A bitter pill to swallow

24/08/2016 § Leave a comment

We feel sick even if we are physically well. We are organically diseased by lack or excess. Most of our healers — mainstream and alternative — now act and are treated like shopkeepers, and have become entrepreneurs (or the pawns of entrepreneurs). If they don’t give us the goods — the diagnosis and pill — we’ll shop elsewhere. We seek passive means of attaining health and longevity, which is what medicine (both conventional and alternative) promotes. We want diagnoses. We want solutions we can browse, buy and swallow, be they pharmaceuticals, tinctures or vitamins. It’s convenient for politicians, suits industry very nicely. Pills are our tiny white black holes: absorbing all our hope, agency and energy. They divert attention from prevention, population health and inequity; they promote consumption.

from ‘Too many pills?
by Karen Hitchcock
in The Monthly magazine (September 2015)

I like Hitchcock’s thinking. A doctor who works on the acute medical ward of a big city hospital, she pulls no punches when it comes to discussing health in our society.

Health, she says, is more than just a physical issue. It is an issue of combined mental, physical, environmental, interpersonal, social and political factors.

Too many pills?

Too many pills?

I can’t do justice to her argument here. It is complex and passionate, encompassing the need for both personal action (at the individual level) and social action (at the socio-political level). And it is about considering the idea of a cure not as something we can buy but rather as something we should do.

And, oh, these are words well worth reading.

An open door

18/08/2016 § Leave a comment

Other people’s words about … inspiring teachers

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I brought Vera to one of [my mother’s] lectures. It was held in the quadrangle at Sydney Uni and the hall was packed. Vera and I squeezed in at the back next to the open window and then my mother made her entrance, rushing in with a briefcase under her arm. She didn’t know we were there and didn’t see us. Applause broke out, brief but enthusiastic.

‘Oh,’ she said as she reached the front, ‘you are being entirely silly and adorable.’ And then she put on her reading glasses and began the lecture. I didn’t hear a word of what she was saying. I just kept thinking that I too would have clapped had I not known her. There had always been a kind of heat emanating from her. People responded to it, and that day was no exception; that day she made everyone feel that Political Science 101 was a gateway to a brilliantly inspired life.

from ‘What the Light Hides
by Mette Jakobsen

When I began my Arts degree at university, the one subject I refused to enrol in was the subject in which my father was a lecturer. I didn’t want to have the experience of being tutored by, or lectured to, or graded by, a parent. I wanted to make my own way through university, no strings attached.

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Still, word gets around. My father was an immensely popular lecturer: fallow students in other subjects began to come up to me and say incredulously, seeing the surname I shared with him, ‘I think your Dad’s my lecturer.’ The lecture theatre was always packed when it was his turn to speak. He told anecdotes that made students rock with laughter, and the passion he expressed for his subject lit up his eyes, filled his voice, guided his gestures. He was cool; he was a legend: friends told me this all the time. I know now, as I did then, that his students, walking under the shaded trees of that campus, strolling past the old stone buildings with the arched doorways and the spreading lawns, were lucky to have him.

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It’s a cliché, but teachers and lecturers really do change our lives. When I was in Year 12, I had a teacher who shared the same kind of popularity amongst students as my father did at university. She taught Australian history — a subject as dry and dusty as any you could think of, at least back then, in the days when the history of Australia’s first people was rarely considered or contemplated in high school classrooms. She took us through the history of the Australian Labor Party, the social history of (white) women in Australia, the beginning of national pride in Australia.

Like my father, she taught by telling stories. She had a flat, slightly croaky voice, and crinkled, grey hair through which she would push her hand as she walked between our desks. The whiff of cigarette smoke hung about her clothes — woollen jumpers, tweed skirts — leaving a trail behind her. She kept a sheaf of notes on her desk to consult if she needed to, which she rarely did. Mostly, she just talked. Sometimes her voice grew sad, sometimes urgent. If I close my eyes, I can still hear her talking.

Beyond history, she also taught us how to study. It was from her that I learned how to take notes, how to structure an essay, how to study for exams, how to practise good time management so that you could hand in an essay on time. I took those skills with me to university. I wasn’t happy socially the first time I attempted university — indeed, I left at the end of that first year and didn’t return for another six years or so — but I loved the academic challenge of the subjects I was studying, and I have my Year 12 Australian history teacher to thank for that. To this day, I still use the skills she taught us to structure anything I’m writing or drafting, and I rarely miss deadlines. That’s because of her.

