guarantee came into place. According to the ASIC website, in 2013-14 Australian women aged 60-64 had on average $138,150 in superannuation savings, which was less than half of the average male account balance.

Research for this post uncovered several articles from up to six years ago which all say the same thing – homelessness for older women is increasing. For six years this has been written about, discussed, dissected, and written about again. But what is happening to fix this problem? Sure, there is government funding and peak bodies who are providing the research and groundwork in this debate. Sure, there are now discussions about gender imbalance and, in some cases, the imbalance is being rectified. But who is going to rectify the imbalances of the past? What can be done to help the women who are homeless, or in fear of becoming homeless, right now?

On being a mother

As an only child and the daughter of an only child, I grew up without siblings or cousins. We moved house many times during my childhood which was hardly the best foundation for building friendships. I longed for a big family. I yearned for large, noisy family gatherings at Sunday lunches and holidays.

I decided to have six children. I changed my mind after one.

I hated being pregnant. I had none of the nesting glow others wax lyrical about. I was constantly tired, I felt fat, I no longer had control over my body and the whole process took way too long for me. However, my first two pregnancies were a walk in the park compared to the third one, where my morning sickness lasted the entire nine months. Three very different births, each painful in its own way, and the whole experience left me cold.

Each of my boys was, and still is, so different. As babies, toddlers and children, what worked for one didn’t worked for either of the others. There was plenty of trial and even more error. I made so many mistakes, it’s a wonder they grew up at all. But they did and they survived not only my muddled mothering, but their own explorations of the world around them. There were falls off chairs, tables and beds. There were accidents with bikes, rollerblades, skateboards and trees, as well as injuries with every sport they played. They went through all the childhood illnesses and more. They fought like the worst enemies and the next moment were the best of friends. At times, it felt as if all I did was dry tears, rub sore spots better, apply Band-Aids or drive to the doctor.

As they grew older we somehow managed to navigate the school years, the trials of teenagers and the whole messy time of becoming an adult. But we got there together. And, despite two of my boys living on the other side of the country, we are still close. Now, my eldest son is a father himself and I’m a Nana to his son.

Looking back at the good times, the bad times, the even worse times, the ugly, the beautiful and the wonderful, I wouldn’t change anything. I have no words to describe how much I love my boys and how much they mean to me.

My boys might be adults but being a mother never stops. It’s a journey of varied landscapes, scattered with obstacles and glorious sunrises. If I had been prewarned, I might never have taken the first step. But I did and have no regrets. Only a constant sense of wonderment at the delightful young men I proudly call my three sons.

The Sins of the Fathers

In the King James Bible, there are several verses which relate to the sins, or iniquities, of the fathers being borne by later generations. Numbers 14:18 says “The Lord is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. Exodus 34:7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 state much the same.

These days it is not a father’s sin which is being researched, but how a poor diet, exposure to toxins, trauma or stressful environments can affect not only the person or peoples who are suffering but also their children and grandchildren. The field of research studying these inherited conditions is called Epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of potentially heritable changes in gene expression. So far there has been research into populations who have survived periods of starvation in Sweden and the Netherlands which suggests the effects of famine on epigenetics and health can be passed down through at least three generations, potentially leading to diabetes and cardiovascular problems in children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. In other studies on rats, it was demonstrated that exposure to the active compound in cannabis during adolescence can predispose future generations to heroin addiction.

I am also interested in the studies which are underway to test the theory that PTSD can be inherited, again by epigenetic means. I am the granddaughter of both Russian and Baltic refugees, and the daughter of a German army junior officer who was a prisoner of war. Although never diagnosed, I’m sure my father suffered from PTSD. My grandfather on my mother’s side died when I was 9, so I never had the chance to know him well, but I can assume the fighting he saw during the Russian Revolution would possibly have also given him PTSD. So, the theory that it can be inherited might explain the attacks of sadness I sometimes suffer from, which are seemingly unrelated to anything else in my life.

The fact that we can influence the physical and mental health of not only our children, but generations to follow, is certainly a topic which intrigues me. Imagine how we could impact on those generations in a good way? How our healthy, peaceful life might ensure theirs.

Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist, nor do I understand many of the scientific experiments or results of studies in epigenetics or PTSD. I am merely interested in the concept that the conditions around our ancestors possibly contribute to our genetic make-up and the diseases and behaviour disorders we might or might not have. The studies in this area might go a long way to show how we can ensure our descendants live a better life.

The soul doesn’t know about deadlines

Further to my last post and, while constantly contemplating career changes, motivation comes from reading about others who have been successful later in life, especially authors who have bloomed after the age of 50.

Take Laura Ingalls Wilder for example. Little House in the Prairie features in my childhood memories. I didn’t realise it wasn’t until she was 63 years old that she completed her first book and it took another two years before she became a published author.

In the visual arts, Anna Mary Roberson, also known as “Grandma Moses”, was 78 before her paintings were discovered by an art collector and 79 when some of her works were exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Frank McCourt, whose first book Angela’s Ashes won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, only began writing after retirement. Angela’s Ashes, his first book, was published when he was 66 years old. Apparently, he owes his success to his wife encouraging him to write down his stories.

Australian writer Elizabeth Jolly wrote for years before her first book of short stories was published when she was 53. The author of Watership Down, Richard Adams, was 52 when it was published. It was his first book. Raymond Chandler, despite writing unsuccessfully for years, was 51 when The Big Sleep, the first of the Philip Marlowe detective series was published.

I’m sure there are many more people who have successfully changed their career path in later life.

So, there are always choices and options. Options and hard work. And more hard work. Especially if you aspire to one day becoming a published writer. In the words of William Zinsser, who wrote several books about writing, “Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things that people do.”

But I find more hope in these words of Jeff Brown, “So called ‘late-bloomers’ get a bad rap. Sometimes the people with the greatest potential often take the longest to find their path because their sensitivity is a double-edged sword – it lives at the heart of their brilliance, but it also makes them more susceptible to life’s pains. Good thing we aren’t being penalised for handing in our purpose late. The soul doesn’t know a thing about deadlines.”

What do you want to be?

I woke up this morning another year older and no closer to knowing what I want to do with the rest of my life. Well-meaning adults, perhaps because they cannot think of anything else to say, often ask youngsters “what do you want to be when you grow up?”. The children um and ah a bit and then list off the professions which attract them like firemen or doctors or actors or the like. I think I wanted to be a lawyer at one stage, until I discovered the amount of study involved. But here I am, seemingly all grown up, and still with no concrete notion of what I want to be or can realistically achieve!

Sure, I would like to write but not all the time. I’m not keen on a solitary existence and, as I live alone, I appreciate the social aspect of having colleagues around me. I would also make a very bad copywriter or such as I am not enthusiastic about being told what to write, or how to write it. I enjoy writing a blog post when I have something to write about and I hardly ever feel guilty if I miss a week or two.

In an ideal world, where money is no object, I would like to work on various projects, such as building communities for creative people, who practice across all forms of the arts. I wrote about my inspiration for this, the Westbeth community in New York, here http://bit.ly/2nzHN0p I can think of nothing better than rehabilitating and renovating old factories and warehouse to provide accommodation for creatives and a vibrant artistic hub for the communities they live in.

If I could help design and build such a community, I would make sure it is environmentally friendly, dependent on renewable energy, with gardens and open space. Perhaps even rooftop gardens, or at least artistic courtyards where residents would be encouraged to plant. I wish the town planners of Australia would all put more emphasis on the environment when they approve plans. Imagine a city of roof top vegetable gardens, or floral wonders!

But building a Westbeth type community is not the only project I would like to be part of. There are so many causes I would like to assist with. Volunteer you say! And I should, but I find there is already so little time left in each day for the things I want to do, like writing and researching. I’m no saint.

I would also like to study more – not necessarily for a degree or qualification, more for my own benefit. History, archaeology, languages, there are so many subjects out there which I would like to know more about. I often look up various courses and dream about the day I can afford to take them all. Imagination is a wonderful thing until reality jumps up at you and reminds you about the mortgage, the bills and the necessity of food to life.

But sometimes, one can launch an idea into the Universe and things happen. Maybe I will even find out what I want to be when I grow up!