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If you look closely, you’ll see a common theme in each of the photos I’ve chosen to accompany this post. They are all taken on or around my local campus, the University of Adelaide — and every one of them shows a door or a window. That’s because learning should be about opening doors, letting fresh air into our minds. It should be about allowing us to enter new worlds, to see things from a new perspective.

Gifted teachers guide us through this process — people like my history teacher, people like my father. They change our lives for the better.

In return, we carry their teaching with us for the rest of our lives. We never forget them.

Why I drink tea, not coffee

11/08/2016 § 5 Comments

Other people’s words about … tea

The MOTH (the Man of the House) thinks the world’s drowning in a tsunami of expensive [cappuccino] froth. He’s fighting the trend single-handedly. He drinks tea made from tea leaves. He doesn’t like ‘gift’ teas that arrive with house guests and distant cousins …

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Every morning and most evenings, the MOTH makes tea following the rules set down by his mother. Bring a kettle of water to a ‘rolling’ boil. Warm the teapot. Put in a generous measure of loose tea. Fill the pot with boiling water, replace the lid and wait patiently. In the meantime, put out china cups and saucers, teaspoons, the sugar bowl and a jug of milk. Hot buttered toast and a jar of homemade marmalade will do nicely as well.

From ‘Tea and Sympathy’ by Pat McDermott
featured in
The Australian Women’s Weekly, July 2016

Old-time readers of this blog will know of my love for tea by now. I would rather give up wine, chocolate or cheese than give up my daily pot(s) of tea.

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Many years ago, I attempted to become a coffee drinker. I was working as a student barista in a cafe in Port Adelaide at the time, and the coffees I made for my customers smelt enticing. There is nothing better than the smell of freshly brewed coffee.

But. I soon discovered that I am extremely sensitive to caffeine. Give me a cappuccino at nine o’clock in the morning, and I will be jittery and fidgety and twitchy all day. I won’t sleep. I’ll still be awake the next morning, heart hammering away, eyes dry and wide. And don’t even get me started on that sense of the walls of the room caving in on me …

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For years, I avoided drinking tea because I knew it also had caffeine in it, though in a smaller dose. It wasn’t until I met my partner, an inveterate tea-drinker, that I was tempted. Eventually, tea wooed me in just the way that coffee had once done. (Okay, maybe he did some wooing, too.)

Maybe it’s the smaller amount of caffeine. Maybe it’s psychological. Maybe it’s the ritual of tea-making: my grandmother’s Royal Worcester china, the pot, the brewing, the accompaniment of sourdough toast spread with a (thick!) layer of my mother’s grapefruit marmalade or my father’s quince jam. Whatever it is, I have found that I can handle the caffeine in tea.

I read recently in The Australian Healthy Food Guide (p. 14) that Lord Twining, of Twinings Tea fame, has been known to state that anything less than nine cups of tea per day is a totally unsatisfying tea-drinking day. Clearly, Lord Twining may have vested interests in making statements like this … but I can’t help admiring such a line of thinking, all the same.

And so … let the tea-drinking continue!

Inner world

04/08/2016 § 2 Comments

Other people’s words about … resilience

I think maybe [my father] liked the worlds in his head better than the real one. As far as I ever knew, he didn’t have any close friends … Once, when I was about nine or ten, I told him I wasn’t very popular at school. He told me that friends were overrated, because the only person you could ever really count on was yourself. Weirdly, that actually made me feel better.

from ‘Thanks for the Trouble
by Tommy Wallach

I am, I suppose, what most people would describe as introverted. There are other words that go along with this kind of description: shy, quiet, aloof, disengaged, uncertain, insecure, antisocial. Those are mostly negative words, I see. Perhaps they are coined by extroverts.

The year that we lived in England, I was at my most introverted: I had no friends at all. (Here’s a question: do you end up without friends because you are introverted, or do you become introverted because you have no friends?) I was fourteen, and I wandered those long school corridors with the white polished floors alone. I wore the wrong clothes, and I had the wrong accent, and I lived life at the wrong pace and the wrong volume. At lunch I sat in one of the stalls in the girls’ toilets, waiting the hour out. I listened to girls coming in and out, the cubicle doors swinging, the toilets flushing. My breath caught on the sweet spray of perfume they doused themselves with as they stood before the mirrors. I listened to their chatter, high and loud and lipsticked. And then I listened to the door to the girls’ room banging shut again, their footsteps receding down the white-floored corridors as they went back to wherever they had come from.

After the first few weeks, one of the school teachers took pity on me, and introduced me to a couple of girls in my class.

‘Go and sit with them at lunchtime,’ he said, with a look on his face that was half-pity and half-exasperation. He was small and balding and chipper. ‘They’re nice girls. They’ll look after you.’

Such well-meaning, misguided intentions! I looked at the two girls and they looked back at me. I could see they were as horrified at the prospect of me spending lunchtime with them as I was. And yet we all did what he said. They took me back to their lunchtime bench, and I sat with them and their friends — that day and the day after and the day after that. For months, in fact, I ate my sandwich with them silently; I sat with them silently; I watched them silently; I listened to them silently. They took to ignoring me, in the end. They went on with their lives — their parties and their gossip and their drinking and their shopping and their boyfriends — while I sat mute beside them, in what seems to me now almost a parody of introversion.

I have often thought back to that year in high school. I’ve thought about how, at night, I lay in the darkness of my bedroom, the one with the wallpaper with pretty sprigs of flowers dotted over it, and longed for popularity and friendship, for someone my own age to count on. I’ve thought about how I believed that I must be faulty in some way — weak, or cowardly, or defective — because I couldn’t do what other people my own age did instinctively: talk. Make connections. Relax. Laugh.

So it astonishes me now, to look back and see a different possibility, a different narrative, from the one I’ve just told. I don’t believe that friends are ‘overrated’, to use Wallach’s word. Still, I wonder: what if I had learned to trust myself during that year? What if I had learned that I was my own friend? What if I had allowed myself to like the world in my head at least as much as the real one? More broadly, what if we could teach all young people to count on themselves in this way? What, then?

I am not sure. But I think it’s important to listen to alternative narratives like the one in the words above: to retell our life-stories to ourselves, to seek out new plots, new endings. I think it’s important to trust your own inner world: to learn to turn to it in times of need, or in times of loneliness. Introversion, in this context, is irrelevant. What’s relevant is resilience. Resilience is all that matters.

Resilience, you will note, is not a negative word.

How (not) to surf

28/07/2016 § 2 Comments

Other people’s words about … surfing

He tried to show me the basics [of surfing], but he made it look too simple. Surfing was in his muscle memory, in his blood, in his thoughts. It was like his shadow, simply part of him …

We got back into the water one more time, and the sea tugged me under and tossed me around under a wave, like a plaything, like it was laughing at me. I came up ready to go home, mouth full of salt, hair full of sand.

from Season of Salt & Honey
by Hannah Tunnicliffe
( p. 134)

My partner is a surfer. In his fifties now, he started surfing in his teens, catching a ride to the south coast with an older friend who had a driver’s license.

Though I love the sea, I have a fear of waves, of getting dumped. Still, when the two of us first met (nearly twenty years ago now), I wanted to give surfing a go. I wanted to see what made him love it so.

So he took me out into the salt water at Yorke Peninsula, he on his surfboard and I on my boogie board, paddling hard. He set me up for a couple of waves. Each time, when the wave rolled towards me, he said, ‘Now!’ and then, when I froze, he gave my board a push, and away I went. I rode the wave towards shore, lying flat on my belly on the board as he’d shown me, and it was fast and terrifying and exhilarating all at once.

And I got it. I got what he felt out there in the ocean. I got the magic of it. The awe.

Yorke Peninsula waves

Yorke Peninsula waves

But I’ve never attempted it again. I can’t read the waves or the currents. I’m afraid of getting caught in a rip. I don’t understand the sea. I love it; I’m awed by it; but I don’t know it.

She gives me that sad, hopeful look that says [surfing] can be for everyone, should be for everyone. That surfing is the best thing in the world. Her strange, blue-grey eyes fix on me, like she wants to explain. I imagine her in the sea, like a fish, moving as though made for the water. She would know where to put her feet, how to balance, how to fall without hurting herself, without drowning. She’s probably one of those girls who rides the waves as though she’s dancing with the whole of the ocean; her and the water taking different roles, moving in different ways. The ocean leads and she simply responds.

(p. 134)

I think, for me, the sea will always remain a beautiful, mysterious, unknown quantity. There are different ways of loving it, perhaps. Mine isn’t the way of the surfer, but it’s still there. It will always be there. I have lived by the sea for twenty years or more now, and the sand and the salt and the sea are in my blood.

And that is enough for me.

Storm approaching, Yorke Peninsula

Storm approaching, Yorke Peninsula

It’s not always about speed. Or winning.

21/07/2016 § Leave a comment

Other people’s words about … running (slowly)

 

I didn’t fight my way across the finishing line — nor did I float. The significance of that marathon didn’t lie in speed or in pain, but in the exchange between my body and the city. I didn’t need a personal best trophy; I could prize the run on its own terms. After many years of early morning runs and all kinds of races, running is to me a way of being, not a way of testing myself against invisible antagonists and not a competition with my peers. I had nothing to vanquish but my doubts, and now — in ways I could never have predicted — running has brought me into a rich communion with the world. It still surprises me. I’m careful not to slip on dirt tracks, and I pay more attention to warnings about overstraining my knees than I used to. I want to avoid injury. I don’t want a show-stopping finish line moment. I want to keep running.

From ‘The Long Run
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

I'm careful not to slip on dirt tracks

I’m careful not to slip on dirt tracks

When I (briefly, as it turned out, at least for now) took up running again last year, it wasn’t the thought of speed, or competition, or races, or personal bests, that appealed to me. Nor, God forbid, was it the thought of getting super-fit and toned. Lone beast that I am, it wasn’t the thought of companionship, either: of joining a running team, or running with new friends. I know these are the things that runners often find joy in, but they weren’t drawcards for me.

No, what drew me back to running was what I remembered from the period in my twenties when I ran: how meditative running can make you feel. There is the beat of your heart, the rhythm of your feet, the taking-in and letting-out of your breath. There is the simplicity of moving your feet over the ground, taking you there (wherever ‘there’ is) and back again. There is the joy, afterwards, of feeling reawakened. And alive.

A rich communion with the world

A rich communion with the world

I suspect that Catriona Menzies-Pike is a kindred spirit. Her whole book, if you care to read it, is an eloquent essay on how running helped to heal the grief she felt for her parents’ untimely death when she was still a child. It is also an exploration of the joys of running slowly — and making the choice to do so. Imagine running, but not forcing yourself to race. Imagine running, but allowing yourself to enjoy the moment rather than the end-result. Imagine running, with no particular aim in mind other than to take the time it takes.

Imagine.

We talk big about fitness these days. We talk about heart-rate and VO2 and pace and gait. We talk about sub-four-hour marathons and heel-striking and foam rollers. We have instruments and apps to help us talk this talk — Garmins and GPS trackers and Apple Watches and the like. (Wait, maybe those instruments created the talk. Have you ever thought that?) So choosing to run slowly, in a world full of talk like this, is tantamount to an act of anti-consumerist, anti-conformist rebellion.

I don’t want a show-stopping finish line moment. Those words apply equally well to life as they do to running, don’t they? There’s another metaphor in the quote above, too. Running, Menzies-Pike says, still surprises me. I get that. I do.

Because life still surprises me. I hope it always will.

The one true story

14/07/2016 § Leave a comment

Other people’s words on … writing

He said, ‘What is your job as a writer of fiction?’ And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.

from ‘My name is Lucy Barton
by Elizabeth Strout

When I first began this blog, I was adamant that, though I am a published writer, my blog would not be about writing. A writer can blog about things other than writing, right? A writer isn’t just a writer: a writer is a person; a writer has a life. That’s what I wanted to blog about.

Besides, it seemed to me that blogging about writing would be, in my case, an inexcusably audacious act. My thinking went like this: I have published only two books. I haven’t published anything since 2010. My books have gone out of print. What can I tell anyone about writing? Who would want to read what I had the temerity to say?

Early drafts: an audacious act

Early drafts: an audacious act

I don’t much like the word ‘writer’. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t published much and don’t make a living from my writing, but I feel pretentious and arrogant when I call myself one. I think of myself instead as someone who has written two books, and would like to write another one, but is struggling to do so.

That’s another word I don’t like: ‘struggle’. When I first began writing stories and fiction, the writing was an act of joy. It was a process of humble discovery. Each word that I wrote, each sentence, each chapter, was a journey. I was learning to do something new. I was learning to do something I loved. I was learning.

Writing is a learning process

Lessons in writing: all part of the learning process

So when I first read the words I’ve quoted above from Elizabeth Strout, I thought: Yes! Writing fiction, for me, has always been about opening myself up to sorrow, and to joy, and to humility, and to discovery. It’s about expressing those things, however afraid I am to do so. It’s about making sense of my life. It’s about trying to make something beautiful. It’s about having the temerity — the audacity, the arrogance — to share my words with other people: people who, like me, love reading.

Most of all, writing fiction, like blogging, is about sharing.

And so that’s the reason I’m posting these words about writing today. Call it pretension; call it temerity. Call it audacity; call it arrogance. Call it learning; call it sorrow; call it joy.

Elizabeth Strout again (from the same book):

You will have only one story … You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.

Maybe this is the only story I have to share, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth sharing.

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